Science and religion

October 29, 2007 | Struggles | 16 comments

I’ve been on a physics kick lately*, and my current nighttime reading is Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. I’ve been eager to read up on string theory for a long time, and am really enjoying the book. One thing I’m reminded of as I go through it, however, is just how much science and religion overlap.

The way I think of it, they’re two sides of the same coin. Both tackle different questions about the human experience: science defines that which is measurable and seeks to understand how the world and universe around us work, as seen from our limited perspective as animals with five senses who inhabit a little planet in a big spiral galaxy; religion attempts to explain why it’s all here in the first place, and to make sense of the part of human experience that is not measurable — love, beauty, hate, evil, etc.

The more I get into both religion and science the more I see how very complementary they are — one inspires me to learn more about the other. Yet it seems like the prevailing attitude these days in the scientific community is that science, by being able to measure stuff and see how it works, somehow rules out the possibility of God (or any sort of “power” or “realm” outside of the material world). This mentality made sense to me back when I thought that all religious people used their holy books as science and history books, but now that I understand the questions religion attempts to answer, which are not the same questions that science attempts to answer, I don’t see where we get this idea that science disproves (or proves) God’s existence either way. Science can offer us data to complement our understanding of the world that we gain through religion, and religion can offer us ideas to complement our understanding of the world that we gain through science.

For example, as I was reading Greene’s chapter where he talks about how string theory may perhaps be the unifying “theory of everything” that explains all the particles and forces in the universe, I felt so inspired. I’d read about this before, but now that I believed in God it was all the more powerful to learn about it. The fact that this theory of vibrating strings may lay the foundation of our understanding of the universe from which everything else flows, to me, spoke of the sleekness and beauty of a designed universe.

So I was caught off guard when Greene explained that many others have a totally different take on the implications of string theory. He writes:

Many find it fatuous and downright repugnant to claim that the wonders of life and the universe are mere reflections of microscopic particles engaged in a pointless dance fully choreographed by the laws of physics. Is it really the case that feelings of joy, sorrow, or boredom are nothing but chemical reactions in the brain — reactions between molecules and atoms that, even more microscopically, are reactions between some of the fundamental particles, which are really just vibrating strings?

He goes on to quote Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, who writes of people who are “appalled by what they feel to be the bleakness of modern science”:

I would not try to answer these critics with a pep talk about the beauties of modern science. The reductionist worldview is chilling and impersonal. It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but because that is the way the world works.

I don’t get it. Why does string theory suddenly make everything so bleak? Before we came up with strings we knew that all the wonders of the universe and human experience were caused by the interactions of electrons, protons and neutrons. Why are strings more repugnant than atoms? There is no denying that tiny physical particles are involved in everything from sensations of happiness to supernovae. It seems to me that whether science reveals their fundamental building blocks to be atoms or quarks or strings or this, it’s irrelevant to the questions of religion.

Greene writes that “a staunch reductionist would claim that…in principle absolutely everything, from the big bang to daydreams, can be described in terms of underlying microscopic physical processes involving the fundamental constituents of matter. If you understand everything about the ingredients, the reductionist argues, you understand everything.” I think the problem lies in that last sentence. That does seem to be the prevailing attitude in science today — yet it just doesn’t sound right.

Even if you could have a perfect understanding of the ingredients, you’re a long way away from understanding everything. You might be close to understanding how it all works, but the lines between science and religion start to get blurred when your quest to understand takes you to those final questions, “Why is this here at all? For that matter, why is anything in the universe here? Why does something exist instead of nothing?” It’s when we ponder those questions that we can set our telescopes and microscopes and calculators aside, and seek answers in the disciplines that speak to those and all the other mysterious questions that science could never answer, and, in this life, we could never fully understand.

* I was actually going to be on an “Ignatian spirituality” kick but when I settled in to read The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the introduction basically said “these exercises must be done with a skilled spiritual director, and if you do it on your own you’ll get crappy results” (my words). Uhhh…glad I spent that $9.50. Could we maybe get a “There’s No Point in Buying This” warning label on future copies? 🙂

16 Comments

  1. Terri

    This book sounds fascinating. I’ll have to add it to my “Books to Read” list.

