Getting the Story Right

Stephen M. Barr’s “Retelling the Story of Science” (March) provides an excellent framework for understanding the relationship between science and religious faith, and a much-needed retelling of the twentieth-century “story of science.”

But while many of the recent scientific discoveries that Professor Barr cites are very important for our understanding of ourselves and our relation to God and the world, I would caution against too much reliance on quantum indeterminacy to provide “scientific” space for human freedom. While it is true that recent discoveries in quantum physics have seriously damaged the deterministic view of the universe by showing that many micro-level physical events seem undetermined by their prior state, I do not believe that this indeterminacy alone can provide sufficient grounding for any meaningful element of freedom. Several reservations could be noted: first, quantum events may occur at too “small” a level to have an impact on macro-level human actions; second, the centrality of free choice in causing an action by determining a certain quantum event would rely on the “cooperation” of other random quantum events as the action is carried out; third, it is unclear if quantum events are really undetermined or if we are simply unable to understand them properly.

It seems to me that rather than look to quantum indeterminacy as a potential savior for free will, we should point to the obvious fact that the very doctrine of determinism is unfounded from the start, especially when applied to human beings. The fact that inanimate objects like planets follow predictable paths does not entail that the same applies to living beings; it need not be the case that, as Newton wrote in his unpublished conclusion to the Principia Mathematica , “Whatever reasoning holds for greater motions should hold for lesser ones as well.” We constantly experience ourselves as free to choose one course of action over another; this alone should give us solid ground to reject the claim that our actions are determined. It may be unfashionable to believe that there is a real distinction between living and nonliving beings, but honest scientists should be willing to recognize the invalidity of the inference from the apparent determinacy of macro-level causation in inanimate objects to the rather implausible conclusion that human actions are determined. Such a recognition would indeed involve a significant change in the way that modern science is wont to view the world, but it is clearly a necessary shift. There is, however, no pressing need to rely on quantum indeterminacy to do a job for which it seems ill-suited.

John Louis Schwenkler
Washington, D.C.

Stephen M. Barr’s informative retelling of the story of science presents valid challenges to scientific materialism at many points. But I am surprised that he would base any part of his apologetic for Christian faith on the irrational quantum mechanics of Bohr and Heisenberg. Make no mistake, in Physics and Philosophy Heisenberg clearly states that the “Copenhagen” interpretation of quantum mechanics requires suspension of the law of noncontradiction. In the face of the postmodernist challenge to the rationality of science on the basis of Copenhagen’s patent irrationalism, many scientists are bailing out on this interpretation of quantum reality, and in particular on the idea that the consciousness of the observer-rather than the experimental set-up-affects physical results.

Professor Barr notes that “the scientist has confidence in the intelligibility of the world,” but, in effect, he sides with Bohr against Einstein and Schrödinger in their disagreement with Bohr’s insistence on the unintelligibility of the quantum world. But now the publication of eminent California Institute of Technology Professor Carver Mead’s monograph Collective Electrodynamics may be the coup de grâce for the Copenhagen interpretation. In his epilogue, Mead says: “Following the tradition of Einstein and Schrödinger, the pioneers in this new endeavor, Jaynes, Cramer, Zeh, and others . . . have put us in a position to finally settle the Einstein-Bohr debate-with a resounding victory for Einstein.”

Since Christian faith affirms the rationality of the Creator, I think that Aquinas would have rejected the unintelligibility of Copenhagen’s interpretation of the electron’s quantum jump.

David Haddon
Redding, California

Thank you for publishing “Retelling the Story of Science”; it was long overdue. I note, however, that it repeats the standard evolutionary formulation concerning “random mutations” in the second theme of the materialist’s story of science. If a serious assault is to be launched against the myth of science as a universal worldview, I would like to suggest that it would be worth explicitly pointing out that it has never been shown that mutations are random. If they were, that could be taken as support for the “Blind Watchmaker” view of the universe, but I believe the use of the word “random” at that point is simply an assumption or, alternatively, a sloppy way of saying that nobody (currently) knows how mutations arise.

As far as I know, there is no evidence to support the idea that genetic mutations are random. It is actually quite difficult to prove randomness, and such a claim is also fundamentally unscientific because, if mutations are truly random, then there is nothing that can ever be investigated with regard to them; there is no underlying structure that could be discovered. This would be unique in the history of science and, unless it has actually been demonstrated, I suggest that care should be taken to avoid implicitly accepting this idea in presentations of evolutionary theory, particularly in presentations from a religious perspective.

In fact, there is evidence that genetic mutations are far from random; it comes from experiments on E. Coli bacteria lacking an enzyme needed for eating lactose. When the bacteria were placed in an environment in which lactose was the only potential food source they rapidly mutated to be able to use it, and their mutation was rapid only in the region of the genome relevant to lactose consumption.

