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  • Are science and religion both standing on thin air?

    Posted by Charles Cameron on July 18th, 2012 (All posts by )

    We can argue the pros and cons of religion all we like, but I’m not sure it will tell us much more than what our own basic hunches are.

    This is part I of a two part post.

    Look, there have been a couple of books out recently that suggest something — the universe or universe of universes — might just have come out of nothing, without nothing having to have come out of anywhere special itself.

    And there have been a couple of reviews of those books that I’ve read recently, and they don’t think that “it’s nothings, nothings all the way down” is any better than “it’s turtles, turtles all the way down”.

    If you’re interested in that discussion, the next two chunks will be of interest to you — but if not, you can skip them and go right to my follow up post — That’s it in a nutshell! — with its three short quotes and a question.

    So here are the two chunks — gobbits, if you’re a literary type — that I thought might be of interest.


    The first comes from David Albert‘s review of A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss. Albert is a philosopher at Columbia and the author of Quantum Mechanics and Experience:

    It happens that ever since the scientific revolution of the 17th century, what physics has given us in the way of candidates for the fundamental laws of nature have as a general rule simply taken it for granted that there is, at the bottom of everything, some basic, elementary, eternally persisting, concrete, physical stuff. Newton, for example, took that elementary stuff to consist of material particles. And physicists at the end of the 19th century took that elementary stuff to consist of both material particles and electro-magnetic fields. And so on. And what the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged. The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.
    The fundamental physical laws that Krauss is talking about in “A Universe From Nothing” — the laws of relativistic quantum field theories — are no exception to this. The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields. And the fundamental laws of this theory take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible and which aren’t, and rules connecting the arrangements of those fields at later times to their arrangements at earlier times, and so on — and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.


    The second comes from Kathryn Schulz‘s review of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? Schulz is the book critic for New York Magazine:

    You can say A because B, B because C, C because D—but what explains D? If you say A, your explanation is circular. If you say because E because F because G (H, I, J, K … ), your explanation is an infinite regress: a taller stack of turtles. You might, instead, argue that D is explained by X, where X is some kind of necessary truth, a logical deduction or physical law. But this presents an interesting question: How, exactly, do you get a material universe out of a necessary truth? “Are the laws of physics somehow to inform the Abyss that it is pregnant with Being?” Holt asks. “If so, where do the laws themselves live? Do they hover over the world like the mind of God? … How do they reach out and make a world? How do they force events to obey them?”
    Got me. Got everybody. Try as we might, we can’t find a way to tell a sound causal story about the origins of the universe. The absence of an explanation is one thing, but the absence of any imaginable form that an explanation could take is something else, and it has caused many cosmologists to throw up their hands.


    So my general impression is that both religion and science are treading on thin air. And I don’t mind if you call it God, or Nothing, or Mystery.

    I like it. No, make that: I love it.

    But that’s me. Hopefully, you’re ready now for part II


    5 Responses to “Are science and religion both standing on thin air?”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      “Eternally persisting”?


      The universe is finite in both time and space. Big, but finite.

      It started and it’s bounded.

      This, admittedly, is very strange to think about.

      The regress A because of B because of C … does end. At some point, we can stay, it all STARTED here. Science cannot from its own resources touch on WHY or HOW it started, but it can confirm that it started, and is bounded.

      Beyond that you have metaphysics. Benedict XVI asserts that human reason can go a beyond physics and speak about “being itself.” This metaphysical knowledge, so he says, can be, must be, and is reconciled and reconcilable with revealed religion. I take his word for it, but I have not personally confirmed this for myself.

    2. Ginny Says:

      Space got bigger, then time got bigger. Faith helps accept that “bigness” but that bigness makes faith more abstract – it is harder to get our minds around that specific size. We have always recognized our pettiness, but this makes the pettiness incredibly real, size unimaginable. Faith accepts an expanding God – but that expansion tests some minds’ limits.

      I think I see patterns – in the bio-criticism my husband reads and the evangelical truths my friend believes and the common sense emphasis on natural law my most secular friend and my friends who teach Catholic theology emphasize – patterns that hint at unity. Of course, they’d observe I may see patterns because I don’t know much – and they would be right. But in the end, each reaches cause only through faith.

    3. Charles Cameron Says:

      Thanks, Ginny:

      It’s strange the way “expanding” our sense of the extent of space, or time for that matter, in either case a purely quantitative business, makes faith appear to be more of an abstract proposition as you say. For me, faith is located far deeper than my capacity for a mental grasp of high numbers…


      I’m not enough of a science watcher to know what theories there might be about the universe being finite or infinite, bounded or unbounded, or even uni- or multi-. What seems clear to me, though, and the point i was trying to make, is that science falls short of understanding what I’ll call “the origin of origins” in much the same way that theology does when it goes apophatic:

      “Here there be Mystery”.

      If more scientists were decent enough philosophers to realize this, they’d get off the case of religion and look for ways of building an architecture to encompass both physical laws and spiritual insights.

    4. Ginny Says:

      Charles, The scientists who are sure of the “cause” seem more dogmatic than scientific. I think the fact that they won’t let it be unanswered is their problem – not science’s. They often claim to speak for science, but I suspect vitriol often comes from doubt.

      Of course, my science requirement was finally fulfilled in a class with most of the Nebraska football team – that gives you an idea of my scientific rigor. And our church for most of my childhood was shephered by a geology teacher from a nearby Presbyterian college – which gives you an idea of my theological rigor.

    5. Charles Cameron Says:


      I think the fact that they won’t let it be unanswered is their problem – not science’s.

      Yes, that’s really what I was trying to get at, very succinctly put!

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