This is the first draft of an essay for our parish newsletter. The topic is on “science and religion.” Given my short “dread bullet list” of ideas on the essay of last week, Brandon (of Siris) suggested helpfully that I try to make clear in the essay what specifically of “religion” and “science” I’ll be trying to identify and discuss, as both topics are huge and more than a little slippery. There was another suggestion that the “three stages” seen so far in our understanding of nature (the second bullet list item) was the most interesting. So without more ado, here is a preliminary draft, i.e., it is a little incomplete … however I offer it at this point for additional comments. It’s a little long so find it below the fold.

Science and religion

Before embarking on a discussion of science and religion it is useful to set parameters and boundaries on the scope of the discussion. In this discussion “science” will primarily mean what was up through the modern era known as natural science, specifically the elementary forces and makeup of nature. In the modern era specialization has reduced this to being primarily Physics. For the religious matters in this regard the discussion will limit itself to Christian theology especially concentrating on the interactions with those aspects of natural science under consideration. Natural science or Physics has gone through three major revolutions since the study of such matters became the systematic study of anything that might today be considered science. In the following these three phases of our scientific worldview regarding the nature of Nature will be explored and then cross currents and implications for that worldview on Christian theology will be investigated.

Stage 1: A Geometric understanding of Nature.

From the time of the Greek golden age through the 16th century the foundations of our conceptions of nature and its underlying principles was very different than today’s. Throughout that period the understanding of nature and its conceptual foundations was based on geometry. Study of Euclid and the Elements were crucial not just for mathematical pedagogical reasons, but because the understanding of geometry was seen as key to understanding how nature was constructed. Aristotelian cosmology and Pythagorean mysticism are two examples of how this worked out. Modern misconceptions of this worldview deride it as a science not driven by experiment and observations, but that is a misconception. For example, Aristotle taught that an object naturally graduated to its “natural” motion, terrestrial objects naturally were at rest and astronomic bodies were naturally in motion. This corresponds and agrees with observation. Terrestrial objects set in motion do in fact come to rest.

It was during this time, especially in the second through fifth centuries that orthodox Christian theology was made explicit and an understanding of the relationships between God, man, and the world were made explicit. It was in this period that the apostolic practices handed down from the first century were explored and explained in philosophical and ?? terms. Origen, an influential Alexandrian theologian who followed St. Justin Martyr and explicitly tied theology with philosophy did so in an age when philosophy and natural philosophy (that it so say science) were not separate undertakings. Origen for example and Plotinus and their students attended to the discourse of the other and interacted. Plotinus was a leading Alexandrian neo-Platonic scholar and Origen the leading Alexandrian theologian. Metropolitan John Zizioulas attests that the theologians through the Nicean period managed to acheive a synthesis between the Hebrew, Greek, and Christian views of the truth, i.e., truth as historical narrative, as eternal ideal, and as through the singular person of Jesus. At the same time, the theological conceptions of nature and its relationship with God was consonant with the natural philosophy of the time. God dwelling “out of time” before and eschatologicaly did not at that time do violence to natural science. Look at for example, Aristotelean notions of cosmic versus terrestrial matter, one naturally coming to rest and the astonomic matter naturally remaining in motion. Matter was ontologically divided into categories already, time could as well have similar divisions.

Stage 2: An Analytic view of Nature.

Yet our vew of nature changes. Between the time of Galileo and Copernicus this conception of nature shifted. The understanding of natural laws by which motion and objects interactions were governed moved to one described by analytic descriptions of interactions, e.g., Newton’s three laws of motion or later the Maxwell equations describing electromagnetic interactions. By the time of Newton, 150 years later no new experimental arrived that would distinguish between the older and the new view. Yet as mathematical techniques and ways of thinking moved from the constructive geometric view to an analytic one. Descartes laid essential foundations in methods of replacing compass/ruler driven geometrical methods with analytic ones, i.e., using algebraic descriptions and manipulations to describe geometrical ideas. By the time of Newton and his publishing the Principia the revolution was complete … and with his development of calculus and the later work of men like Johann Gauss mathematical methods applied to natural philosophy, especially Physics, became completely overshadowed replaced the earlier geometrical methods.

In this time period part of Christian theology also underwent something of a revolution. The Western church underwent the theological turmoil of Reformation and counter-Reformation. [ … expand on this + add other concepts where theology through this period connected with our view of the universe ]

Stage 3: In which Symmetry Governs Natural Law.

Yet again, mathematical developments laid the groundwork for another major shift in our basic understanding of the underlying principles of how the universe is constructed. The mathematical inventive work by Emmy Noether, William Hamilton, and Bernhard Riemann yielded the revolution of our understanding of the universe which was explained first by Albert Einstein, and Felix Klein first expounded and made clear the modern principles on which we base our understanding of the universe. Then 40 or so years later when Chen Ning Yang and Robert Mills used non-Abelian gauge theories to outline the Standard Model which is the current model on which our understanding of the basic particles and interactions in nature are based. In some ways this may be regarded as the return (revenge?) of the much earlier geometric worldview. Symmetries now drive our understanding of nature [see below for a short description of symmetry as a way to view nature.]

A second striking development has also occurred in our physical understanding of nature, that is the quantum understanding of nature. [ … is this important? Free will -> choice? ]

[ … my claim here is that theology, thus far, with few exceptions like Polkingham aren’t trying to address Christian theology in the light of this new view of the universe. Back this up. Note as well, few in other disciplines, philosophy for example are not really either, most are mired in an analytic worldview that has been set aside by current Physical intuitions and practice. ]

Some Final Thoughts

[ wrap up with avenues for future

A Short note on Symmetry.

Symmetry is a simple mathematical notion. In short a symmetry is a tranformation of a geometrical object which leaves it unchanged. Rotating a square 90 degrees is a symmetry transformation, that is after rotation makes no difference to the square. Space or space+time symmetry transformations are changes such as rotations, translations and the like. Emmy Noether proved mathematically that for “sensible” theories of motion that every symmetry gives rise to a “corresponding” conserved quantity. Translational symmetry of space-time (that is the laws of physics remain unchanged if the origin of your coordinate system is shifted 10 feet over) gives rise to conservation of momentum. Rotational symmetry yields conservation of angular momentum. Oscar Klein and Theodor Kaluza suggested the idea of placing at each point in space-time an additional “small” dimension, like a small circle. If one suggests that there is a new symmetry to this 5 dimensional space-time in which the choice of coordinates at each circle in space gives rise to a constraint condition in the description of theories in this space-time. Those constraint equations are identical to Maxwell’s equations describing electromagnetism. Modern theories describing the four forces of matter are derived from instead of putting a simple circle at each point putting a more complicated space at each point and demanding an analagous symmetry relation.

Filed under: ChristianityMark O.ReligionScience

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