Long ago, I believed in God (I am now an atheist) when I heard the following question at a seminar, the first one Einstein asked, and it struck me by its grace and depth: ‘If there was a God who created the entire universe and ALL laws physics, does God follow God’s own laws? Or could God have powers beyond His own laws, such as traveling faster than the speed of light and thus being able to be in two different places at the same time?’ Can the answer help us prove whether or not God exists or is this where scientific empiricism and religious belief intersect, without providing a correct answer? David Frost, 67, Los Angeles.
I’m in lockdown when I received this interesting question. No wonder this is the right time – tragic events, such as a pandemic, often make us question the existence of God: if God exists, why do disasters like this happen? So the idea that God might be “bound” by the laws of physics – which also govern chemistry and biology and thus limit medical science – is interesting to explore.
If God can’t break the laws of physics, he’s arguably not going to be as powerful as you’d expect from an almighty entity. But if he could, why haven’t we seen evidence of the laws of physics ever being violated in the universe?
This article is part of a series of articles _Life’s Big Questions
The new series The Conversation is co-published with BBC Future and seeks to answer the questions that plague our readers about life, love, death and the universe. We work with professional researchers who have dedicated their lives to uncovering new perspectives on the questions that shape our lives.
To answer this question, let’s break it down a bit. First, can God travel faster than light? Let’s take the question at face value. Light travels at a speed of about 3 x 105 kilometers per second, or 186,000 miles per second. We learned in school that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light – not even planes USS Enterprise in Star Trek it can’t even if the speed is set to maximum.
But is it true? Several years ago, a group of physicists suggested that a particle called tachyon walking at the speed of light. Fortunately, their existence as real particles is considered highly unlikely. If they did exist, they would have an imaginary mass and their structure of space and time would be distorted – which violates the laws of causality (and may confuse God).
It seems that, so far, no object has been observed that can travel faster than the speed of light. This in itself says nothing about God. This only reinforces the knowledge that light does indeed travel very fast.
Things get a little more interesting when you consider how far the light has traveled in the first place. Assuming cosmology Big Bang traditional and speed of light 3 x 105 km/s, then we can calculate that the light has traveled about 1023 km in the 13.8 billion years of the universe’s existence. Or rather, the existence of the observable universe.
The universe is expanding at a rate of about 70km/s per Mpc (1 Mpc = 1 Megaparsec ~ 3 x 1019 km), so current estimates suggest that the distance to the edge of the universe is 46 billion light years. Over time, the volume of space increases, and light has to travel longer to reach us.
There’s more to the universe than we can see, but the most distant object we’ve ever seen is the galaxy, GN-z11, observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. The distance is about 1023 km or 13.4 billion light years, meaning that it takes 13.4 billion years for light from the galaxy to reach us. But when the light “appeared,” it was only about 3 billion light years from our galaxy, the Milky Way.
We cannot observe or see the entire universe that has been expanding since the Big Bang because not enough time has passed for light to reach us. Some argue that therefore we cannot be certain whether the laws of physics can be broken in another cosmic region – maybe it’s just a coincidental local law. And that brings us to something even bigger than the universe.
Many cosmologists believe that the universe may be part of a larger cosmos, multiverse, in which many different universes coexist but do not interact. Multiverse idea powered by inflation theory – the idea that the universe was expanding very rapidly before 10-32 second. Inflation is an important theory because it can explain why the universe has the shape and structure we see around us.
But if inflation can happen once, why not many times? We know from experiment that quantum fluctuations can give rise to pairs of particles that appear suddenly, only to disappear moments later. And if such fluctuations can produce particles, why not entire atoms or the universe? This happens because there is an assumption thatduring periods of chaotic inflation, not everything happened to the same degree – quantum fluctuations in expansion could have resulted in a bubble bursting into the universe in its own right.
But how does God exist in the multiverse? One of the unanswered questions for cosmologists is the fact that our universe appears to be well created to support life. Fundamental particles created in Big Bang have the right properties to allow the formation of hydrogen and deuterium – the substance that produces the first star.
