09/12/2011 07:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

God's Time, Science's Ideal

In March of last year, the physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland set a record for the most energetic science experiment ever conducted, probing space and time with unprecedented precision. The LHC is the culmination of an experimental program that began in the early part of the 20th century, following the discovery of the quantum nature of microscopic space, in which energy comes in discrete units, or quanta; and relativity, in which time and space are unified as space-time. The two theories govern different phenomena, for the most part, but share a central theme: It is impossible for a single observer, locked into his or her unique, limited perspective, to discern the fundamental nature of reality. In short, an observer does not merely observe an event, but also subtly and unavoidably influences the event that he or she is observing. Only an entity that permeates space and time -- only God -- can observe creation at all scales simultaneously.

Modern science agrees that the limitations imposed on the observer by quantum mechanics and relativity are real, yet some scientists are still motivated to continue to experiment in the hope that a time will come when they can prove God's non-existence. Man has always probed the unknown, trying to discover new information about reality that will empower him. So displacing God from His all-seeing perspective would seem to be the ultimate act of liberation. Yet science strictly rules this possibility out. Why is it that God prevails in this argument? Why does God precede all physical phenomena, including scientific theories constructed to explain these phenomena? Why does God deserve His pre-eminent position in the cosmos?

This, perhaps, is what irks the atheist community the most: God's status as the ultimate observer. Some atheists may not object to practices of the believer, nor to the respect that religious people pay to God's wisdom, but at bottom atheists find it painful to admit that knowledge is limited. Yet science itself, supposedly the atheist's greatest ally, shows that it is.

The nature of time reveals the limits of human knowledge. Time intervals, as discovered by relativity, prevail at increasing and decreasing scales. A clock that ticks in seconds and tenths of seconds may be useful for a sprinter, but as we move up to large objects of planetary size, we need a different scale. Seconds and milliseconds are irrelevant to the slow, ponderous motions of planets.

On the other hand, atoms scurry around so quickly that seconds are not too brief to be meaningful, but far too long. To an atom, the duration of a single second on a sprinter's clock is seemingly endless, for an electron's movements are measured in billionths of a second. In studying nature, therefore, the observable impact of one object upon another must be viewed in time-frames that are relevant to the actions of the objects under study.

One may argue that though a man is large, he is nonetheless made up of countless atoms, each of which is subject to the actions of the other atoms jostling against it. How are each of these atoms affected by external forces? It is hard to say: Our aggregated atomic structures are much too large for us to discern the minute actions of the atomic and sub-atomic realm. More importantly, even if we used instruments that were the same size as sub-atomic particles, and therefore small enough to register the actions we wished to observe, those instruments themselves would be subject to the same actions as those influencing the particles we wished to study!

We cannot observe without also influencing, but some members of our scientific communities spend inordinate sums of money under the pretense that we can, hoping for experimental outcomes that are fundamentally impossible to reach. This is not to say that we do not make some progress. Indeed, we do. Measurements at trillionths, quadrillionths, quintillionths and sextillionths of a second may ultimately reveal whether the Higgs boson -- the so-called "God particle" -- exists. But what is the potential use of this knowledge? We may hope that it can be used to foster advances in quantum computing. More optimistically, we may see advances in commercial nuclear fusion that can bring cheap, green energy to the billions of poverty stricken people who are suffering on earth at this very moment. But with every discovery come more questions. And it's unlikely that the observer-status of those seeking the Higgs boson will be neutralized by their quest to observe the unobservable.

Math and science deploy complicated frameworks to describe and understand phenomena at all scales of time and space. But reality operates at all intervals simultaneously. A starving child, longing for food, has no clock to measure the slow dance of the sun and the earth around their shared center of mass. A fly's eyes have hundreds of different facets with which it is able to detect the briefest flickers of movement. But the mind of an Alzheimer's patient cannot construct a ladder of time at all. For such a person, the chronology of existence is a broken fundament, falling into utter disorder, and the events of yesterday never occurred, despite the fact that their heart continues to beat at the same rate as everyone else's.

There is a disconnect between our subjective impressions and observations of time and the universal time that can only be perceived by God. Ultimately, recognition of the universal, delicate synchronicity that enmeshes us at every scale of time and space may enable us to be more sensitively attuned to our interconnected universe -- a sort of cosmic soup that is both sub-atomic and vast at the same time. But all of time, because its nature changes with the size of the phenomenon being observed, is ultimately unknowable. We must not live in denial, therefore, that the most fundamental question about reality must remain a mystery: How did time begin?

Confirming the non-existence of God is not man's ultimate challenge, for it is a futile aspiration. Indeed, in order to prove God that did not exist, we would need to have the kind of universal, all-seeing perspective that only God can possess. So, in a sense, only God could prove His non-existence! This is more than an amusing word-puzzle. It points to a basic fact about existence. We are inextricably unified, at all scales of time and space, with all of creation. Swallowing our pride, recognizing this interdependence and adjusting our behavior to better co-exist with it is certainly one of humanity's higher purposes. It may also be our greatest challenge.