As an aside, I cannot believe that G. K. Chesterton really thought that Brighton is in South Wales; he must have known that it is in Sussex, 150 or 200 miles east of there.

Nigel Dolby
Ham Lake, Minnesota

Stephen M. Barr replies:

I thank John Louis Schwenkler, David Haddon, and Nigel Dolby for their letters.I thank John Louis Schwenkler, David Haddon, and Nigel Dolby for their letters.

I agree with much of what Mr. Schwenkler says. Indeed, I made a number of the same points myself. Mr. Schwenkler says that “quantum events,” when better understood, may prove to be determined. In my article I noted that there have been many attempts “to restore determinism to physics.” I did not rule out the possibility that one of these attempts may someday succeed, but only said that “so far” it “seems unlikely.”

Mr. Schwenkler says that “quantum events may occur at too ‘small’ a level to have an impact on macro-level human actions.” In my essay I called attention to this very issue. “[M]any argue,” I said, “that the basic building blocks of the brain, such as neurons, are too large for quantum indeterminacy to play a significant role.” I did not dismiss that argument, but merely observed that we know too little about the brain “at present” to accept or reject it.

Mr. Schwenkler cautions against “too much reliance on quantum indeterminacy” to provide scientific space for free will. I do not rely on it. What I concluded in my article was only that because of quantum theory the old argument against free will on the grounds of physical determinism “can no longer be so simply made.” It is an interesting question how one would reconcile human freedom with the laws of physics were they to prove in the end to be deterministic. One way would be to say the laws of physics are violated when humans make free choices. Another would be to say that God so disposed the initial conditions of the universe that whatever humans freely will actually comes to pass-a form of “occasionalism.” It is because I would not want to rely solely on those possibilities that I think it good news that determinism no longer holds sway in physics as it once did.

Like Mr. Schwenkler, I take free will to be a fact of experience that no theoretical argument could ever make one reasonably doubt.

Mr. Haddon is unhappy with my discussion of quantum theory for other reasons. To him the “irrationalism” of the traditional (or “Copenhagen”) interpretation is “patent.” It is not so to me. It is true, as he says, that some scientists are “bailing out” of it, but most of them are doing so in favor of the “many worlds interpretation,” a view of the universe that I hardly think would have found favor with Aquinas. Others are bailing out in favor of modifications of quantum theory that are deterministic in character.

I want to make clear that I do not insist that the traditional interpretation of quantum theory must be correct; it simply seems to me at present less objectionable and more plausible than the alternatives.

The traditional interpretation of quantum theory does not require one to abandon the laws of logic, only to modify one’s concepts. For example, to say “an electron is both a wave and a particle” would violate the law of noncontradiction only if the statement “a particle is not a wave” were an analytic proposition, which is not the case, as far as I can see. It is not that the law of noncontradiction fails, but that certain pre-quantum concepts used to describe the physical world are inadequate. At a more sublime level, the same thing happens in theology. For example, the Bible says that God is living and yet that He is unchanging. Christians say that God is a trinity, and yet that He is absolutely simple. Here, too, there is nothing illogical, just an inadequacy of ordinary terms.

I am not at all sure that the traditional interpretation of quantum theory implies that our consciousness “affects physical results.” (Much depends on what one understands the “wavefunction” to be.) However, I do think that common sense tells us that our minds affect physical results. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be of much use, practically speaking.

Mr. Haddon refers to my article as an “apologetic for Christian faith.” I meant it to be a defense of fundamental biblical beliefs, both Jewish and Christian, against materialism.

Mr. Dolby makes some valid observations about the notion of randomness. However, I do not regard that notion as theologically dangerous. To say that mutations are “random” no more conflicts with divine providence than to say that poker is a game of chance or that John was in an accident. As to whether genetic mutations actually are random or follow some systematic and predictable pattern, I do not know.

Finally, I am sure Chesterton knew his own island. Perhaps he imagined his explorer landing first at Brighton, and then pressing on to discover South Wales.

I agree with much of what Mr. Schwenkler says. Indeed, I made a number of the same points myself. Mr. Schwenkler says that “quantum events,” when better understood, may prove to be determined. In my article I noted that there have been many attempts “to restore determinism to physics.” I did not rule out the possibility that one of these attempts may someday succeed, but only said that “so far” it “seems unlikely.”

Mr. Schwenkler says that “quantum events may occur at too ‘small’ a level to have an impact on macro-level human actions.” In my essay I called attention to this very issue. “[M]any argue,” I said, “that the basic building blocks of the brain, such as neurons, are too large for quantum indeterminacy to play a significant role.” I did not dismiss that argument, but merely observed that we know too little about the brain “at present” to accept or reject it.

