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February 03, 2010

God, Science, and Beauty

As an avid reader of Free Inquiry magazine, a Secular Humanist publication, I’ve learned over the years how much Christianity is disdained and science and reason are praised. So I decided to do a little open-minded research into the “science” scene to see if I could discover anything that could bury Christianity once and for all. Now I’d like to share exactly what I uncovered in my investigation.

First, let’s look at a colorful comment on science and objectivity from Paul Davies, a popular writer on science, especially physics:

There is a popular misconception that science is an impersonal, dispassionate, and thoroughly objective enterprise. Whereas most other human activities are dominated by fashions, fads, and personalities, science is supposed to be constrained by agreed rules of procedure and rigorous tests. It is the results that count, not the people who produce them. This is, of course, manifest nonsense. Science is a people-driven activity like all human endeavor, and just as subject to fashion and whim. In this case fashion is set not so much by choice of subject matter, but the way scientists think about the world.”

I found Davies’ quote in the introduction to Richard P. Feynman‘s book Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics. Since physics is the king of the sciences, I decided to begin my homework there. Davies names Richard Feynman as the one physicist who stands out among twentieth century physicists!

Yes, there was Paul Dirac, who, according to John C. Taylor at the University of Cambridge, “was one of the finest physicists of [the twentieth] century. The development of quantum mechanics began at the turn of the century, but it was Dirac who, in 1925 and 1926, brought the subject to its definite form, creating a theory as compelling as Newton’s mechanics had been.”

Taylor also summarized Dirac’s philosophy of physics, saying, “Physical laws should have mathematical beauty.” So science includes the concept of beauty in addition to imagination, experimentation, and “guess work” (Feynman).

Another physicist, Steven Weinberg, actually says that modern day “string” theory will “survive in the final underlying laws of physics” because the theory is “beautiful.” (The Taylor and Weinberg quotes are both found in Richard P. Feynman and Steven Weinberg’s Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics.)

If “beauty” plays a role in physics, why then are Christians ridiculed for believing the “heavens declare the beauty [the Hebrew word kabod can be translated glorious, splendor, beautiful, stately, magnificence] of God, and they are a marvelous display of His craftsmanship” (Psalm 19:1)?

Let me explain why I chose Feynman as the focus of my research. According to Davies, there have been three major icons in the realm of physics—Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Richard Feynman. Davies says, “Richard Feynman has become an icon for late twentieth-century physics—the first American to achieve this status.” Davies also believes it “is unlikely that the world will see another Richard Feynman.”

So what did I do? I ordered and read the following works by Feynman: The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist; Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics; Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics; The Pleasure of Finding Things Out; Theory of Fundamental Processes; and The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

Apart from the 1001 equations sprinkled throughout Feynman’s work, e.g., (h2/2s)+(nh2/2s’)=(b-1)h2/2R (I think that translates “earth,” but I could be wrong!), I actually began to understand what the world of particle physics is all about. (Don’t worry, though — it won’t go to my head because somewhere I read that if you begin to think you understand it, you really don’t understand it!)

However, since my academic background is philosophy (unfortunately, Feynman does not like philosophers, psychologists, or for that matter, the National Academy of Sciences), I knew there was some challenges ahead, but in all honesty, not exactly what I expected.

Reading Paul Davies alerted me to the fact that Feynman walks, eats, drinks, sleeps and dreams “subatomic particles, atoms and nuclei, molecules and chemical bonding, the structure of solids, superconductors and superfluids” (just a few areas of his expertise), and also the fact that Feynman exhibits another quality lacking in much of science today — when he doesn’t know something, he admits it!

For example, in Six Easy Pieces, Feynman says, “It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is” (p. 71). That got my immediate attention!

If we don’t know what energy is, what do or don’t we know about gravity, magnetism, weak forces, strong forces, dark matter, or dark energy? This line of thinking brought to mind an article in which a Harvard astronomer admitted that we use terms like dark matter and dark energy because we don’t know anything about them. This admission should strike us immediately because the latest word is that over 90% of the universe consists of dark energy!

This knowledge immediately brings to mind an obvious question for the Free Inquiry brethren: if we don’t know such things, how do they know with absolute certainty that God does not exist? In every issue, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens pontificate on why God doesn’t exist, telling their readers they are basing their certainty claims on “science.”

I think Paul Kurtz would be wise to have a little chat with his atheist writers to question them about the source of their “proof.” My wild guess is they get it from from 90 proof Jack Daniels!

After I discovered that energy isn’t yielding up too much information about itself even for Feynman to grasp definitively (and if he can’t grasp it, I’m quite sure Dawkins can’t), I began wondering what else physics can’t tell us.

