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Modern Physics and Ancient Faith

Stephan M. Barr

softback, 312 pages, 2010

Item# B143
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Questions about our origins can be asked at three distinct levels: 1) the origin and operation of the physical universe; 2) the origin of life; and 3) the operation of living systems. Looking at our book catalog and news stories at ARN some would conclude that question #3 is the only one we are interested in. Not true. While our understanding of the complexity of livings system has mushroomed over the past generation bringing renewed interest to the Darwin or Design debate in the biological realm, some are convinced that the most compelling arguments for design are to be found in physics and cosmology (question #1). In that spirit we are making a concerted effort to enhance our catalog offerings in this area.

Our first selection is by Stephen Barr, a particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware, who is not only a practicing scientist, but a proven communicator on topics related to science, philosophy, and theology. A rare bird, who is our kind of guy.

As a Roman Catholic, Barr has always been troubled by what he perceives as the false impression that some scientists and the media often give that science is at war with religion or that science somehow disproves religion. Like Phillip Johnson, he traces this thinking to the unnecessary marriage of the practice of science with the philosophical doctrine of materialism--that all things must have a naturalistic, materialistic explanation. Barr goes on to show with great effectiveness that materialism is an unsubstantiated faith among physicists. He proceeds to illustrate how the great discoveries of physics in the 20th century actually serve to confirm a belief in a designer or creator god more than they do a belief in materialism.

Barr clearly separates out the Cosmic Design Argument from the Biological Design Argument in his book. Although he has serious doubts about the power of Darwin's theory of natural selection and random mutation to explain the design of living systems, he points out that even if common descent is conceded for the sake of argument (or proven to be true in the future), it does not have an impact on the independent Cosmic Design Argument which is his focus.

While Barr covers some of the standard arguments for design in physics including the big bang, the anthropic principal, and the laws of nature, he also addresses one topic that is seldom addressed in intelligent design literature: quantum mechanics. Quantum theory is the discovery that subatomic particles act very differently than particles in our observable world, which are described by Newtonian physics. Reductionism and materialism are severely challenged in the quantum world where concepts such as uncertainty, unpredictability, wave/particle duality, instantaneous communication, and the need for an observer reign. The reader should be aware that while Barr holds to a traditional or orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics, he does address some of the alternatives to traditional quantum theory. There are more scientific proofs of quantum theory than almost any other area of science, but the philosophical implications fly in the face of materialistic philosophy to such an extent that many physicists simply choose to ignore them or invent questionable alternatives. If you are looking for an introduction to the implications of quantum mechanics for design theory, chapters 24 and 25 of Barr's book are a good place to start.

While our current understanding of physics and quantum theory appear to point away from materialism and toward design, like all good scientists, Barr holds his ideas loosely: Of course, no one knows what the future of science will bring. Perhaps quantum theory will itself be overturned. We can only talk about the implications of the science we have.

Table of Contents


Part I - The Conflict between Religion and Materialism

1. The Materialist Creed/1
2. Materialism as an Anti-Religious Mythology/4
3. Scientific Materialism and Nature/19

Part II - In the Beginning

4. The Expectations/33
5. How Things Looked One Hundred Years Ago/36
6. The Big Bang/ 38
7. Was the Big Bang Really the Beginning?/47
8. What If the Big Bang Was Not the Beginning?/58

Part III - Is the Universe Designed?

9. The Argument from Design/ 65
10. The Attack on the Argument from Design/71
11. The Design Argument and the Laws of Nature/76
12. Symmetry and Beauty in the Laws of Nature/93
13. "What Immortal Hand or Eye?"/105

Part IV - Man's Place in the Cosmos

14. The Expectations/115
15. The Anthropic Coincidences/118
16. Objections to the Idea of Anthropic Coincidences/138
17. Alternative Explanations of the Anthropic Coincidences/149
18. Why Is the Universe So Big?/158

Part V - What is Man?

19. The Issue/167
20. Determinism and Free Will/175
21. Can Matter "Understand"?/190
22. Is the Human Mind Just a Computer?/207
23. What Does the Human Mind Have That Computers Lack?/220
24. Quantum Theory and the Mind/227
25. Alternatives to Traditional Quantum Theory/245
26. Is a Pattern Emerging?/253

Appendix A - God, Time, and Creation/257
Appendix B - Attempts to Explain the Beginning Scientifically/268
Appendix C - Godel's Theorem/279


Stephan Barr
Stephan M. Barr is a professor of theoretical particle physics at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware.


