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A Force Beyond Our Understanding

A discussion with professor of theoretical physics Stephen M. Barr suggests that science and faith can coexist.

By Adam Hunter, New York, New York

As appeared in

Is there anything in the big bang theory that defies the laws of physics?

No. The second law of thermodynamics says that “entropy,” or disorder, increases with time. That is why things grow old, wear out, run down, decay, fall apart. It is why– from a physics point of view–we all must eventually die. It is also why it is regarded as impossible to build a “perpetual-motion machine.”

No machine can run forever without breaking down in some way. But a universe that had no beginning would be, in effect, a perpetual-motion machine. That’s a problem that afflicts all attempts to construct theories of a universe with no beginning.

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Couldn’t all this be random? Just a lucky combination of things that led to the universe we live in?

What physicists have discovered in the last 40 years or so is that there are what we call anthropic coincidences. If you take the laws of physics as we know them and the structure of the universe and you try to make certain minor modifications to them, then the universe would be sterile. There wouldn’t be different kinds of life–there’d be no life at all.

What are some of these anthropic coincidences?

The classic example is one of the forces of nature, the “strong force.” It holds the nuclei of atoms together.

If that strong force were only a little bit weaker, most of the elements would not have formed. Had it been only a few percent stronger, stars would burn out too quickly to support life. There are many others. I wrote a very important paper on one of them...

About the Higgs boson and the Higgs field…

The Higgs field is responsible for giving most particles their mass. Now, if that field were stronger or weaker by just a tiny amount, the masses of particles would have been such as to make it impossible to have life.

The whole possible range that the Higgs field could have is only a narrow window if you’re going to have a universe with life; and of course it does fall in that window. That’s a remarkable coincidence. It strongly suggests that the universe was constructed in order to have life arise in it.

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Now, there is something called the multiverse idea, which hypothesizes that the laws of physics take a huge number of different forms in different parts of the universe. Then there would almost have to be some places where the laws are “just right” to allow life. You could call this the Goldilocks universe.

Most physicists hate this idea, because it is not testable. But if we do live in something as strange as a Goldilocks universe, that could be an anthropic coincidence. One way or another, the universe needs a lot of parts working together in a certain way to make something like a human being possible.

So is God a force, like gravity?

Don’t think of God as a force. C. S. Lewis said that God is the architect of the house. He’s not a wall or a door or a beam. He’s the mind who conceived the house and caused it to be. The forces of nature are his creation.

God reveals himself, as Saint Paul said, in the things that he’s made. The way you can recognize the author in reading his book.

Is there anything in physics that allows for a heaven?

We know that in about five billion years, the sun is going to blow up into a red giant and will incinerate the Earth. Eventually, all the stars will burn out and the universe will become cold and lifeless.

That’s also what the Scriptures say–this world as we know it is passing away. “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.” So heaven won’t be of this world.

Modern Physics and Ancient FaithOrder a copy of Stephen’s book, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (2006, University of Notre Dame Press).