The personal odyssey of Adam, the atom

by Arvid Adell

Adam’s Anecdotes about Natural and Revealed Theology

A man decided to learn how to sky dive. So he enlisted the services of an expert and together they flew to the appropriate height whereupon he jumped out into space for his voyage back to earth. At the proper moment he pulled the ripcord only to discover it did not open his chute. Realizing there was no other alternative, he resigned himself to his inevitable fate.

Then he witnessed a most unusual turn of events. As fast as he was descending from above, another man was ascending from below. As they met in mid-air, he shouted at his fellow traveler “Do you know anything about parachutes?” To which came the frantic response, “No. Do you know anything about gas stoves?”

Here you have two analogies for doing theology. Either God reveals himself directly from above (the sky-diving approach), or we humans can start with our observations of the created world and extrapolate the existence and nature of God from these (the gas stove maneuver). An important question is, “Are these two methodologies mutually exclusive?” Can science inform revelation and vice versa? Can we ever persuade Karl Barth to shake hands with Emil Brunner? I, myself, Adam the Atom, am the gas stove kind of guy. Hence the following personal odyssey.

Adam the Atom’s Life of Indentured Servitude

I am not quite sure how I came into existence. Maybe a big bang which eventuated into matter vs. antimatter atoms, which basically cancelled out each other. However, there must have been a few more of us good guys because a lot of us are still around.

I do know that I had to fight for recognition as being one of the fundamental building blocks of the world. Plato irritated me to no end, what with his condescending portrayal of physical things as being nothing more than feeble attempts to copy the Universal Ideas, which can only be known by the Mind. His conclusion? I was not real, but a mere shadow of a non-material world of minds, God, and the Good, the True, and the Beautiful!

However, at the turn of the first century B.C. my day finally came! Lucretius and his fellow “atomists” (I love that word) argued persuasively that I and my kind were “all that there is.” Even minds and thoughts are collections of atoms in motion, albeit very thin ones, invisible to our senses.

I was particularly intrigued by how the atomists described me: I was uncreated (matter could neither be created nor destroyed), indivisible, inert, solid, infinite in number, very small and pushed around in empty space by all kinds of external forces. I never changed internally, but I was “moved” by external forces to join with other atoms to form a variety of objects. I was a part of the furniture of the universe.

But some things disturbed me. I had no ethics because I had no “intentionality.” I had no theology because on its own the physical universe operated in a mostly orderly fashion and God was irrelevant. I had no social life because all of my interactions with other atoms were merely the result of irresistible collisions between insentient beings. I felt isolated, purposeless and bored.

Then, some good news for me, at least temporarily, surfaced in the 1700s. God came into the picture. The theologian, William Paley, observed that the world we inhabit is analogous to an exquisite timepiece. All of its parts operate harmoniously to achieve a purpose, to keep time. But such magnificent design doesn’t just happen by a bunch of senseless atoms with hooks colliding into each other. There must be a Designer, and he called this artisan “God.” Paley did suggest that God had to occasionally tinker with his watch to wind it (to which Leibniz allegedly commented, “What kind of God is He who can’t even create a self-winding watch!”).

My delight in the teleological musings of thinkers like Paley (and Newton) was short-lived. God or no God, I realized I was still a mere pawn in the chess-game of life. I contributed nothing except for the fact I was there as the smallest unit of the cosmos.

The Gospel According to Twentieth Century Quantum Physicists

However, in the first half of the twentieth century, I experienced a transformational event for my self-understanding. A bunch of scientists made discoveries about atoms that were so revolutionary that one of their spokesmen, Niels Bohr, said, “Anyone who is not shocked by the quantum theory has not understood it!” I put to memory five basic principles of the new physics that are worth sharing.

  • Energy is not continuous, but comes in small but discrete units (this is referring to me!)
  • These elementary particles behave both like particles and waves.
  • The movement of these particles is random. (Seems overstated to me. Some randomness, sure, but this “freedom” is drastically limited by the stuff surrounding it. Nevertheless, with apologies to Einstein, it does appear that occasionally God does “roll the dice.”)
  • It is physically impossible to know both the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time. The more precisely one is known, the less precise the measurement of the other is (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). Do those particles really know they are being watched and react accordingly? Evidently so.
  • 5. The atomic world is nothing like the world in which you and I live. Well, for those of you who are non-quantum physicists, that is.
  • The quantum physicists were talking about me. Instead of being a boring, dead, indivisible, mindless, uncommunicative, externally- determined, material “bit,” I was now defined as a dynamic, energetic, evolving unit consisting of subatomic stuff. The scientific “observable affect” shows I am aware of my environment and have the capacity to know and react to it. I could go on delineating what a wonderful being I am, but my interest is not so much metaphysical as religious. So I shall defer to the process philosopher and theologian Alfred North Whitehead and his contribution to what Dr. Thomas Tredway has described as the “positive” use of science in its relationship to theology (see Pietisten, previous issue).

