Dark Matter, String Theory, and Heaven (RJS)

Dark matter has made the news of late. A detector deep in a mine in Minnesota – an old iron mine – has provided the first hint of an observation of dark matter. Dark matter is a kind of matter thought to comprise about a quarter of the mass and energy in the Universe. Note that only about 5% of the universe is ordinary matter. (The figure is from NASA via wikipedia)

The observation is preliminary – only a 3 out of 4 chance that it is really due to dark matter, but hope runs high that this or another better experiment will provide conclusive observations soon. These observations will help confirm, refute, or choose between several theories in physics.

The story reporting this observation can be found in many places, including the NY Times link here: At a Mine’s Bottom, Hints of Dark Matter. From the article:

Gordon Kane, a physicist from the University of Michigan, called the results “inconclusive, sadly,” adding, “It seems likely it is dark matter detection, but no proof.”

Dr. Kane said results from bigger and thus more sensitive experiments would be available in a couple of months.

Two links for more information: NASA and UC Berkeley.

Interesting stuff … but what does this have to do with heaven? According to Dinesh D’Souza in his new book Life After Death: The Evidence, dark matter and string theory open up a new plausibility argument for life after death, God, and heaven.

Christianity Today recently published an interview (String Theory and Heaven ) with Dinesh D’Souza on his new book. I have not read this book – and doubt if I will – but this interview by Mark Galli raised some questions that peaked piqued my interest.

According to the publisher’s blurb this book makes no direct appeal to religious faith, or revelation, rather it draws “on some
of the most powerful theories and trends in physics, evolutionary biology, science, philosophy, and psychology”

Wow… evidence for life after death from physics and evolutionary biology. This is a pretty bold claim. Could it be true?

The arguments against an afterlife. In the interview D’Souza says that there are two primary arguments against life after death.

1. Belief in life after death is nothing more than wish fulfillment. “Freud basically said that we all have this juvenile desire to survive our deaths, so we made up this idea.”

2. Science has connected mind and brain – “What we call immaterial things–our thoughts, our emotions–are extensions of material objects in our brains, and when the material objects disintegrate, the rest of us goes with them.”

According to D’Souza (as quoted in the interview) the concept of hell disproves the first argument (how could hell be wish fulfillment?). The soul – and he is a substance dualist –  disproves, or at least takes the winds out of the sails of, the second argument. The fact that “mental events and brain events are correlated doesn’t mean that the brain is the cause of the mental events.” The mind and the brain have different attributes – the brain is physical material, the mind thinks.

Plausibility arguments for heaven and the afterlife. Later in the interview D’Souza connects the plausibility of life after death with recent advances in physics and with ( as yet speculative) theories explaining the observations.

Specifically, the Christian view of the after life is connected to “other matter,”  i.e. dark matter.

If we lived 200 years ago in Newton’s time, all of this would seem impossible because space and time stretch indefinitely backward and forward, so what it meant to be outside of time was very hard to articulate. Also, it was hard to posit any other kind of matter.

But revolutionary discoveries in the past 25 years suggest that there is dark matter and dark energy that make up 95 percent of all the matter in the universe. All materialist generalizations about matter are immediately rendered partial, because how can you claim to know something if you’ve seen only 5 percent of it?

And other realms – i.e. the Multiverse (if some one has a good web reference, I’ll add it here).

Scientists now posit through string theory the presence of multiple realms, multiple dimensions. One of the implications of the big bang is that space and time had a beginning, and that space and time are properties of our universe. If that’s true, then outside our universe or beyond our universe, there would be different laws of space and time, or no space and no time.

The idea that our universe may not be the only one and that there may be other universes operating according to different laws is now coming into the mainstream of modern physics. So the Christian concept of eternity, which is God outside of space and time, is rendered completely intelligible. It opens up possibilities that would have seemed far-fetched even for science fiction a century ago.

