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Science and Belief



Perhaps it was inevitable that as a practising Catholic who is also a practising physicist, I would eventually write something about the relationship and conflict between science and religion. This is a topic that has been of interest to me for a long time. I shall attempt to establish that the conflict that is generally perceived to exist does not, but that there are deeper levels on which conflict does exist and has yet to be reconciled. I think that the two most important issues are Usury and Objectivity.

In general, I shall contend that over and over again ecclesiastics have made two mistakes:

It is about time that the Magisterium learned to do better. Unfortunately, it hasn't.

The Historical Perspective

In primitive times it was common to use God (or angels and demons) as an explanation for anything that was not otherwise comprehensible: plague, bad harvests, mental illness, comets, the motion of the planets, birth, death etc. With the advance of Natural Science, the stage on which such a "God of the Gaps" could act shrank until it became clear that in the end it would vanish altogether. At this point the contention was raised that there was no need for the "hypothesis of God" and that religion and faith were redundant and could only serve to hamper progress.

I believe that this is entirely mistaken. While it was understandable that less sophisticated societies should seek theological rationalizations in the face of their own ignorance, this does not make it right for them to have done so. Equally, the fact that this eventually came to light does not mean that the true role of religion and faith has been supplanted, any more than the true activity of God has been voided.

The Metaphysical Perspective

St Thomas Aquinas knew very well that God usually acted through (many) intermediate causes, not directly: that God's characteristic role was as "unmoving first mover" and that positive divine intervention was unusual and so miraculous. Hence, it would have come as no surprise to him, or any other reflective medieval mind, that the gaps in Natural Science have closed and now leave no room for God to act directly in the usual run of things. This in no way derogates from God's role as the initiator of all activity, the governor of all regularity, the source of all intelligibility, and the sustainer of all being.

The Laws of Physics still require explanation. Why are they what they are? Why are they at all? Moreover, it does not mean that God never acts miraculously: only that usually events proceed in accordance with the laws that usually govern them. Note that "Natural Science" is the study of what naturally or usually happens: natural and habitual or usual behaviour is what is at issue here: the rules, not the exceptions.

The Epistemological Perspective

It is commonly thought that Science deals with certainties, whereas Religion deals with matters of sentiment.

Nothing could be further from the truth! Popper has elucidated [The Logic of Scientific Discovery: 1959, Conjectures and Refutations: 1963] the fact that (unlike Mathematics) Natural Science never deals with proofs, but only with disproofs. No scientific proposition is definitive or certain. All are provisional and subject to reformulation if not rejection, with the passing of time. Even the most deeply held principles of Physics, such as relativity, are subject to continual re-evaluation, doubt and dispute: and rightly so. It is by their being held to account against experiment that they are tested and exonerated: or not!

As a theory successfully withstands more and more provocative and stringent tests, then one's confidence (faith or belief) that it is trustworthy (note the religious language) builds up. Once a certain (arbitrary) point is reached, one tends to dispense with a previous or competing theory and adopt the successful theory as part of one's paradigm of nature. This sudden transition (paradigm shift or "leap of faith") is an example of a "catastrophe": a discontinuous response to a slow build-up of data.

As I have tried to suggest in my last paragraph, there is a close correspondence between the scientific method and the life of faith. Both Science and Religion are based on evidence. In neither case is the evidence conclusive. In both it is natural and necessary to adopt as working certainties conclusions that are not formally certain. In both is it necessary to remain open to other, as yet unimagined, possibilities if progress is going to be made.

This should really not come as a surprise, as Theology was always considered to be Queen of the Sciences, and that many pioneers of Natural Science were clerics (e.g. Mendeleyev), lay theologians (e.g. Newton) or otherwise men of faith (e.g. Galileo). The basic difference between Science and Religion is that it is not generally possible, practicable, admissible or appropriate to conduct controlled experiments to test religious theories. It is for a similar reason that it is not possible to conduct psychological experiments on a friendship or romatic relationship: to do so would call into question its basis, and so destroy the very thing that one was attempting to investigate. Human relationships have to be conducted on the basis of faith and trust and sincerity: not according to "double-blind" controlled laboratory conditions!

