Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview with physicist Dr.
Stephen Barr | By Mark Brumley | September 25, 2006
Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview with physicist Dr.
Stephen Barr | By Mark Brumley | September 25, 2006
Some news hooks are
irresistible, even when they're false or at least incomplete. Case in point:
the alleged conflict between science and religion. Is science opposed to
religion? The answer depends in large measure on what you mean by religion. If
your "religion" is, say, astrology, then you could say there's a conflict
between science and "religion". The science of astronomy does conflict with the
"religion" of astrology.
Probably most people who
speak of a conflict between science and religion, though, don't mean the
"religion" of astrology -- if they think of astrology as a religion at all.
They mean Christianity or perhaps Judeo-Christianity. They have before their
minds Galileo and his struggle with the Inquisition of the Catholic Church over
geocentrism or, more recently, the argument certain Christians have with the
theory of evolution. Or perhaps they have only a vague idea that as science
progresses religion becomes more and more problematic. Religion, in this view,
is simply a way of talking about things science hasn't yet explained. When
science gets around to explaining them, no role for religion will remain, and
like the State in the Marxist paradise, it will wither away.
Those ideas about science
and "religion" suppose an inherent conflict between the two fields. Conflicts,
of course, make for more exciting news stories. But does the constant "hook" of
a battle between science and religion reflect reality? Are science and religion
-- specifically Christianity -- inevitably at odds with one another?
No, says physicist and
Catholic Stephen Barr, author of
Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame Press). Dr. Barr is professor of physics at the Bartol Research Institute at the
University of Delaware. His writings include essays such as "A new Symmetry
Breaking Pattern for SO(10) and Proton Decay" and "Electric Dipole Moment of
the Electron and of the Neutron", though IgnatiusInsight.com readers are more likely to know Stephen Barr's
essays and reviews
in First Things magazine, where he writes on such topics as
evolution and Intelligent Design and naturalism.
Ignatius Insight recently interviewed Dr. Barr on science and religion.
What is your background in science? In religion?
Dr. Barr: I received my Ph.D. in physics from Princeton in
1978. Since 1987 I have been a professor at the University of Delaware. My
field of research is theoretical particle physics, and I have worked primarily
in the area of "grand unified theories" and the cosmology of the early
I am a lifelong Catholic.
The controversial issue of Intelligent Design involves a basic question: What
is science? How would you define science, as opposed to philosophy and theology?
And would you call the "design hypothesis" put forward by the Intelligent
Design movement science?
Dr. Barr: Science is sometimes divided into the "natural
sciences" (astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, biology) and the "human
sciences" (like anthropology and psychology). The goal of the "natural
sciences" is to understand the "natural order" of the physical universe. There
are, of course, realities beyond the natural order and beyond the physical, but
they lie outside the purview of natural science. Philosophy and theology have a
much broader scope.
As I understand the
"Intelligent Design movement", they are saying that certain biological
phenomena can only be explained as miracles. They don't use that language, but
that is in effect what they are saying. I firmly believe that miracles do
happen. But a miracle, since it is something that contravenes the natural
order, lies outside of natural science. I think it is quite legitimate to use
scientific arguments and evidence to make out a case that some event is in fact
miraculous. But that means that you have run up against the limits of what
natural science can explain, and are invoking something beyond those limits.
That is why I do not regard the ideas of the Intelligent Design movement as
being hypotheses WITHIN natural science.
Let me put it this way.
Science may show that a person turned water into wine, but that would be a
miracle, not a new effect in the science of chemistry. Nor was the parting of
the Red Sea a new effect in hydrodynamics. I am not sure that the "design
hypothesis" is a part of biological science. That is not to say that it is
Some scientists write as if they think that science can answer any question
capable of being asked and answered. How would you respond?
Dr. Barr: It's absurd, and I wonder if anyone really believes
it. I suspect that most of the people who write such things actually have all
sorts of firmly held personal convictions that they could not prove by
There are many important
questions about which natural science has nothing to say. Can science say
whether murder is wrong? Or whether human beings have free will? Or whom a
person should marry? Or whether a nation should go to war? Or what a man should
live for or be ready to die for? And yet these are questions that not only can
be answered but must be.
