in Christian Perspective
MODERN PHYSICS AND CHRISTIAN FAITH
Aldert van der Liel
Prof, of Physics
Univ. of British Columbia
From: JASA, 2,
a) Physics is an experimental science, based upon observations and experiments.
This statement needs very little
comment. it just describes what happens in a
research project in physics. If a certain phenomenon is investigated,
a number of
observations are made, if possible under varying initial conditions, and it is then
tried to give a clear representation of those observations. This sometimes only
leads to a conclusion, sometimes to a general principle, usually stated in a mathematical form. If this result is achieved the investigation can be said to have
The mathematical formula or the general principle usually states more than the
sum of all the observations made and it has to be investigated whether all the further
conclusions which can be drawn from it are also verified by experiments.
I mentioned that one always tries to vary the initial conditions of the experiment. This is a very important part of the work, if it cannot be done, the work
becomes much more difficult and progress is usually slow. In order to vary the
initial conditions one has to be able to control the process which is investigated;
as I said before this is not always possible but it is highly desirable.
As an example take the study of mesons, heavy ionizing particles having the
same charge as an electron but a mass in between the mass of an electron and the
mass of a proton, These particles are present in cosmic rays; one had studied those
rays for mazy years, had discovered the particles as one type out of the great many
kinds which were present in those rays, but one could not control the processes in
which these particles appeared. Last year physicists in Berkeley were able to make
mesons in their new powerful cyclotron. One can be confident that progress in
study of those particles will be much more rapid from now on, as one can not only
control the process but also make mesons in much bigger quantities than occur in
b) The aim of a theory is to interrelat e the various observations and to give
a unified description Of them.
After having investigated one phenomenon the task of an experimental physicist
is not finished; there are a large number of other phenomena which can be investigated
in a similar way. The next step is now to find relations between those phenomena
and it is tried to describe the various observations by a single theory by starting
from a few well established facts or from a few hypotheses. This is the task of the
theoretical physicist, who has as his aim to cover as many phenomena as possible by
a single theory.
Usually the theory states much more than all the observations made so far and
it has to be investigated whether all further conclusions arc also verified by
expirment. If they arc then the theory has got a more solid foundation; if they are
not then the theory has either to be abandoned or to be improved. Usually# even for
very successful theories, one finally comes at~ a point, where new phenomena are encountered which cannot be described by the existing theory. This nay alter the whole
picture drastically; I only have to refer to the beginning of the quantum theory in
order to indicate how large the change can be. Such events cause the dynamic character of science, due to which the theory of today may be found to be
Theory and experiment go side by side. If divorced from experiment,, the theory
becomes speculation; experiment without theory can only consist of assembling data and
has very little future. The theory has to guide the experiment just as the experiment has to guide the theory. The progress of physics during the last
two centuries is chiefly due to this close connection between theory and
o) Established fact and hypothesis.
The basis of physics is that the observations made are to be considered as
established facts in so far as a repetition by other investigators gives the same
results. A theory is not an established fact itself, though it my become so in
face of further evidence. It is just a theory and nothing more; one has always
to be open for the possibility that it may have to be abandoned in view of further
I said that some hypothesis may become so firmly established by further evidence
that one may consider them as experimental facts, About 150 years ago the molecular
theory was no more than an hypothesis, made in order to give an adequate description
of some facts in chemistry and physics. Today the evidence in favour of their
existence Is so largo that nobody has any doubt about it.
Not all theories share this fact About a few hundred years ago one introduced
the ether in order to visualize the fact that light behaved as if it consisted of
transverse waves; one used the argument that one had to postulate a medium for this
wave motion. The same other had to be used somewhat later in order to visualize the
basic phenomena of electromagnetism. The link between the two fields was established
by Maxwell who founded the electromagnetic theory of light. About 50 years ago some
physicists boasted that the ether was one of the best known substances of the world.
Today the picture has changed considerably; most physicists do not believe any more
in the ether. They have realized that the other was only a moans for visualizing
electromagnetic and light phenomena; they could therefore abandon the whole
concept without changing the mathematical formulas which describe
d) Physics is a descriptive science.
