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A Christian Perspective on Physics

John Byl, Ph.D.

 

Introduction

How does a Christian perspective make a difference in physics? Answering that question is the prime objective of this chapter. We shall see that worldviews play a major role in physics. I believe a Christian worldview has significant implications for our understanding of both the power and the limitations of physics. First, however, we shall briefly discuss what we understand by physics, the importance of studying physics, and how physics works.

 

I. Preliminary Issues

A. What is Physics?

According to Webster's dictionary, physics is “the science dealing with the properties, changes, interaction, etc. of matter and energy. . . ."; science in turn is defined as "systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation. . . ." Thus physics is concerned with systemized knowledge of matter and energy, as derived from observation and study. Physics is the systematic study of how inanimate objects interact with each other.

 

Physics above all concerns mechanics: the study of motion and the various forces that cause motion. The oldest branch of physics is probably astronomy, which deals with the motions of stars and planets. Another ancient part of physics is optics, the study of the properties of light. During the nineteenth century the fields of heat, electricity, and magnetism were introduced. In modern times physics has expanded to include also atomic, nuclear, and particle physics.

 

In recent years physics has been a particularly exciting discipline, on the very frontiers of the knowledge explosion. Many new discoveries have been made, particularly in astronomy (e.g., via the recent space probes to various planets in our solar system and the Hubble telescope), computer technology, and particle physics (e.g., a host of tiny new particles have been discovered: quarks, pions, muons, etc.). Thus, for example, at the University of British Columbia the Triumf cyclotron is one of the world's foremost tools for studying properties of tiny particles (created by taking larger particles such as protons, smashing them to bits, and looking at the resulting pieces).

 

B. Why Study Physics?

Why should you study physics? I believe there are a number of compelling reasons why a study of physics could be of benefit to you.

 

1. Important Applications

The success of physics has played a very large role in shaping modern society: it has led to a host of technological wonders such as radios, x-ray machines, satellites, computers, cell-phones, and ipods. Because of its great impact on society some appreciation of physics is of great value. To gain insight into the powers and limitations of such gadgets it is advantageous to be familiar with the underlying physical principles. It is important to keep in mind that we are dealing here not with magic black boxes but with definite physical tools.

2. The Beauty of Physics

A second appealing aspect of physics is its beauty. This beauty lies primarily in the fact that it is possible to explain a wide range of physical phenomena in terms of a small number of physical principles. Not all of you may fully appreciate this beauty because it is essentially mathematical. (It has been said that when students go to university they learn that biology is really chemistry, that chemistry is really physics, that physics is really math, and that math is really tough!). Cambridge University scientist John Polkinghorne comments,

Time and again it has been our experience in fundamental physics that the theories persuading us of their verisimilitude by their long-term fruitfulness in explaining phenomena—these are also theories whose formulation is characterized by the abstract but unmistakable character of mathematical beauty.[1]

 

Physics has been the most successful of the sciences primarily because its objects of study are simple enough that they can be represented by simple mathematical equations. Thus, for example, from Newton's three laws of motion and the law of gravity (four equations) we have the tools to describe the behavior of a wide collection of objects from rockets and planets to billiard balls and bicycles. Exactly the same laws apply to all these objects. Add another four equations and you can describe also all electro-magnetic phenomena.

 

3. The Logic of Physics

The logical, mathematical nature of physics provides a further incentive for its study. The study of physics provides excellent training in logical thinking, problem solving, and practical application. If you can't solve problems in physics, with its relatively simple equations and logical structure, you may have difficulty solving the often more difficult questions that arise in other fields of study—or even in real life.

 

II. How Does Physics Work?

How do physicists arrive at their knowledge? Let's consider a simple example. Suppose we want to study, say, the motion of the moon. We start with observations: we observe its position in the sky at various times. To make sense of our list of observations we next try to fit the observations to a simple mathematical formula. This allows us to more easily describe the motion and to summarize our observations. But we would like to do more. We would like to show that the motion is explicable in terms of a few basic theoretical concepts such as force, gravity, and conservation of energy. Hence physics requires observations, mathematics, and theoretical concepts. Let's examine each of these three elements in more detail.

