Science in Christian Perspective



Wartburg Seminary
Dubuque, Iowa 52001

From: JASA 35 (March 1983): 11-13.

The unity in God's creation stems from the unity of God himself. But just as the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is one in a profound, and not a simple, way, it will not be surprising if the unity displayed in creation is highly subtle, and not of the common-sense variety. It is not obvious that the physical universe forms a real unity, and overly simple attempts to present a unified description of the world, such as that based on Newtonian mechanics, will fail. (And it is no accident that the reign of the Newtonian world view coincided with a period in which unitarian heresies had great popularity.) The unity of creation is a matter of religious faith, connected with the biblical insistence that God is Pantokrator, the Almighty (e.g., Rev.4:8).

The unity of the universe is also a matter of scientific faith. Einstein's affirmation that "The Lord is subtle, but he is not malicious" means that, beneath the baffling complexities of the world, there is sense. It seems to me that it would be difficult for a person really to be a scientific seeker after truth without such a belief in the understandability of the world. And if the entire universe makes the same kind of sense, then it has a unity, for the sense, or the pattern of phenomena, is a basic part of reality.

Now if there are parts of physical reality that have a different kind of understandability from that of the realm of human senses and minds, it is hard to see how we could interact with them or know them. What would carry the messages, and which realm's laws would they obey? This does not mean, of course, that further exploration of the universe may not upset our present understanding of the laws of nature, but the tendency of such exploration will be toward the discovery of more general laws, to which our presently known ones are approximations. At least that will be the case if our faith in the understandability of the universe is to be vindicated.

Such arguments are very general, and rather vague. How well do they hold up under the rigors of the actual scientific enterprise? And where should we begin the search for unity? How intimately united are the different aspects of reality? The fact that the scientific investigation of the universe is still in progress means that only tentative answers can be given to such questions, but I believe that the present state of our knowledge makes it plausible that reality does, in fact, possess a high degree of subtle unity.

One way to begin the search for unity is to seek for a fundamental level of structures and interactions, in hopes that diverse complex phenomena may be explainable in terms of a unified description at the basic level of physical reality. The atomic theory of Democritus is an example of such an approach, as is any attempt to explain reality in terms of continuous field-structures. The Newtonian attempt to explain phenomena in terms of particles interacting via forces falls in this category. It failed largely because the fundamental level of reality was imagined to be in accord with common sense, but a considerable amount of success in providing a unified description, especially of astronomical phenomena, was achieved.

In modern times, attempts to find a unity in some fundamental level have been associated with unified field theories. The hope has been that all fundamental interactions can be understood as manifestations of a single field-structure of sufficient mathematical richness. Maxwell's welding of the electric and magnetic fields into a single electromagnetic field provided the first example of this, though a full understanding of the situation came only with the special theory of relativity. Einstein attempted for the last thirty-five years of his life to generalize his relativistic field theory of gravitation to encompass all physical phenomena-without success, in the view of most physicists. More recently, attempts to provide a unified description of elementary particle phenomena in terms of the type of quantum field theory associated with the names of Weinberg and Salam have had considerable success, especially in the unification of the weak and electromagnetic interactions.

It must be realized, however, that such successes involve unification at a supposedly fundamental level, and not necessarily further unification from the fundamental level. They show that the phenomenon of beta decay and the operation of electric motors have a common basis, but do not provide new insight on, for example, the old question of whether or not biological phenomena are explainable in terms of the fundamental interactions of physics.

It is not, however, only at this fundamental level that it is possible to search for unity. On the contrary, it may be possible to discern sense and unity precisely in very complex structures that resist complete reduction to simple components. Hofstadter's recent book Gbdel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, (Basic, New York, 1979), develops this idea very well: Ant colonies and brains make at least a different kind of sense when seen as a whole than they do when considered only as conglomerates of thousands of ants or millions of cells. We must look at entire complexes of events in order to make sense of them.

