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The Tip of a Larger Iceberg

Neil Thomas
Photo credit: Annie Spratt via Unsplash.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to host a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham: “The Return to the God Paradigm,” of which this article is the third entry. Thomas is reviewing three books: Is Atheism Dead?, by Eric Metaxas; Return of the God Hypothesis, by Stephen Meyer; and God of the Details, by Cristian Bandea. Find the full series here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design.

Antony Flew’s intellectual journey from atheism to theism seems to represent the tip of a larger iceberg. In this book, Eric Metaxas notes that, however counterintuitive this might seem in an historical context, it is now science that is “pushing back the argument against God” (p. 38) on a variety of fronts which are collectively coming together to challenge the atheist hegemony. Not only biology but also cosmology with its finding of planet Earth to be a kind of cosmically ring-fenced Goldilocks zone1 and quantum physics have all played a part in people’s questioning of the all-sufficiency of the materialist position.

Our profound but previously unacknowledged ignorance of what Lucretius termed the nature of things has been revealed by the work of Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and others whose researches have left deep fissures in the Newtonian/Enlightenment paradigm and broken the dike of older scientific certitudes. Science needs a closed continuum of causes and effects to make proper predictions. Such conditions can no longer be delivered in the aftermath of advances in quantum physics. Whether we like it or not, the disconcerting concepts of discontinuity and indeterminacy have come to oust the comfortable notions of predictability and scientific absolutes associated with the mechanistic Newtonian universe.

The World of the Very Small 

Werner Heisenberg, renowned for introducing the famous Uncertainty Principle to an astonished world in 1927, was the first to establish that the rhythms and regularities of the larger Newtonian universe simply did not apply to the subatomic world. In the world of the very small it was possible only to work out the statistical probability of outcomes. In that microscopic world it was, for instance, not possible to measure the position of an object and its momentum at one and the same time. Newtonian logic (this being of course the only form of logic which would have been familiar to Darwin) has a strictly limited scope and applicability in a realm where only approximate knowledge is achievable and where the new watchword of probabilism reigns supreme.

A number of prominent scientists have drawn attention to the new and suddenly more imperfect understanding of reality which has been forcibly enjoined on us. Nobel laureate Christian de Duve, for instance, memorably described how physicists have been driven into such weird territories by their explorations that they are now far ahead of the most imaginative science fiction writers in the kind of cosmological scenarios they can envisage.2 After advances in quantum mechanics with its (only) probabilistic laws, Niels Bohr and others claimed that it was necessary to revisit causality and even reality itself. Fritjof Capra made the startling claim that modern science and Oriental mysticism offered parallel insights into mankind’s relationship with the world,3 and Leif Jensen has made a similar claim for the ancient Indian Vedic philosophy.4 In a comparable vein, early 20th century British scientist Sir Arthur Eddington claimed that religion became possible for a reasonable person in the year 1927 — the significance of that date being of course that it was the year of the widespread promulgation of the Uncertainty Principle which essentially announced that “all bets are off” with regard to mankind’s erstwhile claims to be able to perfectly understand and master Nature. 

An Uncompromising Thrust

Such scientific discoveries dealt an uncompromising thrust against the materialist metanarrative which had gone unchallenged in Darwin’s day and for more than four decades following his death. Against the Enlightenment myth of the all-knowing mind with its confident overstatements, postmodernity has brought with it an apprehension that little in life can be regarded as unquestionably given. The radically new understanding we are all enjoined to adjust to and assimilate was described with unequivocal trenchancy by quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli:

Science is a passionate search for always newer ways to conceive the world. Its strength lies not in the certainties it reaches but in radical awareness of the vastness of our ignorance. This awareness allows us to keep questioning our knowledge and thus to continue learning. Therefore the scientific quest for knowledge is not nourished by certainty, it is nourished by a lack of certainty.5

With the advent of this new scientific and cultural awareness has come a distrust of simplistic intellectual nostrums. We are less likely now to accept on trust the siren songs of those promising to deliver to us The Answer on a silver salver.In the quest to explain perennial mysteries, it has been observed, “absolute materialism does not triumph because it cannot fully explain the nature of reality.”6 Life’s most fundamental questions cannot be answered by resorting to the methods of strict methodological naturalism. To pretend that they can provide such answers leads only to a cul-de-sac of misguided scientism. 

Next, “Toward a New Natural Theology.”

Notes

  1. See Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet: How our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery (Washington D.C.: Regnery, 2004).
  2. Christian de Duve, Cosmic DustThe Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth (New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 289. 
  3. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, third edition (London: Harper Collins, 1991), p.161.
  4. Leif A. Jensen, Rethinking Darwinism: A Vedic Study of Darwinism and Intelligent Design (New York: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2010).
  5. Carlo Rovelli, Anaximander (Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme, 2011), Introduction, p. xii.
  6. Kenneth R, Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (New York: Harper Collins), p. 219.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.

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Albert EinsteinAnthony FlewArthur EddingtonatheismCarlo RovelliChristian de DuvecosmologyEastern MysticismEric MetaxasFritjof CapraGoldilocks Zoneintelligent designLeif A. JensenMax PlanckNiels BohrNobel laureatesquantum physicsThe Return to the God Paradigm (series)theismUncertainty PrincipleWerner Heisenberg