Review of “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith,” by Stephen Barr

I recently came across the book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen Barr, a professor of physics at the University of Delaware. First published in 2003, the book was reprinted in 2013 by the University of Notre Dame press. I was initially skeptical of this book because reviews and praise for the book seemed to be limited mostly to religious and conservative publications. But after reading it, I have to say that the science in the book is solid, the author is reasonably open-minded, and the paucity of reviews of this book in scientific publications more likely reflects an unthinking prejudice rather than an informed judgment by scientists.

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith is not one of those books that attempts to prove the existence of God scientifically, an impossible task in any event. The book does show that belief in God is reasonable, that faith is not wholly irrational. But the main theme of the book is a critique of “scientific materialism,” a philosophy that emerged out of the scientific findings of the nineteenth century. What is “scientific materialism”? Barr summarizes the viewpoint as follows:

‘The universe more and more appears to be a vast, cold, blind, and pur­poseless machine. For a while it appeared that some things might escape the iron grip of science and its laws —perhaps Life or Mind. But the processes of life are now known to be just chemical reactions, involving the same ele­ments and the same basic physical laws that govern the behavior of all matter. The mind itself is, according to the overwhelming consensus of cognitive scientists, completely explicable as the performance of the biochemical computer called the brain. There is nothing in principle that a mind does which an artificial machine could not do just as well or even better. . . .

‘There is no evidence of a spiritual realm, or that God or souls are real. In fact, even if there did exist anything of a spiritual nature, it could have no influence on the visible world, because the material world is a closed sys­tem of physical cause and effect. Nothing external to it could affect its opera­tions without violating the precise mathematical relationships imposed by the laws of physics. . . .

‘All, therefore, is matter: atoms in ceaseless, aimless motion. In the words of Democritus, everything consists of’atoms and the void.’ Because the ulti­mate reality is matter, there cannot be any cosmic purpose or meaning, for atoms have no purposes or goals. . . .

‘Science has dethroned man. Far from being the center of things, he is now seen to be a very peripheral figure indeed. . . .  The human species is just one branch on an ancient evolutionary tree, and not so very different from some of the other branches—genetically we overlap more than 98 percent with chimpanzees. We are the product not of purpose, but of chance mutations. Bertrand Russell perfectly summed up man’s place in the cosmos when he called him ‘a curious accident in a backwater.” (pp. 19-20)

A great many educated people subscribe to many or most of these principles of scientific materialism. However, as Barr notes, these principles are based largely on scientific findings from the nineteenth century, and there have been a number of major advances in knowledge since then that have cast doubt on the principles of materialism. Barr refers to these newer findings as “plot twists.”

The first plot twist Barr notes is the “Big Bang” theory of the origins of the universe, first proposed in 1927 by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest and astronomer. Although taken for granted today, Lemaître’s idea of a universe emerging from a single, tiny point of concentrated energy was initially shocking and disturbing to many scientists. The predominant view of scientists for a number of centuries was that the universe existed eternally, with no beginning and no end. Even Einstein was disturbed by the Big Bang theory and thought it “abominable”; it took many years for him to accept it. I initially was skeptical of Barr’s claim that atheists and materialists were particularly disturbed by and opposed to the Big Bang, but a recent book on theories of the universe’s origins supports Barr’s claim (pp. 25-27).

Now it’s true that the Big Bang in itself doesn’t prove the existence of a creator. And there are many features of the universe which seem to argue against the idea of an omniscient and omnipotent creator, most prominently, the very gradual process of evolution, with its randomness and mass extinctions. Also, Georges Lemaître himself cautioned against any attempts to draw theological conclusions from his scientific work, and argued against the mixing of science and religion. Nevertheless, I don’t think it can be denied that the Big Bang is more compatible with the idea of a creator than the previously dominant theory of the eternal universe.

The second plot twist, according to Barr, is the gradual discovery of a deeper underlying harmony and beauty in the laws of physics, which suggest not blind and impersonal forces but a cosmic designer. Any one particular phenomenon can be explained by an impersonal law or mechanism, notes Barr; but when one looks at the structure of the universe as a whole, the question of a designer is “inescapable.” (Barr, p. 24) In addition, the story of the universe is not one of order emerging out of disorder or chaos, but rather order emerging out of a deeper order, rooted in mathematical structures and physical laws. Barr discusses a number of examples of this harmony and beauty, including symmetrical structures in nature, the growth of crystals, orbital ellipses, and particular mathematical equations that are simple yet also capable of resulting in highly complex orders.

I found this part of Barr’s book to be the least convincing. Symmetry in itself does not strike me as being particularly beautiful, though beautiful things may have symmetry as one of their properties. Furthermore, there are aspects of the universe that are definitely not beautiful, harmonious, or elegant, but rather messy, complicated, and wasteful. Elegance is something rightly valued by scientists, but there is no reason to believe that the underlying structure of nature is always fundamentally elegant, and scientists have sometimes been misguided into coming up with elegant solutions for phenomena that later turned out to be far messier and more complicated in reality. 