MacKay has made a similar point in a more explicitly theological setting in The Clockwork Image (Inter-Varsity, London, 1974). Here the example of an advertising sign composed of many light bulbs is used. While one can deal with this system at what corresponds to the fundamental level of basic interactions, describing the pattern of electric currents in the system, that description will probably not grasp the important fact that the lights spell out words. This aspect of order in the system must be sought at the top structural level, and not just at the level of basic units and physical laws. That means that there are two types of unity to be considered as well. Different signs will have in common the laws of electric circuitry which govern the fundamental units. But their messages also share a common membership in the English language-or, more generally, in the family of human languages. And the rules of English cannot be deduced from circuit theory, any more than Kirchoff's laws can be derived from "Eat at Joe's"!

So there seem to be two ways in which we could approach the issue of unity in creation-we can deal either with a supposedly fundamental level or with highly organized levels. A biological organism is a unity, and shares in an even higher unity with all the other organisms, living, dead and to be born. But it is a unity built up through many levels, and ultimately connected with the basic level of fundamental physical interactions that we try to explain with such structures as quantum fields. If it seems that the latter unity is the real one, and biological patterns and unities "merely" derived ones' it should be remembered that in practice the f undamental level has been reached by attempting first to explain phenomena on the level of everyday experience. In addition, the supposedly fundamental level may turn out not to be so-the successive analysis of matter into atoms, electrons and nuclei, protons and neutrons, and now quarks, illustrates this point sufficiently.

Two unities-doesn't that contradict what was said earlier, that there are not separate islands of sense in the universe? Not necessarily. The course of science up to this time can give us some confidence that these unities are the same. Certainly no one has derived the structure and behavior of the human brain from quantum field theory with full mathematical rigor! But there has been enough success, from artificial synthesis of organic compounds to current work on molecular biology, to justify confidence that biological phenomena are rooted in basic physics. There is no reason yet to believe in any discontinuity.

But that is not a vindication of any simple reductionism. It is true that we may understand many life processes in terms of molecular physics, but many of the phenomena with which we are concerned at high structural levels are not even meaningful at the fundamental level. It is not just that a single neuron or electron cannot think, for example, but that the concept of thought does not enter into the description of such entities.

Though it seems very plausible, then, that the unities that we discover at opposite extremes of complexity-the universality of the genetic code and the group structures of elementary particles-are the same, this is ultimately a matter of faith on the part of scientists. Given the limited capacity of created minds, it may never be possible to prove that there is no discontinuity at some intermediate level. But it goes against the grain of the scientific enterprise to introduce such a discontinuity in our thinking without sufficent reason. The faith of a scientist in the understandability of the universe is here in agreement with the Christian belief in the unity of creation.

George L. Murphy was born in Alliance, Ohio in 1942, and studied physics at Ohio University (B.S. 1963) and Johns Hopkins (Ph.D. 1972). He has taught at Westminster College (PA), the University of Western Australia, Luther College and Loras College. He has published a number of papers on topics in cosmology, astrophysics and relativity, as well as several dealing with the science-theology interface. A member of the American Lutheran Church, he is presently in the final year of study for the ministry at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque.

This agreement should not be surprising, since modern science developed only in the intellectual tradition nourished by the Judaeo-Christian view of the world. Scientists who may have no interest at all in formal theology or in Christianity as a faith for their own lives are still indebted to Christianity for providing science with an insistence that the universe is a unity and comprehensible to human minds. One need not be a Christian in order to discover fundamental truths about the physical universe.

The complex character of the unity that science has discerned in the world is consistent with what Christian theology suggests about creation. We are not concerned with the creation of a unitarian clockmaker. The tension between unities at fundamental and upper levels matches that which any serious thinker will always find in the doctrine that the One God is the Holy Trinity.

There are two ways in which we could approach the issue of unity in creation-we can deal either with a supposedly fundamental level or with highly organized levels.