An exercise in reduction.

– Written 13th June 2010


I like thinking about what you can reduce things to.

Take your computer for example. At glance we can reduce a computer to its components of either hardware or software. Where the hardware is stuff like the screen, the speakers, the hard drive, the circuit board – all the “physical” things, the things you can hold. Then there’s the software, which is stuff like Windows, iTunes, internet browsers, and all the programs, which you can’t touch. They seem to be composed of information, as if they have some other mode of existence compared to the solid hardware components. But really they’re both reducible to material substance. All the information in a computer – the images, the text, the sound – exists according to the physical state of the computer; in the various switches turning on and off and whatnot, or the code imprinted on the CD being read by the laser. Everything that we see on a computer can be explained by some physical component located in that computer.

But further than that, all these components can be reduced to things smaller and smaller; everything in a computer can be reduced to the substances (plastic, silicon, metal) they are made out of. And then, all those substances can be reduced to their molecular structure, and all those molecules reduced to the different atoms that compose them. And all these atoms are only differentiated by the number of protons, neutrons and electrons that form them. That all means that a computer, with all its capabilities, can be explained by as little as its exact arrangement protons, neutrons and electrons.

It is clear that almost everything in the world we see is reducible to physical matter. In fact the only thing that might not be is the mind. Philosophers and scientists alike are asking the question these days; is human consciousness reducible to the physical states in the brain? Can all our thoughts be explained in terms of synapses and neurotransmitters? and ultimately in terms of atoms? Or is there something more to the mind that just isn’t physical? Nobody has found a conclusive answer to this question yet, but the issue rings very large religion bells. Theists seem to get worried at the notion that you can reduce all mental activity to physical matter, and atheists get worried (or should get worried) at the notion that you can’t. But I’ll come back to this. For now, I’ll tell you a story.

So basically all matter in the universe can be reduced to its atoms. Nothing revolutionary there. But one day I was thinking about how far we can take this principle. How far can we reduce everything in the universe to? And how far can we do this if God created it all?

Let’s start with God. What can we reduce God to? Well, he was there before everything. It doesn’t make sense that there is some prior thing that he is made out of. He is just the non-physical, spiritual God.

But if we keep that in mind, what can you reduce all physical matter to? We know it goes smaller than the basic parts of atoms. Protons, neutrons and electrons have been found to be made up of all kinds of sub-atomic particles like quarks and leptons and such. The physicists in their labs know of hundreds of these particles, and have continued go deeper finding smaller and smaller sub-particles. These days we have string theory. String theory says that all matter is ultimately reducible to tiny, tiny bits of energy, called strings, and that the way a string vibrates determines the type of matter it makes. But whatever the smallest particle is, let’s assume it’s a string – in that case we have everything in the universe composed of tiny particles of energy.

So I was thinking about one of these strings, the most basic thing that there is in the universe, and I was imagining it existing there, suspended in space. And I wondered, what is it, really? What is it made of? Where does it come from? Well, for the theists out there, clearly it comes from God. If God created the universe, then one of these strings cannot be reduced to anything, or explained in terms of anything other than God himself. There is nothing else in the causal chain between God and it. It seems it is directly linked to him. So then, a string cannot be made out of anything other than… God? That’s not so much not to say that it is a part of God, but just that, though it is physical, it is indeed some kind of spiritual object – it is composed of the spiritual – because it is directly crafted at the hand of God. It comes immediately from him. Then, if String Theory is correct and all matter is reducible to energy, this energy is spiritual energy. What else could it be? (If String Theory turns out wrong, you can still have the same idea I’m getting across, just in slightly different terms.)

So this all means that the entire universe is made out of spiritual energy. This shouldn’t really be surprising. Everything that exists comes from God, and at any moment it is all held together by God. You already know that. The thing is that in our thinking we have this dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. When we think of the physical universe, we think of it as totally different (maybe even opposed) to anything spiritual or related to God. But it’s just not like that. It all came from one entity.

It might be that we think like this because we see that things are made out of other things smaller than that thing, out of things that clearly are not God; there appears to be some sort of causal chain with regards to objects’ composition, which causally distances these things, and ourselves, from the Creator. We’ve never witnessed creation. We don’t know what it looked like, and so we can’t see how close to the Creator we really are. But when we just think about these infinitesimal, unperceivable strings, and realise that there is nothing left for them to be composed of but God, this distinction and disconnection between the physical and the spiritual becomes a little difficult to define.

Now, we all had to believe already that the physical could affect the spiritual and the spiritual affect the physical. If you believe that God parted the sea or sent the locusts, or that you can get on your knees and pray and this can affect the outcome of your life, or that God reveals his word to people and they then speak it to other people or write it down, then you are acknowledging God interacting with nature in some way that manifests as physical phenomena and vice versa. But this makes so much more sense if we are all spiritual objects anyway. In fact, now it makes perfect sense that there is this causal relationship between the natural and the supernatural. It makes perfect sense that what you do with your physical body has spiritual ramifications, that when you sing and raise your hands in worship it makes a difference, that sex truly creates a spiritual bond, that drugs harm you spiritually, or even that a hug can brighten up someone’s day. I think there is more of a connection than you might have realised, and that spiritual things are happening more than you thought. In a sense, both my computer and I are spiritual entities, as well as the Earth, the Moon and the stars…

Your house, your desk, the rocks, the trees, your church building; all these are spiritual. Everything around you. You can touch it, but its solidity doesn’t make it unspiritual. It is still created, sustained and bound together, right now, by this God, and this God is right there in the midst of it all.

So, finally, after realising all this, I’m not worried about this prominent unresolved question: whether or not human consciousness is reducible to biology, chemistry and physics. While I find it a pretty crazy idea that if you arrange a whole lot of atoms in a very particular way, you wind up with consciousness. That all our reasoning, all our calculating, all our emotions, our love and hate and entire personalities are reducible to the behaviour of atoms. I am not worried if it turns out to be the case, because all these atoms are spiritual entities anyway. Any physical explanation is a spiritual explanation. So if it turns out that the last time I fell in love was entirely explicable in terms of chemical processes in my brain, then so be it. It only means that this is the way God designed love and other emotions to work. Atheists need the notion of material reducibility of consciousness to be true. I don’t need it to be anything.

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