Sunday, May 24, 2009

Does theology have implications for specific laws of physics?

Vern Poythress is a Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminister Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He also has a Ph.D in Mathematics. He is author of the book, Redeeming Science: A God Centred Approach. The Seminary has sponsored a new web site The Truth about Angels and Demons, featuring material written by Poythress. It is very flash and worth a look.
But, one thing I had reservations about was a statement concerning antimatter:
The Word of God, the second Person of the Trinity, expresses the rationality and wisdom of God. The world that God made has deep harmonies because it was made by him and expresses him. In the Word, the wisdom of God, physical order (the positron) and mathematics hold together in harmony. Antimatter exists because it reflects within nature the harmony of God's mind, and the harmony between the persons of the Trinity.

This reminded me of some of the material in Alister McGrath's The Foundations of the Dialogue between Science and Religion (1998), of which I wrote a critical but appreciative review.
Chapter 2 contains a section (pp. 69-73) which discusses the fact that symmetry plays a major role in quantum theory. This might be of some theological interest because Aquinas argued that observed symmetries reflect the perfection of God. McGrath suggests that this interest has been offered a ``new lease of life'' because of the recent current interest in supersymmetry in theoretical physics. Later in the book (p. 181), in the context of the use of analogies in theology McGrath states:
It is important to pause here, and note the importance of the way in which the growth of ``supersymmetry'' theories have posited a fundamental relationship between various aspects of modern physics. The doctrine of creation, puts such relationships on a secure intellectual footing, suggesting that a correlation exists within the created order prior to its being discerned through human investigation.
Some of my concerns about this discussion of supersymmetry and this last point, in particular are, in order of increasing importance.

i. It is not at all clear that superstring theories will ever be tested experimentally because they would require particle accelerators bigger than the size of the earth. Hence, we may never know whether superstring theories really describe the created order rather than being just beautiful mathematical constructions.

ii. If supersymmetry really is an underlying symmetry of the physical laws of nature, the universe itself would still have only exhibited perfect supersymmetry (equal numbers of photons and photinos) during some incredibly short time, like the first 10 to the power -41 seconds, after the beginning of the universe. However, in the world in which we now live the supersymmetry is ``broken'', i.e., that is far from perfect. There are an ``astronomical'' number of photons in the universe but so far we have not found a single photino. Won't such imperfection present problems to Aquinas' argument?

iii. A statement by a theologian that theories based on symmetry are on a ``sound intellectual footing'' because of the doctrine of creation can be easily mis-interpreted as an endorsement of a specific scientific theory and is problematic. Wasn't that the source of Galileo's problems?


  1. One minor technical point is the "supersymmetry" and "superstrings" are not synonymous. The "minimally supersymmertric standard model" (mssm) has been well studied theoretically. My (limited) understanding is that this model predicts that there will be 5 Higgs particles. Given the constraints on the Higgs mass from other experiments the LHC will see all five Higgs if they exist. So the LHC will test supersymmetry. My (even more limited) understanding is that it would be hard to reconcile a non-supersymmetric standard model with string theory.