Recently, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the theories and trajectories that are being expressed in contemporary physics. Now granted, I don’t understand much of the math and notation involved, but what I am able to grasp of astrophysics, quantem mechanics, Einstein’s reflections on space/time, and so on, is absolutely mind-blowing.
However, one of the things that has struck me as I have been digging into all of this is just how much science in general, and physics in particular, are misrepresented at the popular level. At the popular level, science is presented as though it is based upon universal laws, empirical evidence, irrefutable conclusions, and concrete ‘facts’. Often, this is then contrasted with religious faith, which is said to be counter-intuitive, counter-empirical, and insubstantial (or unsustainable). Science, in other words, is said to be entirely sensible, while faith is said to be entirely nonsensical.
In response to this charge many Christians, have engaged in a form of apologetics that has tried to demonstrate that faith is also a sensible enterprise based upon certain laws, proofs, empirical evidence, and other facts. Now, I’m not convinced that any apologist of this type has actually converted his or her opposition, but I think that these apologists have probably at least convinced a few people in the public that, at the very least, people of faith aren’t complete morons. I guess that’s something.
A more encouraging response (to me at least), is that taken by those who argue that many of these apologetic Christian approaches have allowed themselves to be dominated by the limitations and paradigms of ‘modern science’ (by that I mean science as it developed from the Enlightenment until the start of the 20th century). As a result of this many contemporary (or ‘postmodern’ if you prefer that term) Christians now feel like apologetics that persist in that paradigm are still reflecting a type of Christianity that was overly conditioned by a particular culture and moment in history (‘modernity’). And so, in many ways, contemporary Christianity has moved beyond this apologetic engagement with the laws, proofs, methods, and conclusions of modern science. Instead, they have tried to make Christianity credible by living more Christianly. I reckon this is a good step to take.
However, just as significantly, contemporary (or ‘postmodern’) science has also moved beyond the culturally conditioned reason, method, and certitude expressed within the science of modernity. At the moment, contemporary physics requires us to move beyond certitude, beyond laws, beyond empiricism (even, in a way, beyond logic) in order to grasp the workings of the universe. For example, the rules and conclusions of astrophysics (which works with bodies with large amounts of mass) cannot be applied in the realm of quantem mechanics (which works with bodies with tiny amounts of mass), and vice versa. These two areas of science cannot be brought together into a single system without contradicting each other, yet each in isolation seems to provide workable conclusions for their own areas of study. So much for universal truths or the law of non-contradiction. Or, to take a second example, in astrophysics it seems as though a vast amount of ‘dark matter’ is required to exist so that we can explain the movement of galaxies (amongst other things). However, the existence of ‘dark matter’ is taken on faith — we cannot (yet) prove its existence… but we can’t explain things without it. Similarly, quantem mechanics now requires us to speak of ‘probabilities’ and not ‘laws’, while also leading us to think that there maybe be a good deal many more dimensions (11+?) than we first imagined. Or, to provide a fourth example, Einstein’s theories require us to think of space and time as a single unit — space/time — thereby collapsing what empirically (and logically?) strike us as two distinct ‘things’. And on and on it goes. Examples like these could be multplied almost endlessly (string theory, anybody?).
Therefore, if many Christian apologists get it wrong because they still continue to think of Christianity in the terms established by a culturally-conditioned moment in Western history, many of those now classified as the ‘New Atheists’ get science wrong for precisely the same reason! Oddly enough then, members of both of these opposing parties are (perhaps unwittingly) simply longing for the world (or, um, the West) as was 150 or so years ago. Many Christian apologists seem to want to get back to a time when Christianity was in a more dominant position in our society, and many ‘New Atheists’ seem to want to get back to a time when science claimed to possess certitude.
However, probably for the best, that world has come and gone. So now, when we listen to this or that ‘New Atheist’ debate this or that Christian apologist, we can consider ourselves lucky to witness a reenactment of what it might have been like to discuss these matters if we lived 150 years ago. It is almost as if we get the chance to witness two dinosaurs who, unaware that they have become extinct, are putting on a spectacular show fighting each other.