 

A. Observation and Experiment

Experimental data is the basis for all physics. Furthermore, since we want to handle the data using mathematical formulas, the data must be in a suitable, quantified form. Such experiments provide a major constraint on physical theories. The predictions of theories must accord with the observed facts. Often new experiments are devised for the express purpose of testing the predictions of specific theories.

 

Technological advances are often made possible by the application of theoretical breakthroughs. New technology, in turn, often provides a host of new observations. Consider, for example, the invention of the telescope, space probes to the planets, particle accelerators, and recent data from the Hubble telescope. The new observations are not always easily explicable in terms of current theories. This leads to the construction of newer and better theories, which may result in improved technology. And so the cycle continues.

 

On the other hand, theory determines how we look at the universe, what we choose to observe, and what kind of measurements are to be made. We view the observational world through theoretical filters. Hence, theory and experiment are intricately linked together.

 

B. Mathematical Tools

Also, as I have already indicated, mathematics is crucial to physics. In order to apply abstract, theoretical concepts to the real world of hard data it is necessary to formulate these concepts in terms of mathematical equations appropriate to the physical circumstances. Once posed, the problem must then be solved using the available mathematical tools.

 

Quite often, new mathematical techniques are invented to solve particular problems in physics. Sometimes, however, the mathematical tools have been developed long before being required to explain particular observational data or to solve specific physical problems. For example, around 1600 Tycho Brahe made very precise observations of the motion of Mars. Johannes Kepler, analyzing this new data a few years later, discovered that it fit the shape of an ellipse, a geometrical shape that had been studied much earlier by the ancient Greeks. Later, towards the end of the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton was able to explain the elliptical shape of planetary orbits by his inverse square law of gravity and his laws of motion. This required more sophisticated mathematical tools, such as differential calculus, which Newton had invented. Similarly, Einstein's theory of general relativity, devised in about 1915, relied heavily on tensor calculus and differential geometry, novel mathematical techniques that had been developed a few decades earlier.

 

In our day physicists have to know quite a bit of mathematics, some of which can be very sophisticated. Often their work can be made easier through using computer programs such as MAPLE. Yet even then one must still understand the mathematical principles at work.

 

C. Theoretical Principles

Although mathematics forms a major part of theorizing in physics, the bedrock of theory is made up of basic concepts of how nature should behave. These form the fundamental mathematical assumptions or equations from which all else follows. I am thinking here, for example, of Newton's laws of motion, Einstein's principle of relativity that physical laws are not affected by uniform motion, and the notion that matter bends space.

 

Such theories are very important. In addition to being very useful in summarizing observations and making predictions, they also reflect a deep insight into the nature of physical reality. They enable us to explain a wide range of phenomena in terms of just a few basic principles. For example, Newton's laws of motion explained the motion of planets and of earth-bound objects. Hitherto it had been thought that heavenly and earthly mechanics were quite different.

Some theoretical concepts such as symmetry, conservation, and invariance are particularly deep and broad. They play a large role in physics, as the renowned physicist Roger Penrose shows in his comprehensive overview of modern physics.[2] These theoretical formulations can be very elegant, evoking a profound sense of beauty.

 

D. The Role of Creativity

How are such theories and basic concepts formulated? Unfortunately, they usually cannot simply be logically deduced from a set of data, in a purely objective manner. On the contrary, creativity often plays an essential role in scientific theorizing. The origin of scientific theories is largely subjective. Sir Karl Popper, a prominent philosopher of science, asserts, "we must regard all laws or theories as hypothetical; that is, as guesses"; he sees theories as "the free creations of our minds."[3] Theories are not so much given to us by nature as they are imposed by us on nature; they are not so much the result of rational thought as they are the creations of our irrational intuition. Thus great physicists are like great artists in their reliance on a fertile imagination.

 

However, unlike artists, the imaginative products of physicists are not quite free: they must satisfy certain theoretical constraints (e.g., more basic principles such as conservation of energy) and must pass the observational test. Thus theories in physics, although largely subjective, are still objective to the extent that they must reflect, however faintly, some genuine aspect of reality.