Of course, it is possible to turn Science into a rigid conservative orthodoxy where new ideas are excluded. Equally, it is possible to turn Religion into subjective, self-serving, wish-wash: where truth is whatever one wants it to be and everyone's account of reality is taken to be equally valid, but this is not Apostolic Catholicism! Cardinal Newman devoted much of his life to attacking this Liberal agenda.

I shall now review a number of topics where Science and Christian belief have come into conflict. My main interest is in the final topic: that of Causality within Quantum Mechanics.


The Geocentric Cosmos

I have covered this subject elsewhere. In brief, the Church wrongly insisted on an Aristotelian view against mounting evidence to the contrary. There was never any real conflict between Scientific truth and Christian belief. The Church was simply mistaken in believing that Geocentric cosmology was a necessary adjunct to the Gospel. Galileo was, as far as can be told, an orthodox Catholic all through his conflict with Rome.

Heaven and Hell

Even in the early years of the Twentieth Century, it was commonly thought within Catholicism that Hell was a physical locale, geometrically located within the volume of planet Earth:
"As to its locality all kinds of conjectures have been made .... The Bible seems to indicate that hell is within the earth, for it describes hell as an abyss to which the wicked descend. We even read of the earth opening and of the wicked sinking down into hell..... no cogent reason has been advanced for accepting a metaphorical interpretation in preference to the most natural meaning of the words of Scripture. Hence theologians generally accept the opinion that hell is really within the earth. The Church has decided nothing on this subject; hence we may say hell is a definite place; but where it is, we do not know." [The Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. 7 (1910)]
and, to a lesser extent, that Heaven: the habitation of God, the angels and saints, was similarly a physical locale, somewhere "up in the sky". It is now generally accepted that these opinions are false, and also rather silly. Once more, there was never any real conflict between Science and Christian belief: just with an extravagant and naively literal interpretation of Holy Scripture.


Although "seven days Creationism" has not significantly persisted within Catholicism, it is still a powerful force within Evangelical Christianity. Again, I would dismiss this as a misguided literalist twisting of the Tradition, and see no conflict between the fact that the Universe (and even planet Earth!) is unimaginably old and the creation stories included in the Word of God. I give my account of creation elsewhere.


I hope that my readers will excuse me counting Economics as a science. It is not scientific in the sense that physics, chemistry and biology are. This is because it is not experimental, but only observational: like astronomy. Moreover, it deals with hugely complex systems, namely human societies and their behaviours. Nevertheless, it does seek to give analytical, predictive and quantitative accounts of the systems it studies. Moreover, some of these theories can be disproved: at least to an extent, so I think that it deserves the adjective "science" every bit as much as astronomy and psychology.


I have dealt with this subject elsewhere. In brief, the Church held to the belief that money in itself was of no value, and so could not be "hired out" for a fee in the way that any other commodity (such as a plough, or a room at an inn) might be. Here there is a real problem. There is no doubt but that Scripture explicitly forbids the lending of money at (any) interest. Moreover, it does so as a question of Justice, not ritual purity. This seems to be in conflict with the most simple analysis of economic affairs. Either this teaching must be understood as applying justly in the historical context in which it was given: but I find it difficult to see how it could, or it must be accepted that there is a real conflict between "the dismal science" and the Tradition: and that the Tradition is wrong!

As yet, the Magisterium has failed to explicate this problem, choosing instead to pretend that:

  1. the Bible doesn't say what it manifestly does say (this is typical) and, perhaps more importantly,
  2. the manifest Biblical teaching was never explicitly and enthusiastically promoted by Popes and Councils, when it was!
As a faithful Traditionalist, I can only await the unravelling of this mess. I am sure that an answer will someday be found to this problem, though I can presently see none!


