Spiritual specks that mar the stuff of discourse

Theology and Modern Physics

October 20, 2006

Lying behind the emotive issues raised by the Darwin/intelligent design debate is the deeper question of the general relationship between science and theology. This is the central issue raised in Peter Hodgson's book: to what extent should religion affect science and vice versa?

To conclude that there should be no influence either way is not an option. Both are activities that have their roots in human curiosity.

Material man and spiritual man are one and the same. Science as we know it today emerged rather late in human activity, whereas religion in one form or another appears in the earliest societies.

Hodgson believes that science based on experiment could have arisen only in a Christian environment. He feels this so strongly that he claims he can see little evidence that any other religion could have allowed science to develop in this way. This is, of course, open to debate, but to claim that one cannot even teach science in non-Christian countries is going too far.

Hodgson goes even further and correlates the lack of physics students in our universities to the abandonment of Christianity.

I cannot accept this extreme position. The roots of vital elements of science emerged long before Christianity. Already there are signs of primitive observational astronomy implicit in megaliths such as Stonehenge.

The Greek philosophers used observation to distinguish between the motion of the planets and the stars, with Ptolemy offering a remarkably accurate prescription for the planetary orbits. Of course he did not embrace the heliocentric idea, although Aristarchus was the first to propose one. We have mathematics emerging from a Hindu culture, including the vital concept of zero developed by Brahmagupta, a notion without which modern physics could not exist.

Certainly hands-on experimental techniques were developed in Christian Europe, and it may well be that Christianity had a significant influence, but the development of trade and the instrument makers may have been more influential factors. The lens makers developed the telescope that caused so much anguish to Galileo at the hands of the Catholic Church. There were the chronometers of John Harrison, which was so important to trade and conquest by great maritime nations.

Yes, warfare plays a role in all this too. Count Rumford's boring of cannons in Munich in the 18th century gave us the mechanical equivalence of heat. More recently, John Randall gave us the cavity magnetron that powered radar, while Robert Oppenheimer and his team gave us nuclear fission.

While the bulk of the book is a detailed, fluent account of the great advances in modern physics where the importance of mathematics is emphasised, there are sudden interjections of dogmatic religious statements, such as "God is the supreme Lord of Nature and can make and unmake its laws and bring it into being, modify it and extinguish it at will". This is an astonishing statement to appear in the middle of an account of modern science.

It is this dogma that clouds Hodgson's discussion of the interpretation of quantum mechanics. There appears the curious statement: "The Copenhagen interpretation is contrary to Christian belief in a real world created by God." Why? The Copenhagen interpretation is accepted by the vast majority of the physics community, even though there is still a fierce debate as to whether it gives the final word on the subject. Indeed, Hodgson touches on this debate, and we are taken through some of the paradoxes quantum theory throws up. This is one of the weakest parts of the book. Finally, we are told that the true interpretation will be found in stochastic electrodynamics, an approach that does not even come close to explaining the stability of atoms.

I found the book disappointing, as there are many deep issues in the interplay between science and theology that are not adequately discussed, in essence, because dogmatism precludes a meaningful debate.

Basil J. Hiley is emeritus professor of physics, Birkbeck, University of London.

Theology and Modern Physics

Author - Peter E. Hodgson
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 282
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 7546 3622 4 and 3623 2

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