Does a backroad in Minnesota lead to God?

by Tom Tredway

The photo accompanying the text of this essay came to me via e-mail last summer. The picture arrived from the Editor Emeritus of Pietisten himself! It was meant to remind me that if I attended the “Summer 2017” gathering of Old Pietists in Crow Wing County, Minnesota, there would be a bonus: I could bike along some of the great backroads the county boasts. The photo is of one such North Woods by-way.

Please note the shadow of the photographer down there toward the left in the bottom of the photo. The prospect of a bike ride was enticing, but it was that shadow that really struck me! It raised for me an old question from my Introduction to Philosophy course at the (then) junior college on the corner of Foster and Kedzie Avenues in Chicago: “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear it, did it fall at all?”

An updated version of this puzzler might be: “If Phil Johnson hadn’t been there to photograph the winding blacktop road in Minnesota, would the road even have been there?” Well, we in that North Park class of deep-thinking sophomores decided such a question was as silly as the one from the medieval scholastic philosophers: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

I’m not sure about angels on pinheads, but it turns out that the question about whether trees fall or roads unwind without an observer there to perceive things is not as completely silly as it first seems, at least if I understand what some modern quantum physicists think about matter and the material universe itself. It so happened that on the same day I received the picture of the Minnesota road with Phil Johnson’s shadow in the bottom corner, my email also brought me an essay by a physicist at the University of Rochester, Adam Frank, who is also an NPR contributor and an interpreter of science to the untutored.

Frank’s essay was sent as the monthly reading for a group of retired Augustana College faculty who meet regularly to discuss the meaning of religious questions in the context of the wider liberal arts and sciences. Entitled “Minding Matter,” the Frank piece is concerned with the relationship between consciousness and matter. Sometimes this problem is referred to as the mind-brain question: is there thought or consciousness without a physical organ to carry it on? Is there mind without brain?

Frank writes that currently research into consciousness seems dominated by a sort of “materialism.” (He is not referring to the crass materialistic concern for new cars and TV sets that Pietisten’s current Poetry Editor so powerfully inveighed against in his halcyon days as Senior Pastor of the Beacon Avenue United Church of Christ in Seattle.) By “materialism,” Frank means the idea that all being, including the mental or the spiritual, can be reduced to the functioning of matter itself. In this view, there is no mind without brain, no thought without an organ made of matter to produce it.

Frank argues that such materialism, now prevalent among many of the researchers working to understand human consciousness, ignores the fact that “after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves tells us very little about what matter is. Materialists appeal to physics to explain the mind, but in modern physics the sub-atomic particles that make up a brain remain, in many ways, as mysterious as consciousness itself.”

So Frank maintains that the position that mind is simply the product of brain, that consciousness is nothing but the activity of our neurons (which are themselves just matter), is based upon a science that is outdated, one that has been superseded by the findings of modern quantum physicists. These findings leave us with a view of matter which involves mysteries as great as that of consciousness itself.

Among these findings is the idea that the presence of an observer changes the behavior of the sub-atomic particles which make up matter. We simply do not know, the argument goes, how these particles behave when they are not observed. Physicists speak of multiple possibilities for their behavior; one of these is actualized once we observe the particle. There is reason to think such sub-atomic entities act differently or perhaps not at all when there is no observer present. (Thus, some theoreticians even speculate about multiple universes in which these other possibilities, the ones not actualized in our Universe, take place.)

Adam Frank writes, “Putting the perceiving subject back into physics would seem to undermine the whole materialist perspective. A theory of mind that depends on matter that depends on mind could not yield the solid ground so many materialists yearn for.” And: “With its emphasis on probability waves, essential uncertainties and experimenters disturbing the reality they seek to measure, quantum mechanics made imagining the stuff of the world as classical bits of matter (or miniature billiard balls) all but impossible.” Thus, wonders Tredway (ever the sophomore), would the road in Crow Wing County, Minnesota, have been there if Phil Johnson had not been present to observe and snap a photo of it with his omni-present cell phone?

That kind of thinking is a long way from the Newtonian physics that dominated science through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where matter and its behavior were understood to be fixed, whether an observer was present or not. It is ironic that though Sir Isaac Newton himself believed in God, the effect of his work was to reduce the divine role in a Universe that, once God had founded it, was understood to run regularly without His intervention.