 

Most physicists do not construct new theories but spend their careers applying widely accepted theories to new physical situations where their application has not yet been figured out. This, too, requires a high degree of imagination.

 

E. Choosing Theories

Quite often, in physics, there are a number of competing theories that purport to explain all the facts. How can we determine which of these is best? One problem we face here is that often more than one mathematical formula will fit the facts. Just like it is possible to fit an infinite number of different curves through a given set of points, so it is possible to fit an infinite number of theories to a finite set of observations. Furthermore, our observations are often not exact -- there may be instrumental limitations, for example -- so that we are at times really fitting our curves through a set of very fuzzy points.

 

Sometimes new, specifically designed experiments can falsify some theories. However, it can often be very difficult to definitely falsify any particular theory. This is because in practice we test not just the theory under consideration but also a host of accompanying, supplementary theories. Hence any observational failures can be attributed to the secondary theories and can be overcome by suitably modifying these. For example, if the orbit of a planet behaves exactly as predicted by, say, Newtonian mechanics, then this is hailed as a spectacular triumph for the theory. On the other hand, if the predictions are off, it might be conjectured that this is due to tidal distortions, extended atmospheres, or the presence of other objects too faint to be seen. Given enough ingenuity, we can always "save" a favored theory from falsification. Moreover, in practice, even an imperfect theory is not discarded until a better alternative, requiring less ad hoc pleading, is devised.

 

Further, the same mathematical equations can often be explained in terms of different theoretical frameworks. I think here, for example, of quantum mechanics, where Schrodinger's equation defining the energy level of atoms can be interpreted in many ways that differ quite profoundly in their views of reality.

 

How, then, can we determine which theory is better? It all depends on how we define "better." You may perhaps think that successful theories are more likely to be true. However, consider the example of Newtonian mechanics. This is the most successful scientific theory ever devised. It explained a wealth of physical phenomena. For two centuries it was widely accepted as an indubitable truth. Yet today most physicists would consider it to be false; it has been replaced by Einstein's theory of relativity. And who knows whether a similar fate may not overtake relativity?

 

We may prefer theories that are useful, simple, beautiful, have broad explanatory powers, or are easily testable. These criteria may seem reasonable enough. But unless we can demonstrate that, say, simple theories are more likely to be true than complex ones, we are simply indulging in knowledge games. Without adequate justification, such criteria are no more than a reflection of our prior religious and philosophical biases. As philosophy of science Professor Del Ratzsch observes, when we choose one particular theory over another, “our choice must depend at least partially on nonempirical factors, whether philosophical, theological, societal . . . [or] personal.”[4]

 

F. Worldviews and Physics

The bottom line, therefore, is that we construct and choose those theories that accord best with our basic worldview, our deepest convictions about the nature of the universe. Our worldview affects virtually all our thinking. Particularly in physics, theories are closely connected with worldviews. For example, Copernicus's reduction of the earth to an ordinary planet in a heliocentric solar system undermined Aristotelian physics, which postulated a fundamental difference between earthly and heavenly mechanics. Later, the success of Newtonian physics caused many people to consider the universe as essentially a clock that ran by itself, without need of a God. Similarly, early in the twentieth century, the new theories of relativity and quantum mechanics contributed greatly to further changes in worldview: relativity in physics was taken by many to support relativism in ethics and philosophy; quantum mechanics was taken to support a holistic universe where the observer and observed were closely intertwined.

 

Or were the new theories the result of a change of thinking that was already in progress? Cause and effect are sometimes difficult to separate. Suffice it to say that theories in physics are closely linked with worldviews, as is revealed by a close study of the history of physics in its full social context. Therefore, it is important for a physicist to know and appreciate the historical background of the discipline.

 

In short, the establishment of scientific truth involves more than a mere majority vote. The notion of scientific neutrality and objectivity is largely a myth. We may share the same observational data and the same mathematical tools, but once we attempt to explain and extend this data we depart from our common starting part and view reality through the glasses of our various subjective worldviews.