Is this a useful Christian apologetic? D’Souza goes on to claim that this kind of argument is a useful way to clear “away debris that blocks the door to faith” but it does not lead to faith.  I am convinced of two things – first that God exists, and second that science, what we learn about the universe he created, will point us toward him. But I don’t think that it makes sense to use scientific discoveries or speculations as part of an apologetic for the existence of God or the plausibility of the afterlife. Nor do I think that modern theories of physics provide any useful insight into heaven.

Perhaps you disagree.

Do you find D’Souza’s approach useful?

Is his dismissal of arguments against an afterlife convincing?

Do you think this approach to and appropriation of science a useful form of Christian apologetic?

(The comments on the CT interview also address these issues at length – you may find the whole article worth reading.)

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • Scot McKnight

    RJS, do you think this is (1) a God of the gaps theory and (2) do you think it is substantive enough to dig more deeply into the plausibility of dark matter indicating something beyond, an eternal world?
    On the wish fulfillment … I’m not so sure that’s a big theory any longer.

  • Diane

    Is his dismissal of arguments against an afterlife convincing?
    No. First, who relies on Freud anymore? More importantly, who thinks the afterlife is only about “wish fulfillment?” Obviously, if the afterlife is an invention, people would fashion it with the intent of influencing behavior during life. Fear of everlasting torment would help keep people in line. So hell is more an argument in favor of a man-conceived afterlife than a refutation of it.

  • This sounds like C.S. Lewis at the end of “The Last Battle.” The inside is bigger than than the outside, you know?

  • I’m not sure if scientific discoveries are good as evidence in favor of God, but I think they can be strong counter-arguments against simplistic arguments for atheism. Physics has repeatedly shown us that the physical world is a far stranger place than any of us ever imagined. So, for example, a few years ago, I read Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos, which is about string theory, parallel dimensions, and all that. I then read a neuroscientist who argued that our mind was “nothing more” than the accident of subatomic particles bouncing around our brain (thus disproving the idea of a soul). Sounded convincing – until I remembered from Greene’s book that subatomic particles are a profound mystery that become more mysterious with each passing year. The neuroscientist thought he was proving something, when really he was just raising more questions.

  • RJS

    I find D’Sousza’s whole approach somewhat frustrating. His response to arguments against afterlife are unconvincing. (Even sophomoric? I haven’t read the book so this may be overly harsh.)
    More importantly his use of science strikes me as wrong headed.
    But there are some interesting things to consider. One, quite frankly, is how little of our scientific understanding is actually consistent with “macroscopic” common sense intuition. Yet most common debunkings of faith perspectives rely on common sense macroscopic intuition.

  • dopderbeck

    Haven’t read the book but my impressions after reading the Galli article were similar. Plus:
    — String theory remains a highly, highly dubious proposal, and may not even really be a “scientific” theory (See, e.g., Lee Smolin, “The Trouble With Physics”
    — My understanding of multiverse theories is not simply that some alternate universe(s) exist, but that all alternate universes exist. Every possibility is realized in some universe. In other words, in some universe(s) you might end up in heaven, in others you might end up in hell, in others you might never exist. This doesn’t sound consistent with Christian metaphysics to me. But maybe there are other versions of multiverse theory I don’t know about.
    — All that said: there are some intriguing places for play / speculation here regarding a bunch of things: is the “flaming sword” that guards Eden in some sense a gateway to another universe? Gen. 1-11 and Revelation 20 meet Stargate?

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#5) — great point — and perhaps we can say the same thing in some ways about theology? As modern people we’re conditioned to think of the “universe” as the ultimate ground of truth. We can observe and describe the universe scientifically and we credit that kind of empirical framework as reliable. But the fact is, as you note, that the sum of our observations often tend to counter what we think of as a “common sense” macroscopic picture of reality. Reality is much, much weirder, and much, much harder to explain, than appears to the “naked eye.”
    The same, I think, can often be said of “theological science.” You can’t just make a few basic observations (read a few proof texts) and think you have the big picture nailed down. The reality might be much weirder and more difficult than that. There might even be some theological “dark matter” (which it turns out is most of the matter in the universe!) about which we really have no clue!

