Course Mechanics


This course will have some overlap with Dr. Dimmock's "Theories of the Universe" both because religion is tied into theories of the universe, and because I need to get a running start on the 20th century physics that interest me the most. It will also overlap the Philosophy department's "philosophy of science", and the History department's "history of science" courses. Like the gestalt theorists, I believe the total can be greater than the sum of its parts, and in this course, we include the Christian religion as a neglected part of this total.

I am not a philosopher, and feel some trepidation covering this material just because it is so heavily philosophical. However, I have had more theology training than most other faculty in this school, and hope that this will make up for the deficiencies. The goal of this course is (a) to show that Science, Philosophy and Christianity can have an equilibrium both historically and at the present, and (b) what form I take that equilibrium to be.

The Trinity Methodology

As I develop my views on that equilibrium, I will use triangles to illustrate my point. This is not just because I have a fixation on trinities, but because I find it to be a valuable tool in solving conflicts. In ancient Greece, some of the pre-socratic philosophers debated about whether diversity existed, or whether "everything was one". (Parmenides etc.) This emphasis on unity is one way to resolve conflict, but since it eliminates distinguishing elements, it is not a philosophy that contains science. As I will emphasize many times in this course, I am not interested in a philosophy or a religion and eliminates science. Thus unities become philosophical curiosities of little interest to me.

One can do a lot more science with dualities, or opposites. One can play 20 questions with yes/no binary questions and just about describe anything in the universe. Shades of gray are also allowed, though subject, of course, to controversy. This black and white world is vastly more interesting to study, and like b/w television, conveys all the essentials needed to appreciate the plot. But the one fly in the ointment is the problem of gray areas, which appears to be insoluble when one man's white becomes another's black.

Fortunately the human eye is graced with more than b/w rods, but with 3 flavors of cones: red, green and blue. With three receptors, suddenly all the millions of colors supported on your video board are possible to perceive. Color television, though hardly necessary to enjoy "I Love Lucy" shows, nonetheless swept over America and replaced all the b/w sets, demonstrating that people naturally prefer trinities to dualities. Why is that? Some would argue that it is more realistic, or even more emotional. I would argue that it permits the complexity and richness that is part of the human psyche; the nuances of a red apple, a deep blue ocean, a blushing bride, that are missing from the b/w presentation. In exactly the same way, trinities of thought give us negotiating room, nuances of meaning, paths around the logical pitfalls and irreconcilable differences that permit progress to be made.

If three is good, is four better? Perhaps its a matter of taste, but I for one cannot handle four and higher dimensional color plots--the ones that use 2-space for 2 quantities, and 2 or 3 colors for other quantities. I'm told that with practice even I could master this technique, but informal surveys indicate that I am not alone in my aversion to higher dimensions. Let's face it, our brains are optimized for three dimensions, and this is a problem even Einstein had to face in formulating his higher dimensional geometries. For this reason, I stop with trinities, and argue that this supplies more than enough wiggle room for our purposes.

(I cannot help but add that there are profound theological and mathematical reasons for preferring trinities. After all, other religions have posited dualities for their God, why does Christianity insist upon a Trinity? Likewise, vector calculus or physics is trivial in 2 and 4 dimensions, it is only in 3 dimensions that complexity arrives. There is more than accidental occurrence of trinities in many areas of sub-atomic physics, all suggesting that three is more than a practical limit, but a number of deep significance.)

The trinity upon which this course is based is found in the title. It is the trinity of Science, Philosophy, and Religion which I schematically indicate with a triangle labelled with the greek letters: sigma, phi, and theta. These are also the 3 ways in which knowledge or truth is obtained: experience, reason, and revelation. Whenever there are debates between two of these poles, say between reason and experience, there is always a (usually) hidden contribution from the third. I believe it is in recognizing this "third" contribution that we can resolve many of the intractable problems that plague our subject area. The goal of this course is to develop a sensitivity if not tools for our own investigation of science, philosophy and religion, that permit us to make progress, if not in society, at least in our own understanding.

Annotated Bibliography

Science & Religion: an Introduction Alister E. McGrath
This is written by a theologian who attempts to ameliorate the debate between science and religion. His is almost an abridged version of this course, highly summarized. Read this book to get an overall view of the battle, as well as a sympathetic view on religion.

Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives John Hedley Brook
Written by a science historian, he delights in historical surprises, the complexities of real history that have become simplified cartoons repeated in countless texts. Especially valuable for the Galileo and Darwin periods.

God and the New Physics Paul Davies
Davies is a theoretical physicist, (which by the way, make the best lecturers and popularizers of physics) who is intrigued by all the philosophical conundrums that plague science. He has written over 10 books (about 6 a decade) on the subject of philosophical or religious implications of physics. Although hard-core scientists might dismiss him as a hoi polloi popularizer, his position reflects a strong desire to keep physics relevant with some sort of modified naive realism.

The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion and the Search for God Kitty Ferguson
Kitty Fergusen is a journalist whose reason for writing this book apparently was a physicist brother who lost his faith. She is in the hot pursuit of faith, and does a better job explaining some of the recent physics discoveries than the physicists themselves. In particular, I liked her explanation of Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" better than his. For it is Hawking's sentence that became Fergusen's title.

Additional Resources

God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science Edited by David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers
These are very nice papers delivered at a "history of science" conference that brought diverse historians together to discuss some of the same issues covered by John Hedley Brook. They predate Brook, and can be thought of as an additional resource or amplification of the themes in Brook's book.

God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion. Christopher Southgate and the Contributors
I didn't get too far with this book, partly because it is an anthology which shows uneven treatment. It appeared to be similar in scope to McGrath's book, but with a prediliction for Process Theology as pushed by Ian Barbour and John Polkinghorne. Other than gray-haired academics, I haven't found too many people advocating it, and have a gut feeling that its a sterile approach.

Science & Theology: an Introduction John Polkinghorne
Polkinghorne, like Davies and Barbour, are all theoretical physicists who have taken up philosophy in their old age. Richard Feynman made a disparaging remark about this class of people, which I took personally, but seems to ring true. These are all very educated people who clearly have struggled with reconciling science and religion, but their solution of process theology leaves me cold, and feels a bit stale.

The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism Phillip E. Johnson
Johnson is a lawyer teaching at UC Berkeley, who decided that the theory of evolution wouldn't stand up in a law court because of the way its supporters defend it. ("Everyone who is intelligent believes in Evolution, so it must be true".) By default, he has become a soft-spoken proponent of the view that the Emperor has no clothes. This book tries to take apart the scientific-philosophical consensus called "naturalism".

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes Stephen W. Hawking
This was Hawking's surprise best-seller, perhaps due to the television exposure he also recieved. It covers some of the intricacies of cosmology and black holes, for it was Hawking (as a student of Roger Penrose) who first applied black-hole theory to the Big Bang. In it, Hawking thinks he has solved the problem of the beginning of the universe by proposing that the primordial snake swallowed its tail. Hawking does his best to avoid saying that he is doing philosophy, but it is the Preface by Carl Sagan that gives away the game. Worth reading, but you may get more from Fergusen's book.

The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism Ronald L. Numbers
Numbers was raised "fundamentalist" (though given the recent media use of the word, we may have to find an alternative) but balked at the recent religious changes that required allegiance to "young earth" theories (Earth is less than 10,000 years old). He researched the emergence of this religious requirement, and writes a fascinating history of the subject, though unfortunately, losing most of his faith in the process. He remains, however, a historian sensitive to the intricacies of fundamentalist christianity.

Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues Ian G. Barbour, the first edition of this book had a slightly different title Religion in an Age of Science Ian G. Barbour
Ian Barbour is without a doubt the grandfather of all "Religion & Science" professors, having written exhaustive books on the subject 40 years ago before it became a popular subject. My difficulty with him, as with Polkinghorne, is that he adopts process theology (a la Whitehead, Bergson) as a pattern with which to reunite religion to physics. Unfortunately the paradigm he chose was founded on Evolutionary Theory, which in recent years has come under increasing criticism. So the sythesis he achieves appears to me to be very dated. Anecdotal evidence suggests that his approach is most popular with scientists above age 55, which I take to be evidence of sterility.

The Non-Local Universe: the new Physics and Matters of the Mind Robert Nadeau and Menas Kafatos
I bought the book, but haven't read it. I'm hoping it addresses the implications of non-locality of quantum mechanics for Einstein locality. Any reviewers out there?

Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science & Theology William A. Dembski
Dembski is a double PhD in Math and Philosophy, and has tried to put some of the well-known arguments for the existence of God on firm theoretical grounds. He devises a calculus for estimating the degree of randomness or the degree of orderliness of a process. Building on information theory (pioneered by Claude Shannon in the 1950's) he argues for the evidence of design in nature. That is, he agrees that evolution is apparent in nature, but that it could not have occurred by chance. As you might guess, its a controversial stand that has taken a large amount of criticism, but is building quiet support in academia around the US. This book is his magnum opus, and has some sections that are completely unreadable by non-math majors. Worth the read if you want to understand his position.

Quantum Mind: the edge between physics and psychology Arnold Mindell
I haven't read this either. It appears to be another pop-psychology book written by a psychologist who is grappling with the new physics. Any takers?

Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Jonathon Wells
In the culture wars, there are only two sides, those who believe Evolution, and those who don't. Wells, like Johnson's book, shows why the defense of evolution has gaping holes that no amount of apoplexy can overcome. In particular, he takes 10 photographs that commonly appear in high school and college biology textbooks as evidence for evolution, and demonstrates why they are all defective, or even out-right hoaxes that only remain in print because of the lack of better replacements. It's a shocking expose, with uproariously funny accounts of scientific ego. Highly recommended.

Not by Chance!: Shattering the modern theory of evolution Lee Spetner
Spetner appears to be an engineer who wanted to quantify this fuzzy area of genetic evolution. He applies well-known and accepted methods of calculating the probabilities and rates of genetic mutation, and finds that the answers are many orders of magnitude off. That is, a mutation that should take 40,000 years to happen spontaneously occurs multiple times in 40 days. Although not in the "Intelligent Design" camp, Spetner is willing to argue against orthodoxy because of his strong Jewish faith, and apparently has a Jewish following. (As an aside, if two independent researchers come to the same conclusion, one might suspect that there some objectivity to their work.) With Spetner's knowlege of molecular genetics, he makes a nice counterpoint to Dembski. (His counterpart in the ID camp would be Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University.)

The Bible New International Version, 1990. An anthology of books written over the course of 1300 years, originally in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. It's a world-wide best-seller. This english translation is about 15 years old, though beginning to show decay. Worth reading.

The Savior of Science Stanley Jaki
Jaki was a physicist who converted to philosophy at a very young age, and has taught philosophy of science at Seton Hall University until recently. As a Benedictine monk, he alone, among the many physicists I've read on this subject, has an appreciation for the Medieval synthesis and its importance for the debate today. For example, it was he who discovered that Newton's laws were formulated roughly 300 years earlier by a Medieval monk. He is a good antidote to modern religious antagonism, arguing that Christianity was a necessary ingredient in the formulation of modern science.

Means to Message: a treatise on truth Stanley Jaki
As any true philosopher would do, Jaki argues that even the mechanism of spoken and written language exhibits the reality of absolute truth. He may be a voice in the wilderness, but someone has to point out that modern philosophy espouses a form of solipsism, an inconsistency that is as shocking as the Emperor without clothes. Jaki is an accessible interpreter of modern Catholic thought, which apparently gets short shrift in American academe.

Hill Roberts Web Site: Lord I Believe
Long before there was a recognizable movement called "Intelligent Design" highly educated christians have been arguing these points, though perhaps with less rigor. Roberts has put together a series of powerpoint presentations, and hosted a web site that discusses these same issues. Curiously, like ID, he has encountered opposition both from the right and the left, from both politically correct liberals and fundamentalists. I admire men, like Abraham Lincoln, who do not seek security in the faceless anonymity of a crowd or a creed. Unlike the books, this is a web-accessible site, and worth surfing.

Robert Sheldon's Job Site: JOB Site
Well, actually, this is a shameless advertisement. My interest in science and religion never really disappeared in graduate school, but it was the book of Job that reinvigorated my interest. Somehow, in this most misunderstood book in the Bible, more physics is described than all other 65 books put together. That puzzle (and much misfortune) led me to analyze the book in great detail, which resulted in a new understanding of epistemology and the basis of this course.

William Dembski's ID Site: ID Coming Clean Dembski never really says what his demolition of Evolution is intended to accomplish, which has given his critics free reign to impugn his motives. In this web site, he tries to quiet all the speculation, without necessarily committing himself to one particular theory. You be the judge of whether he was successful.

Last modified, January 9, 2002, RbS