During the pontificate of Paul VIth, the Church played with Marxism. Even now, the Church's "social teaching" is heavily imbued with collectivism, in the form of "The Common Good", and the notion of intrinsic social rights, such as the "right to education" or "the right to work". Both of these ideas, I take to be repugnant to reason. Still, this is not a conflict between Economic Science and Christian belief: just between truth and the new-fangled vain imaginings of various left leaning ecclesiastics.



This was the common theory: that life was a distinct Aristotelian substance which had to be added to an inanimate body in order to "bring it to life". It is exemplified in the idea of God "breathing the breath of life" into Adam. I have given my account of what Life is elsewhere. Personally, I am convinced that there is no hard division between animate and inanimate matter; but rather that any complex system participates to a degree in the ideal or form of Life: constancy in flux.


Historically, this was the "Big One".

I take for granted that Evolution, in its broad sweep, is a good description of the emergence of life from inanimate matter, and its subsequent development and diversification. I also accept that "Selection of the Fittest" is the mechanism behind this process. Given my understanding of what life is, evolution is inevitable. The only question is: "is it sufficiently rapid a process to have observable effects?" If the answer to this question was "no", then it seems to me that Life could not have succeeded without a huge amount of miraculous Divine Intervention; for there is no other mechanism at hand to explain the "Origin of Species".

At the start of the process of the evolution of Life, there was a huge increase in complexity. This was inevitable, because the first living beings were very simple: hardly alive at all! For most of the time that life has existed on Earth, there hasn't been much progress or increase in complexity in living organisms. For an unthinkably long period of time, life was restricted to single-celled aquatic orgamisms. Even in the relatively short period of time since the emergence of multi-cellular life, progress has been at best fitful. Is a sheep significantly more complex than a Tyrannosaurus Rex? What did become rapid was the growth of diversity. The one thing that has tended to improve over recent evolutionary time is the general level of mental capability (in the animal kingdom!) This became dramatic in the case of the primates and especially the hominids.

The Biblical account of the creation of Adam seems to make it clear that he was made directly from inanimate material, and subsequently vivified by "inspiration" of a life-force, courtesy of God. This flies directly in the face of the evolutionary account that sees all living beings, including humanity, arising from other species. Really, the conflict here is between Science and "the manifest meaning of Scripture". One can only repeat that the Bible does not pretend to be a biology text-book, and should be interpreted with great care. In my view, the issue here is similar to that of the place of the Earth in the Cosmos rather than that of Usury. Galileo and Darwin both rocked the Ecclesiastical barque, but for no good reason. The question of usury has excited little interest, yet is altogether more important.


The issue here is not between science on the one hand and belief on the other. Science, as yet, has nothing to say about either "the soul" or "the spirit", nor about the ethical value of (human) life. It is difficult to see how it could do. Only when one has decided either that the foetus is "just a blob of cells" or "a human being with all the ethical status that this implies" does a conflict arise, I speak somewhat glibly. A scientist with no religious affiliation could take either side of this argument. In principle, a Catholic might just barely account abortion as sometimes the lesser of two evils, on the basis that: Personally, I find abortion a very distasteful affair, and am opposed to it in all but extreme circumstances, where one has to choose between various responses to a situation, none of which are entirely just.


I have covered this at length, elsewhere. In brief, I believe that the Church is guilty of:
  1. Mistaking secular prejudice for Gospel truth.
  2. A failure to allow for the context of Scriptural teaching.
  3. Elevating sex and romanto-erotic love above friendship.
  4. Presuming that "human nature" is a well defined concept.
  5. Presuming that if a proposition is generaly true of a mass of instances, then it applies to every particular case.
  6. Adopting one scientific perspective (i.e. physiology) as normative and falsely opposing this to another (i.e. psychology).
  7. Forgetting that Theology is prior to Natural Science, just as God is prior to the Cosmos.
Once more, I see no conflict between truth and authentic Christian Belief, only a mistaken view, on the part of the Magisterium, as to what authentic Christian Belief is.


