Science and Religion: A Historical Review

This is the “long” or expanded version of the faith/science paper for our Church newsletter. It was 4 times longer than requested. I’m posting it here for comments (and a link to the same is provided for interested readers of the newsletter article). The short version which was “submitted for publication” can be read here on-line.

Science and religion

Because the terms science and religion are enormously broad topics they need to be restricted. In this discussion science will refer to the elementary forces and makeup of nature, which what was before the modern era known as natural science and which today is called physics. Religion in this discussion will limit itself to Christian theology and will focus on how that interacts with natural science.

Natural science has gone through three major stages since the study of such matters became systematic and a subject which today would be considered a science. In what follows these stages will be discussed in turn and the relationship of religion with science examined.

Stage 1: A Geometric understanding of Nature.

From the time of the Greek golden age through the 16th century the foundations of our concept of nature and its underlying principles were very different than today. Throughout that period the understanding of nature and its conceptual foundations was based on pure geometry. Study of Euclid and the Elements were crucial not just for mathematical pedagogical reasons, but because the understanding of geometry was seen as key to understanding how nature was constructed. Aristotelian cosmology and Pythagorean mysticism are two examples of how this view of nature expressed itself. Writings from this period commonly allude to geometrical and numerical proportions as significant data. Today it is a common modern error to deride this view of nature as not being driven at all by experiment and observations. For example, Aristotle taught that an object naturally graduated to its “natural” motion, terrestrial objects naturally were at rest and astronomic bodies were naturally in motion. Today we view this as wrong, e.g., Newton’s law that “objects in motion tend to stay in motion and those at rest stay at rest.” Yet the Aristotelian view corresponds and agrees with observation. That is the objects you put in motion come to rest, e.g., throw a baseball and you observe that it comes to rest. Terrestrial objects (baseballs) set in motion do in fact come to rest and the planetary bodies (planets and moons) are observed to remain in motion.

It was during the first four centuries after Christ that orthodox Christian theology arrived at a basic understanding of the relationships between God, man, and the world which were made explicit and hold with some minor variations to this day. The apostolic practices handed down from the first century were explained in philosophical and concrete terms and placed into the contextual understanding of the world that existed at that time. Origen, an Alexandrian patristic theologian explicitly tied his theology with philosophy during an age when philosophy and natural philosophy were not separate fields of study. Consider that in Alexandria, Plotinus was a leading Alexandrian neo-Platonic scholar and a contemporary of Origen. Origen and Plotinus and their students interacted directly attending to each others talks and published works. This was possible because the theological views of nature and relationships of God with the universe was consonant with the natural philosophy of the time.

Stage 2: An Analytic view of Nature.

Between the time of Galileo and Newton the geometrical conception of nature shifted to an analytic one. The laws describing how the motion of objects were governed moved to one described by formulae for objects and forces between them, e.g., Newton’s three laws of motion or later the Maxwell equations describing electromagnetic behavior. Rene Descartes laid essential foundations for methods of replacing compass/ruler inspired geometrical methods with analytic ones, i.e., using algebraic descriptions and manipulations to describe and prove geometrical concepts. This inspired a general movement of mathematical techniques and ways of thinking from the constructive geometric view to an analytic one. By the time Newton published the Principia the revolution was complete. With his development of calculus and the later work of men like Johann Gauss the analytical and mathematical approaches were immensely successful in describing the natural world.

In this time period Christian theology (in the West) also underwent something of a revolution. It was this time that the theological turmoil of Reformation and counter-Reformation occurred. Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, and other Protestants as well as Loyola, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and other Roman Catholics redefined what Christianity meant for the West. The current and cross-currents of theological polemics between these parties honed and sharpened (hardened?) the particular theological tenets and both Protestant and Roman Christians. During this time, as well, the relationship between natural philosophy and theological thought changed to one of separation. There was a parting of ways. Less and less was the Origen/Plotinus relationship the norm. While Christian priests, such as Mendeleev and Priestly, contributed to science it became more and more rare for mainstream theology to confront or interact with modern natural science. Furthermore the creation accounts in Genesis (based in part on a Babylonian cosmology) led some theologians to oppose and confront scientific views of cosmology, a practice which continues apace today. In general theological accounts dealing with nature had less and less real connection with the scientific understandings of the day.

Stage 3: Symmetry Governs Natural Law.

In the 20th century mathematical developments laid the groundwork for another major shift in our basic understanding principles of how the universe is constructed. The mathematical inventive work by Emmy Noether, William Hamilton, and Bernhard Riemann yielded a revolution of our understanding of the universe. These connections where first exploited by Einstein, Kaluza, and Klein who expounded and made clear those principles on which we base our understanding of the universe. Geometry and a mathematical concept known as symmetry [see below for a very abbreviated summary of symmetry and its connection to modern physics] today provide the conceptual framework on which natural science finds its grounding. In 1954 Chen Ning Yang and Robert Mills defined a non-Abelian gauge theory which became the Standard Model. The Standard Model is the current best description of the basic particles and well actually three of the four known forces in nature. In some ways this may be regarded as the return (revenge?) of the much earlier geometric worldview because it is based on symmetry. Geometry then has returned and again today drives our understanding of nature.

A second striking development has also occurred in our physical understanding of nature, that is the quantum understanding of nature. In quantum mechanics concrete things like particles and electromagnetic waves are replaced by things called probability amplitudes and S-matrices. The remarkable success of quantum mechanics has caused something of a crises in the philosophy of science. There is, currently, no satisfactory explanation for how a quantum understanding of nature and be viewed as a real view of nature. Many physicists duck approaching a realistic concrete description of nature with an approach described as positivism. In this view a natural scientist (physicist) is not undertaking to describe reality but instead is only engaged in the prediction of experimental results, an example a proponent of this view is Stephen Hawking but he is certainly not alone. This is a massive retreat from what natural science had undertaken at the outset 3000 years previously.