The third “plot twist” Barr discusses is, in my view, far more interesting and convincing: the discovery of “anthropic coincidences,” that is, features of the universe that suggest that the emergence of life, including intelligent life, is not an accident but is actually a predictable feature of the universe, built right into the structure. Barr accepts the theory of evolution and acknowledges that random mutations play a large role in the evolution of life (though he is skeptical that natural selection provides a complete explanation for the evolution of life). But Barr also argues that evolution proceeds from the foundation of a cosmic order which seems to be custom-made for the emergence of life. A good number of physical properties of the universe — the strong nuclear force, the creation of new elements through nuclear fusion, the stability of the proton, the strength of the electro-magnetic force, and other properties and processes — seem to be finely tuned to within a very narrow range of precision. Action outside the these strict boundaries of behavior set by the physical laws and constants of the universe would eliminate the possibility of life anywhere in the universe or even cause the universe to self-destruct. Again, these “anthropic coincidences” do not prove the existence of God, but they do seem to indicate that life is not just an accident of the universe, but an outcome built into the universe from the very beginning.

Barr acknowledges the argument of some physicists that the universe could well have different domains with different physical laws, or there could even be a large (or infinite) number of universes (the “multiverse”), each with a slightly different set of laws and constants. In this view, life only seems inevitable because we just happen to exist in a universe that has the right balance of laws and constants, and if the universe did not have this balance, no one would be there to observe that fact! But Barr is rightly skeptical of this argument, noting that it relies merely upon speculation, with no actual empirical evidence of other universes. If belief in God is unscientific because God is unobservable, then belief in an unobservable multiverse is also unscientific.

Barr devotes most of the remaining chapters of his book to refuting the scientific materialist view of humanity. In the materialist view, human beings are nothing more than biological mechanisms, made up of the same atoms that make up the rest of the universe, and therefore as determined and predictable as any other object in the universe. Humans have no soul apart from the body, no mind apart from the brain, and no real free will. Therefore, there is no reason to expect that artificial intelligence in advanced computers will be any different from human minds, aside from being superior. Barr rightly criticizes this view as the fallacy of reductionism, the notion that everything can be explained by reference to the parts that compose it. The problem with this view, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is that when parts join together, the resulting whole may be an entirely new phenomenon, with radically different properties from the parts.

Barr argues that although human beings may be made of materials, humans beings also have a spiritual side, defined as the possession of two crucial attributes: (1) an intellect capable of understanding; and (2) free will. As such, human beings are capable of transcending themselves, that is, go beyond their immediate desires and appetites, “perceive what is objectively true and beautiful,” (p. 168) and to freely choose good or evil.

It is precisely this quality of human beings that makes humans different from material objects, including computers. Barr points out that a computer can manipulate numbers and symbols, and do so much more quickly and efficiently than humans. But, he asks, in what way does a computer actually understand what it is doing? When you use a computer to calculate the sum of all annual profits for Corporation X, does the computer have any idea of what it is really doing? No — it is manipulating numbers and symbols, for the benefit of human beings who actually do have understanding. Likewise, the very notion of moral judgment and blame makes no sense when applied to a computer, because in practice we know that a computer does not have real understanding. In Barr’s words:

We do not really ‘blame’ a computer program for what it does; if anything, we blame its human programmers. We do not condemn a man-eating tiger, in the moral sense, or grow indignant at the typhoid bacillus. And yet we do feel that human beings can ‘deserve’ and that their behavior can be morally judged. We believe this precisely because we believe that human beings can make free choices. (p. 186)

More importantly, as Barr notes, the scientific materialist view of human beings as nothing more than machines is derived from scientific findings in earlier centuries, when scientists became increasingly capable of predicting the motions and actions of objects, large and small. Since human beings were nothing more than collections of material objects known as atoms, it stood to reason that human beings were also nothing more than predictable and determined in their actions. But early twentieth century research into the behavior of subatomic particles, known as “quantum physics,” overturned the view that the behavior of all objects could be predicted on the basis of predetermined laws of behavior. Rather, at the subatomic level, the behavior of objects were probabilistic, not determined; furthermore, the behavior of the particles could not be known until they interacted with an observer!

Today, it is widely acknowledged among scientists that the nineteenth century dream of a completely determined and predictable universe is an illusion, that the behavior of large solar, planetary, and sub-planetary bodies can be predicted to a large extent, but that other phenomenon remain less amenable to such study. Yet the materialist view of human beings as completely determined remains popular among many, including scientists who should know better. Barr rightly criticizes this view, noting that while quantum physics doesn’t prove that humans have free will, it does demolish the notion of complete determinism, and at the very least, creates space for free will.

