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5 Shocking Plot Twists in the Story of Science and Faith

November 8, 2016


In his excellent book, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), physics professor Stephen M. Barr recounts the typical story of the the universe as told by scientific materialists. It’s one of the best summaries of the naturalist worldview I’ve read, from any perspective:

“The world revealed by science bears little resemblance to the world as it was portrayed by religion. Judaism and Christianity taught that the world was created by God, and that things therefore have a purpose and meaning, aside from the purposes and meanings we choose to give them. Moreover, human beings were supposed to be central to that cosmic purpose. These comforting beliefs can no longer be maintained in the face of scientific discoveries.
The universe more and more appears to be a vast, cold, blind, and purposeless machine. For a while it appeared that some things might escape the iron grip of science and its laws—perhaps Life or Mind. But the processes of life are now known to be just chemical reactions, involving the same elements and the same basic physical laws that govern the behavior of all matter. The mind itself is, according to the overwhelming consensus of cognitive scientists, completely explicable in the performance of the biochemical computer called the brain. There is nothing in principle that a mind does which an artificial machine could not do just as well or even better. Already, one of the greatest creative chess geniuses of all time has been thrashed by a mass of silicon circuitry.
There is no evidence of a spiritual realm, or that God or souls are real. In fact, even if there did exist anything of a spiritual nature, it could have no influence on the visible world, because the material world is a closed-system of physical cause and effect. Nothing external to it could affect its operations without violating the precise mathematical relationships imposed by the laws of physics. The physical world is ‘causally closed,’ that is, closed off to any non-physical influence.
All, therefore, is matter: atoms in ceaseless, aimless motion. In the words of Democritus, everything consists in ‘atoms and the void.’ Because the ultimate reality is matter, there cannot be any cosmic purpose or meaning, for atoms have no purposes or goals.
Once upon a time, scientists believed that even inanimate objects did have purposes or goals: ‘ends’ which they sought or toward which they tended. For example, heavy objects were said to fall because they sought their proper place at the center of the earth. That was the idea of Aristotelian physics. It was precisely when these ideas were overthrown four hundred years ago that the Scientific Revolution took off. With Galileo and Newton, science definitively rejected ‘teleology’ in favor of ‘mechanism.’ That is, science no longer explains phenomena in terms of natural purposes, but in terms of impersonal and undirected mechanisms. And, of course, is there are no purposes anywhere in nature, then there can be no purpose for the existence of the human race. The human race can no longer be thought of as ‘central’ to a purpose that does not exist.
Science has dethroned man. Far from being the center of things, he is now seen to be a very peripheral figure indeed. Every great scientific revolution has further trivialized him and pushed him to the margins. Copernicus removed the Earth from the center of the solar system. Modern astronomy has shown that the solar system itself is on the edge to a quite ordinary galaxy, which contains a hundred billion other stars. That galaxy is, in turn, one of billions and perhaps even an infinite number of galaxies. Earth is an insignificant speck in the vastness of space: its mass compared to all the matter in the observable universe is less than that of a raindrop compared to all the water in all the oceans of the world. All of recorded human history is a fleeting moment in the eons of cosmic time. Even on this cozy planet, which we think of as ours, we are latecomers. Home sapiens has been around at most a few hundred thousand years, compared to the 4 billion years of life’s history. The human species is just one branch on an an ancient evolutionary tree, and not so very different from some of the other branches–genetically we overlap more than 98 percent with chimpanzees. We are the product not of purpose, but of chance mutations. Bertrand Russell perfectly summed up man’s place in the cosmos when he called him ‘a curious accident in a backwater.'” (19-21)

I think atheists and theists can nod their heads in agreement: that’s a clear, coherent, accurate depiction of the naturalist worldview. Its main plotline may be called the “marginalization of man.” In the religious view man is the center of all things, but the scientific story has since corrected that delusion.

