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Lecture 21: Intro Section 3 -- 20th Century Physics
God and the Astronomers
The 19th century was the century of Materialism. In biology, the triumph of Darwinism marked
the coup de grace to the slow malingering death of purpose; banished first from Newtonian
physics, then chemistry, and finally, life itself. Ludwig Boltzmann in a series of brilliant
papers demonstrated that all of the material universe could be shown to be composed of small,
discrete but invisible atoms, a glorious triumph for Epicurus who had proposed the atomic
theory of matter in the fifth century BC! Epicurean philosophy was also dedicated to
eradicating non-materialistic causes such as gods and spirits, so that throughout the
intervening 24 centuries, it was inevitabley associated with atheism and the denial of
purpose. Epicurus himself was an ascetic, and saw in materialism a tremendous freedom from
onerous religious obligations, but his followers, at least by Roman times, made
"Epicurean" synonymous with debauchery and license "eat, drink and be merry for
tomorrow we die". It is not insignificant that Boltzman, at the height of his career,
committed suicide, for the denial of purpose does more than promote atheism, it leads to
It was no doubt in response to such popular world views that Augustine of Hippo, a 4th
century professor of philosophy who converted to Christianity, developed his neo-Platonic
theology that so profoundly transformed the Christian Church. Despite continuous accretions
and additions over the next 15 centuries, Augustine's formulation of Christianity and his
response to materialism has continued nearly unchanged. For example, when the Crusades
rediscovered Aristotle, and the medieval scholastics were debating the merits of
incorporating Aristotle's semi-materialistic metaphysics, the bishop of Paris constructed a
long list of "heretical" Aristotelian propositions that could not be advocated since they ran
counter to Augustinian theology. Thus it should come as no surprise that in the 19th century,
"atomism", "materialism", and "determinism" were all viewed as atheistic philosophies in
direct conflict with orthodox Christianity.
If the 19th century can be seen as the victory of materialism over purpose, then the 20th
century can be seen as the ignoble defeat of materialism by the hand of science. Although
materialism is not
unconscious by any measure, neither is it the reigning champion parading around the ring as
one might conclude from reading Richard Dawkins or Carl Sagan. Rather, to the great
embarassment of the National Academy of Science, Augustine has won nearly every round of the
20th century. By way of analogy, physicists in 1890 spoke with great hubris that nearly
everything physical had been explained, leaving a few loose ends to tie up such as the black
body spectrum and the nature of the luminiferous ether. When these loose ends were explained
in the early 20th century, they became Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, unravelling all the
physics so neatly packaged by 19th century materialists. In the same way the mysteries
remaining at the end of the 20th century threaten to undo our uneasy armistice with purpose;
the stubborn incompleteness of quantum mechanics, big bang cosmology, and the
That is, physicists today do not argue with Bohr or Einstein about the meaning of Quantum
Mechanics. Indeed, much like hydrodynamics is no longer viewed a proper subject topic for
physics students, so the foundations of quantum mechanics are viewed as a proper subject for
philosophers only. We are told by countless professors and "serious" textbooks that one no
longer need understand what quantum mechanics "means", only that it works. Such agnostic
arguments are quite ancient, used by medieval scholastics "to save the appearances", as for
example, by Osiander in his introduction to Copernicus' posthumous astronomy text proposing
that the planets orbited the sun. Osiander attempted to blunt the inevitable criticism of
this radical view by suggesting that it was just a "dumb math trick" that achieved the same
answer as Ptolemy's more orthodox geocentric universe. No one bought the argument even then,
and certainly none of the proponents of quantum agnosticism want to return to Ptolemy, they
actually believe that Copernicus' elegant theory is closer to reality. Despite this naive
realism in all other fields, there remains among physicists more openness to discuss sexual
preference than the meaning of quantum mechanics. Why all this reluctance? Because there is a
reason for this family secret, this skeleton in the closet, this elephant in the living room,
that is tied to the rise of modern physics. Modern physics is all about the revival of
purpose, and purpose leads inexorably to God.
My own awareness of this skeleton came from reading two books in the early 80's, both
by well-respected heavyweights in physics, Robert
Jastrow's "God and the Astronomers (1978)" and Paul Davies
"God and the New Physics" (1984).
