On Saturday 31 October our Men’s Breakfast group met in The George Inn, Eton, for a fry-up and some early-morning musings on the subject “Do Physicists Believe in Miracles?” A lively discussion was led by our resident physicist Andy Felce, and for those who missed it, here’s a flavour of the questions we considered, and some possible answers:
What is a miracle?
“Something that can’t be explained by the laws of physics.”
To a physicist it is therefore highly unlikely since everything we have ever seen can be.
What’s the pre-eminent physical reality of the universe?
The laws of physics have come to be seen as predominating over matter. No particles have any measurable finite extent. Everything is empty space bubbling with mathematical fields talking to each other. Matter doesn’t matter! The known laws are amazingly successful (for example 11 significant figure agreement between experiment and theory for the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron). [Physics is the crowning achievement of human civilization – discuss!]
What possibilities exist for the origin of the laws of physics?
a) Always existed with no author;
b) Spontaneously came into existence with no author;
c) Written (or more correctly, spoken!) at some time/event.
Can laws evolve?
No. There is no mechanism for laws to “fail”, nor any way for putative laws to be generated.
Does the many-worlds interpretation make sense? Can it explain anything?
No & no! It’s the very antithesis of Occam’s razor, in particular because it completely lacks testability. “Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities.” (Bertrand Russell)
Do physicists believe in miracles?
Yes. The origin of the laws of physics cannot be explained by the laws of physics themselves. You have to pick one of 3) a), b), c) above. They all satisfy the definition of a miracle. All are highly improbable, but there are no other alternatives, and to deride theists for believing in impossible or unnecessary things is a fabulous example of the pot calling the kettle black!
Why is mathematical elegance such a successful criterion for postulating laws of physics that work?
It’s hard to explain for an atheist, but for a Christian it’s the logical consequence of having a Creator who loves beauty and speaks maths!
What significance is there in the fact that there are laws of physics and that we can discover them?
It points to God who is the law-giver, and humans being made in the image of God. For atheists it’s an inexplicable mystery. Romans 1:20 says “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”
Why does maths discovered/invented in the human brain successfully describe the universe? Can this fact be explained by natural selection?
There’s no evolutionary advantage in being able to understand quantum physics (100 years is an insignificant timescale). For atheists there is no logical reason to expect chemical thought processes in our brains to have any correspondence with external reality on any hard-to-observe scale, either large or small.
Is the universe the product of a pre-existent Mind, or simply some spontaneously-generated stuff?
Given what we discovered in the 20th century about the pre-eminence of laws in the universe, and the fading away of “stuff”, it looks more and more likely that the former idea is true (see John 1) and that the latter idea stems from a rather unsophisticated understanding of 19th century physics. It’s also much harder, for me at least, to believe in pre-existent laws than it is to believe in a pre-existent law-giver.
Why are Christians so defensive about science?
In the light of the answers above, it’s inexplicable! We should be happy to admit that there are many questions about God that we can’t answer, but point out that science struggles even more with the question of ultimate origins, whilst Christianity has unique insights which answer many of the really perplexing questions.