MODERN PHYSICS AND ANCIENT FAITH
Stephen M. Barr
University of Notre Dame, 2003, 306 pp.
Stephen Barr is professor of physics at the Bartol Research Institute, University of Delaware. While much has been made of the “war between science and religion,” Barr says the war is really between religion and a philosophy, scientific materialism. This book argues that 20th century scientific discoveries are more compatible with the Judeo-Christian understanding of God, the cosmos, and the soul than with atheistic materialism.
The writing is good. He goes way back in quoting Christian philosophers. He makes complex concepts understandable. He is fair to his opponents, taking their arguments seriously and respectfully. He does not set up and knock down straw men. The chapter on whether matter can have understanding I found particularly interesting. The latter parts of the book dealing with quantum theory were more difficult. He stays pretty much with physics and cosmology, staying away from chemistry, biology, and whether life could have originated naturally.
“The conflict is not between religion and science, it is between religion and materialism. Materialism is a philosophical opinion that is closely connected with science. It grew up alongside of science, and a many people have a hart time distinguishing it from science. But it is not science. It is merely a philosophical opinion. And not all scientist share it by any means.” (1)
“What is new is that discoveries made in the last century in various fields have changed our picture of the world in fundamental ways.” “Paradoxically, these discoveries, coming from the study of the material world itself, have given fresh reasons to disbelieve that matter is the only ultimate reality.” (2)
“None of this is a matter of proofs. …but credibility.” “Centuries of anti-religious myth stand in the way of a fair discussion of the real issues….” (2,3)
“The materialist will not allow himself to contemplate the possibility that anything whatever might exist that is not completely describable by physics. That is simply a forbidden thought.” “What is most puzzling to the religious person about this materialist dogmatism is its lack of foundation.” Ultimately all the arguments for materialism are completely circular. (15-16)
In the third chapter, Barr gives a summary of five topics covered by the rest of the book. The first has to do with the origins of space and time and what the discovery of the “Big Bang” contributes to this discussion. The second has to do with whether the universe is ruled by a personal God or by impersonal laws and how the deepest mathematical theories bear on this issue. The third has to do with the role and place of man in the universe and what “anthropic coincidences” hint about this question. The fourth has to do with whether the human mind is only a great computer and what Kurt Godel’s theorem contributes to this question. The fifth is whether man has free will and what quantum theory indicates about determinism.
“Jews and Christians have always believed that the world, and time itself, had a beginning, whereas materialists and atheists have tended to imagine that the world has always existed. The very first words of the Bible, indeed, refer to a Beginning.” “It is not that the Big Bang in itself proves the Jewish and Christian doctrine of Creation. Nevertheless, it was unquestionably a vindication of the religious view of the universe and a blow to the materialist view. It was as clear and as dramatic a beginning as one could have hoped to find.” (22)
“In the standard materialist story of science, the world was found to be governed not by a personal God but by impersonal laws.” “As we have uncovered deeper and deeper levels of law, “physicists began to look not only at the physical effects and phenomena themselves, but increasingly at the form of the mathematical laws that underlie them. They began to notice that those laws exhibit a great deal of highly interesting mathematical structure, and that they are, in fact, extraordinarily beautiful and elegant from a mathematical point of view. As time went on, the search for new theories became guided not only by the detailed fitting of experimental facts, but also by these notions of mathematical beauty and elegance.” “As physicists have gotten closer to finding the ‘unified theory’ they have uncovered a great richness and profundity of mathematical structure in the laws of nature.” (23) “When it is the laws of nature themselves that become the object of curiosity, laws that are seen to form an edifice of great harmony and beauty, the question of a cosmic designer seems no longer irrelevant but inescapable.” (24)
“Certain features of the laws of physics seem—just coincidently—to be exactly what is needed for the existence of life to be possible in our universe. The universe and its laws seem in some respects to be balanced on a knife-edge. …the number of such ‘coincidences’ found has grown.” (25)
“In the twentieth century a powerful argument has been developed against the idea that the human mind is a computer, and this argument has come not from philosophy but from the science of computation itself. Specifically, the argument is based on a brilliant and revolutionary theorem proved in 1931 by the Austrian logician Kurt Godel.” “If human beings were computers, then we could in principle learn our own programs and thus be able to outwit ourselves; and this is not possible, at least not as we mean it here.” (26)
