May 13, 2010

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Modern Physics and Ancient Faith

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
By Stephen M. Barr

Questions about our origins can be asked at three distinct levels: 1) the origin and operation of the physical universe; 2) the origin of life; and 3) the operation of living systems. Looking at our book catalog and news stories at ARN some would conclude that question #3 is the only one we are interested in. Not true. While our understanding of the complexity of livings system has mushroomed over the past generation bringing renewed interest to the Darwin or Design debate in the biological realm, some are convinced that the most compelling arguments for design are to be found in physics and cosmology (question #1). In that spirit we are making a concerted effort to enhance our catalog offerings in this area.

Our first selection is by Stephen Barr, a particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware, who is not only a practicing scientist, but a proven communicator on topics related to science, philosophy, and theology. A rare bird, who is our kind of guy.

As a Roman Catholic, Barr has always been troubled by what he perceives as the false impression that some scientists and the media often give that science is at war with religion or that science somehow disproves religion. Like Phillip Johnson, he traces this thinking to the unnecessary marriage of the practice of science with the philosophical doctrine of materialism--that all things must have a naturalistic, materialistic explanation. Barr goes on to show with great effectiveness that materialism is an unsubstantiated faith among physicists. He proceeds to illustrate how the great discoveries of physics in the 20th century actually serve to confirm a belief in a designer or creator god more than they do a belief in materialism.

Barr clearly separates out the Cosmic Design Argument from the Biological Design Argument in his book. Although he has serious doubts about the power of Darwin's theory of natural selection and random mutation to explain the design of living systems, he points out that even if common descent is conceded for the sake of argument (or proven to be true in the future), it does not have an impact on the independent Cosmic Design Argument which is his focus.

While Barr covers some of the standard arguments for design in physics including the big bang, the anthropic principal, and the laws of nature, he also addresses one topic that is seldom addressed in intelligent design literature: quantum mechanics. Quantum theory is the discovery that subatomic particles act very differently than particles in our observable world, which are described by Newtonian physics. Reductionism and materialism are severely challenged in the quantum world where concepts such as uncertainty, unpredictability, wave/particle duality, instantaneous communication, and the need for an observer reign. The reader should be aware that while Barr holds to a traditional or orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics, he does address some of the alternatives to traditional quantum theory. There are more scientific proofs of quantum theory than almost any other area of science, but the philosophical implications fly in the face of materialistic philosophy to such an extent that many physicists simply choose to ignore them or invent questionable alternatives. If you are looking for an introduction to the implications of quantum mechanics for design theory, chapters 24 and 25 of Barr's book are a good place to start.

While our current understanding of physics and quantum theory appear to point away from materialism and toward design, like all good scientists, Barr holds his ideas loosely: “Of course, no one knows what the future of science will bring. Perhaps quantum theory will itself be overturned. We can only talk about the implications of the science we have.”

Check out the table of contents and reviews or order your copy here.

ARN News Flash
Quotes about Quantum Physics

For those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.

Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize-winning physicist quoted in Heisenberg, Werner (1971). Physics and Beyond. New York: Harper and Row. pp. 206.

The premise that you can describe in terms of physics the whole function of a human being…including its knowledge, and its consciousness, is untenable.  There is still something missing.

Sir Rudolf Peierls, leading theoretical physicist of his time. P.C.W Davies and J.R. Brown, The Ghost in the Atom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 75.

[While a number of philosophical ideas] may be logically consistent with present quantum mechanics,…materialism is not.

Eugene Wigner, Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Eugene P. Wigner, “Remarks on the Mind-Body Questions,” in The Scientist Speculates, ed. I.J. Good (London: William Heinemann, Ltd, 1961).

The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.

Bernard d'Espagnat, French theoretical physicist.d'Espagnat, Bernard, "The Quantum Theory and Reality", Scientific American, Nov. 1979