Thursday, January 31, 2008

String Theory, extra dimensions, and God

In my Jesuit (read: Catholic) high school, my religion teacher (great guy) liked to use String Theory to think about God. String Theory is this horribly advanced physics theory that attempts to explain everything. While not proven, many say it's our best candidate theory so far. Among other things, String Theory states that our universe doesn't have just 4 dimensions (3 of space, 1 of time), but 11 dimensions. My teacher suggested that, like the strings in String Theory, God is hidden in extra dimensions.

My initial reaction was, "Why bring up String Theory?" Sure, maybe God is hidden in extra dimensions. I could have told them that before String Theory existed. Extra dimensions, while difficult to visualize, are actually a very simple mathematical concept. In three dimensions, you describe position with three numbers: <x,y,z>. For eleven dimensions, you simply give 8 more numbers, nothing to it.

It doesn't matter whether String Theory is true or not; you can posit extra dimensions just for God either way. Because you can posit extra dimensions either way, I think it's equally likely either way. If you think it's unlikely that God is in an extra 5th dimension, why should it be any more likely that he's in an extra 12th dimension? String Theory suggests the idea of extra dimensions beyond the physical world, but does not really support it.

But all of this is fine, because I realize it wasn't meant to be an argument for God. It's just food for thought. But I feel one problem remains: this idea is abusing science.

As far as I can tell, there are two possible answers to "Why bring up String Theory?"

The first possibility is to invoke science's authority. This is an abuse because scientific authority, contrary to popular opinion, does not derive from fancy words or difficult math. Scientific authority derives from empirical evidence and inductive reasoning. There is no such reasoning to actually connect String Theory to God's extra dimensions. Inserting the words "String Theory" into an idea gives a false appearance of authority. Besides, as far as theories go, they didn't even pick a very authoritative one.

The second possibility is that String Theory is a metaphor for understanding the concept. I am not necessarily against the use of metaphors. I like to analogize lots of things to physics myself (though it usually only helps the physicists understand). But there is just no point in drawing analogies to a theory so horribly complicated as String Theory. Analogizing to String Theory does not simplify things, but obfuscates them. What is the topology of God's extra dimension? Are the rest of us confined to some sort of 11-dimensional brane? Such a metaphor will only end up distorting String Theory, and obscuring its own philosophical flaws in pseudo-technical language. Also, if it's a metaphor, it should be explicitly a metaphor, so as not to mislead people.

What they're doing with String Theory is not too far off from how Deepak Chopra abuses Quantum Mechanics. When asked by Richard Dawkins, Chopra admits that Quantum Mechanics is simply a metaphor* for his theory of consciousness. But the rest of the time, he acts as if it is something more. He puts it all together in a confusing mess, doing violence to both quantum mechanics and psychology. The analogy with String Theory isn't quite as bad as Deepak Chopra's analogy, but it's only one step away.

My advice: If you want to talk about extra dimensions, leave talk of String Theory behind. String Theory doesn't actually support your ideas, nor does it elucidate them. Seriously, if you try bringing up String Theory to any normal person, you'll get lots of comments like, "I'll never understand it!" and never anything like, "Oh, so that's how extra dimensions work! It's just like in String Theory!"

*For those who watch the video, I should note that Chopra gets everything completely wrong. "Observer effect" is the only real science I heard in there, but, contrary to popular belief, it is not quantum mechanics. "Discontinuity", as far as I know, is not a term used in quantum mechanics, but rather, an ill-defined scientific-sounding notion Chopra made up. Also, Hillary Clinton is a follower? *shudder*

12 comments:

plonkee @ the religious atheist said...

I am perfectly happy to accept the possibility that God is hiding in another dimension, even though generalising to R^n isn't that bad. I also fail to see how string theory is a simplification for anything.

Blake Stacey said...

Argh. "God is in the extra dimensions" has to be one of the more painful analogies I've heard in a while. It doesn't actually explain anything; like Lacan's topology (or any of the other appropriations of math jargon made by suave postmodernists) it only serves to give irredeemably vague ideas a veneer of rigor and respectability.

This is what you get when people who have never done mathematics and who have no understanding of the reasoning involved try to talk about physics: they key off the words which sound familiar and manipulate their meanings in a verbal way. It's like people who have never played an instrument, theorizing about music by rearranging the words they see in concert reviews. Whatever the result is, it ain't science.

chris said...

Why is God in the extra dimensions so "painful"? Is it because things that are unexplainable pain you?
Then string theory itself must pain you as well.
One reason many people connect god and string theory is because string theory says that this universe is unique out of many other possible scenarios. That in itself may not be that big of a deal, but when you combine that with the uniqueness of our planet and everything it is made of of, it begins to strongly appear it is not a product of random chance.
If you you disagree with the conclusion of God in the extra dimension.....you shouldn't be surprised or "pained" that others do.
It is a very possible explanation!

miller said...

I don't speak for Blake Stacey, but I imagine that he meant pain in the sense of, "I facepalmed so hard it hurt!"

At the risk of sounding impolite, that is a really poor formulation of the Fine-Tuning argument, and you failed to make its connection to String Theory at all clear.

Anonymous said...

God doesn't hide at all, we are all just blinded by deciet. As soon as the last person stops observing what god truly is, the devil will win and the money that fuels this deciet will turn our earth into a cancer on the universe.

miller said...

... or, none of that is true. Are you actually trying to argue a point, or are you just asserting beliefs without justification? And just what does that have to do with anything discussed above?

Anonymous said...

The idea of 'hiding' in another dimension doesn't seem to correlate with the beliefs we know of and philosophy about. If you say hide as in the kingdom of god as an entity, that's a neat idea. However the hypothesis I was
trying to make is that god as a force/energy or higher power may have designed these sytems and therfore they are governed by his rules. The possibilty of extra dimensions may be a way to circumvent paradoxical situations that humans creat in their search for the inner workings of the universe. So if you believe god as a governing force that controls these systems then you may believe that our world In this dimension and time line is on a path to destruction. The correlation of global health and human health can't be ignored. If we pollute our host, naturally occuring systems will attempt to re-balance itself in order to prevent further damage. Basically, what we do to our environment is reflected in ourselves. So, if god does govern these systems and we choose not to observe the bigger picture by decieving ourselves with riches, corporate greed etc. The path we are following lends itself to a slow destruction of this dimension. However if humans had a balanced input/output in our environment we would be more benificial to the sytems in which govern us. So you could say that we are blind to god's interests and that he may not be hiding but simply managing these sytems that he created. So, would you say that he is hiding? Or rather managing a system that we don't realy understand.

Debi said...

Dear Miller,

I have an idea for a research paper that I'm tossing around, and I wondered if you'd be available to be another point of view.

Could we discuss this?

miller said...

I am a blogger, not an expert; I doubt I am an appropriate source. Nonetheless, you are welcome to e-mail me, provided you find my address.

Anonymous said...

you are an idiot beyond imagining. Now let's debate so I can prove you wrong.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous
Why is he an idiot?
Because he is suggesting something you don't like?
Get over yourself.

Anonymous said...

Annonymous with the long answer...it's been a few years, but I don't understand what you wrote. Just come-out and say what you mean to say and stop hiding behind all that writing.