Review of Stephen Barr’s Modern Physics and Ancient Faith , Thomas Sheahen

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Review of Stephen Barr’s Modern Physics and Ancient Faith , Thomas Sheahen


Review of Stephen M. Barr’s book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith Univ of Notre Dame Press (March 2003) ISBN: 0268034710.

by Thomas P. Sheahen

Scientific materialism has had the upper hand against religion for about two centuries.  It’s always had critics, and now has a very able one in Stephen Barr, author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.   Combining an in-depth knowledge of physics, mathematics and logic with his careful reading of Biblical texts and interpretations over the centuries, Barr shows that (contrary to popular supposition) it is religion that has the more plausible and coherent understanding of the universe, life, and mankind.

Barr’s balanced and accessible book looks closely at the debate over what it means to know something.  His central thesis is that the scientific materialists have got it all wrong, and their viewpoint is incoherent. Initially, they based their attacks on a misunderstanding of Judeo-Christian religion, and then formulated “facts” that were really just beliefs of a different kind.  By the end of the 19th century, most scientists presumed the universe to be totally deterministic, which gave scientific materialism its dominance.  However, 20th-century science has swept away the most basic premises underlying that viewpoint.

Barr first presents the arguments of the scientific materialists, and points out where there is merit in their position.  He concedes that absolute proof is lacking on both sides, and asserts that the contest is for credibility and plausibility.  He concludes that religious faith presents the most complete picture, and that scientific materialism ends up denying the validity of its own methodology.

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith is arranged in five parts:

1. The Conflict between Religion and Materialism
2. In the Beginning
3. Is the Universe Designed?
4. Man’s Place in the Cosmos
5. What is Man?

Part 1

The history of the antagonism between science and religion is sketched here.  Early on, science saw itself as the debunker of religious superstition, and by the end of the 19th century, determinism seemed very convincing.  Then came five “plot twists”:

Relativity and the Big Bang supported the idea of a beginning.

New physics theories came along that stressed the beauty and symmetry of equations, perhaps taking physics into higher dimensions.

Anthropic Coincidences were found.

There are realities not made of matter; and materialism is inconsistent.

Because of quantum mechanics, determinism is out and free will is restored.

Each of these “plot twists” undercut an oversimplified materialist assumption.  Barr walks carefully through the arguments favoring materialism, and shows that the core belief of materialism amounts to “Materialism is true because materialism must be true.”  He ends part 1 with a very clear statement of purpose:  “I am claiming that on the critical points recent discoveries have begun to confound the materialist’s expectations and confirm those of the believer in God.”

Part 2

This deals with the beginning of the universe.  Scientific materialism wants the universe to be eternal and have no beginning – it should just always “be.”  Late it the 19th century it might have seemed so, but 20th-century discoveries have shown that there was a beginning.  Barr cites a number of ancient writers, including St. Augustine, who asserted that God created space and time together.  Indeed, God is not just a cause within “time”, but is the continuing cause of everything.

It is a standard part of anti-religion myth that religion is hostile to science, but it’s not so.  To make this point, Barr quotes from the Psalms and other biblical texts to demonstrate those authors’ understanding of God as an engineer.  He also introduces the reader to the notion that symmetry in equations is a form of beauty, which demonstrates a level of sophistication in the design of the universe that had previously escaped attention.

Part 3

“Is the universe designed?”  first presents the Argument from Design for the existence of God, and then presents various attacks upon that argument — the most familiar being natural selection.  Barr carefully follows where this line of thinking leads, and concludes “How ironic that, having renounced belief in God because God is not material or observable by sense or instrument, the atheist may be driven to postulate not one but an infinitude of unobservables in the material world itself!”

Barr provides an exceptionally clear presentation of the way symmetry principles are so important in contemporary physics.  He leads his reader through the changes in physics-theory that took place during the 20th century; the phrase “we took something for granted” stands out.  He uses a very relatable example of marbles to convey several concepts, including free energy; the mathematical concept of a group is likewise presented very clearly.

Continuing about symmetry in the laws of nature, Barr presents several examples of symmetry, often hidden, such as the Golden Ratio.  On page 100 he explains SU(3) symmetry with great clarity.  He briefly mentions superstring theory and M-theory, and emphasizes that these very modern developments are based entirely on symmetry, motivated by physicists’ strong belief in symmetry.

Incidentally, chapters 11 and 12 can even be of enormous help to students striving to learn physics.  Nowhere has this reviewer seen important concepts about symmetry in physics presented as well.

