The Quest for Transcendent Reality

An extract from Lee Smolin, ‘The Life of the Cosmos‘ [Oxford University Press, (c) 1997.]
Lee Smolin is Professor of Physics at the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at the Pennsylvania State University.


Since at least the seventeenth century, the writings of Western philosophers and scientists have rung with the ambition to have complete knowledge about the world…

In the writings of most of these scientists and philosophers, we find also the belief that the world is rational and explicable because both it and our minds were made by a rational God. The ambition to comprehend the world is then the ambition to mentally take the place of God and see the world form the outside, as its creator did. For some, such as Newton, the religious underpinnings to the search for scientific knowledge are explicit, even celebrated. But even in Einstein, who denies belief in such an anthropomorphic God, one sees in so many writings and remarks his yearning to know the secrets of “the old one.” And, indeed, in his autobiographical notes one reads of a lonely adolescent who, after a profound disillusionment with religion, discovered in science a search for transcendence and identification with the absolute more acceptable to a young secular European of the Nineteenth century ‘fin di siècle […]

As a secular child of a much different period, with more Marxism and mysticism in my upbringing than religion, I skipped over the references to God in the writings of Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes, and Einstein. Only later, preparing to teach about them, did I reread these founders and discover how much their search for truth was a search for God.

The references to God in the founders of my science made no sense; they seemed so quaint, so unnecessary… Of course, there is the myth, and perhaps even the reality, of Galileo, who, with his lack of religiosity and his faith in the judgment of the individual mind, speaks to us like a brother over the centuries. But, as much as his battle with the Catholic church is now celebrated, he was alone among the great visionaries who made physics for his lack of interest in the mind of the creator. Almost every one of the founders of physics write as if their search and the search for God were one and the same. How many times, late at night, have I wished it were possible to to confront Newton and the others with the contradiction between their irrational identification with God and the rationality they created.

The ambition to construct a scientific theory that could explain the world, as conceived from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries, shares a great deal with the search to know God. Both of them are a search for the absolute, for an understanding of the world that attributes its beauty and order to an eternal and transcendent reality “behind” the world. In diverse aspects of the production of European culture in these centuries–in the sciences, philosophy, theology, and art–one sees a striving to construct an absolute and objective view of the world that would ground the vicissitudes of our lives in an eternal and unchanging greater reality. Whether the talk is of God, or of an eternal and universal Law of Nature, the idea that dominates is that the rationality responsible for the coherence we see around us is not in the world, but behind it.

(Note: Prof. Smolin is not a Christian and ends his book with a strong assertion of the material universe as ultimate reality.)


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