Science Ch.6 - Where Does God Live?

String theory describes an eleventh dimension termed M, which is equally close to every physical point. This can help us understand God’s omniscience and omnipresence.


When Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, he was quoted as saying that he “didn’t see God there.” Actually, he certainly didn’t say this in any recorded or written conversations. His friend Colonel Valentin Petrov doubted that he would ever have said this because he was a practicing Orthodox Christian who had baptized his daughter just before the flight. The real origin of these words was a speech by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who attributed these words to Gagarin at an antireligion rally.1

       Even at that time, when we knew so little about the universe, few people expected that God would become visible if we simply flew above the atmosphere. And in the days when people believed that the firmament was a solid dome above the earth with holes through which we saw the light of heaven, I doubt that their view of God was simply that he lived “out there.” Serious thinkers realized that the question “Where does God live?” is meaningless because God is everywhere and not somewhere. As ancient Greek philosopher Epimenides wrote in the sixth–seventh century BC: “In God we live and move and have our being” – which Paul cited as a starting point to explain Christian beliefs (Acts 17:28).

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Everywhere and everywhen

Psalm 139 is a more extensive exploration of God’s omnipresence, which says he is present at every moment of everyone’s life. We usually see this psalm as a celebration of God being with us at all times and in all places. However, reading between the lines, the psalmist may not be entirely happy that God sees everything he does and knows everything he is thinking about. He says: “You hem me in behind and before. … Where can I flee from your presence? … If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me’ … darkness is as light to you” (vv. 5, 7, 11-12). Although in most translations the psalmist praises God’s omnipresence as “wonderful” and “precious” (vv. 6, 17), these words could also be translated differently, as “incomprehensible” and “costly.”

       Another ambiguity about God’s ever-present eye being either comforting or uncomfortable occurs when Zechariah speaks about the “eyes of the LORD that range throughout the earth” (Zech 4:10). This sounds as though God is concerned about us, but the phrase “the eyes of the king” was an ancient way of referring to spies, so God’s watchfulness could be viewed in a more sinister way – he sees and knows more than the best secret-service agency. Most people, however, are happy with the idea that God watches us and knows all about us.

       When we bring science to bear on God’s omnipresence, there are two main questions we tend to ask: Where is God? and, How can he be everywhere? Years ago, if a five-year-old asked, “Where does God live?” their parents may well have answered, “Up there.” Today they are more likely to say, “In his own dimension.” (And if that provokes yet more questions, they can refer their offspring to fantasy-adventure cartoons!) However, this apparently facile answer might have some truth to it – it is likely that this universe has more dimensions than we can perceive, and one of them is literally everywhere.

Extra dimensions

These extra dimensions are predicted by string theory. This branch of theoretical physics attempts to combine the mathematics of quantum physics (which successfully describes the movement of subatomic particles) with general relativity (which successfully links gravity with everything else). In order to encompass both of these, string theory proposes that, as well as the dimension of time and the three dimensions of space that we are all aware of, there are other dimensions we can’t perceive. Its basic idea is that subatomic particles, such as electrons, are actually one-dimensional bodies, like infinitely thin pieces of string. These strings “vibrate” in various ways to produce their different characteristics, such as a negative charge.

       String theory may sound strange, but it has been impressively successful in explaining a few areas we would otherwise not understand. For example, it can describe some real-world phenomena in black holes, and it helps to explain how condensed matter works in superconductors. This suggests that string theory isn’t just a mathematical curiosity but might actually represent reality. In 1995 Edward Witten united five separate string theories by the addition of an eleventh dimension, which he labeled “M” for “mystery.” This was the start of M-theory, which it is hoped will one day become a “theory of everything” – that is, it will accurately describe the movements and interactions of all types of matter and energy from the astronomical to the subatomic scale.2

       The obvious question is: Why can’t we perceive these additional dimensions? After all, they aren’t parallel universes – they are part of this universe. So why aren’t we able to see or sense them? We don’t yet know the answer, but the most likely one is that their area of influence is too small. For example, if you look at a cable from a distance, it appears to be a one-dimensional line, and you only discover that it has height and depth when you get closer. So, if these extra dimensions are very small (smaller than Planck’s constant of 10−35m) they will be literally beyond anything that can be perceived.

