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, Godel’s 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.


Barr’s 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.”  Barr’s 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 materialist’s 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 materialist’s expectations and confounded the religious believer’s.  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 materialist’s expectations and confirm those of the believer in God.”


Barr acknowledges that classical physics (i.e. Newtonian physics) seemed to support the materialist’s 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 Schaeffer’s 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.




Barr’s book is a study of five “plot twists” in the materialist’s story which have “confounded his expectations”.  The five plot twists are:


  1. The Big Bang:  Materialists long believed that the universe has always existed, whereas Jews and Christians have always believed that the world and time itself had a beginning.  Whereas the Big Bang does not “prove” the Jewish and Christian belief of creation, “it was unquestionably a vindication of the religious view of the universe and a blow to the materialist’s view”.


  1. Unified Field Theory: The “plot line” of Stephen Hawking’s popular book A Brief History of Time is the story of the search for a unified field theory, or a “theory of everything”.  For the past 100 years, science has been discovering how many of the separate forces of nature are interrelated, leading to the hope that a unified field theory could be found that shows how they are all interrelated.  Whereas this unified field theory has not yet been found, enough has been discovered to suggest the possibility of such a theory.  This has increased the credibility of purpose and design in how things came to be.  In Barr’s words:


“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.”


  1. Anthropic coincidences: Certain features of the laws of physics seem – just coincidentally – 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.  “And so, if nothing else, the discovery of these anthropic coincidences completely vitiates the materialist’s claim that science has taught us otherwise.”  In all fairness, materialists have come up with the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) which explains many, but not all, of the anthropic coincidences.


  1. Godel’s Theorem:  This is probably the most difficult for the non-scientist, or more exactly the non-mathematician to understand.  Barr devotes several chapters to examining the idea that the human brain is really just a “wet computer”, a “machine made out of meat”.  If matter is all that exists, then the human mind must be a machine.  The invention of the computer has made this idea appear more plausible to a great many people.


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 Godel’s 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 Godel’s 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 Godel’s 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 today’s most sophisticated computers, but today’s computers are gazillions of times more sophisticated than the computers of 50 years ago.  The materialist can ask, “Who can say that tomorrow’s 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 today’s 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 tomorrow’s 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.


  1. Quantum Mechanics: Classical (Newtonian) physics was extremely deterministic.  The laws of physics were believed to be deterministic in the sense that what happens at a later time is uniquely determined through the laws of physics by what happened at an earlier time – thus precluding free will.  Quantum theory has proven to be the greatest and most profound revolution in the history of physics.  Barr writes:


“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. Barr’s 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