Physics 795-2 Summary of the 14th session (Friday, Dec. 8, 1995)
Led by David Bell

David began by indicating that he would discuss the problems from his own point of view, and that is an anti-theistic perspective. The central problems hang around the problem of knowledge and truth. Religion, first of all, tends to be ontological, teleological and qualitative whereas science is empirical, rational, and quantitative. Unfortunately, this is often not just an argument or discussion between the two, but tends to get resolved (e.g., Galileo and the church) in terms of institutional and social power and authority. There seem to be three basic variables in our present situation which shape various approaches to the relationship of science and religion: 1) the changes in our explicit knowledge; 2) the recognition since Kant that our miinds and senses shape what we know; 3) new appreciation of the breadth and importance of experience. There are different models of the relationship of science and religion.

  1. both seek a truth which is beyond both.
  2. they are antagonistic rivals -- e.g., creationists vs. atheists.
  3. they are trying to achieve entirely different goals and embody different methodologies.

This has been the most prevalent model in the modern period. Eberhart commented that (on the contrary) in this seminar we seem to be finding connections between them -- at least that possibility has not been ruled out. Don then raised the question of what we mean by "religion" in this discussion. Depending on how we answer that question, science and religion could be parallel to one another, antagonistic, or simply different and unrelated realities. Paul pointed out that this was also true for how we define "science."

In attempting to understand their relationship, we must first of all consider contingency. If there is no contingency (i.e., sheer necessity reigns supreme) either at the beginning or all along in the evolution of the universe as we scientifically know it, there can be no room left for religious understanding or God. This in turn led to a brief discussion of various interpretations of the anthropic principle. The weak anthropic principle seems to be obviously valid and true, but it seems to hold no relevance for our understanding of God and religion. Other stronger versions of the anthropic principle certainly have relevance for religious understanding, yet are probably invalid and at least not obviously true.

That led in turn to a discussion of mathematics and science. Is science and its mathematical languages a set of systems of the conscious brain applied to reality -- in which case all we are knowing is our own propensity to develop coherent mathematical systems, or is mathematics just another human language which gives genuine access to reality? Question: if we could account for the universe as a whole, as well as all our religious feelings and desires, would there be room left for God? Who knows, but it seems fairly evident that science has not yet accomplished that and seems in principle fated not to be able to do so because of the implications of quantum theory. Eberhard brought today's seminar to a conclusion 1) by reminding us of the visit in February of a distinguished physicist (and ski weekend!) and 2) by asking for feedback from the members concerning this seminar -- how might it have been improved, etc.? Everyone seemed to feel that it was very successful, and yet we all agreed that we should try to broaden the membership beyond physics students and faculty (I didn't really agree with this assessment since we seemed to have a fairly good spread -- from physics to biology to philosophy). We also agreed that the room in which it took place is not conducive to informal conversation, although there has been plenty of that. We also felt that we needed to get the internet summaries in faster. Finally, we recommended that we continue the seminar informally next semester on Tuesday or Thursdays from 12:30-2:00 pm and that we advertise to widen our membership. It seemed clear that we would not do cosmology again, but focus on topics of interest to all the members. Happy holidays everyone. See you next semester!

Paul Brockelman