Paranormal phenomena

The conflict here is two faced. On the one hand, scientists tend to discount all reports of paranormal and miraculous events. Because it is thought that these cannot be replicated under controlled experimental conditions, they are dismissed as coincidences and figments of the imagination. This view is understandable, but flawed on two grounds: Of course, not all Scientists adopt such views. Some prominent psychologists and physicists are active proponents of paranormal phenomena.

The Church's position is ambivalent. When it suits Her, She sides with the sceptics: decrying superstition in all its forms. On the other hand, when paranormal phenomena can be interpreted as miracles and taken to signify Divine Approbation, then She is keen to affirm their validity. Obvious examples are the Resurrection of Christ; the charismata characteristic of the infant Church, now supposedly reappearing within pentecostal and charismatic groups; the self-levitations of St Philip Neri; miracles of healing associated with Lourdes; the Stigmata, Bilocations, Prescience etc associated with Padre Pio; and so on.

She is also open to the possibility of "demonic forces" as an explanation for paranormal phenomena.

Personally, I do not think there is any real conflict here. Usually events proceed in accordance with the laws of physics, but sometimes unusual events occur which are not exhaustively explained by these laws, though they may be compatible with them. I believe, following (I think) C. S. Lewis, that such exceptions may occur often in the life process of the conscious person as (s)he exercises Free-Will. Nevertheless, such events are infrequent.

There are an infinite number of "rational numbers": such as "5"; "2/3"; or "1045678 / 267543", each of which is the ratio of two integers. However these are infrequent compared to the more infinitely numerous irrational numbers: like "Pi"; "e" or "the square root of 2". These are solutions of simple equations that explicitly involve only rational numbers, but which are themselves not the ratio of any two integers.
This world view is open to various kind of para-normal (beyond-the-usual) events. These could range from the activity of conscious human beings (both the common-place conscious free-willing that we all engage in, and psychic abilities such as telepathy and psychokinesis that seem to be the preserve of certain gifted individuals); through that of demons and angels; to God HimSelves. The ethical and spiritual character of any particular phenomenon has to be evaluated in its own terms. While the Church is, I am certain, wise to caution against dabbling with psychic forces; I do not believe that all non-ecclesiastical paranormal phenomena are either demonic or essentially dangerous.


The bedrock of all science from the days of Aristotle down to the beginning of the Twentieth Century has been what I call the Von Trappe Principle: "Nothing Comes from Nothing, Nothing ever could." This is a statement of the idea that all physical phenomena are contingent: depend for their being on other phenomena that precede them. I put the last three words in italics because it is not entirely obvious to me that they are a necessary part of the idea. Contingency has historically been used as the basis for the best founded argument for the "existence" of God.

In recent years the most simple application of this has been challenged within physics, on the basis that the concept of "nothing" isn't as well defined as might be thought. In brief, the idea is that the vacuum we are familiar with (which most people would be content to think of as nothing) is an altogether more complicated beastie than it appears at first sight: full almost to overflowing with activity. It is thought that the true-void is an unstable higher energy state, which spontaneously decayed to the space-time that we know, much as a pan of boiling water bubbles up into steam. This "Higgs Field" driven "Inflationary Big Bang" would create mass-energy as a by-product of the boiling of the true-void. As our Cosmic Bubble of vacuum grew, it liberated more and more energy to the electromagnetic and other matter fields: simply because its own energy-density was negative, compared to that of the true-void.

