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Larson&Ruse Chapter 2--The Tao of Physics and Other Big Ideas

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, October 30, 2017

This chapter was written by Ed Larson as a historian's complement to the first chapter which was a philosophers view of astronomy from ancient time to today. It is more focused on physics. Here are some selected quotes.

“During the 17th century... the heavens were no longer seen as some perfect abode for God and angels but a material place subject to the same physical laws as on the earth. Yet while this tended to bring astronomy down to earth, it lifted physics up to the heavens.” (P. 51)


Physics and the enlightenment


“Whatever Kant might think or hope about his age, rational, critical enlightenment remained a minority position. In fact, the 18th century was also an age of intense religious ferment, with a Pietistic revival in Germany, the Wesleyan movement in Britain, in the evangelical Great Awakening in English North America.” (P 56)


The theology of electricity


“ Franklin, Wesley, and Priestly offer three different examples of how science related to religion during the Enlightenment in England and America: Diest, Christian, and Unitarian. Science may have been on the incline, and religion on the decline at that time in those places, but neither could be likely dismissed. Both loomed large in the minds of people attuned to the latest intellectual currents, and many devised their own personal reconciliation of the two types of thought.” (P 61)


19th century developments


"With Kelvin...we have come full circle from Enlightenment-age French encyclopedists who used physics to promote atheism. “If you think strongly enough you will be forced by science to the believe in God,“ Kelvin affirmed in a widely reprinted 1903 response to a popular lecture by Christian apologist George Henslow. “You will find science not antagonistic but helpful to religion.“ (p 68)


Relativity, quantum mechanics, and beyond


"During the early 20th century, relativity and quantum theory launched the universe of modern physics that still rules the roost today...They threw theological speculation about the religious meaning of physics for a loop and...opened new ways of thinking about how God might work in the universe...Three main points should suffice here: indeterminacy, complementarity, and holism.” (P 69)


“Classical physics envisioned an utterly deterministic and totally reductionist universe that was objectively knowable through science. Newton had left room for God in this system by observing non-reductionist instability in planetary orbits that would require ongoing divine intervention and by pointing to the solar system’s unnatural orderliness as evidence of a designer. By 1800, however, Pierre – Simon Laplace had accounted for these matters and proclaimed the theoretical ability to wind the entire system forward or backward with perfect precision, in a matter that not only dispensed with the need for but disproved the possibility of ongoing supernatural Intervention in nature. God may or may not exist – and people might still claim the ability to feel God’s presence spiritually, and that feeling might be true – but God was banished by classical physics from the ongoing operation of nature, although not necessarily from its origin in time and space. Human free will fared no better under determinism.” (P 69)


“Holism had many implications for religion. It challenged the reductionism of classical physics, with saw the behavior of the whole as reducible to the behavior of its material parts, by showing that those parts only behave as they do as part of the whole. Further, it offered a physical parallel for how God might have an active presence everywhere at once. Finally, by stressing the impact that observers have on observations, it suggested that individual choices can make a difference. All that happens need not be pre-determined. The object, subject, and even God may grow out of the process.“


Larson's summary is that the interaction between science and faith was a mixture of conflict, complementarity, and complexity. All of these with many variations were in play.

Tags:  Larson  On Faith and Science  Ruse  Tao 

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