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Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
Stephen M. Barr, University of Notre Dame Press, 312 pages, $30
Stephen Barr does heroic service with his book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith as a revolutionary insurgent within the intellectual hegemony of modern scientific materialism. A physicist himself, Barr argues forcefully that, even taken on its own terms, the seemingly inevitable march of natural science toward a completely satisfactory account of reality in terms of simple mass-energy in motion has received major setbacks in the scientific advances of the 20th century. He also makes an impressive contribution to the debate over design in nature. Barr’s strong and well-written arguments are nonetheless an incomplete account of the many problems with scientific materialism, but they open up the debate for more fundamental critiques that must necessarily come from outside the paradigm.
Barr begins by making the critical distinction between the actual empirical knowledge gained by modern science and the philosophical system that grew up alongside—indeed, sometimes inside—it. Empirical science and scientific materialism are consciously or unconsciously intertwined by most modern thinkers, and so the distinction is crucial.
Scientific materialism has a “plot,” Barr argues, a story of the development of scientific knowledge that makes religious belief increasingly implausible as the evidences of science pile up. Indeed, he claims that by the end of the 19th century, mainstream science postulated and seemed to have proven a steady-state, boundless universe governed by relatively simple laws, with the Earth a meaningless mote in a random corner, and with all physical phenomena—including human nature itself—subject to the iron grip of strictly deterministic causality.
But a funny thing happened on the way through the 20th century: At least five major problems arose within mainstream science that spoiled the materialist plotline. The greater part of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith is an exposition of these twists: the universe seems to have had a beginning, after all (the rise of the Big Bang theory); the profound increase in the evidence for design in nature (the astounding beauty and unexpected symmetries of modern mathematical physics); perhaps the Earth and humans are special, after all (cosmic fine-tuning and anthropic “coincidences”); the human mind may not be reducible to computational matter, after all (the Gödel-Lucas-Penrose argument against mental reductionism); and human (and divine) freedom has a real physical basis, after all (quantum indeterminacy breaks classical determinism).
Barr’s argument isn’t that these scientific advances somehow prove that traditional theistic religions are true, but rather that major impediments to theism’s fundamental claims about the cosmos and the nature of reality have been removed—and in some cases those claims even strengthened—by developments in 20th-century science. Thus, theistic faith is once again rationally defensible and indeed removes the intellectual straitjacket of materialism that unfairly rules out many rationally plausible explanations of natural phenomena.
Some of Barr’s five “plot twists” are fairly standard in the literature, and at least one—regarding the supposed importance of quantum indeterminacy for a restoration of the belief in human and divine freedom—is both fairly standard and fairly misguided. His brief comments on design in biology and neo-Darwinian evolution—a subject of great importance in the modern debate over scientific materialism—are also less than impressive. But these weaknesses are easily forgiven in light of Barr’s explication of the design issue in physics. His analysis is simply outstanding; chapters 11 and 12 are signal contributions to the literature on design.
What most have failed to understand—and what Barr both grasps and explains with great clarity—is that the “laws of nature” invoked by materialists to explain order cannot be treated as brute facts. They too require reasoned analysis and explanation. And that process undermines materialism in a fundamental way.
Barr begins with the example of the “hexagonal closest packing” arrangement formed by marbles when shaken into the corner of a box, which appears at first glance to be an example of strong order arising more or less “spontaneously.” But where does this order really come from? He shows that it comes from the perfect mathematical symmetry—the design and manufacturing—of the marbles themselves.
This is all well and good, but does the artificial example of marbles, analogous as it is to crystals and other natural ordering, really transfer to our study of nature? Perhaps in nature the higher level order and symmetry can be explained in terms of lower levels that are less orderly, until at bottom we find some basic, simple laws that could have arisen by chance.
This is certainly a hypothetical possibility, but it does not seem to be borne out by any actual examples. In fact, both in our simple marble example and in examples taken from nature, one finds quite the reverse happening: the order that is presupposed by a scientific explanation is greater than the order it accounts for. As one goes deeper and deeper into the workings of the physical world, to more and more fundamental levels of the laws of nature, one encounters not ever less structure and symmetry but ever more. The deeper one goes the more orderly nature looks, the more subtle and intricate its designs.
Barr goes on to illustrate and quantify that increasing order using tools related to the mathematical concept of symmetry. His version of the design argument is powerful and convincing.
Interestingly, Barr accepts many key claims of the scientific materialist paradigm, at least in its classical expression. This allows him to mount the revolution against the paradigm from within and makes his arguments more convincing to those already immersed in the scientific enterprise. It leaves unchallenged, however, some of the more subtle and fundamental problems with modern science.
For example, Barr seems to assume that without quantum indeterminacy there is no scientific basis for the notion of human freedom (and divine freedom for that matter). But the absolute causal determinism postulated by classical physics is sheer prejudice, not science, when applied to plants and animals, much less humans. Underlying this issue is Barr’s failure—one he shares with almost all scientists—to distinguish between the direct study of the real and study of the real using the tools of mathematical physics. There are many problems with this confusion, but most fundamental is that everything not amenable to mathematical analysis drops out of the modern scientific description of the real.
Far from the expected relegation of the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of the cosmos to the status of a fairytale, Barr’s insurgent critique shows that modern science has opened up possibilities that make traditional theism as rationally plausible as ever. Moreover, his insistence on the need for a real explanation of the deep order encapsulated in the “laws of nature” is a nuclear explosion in the innermost citadel of materialism. It remains for outsiders, however, to complete the revolution by laying bare the deeper flaws inherent in the reductionistic practices and conclusions of modern science and by showing the rational superiority of a more modest empirical science based on philosophical realism.
Mark Ryland is vice-president and a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute.