On Pluto, Atoms, and Other Things (such as Heaven) that Just Keep Getting More Complex

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto last week. And wow! What a bonanza!

Before this flyby, all we had were very fuzzy images of Pluto only a few pixels wide. Because Pluto is so far away, so small, and so faint, that’s the best we could do. We had very little idea what it looked like. We didn’t even know exactly how big it was. Most scientists figured that Pluto would be a gray, heavily cratered planet, battered by several billion years of impacts by asteroids and comets.

When the first close-up pictures came back, what we found instead was a young, reddish, geologically active surface with mountain ranges and plains, and hardly any craters at all.

Pluto in true color - NASA New Horizons global mosaic

Pluto in true color

This has sent scientists back to the drawing board. They had assumed that such a cold, small, and distant planetary body would be nothing but an inert, geologically inactive rock. But what we discovered when we finally got close enough to take a good look was far different, and far more complex, than anything anyone had expected.

This seems to be a pattern in science. We think we’ve got a handle on things. We think we have a pretty good idea how things work and how they will turn out.

And then we look closer and dig deeper, and find that the reality is far beyond our wildest speculations. We discover that this universe is far more complex and interesting than we had ever imagined.

The evolution of the atom

Back in the fifth century BC, the Greek philosophers Leucippus (5th century BC, dates unknown) and his student Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 BC) proposed the idea that everything in the universe was made of tiny, indivisible particles called “atoms.” In fact, the Greek word for “atom” means “indivisible.”

In their theory, the universe is composed of an infinite number of different kinds of atoms, moving around in an infinite space, or void. Everything we see is the result of different kinds of atoms moving around, interacting with one another, clumping together, and splitting apart.

The influential Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) rejected the atomic theory, saying instead that everything was composed of four elements, earth, water, air, and fire, which fill all space, and interact to produce all the phenomena we see. Aristotle’s theory prevailed, and held sway in Western society for almost two thousand years.

However, in seventeenth century Europe, as the Age of Enlightenment got underway, atomic theory had a major resurgence. Even Aristotle’s word “element” was redefined to mean atoms of a particular kind of material, such as hydrogen or helium.

Diagram of an atom

Diagram of an atom

But as science progressed, a funny thing happened to those ancient, indivisible atoms. We began to realize that atoms are not indivisible, but are composed of subatomic particles, such as protons, electrons, and neutrons. As the twentieth century wore on, we realized that even these subatomic particles were made of still smaller particles.

And then things got really weird, as particles started acting like waves, and waves like particles.

Long story short: it turned out that those simple, “indivisible” atoms were in fact incredibly complex affairs in which oodles of subatomic particles, energies, and waves danced around in staggeringly intricate patterns that we still don’t fully understand.

The universe keeps getting more and more complex

That’s just another example of how, when we take a closer look, our simple conceptions of the universe turn out to be totally inadequate to explain what we actually find.

We once thought that as things got smaller and smaller, they would get simpler and simpler. Instead, they just kept getting more and more complex. We keep building bigger and bigger particle accelerators to look deeper and deeper into the nature of subatomic matter and energy. And every time we do, we find that things are even more complicated than we thought.

Mountains on the surface of Pluto - NASA New Horizons photo

Mountains on the surface of Pluto

We also once thought that as we looked out into the universe, it would resolve into simple, repeating patterns of relatively uniform stars with relatively uniform planets orbiting them. Instead, so far no two stars or planets seem to be the same. Yes, there are certain patterns. But even in our own solar system, no two planets or moons have turned out to be very much alike. Each one has its own unique character.

What strange new worlds will we find out there orbiting all those trillions and trillions of other stars in the universe?

It’s the same story in all of the sciences. Physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology, biology . . . You name it, the more we study it, the more complex and fascinating it becomes. Every time we think we have some branch of science all figured out, someone makes a new discovery that sends us back to the drawing board.

The new discoveries don’t necessarily invalidate everything we’ve learned before. But they often make us realize that there are whole levels and realms of these sciences that we had not even been aware of before. Again and again, we’ve had to expand and extend our theories to account for what we find when we look more and more closely at the wonders of nature.

And as we make new discoveries, some of our long-held theories, such as Aristotle’s system of four elements, or the idea that the earth was created in six days approximately six thousand years ago, must go by the boards.

An expanding spiritual universe

So what’s with all this science talk on a spiritual website?

Well . . . as it turns out, our conception of the spiritual universe has been going through a similar evolution from simple to complex.