“If the human mind is indeed a machine, and no more than that, it is clear that there can be no free will as that is normally understood.” “The laws of physics are ‘deterministic’ and “…all of human history, including every human thought and deed, could have been calculated (in principle) in advance….” “Quantum theory was the greatest and most profound revolution in the history of physics. The whole structure of theoretical physics was radically transformed. And in that revolution physical determinism was swept away.” “No longer could one simply argue from the deterministic character of physics that free will was an impossibility.” “Quantum theory, in its traditional, or ‘standard,’ or ‘orthodox’ formulation, treats ‘observers’ as being on a different plane from the physical systems they observe.” (27)
“G. K. Chesterton once compared his own intellectual development to the voyage of an English yachtsman ‘who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.’” “Those who manage to pass through intellectual adolescence all follow a journey that is somewhat like that. They are taught some simple truths as children, only to discover as teenagers or young adults that those truths were far too simple and that they themselves were embarrassingly simple to have accepted them. They strike off on their own, leaving the comfortable mental world of their childhood to find a wider and stranger world of ideas. They may experience this world as disturbing or as liberating, but in any event it is more exciting. If they are fortunate, however, they may come to rediscover for themselves the truths they were taught as children. They may return home, as T. S. Eliot put it, and know it for the first time.” (28)
“A closer look at the scientific revolutions of the twentieth century reveals a very different picture. We find that the human mind is perhaps, after all, not just a machine. We find that the universe did perhaps, after all, have a beginning. We find that there is reason to believe, after all, that the world is the product of design, and that life is perhaps part of that design.” (29)
“I am claiming that on the critical points recent discoveries have begun to confound the materialist’s expectations and confirm those of the believer in God.” (29)
“…Modern fundamental physics is not so much driven by the search for new kinds of matter or new forces, but for the new and more powerful principles of symmetry that are suspected to lie beneath the surface of what is presently understood.” (102)
“If symmetry if found in works of art of every sort, and is an important element in what it is to be beautiful, and if as well the laws of nature are based on symmetries that are so sophisticated and so deep that while we may study them with the tools of modern mathematics they lie far above our mental powers to appreciate on an intuitive level, does that not suggest the mind of an artist at work that is far above the level of our own minds?” (104)
“If the ultimate laws of nature are, as scientists can now begin to discern, of great subtlety and beauty, one must ask where this design comes from.” (106)
Fascinating reflection on William Paley’s “watch argument” for design and Richard Dawkin’s “blind watchmaker” response. Paley finds a watch and concludes it must have been designed. Dawkins argues that it is made by mindless natural laws (“the blind watchmaker”). “What Dawkins does not seem to appreciate is that his Blind Watchmaker is something even more remarkable than Paley’s watches.” Paley finds a watch and wonders how it could be there. “Dawkins finds an immense automated factory that blindly constructs watches, and feels that he has completely answered Paley’s point.” (111)
“The human race is, according to (Jay) Gould, a freak accident of evolutionary history, merely ‘a tiny twig on an ancient tree of life.’” “This idea of the progressive ‘dethronement’ or marginalization of man by scientific discovery is perhaps the central claim of scientific materialists. It likes at the core of their view of reality.” (116)
“…there are quite a few features of the laws of physics that seem to suggest that we were built in from the beginning. Some scientists call these features ‘anthropic coincidences.’” “What is ‘coincidental’ is that certain characteristics of the laws of physics seem to coincide exactly with what is required for the universe to be able to produce life, including intelligent beings like ourselves.” (117)
“…this book is not about rigorous proofs. It is not a question of whose view, the theist’s or the materialist’s, can be rigorously proven from the scientific facts, but rather whose view is rendered more credible by the scientific facts. Materialists have long claimed, with great assurance, that the facts discovered by science render incredible the idea that the universe was designed with us in mind. If nothing else, the anthropic coincidences show this claim to be unjustified.” (144)
“It is a very curious circumstance that materialists, in an effort to avoid what Laplace called the unnecessary hypothesis of God, are frequently driven to hypothesize the existence of an infinity of unobservable entities.” “It seems that to abolish one unobservable God, it takes an infinite number of unobservable substitutes.” (157)
“There is a certain degree to which we must trust our experiences if we are to do any rational thinking at all, including scientific thinking. There are many things we must not regard as illusions. Among these are the external world itself; our conviction that there is an objective truth about that world; our own rationality; our belief that certain kinds of rational arguments are objectively valid; our own existence; and, in a general way, our powers of sense and memory.” “Those who think being ‘scientific’ means being ready at the drop of a hat to debunk anything that seems obvious, or being willing to disregard all that is intuitively known, are walking a foolish and treacherous path. It is a path that leads in the end to pure skepticism, a skepticism not only about religious doctrines but about everything, including science.” (189)