 

III. A Christian Worldview

Since scientific theorizing is heavily dependent on our philosophical and religious presuppositions, the critical question is: What do we choose as our starting point? Modern naturalistic thinkers choose the basis to be themselves, insisting on the autonomy of human reason. Christians, on the other hand, believe in one much greater than themselves: an infinite God who knows all and has communicated truth to us in the form of both special revelation—the Scriptures—and general revelation—the created universe. Let's examine the essentials of a uniquely Christian worldview and how this makes a difference in physics.[5]

 

A. A Christian View of Knowledge

A Christian theory of knowledge is grounded upon a proper attitude of obedient submission to God. If we have made a heart commitment to God then we must think and act accordingly, living obediently in the light of God's Word and striving to do His will.

 

In my opinion, our submission to God implies that we accept His Word as inerrant--inerrant not because we can prove it to be such, for that would make human reason the final judge--but because it is the Word of Him who is truth incarnate (John 14:6). Believing in an inerrant Bible must be our basic presupposition. Further, we must strive read God's Word with open eyes and hearts, applying proper principles of interpretation that are consistent with this high view of Scripture.

 

God is the author also of both the physical world and of logic. Hence we expect the Bible, observation of the natural world, and deductive logic to cohere harmoniously. But our reasoning ability includes also the capacity for creative, abstract thought. For this we ourselves are responsible. Our minds are tools that can be manipulated by our inner desires and easily abused: "for out of the heart come evil thoughts" (Matthew 15:19). My point here is that human thought - which includes scientific theorizing - is to be judged in light of Scripture rather than vice versa. The Bible, in my view, must be the ultimate standard by which we assess scientific theorizing.

 

B. What is Truth?

Wheaton College philosophy professor emeritus Dr. Arthur Holmes, in The Idea of a Christian College, has many excellent things to say about Christian higher education. He, too, stresses that Scripture should be our final rule of faith and practice. Further, he argues that because truth is also to be found outside of Scripture, we should approach all truth with reverence since "all truth is God's truth, wherever it may be found."[6]

Here a word of caution is in order, for how are we to recognize the truth as truth when we encounter it? In particular, how can we be sure of the trustworthiness of our theoretical extrapolations beyond our empirical observations? What we believe to be true might turn out to be false. In my opinion, many Christians dealing with the integration of science and Christianity accept too uncritically mere scientific speculation as God's truth. Since God is the author of all truth, and since all truth must therefore form one consistent whole, this frequently results in biblical interpretation being held hostage to naturalistic science. All too often integration consists of little more than an accommodation of biblical revelation to secular science.

 

For example, theologian Rudolph Bultmann believed science had proven miracles to be impossible. Hence he concluded that all biblical miracles must be “demythologized.”[7] He ended up taking Christ's resurrection as merely a symbol of man's mastery over his passions. That rationalized dismissal of a fundamental Christian doctrine is what can happen when scientific conjecture is embraced as God's truth.

 

Those of you who have studied Calculus know that integration is studied after differentiation. So also in each discipline the integration of faith and knowledge must be preceded by a proper differentiation. We must test the spirits, discerning carefully between truth and error.

 

In each field of study one must look carefully for hidden presuppositions, for the underlying worldview that is rarely explicitly stated. What are the actual assumptions and norms that underpin the conclusions? And how do they square up with scriptural norms? You must strive to consistently think out and work out the consequences of your faith commitment for all of life. Christians advance knowledge by building on the solid foundation of God's Word.

 

C. A Christian View of Reality

What does the Bible tell us about nature? It gives very little information about the physical characteristics of the universe as we currently see it. On the other hand, the Bible says much about the world beyond our observations. First, it tells us about the all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God who created the universe from nothing. This God is quite distinct from His creation, which totally depends upon God not just for its origin but also for its continued existence (Heb. 1:3).