Jastrow wrote as a sympathetic agnostic, Davies as a searching materialist, but both of
them honest about the impact of 20th century physics on the scientific materialism
establishment. Very disturbing. Here is a highly excerpted passage from Jastrow's book:
Recent developments in astronomy have implications that may
go beyond their contribution to science itself. In a nutshell,
astronomers, studying the Universe through their telescopes,
have been forced to the conclusion that the world began
suddenly, in a moment of creation, as the product of unknown
Jastrow, even more than Davies, is willing to admit that Epicurean materialism is
facing perhaps its greatest challenge since Augustine, and even worse, the Augustinians
are winning "at least in the foreseeable future". (What do you want to bet that his editors
made him put that silly caveat next to his emphatic "never"? This is a perfect
illustration of the uneasy armistice between science and purpose.) This is why both
Davies and Jastrow use the word "God" in their book titles, because for the last two centuries,
the debate has been cast as "science versus religion" or "naturalism versus supernaturalism"
or "materialism versus spiritism" etc. Now that materialism is losing, it seems very
normal to assume that God must be winning. Davies, in a clever sleight-of-hand, tries to
redefine the battlefield itself, much as the cold-war joke of a Soviet news release reporting on a
race between the USSR and the USA: "the Russian came in second and the American next-to-last".
Jastrow, to his credit, ends his book with the comment that astronomers have scaled
the highest peak and climbed the last pinnacle only to find the philosophers and the theologians
waiting there for them.
From a philosophical point of view, this finding has traumatic
implications for science. Scientists have always felt more
comfortable with the idea of a Universe that has existed forever,...
This is a distressing result for scientists because, in the scientist's
view, given enough time and money, he must be able to find an
explanation for the beginning of the Universe on his own
terms-an explanation that fits into the framework of natural
rather than supernatural forces...
This is why it seems to me and to others that the curtain drawn
over the mystery of creation will never be raised by human
efforts, at least in the foreseeable future. Although I am an
agnostic, and not a believer, I still find much to ponder in the
view expressed by the British astronomer E. A. Milne, who
wrote, "We can make no propositions about the state of affairs
[in the beginning]; in the Divine act of creation God is
unobserved and unwitnessed."
In this last section of the course, we want to look at how the "New Physics" changes the
19th century paradigm in highly disturbing ways. Whether you come to this topic as an
avowed atheist, confused agnostic or ardent Christian, the 20th century discoveries should be
greatly disconcerting to your world view. My goal in this part of the course, is more
than creating an apology for some particular view, but to provide a critique for any view,
a tool that will enable the reader to evaluate not just the musty theories of forgotten
physicists, but the latest, snazzy theorie-du-jour coming down from the ivory pinnacles of
Harvard, Oxford or Paris. And like any good detective, the first step is understanding
the motives of all involved. Discounting greed, power and sex (which, though important,
cannot explain the reigning priesthood of science), we turn to every detectives fourth
most important motivation: metaphysics.
(Okay, I admit it, I've been reading too many Father Brown mysteries.)
In psychology, a popular phrase to describe this problem was "cognitive dissonance".
That's the feeling you get when two facts you thought were true contradict each other.
The human brain is marvellously adept at navigating these treacherous waters, even engaging
in outright deception to mitigate these dissonances.
thought your mom wanted you healthy all those years that she made you eat your liver, and now you
find out liver has enormous amounts of cholesterol and your arteries are clogged."
"She didn't know about cholesterol back then."
"Then why did she stop serving Dad fried eggs and bacon?"
"Well, perhaps she knew it was bad for adults but thought it was good for children."
"If she had a double standard for food, how do you know she didn't have
a double standard for health?"
"How ridiculous, she would never do that."
"How do you know? Are you sure you aren't just in denial?"
"Well look here, if she really wanted me unhealthy, why did she send me to school
with milk money all those years?"
"Was it whole milk?"
"Four percent milkfat has a lot of cholesterol."
"I don't believe you! You must be paranoid schizophrenic."
Such cognitive dissonances can be very useful, because they probe the deepest held
beliefs, and bring to light all the hidden assumptions. But we must be aware of all
the sophisticated forms of denial that try to make the problem go away. So when
Jastrow says that
the big bang theory had traumatic implications, he's saying that scientists had a
cognitive dissonance and it couldn't be easily brushed under the rug. The same thing is
true of Quantum Mechanics or the Anthropic Principle. Let us examine these 20th
century discoveries then, with an eye to discovering the cognitive dissonance, the
metaphysical problem being addressed. Only then can we evaluate whether a theory has
any likelihood of success.
Last modified, April 3, 2002, RbS