Subsequently, Barr directly confronts materialist assertions about natural selection and chance by distinguishing between “symmetric structure” and “organic structure.”  Even if Darwinian chance and natural selection explain the observed organic structure, it can’t explain away the symmetric structure of physics.  Barr says that he will accept natural selection for biology, rather than argue the point.  Evolution happened, but it doesn’t explain everything in biology (such as the Cambrian Explosion.)  He insists that we should keep an open mind about how evolution happened.  To address the “blind watchmaker” argument, Barr points out that the factory that cranks out watches needs explaining!

Barr’s main point running through chapters 11, 12, and 13 is that the symmetry and order that you can see is based on a deeper and more profound symmetry.  Further, it is that pattern which points to a designer.  Barr avoids the term “intelligent design,” (probably because it comes with so much baggage these days), but there is no question that he finds design in the universe at a very profound level.

Part 4:

“Man’s Place in the Cosmos” begins (chapter 14) with a brief summary of the materialists’ expectations:  “This idea of the progressive ‘dethronement’ or marginalization of man by scientific discovery is perhaps the central claim of scientific materialists.  It lies at the core of their view of reality. The question is whether it is justified by a dispassionate examination of the scientific data, or is based on their own philosophical preconceptions.”

Eleven examples of Anthropic Coincidences are given in chapter 15, although Barr invites the reader to skip over some where the physics might appear foreboding.  Again, his writing style and ability to communicate ideas makes this material more accessible than some other writers.  His explanation of the “three-alpha” resonance is very clear and does not suffer from oversimplification.

Chapter 16 deals with objections that have been raised against giving significance to these Anthropic Coincidences.  The objections are rooted in the desire to avoid falling back into “Teleology” – attributing a purpose to everything — which delayed the progress of science long ago.  There is widespread confidence that there will be a scientific explanation of all these coincidences somewhere, someday.  Barr goes through each major objection and examines it carefully, never asking for absolute proof, but rather asking what is the most plausible conclusion to draw.

The alternative conclusions that can be drawn from the Anthropic Coincidences are stated in chapter 17:  a) they are total coincidences, nothing more; b) there is a purely natural scientific explanation; c) they show that we were “built in from the beginning.”  The Weak Anthropic Principle says it’s just dumb luck that our planet is habitable, and we are here to observe it all.  This leads to the hypothesis that there must be a “multiverse,” and Barr follows down that path of reasoning.  His close scrutiny brings us to this conclusion about the multiverse: “It seems that to abolish one unobservable God, it takes an infinite number of unobservable substitutes.”

The question “Why is the universe so big?” is the subject of chapter 18, and here we are back into physics again.  It takes 1.5 billion years for life to evolve, and in all that time the universe has been expanding, which is why it is so big by now. With exceptional clarity, Barr argues that man is the “right size” at the geometric mean between {the size of the planet} and {the size of an atom}.

Part 5

The final part of the book, “What is Man?” is the place where all the pieces come together.  Chapter 19 contrasts the religious view and the materialist view, presents the materialist arguments fairly, and on p. 174 states the real issue: can intelligence and free will be understood in purely physical and mechanical terms?    The rest of the book is devoted to “two … discoveries, one in physics and one in mathematics, that seem very much to strengthen the case against the materialist view of this question and to weaken the case against the religious view.”

Free Will is the subject of chapter 20, and it explains how quantum mechanics and indeterminacy provide an opening for free will to act.   There is no incompatibility with free will in the human brain.  There really are ways in which the things we know intuitively are correct perceptions – if you’re too skeptical, there will be nothing you believe in at all.  Barr looks at the materialists’ explanation that free will is an illusion, and concludes that the materialist denies too much – even his own freedom.

Chapter 21 looks at intelligence and reason, and discusses how humans can think abstractly.  Barr uses the number pi in several examples to illustrate that it is possible to have certainty.  The notion that “it’s all just neurons firing” is inadequate and circular reasoning.  The question “what is the intellect made of?” may not be a coherent question, because the intellect might not be material at all.

The question “Is the human mind just a computer?” is posed in chapter 22. Barr answers “No.”  He presents the Lucas-Penrose argument, which deals with logic – as contrasted to mathematics – and relies on Godel’s Theorem.  For most people, these concepts invoke a glaze-over effect, but in this book the reader will find a clear explanation of some very important concepts:  the distinction between consistent and inconsistent formal systems is used to show that consistent systems contain propositions that are undecidable within that system. To decide, you must go outside the system.  A human can show that a statement is true, but the computer can’t prove it.  A key distinction is that humans are fallible but not inconsistent.  An associated Appendix C presents the argument in greater depth.  This reviewer (a physicist) found chapter 22 to be the most difficult in the book, but well worth the extra effort required.