 

Second, the Bible tells of the existence of a spiritual realm, wherein are found God, angels, and the souls of the departed. The biblical heaven seems to be a universe parallel to our physical world, but usually invisible to man, although at times we are told of the heavens being opened and a person seeing into heaven (e.g., II Kings 6:16, the story of Elisha and his servant). Naturalists believe the physical world to be the ultimate reality, with the spiritual world as little more than an idle, unproven abstraction. Christians, on the other hand, believe that our physical three-dimensional cosmos is just a small subspace of a much larger reality.

 

Third, the Bible tells us about history: the initial “very good” creation of the universe, Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, the subsequent redemption of the fallen world through Christ's sacrificial death on the cross, and the prospective eternal life of joy of the redeemed in a renewed heaven and earth.

 

IV. Physics in a Christian Worldview

How does a Christian worldview affect our study of physics? In principle, since one's worldview provides important criteria for choosing among competing theories, a Christian influence should be profound. In practice, however, the Bible generally offers us very little help in constructing specific physical theories. A Christian perspective usually does not affect the actual content of theories. Overall, its main functions are to provide a plausible account for why physics works, and to stress the proper limits of scientific theories.

 

A. Why Does Physics Work?

As I pointed out earlier, physics has been successful primarily because we can discern basic physical principles that can readily be translated into mathematical equations. Further mathematical manipulations can then lead to a wide range of precise predictions and applications.

 

But why is it that the universe can be so easily described mathematically? If the universe is merely a chance event and if mathematics is merely a human invention then this is indeed a mystery. Eugene Wigner, a Nobel prize winner in physics, has written an essay entitled "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics." There he puzzles over this question, coming to the conclusion that the applicability of mathematics to the physical world is a mysterious gift -- and an undeserved gift at that.

 

As Christians we know that Wigner, a non-Christian, was on the right track. The rationality of the universe is indeed a gift: a gift from God. God has created the universe according to a rational plan. Moreover, He has created man in His image (Genesis 1), so that man is a thinking, conscious, religious being who can discern the mathematical structure placed in the universe by the Creator.

 

For physics to be possible there must be a basic uniformity to nature: the same laws should apply over extended periods of time. Otherwise no predictions are possible. Christianity supplies a basis for such observed regularity: God, in His covenant with Noah after the Flood (Genesis 9), promised the regular flow of times and seasons, until the time comes for a new heaven and a new earth. God has not just started off the universe and then left it to fend for itself; rather, He is continuously upholding His creation.

 

B. Miracles

These considerations do not, of course, preclude God from performing miracles. In this respect we should not consider miracles as interventions in a universe otherwise running its own course. Rather, miracles are merely irregular manifestations of God's will, but everything that occurs, both natural and miraculous, is under God's control.

 

This underscores a fundamental limitation of physics. Physics is concerned with explaining physical phenomena in terms of natural causes. It has nothing to say about the existence of a possible spiritual realm, nor about the possibility of spiritual causes that have physical effects. On such matters we must take our cue from divinely inspired biblical revelation.

 

C. Does God Play with Dice?

According to atomic physics (quantum mechanics), processes involving very small objects such as electrons are not exact but only probabilistic. Thus, for example, we can't predict exactly when a radioactive nucleus will emit a burst of radiation; we can only predict the probability of it occurring at any particular time. One popular interpretation of this phenomenon is that nature is inherently probabilistic, so that not even God can predict with certainty the time of the next radioactive emission. A number of theologians, accepting this view of quantum mechanics, have modified their theology accordingly, postulating that God has only limited knowledge of the future. Thus, for example, physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne believes that God has self-limited his divine power in order to let nature develop itself freely.[8] A prominent promoter of such “open theism” is theologian Gregory Boyd.[9] Open theism has been critiqued by theologian John Frame, who perceives it to be a dangerous attack on orthodox theology.[10]

 

Albert Einstein, one of the founders of modern physics, objected to such an interpretation of quantum mechanics. Asserting that God does not play with dice, Einstein felt that there must be an underlying determinism so that all physical events do ultimately occur according to precise laws and not by chance. The probabilistic laws can then by seen as exhibiting merely human limitation in observing the very small, rather than as a fundamental physical property of the matter itself. Such a deterministic view has recently been defended by the Christian physicist Peter Hodgson in his book Theology and Modern Physics. (Note that here the dispute concerns not the equations of quantum mechanics but only their proper interpretation.) In this regard I agree with Einstein and Hodgson. The Bible speaks clearly of an all-knowing, all-powerful God who leaves nothing to chance: "The lot is cast in the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord" (Prov.16:33).

