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Shocking plot twists of science and faith Print
Guest column

Word on Fire
Brandon Vogt

This is the first article of a three-part series.

In his excellent book, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), physics professor Stephen M. Barr recounts the typical story of the the universe as told by scientific materialists. It's one of the best summaries of the naturalist worldview I've read, from any perspective:

"The world revealed by science bears little resemblance to the world as it was portrayed by religion. Judaism and Christianity taught that the world was created by God, and that things therefore, have a purpose and meaning, aside from the purposes and meanings we choose to give them."

The blind universe

Moreover, human beings were supposed to be central to that cosmic purpose. These comforting beliefs can no longer be maintained in the face of scientific discoveries.

The universe more and more appears to be a vast, cold, blind, and purposeless machine. For a while it appeared that some things might escape the iron grip of science and its laws -- perhaps life or mind.

But the processes of life are now known to be just chemical reactions, involving the same elements and the same basic physical laws that govern the behavior of all matter . . .

There is no evidence of a spiritual realm, or that God or souls are real. In fact, even if there did exist anything of a spiritual nature, it could have no influence on the visible world, because the material world is a closed-system of physical cause and effect.

Nothing external to it could affect its operations without violating the precise mathematical relationships imposed by the laws of physics. The physical world is "causally closed," that is, closed off to any non-physical influence.

All, therefore, is matter: atoms in ceaseless, aimless motion. In the words of Democritus, everything consists in "atoms and the void." Because the ultimate reality is matter, there cannot be any cosmic purpose or meaning, for atoms have no purposes or goals . . .

Science is king of the world

Science has dethroned man. Far from being the center of things, he is now seen to be a very peripheral figure indeed. Every great scientific revolution has further trivialized him and pushed him to the margins.

Copernicus removed the Earth from the center of the solar system. Modern astronomy has shown that the solar system itself is on the edge to a quite ordinary galaxy, which contains a hundred billion other stars.

Earth is an insignificant speck in the vastness of space: its mass compared to all the matter in the observable universe is less than that of a raindrop compared to all the water in all the oceans of the world.

All of recorded human history is a fleeting moment in the eons of cosmic time. Even on this cozy planet, which we think of as ours, we are latecomers. Genetically we overlap more than 98 percent with chimpanzees.

We are the product not of purpose, but of chance mutations. Bertrand Russell perfectly summed up man's place in the cosmos when he called him 'a curious accident in a backwater'" (19-21).

I think atheists and theists can nod their heads in agreement: that's a clear, coherent, accurate depiction of the naturalist worldview. Its main plotline may be called the "marginalization of man." In the religious view, man is the center of all things, but the scientific story has since corrected that delusion.

However, there's a problem with this story. Actually, two big problems, according to Barr: its beginning and its end. It's not really true that religious man saw himself at the center of the world.

The idea that the Earth sat at the center of the universe stemmed from Greek astronomy and philosophy, not religion, and certainly not Judaeo-Christian religion.

The ancient Jewish picture of the world was vertical, not concentric, with the human race located between the heavens above and the "abyss" below.

Humans were lower than angels and higher than plants and animals, but in no sense were we at the center. In fact, the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures depict God casting out man, sending him into exile. (Even in the Greek picture, the central place was not the most exalted. The further things were from the "center", the more beautiful and sublime they were.)

The twists and turns

Yet even if the beginning is a bit off, the bigger problem with the story above is its ending. As Barr notes, "If science had ended in the 19th century, the story would have some claim to accuracy. . . Instead, in the 20th century [scientists] made discoveries even more profound and revolutionary than those of Copernicus and Newton. As a result, the story has become much more interesting" (22).

As with many of the best stories, this one has a plot twist at the end. And not just one plot twist, but at least five. Barr's book examines each of these plot twists in detail, so for the details, I suggest picking up a copy. Here's a short summary . . .

Brandon Vogt is a best-selling author, blogger, and speaker. He is the content director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He's the founder of ClaritasU, an online community for Catholics who want to get clear about their faith.