Spiritual Aspects of Neutrinos

I recently read The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis for the first time.  It is a profound, prophetic, and prescient book; it is truly stunning how much wisdom Lewis could place in such a thin volume.  I will attempt to comment only on a small segment of it here.  I think it best to introduce this segment with a passage from another of Lewis’ works: a book in The Chronicles of Narnia.

     “I was a long way above the air, my son,” replied the Old Man. “I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare at one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star had ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.
“Golly,” said Edmund under his breath. “He’s a retired star.”
“Aren’t you a star any longer?” asked Lucy.
“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu…
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Ch. 14)

When I originally read this passage, I found Ramandu’s reply to Eustace stirring but rather cryptic.  In Abolition of Man, Lewis expounds on the concept of a physical object being more than its physical components.

Nature seems to be the spatial and temporal, as distinct from what is less fully so or not so at all. She seems to be the world of quantity, as against the world of quality; of objects as against consciousness; of the bound, as against the wholly or partially autonomous; of that which knows no values as against that which both has and perceives value; of efficient causes (or, in some modern systems, of no causality at all) as against final causes. Now I take it that when we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of “Nature” in the sense that we suspend our judgements of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity. This repression of elements in what would otherwise be our total reaction to it is sometimes very noticeable and even painful: something has to be overcome before we can cut up a dead man or a live animal in a dissecting room. These objects resist the movement of the mind whereby we thrust them into the world of mere Nature. But in other instances too, a similar price is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power, even if we have ceased to count it. We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price keenly… The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed… To many, no doubt, this process is simply the gradual discovery that the real world is different from what we expected, and the old opposition to Galileo or to “body-snatchers” is simply obscurantism. But that is not the whole story. It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.

Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the “natural object” produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? I hardly know what I am asking for. … The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. … Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely.

The Abolition of Man (Ch. 3)

The idea that even inanimate physical objects can have properties beyond those discernible by science is one I had not considered deeply in a long time.  However, I think God is using these passages from Lewis’ writing to reactivate this line of thinking in me.  Phrases like the elegant Universe, the God particle, and the handwriting of God may be echoes of the great minds that Lewis mentioned.

Many poets and artists have pondered what a star is beyond its energy and plasma, so I thought it would be a good exercise to ponder the possible spiritual aspects of the particles I study: neutrinos.  Neither Lewis nor anyone alive when Abolition of Man was published in 1944 knew that neutrinos existed; they were not discovered until 1956.

Neutrinos are electrically neutral and very weakly interacting.  Trillions of them pass through your body and mine every second of our lives, but since the almost never interact with the matter of our bodies or this planet, we never notice them.  It is only the development of intense neutrino sources combined with very sensitive and very large detectors that allows scientists to study them.

Despite their ghostly qualities, they are necessary to several physical processes that are important to life on Earth.  Without neutrinos, the sun could not shine as it does.  With out the sun, the existence of life would be impossible. Nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons could not function as they do.  Most of the energy of exploding stars called supernovae is carried away as neutrinos.  Supernovae create and disperse many elements (such as iron and iodine) that our bodies require to function.  Neutrinos are found throughout the Universe in great quantities.

Three kinds of neutrinos exist, and a neutrino produced as one kind can be detected in a distant location as another kind.  It is like shipping a semi trailer full of Old Milwaukee from Milwaukee to Duluth only to open the door in Duluth and find a trailer full of Amstel light!

That summarizes their physical aspects, so what are their spiritual aspects?  I believe, that like all created objects, the reflect some characteristics of their Creator.  They demonstrate that he is able to create things that are ubiquitous extremely important yet invisible and nearly impossible to detect in any way.  They are a reminder to me that such important particles can be invisible and thus a reminder that there may be many other important things in Creation that I cannot see.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”

 – Hebrews 11:1-3 (NRSV)
[Edited on Oct. 4, 2016 to fix broken links and misspellings]
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3 Responses to Spiritual Aspects of Neutrinos

  1. corwin says:

    You're welcome, Dave.

  2. Paul Rimmer says:

    Luke, this is very interesting. I enjoy thinking about the spiritual dimensions of things, especially those things we like to think of as only physical things.

    Ideally, we should be able to say more about the spiritual side of neutrinos (or the stars, for that matter) than that they reflect the creator. No doubt this is true, but it would be very useful to figure out how to talk about the specific spiritual characters of different things we study, in order to learn from them more than what they are made of and how they physically behave.

    I suppose you hint at this with your discussion of neutrinos being invisible, yet also real. But how do you go beyond this? What more can be said?

    I wonder about this a lot with my own research.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post. I hope there are follow-ups on this topic.

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