 

D. Chaos and Butterflies

Quantum effects apply only to very small objects and are insignificant for larger objects such as billiard balls and planets. There, at least, it seemed as if one could make extremely accurate predictions. In the nineteenth century a famous French physicist, Pierre LaPlace, boasted that, given the initial positions and speeds of all particles in the universe, he could predict all subsequent events in the universe.[11]

 

In recent times it has become evident that such accurate predictions are not possible. Many events in nature are what we call "chaotic." For example, try balancing a pencil -- point down -- on your desk. The direction it falls after you let go is hard to predict, depending very precisely on minute effects such as a small puff of air, a vibration in your desk, or a small initial departure from equilibrium. A tiny change in initial conditions can lead to a very large difference in outcome. It turns out that the equations governing weather are chaotic: they depend very precisely on initial conditions. The disturbance caused by the flight of a butterfly could generate effects eventually culminating in a tornado. Not that I'm suggesting butterflies cause tornados! But it does serve to illustrate that one can predict weather accurately only if one knows the initial conditions with infinitesimal precision—something beyond the capacity of even the most meticulous meteorologist.  

 

In short, even if the world were purely deterministic and naturalistic, there would be limitations in human ability to predict future events. Of course, it may well be that, in the case of the weather, future advances in technology might enable us to effectively predict the weather by controlling it, damping out small disruptive effects before they become significant.

 

E. Extrapolations of Physics

Probabilistic laws, chaotic effects, and possible miracles all limit the reliability of scientific predictions. In spite of such current uncertainties, we scientists try to advance scientific knowledge of the distant past and/or the (as yet) unobserved future by extrapolating on the basis of both observed data and our preferred scientific theories.

 

This requires us to make some assumptions regarding the nature of the unobserved universe. It is natural to assume the principle of induction or uniformity: the notion that the laws of nature observed here and now are valid always and everywhere. Consider, for example, the motion of the moon. It is customary to assume that the forces acting on the moon were much the same in the past as they are now. But how do we know that this has really been the case? Perhaps in the past gravity was stronger or weaker, perhaps there have been close encounters with other planets (this is the theory of Veliskovsky[12]), or perhaps the moon stood still (as in the Joshua 10).

 

For that matter, one could postulate that the entire physical universe might have been created full-blown as recently as some 6,000 years ago. Such a notion, one might argue, has a number of things going for it: it is free from self-contradiction, it can be shown to be consistent with observable facts, and, since it refers to the past, it is beyond any experimental refutation (but this is admittedly true for all theories about the origin of the cosmos). Some of the pro’s and con’s of this “mature creation” thesis are discussed by theologian Vern Poythress.[13] (I also discuss this viewpoint at some length in my book God and Cosmos.) The point is that the universe beyond our observations may well be quite different from what our theories predict.

 

Naturalists strive to explain the origin and operation of the physical universe in terms of purely natural processes, without acknowledging any involvement of a supernatural being. Obviously such a view may well clash with biblical Christianity, particularly when it concerns extensions of physics beyond the presently observable universe.

 

The most controversial of these extensions are speculations about the origin, destiny, and completeness of the physical universe. Big bang cosmology has become a very popular theory of origins. It purports to explain all of physical reality in terms of the sudden appearance—the Big Bang--of the universe roughly 15 billion years ago and its subsequent manifold evolution. Purely natural causes and random interactions allegedly transformed primordial matter into stars, planets, life and, finally, humans. As to the universe's fate, most advocates of this cosmological thesis prognosticate that presumably all life will eventually be snuffed out (no doubt many millions or even billions of years from now), either in a "Big Crunch" (if the universe is massive enough to turn its expansion into a contraction) or in a "Big Whimper," when energy is spread too thin to support life.