  2. Melora

    I watched The Elegant Universe (I think it was a NOVA production) and thought it was absolutely fascinating. I’m with you on not seeing a conflict between science and religion, and you put it so well. When I learn about quarks, strings, other dimensions, etc., it doesn’t diminish my faith, rather, it fills me with wonder for our Creator. I bought The Fabric of the Cosmos, but haven’t gotten to it yet.

  3. Mark

    If you liked that, try Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages (and much earlier books, George Gamow’s Mr Tompkins in Paperback

  4. Karen

    I’m totally a science geek! And everything I learn about science just puts me more and more in awe of God, the Creator of all of this!

    Here is a quote from Francis Collins that relates:

    We live in an unfortunate time when the Richard Dawkins crowd says religion is silly, and other people say evolution is silly. Most people don’t agree with either extreme. The dominant position in the past for most working scientists was a middle ground. You use the tools of science to understand how nature works, but you also recognize that there are things outside of nature, namely God, for which the tools of science are not well designed to derive truth. The middle ground position is that there is more than one way to find truth, and a fully formed effort to try to answer the most important questions would not limit you to the kinds of questions that science can answer, especially the eternal one: why are we all here, anyway?

  5. Warren

    Jen,

    You’re right, there is no conflict whatsoever between science and Christianity, as Pope B16 recently stated. Anyone who claims that there is such a conflict doesn’t understand science, or Christianity, or both. This includes atheists and, unfortunately, many improperly instructed Christians as well.

    In addition, Christianity has always taught that there is no such conflict. (By “Christianity” here I mean the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.) The idea that Christianity is somehow “at war” with science is nothing but an atheist fable, brilliantly debunked by Dinesh D’Souza in his excellent new book, “What’s So Great About Christianity”. I highly recommend this book to all your readers. It’s a full frontal assault on the current atheist jihad (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al) on numerous different fronts – historical, cultural, moral, scientific, philosophical, etc. A great read.

  6. Sarahndipity

    Ok, you’re going to have to explain string theory in a way that my English major brain can understand it. 🙂 I’ve heard of it but I was never sure exactly what it is.

    I’ve never understood why people think science and religion are in conflict. In my experience, the only enhance each other.

  7. Sarahndipity

    Argh, that should be “they” only enhance each other.

    To expand upon my point, I believe that good science and true religion will never contradict each other. When there’s an apparent contradiction, either the science is bad, the theology is false, or both.

  8. blog nerd

    scientific atheism strikes me as kind of funny–that sort of ‘oh stars are JUST flaming balls of gases’

    It’s the JUST part that gets me.

    We are JUST a collection of nerves and chemicals.

    Just? Have you ever seen a collection of nerves and chemicals spontaneously arise from the ether and create the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?

    All THAT is is PAINT, by the way.

  9. Catherine

    Bravo! Excellent post! I have been fighting reductionist thinking for a long time. Alas, it shows up not only in science, but religion and theology as well.

    You have expressed yourself beautifully – I am quickly being addicted to your blog. Thanks.

  10. Abigail

    John Paul II Quote that I like says

    “good science and good theology never refute each other.”

  11. Letum

    Speaking of this reductionist attitude among scientists, which is odd, somebody should write a book. They should call it, “Scientists Behaving Badly: When Smart People Act Dumb.”

    I decided to edit those two segments you posted from Elegant Universe. I switched out terms to reflect ancient Hebrew and Greek cosmology.

    “Many find it fatuous and downright repugnant to claim that the wonders of life and the universe are mere fluctuations emerging from the primordial chaos of the universal waters, especially since they must behave in accord with the unkowable will of the Deity. Is it really the case that feelings of joy, sorrow, or boredom are nothing but letters etched on the pulsating heart by the pressure of forms it encounters? Is it true that knowledge consists of mere indentations on the gray organ within our heads? — forms imposed on the object by routine exposure to stress? Even more disturbing, are we merely clay vessels controled by the gods, and is our free will only a derivative of a higher will, unable to exist without it? Everything, even fundamental elements, are mere products of the breath of God, which is just pure, inaccessible and unsearchable Being?

    I would not try to answer critics with a pep talk about the beauties of ancient natural philosophy. The Greek and Judeo-Christian worldview is chilling and banaly personal. It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but because that is the way the world works.”