Physics is not a philosophy; it does not discuss the "nature" of things, but
it describes sufficiently what phenomena occur, how they occur
and what we can do
We still do not know anything about "the nature" of gravitation, but we know
that the inverse square law (or the relativistic. generalization of it) holds and
that is sufficient for astronomical applications, We know nothing about the nature
of an electron, but we 11mow its oharge, its mass,, its angular momentum and its
magnetic moment; we also !mow the basic laws of the quantum theory and that is sufficient for giving an adequate description of atomic and molecular spectra. It also
enables us to put the electron to work for us in radio and television with so much
In none of these fields it is tried to discuss the "nature" of things and still
the progress has been spectacular. If we try to make science more than descriptive
science we just make it less as such an endeavour is usually accompanied by a dogmatic
attitude. Scientists in the middle ages talked a great deal about the nature of
things but did very few experiments and progress was therefore slow. If we keep
physics within these limits and do not develop it into a philosophy, good progress
will be made and it will have a great influence upon every sphere of human life. If,
it is tried to use physics in order to arrive at the "nature" of things physics will
have much less influence upon many aspects of human life, but its influence upon
religion may easily become disastrous, as its truth will then have a much more
absolute character to which other truths,, even religious truth will be subjected.
One can perhaps make a distinction between direct descriptions and analogies.
Direct descriptions can be used if we have some notion of the quantities which are
introduced in the theory. Analogies are used if we do not have such a direct notion
of the concepts, we then relate the unknown to the already known.
As an example take the quantities introduced in mechanics., Everybody knows
what is meant when we talk about particles, about their position, velocity, acceleration and about the forces working upon theme The description of mechanics,, though
perhaps somewhat difficult for young students here and there, is completely in terms
of those quantities, In the case of electricity, however, we use analogies in a
large number of cases.
Everybody can visualise wave motion from the motion of water waves He can also
understand the phenomena of Interference and diffraction from those waves, It is
then observed that in sound and light those phenomena of interference and diffraction
occur too and we therefore conclude that sound and light can be described by saying
that it is just as if sound and light are wave phenomena. This was at first only an
analogy. Further evidence showed that in the case of sound the air molecules are
really vibrating longitudinally, so that we may drop the words "as if" and say that
sound really is a wave motion of the air. We cannot say that something really
vibrates in the case of light (unless we introduce a hypothetical other) therefore
we might better say that to call light a wave phenomenon is an analogy.
Analogies are extremely useful, because they indicate that an unknown problem
can be solved in the same way as a familiar one; they are therefore widely used in
physics. There is e.g. an analogy between the flow of current in an inhomogenous
conductive medium and between the distribution of the electric field strength in an
inhomogenous dielectric medium. Those who are familiar with one type of problem
can immediately solve the other type.
The danger is, however, that an analogy is taken to be a reality and that the
two words "as if" are omitted, In that case only confusion will result. I only
have to refer to many old textbooks on electricity, in which one happily used
analogies and thought that they were established facts. It is very illuminating to
read in this respect A. O'Rahilly's book: Electromagnetics (Longmans, Green and Co.).
Though not everybody will always agree with his statements, his criticisms are
usually well-founded, his ideas are thought-provoking and his collection of wrong
statements in textbooks is instructive and amusing.
It physics is thought to tell us something about the "nature" of things then
there is always the danger that an analogy is taken to be a reality. If physics is
thought to be a descriptive science, this danger is much less acute and analogies
can have their rightful place.
f) Differentiation and synthesis.
Two opposing tendencies are always at work in science, differentiation and
synthesis. By the process of differentiation a more primitive science is spread in
many different directions. As an example the natural sciences of the 16th and 17th
century spread into physics, astronomy, chemistry and biology. In the process of
synthesis side-links are built between those new pathways of science. Astrophysicists
have transformed the Universe into a large physics lab in which physical principles
are tested in a way not dreamt of a few generations ago. Wave mechanics has linked
chemistry and physics together by means of the theory of the chemical bond. Biophysics and biochemistry are building links between biology, chemistry and physics.
Both processes are always at the same time and complement each other. If
differentiation is overemphasized, one will be finally left with as many theories as
phenomena, which is certainly not very satisfactory. If synthesis is overemphasized
one will in the end try to synthesize even those phenomena which have no connection
For it is not certain beforehand that two phenomena are related and is even
wrong to assume that they have to be related, It is the danger of a synthetic point
of view that such an assumption is made where it should not be made. But it is,
worth while to investigate whether the phenomena are related and it would be wrong
not to make at least an attempt.And one should not be too much biased in favour
of one of the two possibilities unless one has studied the presence or absence of a
relationship. That is a dogmatic attitude which has no place in science.
