The Origins of the Universe

The Origins of the Universe

Review: Theory of Everything (That Matters) by Alister McGrath

The ‘theory of everything’ is the name scientist give to the holy grail of physics, an as-yet-undiscovered theory that digs down to rock bottom of the micro world of quantum physics and that also links to the macro world of Newtonian physics. Theologian Alister McGrath has sort-of repurposed this ‘theory of everything’ to name the way Einstein, the subject of this book, was open to, even argued for, the different ways of describing the universe provided by science and religion. He understood that holistic understanding can’t be left to science alone. Science couldn’t answer what historian of science Karl Popper called the ‘ultimate questions’. ‘So much of what really matters to human beings seems to be beyond the scope of scientific method,’ writes McGrath, and he is thinking partly of the difference between scientific objectivity and the subjectivity that rules much of our lives.

McGrath describes Einstein as the twentieth century’s favourite genius, partly because Einstein saw science fitting into a wider picture of society – politics in particular, but also what we think of as culture. He argued against the use of nuclear weapons (though unfairly blamed for their development), knowing that scientific ability doesn’t necessarily bring with it the appropriate ethics. He also understood that art and music are not completely different to science, but that scientific innovation, for which he is famous, involves more intuitive, holistic and imaginative approaches, which are also like the less tangible aspects involved in spirituality. McGrath describes this nicely as a mix of unity and diversity (much like the Church).

McGrath is in a good position to write about and be inspired by Einstein, having studied physics and Einstein in his youth and turned later to the history of religion and theology, as well as turning from a teenage atheism to belief.

Einstein didn’t believe in a personal God, and was critical of the Bible for leading literalists astray, but he talked a lot about God, who he envisaged as a foundation for the universe – a deist’s God, one who put the laws of the universe in place, a notion sometimes watered down as simply Darwinesque wonder at the orderliness of the universe, but this would be to underestimate Einstein’s thought. He felt that there was something or someone behind the laws, someone beyond our powers of description.

McGrath thinks that Einstein’s ideas of how the universe points to God and how he sees science and religion as compatible and necessary for the breadth of human understanding are a good starting point for acceptance of a personal (Christian) God, as was actually the case for the teenage McGrath. Whether this God is a correct theorisation is of course another story, and there are strains of Christianity that take seriously Saint Paul’s warning that Christianity might not make a lot of sense to the scientifically minded.

But McGrath, with the enthusiasm of the convert, often writes against those who are rigorous in their evangelism of atheism, mining theology and history to show that the supposed incompatibility of science and religion is just not, well, good science. Here he warns those atheists that the twentieth century’s most famous scientist is not their ally. Einstein doesn’t support the wrong-headed assumption that science not only has all the right answers but also gives us the only questions worth asking.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com

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