When physicists get out the duct tape

Mathematical fumblings behind the campus bikeshed

IMG_3071The great physicist Roger Penrose has written:

‘…The standard model is clearly not the “ultimate answer”, with regard to particle physics, because it contains many unexplained features and “ragged edges”, despite its undoubted success. It involves about 17 unexplained parameters that simply need to be taken from observation.’ 1

Then he talks about quantum field theory and the frequent need to ‘renormalize’ equations. ‘Renormalizing’ means, for example, when the maths yields an infinite negative mass or an infinite negative charge, arbitrarily to add infinite mass or infinite charge so that the problem goes away and you get values that meet experiments. Or to put it another way, the ‘twin criteria of agreement with observation’ and ‘mathematical consistency’ are ‘incompletely fufilled’ (p665) and ‘there is no accepted way of obtaining finite answers without such an “infinite rescaling” procedure applied not necessarily only to charge, or to mass, but to other quantities also’ (p678).

Physicists, possibly, can get away with much in the murky cellars of mathematics because the rest of us are ill-equipped to go down and supervise.

“What are you doing down there?’ we call.

‘Oh, I’m just renormalizing,’ they reply, amid the clink of bottles.

Those of us who are not unsupervised quantum physicists still live under tiresome restrictions: at GCSE, we can’t arbitrarily add numbers to make our equations come out right. In the bank, we find opposition to us renormalizing our overdrafts by suggesing the bank adds an infinite amount of positive-but-theoretical money. So tiresome!

Yet this is not to throw stones at physicists, who in my view have by their mathematical fluency made much more progress on paradoxical issues than (say) theologians (who are usually just restricted to human languages).

But it is to say that physics isn’t quite the purring engine, not quite the lonely pinnacle of rarefied human thought, that we might like to think.

And so, for example, when New Atheists claim that Quantum Field Theory and its like does away with the need for a Creator, since everything just pops spontaneously out of a quantum vacuum, we should remember these arguments are held together, at a fundamental level, by duct tape.

Quotes are from Roger Penrose’s magnificent The Road to Reality, which has sadly reminded me what three years of undergraduate study proved: in physics, I can hum the tunes but can’t do the lyrics.

How can we know anything about God? And giving your email address to spammers.

It’s not as hard as you might think

Hubble’s Ultra Deep Field in UV
The only way we can know about God is if he tells us. We can’t leave the Universe, look at him, and come back, because we remain part of the Universe. Where we go, it goes. But God is outside the Universe.

So we won’t know anything about God without a revelation from God.

That means listening to someone who thinks they have a revelation from God.

And that is, as I said in the title, like offering our email addresses to spammers. The world is full of people who think God is speaking to them. A lot of them are kooks.

What do we do? 

As I wrote in my book More than Bananas, I think the only tool in our box is our total human response. So this must involve:

  • Reason
  • Common sense
  • Intuition
  • Emotion
  • What the community around us thinks
  • What the community who believe in revelation is like


  • A certain element of risk


(Note: More than Bananas is currently available as a free download as a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to my other writing.)

Music and good lives converted me back

Always nice to hear of someone finding their way home.

Saxophone LoveIt was interesting to read of A N Wilson’s conversion back to the Christian faith, which he originally wrote about in 2009. Wilson is a writer, critic and rustler-of-feathers.

But in an engaging article, Wilson confesses he didn’t make a good swivel-eyed atheist and offers this suggestion as to why he turned back to Christianity:

The existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.

In another place–the Daily Mail, not a publication I usually have the honour of reading–he added this:

My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known – not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die.

Why violence has fallen

Stephen’s Pinker’s wonderful book The Better Angels of our Nature describes the fall in violence over thousands of years. You have to read the book if you don’t believe me, but I find it convincing.


For example: we have a much less chance of being caught in a vendetta or blood feud than if we were all hunter-gatherers 5000 years ago. Crucifixion, cannibalism, the rack and the whip, these days, are deployed only in the world’s darkest holes, not in its finest civilisations. These days–in Europe–we worry about battery hens or foxhunting or whether a cow died well; in the past we worried about slave trading or state executions.

We still have evil and violence in the world but, per capita, per life, there is much less of it.

Wars, of course, are more problematic but even here the facts are surprising. No war has killed more than World War II, true, but World War I only ranks fifth or sixth in the list, out-cataclysmed by three Chinese wars and the Mongol conquests. If you adjust for world population at the time, neither of the 2oth century’s showpieces make the top ten.

So, violence has declined.