If one has discovered a new principle, it is wrong to assume that it has to be
applied to all
fields. But it would be equally wrong not to try whether it can be
applied to some other fields too. If it can., then it may lead to startling developments; if it cannot then one has to accept this fact at least for the time
It is dangerous to apply important principles to other fields if one has not
sufficient knowledge of that field, A physicist might better stick. to his own job,
for there is still a large amount of work to be done in his 'own field. As an example
take Heisenberg's uncertainty-principle. After its discovery it was agreed that this
princp1e proved the human free will. After this principle the uncertainty in
momentum A p times the uncertainty in position delta X is of the same order of magnitude
as Planck's constant h. This principle seems to hold in atomic physics, but from
there to human will is a very large stop. And suppose this stop is made, in
what way do we have to find the freedom of this will? I know that Planck's constant
is a very small quantity; does this mean that the limits between which the human'
will is a free will are quite close together too? Is not it much better to leave
this problem to those people who have been thinking about it in the past?
g) Dogmatism in science.
I said before that dogmatism had no place in science, It is not always of a
dangerous type; as such it occurs in popular science books, when very
statements are made about the nature of things. One notices e.g. in modern physics
a tendency for abstract reasoning which is chiefly caused by the fact that concepts
are used which are not familiar to us in every day life. But it would be wrong to
conclude that all concepts in physics are of the abstract type. And it is even more
wrong that th6F-are 11mental concepts." I doubt very much whether anybody who has
such an extreme point of view will not be careful enough to stay away from intense
beams of fast neutrons. Otherwise he will soon find out that these "mental concepts"
are highly dangerous.
More serious is when one extends a certain principle to the whole universe and
to every aspect of human life. It is dangerous, because it may have serious consequences on politics,
religion and on the whole human society. As an example take
the deterministic point of view in the nineteenth century. After Newtonian
the path of a particle is known as soon as the law of motion and the initial position
and velocity are known. This result was then extended to the universe and to human
life. Nobody knew whether the principle could be applied to human life and nobody
seemed to care either. One happily did 'so and called the results "scientific."
It was completely unscientific of course, for a real scientific approach should
always be open to the possibility that a principle which is assumed to hold in a
particular field may later be found not to hold under all circumstances. And a
scientific approach is much more critical in applications to other fields. The irony
of history is that the above principle does not even hold in atomic physics; after
Heisenberg's uncertainty relation one cannot know all the initial conditions at the
..We are facing here a very common error in human thinking; it is no exaggeration
to say that practically all present and past -isms can be traced to an error of this
type, that a principle which may be useful in
over all fields and to every aspect of human life. Ono finds the important part
which heredity plays and one concludes dogmatically that everything is determined by
heredity. One finds the important influence of environment on human behaviour and
one concludes that all crime will disappear if the environment is changed
Or one notices the importance of your economic position upon your outlook of life and
one puts forward the principle that all human behaviour and all human thinking is
determirmed by economic factors. In all these cases there is a certain amount of
truth in the ideas which are put forward; what is wrong, however, is that it is
assumed to be the whole truth. And "the whole truth" is a very intolerant concept,
h) Physics and faith.
In the previous sections I said that physics does not discuss the nature of
things. One should not have the idea, however, that I think. it to be objectionable
to discuss the nature of things. But one should make clear that one is not doing
physics when one does so. There is no direct objection against discuss1ng the
reality of the outside world or the probability of a creation or the possibility of
the existence of a Creator with the help of data supplied by physics. Whether or
not objections have to be made depends upon the certainty of the results obtained
and upon the way in which they are obtained. In the case of religion objections may
also have to be made if the results obtained are in contradiction, with the Christian
In face of the existing astronomical and physical data it seems to be justified
to assume that many things had a beginning. If radioactive elements had always
existed they would all have decayed in the past. This is a very strong and sound
argument, at least in view of our present state of knowledge. It is already more
speculative to derive a similar argument from the expanding universe. Cosmological
theories seem to indicate that the universe "started" a few billion years ago. It
is tempting to call this beginning "Creation'; but it is wiser to be cautious; the
few observations which led to the concept of the expanding universe are open to
other interpretations. In a recent paper in "Nature" (Feb. 6, 149) the idea is put
forward to combine the ideas of an infinitely old universe with the idea of a "continuous creation" of matter. (Instead of "creation" one might perhaps better say
11appearance" of matter, for the Christian concept of creation is certainly different).