"Written from the viewpoint of an accomplished physicist, this book is an invaluable contribution to the growing interest in the relationship between science and religion. The arguments are rigorously logical and the documentation is excellent." --Robert Scherrer, Ohio State University

"In Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, Barr skillfully masters both physics and theology. . . . His work is a thing of scholarly beauty." --Science & Theology News

"In this well-reasoned and accessible book, Stephen Barr argues against the idea that modern science has discredited belief in God. Barr, an accomplished theoretical particle physicist currently at the University of Delaware and a lay Roman Catholic, adroitly marshals recent developments in the natural and computer sciences to show that science, far from clearly discrediting religious belief, can in many instances reasonably be construed to support it. The book is well documented, and the exposition is masterful, making it a valuable asset for those theists wanting to learn more about the ways in which the sciences can contribute to the materialist-theist debate." --Journal of Religion

"Stephen Barr does heroic service with his book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith as a revolutionary insurgent within the intellectual hegemony of modern scientific materialism." --Crisis Magazine

"It is a happy day indeed when one finds a work by a scientist that is so clear, based upon serious reflection, and demonstrates a broad knowledge of philosophy and religion as well as science. Modern Physics and Ancient Faith is such a work. Barr . . . has a wonderful way of explaining difficult theories in modern physics. Equally impressive is his ability to reflect upon the philosophical and theological implications of these theories and explain them to us in ordinary English." -- Theology Today

". . . Well-reasoned and accessible. . . . The book is well documented, and the exposition is masterful, making it a valuable asset for those theists wanting to learn more about the ways in which the sciences can contribute to the materialist-theist debate." --Journal of Religion

". . . An unusual and provocative affirmation of religious faith. Neither religiously sectarian nor technically daunting, this is a book that invites the widest range of readers to ponder the deepest kinds of questions." --Booklist (starred review)

"The strength of Barr�s book is his competent and clear accounts of the discoveries of modern science in a way that is also theologically informed. . . ." --New Oxford Review

" ...[A] well-written and logically argued presentation on the relationship between religion and science . . . Barr makes both modern physics and theology understandable to the general reader. This is a worthy successor to P.C.W. Davies's God and the New Physics . . . Highly recommended." -- Library Journal

"[A] lucid and engaging survey of modern physics and its relation to religious belief. . . . Barr has produced a stunning tour de force . . . [a] scientific and philosophical breakthrough." --National Review

�Modern Physics and Ancient Faith is the most impressive statement I have seen of the thesis that science has found indications of the divine. Barr presents a thought-provoking discussion that ranges across physics, cosmology and mathematics. He refrains from overblown claims of proof, instead asserting that scientific advances of the past century comport better with the expectations of religious believers than with those of scientific materialists. Barr also shows a willingness to grapple with skeptics' objections. The book can be read profitably for its discussions of various scientific topics, leaving aside whether one agrees with the overall argument."

"Stephen Barr's book energizes the reader, since its philosophical positions are well argued, its writing is clear and accessible, and its religious affirmations are provocative for believers and nonbelievers alike." --Christian Century

". . . Modern Physics and Ancient Faith ranks among the most scientifically, theologically, and philosophically rigorous studies of the relation between science and theology to appear in recent years. That it is also written in a clear and highly accessible style makes it even more worthy of widespread notice, discussion, and debate. . . . Barr has written an accessible, insightful, and fair overview of how the discoveries of physics and mathematics during the last century could be thought to confirm the expectations of the religious believer--as well as a careful analysis and critique of materialism. For those looking for an overview that will help them to think at a deep level about these issues, I cannot think of anything better than Modern Physics and Ancient Faith." --First Things

". . . Because Barr covers a lot of ground and does so with clarity, insight, and verve, the proposals of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith will no doubt gain a wider readership than most apologetic texts in the science and religion discussion." -- Religious Studies Review

"Uniting science and religion, the author and physicist uses his scientific expertise to support his belief that the universe is best explained by divine design, pressing evolutionary theory for a plausible account of the origin of what quantum physics demands--a conscious observer." --Columbia College Today

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