    I love making fun of scientists who slept through philosophy class. Seems they slept through a lot of real life too…

  12. Patrick O'Hannigan

    If you haven’t already read Michuo Kaku’s book, “Einstein’s Cosmos,” I think you’ll like it. Ditto some of the books by Stanley L. Jaki, a physicist and priest, although I found Jaki tough sledding myself.

  13. Anna

    Jen,

    I read that book recently, too. It was excellent. He did a wonderful job of explaining some very complicated ideas, I thought.

    The dance analogy is a good one: picture looking on a complicated, choreographed dance. You and I see the beauty of the dance – the arabesques, the tangoes, the swings, the swoops and whirls and leaps – and praise God for it. The reductionists see only slavery, the incoherency or impossibility of breaking free from a pre-programmed life. No wonder they call it a bleak outlook!

    Why are strings more repugnant than atoms?

    The same reductionist question came out when atoms were first being contemplated, I think. To understand how strings advance the reductionist ideology, you have to understand where it comes from in the first place. To a cave-man, lightning is an act of God, because it is something he cannot fathom or control. Lighting is essentially proof that God exists. The more we understand how lightning works (and the more control we can exert on the world), the less inclined we are to believe in something fundamentally more powerful than ourselves as being the source of all the workings of the world.

    Atoms promised to explain “everything” – not just the ingredients, as you said, but also the sum total of human experience. But then we discovered quantum physics, and it’s much harder to argue that the world is a pre-programmed place when you find out about the uncertainty principle, Schrodinger’s cat, or even quantum tunneling. Greene sort of brushes this off by saying that we can still predict things statistically, even if we can’t know them precisely. That it only removes the determinism one step back, not breaks it entirely. Either way, quantum physics can test anyone’s belief in determinism.

    So when string theory came along, holding out hope for being the “Theory of Everything”, you can maybe see how that bolstered reductionism. Atoms failed to live up to their promise of explaining everything; strings offer that hope back again.

    And while I do believe that they are missing the point that we are not only physical creatures, and therefore cannot be governed only by the physical laws of nature, I think that the basic challenge of reductionism is a real one that is worth thinking about.

    Drugs and such today make it increasingly clear the impact of various chemicals on our thought patterns. If the chemical interactions are predestined (determined by the workings of nature), then how can we maintain that our thoughts are not also predestined? (Is it ordained that certain parts of a brain MRI will light up, based on the chemical interactions, or is it not set in stone, because it reflects our not-predestined thoughts? At what level do we draw that line?) And if we want to claim that the chemical interactions are not predestined, then what scientific basis do we have for that? It’s a question worth pondering for anyone interested in science and theology.

    The reductionist worldview is chilling and impersonal. It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but because that is the way the world works.

    Am I the only one that sees the utter irony in arguing that people must accept a worldview which teaches that the thoughts and actions of those people are determined by the chemicals in their brains and, ultimately, the initial state of the universe?

    It’s really a sort of very twisted, ironic testimony to the fact that we all of us know on some level that Truth is absolutely Good, even while we are trying to deny that there is any (absolute) Good in the universe.

  14. Matt

    What I find hilarious is when scientists find things that they think explain everything in purely material terms, and then proceed to make truth claims of all things!

    As one of my college professors loved to say, a materialist making truth claims is like shaking up a bottle of Dr. Pepper and a bottle of Mountain Dew, setting them on the table and asking ‘who’s winning the argument?’

    Obviously no one is, it’s just a chemical reaction, atoms banging around. So what raises the atoms banging around (or strings vibrating around) in the scientist’s head from the bubbles in the soda? If you are a materialist, the sad answer is: Nothing.

    In Pax Christi,

    Matt

  15. Caryl

    Hi Jennifer,
    You have a fine site and interesting and well-written posts. I am also a Catholic convert.
    I don’t know what empirical evidence there is for the highly mathematized and abstract view of the cosmos propounded by string theorists. I think before accepting these theories one should read deeply into the history of science. Another book of importance is Owen Barfield’s “Saving the Appearances” — Barfield was a friend of C.S. Lewis. This is a difficult book but it well repays the work of reading and digesting it. An essay of mine
    about this book was posted by Lila Rajiva on her site, if you are
    interested:

    http://mindbodypolitic.com/?p=562

    Thanks for the good work.

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