If God broke the laws of physics, would scientists even notice?

I still believed in God (I am now an atheist) when I heard the following question at a seminar, first posed by Einstein, and was stunned by its elegance and depth: ‘If there is a God who created the entire universe and ALL of its laws of physics, does God follow God’s own laws? Or can God supersede his own laws, such as traveling faster than the speed of light and thus being able to be in two different places at the same time?’ Could the answer help us prove whether or not God exists or is this where scientific empiricism and religious faith intersect, with NO true answer? David Frost, 67, Los Angeles.

I was in lockdown when I received this question and was instantly intrigued. It’s no wonder about the timing – tragic events, such as pandemics, often cause us to question the existence of God: if there is a merciful God, why is a catastrophe like this happening? So the idea that God might be “bound” by the laws of physics – which also govern chemistry and biology and thus the limits of medical science – was an interesting one to explore.

If God wasn’t able to break the laws of physics, she arguably wouldn’t be as powerful as you’d expect a supreme being to be. But if she could, why haven’t we seen any evidence of the laws of physics ever being broken in the universe?

To tackle the question, let’s break it down a bit. First, can God travel faster than light? Let’s just take the question at face value. Light travels at an approximate speed of 3 x 105 kilometers every second, or 186,000 miles per second. We learn at school that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light – not even the USS Enterprise in Star Trek when its dilithium crystals are set to max.

But is it true? A few years ago, a group of physicists posited that particles called tachyons traveled above light speed. Fortunately, their existence as real particles is deemed highly unlikely. If they did exist, they would have an imaginary mass and the fabric of space and time would become distorted – leading to violations of causality (and possibly a headache for God).

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It seems, so far, that no object has been observed that can travel faster than the speed of light. This in itself does not say anything at all about God. It merely reinforces the knowledge that light travels very fast indeed.

Things get a bit more interesting when you consider how far light has traveled since the beginning. Assuming a traditional big bang cosmology and a light speed of 3 x 105 km/s, then we can calculate that light has traveled roughly 1024 km in the 13.8 billion years of the universe’s existence. Or rather, the observable universe’s existence.

The universe is expanding at a rate of approximately 70km/s per Mpc (1 Mpc = 1 Megaparsec ~ 30 million km), so current estimates suggest that the distance to the edge of the universe is 46 billion light years. As time goes on, the volume of space increases, and light has to travel for longer to reach us.

There is a lot more universe out there than we can view, but the most distant object that we have seen is a galaxy, GN-z11, observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. This is approximately 1023 km or 13.4 billion light years away, meaning that it has taken 13.4 billion years for light from the galaxy to reach us. But when the light “set off”, the galaxy was only about 3 billion light years away from our galaxy, the Milky Way.

We cannot observe or see across the entirety of the universe that has grown since the big bang because insufficient time has passed for light from the first fractions of a second to reach us. Some argue that we therefore cannot be sure whether the laws of physics could be broken in other cosmic regions – perhaps they are just local, accidental laws. And that leads us on to something even bigger than the universe.

The multiverse

Many cosmologists believe that the universe may be part of a more extended cosmos, a multiverse, where many different universes co-exist but don’t interact. The idea of the multiverse is backed by the theory of inflation – the idea that the universe expanded hugely before it was 10-32 seconds old. Inflation is an important theory because it can explain why the universe has the shape and structure that we see around us.

But if inflation could happen once, why not many times? We know from experiments that quantum fluctuations can give rise to pairs of particles suddenly coming into existence, only to disappear moments later. And if such fluctuations can produce particles, why not entire atoms or universes? It’s been suggested that, during the period of chaotic inflation, not everything was happening at the same rate – quantum fluctuations in the expansion could have produced bubbles that blew up to become universes in their own right.