However, while Barr effectively demolishes the scientific materialist view of human nature, I don’t think he demonstrates that the traditional Judeo-Christian view is entirely correct either. In this view, human beings have a soul that exists, or can exist, separately from the body, and this soul is imparted to human beings by God in a special act of creation. (p. 225) But rather than surmise that there is a separate spirit that possesses the material body and gives it life and understanding and free will, I think it makes more sense to adopt the outlook of theorists of emergence, that the correct combination and organization of parts can lead to the emergence of a whole organism that possesses life and understanding and free will, even if the parts themselves do not possess these qualities.

Another way to look at this issue is to carefully reexamine the whole notion of what “matter” is. Materialists conceive of humans as beings composed of collections of objects called atoms and can’t conceive how this collection of objects can possibly have understanding and free will. But human beings are not just made up of objects — we are beings of matter and energy. Physicists have defined “energy” as the capacity to do work, and if you think of human beings as collections of matter and energy, the attributes of life and understanding and free will no longer seem so mysterious: these attributes are synergistic expressions of a highly complex matter/energy combination.

One could go even further. Physicists have long noted that matter and energy are interchangeable, that matter can be transformed into energy and energy can be transformed into matter. According to the great physicist Werner Heisenberg, “[E]xperiments have shown the complete mutability of matter. All the elementary particles can, at sufficiently high energies, be transmuted into other particles, or they can simply be created from kinetic energy and can be annihilated into energy, for instance into radiation.” (Physics and Philosophy, p. 139.) In fact, the universe in its earliest stages began simply as energy and only gradually transformed some of that energy into matter, so even matter itself can be considered a form of condensed energy rather than a separate and unique entity. So you could think of humans as beings of energy, not just collections of objects — in which case consciousness and free will no longer seem so strange.

Overall, I think Barr’s book is largely convincing in his critique of scientific materialism. He does not provide scientific evidence for the existence of God, but he does make belief in God reasonable, as long as it is not a fundamentalist God. Indeed, any respectable book on science and religion is going to have to reject the notion that the Bible is literally true in all aspects if it is going to be properly scientific. I think Barr does occasionally engage in cherry-picking of evidence from religious thinkers and traditions that make it look as if early Jewish and Christian thinkers were more farsighted in their understanding of the universe than they actually were. But ultimately, judging a religion by its understanding of natural causation is a risky task; when new discoveries are made that overturn the old claims, what does one do? It would be absurd to deny the new discoveries in order to save the religion.

Religious knowledge should be considered primarily a form of transcendent knowledge about the Good, not empirical knowledge about what and how the world is. The Catholic priest-astronomer Georges Lemaître was correct in rejecting attempts by others to use his Big Bang theory as evidence for the merits of Christianity. The best test of a religion is not whether it explains nature, but whether it actually makes human beings and human civilization better.

Physical Laws and the Mind of God

The American philosopher of science Charles Sanders Peirce once wrote that the physical laws of the universe were the expression of an evolving cosmic mind.  As he put it, physical laws were the outcome of a mind become habitual: “matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws.”  However, he notes that the cosmic mind is not merely habitual, but has a powerful element of indeterminacy and spontaneity, which is why the universe continues to evolve and to produce life.  The evolution of the universe, in Peirce’s view, is the gradual crystallization of mind.

There is much merit to Peirce’s idea — rather than seeing the physical laws of the universe as separate entities that pop out of nowhere and have no unifying foundation, Peirce’s concept expresses the underlying unity and order of the universe, which is still developing even as the human mind itself develops.

One criticism of conceptualizing the physical laws of the universe as being part of a cosmic mind is that physical laws by their nature have an unvarying determinism and regularity that contradicts the notion of a conscious being capable of thinking, planning, and exercising free will in order to shape events.  But the physical laws of the universe are really only part of the universal order.  On the large, astronomical scale certainly, there is determinism and regularity; but on the very small, subatomic scale, there is a high degree of indeterminism and unpredictability; and life forms have the freedom to partially evade or escape the bounds of physical determinism.  In this conception, determinism and regularity provide a foundation of order on which freedom and creativity can flourish.  One can analogize this conception with the human mind, in which many essential functions of the brain (control of breathing, heart rate, sensation) occur mostly or entirely without conscious planning or control in the lower part of the brain (the “brainstem”), while higher thought processes are conducted on top of this primitive foundational order.

Granted, there are limits to employing the metaphor of “mind” to the cosmic order, as there are with any metaphor.  But metaphors are often a necessary tool to describe things that simply can’t be communicated with literal precision.  Even the most rigorous and skeptical of scientists cannot do without metaphors.  The “physical laws” of the universe is itself a metaphor; the “Big Bang” is a metaphor; and the “selfish gene” is a metaphor.