  • Chad Smith

    Without the benefit of actually reading the book…
    His use of Freud’s “wish fulfillment” position (found in “Civilization and its Discontents”) is a pretty shallow argument. What empirical evidence is there for “wish fulfillment”?
    I am also very surprised that about the substance dualism. In the position of materialism, does it break down (which I do believe that materialism is an incorrect view) in light of “other” substances? It (dark matter or energy) is evidently still viable in our universe if we think that we’ve observed it, right? This would be different than a transcendent God who is “other”, but by and large “unknowable” in an empirical sense.

  • William Coes

    A risen Jesus Christ is the best evidence of life after death.

  • Samb

    William Coes #9
    And I think Jesus teaches it is in the way the community of the baptized love one another and reaches out to the world in love that the world will know he is risen. That is why I think science can never offer the proof some may want it to. Working in us so that we become Jesus in our neighborhoods is so beautiful, so much more an elegant way, so beyond my ability to imagine. It is a much better way. It is Jesus’ way. It is Jesus.

  • AHH

    Wow. I have had a semi-favorable impression of D’Souza based on limited reading, but his argument using dark matter, string theory, etc. is weak. It basically amounts to “Heaven may not seem to make sense, but science shows us that there is a lot humans still don’t understand, so maybe Heaven isn’t incoherent after all.” Somebody 80 years ago could have made the same basic argument when relativity and quantum mechanics showed that the universe was stranger than had been thought, and I think it would have been equally weak then.
    I suppose there could be slight value in such an argument in dealing with people of the attitude “science has everything figured out and there is no room for God” by pointing out that there is much we don’t have figured out. But what is much more needed in such cases is disabusing people of the “God of the gaps” mentality that requires “room for god” as though God is only in the things we don’t understand.
    Yet another example (and not nearly as bad as many) of how apologists with no science background tend to sound foolish (at least to scientific ears) when they try to import science into their arguments.

  • Diane

    “One, quite frankly, is how little of our scientific understanding is actually consistent with “macroscopic” common sense intuition. Yet most common debunkings of faith perspectives rely on common sense macroscopic intuition.” Bravo for those two sentences. Merry Christmas.

  • Diane

    “One, quite frankly, is how little of our scientific understanding is actually consistent with “macroscopic” common sense intuition. Yet most common debunkings of faith perspectives rely on common sense macroscopic intuition”. Bravo for those two sentences. Merry Christmas

  • AHH

    RJS #5:
    But there are some interesting things to consider. One, quite frankly, is how little of our scientific understanding is actually consistent with “macroscopic” common sense intuition. Yet most common debunkings of faith perspectives rely on common sense macroscopic intuition.
    Agreed, and also with dopderbeck #7’s observation about how “theological science” can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to simple common sense either.
    But it is not only debunkings of faith that rely on simplistic common sense; many pro-Christian (and pro-theism) arguments have similar weaknesses. Examples that come to my mind:
    “Every effect must have a cause.”
    “Life can’t come from non-life.”
    “Order and complexity can’t come from random processes.”
    All common sense, but all undermined by the strangeness of the universe we really live in. Even the Law of Non-Contradiction, practically worshipped by some Christians, gets fuzzy in the quantum world.
    So if there is a lesson from the things D’Souza points out, maybe it is that the common sense of we humans is not a 100% reliable guide for understanding deep mysteries of the universe, and not for theological mysteries either (no common sense in a crucified Messiah!). Leaving room for revelation and mystery and humility and ambiguity.
    Maybe somebody like dopderbeck who knows intellectual history better than I could talk about how the “common sense realism” school of philosophy has affected and perhaps distorted Christian thought.