As the physics of the eighteenth century (Newton died in 1727) gave way to the biology of the 19th (Charles Darwin died in 1882), there was even less need to invoke God as the cause, not just of all inanimate events in the Universe, but as the designer of its biological life as well. Darwin offered an explanation of how the intricate variety of life had come to be that was an alternative to the idea that God Himself had simply planned and now directed it all.

If one’s faith in the Deity depended upon His works being seen as the great proof of His existence, then His role was increasingly diminished, at least for those modern intellectuals who found other explanations more satisfactory than direct attribution of natural events to the divine will. Where gaps in our understanding of natural processes were filled by science, the “God of the Gaps” grew smaller, as the gaps themselves were filled in.

Conrad Bergendoff, a leading force in the intellectual life of Swedish-America in the mid-twentieth century, welcomed the new physics. In 1947, he wrote that Newtonian physics had forced religion to lie in “a procrustean bed” (recalling Procrustes, the evil son of Poseidon, who made travelers fit into his bed, either by stretching them out or by chopping off their legs). God’s being and work had been forced to

suit the discoveries that Newtonian physics had made. But now, Bergendoff maintained, physics had opened up the very nature and behavior of the material world itself, leaving us with a variety of explanations of it. Belief in God was not of necessity precluded, in the way that pure materialism had locked it out.

And seventy years later, the physicist Adam Frank notes these explanations of the nature of matter can get “pretty weird.” He writes, “It is in this sense that the unfinished business of quantum mechanics levels the playing field. The high ground of materialism deflates when followed to its quantum mechanical roots, because it then demands the acceptance of metaphysical possibilities that seem no more ‘reasonable’ than other alternatives.”

There are, therefore, ideas about the world of matter and its relationship to mind that are as valid as materialism itself seemed to be prior to developments in physics during the last century. It is even possible, as another interpreter of contemporary quantum thought, Brian Greene of Columbia University, suggests in his, The Fabric of the Cosmos, that physicists will never (in principle) be able to unravel the “true” nature of reality. The End of Science, a book by the writer for Scientific American, John Horgan, suggests we may be living in the first period since the rise of modern science in which persons engaged at the edge of research concede that it may not be possible to “figure it all out” with the instruments of mathematics and experimentation.

On the other hand, this certainly does not say that quantum physics, properly understood, leads inevitably and rationally to Immanuel Kant’s triad of fundamental and essential religious concepts – God, freedom, and immortality – let alone to Christian faith. Nor does this kind of speculation about mind-matter questions solve such problems as evil, human responsibility, the meaning of death – questions which have occupied western philosophy and theology since ancient times. But it does suggest that the Universe is more mysterious than early moderns – even Isaac Newton – thought it was, and that mind or consciousness may indeed be more than just the evolutionary by-product of the functioning of simple matter.

Religion, if it wishes to keep company with the modern intellectual, must have neither its bones stretched out, nor its legs lopped off. To believe in God is not necessarily to think of Him as the God of the Gaps, as the cause of processes which, once they are studied by science, lend themselves to other adequate explanations. Rather one might say, as St. Paul did to the intellectuals of Athens, quoting one of their own poets back to them, “In him we live and move and have our being.”

In the last century, as it began to be widely understood that physicists had moved well past the fixed, determined material world of Isaac Newton, the German-American theologian, Paul Tillich, spoke of God – as St. Paul had – as the very “ground of being.” Tillich maintained that simply to treat God as the cause of individual events or phenomena within the natural world rather than as the ground in and upon which all being exists was mistaken. Thus efforts to reduce His role by replacing Him with science were beside the point.

So when the leading work in modern physics rejects the idea of an “objective” material world that operates in a way that is in principle entirely understandable and controllable, we are left to wonder about the very ground upon which all being itself rests. Some tantalizing possibilities are raised, at least for those of us who are not satisfied with pure materialism as the ultimate explanation of things. In a world where the observer changes the action of the observed, one where mind affects matter, may it be legitimate to think of consciousness as a fundamental constituent of the Universe?

And even a further question occurs to me: what if the Universe were itself to exist because God perceives it? I remember that in the same North Park philosophy course I mentioned earlier we studied the ideas of the eighteenth century Irish Bishop, George Berkeley, whose thought was characterized by the phrase esse est percipi (To be is to be perceived). Berkeley held that in the end all that exists does so because God perceives it.

If that were so, each of us would have a mailing address like the one the American playwright, Thornton Wilder, suggested in his 1938 play Our Town: “Jane Crofut; the Crofut farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.”