EDITOR’S NOTE: In August 2017, BQO’s M. Anthony Mills interviewed Stephen M. Barr, a physicist and cosmologist at the University of Delaware and popular commentator on the relationship between science and religion. In 2016, Professor Barr helped found the Society of Catholic Scientists, an “international lay organization” intended to “foster fellowship among Catholic scientists and to witness to the harmony of faith and reason.”
What inspired you and your colleagues to create the Society of Catholic Scientists (SCS)?
We wanted to create opportunities for Catholic scientists to meet one another and have intellectual and spiritual fellowship. Religious scientists often don’t realize how many of their colleagues share their beliefs, and they can feel isolated as a consequence. In reality, however, there are many Catholic scientists, and scientists of other faiths, including many of great distinction in their fields. An awareness of this may also help dispel the popular myth that science and religion are at odds, a misconception harmful to faith, science, and society.
We hope, too, that SCS will become a forum for serious discussion of scientific, theological, and philosophical ideas and how they relate to one another. St. John Paul II once said that “those members of the Church who are either themselves active scientists, or in some special cases both scientists and theologians, could serve as a key resource.” In particular, they can be of help to those seeking to “integrate the worlds of science and religion in their own intellectual and spiritual lives.” We are a response to that.
The SCS’s annual award is named after St. Albert. Who was St. Albert and why did you choose to name the award after him?
St. Albert the Great was a thirteenth-century bishop, theologian, philosopher, and scientist. He and his great pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas, strongly insisted on the harmony of faith and reason. St. Albert was himself an excellent biologist, making many significant and original observations. Not surprisingly, he is the patron saint of natural science.
Today, science and religion are often thought of as irreconcilable — by many secularists and believers alike — even though, historically, there was a tight and often fruitful connection between them (as St. Albert illustrates). How do you understand the role of Catholicism in today’s secular world of science?
That science and religion are considered irreconcilable by many people today would have surprised the great figures of the Scientific Revolution, including Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, Boyle, and Newton, all of whom were devoutly religious. Kepler announced one of his great discoveries with a prayer: “I thank thee, Lord God our Creator, that thou allowest me to see the beauty in thy work of creation.” That continued to be the attitude of most scientists up to and including Faraday and Maxwell, the two greatest physicists of the nineteenth century. They did not see their work as opposed to faith, but rather as revealing the splendor of God’s creation. We in SCS have the same view, expressed in our motto: “speculatio cum devotione, investigatio cum admiratione” (knowledge with devotion, research with wonder). That is what we as Catholic scientists can bring to our work.
Science, however, is for everyone, whether religious and non-religious, because it is based on reason and a desire for truth, which are given to all human beings as creatures made in the image of God. One of the glories of science has been that people of very different backgrounds and beliefs work side by side, united by their love of science. Science has always been “secular” in that sense. But the idea that science should be the exclusive preserve of “secularists” is a recent and narrow-minded idea.
Modern science is naturalistic — making appeals only to natural (as opposed to supernatural) explanations — while Catholicism teaches the reality of both the natural and supernatural. Do you think there is any connection between these two domains? Or are they “non-overlapping magisteria” as the late Stephen Jay Gould put it?
The idea that there are “natural phenomena” that have “natural explanations” long predates modern science, of course. It is intrinsic to Catholicism. It is a corollary of the Jewish and Christian teaching that God is not a part of the created world, but the author of nature and thus above nature (which is what “supernatural” literally means). Naturalism only becomes a problem if it is absolutized, by saying that only nature exists. Its most extreme form is materialism or “physicalism,” which says that only material or physical things exist.
In modern science, all natural explanations are based ultimately on the laws of physics. But if you ask why the universe should have laws, especially laws of such mathematical beauty, depth, and richness, absolute naturalism has no answer. If you think that behind those laws there must be a Lawgiver, and behind that subtle mathematics there must be a Mind, then you are drawn to go beyond pure naturalism.
A common mistake is to think that God and Nature are in competition, so that something either has a natural explanation or is caused by God. That is like saying that an event in a play is either caused by other events in the play or is caused by the play’s author. It is as silly as being forced to decide whether Polonius died because he was stabbed by Hamlet or because Shakespeare wrote the play that way. God is the Author of nature and nature’s laws are his laws. So natural explanations really lead to God, not away.
Historically, the mechanistic world of Newtonian physics was often thought to be at odds with the purposive world described by religious traditions. Are there any developments in contemporary physics — in your area of research, for instance — that you see as more harmonious with Catholic teaching?
There are a number of such developments. The incredible mathematical subtlety and sophistication of the fundamental laws of physics have become much more apparent in the last hundred years. As the great mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl wrote in 1931, those laws point to a “sublime reason” that framed them. In recent decades, it has also become apparent that the fundamental laws have to be very special if the universe is to be able to have life in it. This gets into what are sometimes called “anthropic coincidences.” A third development is an argument that goes back to von Neumann, Wigner, Peierls and others that “physicalism” is incompatible with quantum mechanics, whose fundamental quantities refer implicitly to the state of knowledge (and thus to the minds) of observers. Hard-baked physicalism is an intellectual prejudice that grew out of classical, pre-twentieth century physics.