Mr. Schwenkler cautions against “too much reliance on quantum indeterminacy” to provide scientific space for free will. I do not rely on it. What I concluded in my article was only that because of quantum theory the old argument against free will on the grounds of physical determinism “can no longer be so simply made.” It is an interesting question how one would reconcile human freedom with the laws of physics were they to prove in the end to be deterministic. One way would be to say the laws of physics are violated when humans make free choices. Another would be to say that God so disposed the initial conditions of the universe that whatever humans freely will actually comes to pass-a form of “occasionalism.” It is because I would not want to rely solely on those possibilities that I think it good news that determinism no longer holds sway in physics as it once did.

Like Mr. Schwenkler, I take free will to be a fact of experience that no theoretical argument could ever make one reasonably doubt.

Mr. Haddon is unhappy with my discussion of quantum theory for other reasons. To him the “irrationalism” of the traditional (or “Copenhagen”) interpretation is “patent.” It is not so to me. It is true, as he says, that some scientists are “bailing out” of it, but most of them are doing so in favor of the “many worlds interpretation,” a view of the universe that I hardly think would have found favor with Aquinas. Others are bailing out in favor of modifications of quantum theory that are deterministic in character.

I want to make clear that I do not insist that the traditional interpretation of quantum theory must be correct; it simply seems to me at present less objectionable and more plausible than the alternatives.

The traditional interpretation of quantum theory does not require one to abandon the laws of logic, only to modify one’s concepts. For example, to say “an electron is both a wave and a particle” would violate the law of noncontradiction only if the statement “a particle is not a wave” were an analytic proposition, which is not the case, as far as I can see. It is not that the law of noncontradiction fails, but that certain pre-quantum concepts used to describe the physical world are inadequate. At a more sublime level, the same thing happens in theology. For example, the Bible says that God is living and yet that He is unchanging. Christians say that God is a trinity, and yet that He is absolutely simple. Here, too, there is nothing illogical, just an inadequacy of ordinary terms.

I am not at all sure that the traditional interpretation of quantum theory implies that our consciousness “affects physical results.” (Much depends on what one understands the “wavefunction” to be.) However, I do think that common sense tells us that our minds affect physical results. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be of much use, practically speaking.

Mr. Haddon refers to my article as an “apologetic for Christian faith.” I meant it to be a defense of fundamental biblical beliefs, both Jewish and Christian, against materialism.

Mr. Dolby makes some valid observations about the notion of randomness. However, I do not regard that notion as theologically dangerous. To say that mutations are “random” no more conflicts with divine providence than to say that poker is a game of chance or that John was in an accident. As to whether genetic mutations actually are random or follow some systematic and predictable pattern, I do not know.

Finally, I am sure Chesterton knew his own island. Perhaps he imagined his explorer landing first at Brighton, and then pressing on to discover South Wales.

Conflation or Distinction?

In “The Tribunal of Mercy” (March), Daniel P. Moloney tries to conflate justice and mercy. Then, after further trying to conflate retributive justice and vengeance, he discards retributive justice, which is the primary traditional justification for just war and capital punishment. Following the Pope, he presents the advent of modern technology as a kind of “excusa ex machina” that is said to militate against the morality of just war and capital punishment, and he overemphasizes the “defense of the innocent” at the expense of the “punishment of evildoers” as the moral justification for just war and capital punishment. In sum, Mr. Moloney continues the process, begun in the last century, of narrowing and undermining this vital part of once-settled Catholic tradition.

While Mr. Moloney’s arguments do make the Catholic tradition more palatable to the lukewarm, what kind of damage will these distortions of the Catholic tradition do to the Church?

Dan Tolleson
Houston, Texas


Daniel P. Moloney replies:

I thank Mr. Tolleson for giving me an opportunity to correct some interpretations of my article that, however understandable, are in fact misinterpretations.

Let me be clear: I don’t intend to replace justice with mercy, but to point out that mercy and justice cannot be opposed to each other without justice being merciless and mercy being unjust. This is a point that is central to the traditional Christian understanding of the justice and mercy of God, in whom perfect justice and mercy coexist without contradiction. I was inspired to look at political questions this way by reflecting on Pastoral Rule by Pope Gregory the Great and on Cur Deus Homo by St. Anselm of Canterbury, as well as on the encyclical Dives in Misericordia by John Paul II. I think that these are impeccable sources, so a vision of justice that depends on them is hardly at risk of abandoning the faith given to us by the apostles.

