2008.11.24 A Relational Universe

I was just watching a TED Talk by Lee Smolin on "Science and Democracy". Smolin is a well-known theoretical physicist known especially for his work in quantum gravity and string theory. I have read some of his work on spin networks as it relates to my own research.

In the talk, Smolin says that the notion of an external God or Creator is incompatible with our current understanding of the universe as fundamentally "relational" or "relativistic". It seems to me that his arguments do just the opposite… point to and validate the nature of God with respect to the universe.

The Argument

To summarize, the talk discusses three ways in which we (the human race) have understood the universe over time:

  • Heirarchical universe: the earth is at the center, everything has a natural place, and the "heavens" are the celestial sphere on the outside where God looks down on our universe;
  • Newtonian universe: stuff moves around to a "fixed absolute framework of space and time", and God is on the outside… according to Smolin, Newton believed God to be that frame of reference;
  • Relativistic (or relational) universe: the universe is simply a network of relationships, with nothing fixed or absolute.

Says Smolin regarding the third model:

"There is no meaning to say absolutely where something is. There's only where it is relative to everything else that is. And this network of relations is ever-evolving, so we call it a relational universe. All properties of things are about these kinds of relationships. And also, if you're embedded inside this network of relationships, your view of the world has to do with what information comes to you through the network of relations, and there's no place for an omniscient observer or an outside intelligence knowing everything and making everything… So the main slogan here is that there's nothing outside the universe, so there's no place to put an explanation for something outside, so in such a relational universe, if you come upon something that's ordered and structured… in a relational universe the only possible explanation was somehow it made itself. There must be mechanisms of self-organization inside the universe that make things, because there's no place to put a maker outside, as there was in the Aristotelian and Newtonian universe."

The Flaws in the Argument

Smolin seems to be fairly sure that there is no God out there. But a few other explanations come to mind:

First, the statements appearing in the paragraph above are (A) all information comes to you through the network, (B) there is nothing outside the network, and (C) there is no maker and order is self-generated. Since (B) implies (A) and (C), but the reverse is not necessarily true, at the very least (B) must be a fundamental assumption that is being made. And there simply is no grounds for making that assumption, any more than one could make that assumption about the Newtonian universe. And one can definitely not assume (A) and infer (B), as seems to be the case above.

Yet even assuming that (B) is true, one cannot reason that there is no maker. In order to be compatible with Smolin's worldview, God or the Creator would have to be a part of our "universe". Taking the definition of the universe as a network of relationships, that simply means that He is connected to something in our universe. To borrow a topological term, the universe consists of our "connected component". Considering that "Enoch walked with God", this certainly fits with the God of Christianity… in fact the story of the Bible is the story of how God connects and relates to people. The universe would be defined to be the "connected component" in which we reside, to borrow a term from topology.

A third possibility is that our universe consists of more than just a single physical network, that God exists within another kind of network that is more than just particles and energy.

Who First Understood the Universe as Relational?

The Christian Bible describes a very similar transition from a hierarchical structure to a relational structure. In the Old Testament, the Law is handed down from above, and access to God is restricted to the priests. In the Old Testament, the coming new covenant is described as follows:

" 'This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,' declares the LORD. 'I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,' declares the LORD." (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

In the New Testament, Jesus comes to "fulfill the law" and brings a new relational covenant. To me, this seems to make the argument for God even more potent. Consider that thousands of years before we came to understand the world in terms of networks, Jesus Christ said the following to his disciples:

"I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit… Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing." (John 15:1-2,4-5)

Jesus uses a vine with branches as a metaphor for His relationship with His followers, and describes the relationships themselves as a mutual "abiding". So the "vine" is simply a relational network! He also describes the Father and the Holy Spirit thus:

"Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works." (John 14:10)

"I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you." (John 14:16-17)

So Jesus is connected to His followers; he in turn is connected to God, who is part of the network and also oversees the network as the "vinedresser". The Holy Spirit's role is to provide a further connection between the believers and God. In this relational/network view, the Trinity is a special set of three nodes within the network.

Final Thoughts

Most of those who believe that there is a God do so because of their relationship with Him: their "observation" of His (usually non-physical) presence and His actions upon the world. And to this group of people (which includes me) the presence of God is observable, although not in any physical or scientific sense.

If we assume that there is nothing outside of our network (universe), we will try and try and try to find an explanation that does not require something outside the network. Perhaps this is a reasonable assumption for someone who cannot measure an external presence. In my view, this is the only argument that can be made against an external presence. Perhaps the relational universe theory should begin with something like the following "no scientific study has validated the existence of an external God, so we will assume that either none exists or one exists that does not influence the observed laws of nature". Otherwise put, the existence of God is not a matter for science to decide.

My personal viewpoint is that quantum physics leaves ample room for God to interact with the world in a way that can't be measured. The relationships in the relativistic universe change in a way that is fundamentally "random". Average outcomes are predictable, but specific outcomes are not (on a small scale). So in theory a higher being could interact with the world by influencing the outcome of these small-scale events. Just like one toss of a pair of dice won't tell you whether or not they are weighted, so one change by a higher being wouldn't be detectable in our current model of the physical world. In a Newtonian universe, God could only play the blind watchmaker; in the quantum universe, there is far more room in our physical laws for a God to interact with our world.

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