In Old Testament times, our picture of the afterlife was very simple.

Basically, there wasn’t one.

The general belief of the ancient Israelites was that you were born, you lived out your life, you died, and you were buried. And that was it. If you lived a good life, God would bless you with health, wealth, and many children who would carry on your legacy. If you lived an evil life, God would curse you with ill health, pain, loss, and death not only for you, but for your children as well.

By the time the New Testament rolled around, the idea of an afterlife had taken root in much of ancient Middle Eastern society, including the Jewish culture in which Jesus and his disciples lived and moved. Now, although God might bless you in this life if you lived a good life, or curse you if you didn’t, the true blessings and curses would occur in the afterlife, when those who believed in God and lived a good life would experience eternal happiness in heaven, while those who rejected God and lived an evil life would be punished eternally in hell.

This led to a simple, black-and-white picture of the afterlife that held sway in Christianity for many centuries—and is still believed by many today.

  • The faithful will spend eternity in joyous and rapturous communion with God and their fellow saints in a realm of ineffable light and glory.
  • The faithless will spend eternity in the fiery pit of hell, tortured by the absence of God—not to mention by a whole crew of devils with pitchforks.

There have been other afterlife schemes as well in the Christian world. But most of them run along similarly black-and-white lines.

An afterlife to match the new complexity of human knowledge

Enter Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772).

In their groundbreaking book Heaven: A History (1995: Yale University Press) Drs. Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang state that Emanuel Swedenborg had a pivotal role in bringing about a changed view of heaven in Western society.

Previously, Christians had generally believed in a heaven of pre-created angels who spent eternity in endless contemplation and praises of God, and fallen angels, led by Satan, who endlessly warred against God for human souls. This simple picture of the spiritual realms worked very well throughout most of Christian history.

But when the Enlightenment came along, and new ideas about the universe and our place in it began piling in on us one after another, that old, black-and-white view of the spiritual world began to look increasingly simplistic and implausible.

Swedenborg’s most popular book, Heaven and Hell, originally published in Latin in 1758, offered a brand new and much more complex view of the spiritual world. His view of the afterlife was more appropriate to this new era of exponentially expanding human knowledge

Instead of the simple, black-and-white realm of relatively uniform angels and devils playing their assigned roles of good and evil, Swedenborg pictured heaven and hell as vast, complex landscapes reflecting all of the amazing variety and diversity of human life that we see in the many regions and nations of earth—not to mention the inhabitants of many other habitable planets throughout the inconceivably large universe we live in.

Instead of the simple, black-and-white realm of relatively uniform angels and devils playing their assigned roles of good and evil, Swedenborg pictured heaven and hell as vast, complex landscapes reflecting all of the amazing variety and diversity of human life that we see in the many regions and nations of earth—not to mention the inhabitants of many other habitable planets throughout the inconceivably large universe we live in.

Yes, angels in heaven do enjoy a more immediate and profound presence of God. But heaven consists of communities of thoughtful, intelligent, loving, and skilled people who love to serve one another and give one another happiness in as many different ways as there are different people.

And yes, devils in hell do hate God and fight against God. But they, too, have incredibly varied lives in which they pursue their own evil schemes, and sometimes even succeed before inevitably reaping the pain and punishment that is built right into their selfish and materialistic desires and actions.

In other words, the realms of heaven and hell are every bit as complex and varied as human society and culture here on earth. In fact, they are far more complex and varied than anything we have experienced in this material realm.

Our eternal homes in heaven

Under the old conception of heaven, ordinary people often thought that heaven would quickly get very boring. Who could stand all that constant harp-playing and God-praising?

But in Swedenborg’s conception of heaven, we are the very same people, with the very same character, likes, dislikes, quirks, ideas, beliefs, skills, relationships, and so on that we have developed here on earth.

Far from ever becoming boring, in heaven we are able to endlessly pursue the ideas and activities we love. We can continually learn more and more both about ourselves and about the spiritual universe around us. We can continually grow closer to the people we love. And if we long for and enjoy a warm and close marriage, we can grow continually closer to our spiritual partner in heaven as well.

In short, if we choose love over hate, and selflessness over selfishness here on earth, our life in heaven will be every bit as complex and varied as our life here on earth.

And we will never run out of new things to discover.

Pluto and Charon - NASA New Horizons photo

Pluto and Charon

The New Horizons mission to Pluto has revealed an entirely new an unexpected world. Even its brief flyby of Pluto at over 30,000 miles per hour has provided us with a level of detail on that formerly mysterious body that is amazing scientists and non-scientists alike. And we’ll continue to get more and more amazing pictures and data for another sixteen months to come.

