Theoretical physicist Stephen M. Barr insists that science and faith can coexist.
- Posted on May 27, 2014
That day in 1963, 10-year-old Stephen returns from school to his family’s Manhattan apartment, and before long is squabbling with his older brother.
“Why are you spouting this garbage?” his brother snaps. Little Stephen speaks up. “’Cause they told us in science class. You can’t create something outta nothing. So how could God make the universe? You just think that ’cause you’re a dummy.”
“Stephen, come here,” his father calls from the bedroom.
Stephen’s father puts down the book he’s been reading and tells his son to take a seat. An assistant dean at Columbia University’s engineering school, he’s a man of science. That’s why Stephen is surprised by what his father says next.
“Many smart people in history have looked at the beauty and order of the universe and have believed there must be a mind behind it. What made the law that matter can’t be created or destroyed? If there’s a law, why can’t there be a lawgiver?”
And in that instant, with that single question, the cosmos opened up for Stephen M. Barr.
Today, Stephen is a professor of theoretical physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware; a researcher into grand unified theories, CP violation and baryogenesis; and well known among his colleagues as one of the discoverers of the Flipped SU(5) scheme of unification.
If you’re not sure what any of that is, you’re not alone. Stephen works in one of the most rarefied fields of science, picking up where Einstein left off in the quest for a “theory of everything.”
But Stephen is also the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, which argues that modern scientific discoveries not only are compatible with religious beliefs, but help us understand some of the great mysteries of faith. He agreed to answer our questions about the nature of the universe.
Why do many people believe science and faith can’t get along?
Some people have the false idea that God is in competition with nature. If something can be explained naturally, then God had nothing to do with it, and if God did, then it must be supernatural. That’s completely wrong.
There’s a wonderful quote from the theologian John Calvin: “Whithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory.”
Monotheism cleared the way for scientific discovery. The Bible taught that the sun, the forces of nature, living things, weren’t gods themselves, but masterworks of God. The universe thus came to be seen as a great work of engineering.
But don’t modern scientific discoveries weaken the argument for a creator?
Let’s take the big bang. Up until about a hundred years ago, all the evidence seemed to point to the universe having had no beginning.
As I once argued to my brother, the amount of energy in the world never changes. If it never changes, then whatever energy is here now must have always been here, so the universe couldn’t have “started.”
In the twentieth century, along came Einstein’s theory of gravity, and astronomers found that the universe is expanding. That led to the big bang theory, proposed by a physicist who was also a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître.
None of this is to say that the big bang proves the strict biblical doctrine of creation, but the fact that the universe had a beginning in time does kind of make one think.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Another concept is introduced in Genesis, that the world is good and we’re in charge of taking care of it... which means understanding how it works. The world of matter in some pagan religions was evil and you wanted to escape it.
What accounts for miracles? Things that seem to defy the laws of physics?
Miracles don’t contradict that we live in a universe with laws, because if God is the lawgiver, then he has the power to suspend the laws. There are supernatural realities that don’t necessarily violate the laws of Nature.
For example, Grace. God doesn’t have to violate the laws of Nature to give Grace to us. Nevertheless, miracles are not the fundamental reason for believing in God. Jesus didn’t perform miracles to convince his Jewish audience that God existed; they already believed in God.
The reason he performed miracles was to show God’s favor to his people. When he opens the eyes of the blind or cures people of disease, it’s God showing his love for his people. He’s not trying to convert them to belief. They already believed.
The primary way to see God is in this Universe he’s created. Which is a miracle in itself.
Some argue that unlikely things—like life—happen all the time because with enough random iterations and enough time, they’re bound to happen...
I would use this analogy. If you went to a library and you wanted to find a specific, but rather obscure recipe, and you picked a cookbook at random off the shelf, you’d be kind of surprised if it contained that particular recipe. A pretty tremendous coincidence.
Then a skeptic can come along and say maybe the book you picked has a trillion recipes in it, or all conceivable recipes. Then it wouldn’t be surprising to find that obscure recipe... but it would be even more surprising to find a book that had every conceivable recipe.
If we live in a Universe where practically every conceivable possibility is realized somewhere, that’s a very strange kind of Universe. Maybe even more surprising than the idea that we live in a Universe that’s fine tuned for life.
Is science ever capable of proving or disproving God?
Krushev, the head of the Soviet Union back in the sixties, when they sent up the first Cosmonauts, said “Look, they didn’t see any God out there.” Well, Christians never thought you could see God floating around in space, that’s a primitive idea.
God is not a part of the world where you can go up in a spaceship and shake hands with him. God is not in the Universe. We can only see God if he chooses to reveal himself in some way. In this world we all know him “in a glass darkly,” as St. Paul said. We see God’s reflection.
How do you share your views on faith and science with your five children?
All the stuff I write on science and religion, I’ve never made them read any of it. Some of my kids have read some of the things I’ve written, but of course I think I’ve raised them in the faith. I’ve sent them to religious schools, I make sure they go to church every Sunday and practice their faith.
I believe that much more important than any arguments you give them is the way you live your life and the example you set. When my kids were young we didn’t have the money to take nice trips to beautiful places, but I wish more people would show their families the beauty of Nature.
People are more open to religious ideas if they’re exposed to the magnificence of Nature. Maybe this is a problem today. We can’t see the stars because there’s too much light in the cities. A lot of us, we’re sitting in our rooms attached to the internet. We don’t go out to see the glories.
Order a copy of Stephen’s book, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (2006, University of Notre Dame Press).