Here is Feynman in his own words on what we don’t know:

First, we do not yet know all the basic laws [of physics]: there is an expanding frontier of ignorance. (p.2)

Where do the laws that are to be tested come from?(p.2)

The rules of the game are what we mean by fundamental physics . . . actually, we do not have all the rules now.(p. 24)

The calculations that are involved in this theory [quantum nucleodynamics] are so difficult that no one has ever been able to figure out what the consequences of the theory are . . . we do not yet know where it fits. (p. 39)

Everything works exactly the same for the muon as for the electron, except that one is heavier than the other. Why is there another heavier, what is the use for it? We do not know. (p. 43)

We do not know how the universe got started, and we have never made experiments which check our ideas of space and time accurately. (p. 44)

We seem gradually to be groping toward an understanding of the world of sub-atomic particles, but we really do not know how far we have yet to go in this task. (p. 44)

We do not know the patterns of motions that there should be inside the earth. (p. 66)

It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of particles inside the nucleus, and we have formulas for that, but we do not have the fundamental laws. We know that it is not electrical, not gravitational, and not purely chemical, but we do not know what it is. (p. 71)

We do not understand energy as a certain number of little blobs. (p. 84)

We do not understand the conservation of energy. (p. 84)

Galileo discovered a very remarkable fact about the principle of inertia — if something is moving with nothing touching it and completely undisturbed, it will go on forever, coasting at a uniform speed in a straight line. Why does it keep on coasting? We do not know. (p. 93)

None of these nuclear or electrical forces has yet been found to explain gravitation. (p. 113)

The gravitational attraction relative to the electrical repulsion between two electrons is 1 divided by 4.17x10 to the 42nd power. The question is, where does such a large number come from? . . . This fantastic number is a natural constant so it involved something deep in nature. (p. 110)

The quantum-mechanical aspects of nature have not yet been carried over to gravitation. (p. 113)

What is the machinery behind the law [regarding quantum behavior]? No one has found any machinery behind the law . . . no one can ‘explain’ any more than we have just ‘explained’ . . . we have no idea about a more basic mechanism from which these results can be deduced. (p. 134)

These “we don’t knows” are from just one book — Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics.

In The Meaning of It All, Feynman says something that should interest Hitchens and Dawkins, Harris and Dennett: “Science cannot disprove the existence of God” (p. 36). To that he adds, “I also agree that a belief in science and religion is consistent.” He insists that science cannot produce “the meaning of life” nor can it tell us “the right moral values.” These must come from somewhere else.

Now if science and physics cannot tell us what or who is behind the machinery of the laws of the universe, then why is it so illogical for Christians to suggest John 1:1–3 for starters? And if science cannot tell us the meaning of life or what is right and wrong, then why is it so illogical for Christians suggest Paul’s epistle to the Romans?

Why doesn’t Feynman get the attention he deserves? My guess is that he’s way too honest for a scientific world hung up on government grants. He would never say global warming is based on “settled” science. In fact, he says, “all scientific knowledge is uncertain.” He would never have agreed with the scientific powers that destroyed the career of Dr. Richard Stemberg for publishing a peer-reviewed article by Steven Meyer on natural selection and mutations in a Smithsonian publication. Since Feynman is never at a loss for words, he probably would have referred to those responsible for such an outrage as “dishonest scientific hacks.”

Feynman also believes that Western Civilization is based primarily on two things: science and Christian ethics — “The other great heritage is Christian ethics — the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual — the humility of the spirit.” This statement would never pass muster at Free Inquiry! (This reminds me of the atheist Bertrand Russell acknowledging that what the world really needs is love, “Christian love.” You can find this quote on Google under “Bertrand Russell Quotes.”)

Feynman is way too conservative for the hierarchy of the National Academy of Sciences. In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he says, “I believe, therefore, that although it is not the case today, that there may some day come a time, I should hope, when it will be fully appreciated that the power of government should be limited; that government ought not to be empowered to decide the validity of scientific theories, that that is a ridiculous thing for them to try to do; that they are not to decide the various descriptions of history or of economic theory or of philosophy”(p. 115).

Richard Feynman is not a Christian, but he reminds me of Sir Isaac Newton, who said, “I was like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Would that this were the mindset of Free Inquiry‘s Richard Dawkins!


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  • March 07, 2010 // 08:07 pm //  # 
    Bill Dean's avatar Bill Dean

    I have not read Feynman, but I’ll put him on my list.  I was struck years ago when I first read “A Brief History of Time” how often Hawkings used the transition that went something like this: “There are two ways we can go from this point, and if we take this path we can avoid the need for a Creator. . .”  I understand what Hawkings was trying to do, but it seems to me that Dawkins and Hitchens and their colleagues are actually blind. Your essay points to profound problems for the materialist: First, the stunning complexity of the natural world (it shouldn’t be that way); second, the hiddenness of first causes; and third, (which you don’t actually mention), the existence of libraries of design data in DNA.  It is as if at some point scientists confront an abyss where reason fails. What would be expect?  God is infinite, we are finite.

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