Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor

Can Science Reinforce Meaning and Purpose?

P. Hammond
Department of Electrical Engineering
The University, Southhampton
England S09 5NH

From: PSCF 39 (December 1987): 252

The fascinating review article "Scientific Contribution to Meaning and Purpose in the Universe" by Herrmann and Templeton (June 1987) has raised a number of questions in my mind, which I hope you may address in the future.

The title of the article suggests that an area of knowledge called science can in some way reinforce the Christian belief in meaning and purpose. It may seem churlish to subject such an approach to criticism in a journal which has recently been given its present title, but I am happier with the title of the journal which includes the word "perspectives" than with the title of the article which does not explicitly involve human personality. Let me illustrate what I mean.

The article leans heavily on quotations from eminent mathematical physicists, and the scientific contributions that it mentions are largely those derived from mathematical physics. For example, Heisenberg's principle is stated to have produced "the end of classical physics and rigid determinism," although Einstein's colourful objections to this view are quoted. Two questions arise. The firs is purely scientific and is concerned with measurement that necessarily disturbs what is being measured. Could this be the cause of Heisenberg's principle? The second question is whether "rigid determinism" has any meaningful overlap with mathematical physics.

The relevance of Heisenberg's principle to causality seems to rest on the premise that the universe consists in essence of particles and waves. It is not surprising that mathematical physicists think so, because they are daily occupied in contemplating particles and waves. But those of us who work in universities know that although in the department of physics all is emptiness except for an occasional speck of matter or energy, this is by no means true next door in the department of chemistry. Voltaire's statement comes to mind that he left Paris with the world as a plenum and arrived in London to find it a vacuum. Other departments have different preoccupations. Mathematics departments are inhabited by axioms and logical connections, while in sociology minds are full of class and power structures. All our colleagues have their own notions and no doubt all these are valuable and important. But I feel reasonably sure that I am not a collection of particles and I doubt whether any of your readers are governed by Schrodinger's and Maxwell's equations. Why should mathematical physics be the supreme and all-inclusive science? Might it not be more correct to regard the constructs of mathematical physics as models of parts of reality rather than reality itself?

My own model-making has been electromagnetics, and I have spent most of my life with Maxwell's and Faraday's ideas; incidentally, both were convinced Christians. I am sure that Maxwell would have been amused by the idea that his equations "governed" anybody or any process. He wrote some splendid humorous verse poking fun at such notions. It is not even easy to find Maxwell's equations in Maxwell's treatise. He was concerned with phenomena and not primarily with mathematics. The mistaken view that Maxwell's theory is contained in Maxwell's equations is due to Hertz, who unfortunately has more modern followers than Maxwell. Be that as it may, I find it hard to understand how these equations-or any equations---can have the "astonishing consequence of the emergence of replicating molecules and eventually life." Is it possible to jump from equations to molecules and then to life? Indeed, I am baffled how the "abstract structures of pure mathematics ... provide the clue to understanding the world." Couple this with the statement that "mathematics is the free creation of the human mind," and we seem to be in deep trouble as Christians.

Is mathematics the free creation of the human mind? Some modern mathematicians might agree, although the Greeks seem to have thought otherwise. But is it not true that differential geometry is essentially an experimental subject? Surely Gauss' and Riemann's ideas which underlie relativity do not "involve a distortion of space-time," but embody a discovery of its curvature?

Underlying the article seems to be the assumption that understanding can be derived from thought without measurement, and can exist apart from persons. Can meaning and purpose be defined apart from personality? If it can, does this strengthen Christian faith?