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Science and Belief in the Nuclear Age
by Peter E. Hodgson
Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2005
(366 pages, $27.95, paperback)
reviewed by Anne Barbeau Gardiner
In this collection of 26 essays and reviews published mostly over the last six years in a range of popular and academic journals, Peter Hodgson, an eminent nuclear physicist at Oxford University, discusses in a clear, forceful style the connections between religion, philosophy, and science.
The five sections of the book cover theology and science, the philosophy of science, modern physics, nuclear power, and science and society. The topics of the essays range from the Judeo-Christian origin of modern science, the “Mind” of the universe, and chance and time, to the thought of Christian humanists like Newman and Chesterton.
Science, Hodgson notes, is based on the belief that the world is “good, rational, contingent, and open to the human mind,” a belief rooted in Christianity and lacking in all ancient civilizations. Modern physics is even now “sustained” by these Christian roots.
Although there is a “methodological gap” between science and religion—empirical research cannot produce ethical principles, much less explain why we and the universe exist—many scientists “regard their work as a religious quest.” Indeed, that quest presupposes an ethics it cannot itself produce: It requires “open-mindedness, detachment, and respect for rational arguments, recognition of our fallibility, and intellectual honesty.”
The best scientists are realists, Hodgson insists, quoting Einstein in 1941: “The belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all natural science.” In a chapter on “Einstein’s Religion,” Hodgson explains that he regarded science and religion as “complementary,” and while he was not affiliated with any organized religion, he recognized “a mind behind nature,” though not a personal God.
In an essay subtitled “The Abuse of Einstein’s Theory,” Hodgson explains that even the theory of relativity, often asserted against metaphysical realism, makes clear “the basic rationality and coherence of the physical world” and establishes “the objective and invariant features of the world,” so that “absolute space and time remain at the basis of physics.” Asked in 1935 what effect his theory would have on religion, Einstein replied, “It makes no difference.”
Hodgson also provides a highly readable account of the various interpretations of quantum mechanics, “a formal mathematical theory of great power and beauty” that has been used for 70 years with “outstanding success.” Quantum mechanical calculations refer to the result of measuring a large number of systems as though existing in empty space. As Einstein warned, such calculations do not describe completely “each individual system,” and only when this addition is made can one have a “fully realistic account of the world.”
But, Hodgson argues, according to the influential Copenhagen interpretation (derived from philosophical positivism in the 1920s), quantum mechanics deals not with the real world, but with the way we think about it. This school permitted only statistical statements and excluded “all reference to an underlying reality.” Heisenberg even claimed that quantum mechanics had “disproved” causality and that reality could now be seen as the product of the “act of observation.”
While many physicists rejected this view, others, along with psychologists, educators, and even theologians, accepted it and made the Copenhagen school the basis of a new subjectivism. One theologian even said that quantum mechanics showed the “means” by which God might intervene, but Hodgson (a Catholic) finds this an “impoverished” view of God that requires him to change the course of events “by keeping within the limits of quantum indeterminacy.”
The Copenhagen school had a practical “debilitating effect” on science, as when Heisenberg refused to recommend funding a new accelerator to look for quarks. Hodgson notes that there are now available “realist theories” of quantum mechanics, such as the pilot wave theory and stochastic electrodynamics, and that a new microscopic kinetic theory deals with individual systems ignored by quantum mechanics.
Because of “the unity of knowledge,” Newman was convinced that theology and science could not be kept in “watertight compartments,” but that this was no threat to faith, since nothing discovered by science could “contradict any of the dogmas of religion.” Consequently, he wanted several departments of science established in his model university in Ireland.
With similar confidence, Chesterton did not oppose science, but merely what might be called “scientism,” the naïve faith that only science can deliver valid knowledge. Chesterton lamented that “evolutionism” (a branch of scientism) was trying to abolish “the deepest kind of ontological form, which is the immortal human soul,” while offering “no basis for the equality of man” or for “a respectable ethical system.”
In other chapters, Hodgson looks at the “congruence” of truth and beauty in the mathematical equations that describe nature at the “deepest level.” He observes that physics presupposes the world to be “strictly determined,” but this is an incomplete account of reality, since it excludes both divine intervention and free will. Science “deals only with repeatable events.” It can say nothing about a unique event, like our Lord’s Resurrection.
Hodgson also touches on political matters, proposing, for example, an increased use of nuclear power on the grounds that it creates no acid rain or greenhouse effect and that the dangers from radiation are greatly exaggerated.
Many believers have come to see science as “an enemy to be repulsed,” since so many prominent exponents of science take a hostile attitude toward Christianity, and they argue that science itself has fatally undermined religion. This is unfortunate. For now that our culture gives science and scientists such authority, even in areas like ethics in which they have no special competence, it behooves Christians to be better informed about the connections between science and religion.
However, they should read not just the accounts of atheists, but also those of believers like Pierre Duhem, Alistair Cameron Crombie, and Stanley Jaki, who have thoroughly explored the Christian roots of modern science from antiquity to the twentieth century— and, one might add, Peter Hodgson.
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.