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                   Via Negativa and Via Positiva
                      Fra. Donald W. Heller, VII°
                              7 May, 2011

In theology, there are two classical ways to approach the contemplations of God, described as Apophatic Theology (via negativa, or negative way) and Cataphatic Theology (via positiva, or positive way).  In this essay, I propose that modern physics also has two classical ways to approach a description of reality.  The Standard Model of Physics describes the physical world of matter, energy, and forces, and I will call this Cataphatic Physics to distinguish it from theoretical physics, which describes the inaccessible features of reality such as symmetry, quarks, the origin of the Big Bang, and gauge symmetry, where it is the underlying fundamental but unobservable fields which result in the observable physical quantities.  I will call these models Apophatic Physics.  Thus, it seems that theology and physics are complementary paths to light, as well.

Apophatic Theology avoids definite descriptions, such as God is omniscient, omnipotent, pure love, etc., since that is limiting God to our limited human descriptions.  The Wikipedia entry for this subject claims that "in negative theology, it is accepted that the Divine is ineffable, an abstract experience that can only be recognized or remembered—that is, human beings cannot describe in words the essence of the perfect good that is unique to the individual, nor can they define the Divine, in its immense complexity, related to the entire field of reality, and therefore all descriptions if attempted will be ultimately false and conceptualization should be avoided; in effect, it eludes definition by definition." This view is exemplified by Dionysius the Areopagite:  "Whilst celebrated as Unit and Triad, the Deity above all is neither Unit nor Triad, as understood by us or by any other sort of being, but, in order that we may celebrate truly its super-oneness, and Divine generation, by the threefold and single name of God, we name the Deity, Which is inexpressible to things that be, the Superessential.  But no Unit nor Triad, nor number nor unity, nor productiveness, nor any other existing thing, or thing known to any existing thing, brings forth the hiddenness, above every expression and every mind of the Super-Deity Which is above all superessentiality.  Nor has it a Name, or expression, but is elevated above in the inaccessible." In the Enneads Plotinus writes: "Our thought cannot grasp the One as long as any other image remains active in the soul…To this end, you must set free your soul from all outward things and turn wholly within yourself, with no more leaning to what lies outside, and lay your mind bare of ideal forms, as before of the objects of sense, and forget even yourself, and so come within sight of that One." In the Tao Te Ching, the source book of the Chinese Taoist tradition, the very first verse starts, "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.  The name that can be named is not the eternal Name."  And in another modern translation, "Existence is beyond the power of words to define: Terms may be used but are none of them absolute.”  In the Apologeticus, Tertullian says, “That which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions—our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is. He is presented to our minds in His transcendent greatness, as at once known and unknown.” The Wikipedia entry for this in Hinduism claims that the most famous expression of Negative theology in Upanishads is found in the chant, neti neti, meaning "not this, not this", or "neither this, nor that". Thus, God is not real as we are real, nor is He unreal. He is not living in the sense humans live, nor is he dead. He is not compassionate (as we use the term), nor is he uncompassionate. And so on. We can never truly define the Divine in words. In this sense, neti neti is not a denial. Rather, it is an assertion that whatever the Divine may be, universally or personally, when we attempt to conceptualize or describe it, we limit our transcendent experience of "it." The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing writes, "For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens." In The Guide for the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides writes, "God's existence is absolute, that it includes no composition, as will be proved, and that we comprehend only the fact that He exists, not His essence. Consequently it is a false assumption to hold that He has any positive attribute: for He does not possess existence in addition to His essence: it therefore cannot be said that the one may be described as an attribute [of the other]; much less has He [in addition to His existence] a compound essence, consisting of two constituent elements to which the attribute could refer: still less has He accidents, which could be described by an attribute. Hence it is clear that He has no positive attribute whatever." This is the core perspective of many religions, including the mystical and esoteric subsects of Islam (Sufis, Shia, Kalam schools), Hinduism (Vedantic theologians), Buddhism (the Buddha's 14 unanswerable questions), Christianity (Aquinas, Meister Eckhart), Taoism, Judaism (Maimonides, the Tetragrammaton), and Gnosticism (the Apocryphon of John).   

