Physics refuses to leave God alone.
Physics refuses to leave God alone. Yury Morozov/

The God Equation is a new and short book by the theoretical physicist and science popularizer Michio Kaku. It's not his best book, but it does raise an interesting question: Why is God in its title?

The goal of the work is to explain to the general public where the search for a unified theory of the universe is now in the year 2021. The dream this theory dreams is the formulation of a simple mathematical equation that brings all of the known forces of the universe together. This is “the holy grail of physics;" it is believed that the all-together-moment can only be found very early in what is called the starting point of all there is. Kaku calls this final mathematical expression "the god equation."

Now, before I explain why giving this equation the name of God is fraught with all sort of problems, most of which are metaphysical in nature, I want point out very quickly the features of this short book that make it weak.

To begin with, it has nothing new to say about the state of physics, which has been dominated by string theory for the past 30 years. The fact is we are still stuck with three key concepts of the nature of reality, two of which are mentioned by Kaku.

There is the theory of general relativity, which has one name attached to it, that of Albert Einstein; and there is quantum mechanics, which has a whole city attached to it, Copenhagen. The former was developed in the first decade of the 20th century; the latter in the second decade. (Kaku is not interested in the third important program in physics, which deals with laws of heat and achieves its mathematical status at the end of the 19th century.)

Another problem is found in the book's opening chapter, which connects physics as interpreted and elaborated by the modern moment (Galileo Galilei and Newton), with ancient concepts about the source of reality. This imposes a linear, historical narrative on this science. There are the pre-Socratics (the first home of the atom), then the Golden Age of Athens, then the medieval schoolmen, then the moderns, the postmoderns, and, finally, the mind-boggling speculations of string theorists. But no such grand history of progress exists. It is instead a misrecognition that can be blamed on a culture that's market-oriented in a very specific way.

Since the Dutch moment of commercial dominance—the source of, indeed, Galilei's world-smashing telescopes—there has been a sustained (or unbroken) advancement of sciences due to market-competitive pressures. The combination of science and the market resulted in what we now call technology and experience as its progress over time.

There is nothing like this beyond the past 400 years of globalization. Kaku, a man of science, has only taken our historically specific moment (our culture) and imposed upon it what he sees as the whole of human history. Though the Victorians were certainly waiting for us (the society of jet planes, computers, GPS, genetic modification, and so on) to arrive, the Greeks were not. Athens did not dream of our world. Nor did it really have our notion of the future.

Positivism is not new to the world, but no other period has felt it more powerfully than ours. Kaku, a major proponent of string theory, is totally blind to this fact. He also has nothing new to report from his field. The book could have easily been written in the last years of the 20th century almost as is.

There are only three new things that separate the report from thirty years ago: the confirmation of the Higgs boson in 2012, the identification of gravitational waves at LIGO in 2016, and mention of Sabine Hossenfelder's groundbreaking book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. The last attacked string theoreticians for their commitment not to reality but to a mathematics that's beautiful, and, with string theorists like Kaku, beauty is synonymous with symmetry.

All of which brings us to this question of God. Why is this book called the The God Equation? And why is even "a theory of everything" called that? What has God got to do with symmetry, the state of perfection according to the minds of too many physicists?

Symmetry is nothing more than a Platonic form. It is believed to exist because the world appears to be a broken place, with bits and pieces seeming to fit together into a whole "once-and-for-all." But such perfection is only possible in the imagination, because symmetry can only be nothing. Reality is always in shambles.

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Here is Kaku on the Standard Model, a mathematical description of reality that was developed in the years following World War II, and that presently describes the nature of known matter-related particles (Fermions—or, the stuff) and force-related particles (Bosons—or, what keeps stuff together):

...the Standard Model was created by splicing together by hand the theories that described the various
forces, so the resulting theory was a patchwork. (One physicist compared it to taping a platypus, an aardvark, and a whale together and declaring it to be nature’s most elegant creature. The resulting animal, it was said, was one
only a mother could love.)

In my view of things, God looks much more like "the platypus, an aardvark, and a whale" monster than the something that looks exactly the same no matter how one looks at it. And the fact that one (the monster) can be compared with the other (perfection) makes it clear that both are metaphysical propositions.

Physics can't stop talking about God because it wants the right to name God. This is certainly why Einstein, who began the whole God craze in physics, attacked the weirdness of quantum mechanics with this famous line: "God does not play dice." Then we had Wolfgang Pauli's, “Ich glaube aber nicht, daß der Herrgott ein schwacher Linkshänder ist” (I cannot believe that God is a weak left-hander). And then came the "god particle," the popular name of Higgs boson before proof of its existence.

And now Kaku calls the final theory of the universe, much of which is unknown, and becoming more (rather than less) unknown, the "god equation." But this god he speaks of is as empty as a pure circle, a triangle, or the number 6. What's the meaning of the universe in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? "After eons doing the calculation," a "gigantic computer" concludes it's “forty-two.”