Physicist Dr Stephen Barr, in a 2006 interview with Ignatius Insight, talked about the supposition that science and religion are in conflict:
IgnatiusInsight.com: Some scientists write as if they think that science can answer any question capable of being asked and answered. How would you respond?
Dr. Barr: It’s absurd, and I wonder if anyone really believes it. I suspect that most of the people who write such things actually have all sorts of firmly held personal convictions that they could not prove by “scientific” demonstration.
There are many important questions about which natural science has nothing to say. Can science say whether murder is wrong? Or whether human beings have free will? Or whom a person should marry? Or whether a nation should go to war? Or what a man should live for or be ready to die for? And yet these are questions that not only can be answered but must be.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What, in your view, is the most significant misunderstanding when it comes to religion and science?
Dr. Barr: Many atheists believe that all religion is at bottom either a pre-scientific attempt to understand natural phenomena through myth or an attempt to obtain worldly benefits through magic. And since they see science as the antithesis of myth and magic they cannot help but see all religion as antiscientific. Of course, such people haven’t a clue what true religion is all about.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you know many scientists who are also religious believers?
Dr. Barr: Yes, quite a few. Indeed, I have about half a dozen friends in my own field who are devout Catholics. In fact, one of the real geniuses in my field (he would be ranked at or near the very top) is a practicing Catholic. However, in my experience most scientists are non-religious. However, that may have more to do with general cultural attitudes than with them being scientists. I have found as much atheism in humanities departments as in science departments.
IgnatiusInsight.com: The science/religion debate/discussion operates on a number of levels. One is on the cosmic level — the existence of the universe. What can science tell us of the universe’s origins? Are there limits to what science can say? What role do philosophy and theology play in considering the question of the universe’s origin?
Dr. Barr: One has to distinguish the question of the universe’s beginning moments from the question of why there is a universe at all. In my view, science will never provide an answer to the latter question. As Stephen Hawking famously noted, all theoretical physics can do is give one a set of rules and equations that correctly describe the universe, but it cannot tell you why there is any universe for those equations to describe. He asked, “What breathes fire into the equations so that there is a universe for them describe?”
As far as the beginning moments of the universe go, science may eventually be able to describe what happened then. That is, when we know the fundamental laws of physics in their entirety — as I hope someday we will — it may well turn out that the opening events of the universe happened in accordance with those laws. In that sense, “the beginning” could have been “natural”. However, that would not explain the “origin” of the universe in the deeper sense meant by “Creation”.
Let me use an analogy. The first words of a play — say Hamlet — may obey the laws of English grammar. They may also fit into the rest of the plot in a natural way. In that sense, one might be able to give an “internal explanation” of those beginning words. However, that would not explain why there is a play. There is a play because there is a playwright. When we ask about the “origin” of the play, we are not asking about its first words, we are asking who wrote it and why. The origin of the universe is God Almighty.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What do you think about efforts to develop a “Theory of Everything”?
Dr. Barr: I prefer to speak about a “Theory of Everything Physical”. The goal of fundamental physics is to find the ultimate laws that govern all of physical reality. Most physicists, myself included, are convinced that such ultimate laws exist. There are good reasons to suspect that “superstring theory” — or what is now called “M-theory” — may be that ultimate theory. However, we are very far from being able to test it. In any event, to call any physics theory a “Theory of Everything” is to make the unwarranted — indeed false — assumption that everything is physical.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What about the idea of multiple universes? Can we speak meaningfully of more than one “universe”?
Dr. Barr: As most people use the phrase, “multiple universes” is really a misnomer. What they usually really mean is that there is just one universe that is made up of many “domains” or regions, which are mutually inaccessible in practice — for example, because they are too far apart. The physical conditions in the various domains could be so different that they would appear superficially to have different physical laws. However, in all such scenarios it is assumed that the various domains actually all obey the same fundamental or ultimate laws. This “multiverse” idea is a perfectly sensible one. In fact, there are reasons to suspect that our universe may have such a domain structure.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time, talks about God and the mind of God. Yet he also seems to question whether there really is the need for a Creator in order to explain the existence of the cosmos. How do you see the matter? Is God a “necessary hypothesis”? Does science have anything to say about the question?
Dr. Barr: Hawking asked the right question when he wondered why there is a universe at all, but somehow he cannot accept the answer. The old question is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Science cannot answer that question, as Hawking (at least sometimes) realizes. I think his problem is that he doesn’t see how the existence of God answers that question either. Part of the reason that many scientists are atheists is that they don’t really understand what is meant by “God”.
Anything whose existence is contingent (i.e. which could exist or not exist) cannot be the explanation of its own existence. It cannot, as it were, pull itself into being by its own bootstraps. As St. Augustine says in his Confessions, all created things cry out to us, “We did not make ourselves.” Only God is uncreated, because God is a necessary being: He cannot not exist. It is of His very nature to exist. He said to Moses, “I AM WHO AM. … Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: ‘I AM hath sent me unto you.'”
I think scientists like Hawking would be helped if they could imagine God as an infinite Mind that understands and knows all things and Who, indeed, “thought the world up”. If all of reality is “intelligible” (an idea that would appeal to scientists), then it follows really that there is some Intellect capable of understanding it fully. If no such Intellect exists or could exist, in what sense is reality fully intelligible? We need to recover the idea of God as the Logos, i.e. God as Reason itself. I note that Pope Benedict has stressed this in his recent addresses about science and in his speech at Regensburg. It is an idea of God that people who devote their lives to rational inquiry can appreciate.
There was more – he also touched on SETI, AGI, and the creationist/ID/evolution debate.