Monday, 16 July 2012


In modern physics, there is no such thing as complete “nothingness”. Even a complete vacuum said to be is permeated by “fields of force” (electromagnetic, gravitational, etc.), or perhaps a “dark energy”, shaping the space-time continuum. Put this together with the Uncertainty Principle, which means that the value or intensity of the field and its direction cannot both be fixed, and it follows that quantum field activity can never be reduced to zero but is always subject to random fluctuation.

In fact the energy in a “complete vacuum” is potentially infinite – assuming that space is a continuum and that all the variations in this fluctuating field cancel each other out overall. The existence of such “zero-point energy” in a vacuum has even been experimentally demonstrated (the Casimir effect). According to the inflationary universe model, the birth of the cosmos is based on such a quantum fluctuation in the field-value of nothingness.

You could say that the whole world – according to this theory – is a product of zero and infinity, in a sense poised between these two extremes. What can be manifested is not the infinite itself, but only the differences in energy between the “virtual particles” (quantum fluctuations) that happen to appear there. This enables scientists to handle the calculations without involving infinite quantities.

The theory bears a strange resemblance to many ancient metaphysical theories that were advanced to explain the world as the result of an interplay between two Principles; such as (in Plato) the One and the Unlimited. The world of Being was the result of Form (the Form of the One or the Good) having been imposed upon Chaos.

In that case, however, the "infinite" principle was the lower one, which seems odd to us because of the notion of "positive infinity" that matured after Aristotle under the impact of Christian thought about God, and which we now take for granted. The concept of divinity as an “infinite oneness” or an “absolute maximum” than which nothing greater can be conceived was developed by Plotinus in the third century, Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth, Augustine and Dionysius in the fifth, Saint Anselm of Bec in the late twelfth, and in the fifteenth Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. Infinity, applied now to actuality rather than potentiality, was used to express the utter transcendence of God over creation.

For Aquinas, God is the unlimited act of Being (or supra-Being), inexhaustible “isness”, unknowable by us directly until we come in the Beatific Vision to share by grace in God’s knowledge of himself. God is “infinite” in the strict etymological sense, meaning without limits of any kind.

If we wish to reconcile this idea with Plato’s original conception, we might say that the limits we wish to deny God are in this case merely any limitations imposed from without. As pure isness, he does in fact have “limit” in the (Platonic) sense of form – he is “the Form of the Good” or the One. All else, including everything created and everything numerical, is limited in the sense that its existence is “restricted” in relation to the divine plenitude: it participates or shares in one aspect or another of that plenitude but never completely. It may be indefinitely prolonged or extended in one respect or another, making it “indefinite”, but it cannot be said to be infinite in the same sense as God. To the most limited of all we now give the name "zero".

Next in this series: Infinity.

"Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God" (Stephen Barr)

No comments:

Post a Comment