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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

What great mystery of science will be explained in our lifetime, and how will it affect faith?

There are a number of deep questions that we’ll probably never be able to answer. Even if we could, people should not live in fear that there’s some big discovery around the corner that’s going to discredit religious belief. Actually, big discoveries have tended to support religious ideas.

Take quantum mechanics. There’s an argument that says that if you follow its logic out to the end, you come to the conclusion that the human mind is just not describable by physics.

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The uncertainty principle, the bedrock of quantum theory, implies that even if one had all the information there is to be had about a physical system, its future behavior cannot be predicted exactly, only probabilistically.

The way quantum mechanics works, you can’t put the observer into the system, because the act of observing changes what’s being observed–you can’t watch a movie and be in the movie at the same time.

Therefore, consciousness cannot be just a physical structure completely describable by the equations of physics. No one’s ever actually refuted this argument, but if you tell physicists there’s something physics can’t explain they kind of get annoyed.

But people shouldn’t say, science can’t explain it, so God did it...

That’s not the way to think. The order we’ve uncovered in nature is far more impressive than the early Christians dreamed about.

As we look deeper and deeper, the more physics reveals that the world is not put together in some haphazard way. It’s constructed using ideas of surpassing mathematical depth and sophistication.

Anybody can look at a sunset or a flower or a rainbow and say, “Isn’t God’s work beautiful?” But the skeptic will say, “I can explain why the sunset looks that way, or how flowers evolved, or how a rainbow forms.”

The skeptic is right, but only up to a point. The laws of physics themselves have a beauty to them. Those are a given which he cannot explain. I get as much a sense of the divine from what I see in my work as from a sunset or a flower. Science increases my ability to believe.

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More on Physics and Faith
There wasn’t enough room in our June/July 2014 issue to include all of the answers theoretical physicist Stephen M. Barr gave to our Managing Editor Adam Hunter. Below are more of his thoughts on the nature of the universe…

Have science and faith always been at odds?

Most of the great founders of modern science saw it as a way of understanding God’s creation. They saw what they learned about the natural world as revealing something about its creator.

One of my favorite quotes is from Johannes Kepler, who said, “I thank thee, Lord God, our creator that thou allowest me to see the beauty in thy work of creation.” That was a typical attitude. The founders of modern science saw it as a way to learn about God’s creation.

You’ve said that monotheism cleared the way for science. What do you mean by that?

First of all, the idea in ancient paganism was that the world itself was either divine or permeated with occult or spiritual forces. Judaism and Christianity said no, there’s something beyond Nature.

Since God is completely distinct from the world he’s created, the world was kind of stripped of these gods and supernatural beings and therefore became a natural world. So the world was thus seen as a work of engineering.

Secondly, the Bible portrays God as a lawgiver, not only to human beings, but to the cosmos itself. In the book of Jeremiah, the Lord says, “When I have no covenant with day and night, and have given no laws to heaven and earth, then too will I reject the descendants of Jacob and of my servant David.”

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