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Lecture Hopping: Big Bang Edition

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 “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith”: The 2006 Thomas Merton Lecture, delivered by Professor Stephen Barr in St. Paul’s Chapel,  October 30th.

“Science and Religion,” “Faith and Reason” – buzzword dichotomies for the sound-bite arguments of our polarized political discourse. Given this, the absence of publicity surrounding Stephen Barr’s lecture “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith” – a few green paper posters with a blurry photo of the theoretical physicist showed up in Hamilton on Monday – was astonishing. Perhaps the breadth of appeal of Barr’s Merton Lecture, which is possibly the most prestigious religious lecture given annually at Columbia (though it is a specifically Catholic event) was not appreciated.  Or, perhaps our appetites for anything remotely resembling the stale debate over intelligent design are simply satiated. Regardless, when St. Paul’s Chapel filled Monday night, the white robes of Dominicans, and white hair in general, dominated.

Stephen Barr, a professor at the Bartol Research Institute and frequent contributor to the theoconservative journal First Things, has given this speech before. In fact, he published it in a more extensive form as the book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith in 2003. But, despite, or perhaps because of the speech’s age, Barr provided something provocative: an impeccably organized account of science’s development that challenged many common conceptions about our current understanding of the universe.


Barr began his speech with a familiar invective against materialism; materialism, he argued, is not science but a philosophical view about the nature of ultimate reality on equal standing with religious belief. There are, however, good reasons to think that, in accepting the findings of modern science, one ought to find oneself inevitably viewing the religious outlook as hopelessly anachronistic. Barr disagrees and centered his remarks on two fairly widespread claims with which he takes issue.


The first is that religious institutions have been historically hostile to science. Here, Barr was referring almost exclusively to the attacks launched against his own uber-institutional Catholic Church. Biblical religion, he claimed, from Genesis onward has had an impressive history of countering pagan, supernatural views of nature with a disenchanted, mechanistic model that paved the way for future scientific thought. The medieval university, in this progression, grew up around the study of the scientific thought of the ancient Greeks, and institutionalized a stable scientific community for the first time. Without this achievement, Barr argued, there would have been no soil for the scientific revolution to grow out of. He concluded with a long list of Catholic priests who had contributed to major scientific discoveries spanning nearly a millennium. This is a fascinating argument, but a controversial one that deserves the confrontation of a panel discussion, rather than the safety of a lecture. Those without extensive reading in the history of science simply had to take Barr’s word for it.

The second claim Barr disputed was the much broader notion that science had given a picture of the world divergent from that of orthodox religion – what he referred to as “the materialist story of science.” He broke this down into five related components – the overturning of religious cosmology, the end of seeing design in nature, the dethroning of humanity as central to the universe, the rise of physical determinism, and the attempt to develop a completely mechanistic view of the human being. Suddenly the lecture became far more tenuous. For each of these ideas has its own historic development, involving internal debates, challenges, and shifting consensuses. And, as intellectually compelling as Barr’s invocations of anthropic coincidences and the richness and profundity of the mathematical structure of the universe might be, and as much doubt as quantum mechanics may have cast on the possibility for a total, deterministic model of the universe, a thousand lectures could be devoted to each of these topics. With so little time and without the appropriate audience to follow Barr into the technical depths of his field, he could only vaguely gesture towards possibilities for religious belief that he believes have been opened up by modern science.


Questioners were eager to dispute this. Barr and a few physics junkies sparred in jargon incomprehensible to everyone else. “This makes me wish I had studied my physics better,” Catholic chaplain Jacek Buda broke in to conclude the lecture, “but I didn’t.” It’s a fair bet that the majority of the audience felt the same way.

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5 Comments

  1. doc zhivago  

    This is the good shit. Thanks for this, Bwog. In between gossip and so forth, there's room for stuff along these lines. I'm sorry I didn't know this was happening!

    Barr himself is an ID supporter, unfortunately, but a clever one, and I'd like to think he'd yeild to the concept of macroevolution someday and continue to hold that complexity, while not really "irreducable," is still a pretty beautiful concept.

  2. yea  

    i'm glad you did this bwog post. i was very interested in the topic but couldn't get to the lecture.

  3. hmm  

    "Science and Religion," "Faith and Reason" — sounds like my CC class.

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