The distance between science and faith is not the abyss that some believe it to be. Windows of both science and faith open upon the same wondrous Universe.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: In a recent issue of Our Sunday Visitor, Michelle Martin has an excellent article entitled, “Catholic scientists discuss faith’s role in work” (OSV, May 7-15, 2017). The challenge of finding bridges between science and faith is one that I also took up recently in a post entitled “Misguiding Light Young Catholics Leaving Faith for Science.”
It is a privilege this week to present the following guest post by Malcolm Farr, a practicing intellectual property attorney in Western Australia and a friend of These Stone Walls. An astute observer of the fields of science and faith, Malcolm also holds degrees in physics and mathematics. He is currently working part time on a post-graduate degree in theology at the University of Notre Dame in Freemantle, Australia.
I am grateful to Malcolm Farr for stepping in for me this week, and for his expertise. I used to think that quantum mechanics referred to guys who could work on two cars at the same time. I now know that it is the field of study of the mathematical aspect of quantum theory that deals with the interaction and motion of subatomic particles, the basic structures of the Universe. So bear with us in this brief venture into science and faith from Down Under.
* * *
Fr. Gordon has written previously about his wonder at the cosmos, despite the limited view that he has from within ‘these stone walls’. Yet I know that he sees its real meaning with perfect clarity, despite the obvious restriction he faces. And I know that he is one blessed with true wisdom.
Like Fr. Gordon, the universe fascinates me too, and I’d like to say a few words about different ways in which we view science – in particular cosmology – today. I must say at the outset that I’m not a professional scientist myself. I did take a degree in mathematics and physics, but that was many years ago, and then I turned to other things. However, I never lost my sense of wonder at the universe, indeed pretty much anything scientific. (I’ll leave you to imagine all the “here-we-go-again” eye-rolling that happened when, last August, I called my family outside to see the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, with Mercury not too far away from them.)
On the one hand, whether or not the overall percentage of people who reject scientific explanations (either generally or in particular cases) has increased, there certainly seems to be greater exposure given to this group now than formerly. It’s one thing to say that we really can’t understand quantum mechanics, for example, but at least accept that it works. It’s quite another to deny that it’s right because its results are so counter-intuitive – which they are, to the point where even experts shake their heads. Yet many examples of modern technology ultimately rely on quantum mechanics, such as electron microscopes, lasers and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Modern technology would be lost without these things; and they in turn wouldn’t exist without the understanding that quantum mechanics brings. (One of the original results of quantum mechanics, and still perhaps the most famous, is the double-slit experiment. In this, entities such subatomic particles (electrons, protons, etc.), atoms and even some quite hefty molecules act like perfectly behaved little particles when they are fired through a single slit, giving exactly the same pattern on the target behind that you would expect any physical object to produce . Yet when they are fired through parallel slits, they give … the interference pattern that you would expect of a wave. There are plenty of demonstrations of this that you can find online.)
Even more extreme, there are many who deny the understandings of the universe that modern physics and cosmology has brought us. Often this is a form of denialism, rejecting the findings of science because it conflicts uncomfortably with other cherished beliefs. Unfortunately, this is still the case for a significant number of folk for whom their faith requires a literal understanding the creation accounts in Genesis, and who thus reject anything which conflicts with them. Yet Jesus often spoke in parables, and I’ve not yet come across anyone who insists that each of these was a retelling of factual events. For me, the Genesis accounts are likewise stories which teach us that God underpins absolutely everything – but, like Jesus’ parables, they’re not to be taken literally as ‘scientific’ truth. (By the way, I’m yet to find anyone who can reconcile the different accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 without tying themselves in knots.)
On the other hand, some people have gone in the other direction, believing that the advances of science leave no room for God. One such is Prof. Stephen Hawking. Now, in his popular book, A Brief History of Time, he had written:
“So long as the Universe had a beginning, we could suppose that it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end. What place, then, for a creator?” (Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, London: Bantam Press, 1988, 140-141)
However, Prof. Hawking has recently been very candid in stating his views on God. This is what he said in response during an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo:
“In the past, before we understood science, it was logical to believe that God created the Universe. However, science now offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant when I said that we would know ‘the mind of God’ was that we would be able to understand all that God understands – assuming the existence of God. However, there is no God. I am an atheist (Pablo Jáuregui, “Stephen Hawking: ‘No hay ningún dios. Soy ateo’”, El Mundo).
