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God, Time, and Gravitational Waves

James Hoskins

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921 -- Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921 -- Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

There is a lot of theology in science. Whether knowingly or not, scientists often incorporate metaphysical assumptions about what ultimately does or doesn't exist into their theories. Einstein was no different.

The recent discovery of gravitational waves -- which are thought to be ripples in spacetime -- helped to confirm Einstein's theory of relativity in a big way.[1] Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves 100 years ago, but we haven't had the technology to detect them until now. With so many confirmations of relativity theory in the last century, it may seem like Einstein's vision of reality is undeniable. But that is not necessarily the case.

An excellent article at NPR's Cosmos and Culture blog explains how, in 1922, Einstein debated a philosopher by the name of Henri Bergson over his theory of time. Bergson actually had no objections to the theory of relativity itself -- its logic, predictions, or the data it is based on. Rather, Bergson objected to how Einstein interpreted the theory's implications for time. In other words, Bergson was not taking issue with Einstein's science, but his philosophy. And there are philosophers and physicists today that are doing the same.

To understand this debate (and what it has to do with God), first let me offer a quick overview of Einstein's theory.

Relativity Theory and Time

If you've seen the movie Interstellar, then you know that relativity theory has some very strange and counter-intuitive things to say about the universe, especially in regards to time. According to Einstein, there is no absolute, universal time -- no cosmic "now." Rather, time is merely a matter of perspective, and depends primarily on one's motion. And since motion is relative, so is time.

To better understand what I mean, consider the following thought experiment: imagine a celebrity in his car trying to escape the paparazzi. There are two photographers chasing him -- one photographer in a car 30 feet behind the celebrity (we'll call him photographer A), and one in a car 30 feet ahead (photographer B). All three cars are traveling at the same speed. Suddenly, the celebrity sees two camera flashes, one from each photographer, happen simultaneously. The celebrity concludes that the flashes happened at the same time. But that is actually not true.

Since the celebrity's car was in motion -- traveling away from the flash of photographer A, and toward the flash of photographer B -- the light from A actually had to travel a greater distance than B to reach the celebrity. That means, for the two flashes to appear simultaneous, photographer A had to snap his shot before photographer B -- they didn't really happen at the same time. It just appeared that way because of the celebrity's motion.

Here is a helpful animation from John Norton at University of Pittsburgh.

Here is a helpful animation from John Norton at University of Pittsburgh.

So, one's perception of the timing of events is affected by one's motion. But here's the kicker: it is nearly impossible to know what/who is moving in the universe and what isn't! Have you ever been sitting in a stationary car or train and got startled because you thought it was starting to roll backwards, but then quickly realized it was actually the car next to you moving? The only way we are really able to tell if we are in motion or not is by reference to other objects that (we think) are stationary.

Now consider the fact that, while reading this article, you are hurtling through space at about 70,000 mph as the Earth orbits the Sun. And the Sun (along with our solar system) is in turn orbiting the Milky Way galaxy at about 450,000 mph. And the Milky Way is traveling through the universe at an estimated 1.3 million mph. Which objects in the universe are in motion and which aren't? Which way is up and which way is down? It's all relative. As far as we know, nothing in the universe is at absolute rest; everything is in motion and therefore every perspective of time will be different. We have no way of knowing which single perspective is the "right" time, if any.

To make matters worse, there is an effect that scientists knew about before Einstein, called time dilation. In this strange phenomenon, clocks that are traveling at high speeds appear to work more slowly than clocks that are stationary (from our perspective). And this has been confirmed by numerous experiments.

Einstein's Metaphysics and God

So, after all of that, what is left to debate? This: does our inability to measure absolute time mean that it does not exist? Einstein said yes. He believed there is no objective, absolute time for the universe; there are only local "times" that depend on one's relative motion. According to Einstein, time literally speeds up or slows down at a specific location due to an observer's relative motion and gravity.

This is very different from what Einstein's predecessors, who already knew about time dilation, believed, however. Even though they knew it was impossible to get an objective measurement of time, they still believed that an absolute, objective time in the universe did exist. They believed there is in fact a cosmic "now" -- a perspective that is the "right" time -- but they just thought we can never know what it is, due to limitations in our measurements.

For example, Hendrick Lorentz (the physicist whose equations Einstein built his theories on) knew about time dilation. But he thought that motion through space affected the clocks (i.e. measuring devices), not time itself.

So, what Einstein's interlocutors (both past and present) are disputing is not his theory, per se, but his assumption which equates the physical undetectability of absolute time with its non-existence. In other words, the debate is not over his physics, it's over his metaphysics.

What does any of this have to do with God? Many of Einstein's contemporaries expressed an openness to allowing theological reflection to play a role in their understanding of time, even if it was merely hypothetical. For example, Lorentz wrote to Einstein in 1915 and proposed that an objective time could hypothetically exist, if there were an objective Observer of the universe that was unaffected by motion:

A 'World Spirit' who, not being bound to a specific place, permeated the entire system [i.e. universe] under consideration or 'in whom' this system existed and who could 'feel' immediately all events would naturally distinguish at once one of the systems U, U', etc. above the others.[2]

Lorentz's point was that, if it is even possible that God exists, then one cannot rule out a priori an objective and absolute time for the universe. Physicist Arthur Eddington said something similar in 1920:

Just as each limited observer has his own particular separation of space and time, so a being co-extensive with the world might well have a special separation of space and time natural to him. It is the time for this being that is here dignified by the title 'absolute'.[3]

Einstein attempted to rule out all metaphysical speculation in his theory by defining things in a "verificationist" way -- in a way that assumes only what can be scientifically verified exists, or is meaningful (which is a metaphysical view in itself!). As philosopher William Lane Craig put it, "What relativity theory did, in effect, was simply to remove God from the picture and to substitute in His place a finite observer."[4]

By attempting to jettison all metaphysical elements from his theory, however, Einstein merely exchanged one metaphysical assumption for another. Neither view -- that absolute time exists, or that it doesn't -- can be scientifically verified. Both are metaphysical assumptions, and require metaphysical arguments to justify them. Until new experiments can potentially adjudicate between the two views, philosophical debate is the most honest way to reach a tentative conclusion.

Religious neutrality in science is virtually impossible to accomplish. Scientists' assumptions about God, about what ultimately exists and what doesn't, about what is meaningful and what isn't, inevitably find their way into even the most celebrated and scientifically confirmed theories we have. No scientist is exempt from making these assumptions. Nor should any scientist be criticized for having them. The difference is between scientists who honestly admit their assumptions and give a philosophical defense of them that accords with reason, and those who pretend they don't have any such assumptions and operate under the delusion that they are perfectly objective, scientific judges of reality.

Einstein deserves all the praise he has received (and then some) for his brilliance and for his beautifully elegant, highly useful theories. However, gravitational waves or not, his metaphysical view of time is still very much open for debate.

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1. Technically, gravitational waves are a confirmation of general relativity specifically. Much of this article is about special relativity. But since both theories are connected, gravitational waves can be taken as a confirmation of relativity theory as a whole. [Also, I added this note after publication to help clarify].

2. Quoted in William Lane Craig, God, Time, and Eternity (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 2001), p. 169.

3. Quoted in William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), p. 63.

4. Ibid, p. 47.