God and Physical Reality

Science tells us about how the world actually is, and the more science we do the more we find out that God is irrelevant to the real world – or so we generally hear from those widely promoted as being in the know.

Because the conjunction of these two things together is wrong, people who believe in God are often inclined to deny both parts, but this is I think dangerous. We can and should hold that science does in fact tell us some important truths about the world, without believing that more science means less of God. Here are some thoughts on how physics and Christian faith might hold together like protons and neutrons in the centre of an atom, in light of some recent books.

The first was on the fine tuning of the laws and initial conditions of the universe which allows life to exist. If these laws or initial conditions were just a little different the universe would’ve collapsed in on itself or matter would’ve been dispersed so widely that particles would not interact enough to have complex molecules, let alone life. This book, ‘A Fortunate Universe’ by Aussie cosmologists Barnes and Lewis was particularly excellent in defining fine tuning clearly, and explaining the difficult probabilistic issues involved, then moving on to explore the implications for the debate between theism and naturalism. Co-written by an atheist and theist, it was fair, and the case is no less powerful for being, if anything, understated. For a fuller investigation, keep an eye on the Biologos website for my forthcoming blog post review. Or pick up the book!

The second was on how science depends on a particular metaphysical view of the world. This short book, ‘Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics‘ by leading British philosopher Prof Roger Trigg though less entertaining and perhaps less cutting-edge was also excellent, and also a straightforward read, clearly summarising a large amount of important information. The chapters on the intelligibility, unity, and success of science, for instance, will probably influence me in helpful ways whenever I think, write, and speak on this topic in future. Roger Trigg is one of the unrecognised gems of British Christian philosophy, with significant standing amongst philosophers as a whole, and his work defending a realist view of truth across a wide range of fields, grounded in Christian theism in a nuanced way in each case, should be paid more attention by Christian thinkers.

The last, which I had eagerly anticipated for a while was a bit disappointing. ‘How to be an Atheist’ is by Mitch Stokes, a former researcher in mechanical engineering turned philosopher of religion, trained under both Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. The book argues that skeptics should be more skeptical than they usually are about both science and ethics. These are both important points (I haven’t read the ethics part yet, but it looks like I’ll agree with it more), but in the case of science the theistic alternative wasn’t spelled out clearly enough, and it seems to me we’re left in a pessimistic skepticism. I learned a bit more about physics and particularly about non-realist philosophies of physics in the book (arguing that physics gives models that work practically, but can’t be claimed to be true), but I think a real opportunity was missed to spell out the positive connections between the assumed metaphysics of science and Christian influences on science, for instance through the doctrine of creation.

I was particularly intrigued to see Stephen Hawking seems to accept an instrumentalist account of physics. While offering a lot of helpful information and an introduction to some important work, overall I think the approach provides an inadequate apologetic for the scientifically minded. I think ‘why do you trust physics, and what is the basis of physics anyway?’ are much more helpful to ask/say than ‘you should be skeptical of scientific claims because they’ve often failed before’. The book focussed primarily on fundamental physics, and gestured towards other areas such as evolutionary biology without ever properly broaching such subjects. Antirealism gains far more traction in quantum mechanics than other sciences. The case against antirealism wasn’t given fair attention despite being the mainstream view amongst philosophers of science. I particularly would’ve liked to see some discussion of whether past theories that have been superceded (e.g. Newtonian physics) were really fully wrong, or just partial truth – I tend to think the latter. I recommend this science section of the book for serious consideration by apologists, but not for the non-academically minded Christians or skeptics that it is apparently aimed at, as it is not easy going and presents a controversial and I think unhelpful approach to science. I’m hoping to get a more in-depth review published elsewhere, watch this space.

So, in summary, there’s a lot of good work going on developing a new natural theology in physics, arguing that God can legitimately be appealed to in explaining aspects of physical reality and the metaphysical framework that allows us to explore it. We also have reason to take a careful approach to metaphysics, not going too far beyond what the data apparently establishes. The data can (I think) really establish some things, and the whole project of science involves walking a tightrope between rationalism (thinking grand universal theories without data) and empiricism (collecting facts without accepting the superiority of some theoretical contexts over others). The Christian doctrine of creation and Christian reality about human cognitive limitations I think provide an excellent basis for this balancing act, and in fact the whole project of explaining the universe – future writing on this topic is in the works, to be developed over the next few years!

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