Manifesto of a Revolutionary [long version]

Book Review of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen M. Barr
Mark Ryland
Discovery Institute
June 30, 2004
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Shorter version as published in Crisis Magazine

Book review:

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
Stephen M. Barr, University of Notre Dame Press, 312 pages, $30

The overthrow of a dominant system can involve two kinds of revolutionaries. Some act as insurgents: they attack the system from within using whatever weapons are available to them as members of the system. Others function as invaders: they begin outside the system and attack it with a wider range of weapons not limited to those available within.

Both kinds of revolutionaries are necessary for an intellectual revolution, the overthrow of a paradigm of thought. The insurgents are necessary because the participants in the reigning paradigm are likely to be impervious to outside critiques. Initially, they will only feel the weight of criticisms that are addressed to them in the intellectual framework to which they are accustomed. The insurgents are thus the "shock troops" that open up the debate enough to allow for the possibility of a complete revolution of ideas. The insurgents are necessary but not sufficient, however, because they will tend to fall short of a truly radical critique of the paradigm by their life-long, on-going participation in it structures. Outside reinforcements must bring in the new ideas that can culminate in the final overthrow of an existing intellectual order.

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 set-backs 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 to really win the revolution.

The Plot and its Twists

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 a crucial starting point. Barr properly calls the philosophy that typically accompanies modern science "materialism" or "scientific materialism"; he wisely avoids the often-used term "naturalism," a term that is misleading because materialism is wrong not just about the existence of the supernatural, but primarily and preeminently about the nature of Nature itself.

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 agrees with the materialists that by the end of the 19th century the triumph of Newtonian mechanics and classical physics made things looked grim for the reasonableness of theistic belief. At that point, 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 most disturbingly human nature itself—subject to the iron grip of the classical physicist's 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 plot-line. 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 development and powerful confirmation of the Big Bang theory).

  • The universe may have been designed, after all (the astounding beauty and unexpected symmetries of modern mathematical physics).

  • The Earth and humans may be 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).

  • 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 more than that: Barr argues persuasively that materialism is an intellectual "straitjacket" that unfairly rules out many rationally plausible positions and explanations of natural phenomena that happen to be more compatible with philosophical theism than with philosophical materialism.

The Best Twist: The Argument for Deep Design

Some of Barr's five "plot twists" are fairly standard in the literature of science, philosophy, and religion; 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 (more on that below). 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 vast literature on design. They are required reading for anyone interested in the design debate.

What most have failed to understand—and what Barr both grasps and explains with great clarity and force—is that the "laws of nature" invoked by materialists to explain order in nature 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 marbles forming a strongly ordered "hexagonal closest packing" arrangement when shaken into the corner of a box, much like certain molecules which readily form crystalline structures. This appears at first glance to be an example of strong order arising more or less "spontaneously" under simple laws of gravity and physical necessity. But where does this order really come from? It comes from the perfect mathematical symmetry—the design and manufacturing—of the marbles themselves.

At first it looked like the marbles-in-the-box example pointed toward a different conclusion. It seemed that the orderly arrangement of marbles could be traced ultimately to physical laws (gravity) and mathematical necessities (the closest way to pack spheres). But such explanations, while perfectly true, were not ultimate explanations. They presuppose an orderliness even greater than that which they explained: they presuppose the orderly or symmetric properties of the marbles themselves. And that orderliness and symmetry, we know, came not from mathematical necessity or physical laws but from design. [p.80]

This is all well and good, but does the artificial example of marbles 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. [p.81]

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.

So, thanks to Barr's penetrating analysis, the famous explanatory trichotomy of design theorist William Dembski—that all explanations of phenomena must be explained in terms of law, chance, or design—can be reduced to a simple dichotomy: chance or design. As that choice becomes more and more clear, scientific materialism doesn't stand much of a (pardon the expression) chance as a serious intellectual position in the debate over the philosophical meaning of modern science.

Was the Original Plot Ever That Plausible?

Interestingly, Dr. 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 of all efficient causes in all forms of being postulated by classical physics is sheer prejudice, not science. The prejudice has a long and impressive pedigree, no doubt. None other than Sir Isaac Newton speculated in the Preface to the 1687 Principia (emphasis added):

I wish we could derive the rest of the phenomena of Nature [beyond celestial mechanics] by the same kind of reasoning from mechanical principles, for I am induced by many reasons to suspect that they may all depend upon certain forces by which the particles of bodies, by some causes hitherto unknown, are either mutually impelled towards one another, and cohere . . . or are repelled and recede . . .

Centuries of experimentation has made Newton's speculation quite plausible when applied to inanimate beings—although, even in that case, the irregularities observed in actual empirical investigation are always dismissed as experimental or measurement error rather than as possible evidence of slight real deviations from the "laws of nature." When it comes, however, to plants and especially animals, no one has ever come close to establishing that the purely physical-efficient causes of the particles that are their material constituents fully explain, much less fully determine, their activities and behaviors. Indeed, the formal causes of such beings are an obvious source of indeterminism in the sense of physical-efficient-material causes, but one that drops out of modern "scientific" accounts, which deny the reality of formal causation. Thus, lack of freedom for humans even under classical physics is a fortiori an undemonstrated conjecture, easily refuted by a critically self-reflective common sense, viz., by true philosophy.

Underlying this issue and more fundamental 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 experimentation (manipulation of nature) and the tools of mathematical physics. It is evident after 400 years of progress that experimental mathematical physics is a science with extraordinary power and insight into nature. But it also carries with it significant limitations and dangers. First, the very fact of experimentation raises the question (almost universally ignored) of the extent to which modern science is discoverying something about nature itself or something artificial, something caused or added by the experimental apparatus. Second, everything not amenable to mathematical analysis tends to drop out of the modern scientific description of the real. While their may be little loss of insight or knowledge when ignoring the non-mathematical properties and qualities of very simple beings such as modern physics studies in the microstructure of matter, the loss increases dramatically as we go up the scale of complexity in beings from inanimate to animate to human nature. Third, while symmetry and shear beauty in mathematical descriptions of nature have lead to real physical discoveries, there is a continuing strong risk of a kind of neo-Pythagorean fallacy in which the mathematical descriptions of real beings are themselves taken to be the really real, and further that purely mathematical hypotheses such as string theory (which seeks to unify quantum theory and relativity mathematically) are interpreted ontologically without any direct experiential or experimental basis.

What modern science needs more than ever is to recover some of the older wisdom of the philosophy of nature regarding the order of knowing, the reality of natures and substances, the four causes of being, and the requisites of true scientific knowledge. The shadow of David Hume still looms large over the scientific enterprise, reducing its hard-fought-for knowledge to a purely empirical gloss of probable and ever-revisable observational statements about the surface, the accidents of being. Meanwhile, the post-modernists are ready, willing, and able to deconstruct all of science's knowledge-claims into pure rhetoric and social construction. While the task of synthesizing the traditional wisdom of a realist philosophy of nature with the valid knowledge wrought by the modern sciences is not easy, sound beginnings have been made in works like those of William Wallace in his fine book The Modeling of Nature.

Viva La Revolution

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 philosophical flaws inherent in the reductionist practices and conclusions of modern science and by showing the rational and truly scientific superiority of a more modest empirical science based on philosophical realism.