However, there’s a problem with this story. Actually, two big problems, according to Barr: its beginning and its end. It’s not really true that religious man saw himself at the center of the world. The idea that the Earth sat at the center of the universe stemmed from Greek astronomy and philosophy, not religion;mdash;and certainly not Judaeo-Christian religion. The ancient Jewish picture of the world was vertical, not concentric, with the human race located between the heavens above and the “abyss” below. Humans were lower than angels and higher than plants and animals, but in no sense we were at the center. In fact, the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures depict God casting out man, sending him into exile. (Also, even in the Greek picture the central place was not the most exalted. The further things were from the “center”, the more beautiful and sublime they were.)

Yet even if the beginning is a bit off, the bigger problem with the story above is its ending. As Barr notes, “If science had ended in the nineteenth century, the story would have some claim to accuracy…Instead, in the twentieth century [scientists] made discoveries even more profound and revolutionary than those of Copernicus and Newton. And, as a result, the story has become much more interesting” (22).

As with many of the best stories, this one has a plot twist at the end. And not just one plot twist, but at least five. Barr spends most of his book examining each of these plot twists in detail, so for the details I suggest picking up a copy. But here’s a short summary of them:

Twist #1 – The Big Bang and the Beginning of the Universe

Jews and Christians have always believed that the world, and time itself, had a beginning, whereas materialists and atheists have tended to imagine the world has always existed. Modern skeptics have generally followed suit. In their minds, the idea of a beginning of time is associated with religious conceptions, not with scientific theory, and those scientists who believe in a beginning do so for religious reasons, not scientific reasons. Indeed, by the nineteenth century almost all the scientific evidence seemed to point to an eternal universe.

But that all changed with the discovery of the Big Bang, which came as a profound shock to the scientific community. According to Barr, “the Big Bang was as clear and as dramatic a beginning as one could have hoped to find” (22). When you combine that discovery with research built on top of the model, you have an overwhelming amount of support for a universe that began in the finite past.

In fact, the esteemed, non-religious cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin concluded at a conference in Cambridge celebrating the 70th birthday of Stephen Hawking:

“All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning…It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.”

Now to be clear, the discovery of the Big Bang didn’t itself prove the Jewish and Christian doctrine of Creation. Nevertheless, as Barr explains, “it was unquestionably a vindication of the religious view of the universe and a blow to the materialist view” (22).

Twist #2 – The Questions Behind the Questions 

In the materialist story above, the world is governed not by a personal God but by impersonal laws. Science looks to physical “mechanisms”, processes, and laws to explain events in the world. But as we’ve deepened our understanding of these empirical laws, we’ve found that they flow from deeper laws and principles, such as the fundamental laws of atomic physics. And those laws flow from the laws of quantum electrodynamics. And so on, and so forth. Physicists began to look not only at physical effects themselves, but for the mathematical laws that underlie them and for a single, harmonious system that could unite them all.

Barr notes the consequence of these trends:

“It is no longer just particular substances, or objects, or phenomena that physicists asks questions about, it is the universe itself considered as a whole, and the laws of physics considered as a whole. The questions are no longer only, ‘Why does this metal act this way?’ or ‘Why does this gas act this way?’ but ‘Why is the universe like this?’, ‘Why are the laws of physics like this?’….
“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)

In past centuries, atheists and materialists took certain facts for granted such as the existence of a single universe or the three dimensions of space. Indeed, few people, if any, in the nineteenth century would have wondered why there are three spatial dimensions.

But today, those beliefs are not taken for granted. Physicists speak of many universes and many dimensions of space. Yet if we can’t even take for granted the very number of universes, it becomes harder to avoid asking, “Why is there any universe at all?” A new openness to these deeper-level questions about reality has also opened many people to the possibility of God.

Twist #3 – The Startling Coincidences That Permit Us to Live

In the materialist story of the world, science has definitively shown that we were not meant to be here. We were a fluke, our existence the result of “a fortuitous concourse of atoms.” Science dethroned man in the cosmos.

