Four billion years ago, a neutrino left a violent event in a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy. The earth was still very young and most likely lifeless. The moon was huge in the sky. The neutrino flew in a straight line through all of this space, and, like all neutrinos, it was ghostly. It was barely there. It was almost nothing. In fact, one wonders why neutrinos are something at all; why not be there rather than being barely not there. But they are particles. They do exist. And they are abundant. We detect them all of the time. Billions upon billions of neutrinos are passing right through me as I write this post. They pass through me because I'm mostly empty. These ghostly neutrinos—so ghostly they make a ghost of me—came from the violent chaos in the sun. They were released by the fusion of protons. They flew towards earth right away. The light in the sun, however, is much slower getting here. Photons take about a 100,000 years to escape the confusion in the sun and reach its liberating surface. The light falling on Seattle today was around when modern humans were ready for the world, but still in Africa.
It is amazing to think that humans—an animal, an ape, composed of cells that evolved from cells with cores and organelles, eukaryotes (the third and largest and youngest member of the microscopic kingdom, the other two being bacteria and archaea, single-celled organisms that appeared not long after the earth formed)—detected in the South Pole this neutrino from another and distant galaxy with a supermassive black hole. After all of this time, it happened to bump into something. Something was there. In its way. After 4 billion years. And the mind-boggling collision was detected by sensors at the IceCube observatory. And these scientists then told astronomers which direction this ghost came from, and the astronomers turned their light-gathering instruments in that direction and found in the sky a "black hole [that] generates a brilliant jet of radiation, and that jet is aimed directly at Earth." (Washington Post) This kind of galaxy is called a “blazar.”
WaPo's science reporter Sarah Kaplan writes:
Combined with gravitational wave detection and traditional light astronomy, the observation of a neutrino from a known source gives researchers three ways to observe the cosmos, and they say we're now in the era of “multi-messenger astrophysics.” (Since gravitational waves are often described as the way we “hear” the universe and light is how we “see” it, some scientists wondered whether neutrinos would be how we “smell” it.)
And now, let's think about god. I do not believe in god, but for those who do, I want to offer a more grounded way of conceptualizing this kind of being. (These thoughts will not be complete; it is, after all, a blog post.) But that ghostly neutrino from the distant galaxy with the supermassive black hole flew across what's almost totally godless space. The entity it hit was, we can bet, godless. God cannot be just the universe, just happening stuff: protons fusing, the speed of light, two dead stars colliding, gravitational waves, jets of particles "belched" from a black hole. None of this matters. It is what it is.
"Reality is, most of what we call 'matter' is just empty space," writes Sarah Kaplan. "If a hydrogen atom were the size of Earth, the proton at its center would fit inside the Ohio State football stadium. The electron orbiting it would be even smaller, and a neutrino could be compared to a lone ant." There is no god here or there, in that "most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space" (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality). There is no Whiteheadian secular god. Or a Spinoza god—god as nature, as everything, the all.
What should only be called happenings or processes is what these influential philosophers, Spinoza and Whitehead, called god. And it is here we can understand Martin Luther King Jr.'s objection to process theology. As stated in his controversial but still impressively dry PhD dissertation, A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, the American icon did not want a god of happenings, of hydrogen atoms crashing into hydrogen atoms, or neutrinos ghosting things and the vastness of empty space. He wanted to talk to god, and for god to have a personality. But where in the world (the universe) can such a god exist?
For reasons that are unknown, and maybe unknowable, some dissipative system, a lifeless process (a happening) whose inputs were low entropy and outputs high entropy—this process made the transition to life. For Terence Deacon, a biological anthropologist, and former resident of West Seattle, this was a transition from "morphodynamics" to "teledynamics." The former process forms to dissipate a gradient. Once the gradient (high to low) is gone (low to low), it, too, is gone. This is a whirlpool, and this process of dissipation only has one function: to not be a whirlpool. What is nature? It "abhors a gradient" (Eric D. Schneider and James J. Kay, 1989).
The former, the teledynamic system, has as its meaning a persistence that has it in mind to persist. Yes, the process, which is a self and aware of itself, does not break the laws of physics, but it's far from equilibrium. It objects the arrow of time—the second law of energy. In this thermodynamic unfolding, this action that accelerates the increase of entropy in a zone of intense disequilibrium, a door appears and opens: and there is the only place that this god of yours could ever be. Not the sun in the sky. But here on earth, in what unfolds in the gradient of the sun's radiating energy and the planet's cool body. God can only be a total freak of nature. The science of biology did everything it could to kill teleology. It wanted godless happenings that followed the values set for this kind of universe. But biology finally gave up. Life and evolution makes no sense without end-directedness. And as long as that is around, teleology, even the mirage of god will not up and leave.
By consuming massive amounts of high-grade energy, a state that's against the natural state of almost all of the universe, forms and thinks, and sometimes it thinks about god. This state is like a whirlpool attending a church service. A tornado that's looking at a menu. A hurricane that wants to go on a date. This is not Spinoza's god, but it is his conatus—the will to live. It may also be where God can only exist, in end-directed processes. God loves a gradient.