What, in your view, is the most significant misunderstanding when it comes to
religion and science?
Dr. Barr: Many atheists believe that all religion is at bottom
either a pre-scientific attempt to understand natural phenomena through myth or
an attempt to obtain worldly benefits through magic. And since they see science
as the antithesis of myth and magic they cannot help but see all religion as
antiscientific. Of course, such people haven't a clue what true religion is all
Do you know many scientists who are also religious believers?
Dr. Barr: Yes, quite a few. Indeed, I have about half a dozen
friends in my own field who are devout Catholics. In fact, one of the real
geniuses in my field (he would be ranked at or near the very top) is a
practicing Catholic. However, in my experience most scientists are
non-religious. However, that may have more to do with general cultural
attitudes than with them being scientists. I have found as much atheism in
humanities departments as in science departments.
The science/religion debate/discussion operates on a number of levels. One is
on the cosmic level -- the existence of the universe. What can science tell us
of the universe's origins? Are there limits to what science can say? What role
do philosophy and theology play in considering the question of the universe's
Dr. Barr: One has to distinguish the question of the
universe's beginning moments from the question of why there is a universe at
all. In my view, science will never provide an answer to the latter question.
As Stephen Hawking famously noted, all theoretical physics can do is give one a
set of rules and equations that correctly describe the universe, but it cannot
tell you why there is any universe for those equations to describe. He asked,
"What breathes fire into the equations so that there is a universe for them
As far as the beginning
moments of the universe go, science may eventually be able to describe what
happened then. That is, when we know the fundamental laws of physics in their
entirety -- as I hope someday we will -- it may well turn out that the opening
events of the universe happened in accordance with those laws. In that sense, "the beginning" could have been "natural".
However, that would not explain the "origin" of the universe in the deeper
sense meant by "Creation".
Let me use an analogy. The first words of a play -- say Hamlet -- may obey the laws of English grammar. They may
also fit into the rest of the plot in a natural way. In that sense, one might
be able to give an "internal explanation" of those beginning words. However,
that would not explain why there is a play. There is a play because there is a
playwright. When we ask about the "origin" of the play, we are not asking about
its first words, we are asking who wrote it and why. The origin of the universe
is God Almighty.
What do you think about efforts to develop a "Theory of Everything"?
Dr. Barr: I prefer to speak about a "Theory of Everything
Physical". The goal of fundamental physics is to find the ultimate laws that
govern all of physical reality. Most physicists, myself included, are convinced
that such ultimate laws exist. There are good reasons to suspect that
"superstring theory" -- or what is now called "M-theory" -- may be that
ultimate theory. However, we are very far from being able to test it. In any
event, to call any physics theory a "Theory of Everything" is to make the
unwarranted -- indeed false -- assumption that everything is physical.
What about the idea of multiple universes? Can we speak meaningfully of more
than one "universe"?
Dr. Barr: As most people use the phrase, "multiple universes"
is really a misnomer. What they usually really mean is that there is just one
universe that is made up of many "domains" or regions, which are mutually
inaccessible in practice -- for example, because they are too far apart. The
physical conditions in the various domains could be so different that they
would appear superficially to
have different physical laws. However, in all such scenarios it is assumed that
the various domains actually all obey the same fundamental or ultimate laws.
This "multiverse" idea is a perfectly sensible one. In fact, there are reasons
to suspect that our universe may have such a domain structure.
Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time, talks about God and the mind of God. Yet he also
seems to question whether there really is the need for a Creator in order to
explain the existence of the cosmos. How do you see the matter? Is God a
"necessary hypothesis"? Does science have anything to say about the question?
Dr. Barr: Hawking asked the right question when he wondered
why there is a universe at all, but somehow he cannot accept the answer. The
old question is, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Science cannot
answer that question, as Hawking (at least sometimes) realizes. I think his
problem is that he doesn't see how the existence of God answers that question
either. Part of the reason that many scientists are atheists is that they don't
really understand what is meant by "God".
