I recently read Alvin Plantinga’s powerful book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. I have little to say against what he deals with and bow to his well-organized, scholarly mind. He does a better job than any of a half-dozen or so books I’ve read which critique the metaphysical imperialism of some branches of Darwinist thought. I would give more credit that he explicitly has to the importance of evolutionary and developmental processes in God’s acts as Creator and Shaper of this universe and perhaps of other realms of Creation, but John Henry Newman—who also dismissed the wrongful claim that evolutionary thought is a true problem for Christianity—also missed the point that Darwinist thought points out the importance of evolutionary and developmental processes in God’s ways of acting as Creator and Shaper of this universe. Still more importantly—in my opinion, modern empirical science has opened the path to understandings of all of Creation which couldn’t have even been seen by the best of philosophical and theological thinkers before the maturing of scientific understandings of matter-energy, of space-time, of developmental and evolutionary processes. Should I have also written development-evolution? Perhaps and perhaps not. Cutting across those dual entities, matter and space and development seem strangely linked, as do energy and time and evolution.
I’ll move forward from a slightly different angle. Most, perhaps a vast majority of scientists, pursue the truth as they can see possible paths which might lead to a new truth or a better or more complete version of a known truth. But, they also are human beings. Henri Poincare was regarded as one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, living mathematician and physicist alive as of 1900 or so. He had even developed parts of Special relativity before Einstein; some others had done the same. (See Relativity priority dispute.) But Poincare and, presumably those others, took their results as being formalisms within the general setting of Newtonian physics. So it is that Einstein most certainly wasn’t alone in seeing the problems with that highly successful physics nor was he alone in seeing pieces of a solution; he was alone in taking the problems and those pieces as being `reality’, in a manner of speaking. He presented a theory which was a coherent and complete understanding of some central components of that physics.
A contemporary of Poincare, Max Planck who was co-discoverer of quantum physics along with Einstein, put it this way:
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. [See the article on Max Planck.]
John Polkinghorne, “an English theoretical physicist, theologian, writer and Anglican priest,” has written about this problem in the specific form of the difficulties that physicists and others have in understanding the wavefunction of quantum physics:
The wavefunction is the vehicle of our understanding of the quantum world. Judged by the robust standards of classical physics it may seem a rather wraith-like entity. But it is certainly the object of quantum mechanical discourse and, for all the peculiarity of its collapse, its subtle essence may be the form that reality has to take on the atomic scale and below. Anyone who has had to teach a mathematically based subject will know the difficulties which students encounter in negotiating a new level of abstraction. They have met the idea of a vector as a crude arrow. You now explain to them that it is better thought of as an object with certain transformation properties under rotation. ‘But what is it really?’ they say. You implore them to believe that it is an object with certain transformation properties under rotation. They do not believe you; they think that you are holding back some secret clue that would make it all plain. Time and experience are great educators. A year later the student cannot conceive why he had such difficulty and suspicion about the nature of vectors. Perhaps we are in the midst of a similar, if much longer drawn out, process of education about the nature of quantum mechanical reality. If we are indeed in such a digestive, living-with-it, period, it would explain something which is otherwise puzzling. A great many theoretical physicists would be prepared to express some unease about the conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics — in particular, about Copenhagen orthodoxy — but only a tiny fraction of them ever direct serious attention to such questions. Perhaps the majority are right to submit themselves to a period of subliminal absorption. [The Quantum World, J.C. Polkinghorne, Princeton Science Library, 1989, page 82]
Freeman Dyson is an important figure in various fields of physics and mathematics, including quantum physics—as can be seen in the history section of the article, Quantum electrodynamics. He’s also famous for being able to think outside of the mainstream on matters such as climate change. Let me move on to philosophy and theology by way a quote from Dyson:
The reason why new concepts in any branch of science are hard to grasp is always the same; contemporary scientists try to picture the new concept in terms of ideas which existed before.
~Freeman Dyson [From Pat Ballew’s website for the day of 2017/12/15: Pat’s Blog.]
Scientists, being human, have trouble accepting new ways of viewing the world, but the very limits of empirical reality and its perceptibility means that most of the natural sciences and even much of mathematics are subject to corrective forces which often act effectively over one or two generations. Philosophers and theologians deal with matters for which there are no such fast-acting corrective forces.
Let me return to Polkinghorne’s description of the wavefunction of quantum mechanics as “a rather wraith-like entity.” The wavefunction is what concrete matter is shaped from. To me, this points to rather obvious lines of thought which question the modern distinction between concrete being and abstractions which don’t really exist but are useful for describing what does exist. In fact, the concrete, thing-like being of this universe is shaped from some strange abstract form of being which comes not to our eyes or hands or other sensory organs; it comes to our minds as abstractions. In my work since the late 1980s, and with some clarity since 2006 or so, I’ve been willing to claim this wavefunction is abstract being, true being. This would mean that all of mathematics is abstract being. And all of metaphysics; even metaphysics which has gone off-track starts from some body of truths—as one good example, Nietzsche’s metaphysics started with a critique of subjective, man-centered thought and flew right past the possibility that the modern, liberal Protestantism into which he was born was, and is, a subjective distortion of objective truths. (Those liberal ideas didn’t improve any when taken up more recently by mainstream Catholic thinkers.)
Perhaps, the ultimate strangeness of quantum physics is that it tells us that relationships, encapsulated in quantum wavefunctions as spectrums of possibilities, are primary to concrete stuff. Are there other such relationships? There is love which should lead us to remember that St John the Evangelist told us that God first loved the world…and then He created it. He loved the world we know, indeed—He loved all of Creation so much, that He manifested, through His Son, the truths from which He began to shape this world and the world of the Resurrected where the friends of Christ will live for time without end in perfect communion with God and with each other.
We need something as radical as a worldview which includes a metaphysics consistent with St John’s theology as well as with quantum physics and other branches of the sciences of created nature, We need to understand what God is telling us through the work of the natural sciences. We need this to move forward in the formation of the Body of Christ, to move toward a sharing of God’s life—a sharing which will give even inherently mortal human beings that life without end.
And it will be a life of peace and joy.
Merry Christmas to all and to all my hopes that you might come to share the peace and joy of life in the Body of Christ.