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Apr 18 2008

The changing problems of science and religion

(I will be away on travel this week so will be reposting an old series, edited and updated, that discusses the nature of science and the difference between science and religion. New posts start again on Monday, April 21, 2008.)

In the previous posting, I discussed some of the problems that arise is reconciling science and religion. These problems change with time as our understanding of science changes and the explanatory powers of science encompass more and more phenomena.

For example, in the pre-Copernican era, one could have had a plausible model of god that became much harder to sustain in the light of post-Copernican scientific developments. This was because the universe then was seen as consisting of a spherical Earth located at the center of a finite universe and surrounded by a concentric rotating sphere in which the stars were embedded. (See Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution for a detailed history.) People thought that the stars were very small objects, and thus the outer sphere containing them could be quite nearby.

In that model, it was possible to think of the heavens as lying beyond this outer sphere and this provided a home for god and angels and so on. There are no major conceptual problems in believing this model. This model enabled people to envision without much difficulty how god could intervene in the events on Earth. All that was required was to imagine god as having pretty much the same powers as human beings did, but just more powerful and extensive. Thus god has more refined senses, sees better, hears better, is more powerful, travels faster, etc. It was not hard to think of god in heaven actually seeing and hearing what was going on Earth, being able to send thunderbolts or other forms of signals from heaven to Earth, or even making a quick trip (either personally or by sending angels) to Earth. Believing that god intervened in everyday events was not that hard to conceive within the framework of a pre-Copernican cosmology.

But Copernicus’ introduction of a heliocentric universe, and the more precise astronomical observations made possible by the invention of the telescope caused some serious problems for such early models, although the theological implications seemed to have taken some time to sink in.

As Kuhn points out (on page 193):

When it was taken seriously, Copernicus’ proposal raised many gigantic problems for the believing Christian. If, for example, the earth were merely one of six planets, how were the stories of the Fall and of the Salvation, with their immense bearing on Christian life, to be preserved? If there were other bodies essentially like the earth, God’s goodness would surely necessitate that they, too, be inhabited. But if there were men on other planets, how could they be descendents of Adam and Eve, and how could they have inherited the original sin, which explains man’s otherwise incomprehensible travail on an earth made for him by a good and omnipotent deity? Again, how could men on other planets know of the Savior who opened to them the possibility of eternal life? Or, if the earth is a planet and therefore a celestial body located away from the center of the universe, what becomes of man’s intermediate but focal position between the devils and the angels? If the earth, as a planet, participates in the nature of celestial bodies, it cannot be a sink of iniquity from which man will long to escape to the divine purity of the heavens. Nor can the heavens be a suitable abode for God if they participate in the evils and imperfections so clearly visible on a planetary earth. Worst of all, if the universe is infinite, as many of the later Copernicans thought, where can God’s Throne be located? In an infinite universe, how is man to find God or God man?

Most of those new problems are metaphysical. The last point mentioned by Kuhn is the one I want to focus on because it represents a physical problem and the one that is of most interest to me as a physicist. If the universe if infinite, then where does god exist? Since telescopes can now observe vast sections of the universe, it strains the imagination to think of god occupying some part of the physical universe because if god is made of the same kinds of stuff as other things in the universe, then how is it that our telescopes and other devices don’t detect anything?

I am not sure (not being an expert of the history of theology) but it may be that it was to solve this problem that popular ideas about god being a non-material entity (and hence undetectable by telescopes) who is everywhere began to gain ground. That way, it was possible to overcome the time and space problems associated with having a material god who necessarily has to occupy the same physical space as us.

But this raises yet other problems. If god is non-material and occupying a non-material space that co-exists with our more familiar material world, then how can he/she interact with the material world to influence it? After all, if (say) god intervenes to change the course of natural events, then it must involve changing the behavior of tangible physical objects and this requires the application of forces to those tangible objects, and such forces fall within the realm of the physical world.

One solution is to forego all interventions by god except in the form of changing people’s minds, and postulate that human beings possess a mind that is independent of the body, and thus occupies a space similar to or identical with that occupied by god. Thus communication within this ‘spirit world’ can take place between god and people. Such models allow for the concept of an after-life.

But this just shifts the problem one step away, and does not solve it. Because then we have the problem of understanding the mind-body relationship of each person and this has all the problems associated with the god-people relationship. If the mind exists independently of the body, then where does it exist? If the mind is a non-material entity, then how does it influence the body (which is material)? And so on. Such concerns were articulated by the mathematician-scientist-philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Note that Descartes posed these concerns after Copernican ideas had taken hold and the potentially vast size of the universe became better appreciated, giving such problems a sense of urgency,

The way that I have formulated these questions obviously reveals my physics background. I treat space and time as meaningful physical entities and so cannot easily absorb platitudinous statements like “god is everywhere” without further exploration as to what that statement actually means. I am guessing that most people do not consciously consider these questions either because they do not occur to them or shy away from them because of the discomfort they can cause.

So how does one resolve all these problems created by the assumption of god’s existence in the light of modern scientific knowledge about a vast universe? I think once again people have to resort to Ockham’s razor and each person will choose a position that satisfies him or her. I found that using Ockham’s razor resulted in my dispensing with the idea of god altogether.

Assuming the existence of god creates a vast number of contradictions and complications that can only be dealt with by pleading ignorance and invoking an inscrutable deity, neither of which is very satisfying.

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