Anything whose existence
is contingent (i.e. which could exist or not exist) cannot be the explanation
of its own existence. It cannot, as it were, pull itself into being by its own
bootstraps. As St. Augustine says in his Confessions, all created things cry out to us, "We did not make
ourselves." Only God is uncreated, because God is a necessary being: He cannot
not exist. It is of His very nature to exist. He said to Moses, "I AM WHO AM.
... Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: 'I AM hath sent me unto
I think scientists like
Hawking would be helped if they could imagine God as an infinite Mind that
understands and knows all things and Who, indeed, "thought the world up". If
all of reality is "intelligible" (an idea that would appeal to scientists),
then it follows really that there is some Intellect capable of understanding it
fully. If no such Intellect exists or could exist, in what sense is reality
fully intelligible? We need to recover the idea of God as the Logos, i.e. God as
Reason itself. I note that Pope Benedict has stressed this in his recent
addresses about science and in his speech at Regensburg. It is an idea of God that people who devote their lives
to rational inquiry can appreciate.
You've written about the creation/evolution/ intelligent design controversy.
What is your understanding of the main issues in that debate? Where do you come
Dr. Barr: There are really two quite distinct debates going
on. One is between so-called "Creationism" and Evolution. The other is between
Darwinism and the "Intelligent Design movement".
The Creationists deny
that evolution happened. They are charging off an intellectual cliff. There is
overwhelming and convergent evidence from many directions for the evolution of
species. So it is embarrassing that this "Creationism" versus Evolution battle
is still going on. Fortunately, it has never been a Catholic fight. The
Catholic Church has never had an objection to the idea of the evolution of
species of plants and animals. As far as the evolution of man goes, the Church
has always insisted that the human soul, being spiritual, cannot be explained
by, or be the product of, merely material processes, whether biological
reproduction or biological evolution. The soul of each human being is directly
conferred on him or her by God, as taught symbolically in Gen 2:7. However, the
Church never condemned the idea that the human body evolved from pre-existing
organisms. The natural origin of the human body by evolution is no more a
threat to anything we believe as Catholics than is the natural origin of each
human body by sexual reproduction.
Evolution as a biological
theory has never bothered the Church, though she has always vigorously rejected
radical philosophical ideas that were offshoots of it.
The debate between
"Intelligent Design" and Darwinism has to be taken more seriously. The
self-styled Intelligent Design (or "ID") movement says that while evolution may
have happened the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection acting on random
genetic mutations is not adequate to explain it. In particular, the ID people
point to the great complexity of life, especially at the cellular level. If
they are right, that would be very interesting, as it would almost force one to
invoke miraculous intervention by God to explain many of the facts of biology.
It would give us a slam-dunk proof for the existence of God. I, for one, would
be very happy about that.
But are they right in
saying that the Darwinian mechanism is inadequate to explain biological
complexity? Most biologists, including most of those who are devout Christian
believers, doubt it very strongly. And even if the ID people are right, it will
be virtually impossible to prove that they are right because they are asserting
a negative. They are saying that no Darwinian explanation of certain complex
structures will ever be forthcoming. Well, there may not exist such an
explanation now, but there might exist one later. So, in practice, I don't see
a slam-dunk proof for miraculous intervention in evolution as coming out of
Frankly, I don't see this
debate as one in which Catholics, as Catholics, have any stake. The traditional
arguments for the existence of God are much deeper and more reliable than the
ones the ID movement is trying to make. The Catholic Church herself has taken
no stance on this controversy. A 2004 document of the International Theological
Communion and Stewardship, issued with the approval of then Cardinal Ratzinger,
said it was an interesting dispute that should be left to scientists to decide,
since it could not be decided by theological arguments.
Critics of evolution point to statements made by some evolutionists to the
effect that life emerged by chance occurrences or "random mutations" and
natural selection. The "randomness" thought to be involved critics take as
undercutting a claim that life on earth is the result of the creative act of
God. What is your view of the matter?
