The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Gnostic science: Stardust, myths and physics

Posted by Ron George on September 18, 2011

An Artist's View of Physics and Astronomy, by Ron Dollekamp

Theoretical physicist Janna Levin reminded me recently that life is rare in the universe because we’re made of heavy elements formed by the death of stars. I heard somewhere else, once upon a time, that it took three generations of stars for these elements to form in sufficient amounts to become planets and, thus, possible harbors for life; all of which puts me in mind of seminary lectures about the Gnostics, who (in general, because there were dozens if not hundreds of sects) developed the myth that human beings are distilled out of the heavenly pleroma, or “fullness of being,” often the result of either a great cosmic battle or a prodigious act of sex in the ethereal realms. I may not be getting it exactly right (and most of what we know of late second-century Gnostic sects comes from their Christian opponents) but those long-ago lectures formed images in my mind that persist to this day. It’s really not much of a stretch to associate modern scientific theory based on physics with ancient Gnostic myths based on sheer speculative imagination.

There’s nothing scientific about the Gnostic myths, and contemporary science certainly has nothing to do with those ancient cosmologies; it’s just that, well, they rhyme in a weird way. They’re not the same, but Gnostics today like to talk about how theoretical physics confirms their beliefs; and my guess is that those ancient adversaries of orthodox Christianity would nod approvingly at the idea that humanity is a distillation of stardust: not mythological, mystical, ethereal, spiritual substance but matter generated by nature in space-time; and, of course, it took “aeons,” a term we have appropriated from the Valentinians, second-century Gnostics for whom an aeon was an emanation of a supreme being and an intermediary between that being and the material world.

Some neo-Gnostics crow about how science confirms their spiritual perspective Science does no such thing, but rhyming myths and physics give neo-Gs just enough leverage to make preposterous claims: “Y’know, science is coming around to our ancient way of thinking,” or something like that. Sure, it’s malarkey; still, physicist Levin also wonders whether scientific knowledge is stored in our genes, and that the process of acquiring knowledge was a matter of discovering what’s in there not just out there.

CERN Atomic Collision Physics and Colliding Particles, by Gregory Allen Page

What’s in here, by the way, is also a universal instinct for interpreting reality in spiritual and religious terms, something Levin rejects, which is not surprising given her academic training. There may be no God who made it, but Levin maintains that, in a sense, our knowing is a matter of unlocking what’s already contained in our brains. If that’s true, then what about the instinctively spiritual response to their universe human beings have locked in our brains; and, moreover, is the process of acquiring scientific knowledge, as Levin describes it, a form of spirituality? Sounds like it, but I’m just guessing; and I certainly understand a scientist’s professional and emotional need to deny it.

Levin’s perspective is steeped in the mathematics of physical science, which is unintelligible to me but a kind of refuge for her, perhaps an analogy for prayer or meditation; at least, that’s how it seems in Levin’s account of her life and science, How the Universe Got Its Spots. She probably would say she’s thoughtful not spiritual; but again, it’s not a huge leap to think of her thoughts as being food not only for the mind but also for the spirit – and if not the spirit of God, then the human spirit, which seems to be universal if not always embodied as religion.

Levin is also a scientific determinist. She speculates – there’s that word again – that if the universe were somehow wound back to the so-called big bang, everything that has happened would happen again, including all human history in every respect, because everything is determined by physical properties and antecedent physical events. To Levin, then, there’s no such thing as freedom. We’re driven solely by natural processes. There can be no other explanation because there is no other explanation than the fact that we are physical beings and that which happens occurs only in the physical universe. Now, that’s taking science to a level of belief comparable to religious dogma; for example, that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and that it was accomplished in six days. Levin is a science fundamentalist!

Universal Expression, by Jes Ewers

Levin’s take on the inevitability of the evolving universe sounds a lot like predestination: Things are they way they are because they could not have been any other way. Random, says Levin, doesn’t mean choice. Outcomes are determined by the physics of natural elements. We’re talking about the subatomic level here taken to a universal scale. God didn’t predestine the universe, but whatever has happened – and who knows why? – would happen again if it were possible. It’s not possible, of course, so there’s no way to demonstrate the theory; except, perhaps, if it were possible to set up an experiment to demonstrate the inevitability of complex events, such as my daughter and her husband choosing to have a second child, due solely to the physical properties of matter. Science does like to be able to predict outcomes, but I don’t believe the evolving universe is as determined as Levin seems to believe.

What’s interesting, though, is Levin’s bent to generalize just as religionists tend to do. She’s not concocting a religious or spiritual standpoint, but she does establish an utterly unverifiable point of view based on what she knows and believes about the power of scientific inquiry. Christian theologians have been doing that kind of thinking for centuries; in fact, religious/spiritual people have been interpreting their experience of the actual world in light of their beliefs for – here we go again – aeons. Levin maintains that religion/spirituality doesn’t really make much sense anymore, in light of scientific inquiry, but neither does scientific determinism, despite the apparent predictability of outcomes based solely on physical properties. Levin might say we simply don’t know enough about the universe to prove the hypothesis – but someday we will. That, too, sounds similar to the religious/spiritual idea that someday all will be revealed, and that we shall know, even as we are known.


6 Responses to “Gnostic science: Stardust, myths and physics”

  1. Elizabeth McCafferty said

    In my opinion, some things are just better left “undiscovered.”

    It’s all fine and good to speculate about “predestination,” or “fatalism,” as long as the people who are touting it REALIZE that’s all it is– speculation.

    To me, it’s the same with religion. There are too many historical inaccuracies for me to ever become a “zealot,” as it were, and I have a real issue with people who are unwavering or unwilling to open their minds to the possibilities…

    Science and religion– closer than people think.

  2. Michelle said

    Geoffrey, I agree with you about Calvinists and ministry, as we see it unfold before our eyes all the time. But Jesus is a whole different story. He claimed to be God.

  3. Patsy Durham said

    Whew! You really lost me on this one! But I’m glad you’re reading interesting books, and as usual, the art work is very evocative.

  4. Jim Abbott said

    Yes, they do rhyme, in a strange kind of way. When it comes right down to it, both are a belief, a trust that whatever you have set up as the fundamental / ultimate explanatory principle will keep working in all circumstances. Sounds like “faith” to me. Peace, Jim

  5. Geoffrey said

    It’s interesting that you post this blog this week. Michelle and I have had a couple of talks recently about Calvinists and predestination. Calvinism is weird to me and doesn’t make much sense. And it’s been my experience as of late that Calvinist seem to think of themselves as chosen, especially when it comes to the ministry.

    • Geoffrey said

      And then once a human in ministry thinks they’re better than the next human, I think they’ve lost their credibility as ministers since Jesus never claimed to be better than the next person…really.

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