 

To what extent can Big Bang cosmology be reconciled with the Bible? Usually such a question focuses on origins rather than on the future of the cosmos. Since the Big Bang evolutionary scenario contradicts the traditional reading of Genesis 1-11, many Christian Big Bang exponents (most of whom would also acknowledge themselves to be theistic evolutionists) have been obliged to modify their interpretation of this passage in the Bible.[14] Here a word of caution is in order. Once we permit a scientific theory to modify our understanding of the Bible, where do we stop? What criteria do we have for judging which scientific theories are true and which portions of the Bible are open for revision? Robert Newman comments on the implications of having to re-interpret the opening chapters of Genesis as follows:The warrant for reading Genesis 2 and 3 [the latter the account of Adam and Eve’s fall] as a myth or allegory comes from outside Scripture. . . .We should not mistake research agendas for empirical results.”[15]  A similar question can be raised with respect to the narrative describing God’s acts of creation in Genesis 1. No internal evidence exists for interpreting these apparently historical narratives, involving named people, time frames, and places, as mere myths or fictional stories.

 

There are even deeper problems. The central hope of Christianity is that of the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, and life everlasting in a renewed heaven and earth. This contrasts sharply with the gloomy predictions of Big Bang cosmology. The Christian physicist-theologian John Russell sees this as a fundamental challenge to Christianity. In response, he asserts that the laws of nature are only descriptive of what has happened, not prescriptive of what must happen.  Hence, Russell argues, at the second coming of Christ God may well act in radically new ways to transform the world.[16]

 

At the same time, Russell insists that Big Bang cosmology does correctly describe the past.  However, here one might well ask: granted that natural laws are indeed not prescriptive but only descriptive, and granted that the Bible trumps naturalistic science in eschatology, why should the same not apply to origins? After all, one could argue, the laws of nature are only descriptive of what we have observed, not prescriptive of what must have happened at the beginning.

 

I do of course recognize that a number of scientists have no difficulty reconciling the Big Bang thesis and/or a belief in theistic evolution with their Christian faith. As I have indicated above, I believe a better alternative, more in line with a high view of the Bible and a recognition of the highly subjective nature of most scientific theorizing, would be to let the Bible speak for itself and to modify our scientific view of  origins accordingly.[17] I respectfully “agree to disagree” with Christian scientific colleagues who believe otherwise.

 

V. The Task of the Christian in Physics

We have seen how a Christian worldview makes a difference in physics. What implications does this have for how Christians should be involved in physics?

 

First, we note that a study of physics enables us to better appreciate the wonderful world that God has created, as well as the Creator Himself. The beauty, grandeur, coherence and wisdom in nature reflects the character of its Creator. As we have seen, Christianity gives a plausible explanation as to why the universe exhibits a discernible rational structure. Hence physics can play an apologetic role, albeit in a rather limited way.

 

Second, activity in physics finds justification through the cultural mandate to subdue and replenish the earth (Gen.1:28). Physics provides us with powerful tools that can be applied for the stewardly service of God and our fellow humans. In this regard physics has yielded many applications--I think here particularly of modern communications, jet travel, and computers--that have not merely benefited man but also have helped him to preach the gospel and thus fulfil the Great Commission.

 

Third, there is a further, even more important reason why Christians should be involved in physics. We need experts to evaluate and apply the conclusions of scientific research in a Christian manner. Such experts can guide the Christian community in its interaction with modern society.

 

A Christian physicist should be fully aware of both the power and limitations of scientific theorizing. In a Christian worldview we must ensure that our theories, as well as their interpretations and extensions, are consistent with what is revealed to us through the Bible. The Bible (e.g. Psalm 19, Romans 1) does tell us that God reveals Himself through nature. However, the knowledge thus revealed is primarily about God's character rather than about origins and other mysteries. Indeed, the Bible (e.g. Job 38-41) often stresses man's ignorance regarding origins and deeper questions of nature.

