Morning Prayer Service, 12/16/00
The heavens are telling the glory of God. When I teach the physics department sophomore course on wave phenomena, I play a recording of the piece based on this passage from Haydnís Creation at the beginning of the lecture on resonance, because I love the image of the word of God resounding in all the world. But what is it really that the Heavens are telling us? What is so miraculous about creation?
I donít think that it is the vault of Heaven. The courses of the stars do not seem so miraculous now that we understand them. We can see how they work in detail with our large telescopes. We can look so far into Heaven that we can see back billions of years and watch the evolution of the early Universe. And we have strong scientific reasons to suspect that the Universe is vastly bigger still, and that the enormous sphere of Heaven that is visible to our telescopes is just a tiny dot on a huge page of physical creation.
Nor do I think the light of the sun and the stars is the real miracle of creation, as crucial as it is to our existence. We understand the physics that makes the stars shine, and it doesnít seem so remarkable. This crucial process is just a small part of what our science has discovered about the bizarre and intricate structure of tiny particles hidden at subatomic distances, stretching down to the smallest distances we can see at our largest laboratories, and probably much farther.
Between the astronomically large and the subatomically small, at many scales we understand interesting science. The geological activity of planets, the complexities of weather and waves, the properties of chemical elements like silicon, and of course, the riotous diversity of life on earth, the list is endless. No one of these scientific facts any longer seems as amazing as it must have seemed thousands of years ago when the Psalm was written. But the totality testifies to a profligacy of creation. Everywhere we look, we find different and elaborate structures. It is as if God simply had too many ideas for producing fascinating things. In my view, this is the real miracle of creation. It is not that any one natural phenomenon is so amazing, but that the rules by which Nature operates produce so many very different phenomena, each with its own complex and beautiful structure.
Given this diversity of phenomena, I think that we must be careful about formulating grand principles such as "Theories of Everything" that reduce the universe as we know it to a single equation; or so-called "anthropic principles" assuming that there is something so special about life as we know it that the Universe must be constructed to allow our carbon-based life forms to exist. The kind of reasoning that goes into such grandiose notions seem to me to betray a level of lack of imagination that rises nearly to the level of the "presumptuous sins" that the Psalmist warns about. The problem is always the "as we know it" part. What we know is so diverse that I think it is dangerous to over-generalize. The wise scientist should rather assume that what we know now is just a tiny sliver of what exists. Rather than trying to find the grand principle that brings science to an end, I think we should take the astonishing diversity of creation as an imperative to study the world in as many ways as we can.
Let us pray.
God of the Heavens and the Earth, of the astronomical and the subatomic, of the dead and the living, of science and history, of life and love, we give you thanks for the miraculous variety of your creation. We pray for the energy and time and patience and talent to learn more about the world you have made, and for the humility always to recognize how little we know.
Hymn - The Spacious Firmament on High