Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
by Stephen M. Barr.
University of Notre Dame Press. 312 pp. $30.
Books about the relation between science and religion abound. Some, usually penned by scientistic atheists of one stripe or another, insist that the two fields are mutually antagonistic and thus that readers must choose between a life of reasonable sobriety and one of blindly irrational faith. Other books, more often than not written by religious believers, emphasize continuities between the pursuit of theological and scientific truth. Although many are not without merit, they all too often skirt the difficult questions that confront anyone who wishes to harmonize biblical religion with the findings of what appears to be the thoroughgoing materialism of modern physics.
Stephen Barr, a particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware and a frequent contributor to these pages, has written a book that takes the efforts of the latter camp to a much higher level. Indeed, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith ranks among the most scientifically, theologically, and philosophically rigorous studies of the relation between science and theology to appear in recent years. That it is also written in a clear and highly accessible style makes it even more worthy of widespread notice, discussion, and debate.
Barr begins his book by pointing out that the methods and discoveries of modern physics can and must be separated from the philosophical doctrine of materialism, which so often serves as a dogmatic and, as Barr goes on to show with great power and effectiveness, unsubstantiated faith among physicists. According to Barr, it was never obvious that physics implied or presupposed a materialistic view of the universe, but the existence of such a connection has been rendered downright implausible by a series of developments in twentieth-century physics. In a series of lucid chapters, Barr addresses the question of whether the universe had a beginning, looks at the issue of whether the universe exhibits any evidence of design or purpose, and examines what contemporary physics (and mathematics) has to say about the nature of human beings—specifically on the question of whether our behavior is determined by physical laws and whether we have an immaterial nature. At each point, Barr shows that “recent discoveries have begun to confound the materialist’s expectations and confirm those of the believer in God.”
Understanding Barr’s main contention is key to judging the cogency of his arguments. If the reader approaches Barr’s book in the hopes that it will provide a scientifically defensible proof of the central claims of biblical religion—such as, at a minimum, that God exists—he will be disappointed. As Barr repeats at several points throughout the book, he seeks merely to demonstrate that numerous discoveries in science confirm the expectations of the believer more than they do those of the materialist. For instance, Barr prefaces his discussion of so-called anthropic coincidences—that is, the fact that many of the laws that govern the universe seem to be fine-tuned for life to exist and thrive—by noting that this evidence has not “succeeded in ending the old debate between religion and materialism.” Nonetheless, he also notes that it has “dramatically changed the terms of the debate. It is no longer a question of whether one can find any evidence in nature that we were built in. Such evidence abounds. It is now a question of whether that evidence should be taken at face value, whether it really means what it seems to mean.” Throughout the book, Barr seeks above all to counter one of the main arguments materialists have offered for their position—namely, that science confirms a materialist worldview rather than a religious one.
Many of Barr’s analyses are incisive and exceptionally well-argued. He also displays a sophisticated understanding of Christian theology, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition, often citing such historically important theologians/philosophers as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in support of his arguments. In his chapter on cosmology, for example, Barr is careful to point out that the claim that God created the universe simply means that the universe depends for its existence on God’s free will; as Aquinas pointed out, this could be the case even if the universe always existed. Nonetheless, Barr argues that because big bang cosmology—including recent variants such as inflationary cosmology—hypothesizes a beginning, it fits better with the expectations of traditional theism than with atheism, which has historically posited an eternal universe. Although we cannot be sure that future cosmological discoveries will not overturn this conclusion, Barr claims that “the trend is clear: everything we have ever studied has proven to have a beginning.”
Barr is at his best in confronting the arguments—and, just as often, the rhetoric—of materialism. As he points out, since theists believe that the world was created by a supremely intelligent being, we would expect it to be at least partially intelligible by human reason, which traditional Christian theology has held to be a uniquely human gift of God. Such intelligibility is a puzzle for materialists, however. As Albert Einstein famously remarked, “The most unintelligible thing about the universe is that it is intelligible at all.”
Barr also correctly points out the circularity of some of the most common arguments in favor of materialism. Materialists, for instance, claim that to deny that everything in the natural world can be reduced to physics or mathematics is nothing more than “mystery-mongering” and thus a rejection of rational explanation. As Barr notes, however, this assumes, without rational justification, that all rational explanation must be rendered in terms of equations and quantities, an assumption that theists reject.
