Well, Sunday afternoon I worked for a while on this essay, tonight I’m returning to it to flesh out the missing paragraphs. The first draft is now complete … editing will now commence. It’s a little long soooo … 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 view of nature expressed itself. 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 in some sense completed 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 more concrete 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 the discourses and symposia of the other and interacted directly. Plotinus was a leading Alexandrian neo-Platonic scholar and Origen the leading Alexandrian theologian. Metropolitan John Zizioulas attests that the theologians through the Nicene period managed to achieve a synthesis between the Hebrew, Greek, and Christian views of the truth, i.e., reconcile truth as historical narrative, as eternal ideal, and as seen 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” eschatologicaly did not do violence to the natural science of the day. For example, recall the Aristotelian notions of cosmic versus terrestrial matter, one naturally coming to rest and the astronomic 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.

But this geometric view of the natural did remain predominant. Between the time of Galileo and Copernicus this conception of nature shifted to an analytic one. The understanding of natural laws by which motion and objects interactions were governed moved to one described by descriptive formulae of interactions between objects and forces, e.g., Newton’s three laws of motion or later the Maxwell equations describing electromagnetic behavior. By the time Newton wrote the Principia some 150 years while no new experimental arrived that would distinguish between the older and the new view yet the new analytic worldview had completely supplanted the old. Descartes had laid essential foundations in methods of replacing compass/ruler driven geometrical methods with analytic ones, i.e., using algebraic descriptions and manipulations to describe and prove geometrical ideas. No longer did the geometrical intuitions guide investigators. Mathematical techniques and ways of thinking moved from the constructive geometric view to an analytic one and with that change . Thus 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.

An important (and wrong) contribution to the philosophy of scientific reasoning arose in this period. Laplace wrote that:

An intelligence which knew at one moment in time all the forces by which nature animated and all the respective positions of the entities which composed it … would embrace in the same formula the motion of the largest bodies in the universe and those in the lightest atom … nothing would be uncertain for it, and the future, like the past, would be present for its eyes.

This reductive approach to science applied ad infinitum is both impossible (even setting aside the quantum revolution) and corrosive. The corrosive part of this suggestion is that all kinds of experience are explainable in terms of atomic data. This pretension survives to the modern day in many materialist

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. Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, and other Protestants and Loyola, Theresa of Avila John of the Cross and other Roman Catholics redefined what Christianity meant for the West. The current and cross-currents of theological polemics honed and sharpened (hardened?) the particular theological tenets and both Protestant and Roman Christians. During this time, as well, something new occurred. Natural philosophy and theological thought parted ways. Less and less was the Origen/Plotinus relationship the norm. While Christian priests contributed to science, such as Mendeleev and Joseph Priestly were preachers rarely did mainstream theology confront and interact with cutting edge natural science. The ontological accounts based on Babylonian natural science in Genesis led some theologians to oppose and confront scientific views of cosmology, a practice which continues apace today. Theological accounts dealing with nature had less and less connection with the scientific understandings of the day.

Stage 3: In which Symmetry Governs Natural Law.

Yet once again in the 20th century, 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 first explained by Einstein, Kaluza, and Klein who expounded and made clear the modern principles on which we base our understanding of the universe. Today it is symmetry on which natural science bases the fundamental principles underlying our view of the Universe. 40 or so years later following Einstein, Kaluza, and Klein when Chen Ning Yang and Robert Mills defined a non-Abelian gauge theory and laid out 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 how symmetry is used 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. In quantum mechanics concrete things like particles and electromagnetic waves are replaced by complex probability amplitudes and S-matrices. As well, quantum mechanics has caused something of a crises in the philosophy of science. There is, currently, no satisfactory explanation how to understand the quantum understanding of nature. Many Physicists approach the matter in a manner they describe as positivism. In this view a natural scientist (physicist) is not undertaking to describe that thing called reality but instead are only engaged in the prediction of experiments (an example a proponent of this view is Stephen Hawking but he is certainly not alone). This is a massive retreat from what natural science had undertaken to explain and describe 2500 years earlier.

Yet, theology has not advanced into the vacuum left by the retreat of Physics (and science in general). In part this is part a symptom of a general trend. Generalists today are becoming more and more rare. As the body of work comprising every discipline has grown it has become more and more it is harder for people to do significant work in more than one field because master of more than a sub-discipline is takes significant effort. Sub-field specialization has become the norm … in a time when cross-fertilization between fields of science, the arts, and theology is perhaps more and more important. Theology and Physics have both been subject to this trend.

20th and 21st century theology has not (as yet) found natural science a thing which is should confront. With a few exceptions like John Polkinghorne who was an important theoretical physicist and now is a Anglican priest and theologian, little theological thought is being put into trying to reunite and reconcile natural science with theology (this is something) of an exaggeration as Fr Polkinghorne did chair a conference on that topic and clearly somebody besides he attended. But this is certainly not a leading problem from the point of view of the theological community today. However this problem is precisely the problem that confronts the so-called “division” between faith and science today. Given that in some places that looms large … so then does this as something which should be confronted.
Some Final Thoughts

Natural science over the past 3000 years has gone the distance, from a geometrically motivated view of the universe it traversed through an analytic approach and subsequently returned to a more subtle but nevertheless geometrically motivated view. In the first period there was no tension between theology and science. During the analytic period, a separation occurred … which has not been recognized by much of the non-specialized physics community. Additionally the scope of what natural science recognizes as within its purview has shrunk. At the same time however, the complexity and scope of what natural science (physics) does understand regarding the large and small scale structure of space-time and the natural order is far greater than it was in the 3rd century. This leave an interesting place for a theological statement of where God stands in relationship to man and His universe that might be made where the universe in question is understood with the thoroughly modern ideas of how space-time is framed intact.
A Short note on Symmetry.

Symmetry is a simple mathematical notion. In short a symmetry is a transformation 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 gives rise to conservation of momentum (translational symmetry that is the laws of physics remain unchanged if the origin of your coordinate system is shifted). Rotational symmetry yields conservation of angular momentum (rotational symmetry means that the laws of nature are unchanged if one spins your coordinates). This is the essential point. Every symmetry (transformation leaving the object or space unchanged) is connected to a conservation law.

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 along with this space there is a new corresponding symmetry in this 5 dimensional space-time, that symmetry being that the choice of coordinates one uses for at each (little) circle in space-time. This condition gives rise to a constraint condition in the description of theories in this space-time. The resultant constraint equations are surprisingly enough identical to Maxwell’s equations which describe electromagnetism. The conservation law implies that (electric) charge is conserved. When Yang-Mills defined the Standard model that describes the three of the four forces (electric, weak, and strong forces … gravity is the fourth), they did so by by replacing the Kaluza-Klein circle at each point with a much more complicated space at each point and demanding an demanding the analogous symmetry relation and one finds analogous conservation laws as well.

Further Reading

Michael Polanyi by Mark T. Mitchell ISI Press.

Mr Tompkins in Paperback by George Gamow

Filed under: ChristianityMark O.ReligionScience

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