Dr. Barr: The idea that chance plays a role in events is in no
way contrary to Catholic doctrine. St. Augustine in The City of God says that no one in this life "can escape being
tossed about by chance and accident". St. Thomas Aquinas devoted a whole
chapter of his Summa
Contra Gentiles (Book 3 chapter 74) to defending the proposition that "Divine Providence does not exclude chance and
accident." The Bible itself talks about chance: "Time and chance happeneth to
them all" (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
Things are matters of
chance from a certain point of view. From God's point of view everything is
known from all eternity. As Proverbs 16:33 says, "The lot is cast into the lap,
but the decision is wholly from the Lord."
In everyday life we talk
about the probabilities of things happening, and we talk about chance events,
and such talk in no way implies a denial that God is in charge of everything
and foreknows everything.
Scientists use the
concepts of chance, probability, and randomness in much the same way. In a
reasonably well-defined mathematical sense, the motions of the air molecules in
a room are "random". There is nothing necessarily atheistic in saying this.
The SETI project seems predicated on the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.
Do we have good scientific grounds for thinking such life exists? Would the
existence of extraterrestrial life pose any special problems, in your view, to
religion in general or Christianity in particular?
Dr. Barr: There are too many things we don't know for anyone
to be able to say that extraterrestrial life "probably exists" or "probably
doesn't". For one thing, we don't know how big the universe is. Given what we
now know, it is not unlikely that it is infinitely large. (I have found that
many people have the false impression that the Big Bang theory implies a
universe of finite size. Actually, in the standard Big Bang theory the universe
can be either finite in volume or infinite depending on the value of a certain
parameter, called Omega, and whether it is bigger or smaller than 1. Present
theory suggests that Omega is so close to 1 that it will be very hard, and
probably impossible, to determine by observation whether it is larger or
smaller than 1.) Even if the universe is of finite size, it is likely to be
exponentially larger than the part we can observe with telescopes. In short, we
cannot set any limit at present on how many stars and planets exist. It could
be 10 to the 20th power, or 10 to the millionth power, or indeed infinite. That
is all-important in deciding how likely it is that advanced life exists
However, if there is life
elsewhere, there are strong reasons to suspect that it is so far away that we
will never make contact with it. So many conditions have to be satisfied for a
planet even to be habitable, that it seems probable that we are the only
sentient beings in our galaxy.
I don't see why extraterrestrial
life raises any problems at all for Catholic theology. God might have created
free and rational beings in other parts of the universe. If so, they would have
immortal souls. If they fell, Christ could have redeemed them. He could have
redeemed them in the same way He redeemed us. If the Second Person of the
Blessed Trinity can assume unto Himself a human nature, He can assume unto
himself the nature of another kind of rational creature as well. In the
Hypostatic Union there is no "confusion of natures". They are not "blended".
The divine and human nature, while they belong to the same Person, are distinct
(though not separate). So we believe, unless we are Monothelite heretics. So, I
can see no logical reason why the Second Person of the Trinity could not assume
and act through any number of distinct finite natures that He makes his own.
There could be more than one Incarnation, different ones for different rational
species. Each Incarnation would give rise a distinct "Mystical Body of Christ".
We redeemed humans would be members of His human Mystical Body, in which we
would have communion with God and with each other. And the alien species (those
who were redeemed) would be members of a different Mystical Body, in which they
would have communion with God and with each other.
These are my own views,
and I speak under correction. However, this question is purely speculative, as
it is highly unlikely we will ever know whether other rational beings exist in
You've written about the issue of artificial intelligence. Many scientists and
technicians seem to think it only a matter of time before a genuinely
artificial intelligence, capable of engaging in all the kinds of intellectual
activities of human beings is created. What is your view?