If this theory is true, and a lot of circumstantial evidence supports it, it tends to subvert contingency in two ways:

  1. The two realities that obsess us: space-time and mass-energy, are revealed as nothing at all; when taken together.
  2. The "separation out" of Space-Time and Mass-Energy would be spontaneous and inevitable.
Of course it isn't quite as simple as this! Thomas Aquinas and others who developed and promoted the argument from contingency didn't do so on the basis that it was a matter of history: a temporal sequence of events. Rather they perceived the essential self-inadequacy of every physical thing, which deficit could not be supplied by any other physical thing(s). The Higgs field (which is what makes the cosmic vacuum have a negative energy-density) is just as contingent as any other physical entity. Physics does not and cannot give any account as to why it should exist, if indeed it does. Moreover, why/how did the other fields of the "Standard Model" of particle physics, and the space-time metric of General Relativity exist, potentially, in the pre-Cosmos of the true-void, when they were in no way exemplified? If they don't exist in the true-void, then how could/did they gain reality as/when the true-void started to boil into the vacuum? This mirrors the old debate between Platonists and Aristotelians about whether "The Forms" are real and objective or not.
The Higgs field is a means to an end, a way of allowing for space-time and mass-energy to come to be, by "borrowing from one account to pay for the other". While I would not suggest that the first chapter of Genesis proposes the existence of the Higgs field and explicitly supports the "Inflationary Big Bang" theory of Cosmology, it should be noted that it is, to a degree, compatible with it. This is because the Act of Creation is portrayed by Genesis as two-fold: the imposition of intelligibility on the void, by God's Word; and the separation of the void (pure potentiality) to make non-void (actuality) by God's Spirit:
"The Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters." [Gen 1:2]
"Earth" and "waters" here indifferently mean that true nothingness, which is "without form" and is "void". In the absence of any vacuum, there was no free energy, so all was "darkness".
"And God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness." [Gen 1:3]
Energy (light) comes into being, in the context of a "separation" from space-time (darkness).
"And God said, 'Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.'" [Gen 1:6]
Space (now "the waters") comes into being, in the context of a "separation".
Mathematically, this whole affair is just one example of how continuity and causality does not necessarily imply predictability. I have elsewhere given an account of how non-linear chaotic behaviour breaks the link between causality and determinism. Here, I would point out that all examples of "spontaneous symmetry breaking" do too. Moreover there is a class of functions like:
f(x) = exp(- 1/x)        ;  x > 0
f(0) = 0
f(x) = 0                     ;  x < 0
which are everywhere continuous and indefinitely smooth (infinitely differentiable) and yet no amount of information gained about their behaviour in one subdomain (here x < 0) yields any clue as to their behaviour in another subdomain (here x > 0). Whenever such a function appears in physical theory (the Airy function is a practical example) it signals the breakdown of determinism. It may, for example, indicate a circumstance in which an indefinitely small deviation from zero of some variable (such as the angle of inclination of a pencil standing on its point) can grow to macroscopic size in a finite period of time. While the existence of such circumstances is to a degree surprising, there is no mystery here. In practice, such singularities of causation are always obscured by the abundance of microscopic deviations from zero of all variables induced by the interaction of any system with its neighbourhood. Only if a thing had no neighbourhood, no context, would its indeterminental singularities be revealed. Moreover, I suggest that the answer to the question:
"How long will elapse before a infinitely sharp pencil balanced perfectly on its point begins to fall over, in the absence of any thermal or other extrinsic disturbance, and ignoring Quantum Mechanics?"
is simply, "no time at all". As soon as it is put exactly in its initial place, it would start to deviate from it. The moment of release is the only moment at which the process of toppling can start. If it doesn't start then, it will never do so. Given that an indefinitely tiny (i.e. no) deviation will certainly result in its eventual toppling, then it cannot remain standing for ever.

Relating this to the Higgs Field and the Inflationary Big-Bang, it would seem that as soon as the Higgs Field had reality, then the true-void would immediately decay to the Cosmic vacuum, so the question "what instigated the initial boiling of the true-void" isn't very significant. On the other hand, the question "what instigated the Higgs Field?" is. It seems to me that the "Argument from Contingency" is unaffected by this apparent debunking of the need for a Creator.