Except now, science is telling a different story. Beginning in the 1970s, people started talking about “anthropic coincidences”, certain features of the laws of physics which seem—just coincidentally—to be exactly what is needed for the existence of life to be possible in our universe. As Barr writes, “The universe and its laws seem in some respects to be balanced on a knife-edge. A little deviation in one direction or the other in the way the world and its laws are put together, and we would not be here. As people have looked harder, the number of such ‘coincidences’ has grown” (25).

This is exactly what we might expect if human beings were meant to be here, and if the universe was created with us in mind. It doesn’t mean the materialist view of the world is certainly false. In fact, skeptics have proposed other ways to explain this apparent fine-tuning for life (though Barr refutes the most popular attempts in his book.)

In any event, what is clear is that the materialists may have prematurely ended their story with the dethroning of man. It looks very much now like the story may turn out the other way.

Twist #4 – The Mind as More Than Machine

If only matter exists, as the materialist thinks, then the human mind must be a machine. The invention and popularization of the computer made this idea even more plausible. Many people, scientists and laymen alike, believe it is only a matter of time before computers become intelligent in ways that rival, or even supplant our own intelligence.

However, the past couple centuries have seen a bevy of arguments against the regnant view that the mind is no more than a physical machine—a “wet computer” or “machine made of meat” as some have called it. Barr covers some philosophical examples in his book, but the most impressive counterargument comes not from philosophy but from the science of computation itself. It’s based on a brilliant and revolutionary theorem proved in 1931 by the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel, and then built on by the philosopher John Lucas and the mathematician Roger Penrose. Barr explains:

“The gist of the argument is that if one knew the program a computer uses, then one could in a certain precise sense outwit that program. If, therefore, 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.”

Perhaps the only way to refute the Lucas-Penrose argument against the “machine mind”, which leans on Gödel’s Theorem, is to say that the human intellect reasons in a way that is inherently inconsistent. This would imply not just that human beings sometimes make logical mistakes (which is obvious), but that the human mind is radically and inherently unsound in its reasoning faculties. Yet that’s a huge problem. Why? Because then to maintain the belief that your mind is only a machine, you would have to argue against your own mental soundness. You would literally identify as insane. Not many physicists are willing to go that far.

In any case, the discovery of Gödel’s Theorem offers another blow to the materialist story of the world. It seems that the mind cannot be reduced to mere biochemical reactions.

Twist #5 – Quantum Mechanics and the Defeat of Determinism

Most materialists deny that free will exists, and for centuries this seemed well-grounded in the findings of physics. The laws of physics appeared to be “deterministic,” in the sense that what happens at a later time is solely determined through the laws of physics by what happened at earlier times. This was of course a troubling point for Judaism and Christianity, both of which held free will as a central tenant.

However, a truly astonishing reversal came in the 1920s with the discover of quantum theory. Barr describes it as “the greatest and most profound revolution in the history of physics” (27). It transformed the whole structure of theoretical physics, and in the process swept away physical determinism.

In prior centuries, the core of physical science was prediction. That’s how theories were tested and proved. But with quantum theory, the present state of a physical system would not, even in principle, be enough to predict everything about its future behavior. No longer could you simply argue from the deterministic character of physics that free will was impossible.

Of course, this doesn’t prove that we have free will. Instead, as Barr notes, “quantum theory simply showed that the most powerful argument against free will was obsolete. In the words of the great mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl, ‘the old classical determinism…need not oppress us any longer'” (27).

Opening the door to free will was just one of the effects of quantum theory. In its traditional or “standard” interpretation, it also posits the existence of observers who lie, at least in part, outside of the description provided by physics. That’s a controversial claim, and has been challenged by radical reinterpretations of quantum theory (such as the “many-worlds interpretation”) or by changing quantum theory in some way.

But as Barr writes, “The argument against materialism based on quantum theory is a strong one, and has certainly not been refuted. The line of argument is rather subtle. It is also not well-known, even among practicing physicists. But, if it is correct, it would be the most important philosophical implication to come from any scientific discovery” (28).

The above represents just a sampling of the major discoveries in the great history of science and faith. Barr spends nearly 300 pages examining them in more depth. If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend you pick up Modern Physics and Ancient Faith for the rest of the story.