Then there is Barr’s powerful argument against materialism as such: “If ideas are just patterns of nerve impulses, then how can one say that any idea (including the idea of materialism itself) is superior to any other? One pattern of nerve impulses cannot be truer or less true than another pattern, any more than a toothache can be truer or less true than another toothache.” In other words, human judgment and evaluation, which are necessary to determine truth and error (including the truth or error of materialism), presuppose a world of moral meaning that transcends the merely material. The very effort to demonstrate the truth of materialism thus refutes materialism.
If the book’s greatest strength lies in its analysis of materialism and its discussion of the findings of modern science, its greatest weakness or limitation can be found in some of its detailed philosophical arguments. Take, for example, Barr’s discussion of the order that seems to prevail in the universe. Barr claims that modern physics has discovered a universe with an extremely high degree of order and “harmony.” Indeed, the trend is for physics to seek ever greater order to explain ever more detailed aspects of natural phenomena. So far, so good. However, Barr then raises the question of whether the very existence of this orderliness can be explained in scientific terms; in particular, he examines whether chance or natural selection can explain it. In the end, he concludes that they cannot, and, in turn, that this failure points to the need for a transcendent ground to explain the order.
Yet surely the argument requires significantly greater development than this. Why couldn’t an atheist, for example, simply contend that the order of nature is a brute fact? One possible answer, which Barr acknowledges in passing, is that the very contingency of the laws of nature cries out for scientific explanation, even though such an explanation would by definition have to transcend the natural, contingent world to appeal to God, understood as a (indeed, the only) necessary being. The problem with this argument, however, is that it simply reduces to the old “cosmological” argument for the existence of God, according to which the universe, unlike God, is contingent and hence in need of an external explanation for its existence. In and of itself, the existence of an orderly universe does not provide an independent argument for God’s existence.
To develop this argument adequately, one would need to focus on the beauty and elegance of the laws of nature, which even a hardened atheist such as Nobel prize–winning physicist Stephen Weinberg both acknowledges and emphasizes in his book Dreams of a Final Theory (1994). Given that God is the greatest possible being—and hence a being with a perfect aesthetic sense—we would expect the universe to exemplify beauty and elegance at the fundamental level, but we would not expect this under atheism. Although Barr gestures toward this sort of argument, he never really develops it.
Another area where Barr’s argument could use some elaboration is in his discussion of the implications of quantum mechanics. Here Barr enters some of the deepest and most treacherous waters in the book. Following a classic line of argument presented by several well-known and respected physicists, Barr argues that as presently formulated, quantum theory implies that the mind of the scientist who studies the material world at the quantum level must be assumed to transcend that world. This view is based on the claim that quantum mechanics only describes a hypothetical reality and hence requires an observer—the scientist—to create the determinate reality of fact that the scientist uncovers when performing an experiment. In some sense, then, at the quantum level of nature the scientist imposes or determines the very orderliness he seeks to discover. But this understanding of the scientist’s activity generates a paradox, for if the mind of the scientist is entirely a physical object in the natural world, then it would be as dependent on the determining activity of an observer as any other natural object. The conditions for an infinite regress of objects and observers thus seems to have been established. In order to resolve this paradox, some physicists have posited that the mind of the physicist must somehow exist (at least partially) outside of the world the scientist seeks to understand.
The problem with this view is that it suffers from its own implausibilities. Since macroscopic objects are composed of the microscopic objects described by quantum mechanics, it seems to follow that quantum indefiniteness should be reflected in macroscopic objects such as refrigerators, cars, and mountains. But surely it is untrue that such objects are dependent on observers for their determinacy in the way that quantum particles are. (Does anyone believe that his refrigerator’s location in space-time depends on him entering the kitchen?) Moreover, even if we disregard this problem, we’re still left with the question of exactly how observers of quantum reality make that reality determinate; from what Barr tells us, we might conclude that they do so by some mysterious power. It is just these sorts of objections that have led most physicists and philosophers to advocate alternative interpretations (each of which, it must be admitted, has its own distinct difficulties).
Still, these relatively minor shortcomings aside, Barr has written an accessible, insightful, and fair overview of how the discoveries of physics and mathematics during the last century could be thought to confirm the expectations of the religious believer—as well as a careful analysis and critique of materialism. For those looking for an overview that will help them to think at a deep level about these issues, I cannot think of anything better than Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.
Robin Collins is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Messiah College. He has done extensive research on the relation between physics and religion and is currently completing a book tentatively titled The Well-Tempered Universe: God, Fine-Tuning, and the Laws of Nature.