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God Particle

On super-additivity and science (sort of)

Megan Preston Meyer
Megan Preston Meyer

In her essay entitled The Physics of Communion, Barbara Brown Taylor makes the connection between Newtonian physics and our zeitgeistigy hyperfocus on the individual as the basic unit of society. We’re like atoms, we think, and when we combine together, we form molecules of families1, communities, countries, and cultures. It’s all very clean, it’s all very precise, it works according to laws, and if a part is broken, “repair it. If it cannot be repaired, then replace it.” That’s society’s prevailing view.

It's a spectacular view, because from where we’re sitting, it looks like we’re in control. We’re in control of not being broken, and we’re in control of fixing other people who are. We’re in control of the system, because “there is nothing wrong with the whole that cannot be fixed by tinkering with the parts.” There is, in fact, “no such thing as the whole,” according to our über-individualistic vantage point.

There’s something appealing about that perspective, which is why it’s so widespread. It is, I fear, also very short-sighted. Just because you can’t see it when you’re six inches from a tree doesn’t mean the forest isn’t there. There is a whole – and it’s always more than the sum of its parts. The problem with an atomic view of society, where each individual wanders around in their own valence, sometimes joining up with others, sometimes not, sometimes positive, sometimes not, forming strong bonds or weak bonds or remaining inert, is that we reject the possibility of super-additivity.

As anyone who has ever interacted with other humans knows, there’s a lot going on in the space between. No matter how you define community, life with other people is so much more than a series of pairwise exchanges, recorded separately and then added up. There are interaction effects, and they quickly combine into complex equations that are anything but linear. And that’s before we add in the things that we can’t measure. As St. Chrysostom reminds us, whenever two or three are gathered together in his name, God is in the midst of them2. If that’s not super-additivity, I don’t know what is.

Barbara Brown Taylor goes on to point out that there is so much more at work in any type of community than can be explained by the summing up of individual interactions. She also observes that institutions and zeitgeists tend to evolve as science evolves, which is incredible news. It means there’s hope yet that we’ll revise our Newtonian atomic individualistic view to incorporate just a little bit more Higgs-Boson.

1 Nuclear, obvs
2 Incidentally, he’s quoting Jesus here, who is talking about conflict resolution among members of the church – also an important element of community.