What Prof. Hawking and his colleagues (particularly Profs. James Hartle and Thomas Hertog) did, was to model the universe mathematically, avoiding any actual time “0”. Instead, time in their modeling comes into existence fuzzily before coalescing at a definite non-zero time. (Prof. Hawking’s original modeling satisfying the ‘no-boundary’ condition seems to date from a paper that he and Prof. Hartle co-authored some five years before A Brief History of Time: Stephen W. Hawking and James Hartle, ‘Wave Function of the Universe’, Physical Review (1983) D28 (12): 2960-2975.)
Now, please don’t get me wrong: the mathematical modeling carried out by Prof. Hawking and his colleagues has been a truly great achievement in its own right, and has led to continued research, both within their own group and by others. But, considered as modeling for the real universe, cosmologist Prof. Paul Davies (1995 winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and renowned for his interest in the metaphysical basis of his discipline) pointed out that it’s not just the contents (particles, energy) of the universe that need to be explained, but also the laws by which it operates. (Paul Davies, ‘The Nature of the Laws of Physics and Their Mysterious Biofriendliness’, Euresis, vol. 5, Summer 2013, 15-36) As an example, consider the very simple identity: force equals mass multiplied by acceleration. If we are to have anything which models the real universe, then this rule should come out of the modeling, and not be something which underlies it.
What is more, even trivial changes in the laws which appear to govern the universe (as well as such things as the masses and charges of elementary particles) would mean that life – including ourselves – would not exist, and never would never have. As Prof. Davies said, the universe is ‘weirdly fine-tuned for life’ (Davies, ‘The Nature of the Laws of Physics and Their Mysterious Biofriendliness’, 15). Because of this, he concluded that ‘no scientific explanation for the universe can be deemed complete unless it accounts for this appearance of judicious design’ – in other words, that it seems to be the artefact of a creator (Davies, ‘The Nature of the Laws of Physics and Their Mysterious Biofriendliness’, 15-16).
Prof. Davies himself proposed a means by which this conundrum could be overcome – to some extent. Put simply, the fact that the equations of quantum mechanics are time-symmetric – it doesn’t matter if you look at them going forwards in time, or backwards – permits our presence, here and now, organizes the universe at its earlier stages – including, importantly, the laws by which it operates – through a feedback loop (Davies, ‘The Nature of the Laws of Physics and Their Mysterious Biofriendliness’, 32-35).
Even if mathematical modeling might one day explain how what-was-to-become our universe broke away from the ‘primordial quantum foam’ (or whatever it actually was out of which our universe expanded), including the laws which governed them, it would need to go still deeper. It would need to explain, not just how the laws of the universe take their present forms, but indeed the capacity for laws at all.
For my part, I have faith that God exists, and that He has intervened in the universe at many times and places, most especially through Christ. And I have faith that God is responsible for the glories of the universe that we are privileged to investigate through the tools of science, which we do not deny for fear or for any other reason. Somehow, I think the psalmist hit it exactly: ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork’ (Ps 19:1).
I know that there are many people of the same view, too. A great hero of mine – and I know also of Fr. Gordon – was Msgr. Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest / physicist whose calculations from Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity led him to postulate in 1927 that the universe must have commenced in a superdense state, which he referred to in terms of the ‘primeval atom’. In short, he gave us the beginnings of the Big Bang Theory – and, no, I’m not referring to a certain sitcom! (If you’re ever interested in reading about Msgr. Lemaître, there’s an excellent biography of him, The Day without Yesterday: Lemaître, Einstein, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology, by John Farrell). Another – and likewise way out of my league – is Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Research Director at Oxford University’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, whose thoughts have graced these pages.
So I’ll continue to look up into the night sky. I’ll continue reading articles on cosmology, both popular and (so far as my poor intellect can cope with them) academic. And I’ll continue in the knowledge that my faith underpins such understanding as I have been granted.
Editor’s Note: You might also like these other posts about science and faith from These Stone Walls:
- Science and Faith and the Big Bang Theory of Creation
- Does Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Sciences?
- The Higgs Boson God Particle: Of All Things Visible & Invisible
- Science Makes a Case for God and Respect for Life
- Fr Georges Lemaître: Father of the Big Bang by Father Andrew Pinsent, Oxford University