Objective Reality

A second cornerstone of all Science is the idea that one is studying something "out there" rather than either a figment of one's own imagination or a construct of one's own art. It would seem that this is a necessary basis for the "Argument from Contingency" to be valid, for if all phenomena are only apparent to me, not real; then so is their contingency. It might be that the uncaused first cause needed to explain all that I perceive is nothing other than myself, and that I am God! This is the extreme "idealist" position, in which matter is a figment of my mind, which alone is real. All is subjectivity. Now, although not disprovable, this position is implausible; for it implies that I am able to imagine music (for example) which I am entirely incompetent to execute as a performer or score as a composer!
Quantum Subjectivity
The problem here with modern physics is "Quantum Uncertainty" or "The Collapse of the Wave-Packet". I do not intend to give a proper account of these issues here. Suffice to say that it is very difficult to see how conventional Quantum Theory can be aligned with any notion of objective reality. Whenever something is observed it is always found to have a nice, clearly defined, state. It is: "here"; "travelling at this velocity"; "orbiting with such an angular momentum"; "has this length"; "is bent by so many degrees" or whatever. However, when it is not being observed, it is described by a "Wave-Function". In general it then rapidly looses such definiteness, and only has a propensity to exhibit any particular value of any property. The mathematics envisages that it has no particular position or momentum (for example), but rather participates in a range of these. It is in a "mixed state".

Note that the notion of "The Observer" is tangled up within the manipulative prescriptions of Quantum Mechanics. When something is not being observed, it is described by a Wave-Function. This evolves in accordance with the Dirac Equation: of which the more famous Schrodinger Equation is an approximation. Whenever an observation is made, this Wave-Function suddenly and discontinuously vanishes. It is immediately replaced by another function which is special, in that it generates a unique value for exactly (and only) that single property which is being measured: the Eigen-Value. It almost seems that if there was no observer, then there would be nothing to be observed. A deep problem with Quantum Epistemology is that what counts as an observer is undefined.

Everything seems to be down to different points of view. There is no One Universe, but as many views of reality as there are observers. Each observer views all other observers as "nothing special", one object among many. Yet each knows him/her-self to be something special. Whenever two observers interact, they agree on their accounts of reality, for at this point they count as only one observer. When they cease to interact, each will inevitably generate a "mixed state" account of the other as one object among many and this Wave-Function will only collapse to a definite description on their next conference.

Quantum Arbitrariness
Moreover, at the finest level of reality, Quantum Mechanics suggests that "things just happen", without being caused in the standard physical sense of having an impetus behind them. There is an incipience or potentiality about the vacuum. It is a mass of possibilities, with unimaginable numbers of short lived negative energy particle-antiparticle pairs being born then collapsing into mutual destruction over and over again. Those things that are observed to happen, do so because they succeed against the general tendency to dissolve back into nothingness. If a pair of evanescent or virtual particles, by being separated in a field, pick up enough energy to supply their deficient rest mass; then they stabilize and become ordinary particles of palpable matter. So it would seem that the kind of causality operating here is St Thomas' finality! The prospect of reality selects out those potentialities that are fit to attain it from the myriad of possibilities that fail to achieve this target.
For many years, I have been troubled that these two Epistemological problems in Quantum Mechanics: its apparent subjectivity and its arbitrariness, undermined the "Argument from Contingency", and so were a real challenge to the Catholic Faith. Now that I have written down my view of the matter, I am much more sanguine. Though as an Objectivist-Realist I dislike talk of observation collapsing the Wave-Packet (and as a physicist I can glimpse ways in which such talk might be avoided) even if this is a necessary part of a rational account of reality, it does not affect the proposition that all physical things are contingent and derive their being from other contingent being. Only if the extreme idealist position is adopted, in which my mind is the Cosmos and I am God (though not immortal: and what happens when I sleep?) is the argument undermined. This is not a difficulty for me, as I have no difficulty in rejecting this extreme position. Quantum arbitrariness used to seem even more problematic to me, especially as I am fairly convinced that something along these lines is true. However, now I have realized that causality still operates at the finest level of reality: only that it is final causality rather than initial causality, this problem has dissipated.

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