       What does all this have to do with where God lives? The key lies in a unique property of the eleventh dimension, also known as M-space: it is in touch with every particle in the universe, so it literally extends everywhere. And yet its physical properties are such that it cannot be perceived by any human sense or by any instrument we can ever invent.

       If, like me, you are among the millions of fans of author Terry Pratchett, you’ll be familiar with the concept of L-Space in his Discworld novels. He worked in the nuclear industry before his novels became popular, so he knew about M-theory long before most people, and L-space is his parody of that concept. In this fictional L-space, every book in the universe is connected – which means you can wander down endless narrow corridors of bookshelves in one library and accidentally traverse connections into the bookshelves of another library in a different city, country, or world before finding your way back (if you can). Having walked down actual miles of shelving within Cambridge University library, this idea sounds convincing to me!

       String theory also calls the eleventh dimension the M-brane because it is the membrane that connects all the other dimensions (or “branes”) to each other. I sometimes wonder whether physicists make up these names after binge drinking – particularly given the fact that they named the tiny single-point brane a p-brane. But weird names aside, we shouldn’t be deflected from realizing that the mathematics of this theory is awesome – and it may well describe the reality we live in.

Closely connected

M-theory may also describe how God is omnipresent and omniscient. If God is able to traverse the M-dimension, he is in touch with literally every particle in the universe at the same time. This means he is closer to each of us than we are to our own skin – in fact, he is in touch with every cell and atom in our body. And yet this doesn’t mean that we are living inside God or that God is an inseparable part of us – he can still be completely independent from us. The language I’m using to describe this sounds quite theological, but it is nonetheless roughly how a physicist would describe the closeness of the M-dimension to each of us.

       I’m not saying this is definitely how God’s omniscience and omnipresence works out in practice in our universe – we don’t yet know whether there is a M-dimension and, if there is, whether God actually does traverse it. The significant point is that it could allow us to describe these characteristics of God in a way that remains consistent with modern physics. This means there would not necessarily be any clash between the physicist and theologian in this area.

       More importantly, M-theory gives us valuable insights into what omnipresence could mean. We don’t have to accept either the Buddhist concept that God is omnipresent because we live inside him or the pantheist concept that God is omnipresent because he infuses everything. M-theory provides a way that a holy God can be intimately in touch with the whole of his creation while also remaining entirely separate from it. When we accept Jesus’ forgiveness of sins, God can live inside us by his Holy Spirit; but even before that, he can know about every chemical reaction inside us, and be alongside each atom in our body, without ever being part of us. Via the M-dimension, God can remain separate from his creation while at the same time being in touch with every particle of it.

       This scientific theory gives us concepts and language by which we can speak about God’s presence with us and knowledge of us which is just as personal as that found in Psalm 139. But it still doesn’t remove the ambivalence in my mind about whether God’s constant eye on me is comforting or disconcerting.

Summary


• Even ancient cultures concluded that God is everywhere, not just in heaven.
• String theory implies an eleventh dimension named M for M-brane or “membrane.”
• This links every other dimension and is close to every particle in the universe. Proposal: God can traverse the M-dimension, which makes him omnipresent and omniscient.



1^ See Wikipedia, “Yuri Gagarin” (tinyurl.com/WikiGagarin).
2^ For a fuller explanation see Wikipedia, “M-theory” (tinyurl.com/Wiki-M-Theory). To see the state of play at the time of writing, see the Cambridge PhD dissertation by N. B. Copland, “Aspects of M-Theory Brane Interactions and String Theory Symmetries,” November 11, 2018 (tinyurl.com/Copland-M-Theory).

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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