  • I think the conclusion to draw in all this is that, contrary to common public perception, there is MUCH we don’t yet understand about how reality works, or even what “reality” ultimately is. Atheists really overstep when they make it seem like we’re just fine-tuning scientific models that easily make sense of everything; and that these models show no need for God. The truth is that we only really understand how things work within certain finite parameters; kind of like the way we understand a micro-climate. Step back a few degrees and I think its clear that we’re really only beginning to see “what’s going on”.
    One last point, I think we Christians also need to pause and realize that while we may possess metaphors and glimpses into deeper dimensions, but we too see through a glass darkly. I mean, we need to not just pay lip service to that idea, but actually live and frame our worldview according to it.

  • D’Souza seems to me making rather large leaps, if you have presented his arguments accurately, and ones few scientists would be willing to follow.
    Particularly, science just will not accept “dualism.” That doesn’t require science to reject the reality of phenomena that aren’t ultimately reducible to the interactions of particles or energy fields (dark or otherwise), because there is a fairly well-respected theory of “non-reductionist” materialism running particularly through biology and neuroscience these days. For a great outworking of this in neuroscience, I’d point you to Nancey Murphy’s “Did My Neurons Make Me Do It” (a book which, btw, might also bear on a variety of notions of “choice” in other threads here).
    So if dualism is D’Souza’s starting place, he’s already left the scientific conversation. If we’re serious about engaging that conversation, we’re not going to be able to follow D’Souza’s assertion that the “existence of the soul” as a separate entity entirely somehow answers, at all, the notion that the mind is connected, intimately, with the body.
    But there’s another reason we might not be able to follow him: our own theology as Christians. The doctrines of incarnation and resurrection, at least in some forms, seem to take the necessity of body to fullness of creaturely being, just as seriously as the non-reductionist materialists do.
    So overall, if your account of this interview is accurate, I guess I’m not impressed and don’t encourage many of us to follow this path– unless, that is, we want to avoid real engagement with science and our own theology.

  • Eric

    I think one of the major issues I have with D’Souza as a Christian is his forwarding of the non-Christian hope of going to another “multi-verse” or heaven, instead of the hope of Resurrection on THIS earth and in THIS universe. It seems he is on a whole different path entirely. Plus, as an apologetic, it is just a new version of God of the Gaps.

  • Cameron

    I really find this sort of apologetics silly. It takes some of the most speculative science we have and draws superficial parallels with some of the more speculative parts of theology, then says, ‘See? It *can* work!’
    In other words, science has found more gaps so we stuff God in where it’s most convenient.
    Having said that, I have been meditating on very similar ideas lately, specifically wondering if ‘the heavens’ might be construed as some sort of parallel dimension. There’s nothing wrong with speculation—I mean, this line of thinking might bear some fantastic fruit. As long as we realise that it’s speculation. I feel silly enough when talking to physicists as it is…

  • lisa

    We need only turn to the Holy Bible.
    Colossians 1:17
    He(Jesus) is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
    Genesis 1:1
    In the beginning (of time as we know it), God created the heavens and the earth.
    We exist in the realm of time, God and Jesus do not. Everything is held together in him.
    Genesis also tells us that the atmosphere was different in the beginning of the Earth, as a mist came up from the ground and watered the garden God made. Before rain. The Bible also talks about the breaking up of the Earth (pangea).
    Science keeps getting closer to proving it.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    In Lisa Randall’s book about cosmology and theories of the origin of the universe, she discusses the idea that gravity as a force is weak in our universe because it may be “leaking” through a fourth spacial dimension. Since the only way we can detect Dark Matter is by its gravity, the Dark Matter may be displaced from us in a fourth spatial dimension, but still interacting with normal matter via the force of gravity. That displacement would explain why we cannot interact with Dark Matter through normal particle and photon interactions. Other than the spatial displacement, Dark Matter may be identical in all respects to normal matter. There is a lot of room for things to be going on in the universe that are absolutely real and material and even close to us, but still invisible to us.