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Did God Have a Choice?

'The most incomprehensible thing about the universe
is that it is comprehensible'

NY Times, April 18, 1999

hat really interests me," Albert Einstein once remarked, "is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world." Few scientists have ever poised their ambitions as poetically or as nakedly as Einstein, who spoke sometimes as if God were someone he met for coffee every day.

When he spoke of God, however, the last thing he had in mind was a white-bearded man sitting up in Heaven toting up sins and dispensing favors to prayerful supplicants. The question was just his way of asking whether the universe could be any other way than it appears to be -- and if not, how much room remains in that universe for things like chance and miracles?

Is it just pure luck that our own universe has the friendly qualities it does, or if we knew all the laws of physics from a God-like perspective, would we know that the universe could not be any other way? Would we know why atoms are small and galaxies are big? Would we know not just how, but why the universe began? For Einstein, the only conceivable answer to these concrete questions was yes.

History teaches that most ideas are flops, in science and otherwise. But every once in a while a hunch that began as pure thought, a wild gem of poetry about the way nature should be, blossoms into a theory that turns out to fit the world so miraculously that its authors cannot help feeling that they have tapped into the secret order of reality -- into God's "mind," as Stephen Hawking once put it. Einstein knew that giddy feeling back in 1915 when he realized that his theory of general relativity correctly predicted a puzzling motion of the planet Mercury that had bedeviled astronomers for decades; he later confessed to a friend that he had had heart palpitations.

Today those same palpitations are being provoked in his successors by something called M theory, a shadowy concept posited to lie at the end of a mathematical labyrinth known as superstrings. The theory seems to contain everything that physicists ever wanted to know about the forces of nature but were afraid to ask. Curiously, nobody claims to know what M theory actually will say, only that it seems to be there at the end of the mathematical rainbow, still undiscovered, a metaphysical headwaters of the Nile. The source perhaps of the River Why.

Still, there are many reasons to wonder if the River Why can ever be drained. Every great triumph of adventure in thought, as Alfred North Whitehead called general relativity, has invariably bred a new batch of questions. There is no reason to think that we are at the end of the cycle yet, and no guarantee that we are or ever will be God-like enough in our comprehension to recognize the cosmic secret if it were carved on a tree trunk. It may be that humans are fated only to know many small truths rather than one big truth about the universe, while we spin off ancillary marvels like space flight, gene therapy and the World Wide Web.

A God with no choice, of course, might seem to be a cold comfort or even no God at all, at least in the traditional sense. In fact, Einstein noted that a well-ordered universe left no room for "causes of a divine nature." What role then is left for God? Only the main role.

To Einstein, God was a code word for the mystery and grandeur of the universe, the wellspring of awe, a reminder that there was something at the core of existence that all his equations could only graze, as he said once, "something we cannot penetrate."

All our science, Einstein often pointed out, would never vanquish that mystery or slake our thirst for something beyond. Written on a blackboard or a T-shirt, the so-called theory of everything would just lie there waiting for something else to breathe life into it and the universe.

It would not tell us what we really want to know: Does God love us? Do our lives have any meaning? Nor would it even tell us that science itself has any value. The idea that the universe makes sense, of course, is the sheerest faith of all.

The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible, Einstein remarked.

In reality, we will probably never know the answer to his question. We will always be stuck in the middle of an endless journey, not knowing whether the final answer is just around the corner or a million miles away or whether we are just going in circles with our excellent particle accelerators and ingenious mathematics, projecting our own wishes for form onto chaos. Moreover, modern cosmological theories seem to suggest that our universe is not unique, but might be only one among an almost infinite variety of worlds -- worlds in which atoms are the size of bumblebees and all stars are black holes, worlds of 3 or 6 or 11 dimensions, worlds forever inaccessible to our probing eyes.

But science is nothing if not the search for reasons, for the smoking gene in our coiled cells, the atom of consciousness, the quantum butterfly flapping its wings at the heart of the world. It is the job of scientists to believe in answers. But like card players with an incomplete knowledge of how the cards lie, physicists are forced to play their cards as if there were a way to win the game of science. Without faith that there is order, as Einstein pointed out, the enterprise is doomed anyway. But with that faith, as Einstein proved, it is possible to change the world.