Christianity, Materialism & Modern Physics

December 2004By Gary Mar

Gary Mar is a Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.  By Stephen M. Barr. University of Notre Dame Press. 312 pages. $30.

The Empirical Stance.  By Bas C. van Fraassen. Yale University Press. 304 pages. $20.

“You say the materialist universe is ‘ugly,’” C.S. Lewis replied in a letter to a young skeptic. “If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it you don’t feel at home there?” These books offer two perspectives on why we don’t feel at home with materialism, the philosophical view that matter is all that really exists. In the words of Carl Sagan, “the Cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be.”

Bas van Fraassen’s The Empirical Stance is based on his Terry Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy at Yale Divinity School, a lecture series that has hosted such scholars as Dewey, Jung, and Maritain. A prominent philosopher, van Fraassen’s subtle reflections on religion and science avoid the tendency of some Christian apologists to make blanket dismissals of empiricism as atheistic scientism. Empiricism, van Fraassen argues, is not so much a substantive view about what exists, but a stance — a commitment to the value of scientific inquiry and a healthy skepticism toward untestable metaphysical “explanations-by-postulate.”

Van Fraassen argues that materialism differs from empiricism in that materialism makes reductionistic claims about the content of science. The empirical stance, on the other hand, is concerned with the procedures of science. Empiricism is a commitment to submit all factual claims to the critical scrutiny of scientific inquiry.

Logical positivists wanted to wield the Verificationist Theory of Meaning to discredit metaphysics. Empiricism, however, cannot be encapsulated in dogmas like verificationism. Suppose there is a statement E+, which is the dogma of empiricism. E+ might be the claim that “experience is the one and only source of knowledge.” E+ would have to be (1) the basis for critiquing metaphysics, (2) invulnerable to that critique, and (3) a factual thesis. The empirical stance, however, requires one to submit all factual statements, including the dogma E+, to the scrutiny of scientific inquiry. But if E+ is itself subject to such scrutiny, it cannot be the unquestioned dogma for banning metaphysics. “Empiricism, in trying to frame a doctrine of its own, has talked itself into a corner.”

A philosophical position, then, need not consist in a set of propositions about what the world is like but can instead be a stance. Accordingly, “being or becoming an empiricist will then be similar or analogous to conversion to a cause, a religion, an ideology….”

In Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, Stephen Barr, a physicist at the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware, argues that the methods and discoveries of modern physics must be distinguished from materialism. The strength of Barr’s book is his competent and clear accounts of the discoveries of modern science in a way that is also theologically informed (especially in the Catholic tradition).

In a chapter titled “Materialism as an Anti-Religious Mythology,” Barr provides a welcomed correction to the ideologically distorted histories of the “war between science and religion.” Discussing the battles between science and religion over the creation accounts in Genesis, Barr quotes St. Thomas: “With respect to the origins of the world, there is one point that is of the substance of faith, viz. to know that it began by creation…. But the manner and order according to which creation took place concerns the faith only incidentally.”

Unlike enthusiastic Christian apologists who argue that modern physics or complexity in biology allows one to scientifically infer the existence of God or at least a supernatural intelligence, Barr carefully and consistently claims only that numerous discoveries of modern science confirm the expectations of Christians more than they do those of materialists. Indeed, “what the debate is about is not proof, but credibility.”

Barr’s book is based on five “plot twists” in the history of the natural sciences — the Big Bang theory, unified field theories, anthropic coincidences, Gödel’s Theorems, and quantum theory. The unfolding of these scientific discoveries provides reasons to disbelieve that matter is the only ultimate reality.

In discussing the Big Bang theory, Barr notes that it was materialists who believed that the universe had always existed, whereas Jews and Christians believed that the universe and time itself had a beginning. Arthur Stanley Eddington, the physicist, was hostile to the idea that the universe began to exist: “The notion of a beginning is repugnant to me.”

The second plot twist involves Stephen Hawking’s search for a unified field theory and a “theory of everything.” Updating the argument from design, Barr argues that “when it is the laws of nature themselves that become the object of curiosity, laws that are seen to form an edifice of great harmony and beauty, the question of a cosmic designer seems no longer irrelevant but inescapable.” Hawking provocatively concluded A Brief History of Time with the statement, “If we find why it is that we and the universe exist, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.”

In subsequent chapters Barr discusses anthropic coincidences, the Lucas-Penrose argument that Gödel’s Theorem refutes the idea that the human brain is a computer, and how quantum mechanics appears to undermine the materialist worldview. As a logician, I found Barr’s discussion of Gödel’s theorems to be incomplete — Gödel’s theorems do not, without question-begging philosophical assumptions, support the kind of conclusions about the nature of human intelligence and creativity that Lucas, Penrose, and even Gödel himself seem to have held.

Indeterminism in quantum mechanics does not explain, but makes room for, free will. Nobel physicist Eugene Wigner notes, “While a number of philosophical ideas may be logically consistent with present quantum mechanics, materialism is not.” The role of the observer in quantum mechanics is not totally describable by physics and, according to Barr, “this is why quantum physics forces us to confront the question of what this ‘observer’ is and how mind and matter are related.” Modern science, unlike materialism, cannot detach human observers from a scientific description of ultimate reality.

In his letter to the skeptic mentioned above, C.S. Lewis wondered, “How could an idiotic universe have produced creatures whose mere dreams are so much stronger, better, and subtler than itself?” Eventually, Lewis’s arguments against materialism, and his prayers, were effective in the conversion of that skeptic, the young Sheldon Vanauken. Lewis spent much of his apologetic energies attacking the materialist worldview because he was convinced that it insulated his audience from hearing the Good News.

If modern physics has given us reason to question the metaphysics of materialism, and if analytic philosophy has given us reason to distinguish materialism from empiricism, then perhaps we must scientifically rethink how to feel at home in God’s universe.

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