 

A Christian scientist should therefore be competent (know the discipline well), critical (be able to discern philosophical presuppositions and implications), and biblical (building on a solid scriptural foundation).

Conclusion

In summary, I believe a Christian approach to physics will emphasize:

(1) the beauty and orderliness of God's creation;

(2) our responsibility to subdue it as God's stewards;

(3) the power, as well as the limits of human theorizing; and

(4) the need to submit all our thinking to the light of the Bible.

A Christian approach to physics may well end up with much the same equations, but it will interpret, apply and extend these in accordance with God's Word.

 

Finally, let me stress again the main thesis of this chapter: that in approaching physics - as in any discipline - we must be guided by our fundamental trust in God. As we study His creation we must strive to view it in the light of His inerrant Word, making every thought captive to Christ, "in whom are hid all treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3), and applying our knowledge in ways that best serve the advancement of His Kingdom. Above all, we must keep things in a proper perspective. We must not forget that since this world will pass away, along with its physics, we are but pilgrims on our way to an eternal destiny.

 

Works Cited

Boyd, Gregory A. God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000.

Bultmann, Rudolf. "New Testament and Mythology." In Kerygma and Myth, edited by H. W. Bartsch, 1-44. London: SPCK, 1957.

Byl, John. God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.

---. The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math, and Meaning. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.

Frame, John. No Other God: A Response to Open Theism. Phillipsburgh, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2001.

Hodgson, Peter E. Theology and Modern Physics. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Pub., 2005.

Holmes, Arthur F. The Idea of a Christian College. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987.

LaPlace, P.S. (1825) Philosophical Essays on Probabilities, translated by F. W. Truscott and F.    L. Emory. New York: Dover, 1986.

 

Newman, Robert C. “Some Problems for Theistic Evolution.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 55.2 (June 2003): 117-28.

Penrose, Roger. The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Polkinghorne, John. Belief in God in an Age of Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

---. “Christian Interdisciplinarity.” In Christianity and the Soul of the University: Faith as a Foundation for Intellectual Community, edited by Douglas V. Henry and Michael D. Beaty, 49-64. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

 

Popper, Karl. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1963.

Poythress, Vern S. Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006.

Ratzsch, Del. The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side Is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Russell, Robert John. “Bodily Resurrection, Eschatology and Scientific Cosmology.” In Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments, edited by Ted Peters, R. J. Russell, and Michael Welker, 3-30. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.

Velikovsky, Immanuel. Worlds in Collision. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1950.

Wigner, Eugene. "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics." Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics 13 (1960): 1-14.

 

For Further Reading

Beckman, John C. “Quantum Mechanics, Chaos Physics and the open View of God.” Philosophia Christi 4.1 (2002): 203-13.

Berlinski, David. "Was There a Big Bang?" Commentary 105 (1998): 28-38.

 

Claerbaut, David. “Why Is Creation Central to the Faith-and-learning Enterprise?” In his Faith and Learning on the Edge: A Bold New Look at Religion in Higher Education, 146-59. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.


 

[1] “Christian Interdisciplinarity,” 55.

[2] The Road to Reality

[3] Conjectures and Refutations, 192.

[4] The Battle of Beginnings, 111.

[5] In my book The Divine Challenge I compare the presuppositions and implications of naturalism, relativism, and Christianity.

[6] 52.

[7] “New Testament and Mythology,” 3-5.

[8] Belief in God in an Age of Science, 13.

[9] God of the Possible

[10] No Other God

[11] Philosophical Essays on Probabilities.

[12] Worlds in Collision

[13] Redeeming Science, 113-30.

[14]For a detailed look at the issues involved in origins the reader is referred to Del Ratzsch The Battle of Beginnings and Vern Polthress Redeeming Science.

[15] “Some Problems for Theistic Evolution,” 28.

[16] “Bodily Resurrection, Eschatology and Scientific Cosmology,” 19.

[17] In God and Cosmos I discuss in considerable detail why I see as problematic the Big Bang cosmological thesis,  with respect to not only the past but also the future, in the light of biblical narratives and teachings.

 

 
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