I don’t think Catholic doctrine was ever as “settled” on questions of just war and capital punishment as Mr. Tolleson alleges. I do think that it is a settled doctrine that it is possible for a war to be just and for executions to be moral. But there are many “new things,” in the sense of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum , that make the application of the medieval just war tradition to today’s wars something other than straightforward. The modern bureaucratic nation-state is not the same as the medieval Christian king anointed by God to wield the secular sword. New forms of warfare and new weapons (of mass destruction and otherwise) require fresh thinking about whether and how their use can be just. On this I think I am with the thought of the Church since the Second Vatican Council.

I do reject the idea of retribution, not because I assimilate it to vengeance, but because I cannot think of a philosophically coherent account of it that is an improvement upon “bringing about the best outcome in the future.” Where there is such a difference, that is, where in the name of retribution an action leaves the world worse off than it could otherwise be, then retribution would seem to be unjust. I think the 1998 execution of the miraculously converted Karla Faye Tucker is an example of an injustice done in the name of retribution, and it sickened me. I’m glad that God the Father does not seek retribution from me for my sins but instead acts to bring about the salvation of as many souls as He can. I think that in turn we should be merciful to those who sin against us, without our mercy leading us to neglect our responsibilities to others.

Critics of traditional Catholic teaching on war and capital punishment frequently claim that it doesn’t take seriously enough the radical demands of the Sermon on the Mount. It was my hope in the article to respond to these critics without endorsing the pacifistic positions they propose instead. Thomas Aquinas embeds his treatment of just war in a discussion of peace and order; I think it is better to see it as issuing from a particular understanding of mercy. Both are aspects of charity (indeed, the account of “responsibility” I endorse owes much to Aquinas’ notion of ordered charity). There is a difference between these approaches, but it is hardly an overturning of the tradition.

The German Church

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s article on the current situation in Germany is quite incisive (“Letter from Germany,” March). However, there is one thing with which-based on my experience of living there many years”I would disagree.

I don’t believe one can attribute the rebellions in Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the Vietnam War protests in the United States. It was more a rebellion of the university students over the postwar climate in Germany, a climate that had lasted much too long. Certainly, the activities of the murderous Baader-Meinhof gang could not be attributed to any sort of American influence.

When we began to participate in the religious life of Germany in 1971, my wife and I were startled at the poor Mass attendance in our parish in Hamburg, and the almost total decimation of the Evangelical Church. The Catholic Church had become an organ for social betterment of the people; the Evangelical Church was no better, perhaps even worse.

The preaching of the Christian Gospel was heard only rarely. In some dioceses, less than that. More recently, the German hierarchy led by Karl Cardinal Lehmann was almost in a state of rebellion with Rome over the hierarchy’s financial and moral support for organizations that participated in the decision to perform abortions.

The reason that church attendance, Catholic and Protestant, is so abysmal in Germany is that Christ is not preached. A re-Christianization of Germany, and for that matter all of Western Europe, is an absolute must if Europe is ever to regain faith in itself as a determining, confident voice in the history of humankind.

Edward Lewis
Richardson, Texas

Above Politics

Richard John Neuhaus has provided a succinct assessment of the failings of Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky (“Dostoevsky and the Fiery Word,” Public Square, March). One small quibble: I cannot help thinking that it is best to let the great novels speak for themselves, and few are greater, or more capable of giving us eloquent lessons about the nature of their genesis, than The Brothers Karamazov . Dostoevsky’s attachment to the young generation and his love for European liberals (as opposed to the “disdain” that Father Neuhaus imagines) are beautifully illustrated in the character of Kolya, that charming, insecure, impulsive boy. The author’s fulminations against European liberalism, his fervent Slavophilism, should not be dissociated from the dialectic of his spiritual evolution. The great Dostoevsky who enthralls us in one of the masterpieces of the world seems to have risen above political oppositions. The sneering, grimacing irony of his earlier works had gradually gone away.

Trevor Merrill
Somerville, Massachusetts


A Misreading Misread

In my National Post (Toronto) column of November 26, 2002, titled “What Next? Militant Christianity?” I summarized an argument made by Philip Jenkins. To ensure accuracy, I showed a prepublication draft of the article to Professor Jenkins, who gave me his nihil obstat .

It therefore came as a bit of a surprise to read Richard John Neuhaus stating that I “misread” Jenkins (While We’re At It, February).

Father Neuhaus then goes on to disagree with some of the ideas I forwarded, but he really disagrees with Philip Jenkins, their author, not with me, who is merely their transmitter.

Daniel Pipes
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

RJN replies:

Since I usually agree with Mr. Pipes and Mr. Jenkins, I am sorry to learn that, on the item in question, I apparently disagree with both.

Articles by Various

Loading...