Chapter 23 goes on to examine what the human mind has that computers lack. Barr uses the example of a person looking at a maze from above, seeing all that someone inside the 2-dimensional maze cannot see; this is reminiscent of Flatland.  The human mind goes beyond the formal rules and gains insight into the rules themselves.  The essence of understanding is to grasp the simplest unifying principle of something.  By contrast, materialists fail to do so, and they presume atheism and then dismiss facts.

Next, Barr shows that the human mind cannot be reduced to physics.  Quantum theory is incompatible with materialism.  In quantum theory, you start with probabilities, but these turn into facts via measurements.  There has to be an observer – a link between mind and matter.  Thus, you want to describe both the observer and what he observes; but you can’t do so, because the observer cannot be totally described by physics.  The observer is definite and real, not described by a wave function Psi and probability Psi Squared. Measurement is the key concept of this chapter.  A change in the wave function Psi represents a change in our knowledge of the system.  The observer must be outside the system of quantum theory.  The observer’s mind is the place where the decision is made that one state actually did occur – that is where probability is changed into fact.

Alternatives to traditional quantum theory are the subject of chapter 25. Here Barr is being polite and inclusive by describing theories he himself doesn’t believe in – the favorite theories of people who don’t like quantum theory.  The “many worlds” theory is consistent with quantum theory, but you must pay a high price:  zillions of “yourself” of which you have no cognizance.

In a final chapter, Barr assembles the many threads of argument that dismantle scientific materialism.  He writes “To bring all the mental processes of a reasoning being within some finished mathematical description proves to be impossible.”  and “The materialist seems to be forced to assert of himself not only that he is a machine, which for most people is absurd enough, but that he is really an infinite number of inconsistent machines ….”  The basic supposition of materialism is that everything is reducible to laws and equations – to understand something rationally is the same thing as to understand it through laws and equations and quantities. Barr asks rhetorically “But what gives us the right to expect that all of reality is reducible to such mathematical treatment?  How often are the questions we ask in life answerable by equations? … Is all of wisdom, all of morality, all of beauty, all of understanding a matter of numbers and laws?”  He closes by stating clearly that the argument for materialism is completely circular, of the form “materialism is true because materialism is true.” That’s not good enough.


The central accomplishment of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith is to show that the deterministic and materialistic viewpoint that dominated science at the end of the 19th century has been completely swept away by the science of the 20th century.

Two major assets of this book are the clarity of writing style and the coherent organization of the sequence of topics.  From the historical perspective given in chapter 1 to the detailed logical reasoning of appendix C, Barr gently leads the reader upward at a comfortable pace, avoiding the tendency to leap into the domain of specialists.

When someone studies and understands a field in depth, they also understand its limits.  Stephen Barr, equipped with an exceptionally thorough knowledge of physics and mathematics, is able to see the limits of physics, and sees the flaw in “the idea that all of reality is nothing but physics.”  A lot of people well-schooled in philosophy and theology (but not in science) cannot do that, and hence have been intimidated by the assertions of materialists. Consequently, for 100 years they have regarded science as their enemy.  With this book, religiously-inclined thinkers have received a gift from within the field of physics – a gift that says “Materialism is a false god; we’re back to square one.  You certainly can have something to say, and need not retreat from the playing field.”

On rare occasions, a book comes along that considers seriously what it means to actually know something; the books Insight by Bernard J.F. Lonergan and  Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi come to mind.  Stephen Barr thus joins a very elite company by looking so closely at the concept of knowledge, and its association with the mind/brain problem.  Despite the considerable “physics” content of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, Barr’s skill at writing and explaining concepts makes this book a pleasure to read. It is accessible to the diligent first-year college student who cares enough to think about the question “What is Man?”

Who should read this book?  All those who want to see what is wrong with scientific materialism.  The prerequisite is not to have advanced knowledge of physics, math, and logic.  Rather, it is to bring an open mind and a willingness to re-examine notions that were too easily taken for granted. Basically, that is exactly what 20th-century science did to 19th-century science.  In the 21st century, we would like to see religion and science move forward together as partners; Modern Physics and Ancient Faith provides a very solid foundation from which to begin that progress.

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Published    2003.07.26
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