    How Whitehead Used Me to Show the Existence and Nature of God

    Using quantum physics as one of the templates for his systematic thinking, Whitehead christened me with a new name: no longer am I to be called an atom (there are too many pre-quantum connotations). From now on, I am an “actual entity” or “actual occasion.” I am a dynamic, experiencing subject, and a bundle of energy. Since energy “is not continuous but comes in small but discrete units,” my biography consists of a series of “occasions” by which I, an evolving subject, take all of the information given to me by 1.) my immediate past, 2.) other entities in my neighborhood, and 3.) my personal choices. Think of me as a frame in a film. Briefly you see me as an accomplished fact and then I move to the next frame and proceed to appear as another slightly different one and so on. I am a very busy guy. Nothing stays the same. Creativity is a given in Whitehead’s ontology. As Heraclitus once said “No man can step in the same river twice.” The stuff which influences my creation all constantly change and so do I. But in this process, I offer the world a series of determinate facts, part of the creative advance of the world.

    For the most part, the above is an accurate portrayal of who and what I do all day – except for one monumentally important thing. If I am constituted solely by my past, my environment, and my personal reactions, how does one account for the novelty and evolution of me and the world in which I live? Whitehead noted this problem and decided it was time to take it seriously.

    The evolving actual entity/occasion, he ascertained, is organized around some “goal, aim, intent.” Where do these originate? If they come exclusively from the past, the present environment, and processing self, then that would explain repetition and order, but imply a dull redundancy. Our experience and our observations of novelty and purposeful change in ourselves and our world require another component: an ideal aim around which we organize our feelings of ourselves and our world.

    At this juncture, Whitehead the philosopher becomes Whitehead the theologian. Aristotle had found it necessary to complete his metaphysics by the introduction of a Prime Mover — God. So does Whitehead. However, Aristotle’s God never really got that involved with the created world. The Unmoved Mover set up the general character of things and imbued all of them with a goal, a Final Cause (things like acorns and tadpoles, for example, are programmed to become oak trees and frogs). Having accomplished this, Aristotle’s Divinity moved on to more important matters, such as self-contemplation with no concern or passion for Creation.

    Whitehead’s God was the antidote to Aristotle’s unapproachable, disinterested Prime Mover. By giving each developing actual entity/occasion the appropriate aim for its current evolving existence, God is directly implicated in everything that happens in the world. But God is not totally responsible for the way everything turns out. Actual entities have a measure of self-determination; they can respond to some influences in their current formation positively and others negatively. However, God does seek to assist in the best possible formation and harmonization of all things/events.

    Whitehead’s Theology and God’s Divine Attributes

    It might be helpful to compare Whitehead’s view of God’s qualities with those of other more traditional theologians. Whitehead’s theology has been defined by many of his associates as “panentheism” (not to be confused with “pantheism” in which God and the universe are identical). Since each nascent actual entity receives its aim plus the urge to actualize it directly from God, it follows that the Divine is “in” everything. On the other hand, in order for God to determine which aim is appropriate for a particular to become an actual occasion, it is essential that he “feels and knows every other existent entity, especially those in the relevant neighborhood.” In this sense, everything is “in” God. To quote Whitehead: “It is as true to say that the world is immanent in God as to say God is immanent in the World.” This accounts for Whitehead’s attribution of omnipresence to the Divine Mover.

    Whitehead’s God is not omnipotent. Other existent beings have the power to adjust God’s plan for themselves and therefore for him and for the world. However, all entities must actualize one of God’s ideals, so ultimately he is still in charge.

    Whitehead’s God is not omniscient. He knows everything that has happened and everything that can possibly occur, but he does not know exactly how the present actual occasion will turn out and thus does not know the future.

    Whitehead’s God is not eternal, knowing everything a priori, and therefore exempt from the vagaries of time and space. Instead, Whitehead’s God is everlasting, for he is involved in every past, present and future event, and by virtue of his possession of a limitless number of ideal aims, he has opportunity to be involved in the ongoing creative advance.

    Lastly, Whitehead’s God offers “objective” immortality to all created beings. Every realization of God’s ideal aims by the creatures of this world is “saved” by God, since he includes their achievements in his own everlasting experience and uses it to assist him in choosing the best possible ideal aims for the next moment of evolution.

    Now, “subjective immortality” is another matter. There is nothing in Whitehead’s philosophical categories which can support a person’s retention of consciousness after death. However, he did offer an enigmatic opinion that there may be ways of knowing which lie outside philosophical thinking and perhaps offer a more promising outcome (theology and religious experience?).

    In “Process and Reality,” Whitehead rhapsodizes, “What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven and the reality in heaven passes back into the world – the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion – the fellow sufferer who understands.” Although this passage is not intended by its author to guarantee anything other than objective immortality, there are process theologians who suggest that this strong emphasis on reciprocal divine/human love may at least offer some hope for a personal life after death.

    It’s been a long odyssey, but I am a pretty happy “atom” these days. Kind of like the “gas stove” man, I’ve made a journey from the world of earthly experiences to some heavenly observations. From science to theology, fact to faith.

    Arvid Ardell is a retired Professor of Philosophy at Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois.

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