These speculations are extremely interesting but it would be unwise to tie our faith
in the Creator to them.
Sir James Jeans once wrote that the mathematical structure of physics showed
that the great Architect of the universe was a great mathematician. He derived this
from the fact that physics could be so beautifully described by mathematical theories.
But who is this great mathematician behind these theories? Might not It be after
all the enlarged picture of the theoretical physicist himself who built this structure?
But why should one go to so great efforts to arrive at so meagre and vague
results? Would not Christians do infinitely bettor when at this particular point
they confessed openly their faith in God the Creator, in Jesus Christ, our Lord and
Redeemer and in the Holy Spirit, our Comforter. Those which do not believe might
otherwise got the wrong impression that our faith rests upon such doubtful and vague
For let us make one thing clear to them. The answer to the question whether
there is religious truth and where it can be found does not come from physics or any
other science. It comes from God Himself, from His revelation in Christ. The message of God's love and mercy towards us comes through the mouth of the prophets and
Apostles, not through the mouth of scientists'. The only work scientists can do in
this respect is to say: "Amen" and to accept this message.
This is not a condemnation of science; science certainly is one of the greatest
achievements of modern man and it certainly deserves its rightful place in the modern
world. But it has its limitations, if
we had to rely upon it for religious truth,
we would still live in religious ignorance. Let us be thankful for it, for it
relieves us from the task to seek God in and through science. God's revelation in
Christ shows that this would be only a blind alley. It also opens up the possibility
to work in our field of science without the constant fear that our next discovery
might damage our faith beyond repair. Our certainty is in God and not in ourselves,
our faith is a free gift from His hand and not our own achievement. For that reason
we- may say with the apostle Paul: "Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ
I) Physics and the Bible.
Much has been written about the existence or non-existence of-harmony between
science and the Bible. As our faith may be strengthened by a great many things of
only relative importance (though they were not the origin of our faith) it is perfectly right to say that any harmony
betweeen science and the Bible may strengthen
our faith. But it is certainly wrong to say that any lack of harmony between science
and the Bible must weaken our faith. For the certainty of our faith does not rest
upon such an agreement but it is in the hands of Him who revealed Himself
to us in Christ.
The Bible was not written in order to reveal to us scientific truth; it was
written in order to make known to us what we could not know otherwise. It is right
to say that all understanding, even of scientific truth comes from God, but at the
same time it is equally right to say that it is our activity. But vie can not say
that the message of God's love is our activity; our activity can only exist in accepting this message ourselves and in telling it to others. This is the great difference
between science and faith which
The Bible is a book written by fallible human beings and it bears all the signs
of it. But at the same time it is the infallible word of God. How is it possible
that fallible human beings speak God's word to us? Only because God speaks it through
them. How is it possible that fallible human beings like us can hear and understand
and accept their word as what it really is: the Word of God? Only because of the
work of the Holy Spirit.
The importance of Shakespeare's works is not that their scientific statements
(if any) are in agreement with modern science. They were -not written for that purpose
and they are not read for that purpose. Why then
this be different for the
Bible? The Bible should not be read for the sake of finding whether its scientific
statements (if any) are in agreement with modern science, a . s it was not written for
that purpose. It is not the Word of God because we find its scientific statements
verified by modern science. But being the Word of God it is of little importance
whether there is lack of agreement with
the Bible. For that reason I do not attach any meaning to any agreement or lack of
agreement. But it is perfectly all right if somebody takes another point of view.
But it is certainly not perfectly right to make statements of the following
"If the scientific statements of the Bible are found to be false then it is difficult to see how we may retain
confidence in its divine inspiration even of the
spiritual truths which it contains. (Modern science and Christian Faith pg. 135)
This must be a mistake, for it was the wrong basis upon which many scientists of the
19th century stood when they abandoned Christianity because they found clashes
between science and the teachings of the Bible. Many of those alleged clashes have
at present very little meaning. But as those people could only judge by the light
they had and not by the understanding which future generations might obtain, we should
not criticize them too hardly. What was wrong was not so much their conclusions but
much more their basis. If this basis is rejected (and this basis has to be rejected,
for it is wrong) one does not have to fear their conclusions. If This basis is not
rejected then one does not have the right to criticize and one is in constant danger
of losing the Christian faith.