Reflections in Cosmology 8: The Principle of Containment

According to Edward Harrison, ‘the Containment Principle of the physical universe states: the physical universe contains everything that is physical and nothing else‘. Here, the word ‘physical’ is sweeping, and it includes all forms of matter and energy (shown to be the same thing by Einstein), from quarks to galaxies, cells to organisms and electromagnetic waves to nuclear binding energies. Not only that, but space, time and gravity (the curvature of space-time, according to Einstein’s general relativity) are properties of the physical universe as well. There can be no space and time apart from matter and energy. They all interact to form the universe as understood by science.

Where lies the edge of the physical universe?
But what about heaven? Is it a part of the universe? The Ancient Greeks and their Western intellectual descendants up till the rise of modern science thought of heaven as existing out there (or up there) beyond the earth; either beyond the fixed circle of stars, or lumping the stars with heaven as part of the perfect heavenly realms. Advances in astrophysics have revealed stars and galaxies to have the same physical properties as all matter on the Earth, governed by the same physical laws (as far as we can tell). A word of caution from Edward Harrison:

If you believe in a non-physical realm, such as heaven, you must endow it with its own space and time. You cannot extend our own space and time to include heaven, for heaven would then be brought into the physical universe and its existence exposed to the critical methods of scientific inquiry. ~ Edward Harrison, Cosmology: The Science of the Universe

I would add that maybe Heaven does not have its own space and time, but exists beyond space and time? So where is Heaven then? What are the Old Testament and New Testament Jewish views of Heaven like? How do Heaven and Earth relate to this physical universe and to each other? How do they interlock and intersect at various points in history and space? And how is God beyond the physical universe, yet present within it? My theology is rather rusty… time to pull out some of my N. T. Wright books and articles again!

As the realms of the physical, psychical and spiritual become more blurred regarding human studies through advances in the neurosciences and biochemistry, the question gets even more complicated. What about the human mind and the soul? Aren’t we humans a part of the physical universe too? Are our minds and consciousness nothing more than neurons firing electrical signals in response to chemicals in the brain? Or is the whole more than the sum of its parts? Do our minds and souls exist in a separate realm, a separate universe? Do we then have to resort to separating the human self into the dichotomies of body, mind and spirit? The traditional Judeo-Christian worldview is against tendencies towards such dichotomies between mind and body, the physical and the spiritual – as espoused by Platonic philosophy and Gnosticism.

What about our souls, our minds, consciousness, and all the richness of the inner mental world, where do they fit in? The response that must be made is quite simple: they do not fit in anywhere. At best, only their physical counterparts (such as chemical activities) fit in. All the joys of life are no more than the biochemistry of neurons in the brain. In response to those who protest and want it all put together neatly in a spiritual-psychical-physical universe, we must answer: “You are confusing the Universe with universe. The unknown Universe is everything, including our minds; the known physical universe contains what is physical, including our brains.” ~ Edward Harrison, Cosmology: The Science of the Universe

Here, Edward Harrison reiterates again his definitions of Universe (the true reality) and universe (our human perception of it). So it is not that the universe of space, time, matter and energy excludes heaven, the mind and the soul, but rather that our scientific method of questioning reveals only a limited view of manifold reality. It is not about Heaven, the spirit, and the mind existing beyond the physical universe and thus need to be separated as dichotomies. It is about how such questions expose the limits of the scientific method in exploring the Universe.

Science is only concerned with a small sector of the world of human experience, since it chooses to limit its concern to an impersonal account of reality, the world as an object. Yet, it is fundamental to human experience that reality is also encountered subjectively. This involves not only interpersonal meeting with other people and the transcendental meeting with the divine, but also the general recognition that we live in a world that is the carrier of value. There is no reason to suppose that these personally appropriated aspects of reality are of lesser significance than the impersonally appropriated aspects that are the concerns of science. ~ John Polkinghorne, Science and Theology


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