The laws of physics that govern the nuclear reactions in these stars then produce the building blocks of life – carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. So why do all the laws and parameters of physics in the universe have a value that allows stars, planets, and ultimately life to develop?
Some thought it was just a coincidence. Others say we shouldn’t be surprised at the eco-friendly laws of physics – they made us out after all, so what else are we going to see? However, some people who believe in God argue that it shows the existence of God which creates the necessary conditions.
But God is not a validly explainable thing. In contrast, the multiverse theory solves the mystery because it allows different universes to have different laws of physics. So it’s no surprise that we happen to see ourselves in one of the few universes that can support life. Of course, you can’t deny the idea that God might have created the multiverse.
This is all highly hypothetical, and one of the biggest criticisms of the multiverse theory is that since there appears to be no interaction between our universe and other universes, the idea of a multiverse cannot be directly tested.
Now let’s consider whether God can be in more than one place at the same time. Much of the science and technology we use in space science is based on the counter-intuitive theory of the tiny worlds of atoms and particles known as quantum mechanics.
This theory allows something called quantum windings: scary connected particles. If two particles are entangled, you will automatically manipulate their partner and when you manipulate them, even if they are very far apart and without the two interacting. There are better descriptions than the one I’ve given here – but it’s simple enough that I can follow along.
Imagine a particle that decays into two sub-particles, A and B. The properties of the sub-particles must add up the properties of the original particle – this is the principle of conservation. For example, all particles have a quantum property called “spin” – roughly speaking, they move as if they were tiny compass needles. If the original particle has zero “spin”, one of the two sub-particles must have a positive spin and the other a negative spin, meaning that A and B each have a 50% chance of producing a positive spin or a negative spin. (According to quantum mechanics, particles are defined to be in different states until you actually measure them.)
Properties A and B are not independent of each other – they are entangled – even if they are located in separate laboratories on different planets. So, if you measure spin A and it turns out to be positive. Imagine a friend measuring B’s cycle at the same time you’re measuring A. For the conservation principle to work, he or she must find B’s loop negative.
But – and this is where things get cloudy – like sub-particle A, B has a 50:50 chance of being positive, so its spin state “goes” negative when A’s spin state is measured as positive. In other words, information about the spin state is transferred between the two sub-particles instantly. Such a transfer of quantum information seems to occur faster than the speed of light. Given that Einstein himself described quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance”, I think we can all be forgiven for considering this a rather odd effect.
So there’s something faster than the speed of light: quantum information. This doesn’t prove or disprove God, but it can help us think of God in physical terms – perhaps as a rain of intertwined particles, which transfer quantum information back and forth, and occupy many places at the same time? Even being in multiple universes at the same time?
I have an image of a God keeping galactic-sized plates spinning while watching a planet-sized ball – throwing bits of information from one teetering universe into another, to keep things moving. Fortunately, God can do many things – keep the fabric of space and time operating. All it takes is a little faith.
Is this essay close to answering the question asked? I don’t think so: if you believe in God (like I do), then the idea of a God bound by the laws of physics is nonsense, because God can do anything, even move faster than light. If you don’t believe in God, then the question is equally absurd, because there is no God and nothing can run faster than light. Maybe the question is really for agnostics, who don’t know if God exists.
This is where science and religion differ. Science needs evidence, religious beliefs need faith. Scientists do not try to prove or disprove the existence of God because they know that no experiment can detect God. And if you believe in God, no matter what scientists discover about the universe – any cosmos can be considered consistent with God.
Our view of God, physics or whatever ultimately depends on perspective. But let’s end with a quote from a completely authoritative source. No, it’s not the Bible. Nor is it a cosmology textbook. This is from a novel called Reaper Man by British writer Terry Pratchett:
“Light thought it was moving faster than anything, but it was wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds darkness always there first, and is waiting for it.”