MODERN PHYSICS AND ANCIENT FAITH
By Stephen M. Barr
One of the most difficult things in writing about the intersection between faith and science is to be both accessible to the non-scientific reader and sufficiently rigorous for the scientific reader. In my opinion, Stephen Barr has managed to achieve that balance in this well-written book. That does not mean, however, that this book is light bedtime reading. On the other hand, those looking for a scientific textbook will probably not find it here, because he covers many subjects, such as the Big Bang, unified field theory, Godels theorem and quantum mechanics that have been the subject of entire books in their own right. For example, I was motivated to go to the local library and check out a book on quantum mechanics to be able to better understand his argument. A very brief, simplified summary of some of the basics of quantum mechanics drawn from this book is therefore included as an appendix to this review.
Barrs book is essentially a critique of scientific materialism: the idea that matter is all that exists and that everything in the world must therefore be the result of strict mathematical laws of physics and blind chance. Carl Sagan put it this way: The cosmos is all that exists, all that has ever existed and all that ever will exist. Barrs basic thesis is that the discoveries of modern physics in the past 100 years have created some serious problems for materialism. He writes:
I should emphasize that this book is not about proofs. The materialists story had a moral, but it did not constitute a proof of materialism. There was no experiment that proved that only matter existed, nor was there any calculation that proved that the universe had no purpose. Nor did the materialist really ever claim that there was. What he claimed was that there were two pictures of the world, the religious and the materialist, and the progress of science has revealed a world that looks more and more like the materialist picture. It was a question, in other words, not of proofs but of expectations. Science, it was claimed, had fulfilled the materialists expectations and confounded the religious believers. In this book, I am making the same kind of claim, but in reverse. I am claiming that, on the critical points, recent discoveries have begun to confound the materialists expectations and confirm those of the believer in God.
Barr acknowledges that classical physics (i.e. Newtonian physics) seemed to support the materialists beliefs that matter is all that exists, and that everything can be explained by the formula of matter plus the laws of nature plus time plus chance. In other words, classical physics succeeded in solving many of the mysteries of the universe by finding natural causes for them and explaining them in terms of cause and effect. In Francis Schaeffers words, they purported to explain everything by the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. This explanation rendered the question of purpose irrelevant by explaining everything in terms of cause and effect.
Barrs book is a study of five plot twists in the materialists story which have confounded his expectations. The five plot twists are:
But 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 As science has discovered more and more about how the various causes for various effects are interrelated by elegant mathematical equations, this question of design becomes more and more relevant.
Barr points out that it is very difficult to account for the ability of the human mind to think abstractly, to understand what philosophers call universal truth, to know some truths with certainty, and to know of some truths that are true of necessity. He explains how Godels Theorem and the Lucas-Penrose argument that is based on it refute the idea that the human brain is really just a computer.
In a nutshell, one consequence of Godels Theorem is that if one knew the program a computer uses, then one could in a certain sense outwit that program. Therefore, 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. Some have attempted to refute this by saying that the human intellect reasons in a way that is inconsistent. Barr concludes:
That anyone to maintain a certain belief in this case that he himself is a machine would be willing to argue against his own mental soundness is startling. It seems to go beyond fideism and border on fanaticism.
I have to admit that I fell off the back of the truck trying to understand Godels Theorem and its implications. Furthermore, with the incredible advances made in information technology in the past 50 years, it seems foolish to try to specify the limits of how sophisticated computers can be. It is true, of course, that the human brain is gazillions of times more complicated than todays most sophisticated computers, but todays computers are gazillions of times more sophisticated than the computers of 50 years ago. The materialist can ask, Who can say that tomorrows computers will not catch up to the human brain?
However that might be, it seems to me that there is another argument that one can make. A relevant question would be: How did todays computers come to be? The answer, of course, is that they are the result of tremendous amounts of creative intelligence residing in human brains, and this will be true of tomorrows computers as well. If one poses the same question abut the human brain, the materialist answer is that it came from matter plus the laws of physics plus time plus chance. This seems like the old tornado in a junkyard story about a tornado passing through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747. It is theoretically possible, but highly unlikely. The same seems to be true of the matter plus physics plus time plus chance producing the human brain.
That complete knowledge of the present state of a physical system would not, even in principle, be enough to predict everything about its future behavior which is what quantum theory showed was a result that took the world of physics totally by surprise. The implications for the debate on free will were immediately and universally recognized .Of course this has not ended the debate. Quantum theory did not prove that there is free will. It 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.
As stated at the beginning of this review, it is extremely difficult to write about these things in a way that is both understandable and rigorous. This brief summary is undoubtedly a gross over-simplification of some of the major developments of the last century in science, in the hopes that it will be accessible to the non-scientific reader. It is primarily hoped, however, that it will motivate scientific and non-scientific readers alike to read Dr. Barrs book for themselves.
John Ed Robertson
August 5, 2003
Barr, Stephen M.; Modern Physics and Ancient Faith; University of Notre Dame Press; 2003; ISBN 0-268-03471-0