Yet, theology has not advanced into the epistemic vacuum left by this retreat of physics (and the sciences in general). In part this is part a symptom of a general trend. An underlying cause for this trend may be that generalists today are more and more rare. As the body of work comprising every discipline has grown it has become more and more it is harder for people to do significant work in more than one field because mastery just one discipline is takes significant effort. In fact, sub-field specialization has become the norm, in a time when cross-fertilization between fields of science, the arts, and theology is becomes more and more important. Theology and Physics have both been subjected to this trend.

20th and 21st century theology has not (as yet) really found natural science a subject with which it needs to confront. With a few exceptions like John Polkinghorne, who was an important theoretical physicist and now is a Anglican priest and theologian, little theological thought is being put into trying to reunite and reconcile natural science with theology (this is something) of an exaggeration as Fr. Polkinghorne did chair a conference on that topic and clearly somebody besides he attended. But this is certainly not a leading problem from the point of view of the theological community today. However this problem is precisely the problem that confronts the so-called “division” between faith and science today.
Some Final Thoughts

Natural science over the past 3000 years has gone the distance, from a geometrically motivated view of the universe it traversed through an analytic approach and subsequently returned to a more subtle but nevertheless distinctively geometrically motivated view. In the first period there was no tension between theology and science. During the analytic period, a separation occurred which continues through today. Additionally the scope of what natural science recognizes as within its purview has shrunk. At the same time, the complexity and scope of what natural science (physics) does understand regarding the large and small scale structure of space-time and the natural order is far greater than it was in the 3rd century. The development of understanding that asserts where and how the Trinitarian God stands in relationship to man and His universe which is congruent and in accord with the modern ideas of how space-time is framed should be regarded as an important and incomplete problem for theology today.
A Short note on Symmetry.

Symmetry is a simple mathematical notion. In short a symmetry is a transformation of a geometrical object which leaves it unchanged. Rotating a square 90 degrees is a symmetry transformation, that is after rotation the square is unchanged. Space or space+time symmetry transformations are changes such as rotations, translations and the like. Emmy Noether proved mathematically that for “sensible” theories of motion that every continuous symmetry gives rise to a corresponding conserved quantity. Translational symmetry of space-time by Ms Noether’s theorem thus gives rise to conservation of momentum. Translational symmetry here just means the laws of physics remain unchanged if the origin of your coordinate system is shifted. Rotational symmetry yields conservation of angular momentum. Rotational symmetry means that the laws of nature are unchanged if one spins your coordinates. This is the essential point. To restate, every continuous symmetry (any transformation leaving space and laws unchanged) is connected to a conservation law.

Oscar Klein and Theodor Kaluza considered what it woud mean if at each point in space-time an additional “small” unseen dimension was added, specifically a tiny circle. If one then claims that with this space there might also be a new corresponding symmetry. That is to say that in this new 5 dimensional space-time (3 dimensions of space + the new circle + time makes 5), this symmetry claims that the choice of coordinates one uses in each (little) circle does not affect the equations describing physical laws, i.e., there is a symmetry in the “circle” direction. This condition gives rise to a general constraint condition equations of motion in this space-time and a conserved quantity. What made this interesting was that the resultant constraint equations were identical to Maxwell’s equations which describe electromagnetism. Because of that equivalence to Maxwell’s equations the natural interpretation of the conserved quantity becomes conservation of electric (and magnetic) charges.

When Yang-Mills defined their Standard model that describes the three of the four forces they did so by by replacing the Kaluza-Klein circle at each point with a much more complicated space and then demanding an demanding the analogous symmetry relationship. This yielded analogous conservation laws as well and constraint equations which in turn (by picking the “right” structure to the “complicated space”) are found to describe three of the four fundamental forces of Nature and yield conservation laws for their respective charges. The four forces of nature are the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and gravity. Gravity is not reconciled with the Standard model and this reconciliation remains an area of active research. General Relativity is the geometrical model based on exactly these sorts of methods that describes gravity.

Further Reading

Michael Polanyi by Mark T. Mitchell ISI Press.

Mr Tompkins in Paperback by George Gamow

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  1. mjjohnson says:

    This is a really great article. I firmly believe in a geometrical physical deterministic interpretation for our reality.

    I am convinced that neither quantum mechanics nor string theory will turnout to be the final theory of everything. I believe this because I have never encountered an interpretation of the present formulation of quantum mechanics that makes sense to me. I have studied most of them in depth and thought hard about them, and in the end I still can’t make real sense of quantum theory as it stands.

    There is a group of people that thinks there is an alternate explantion for how things really work. Please www superrelativity org

    The group of scientists that are challenging the current paradigm in physics which is Quantum Mechanics and String Theory. There is a new Theory of Everything Breakthrough. It exposes the flaws in both Quantum Theory and String Theory. Please Help us set the physics community back on the right course and prove that Einstein was right! Visit our site The Theory of Super Relativity

  2. Mark says:

    Well, Einstein also believed in a geometrical deterministic interpretation for reality so you’re in good company. I’m not as sanguine that you’ll be successful.

    I’m not directly in physics any more, my interest as noted here is to develop an exposition of a theology that is in concord with orthodox Christian belief and modern physics (including quantum physics).