Dr. Barr: I think they are wrong. I do not believe that the
human intellect and will are reducible to the operations of a machine. There
are philosophical arguments going back to Plato and Aristotle for the
immateriality of the human intellect. And I think that there are very
suggestive indications from both modern physics and mathematics that seem to
dovetail with these philosophical arguments. I am thinking in particular of
quantum theory in its traditional formulation and Goedel's Theorem in
mathematics. There are some great scientists (like Sir Rudolf Peierls and
Eugene Wigner) who argued on the basis of quantum theory that the human mind
could not be explained by mere physics. And there are several eminent
philosophers and mathematicians who believe that Goedel's Theorem shows that
the human mind cannot be explained as a mere computer. I explain these
arguments in the latter part of my book.
What do you think of Nancey Murphy's non-reductive physicalism? (Assuming
you've followed her discussion.)
Dr. Barr: I haven't followed her writings, but I know that
there are many people who would argue that "spirit" is an "emergent" property
of matter. I look askance at such theories. As far as I am concerned, to say
that the spiritual is "physical" is
reductive. "Non-reductive physicalism" sounds to me like a contradiction in
terms. While the spiritual can be incarnate in matter, it cannot emerge from
matter. The spiritual powers of man, i.e. his intellect and will, cannot be
explained as growing out of the natural potentialities of matter, in my view.
As I argue in my book, matter cannot understand and the merely physical cannot
have freedom. I think the late pope was saying the same thing when he said that
between man and the lower animals there is an "ontological discontinuity". And
I think that Pope Pius XII was saying the same thing when he insisted that the
human spiritual soul cannot have evolved by material processes. And I think
that Genesis 2:7 is saying the same thing in speaking of God "breathing" the
soul into Adam.
There are a lot of people
nowadays who are made uncomfortable by the idea of a human "spiritual soul". I
am not one of them. I am happy to see that we in English-speaking countries
shall once more say at Mass "and with your SPIRIT" and in the Domine non sum
dignus "only say the word and my
SOUL shall be healed". There has been too much embarrassment over the idea of
Many scientists are outspoken when it comes to social issues. Does science, qua
science, provide objective values and an ethical code that is in principle
universal? Or do scientists get their ethical principles elsewhere, like the
rest of us?
Dr. Barr: Even Richard Dawkins admits that science cannot provide
us with the answers to moral questions. I frankly don't see how materialism can
ground any objective morality. In fact, I think materialism leads logically to
a denial of freedom of the will; and if there is no free will any talk of
morality is utterly meaningless.
Obviously, such things are beyond the power of strict prediction, but do you
think it likely that we will see another Copernican revolution in thought that
affects our worldview, including our theological worldview? If so, in what area
of science do you think it likely this will occur?
Dr. Barr: Before answering that, let me say something about
the past revolutions in scientific thought. It can be argued that the
Copernican Revolution and Newtonian Revolution gave rise to a worldview that
was in some tension with traditional Jewish and Christian theology. However, in
my view, several of the "revolutions" in twentieth-century science have
actually moved us back toward a view of the universe, of human beings, and of
our place in the universe that is more consonant with traditional Jewish and
Christian ideas than with materialism and atheism. In fact,
that is what my book
Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, is all about.
If there are future
revolutions in thought that come from science, we should not assume that they
will move us away from traditional theological positions. I expect them to move
In physics, the most
likely revolution in thought, in my view, would concern our understanding of
space and time. I don't think that would have any significant effect on
theology, except on naive theologies that are already at odds with what we
presently know about space and time (like "process theology"). The greatest
blank areas on the map of science are in biology and in the understanding of
mind. I don't think those blank areas will ever disappear altogether, since it
is unlikely that man is capable of fully understanding himself.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
The Mystery of Human Origins | Mark Brumley
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker
Related Ignatius Press Resources:
The Evidential Power of Beauty | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Science and Belief in a Nuclear Age | Peter Hodgson
Mark Brumley is President of
Ignatius Press and associate publisher of IgnatiusInsight.com.
An former staff apologist with Catholic Answers, Mark is the author of How
Not To Share Your Faith (Catholic Answers) and contributor to The
Five Issues That Matter Most. He is a regular contributor to the
InsightScoop web log.
He has written articles for numerous periodicals and has appeared on FOX NEWS, ABC NEWS,
EWTN, PBS's NewsHour, and other television and radio programs.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!