Cern and Religion Articles

The Force

by Vern S. Poythress, Ph.D. , Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Westminster Theological Seminary

" ... Leonardo [Vetra; a "theo-physicist"] believed his research had the potential to convert millions to a more spiritual life. Last year he categorically proved the existence of an energy force that unites us all. He actually demonstrated that we are all physically connected ... that the molecules in your body are intertwined with the molecules in mine ... that there is a single force moving within all of us."
Langdon felt disconcerted. And the power of God shall unite us all.
-- Dan Brown, Angels and Demons, 38.

The Force. What is it? The agents in Star Wars knew about it. Now in Dan Brown's yarn it crops up in the supermodern context of the CERN particle accelerator, the biggest machine on earth. Do these people know something we do not?

Dan Brown's mystery stories are nothing if not tantalizing and engaging in drawing us into a plot. But what is the truth here? We need to sort some things out.

What Do We Know from Physics?

First, what does modern physics actually have to say about a fundamental force or forces? It is not quite as sensationalistic as Brown's character Maximilian Kohler makes it out to be. Physicists have uncovered not one but four fundamental forces that make their appearance in physical phenomena. These forces have been known, not since "last year," but for decades. What physicists call the "strong force" and the "weak force" operate noticeably only at very short distances, inside atomic nuclei. Because of their short range, physicists have come to notice and understand them only during the last half of the twentieth century. The other two forces, electromagnetic force and gravitational force, have been known for a long time, because they operate at longer distances. Sir Isaac Newton codified the fundamental laws for gravitational force in 1687. He made it clear that that gravitational force is "a force that unites us all," because it is a universal force that operates between any two objects that have mass. Leonardo did not need to prove "the existence of an energy force" because Isaac Newton already demonstrated it over three centuries ago!

Dan Brown places the language about force on the lips of his character Maximilian Kohler, who is identified as the director of CERN, the scientific facility for particle physics. Kohler's language about being "all physically connected" and so forth, when it is taken with the context of physics, boils down to being a reasonable description of gravitation. But to the ordinary reader it is made to sound deliciously spooky and spiritual, partly because of the fact that Kohler focuses on human beings. His language thus gives the impression that we by our humanity have a special connection to one another. "Physically connected," the actual phraseology that Kohler uses, makes a transition in our minds to "spiritually connected." We do have such a spiritual connection, because we are all made by God and made in the image of God. But that is different from observing that we are physically connected by the universal operation of the force of gravitation.

The Grand Unified Theory

We need consider one other piece from the progress of physics. Physicists in the twentieth century observed certain high-level analogies between three of the fundamental forces, namely the strong, the weak, and the electromagnetic force. These analogies have enabled them to combine the theories into a single global theory, the "Standard Model" of particle physics. But they have found enormous difficulties in trying to bring these into relation to the fourth force, gravitation. "String theory" and its variants represent attempts to construct a "Grand Unified Theory" that would describe all four fundamental forces within a single framework.

Physicists may or may not arrive at a Grand Unified Theory. If they do, it would be a triumph of human intellectual achievement. And it would be a display of the consistency of the mind of God, who governs the world according to such a consistent pattern. But--and this is the important point--it would not change the character of the actual world. We would continue to go on living as we have lived. Even though the four fundamental forces would have been "unified" into a larger, intellectually harmonious pattern, the forces would still be what they have always been in their mundane operations.

In other words, contrary to Kohler's insinuations, we would not get any spiritual revolution through progress in physics. If a Grand Unified Theory were achieved, it might be the case that various scientific or religious interpreters would seize on the results and make grand claims concerning alleged religious implications. But those claims would be as much a product of the interpreters' own opinions and their own prior religious inclinations as they would be a product of the hard-headed scientific achievement within its own sphere.

The Force as a god?

Within the Star Wars movies, and just below the surface in Dan Brown's book, runs the idea that "the force" is fundamentally unified, and that it is god. This idea is a variation on a very old idea--pantheism (the world is god) or panentheism (the world is in god). What do we make of this?

Pantheism is not only an old idea but a bad idea. To begin with, it is a bad idea for accounting for the world. "The force" is impersonal. So the world at bottom is impersonal. Our personalities and human love become fundamentally meaningless or even illusory. Contrast this result with the personal God of the Bible, whose personality gives significance to our personalities, and with whom we can have personal fellowship and the experience of love.

"The force" also makes no sense without laws governing it. The laws are what is truly divine. In their rationality they point to God who transcends the force.

The force is also amoral. The force in Star Wars has a dark side as well as a light side. It is beyond the distinction of good and evil. But then there is no ultimate basis for morality or for fighting for justice. Our own sense of right and wrong within us makes no sense.

Pantheism is nevertheless attractive because it has a grain of truth. God is everywhere present (omnipresence). But he is not present in the manner that the force is alleged to be present, as something subject to us or that makes us divine ourselves. Pantheism brings confusion about who God is. It brings in a substitute god, and the substitute serves as an excuse and a snare, to keep us from noticing our need for the true God.

Know the Truth

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Further Reading

Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach
Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006. See especially chapters 20-22 on physics and mathematics.

Vern S. Poythress, "God and Science."

It is possible that Dan Brown's character Maximilian Kohler in his crucial speech about a unifying force is in fact talking about what physicists have called "quantum entanglement" and "nonlocality." But if so, the account of it is garbled. Nonlocality has been known for decades, not since "last year." And it is neither energy nor a force.

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