Pluto is only one small world in one tiny section of space. And it is revealing so many surprises that scientists will be studying and puzzling over these new revelations for decades to come.

If God has built that much complexity into even the smallest planet-like bodies here in the material universe, how many more amazing things has God built into the vast spiritual realms for us to discover?

The spiritual world that Swedenborg, and now many near-death experiencers, have opened up for us is a vast and exciting realm. It is an entire expansive universe of its own—one in which we can live forever and never run out of new discoveries to make, new concepts to explore, new levels of love and relationship to experience.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Science Philosophy and History, The Afterlife
6 comments on “On Pluto, Atoms, and Other Things (such as Heaven) that Just Keep Getting More Complex
  1. Tony says:

    Hi lee

    I wanted to ask this, what do you think of entropy? and how it relates to real life and religion and science.

    PS by the way I don’t know if you have heard of entropy so forgive me if what I am saying doesn’t make any sense or if I don’t know what it is I am asking

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tony,

      Entropy is a property of the material universe. The idea is that over time things move toward a state of greater disorganization. There’s a lot that could be said about entropy. But basically, it supports the teaching in Swedenborg’s theology that material things, by themselves, are dead; only God and spirit give them life, from within. Beyond that, is there something more specific that you’re wondering about?

  2. Tori says:

    These are two questions I’ve had for a very, very long time:

    1. This question might be a bit ridiculous, but where does the Bible fit into scientific theories that are likely to be true (If not confirmed because I’m not up to date with theories) and certain points of history? I’m sure you know about the whole “humans evolved from primates” or whatever theory, but you don’t see any gorillas running around in the bible. There’s also no mention of things like cavemen and such. Where does the bible fit into all of that?

    2. I’ve heard a lot about priests deciding whether or not to preach certain concepts, like predestination (pretty much the idea that God decides where you’ll go from birth, whether you’re destined for heaven or hell and what you do doesn’t matter). Eventually, they stopped preaching that, but priests aren’t God, right? They can’t just change rules and that’s that, can they? I’m also fairly certain you’ve mentioned how some priests are trying to adapt and interpret the bible to fit into the modern day, but how does that work? Can a priest literally say that rape is okay and it automatically is?

    It’s really hard to explain and find the right words of what I’m asking, sorry…

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tori,

      Good questions.

      1. The Bible isn’t and never was meant to be a textbook of science and history. Although there are some things that are sort of like science and history in the Bible, neither God nor the original human authors of the Bible were thinking about science and history when they wrote the various books of the Bible. Rather, they were thinking about conveying moral and spiritual teachings to human beings about their relationship with God and the right way to live according to God’s commandments. The whole idea that the Bible exists to teach us scientific truth never even came up until a couple hundred years ago when science started saying something different than many of the things written in the Bible. But telling us how the physical universe was created was never the purpose of the Bible anyway. Here are some articles that go into this in more detail:

      2. Priests and ministers do spend much of their lives studying and learning about religion, because that’s part of their job. So they commonly do know a lot more about these things than laypeople do. It’s the same as a scientists knowing more about science than non-scientists simply because that’s what scientists do for a living.

      However, unfortunately, priests and ministers are often dead wrong about their own subject of study (God, religion, spirit, and salvation) because they have been taught various doctrines that human beings made up over the centuries, which have replaced what the Bible actually teaches. On that subject, see these articles:

      So no, a priest or minister can’t say rape is okay, and it automatically is. Priests and ministers don’t make things true. They are supposed to follow and teach the truth, which comes from God, not from human beings.

      Unfortunately, most of the churches and religions these days have gotten pretty far off track about what God’s truth actually is. So a priest or minister doesn’t necessarily know the truth any better than laypeople do. In fact, many laypeople understand God and religion better than their priests and ministers because their minds haven’t been muddled by years of theological training in a lot of human-invented dogma that is pure bunk, and that only confuses and misleads the minds of the priests and ministers who study it.

      • Tori says:

        I see. But language wasn’t invented back then, was it? How could the Bible be created if language wasn’t invented? How could the people communicate?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Tori,

          Well, of course language had to be invented before even oral history could start. Some of the earliest stories in the Bible were probably passed down the generations as oral storytelling before there was written language, and then were written down when written language was developed. But obviously, you can’t have a written revelation if you haven’t yet invented writing.

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