Cataphatic Theology, also known as the Via Positiva, or positive way, is more directly descriptive, such as identification of the Trinity in Christianity and other religions, and in Nature Gods and polytheism.  Statements such as God is omniscient, or good, or perfect, or male, or female, or a specific person, or any other positive characteristic, are examples of this, but considered to be limiting and subjecting God to our limited human perception.  These are anthropomorphisms, such as God speaks or breathes, or looks like something. This is considered by orthodox Christianity to be inferior to the Apophatic approach, but is recommended as a good starting point for contemplation.

Apophatic Physics has come to the same obscuring veil, first in the descriptions of the Big Bang, where nothing can be said about its source; second in the discovery of quark confinement, forever out of reach; and third in the theoretical discovery of the gauge field, and its unknown and unknowable symmetry which gives rise to the existence of light. In his book, Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe, the Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman says, "Hidden fields, or 'hidden variable theories', have always been psychologically disturbing to physicists.  Many scientists over the ages have argued on philosophical grounds against them--nature should be strictly describable in terms of the things that we can directly measure or observe…Now the gauge field joins the wave function as an unobservable phenomenon of nature." In God and the New Physics, Paul Davies writes, "A few physicists, notably Stephen Hawking, have argued that a remarkably simple primeval state of the universe is, in fact, to be expected.  The reason for this concerns the initial singularity [the big bang]…rather like an edge or boundary to spacetime and hence, one supposes, to the physical universe…At a singularity, matter may enter or leave the physical world, and influences may emanate therefrom that are totally beyond the power of physical science to predict, even in principle." In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking claims that "As far as we are concerned, events before the big bang can have no consequences, so they should not form part of a scientific model of the universe.  We should therefore cut them out of the model and say that time had a beginning at the big bang." 

Cataphatic Physics is the physics we all know and love, and is the foundation of the technology we all know and love, such as touch screens, cell phones, MRI, solar power, lasers, and nuclear power.  It describes all the fundamental quanta of matter, energy, and forces in detail which can be observed, and summarizes these descriptions in the Standard Model of Physics.  Coincidentally, the Standard Model describes three forms of fundamental particles, matter, energy, and forces, and also three generations of matter and energy, evocative of the theological model of the Holy Trinity.  Particularly amusing is the discovery of the charge of quarks.  The up, charm, and top (or truth) quarks have a charge of 2/3.  The down, strange, and bottom (beauty) quarks have a charge of -1/3.  A proton consists of two up quarks and one down quark, yielding a total charge of +1.  The electron, of course, has a charge of -1.  Thus, a hydrogen atom, which is made up of one proton and one electron, has a neutral charge.  The most fundamental unit of charge must be exactly one.  If this model is accepted, then the down quark would have a fundamental charge of -1, and the up quark would have a fundamental charge of +2.  Then the electron would have a fundamental charge of -3, evocative of three in one.  Of course, all isolatable particles have charges that are integer multiples of e.  This shows that the particles that are not isolatable are in the realm of Apophatic physics. The epistemological foundation of physics only allows for knowledge which is obtained empirically, that is, via the senses.  Physicists believe the converse is true, that everything in the universe is amenable to our human senses, including data via our instruments. The hubris of physics is that there is no allowance for a feature of the universe that is not physical, that is, discernable via the senses.

In a previous paper, we showed how the Standard Model of Physics described the same phenomena as two of the Beings of the Holy Trinity; the quarks giving rise to all matter, the same as God the Mother, or Holy Spirit, and the leptons giving rise to all energy and forces, including light, the same as God the Father.  With this comparison of Apophatic Theology and Apophatic Physics, we see the possibility that the ineffable characteristic of God is exemplified by the two seemingly different, but fundamentally identical, viewpoints.  Thus, the two paths to light are not just the Via Negativa and the Via Positiva, but also the Via Theologica and the Via Physica.  Truly, a marriage made in Heaven.