Pinker has five general reasons:

  1. ‘Leviathan’: by this he means, following Thomas Hobbes, government and the power of the state. If they punish the person who robs me, I don’t have to. And if they police the streets, it’s possible fewer people will want to rob me in the first place. Anarchy is bad for us. Government, though it brings its own problems, is preferred.
  2. ‘Gentle commerce’: the more we trade, the less we fight.
  3. Feminization: It does tend to be the chaps who do the violence; as women gain more influence, violence declines.2
  4. ‘The expanding circle’. The more we mix, and appreciate each other, and put ourselves in each other’s shoes, the less likely we are to fight. Maybe education works, too. Sounds soppy, but, hey.
  5. ‘The escalator of reason.’ This is about applying logic to problems rather than pride or prejudice.

I find this powerful stuff. Take your favourite dysfunctional country, and apply this lot, and things will get better. That is what is happening around the world, and why we now have–for example–the EU rather than the 100 years’ war.

But he missed the chilli out of the curry

I  find these arguments necessary and enlightening, but not sufficient. On my reading Steven Pinker is a wonderful scholar but he keeps dodging Jesus. Like many who boast the title ‘humanist’, he is happy talking about the Old Testament, about crusades, inquisitions, and witch-burning, but he refuses to look Christ–the not-retaliating, against the death penalty, blessed-are-the-peacemakers Christ–in the face. He underplays the role of radical Christians in (for example)  fighting slavery, inventing the whole idea of the NGO and being decisive in civil society, also known as being salt and light.

(This might not be his fault. If he is a behavioural psychologist he is destined to be shaped by his environment and anyone who spends as much time as he does with social scientists is bound to lose his grip in certain areas.)

It matters, though, even in a book so brilliant as his. Take drug addiction in the UK. ‘Leviathan’ gets druggies their own apartments, on methodone rather than heroin, with a care worker, using clean needles and with good free healthcare. It’s harm reduction and it’s loads better than nothing.

But I could dig up stories about hundreds of former addicts who are off drugs entirely, and embedded securely in loving networks of family, community and work. And they would attribute the change to Christ. Government ministers have visited centres in the UK and seen this and asked, ‘couldn’t you do it without the religious stuff?’. The answer, of course, is ‘feel free’. But when it comes to rescuing druggies, fishing the inebriated out of ditches, running day care for the elderly, the humanists honestly seem a bit thin on the ground. Perhaps his curry is lacking a dash of chilli.


A problem with miracles

You just can’t rely on them…

beauvaisOn Ascension Day 1573, just after the congregation had filed out of the building, the cathedral tower at Beauvais in Northern France fell through the roof. A monument to mediaeval hubris (it was, for a few short years, the tallest building in Europe), it  has never been finished3. But because the tower fell just after church, nobody died. A miracle?

1755On All Saints’ Day 1755 the Great Lisbon Earthquake struck, while the churches and Lisbon cathedral were packed with worshippers. Thousands died. Meanwhile the non-churchgoers, picknicking or partying away from the city, survived the quake and also the following fire and tsunami.

Christians 1, Atheists 1.


On why Atheists and Christians should be friends

And how mismatched are?)Here are some reasons:

1. We all have to share the planet and be good neighbours.

2. We all agree (I think) that humans are both wonderful and ‘born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward.’ We disagree why. Is it because we are created good and fell from God (as the Christian account has it) or because our intelligence and reasoning skills sit atop a brain still programmed by (some) unhelpful routines that evolved millions of years ago? Is that even different? Either way, we have a shared space to explore celebrations and remedies.

3. We can enrich each other. I have to admit that Christians (with some notable exceptions like the Quakers and the Salvation Army) have not historically been the leading proponents of fighting for some things that are now commonly held as precious, such as gender equality. Christians tend to put up with things rather than upset them. Sometimes, radical, pioneering atheists force me to go back and ask fresh questions of the Bible. They challenge sloppy thinking. Which can only be good. Perhaps we Christians can return the favour, because I have to report that sometimes in my observation the champions of pure reason do trip on their own shoelaces, especially in the face of Christ.

4. I’d like to hear the best things that atheism has to offer; and like to offer the best things I know of Christ in return. So our debate is about our comparing our good points, more than dredging up our bad.

5. In all this, it is quite fun winding each other up. At least atheists are interested in God, which is more than I can say for most people in the West.

6. We can convert each other, which is a lot more possible in  a place of peaceful dialogue than trench warfare, lobbing chosen texts at each other. And this is a good thing, a free-market in ideas.


A book wot I wrote for atheists and Christians to enjoy.