There are many essential equations that describe the physical reality of the universe. Einstein’s E = mc2 is probably one of the most famous, and also the simplest. In the 1920s, physicist Erwin Schrödinger developed an equation that is of prime importance in quantum physics and chemistry. I first learned about (and worked with) this equation in an advanced physical chemistry course in college. The equation is critical in understanding the behavior of electrons, molecules and the wave functions of physics. Here it is:
It isn’t a simple equation at all – all of the terms have complicated meanings – but here I will only discuss one part of it.
Recently I saw an amusing post on Twitter by an atheist that was also in the form of an equation. It was this:
This was a somewhat clever attempt by the poster to say something about God. The square root of -1 (and indeed of all negative numbers) is called an imaginary number. So the atheist poster was trying to make the point that God is imaginary.
The reason such numbers are called imaginary is because the square root of a negative number doesn’t make sense. Such a thing violates basic rules of mathematics (actually the laws of arithmetic, see Sheila’s comment below) which say that the squares of all numbers, both positive and negative, are positive. Therefore, a negative number cannot have a square root.
But, unknowingly, the poster of this little doodle has made a profound theological point in direct contrast to the one he thought he was making. As it turns out, the square root of -1, while imaginary, is of critical importance in math and science. It is used often enough to have been given its own symbol: i. Now take another look at the Schrödinger equation above. Do you see the very first term? Yes, it’s an i.
So if God = i, then God is a crucial component in the basic laws of nature.
While this might seem a silly exercise in chastisement of an atheist with just enough scientific knowledge to get himself in trouble, there is also an important point here. And that has to do with what we mean by imaginary. God does exist in our imagination, and perhaps we cannot ever actually get a picture of the reality of God. Much like imaginary numbers. But this says nothing about the existence of God as a real and ultimate force in nature. The unintended metaphor of God being like the square root of -1 is actually quite powerful. Being imaginary does not equate to being false or nonexistent. Neither in modern science nor in theology (nor in many other areas). We already know that the basic principles of modern physics, from relativity to quantum mechanics, describe a world of reality that seems irrational to us. And here, again, we can use a metaphor from mathematics. There are also irrational numbers, the best known being pi, whose values can never be precisely known but only approximated.
So, if imaginary and irrational are critical adjectives needed to give an accurate scientific description of natural reality, how can the labeling of anything as imaginary or irrational (such as God) be an indication of non-existence? On the contrary, it would be quite strange if the creator and sustainer of all that exists were some analog of a 19th century clockwork maker or engineer.
I would like to express my thanks to the atheist who came up with this brilliant meme, and I can only pray that he (and others) will see, as I do, the miraculous hand of God in his unintended profession of faith.
(I am hoping that one of my most faithful readers, Sheila Deeth, a mathematician, will see this post and comment, especially if revisions are called for).