Reality: What a Concept


“I prefer to think of my bank account as limitless.”

“I prefer to think of myself as universally charming.”

“I prefer to think of traffic laws as suggestions, meant to be followed by others but as mere recommendations to skilled drivers such as myself.”

No sensible person talks like this about money, relationships, or the Motor Vehicle Act. But sensible people, even brilliant ones, talk all the time like this about God.

What put me in mind of this distressing habit was not a religion book, however, but two new science ones.

Sabine Hossenfelder, a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, has just released a volume with a powerful warning. Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray points to recent scientific theories that are beholden to scientists’ love of beauty rather than their commitment to data and theories that match:

“Whether pondering black holes or predicting discoveries at CERN, physicists believe the best theories are beautiful, natural, and elegant…. This is why…we have not seen a major breakthrough in the foundations of physics for more than four decades. The belief in beauty has become so dogmatic that it now conflicts with scientific objectivity: observation has been unable to confirm mindboggling theories, like supersymmetry or grand unification, invented by physicists based on aesthetic criteria. Worse, these ‘too good to not be true’ theories are actually untestable and they have left the field in a cul-de-sac. To escape, physicists must rethink their methods. Only by embracing reality as it is can science discover the truth.”

This seems a strange message to bring. Scientists needing a serious slap on the wrist to conform their thinking to the dictates of their findings, not their preferences?

Yet a similar message comes to us from the physics of the last century. Adam Becker, a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley’s Office for History of Science and Technology who holds a PhD in astrophysics, revisits the rise of quantum theory and the distinction between “classical” physics—physics that deals with “visualizable” phenomena—and the “new” physics that can be described only in terms of mathematics.

In What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, Becker shows that the preference for theory over explanation of Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and others of the so-called Copenhagen school not only triumphed over, but actively repressed, dissenting views offered by world-class rivals such as John Bell, David Bohm, and Hugh Everett—not to mention Albert Einstein himself. This repression is to blame, and here Becker echoes Hossenfelder, why this science has been stuck for decades now in literally incomprehensible and unprovable assertions—which is not, even a layman will recognize—a satisfactory situation.

All this put me in mind of very smart people who reason thus about God. God is the Supreme Being. God therefore is the greatest being of which we can conceive. What, then, are the greatest attributes we can imagine? Let’s list them, and then we’ll ascribe them to God. This kind of thing happens all the time, whether in home study groups (“I prefer to think of God as…”) or theological conferences (“One cannot possibly imagine that God is other than…”).

This is the way of ancient Greek philosophy, including its investigation of the natural world. This kind of thinking trapped western astronomy into avowing geocentricity and the perfectly circular orbits of planets (Ptolemy’s model) for a thousand years or more. “Given what we believe about the glorious heavens, we know how they must be.”

This is not the way of the Bible. When Moses asks God to identify himself so that among the Egyptian pantheon both the Hebrews and the Egyptians will know which deity is commanding Pharaoh to let his people go, God replies, “I AM WHAT I AM”  (Exodus 3:14). This very odd name, YHWH, means something like this: “Watch me. I am what I actually am, and what I will show you I am. I am not merely what you guess I am, or suppose I am, or hope I am, or prefer that I am. I am what I am, so pay attention and see.”

So much argument over God would be simplified or even avoided if we Christians would insist that we will not defend “God-in-general” or “the Supreme Being,” not “God-as-we-assume-God-must-be,” but only the God of the Bible. So much argument over God would be simplified or even avoided if we Christians would insist that we will argue over God primarily as God is revealed in the Bible, not primarily as we experience God, or imagine God, or prefer God to be.

It is nice, perhaps, to think about unlimited wealth, or charm, or freedom. But to enjoy the best that life actually has to offer, one has to deal realistically with things as they actually are. And that means facing facts.

To enjoy the best that the world actually has to offer, one has to deal scientifically with things as they actually are. And that means conducting science properly.

To enjoy the best that God has to offer, one has to deal theologically with God as God actually is. And that means, among all the good resources God gives us, thinking primarily on the basis of Scripture, the inspired record of what God has actually done and said.

Even though, I confess, there are days in which I might prefer all these things were otherwise…

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).