Stephen Barr on God and Science

Below is a talk by Stephen Barr, a Catholic and physicist who teaches at the University of Delaware. He has thought a lot about the relationship of science to religion, and his views are interesting. He also has an excellent book on the whole God and science question, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame 2006).

He is not an advocate of William Dembski’s intelligent design arguments, but of traditional natural theology. He makes the distinction between the two in the following manner:

The emphasis in early Christian writings was not on complexity, irreducible or otherwise, but on the beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made. As science advances, it brings this beautiful order ever more clearly into view. Every photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, every picture from the ocean’s depths, every discovery in subatomic physics, shows it forth. As Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “God [has] manifested himself in the formation of every part of the world, and daily presents himself to public view, in such manner, that they cannot open their eyes without being constrained to behold him.” And, “[W]ithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory. […] You cannot at one view take a survey of this most ample and beautiful machine [the universe] in all its vast extent, without being completely overwhelmed with its infinite splendor.” Note that “atoms of the world” are not irreducibly complex, nor is “every part of the world.” Irreducible complexity has never been the central principle of traditional natural theology.

But whereas the advance of science continually strengthens the broader and more traditional version of the design argument, the ID movement’s version is hostage to every advance in biological science. Science must fail for ID to succeed. In the famous “explanatory filter” of William A. Dembski, one finds “design” by eliminating “law” and “chance” as explanations. This, in effect, makes it a zero-sum game between God and nature. What nature does and science can explain is crossed off the list, and what remains is the evidence for God. This conception of design plays right into the hands of atheists, whose caricature of religion has always been that it is a substitute for the scientific understanding of nature.

For myself, I still don’t think that the traditional natural theology arguments for God’s existence (which Barr favors) are all that much better than Dembski’s ID apologetics. But I do like their poetics: the universe is often mind-boggling in its beauty and suffused with an apparent harmony that bespeaks of some sort of telos behind it.  But traditional natural theology still runs up against the seemingly intractable question of why God would allow so much suffering in the world, however otherwise beautiful and harmonious it is.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Stephen Barr on God and Science

  1. john says:

    Suffering is basically a state of mind, based on one’s perception of reality. In that context, God is always viewed as caring (a human attribute if there ever was one) and allowing, as in allowing evil and suffering. More to the point, God is really a life force, not a life form. The God that everyone discusses, therefore, is an invented god – a life form that has human characteristics. As for science, since it is a process of observation it will never prove or disprove anything that exists beyond space and time.

  2. Edward says:

    Did you ever hear of Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins? Excellent on the topic of the atheist revolution if you would call it that, I post about physics too! 🙂

  3. Mikels Skele says:

    Judging by the Old Testament, God rather likes pain and suffering, meting it out at every slight, real or imagined.

  4. Pingback: Stephen Barr on God and Science | valores, principios, defectos y vicios humanos: el autoconocimiento no es el nirvana!

  5. I’ve read numerous articles by Stephen Barr and have both enjoyed and benefited from them on each occasion. However, it’s genuinely disappointing and sad to see him slip into the same fallacious reasoning of which so many atheists are also guilty: i.e. the so-called ‘God of the gaps’ fallacy, in that as science advances by answering more and more questions and solving more and more problems, God necessarily retreats by, at the same time, leaving him with less and less to do (or, to have done). What?!? How does this in any way affect the issue of God’s existence? This is like arguing that the more I discover how my iPad works the less Steve Jobs ever existed.

    Say a Mercedes-Benz was somehow transported 2,500-yrs into ancient Greece, along with the keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. As the ancient Hellenists more and more figured out both how the car worked and what its purpose was, would that in any way jeopardize the existences of Wilhelm Maybach and Emil Jellinek?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I understand your point. Science’s advance does not impact first cause arguments. Ultimately the chain of causation must stop at something uncaused–and that may well be the brute fact of a universal mind (God) as opposed to the brute fact of matter. But please also recall that history is larded with epistemic errors of the following sort: lightening flashed because God was displeased; a person got better from an illness because people prayed; humans are on earth because of an act of special creation. Each time one resorts to this sort of explanation and science shows that, actually, some material or evolutionary process is behind the causation, it sets God and spirit explanations back a bit.

      It’s certainly a reasonable inference to conclude that behind the complexity of the universe and the predictability of the physical laws is a mind and not just chance matter, but since God never actually talks or reveals Herself directly, this must be (for now) an unprovable inference–a guess to which a great deal of certainty is unwarranted. If Jesus comes back in the clouds or has an angel move through the sky with a loudspeaker saying, “This is God, etc.”, then religionists have got a stronger case. In the meantime, science plugs along discovering material causes, but, curiously, never any evidence of ghosts.

      On the other hand, you could argue that there are 7 billion ghosts on our planet right now moving bodies around in a way that science has yet to explain. Those ghosts would be us–human bodies with conscious minds seeming to exercise free will (if you’re a dualist). We all seem “possessed,” if you think about it. But it would be risky to conclude that science will never explain consciousness as emerging out of brain activity–neuroscience is moving pretty fast.

      I myself find it curious that God belief has lots in common with UFO belief. I wonder why that is. Any thoughts? See here:

      • David Yates says:

        Santi (See what I mean by how fast you are? Man, you’re fast!),

        Obviously, as a devout, Bible-believin’ Christian, I adhere to the belief that prayer is indeed efficacious and I vociferously reject current Darwinian (i.e., blind, purposeless, directionless, unguided) evolution. And aside from that, I don’t for a second believe that, say, knowing how the eye or a living cell works takes anything away from how awe-inspiring and mind-numbingly incredible it all is.

        As to your confession (if you’ll forgive the term) that God is in fact a “reasonable inference” given the great complexity and elegance of the cosmos, I simply cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read that from a self-identified “doubter.” (I certainly don’t object to the sincere honesty of a doubter. Heck, there’s hardly anything I myself cannot doubt if I set my mind to it. In fact, I can’t help but agree with the late, great Neo-orthodox theologian, Paul Tillich, and aver that doubt is far from the opposite of faith, but in fact is necessary for faith. It’s the ants in the pants of faith, if you will, in that it keeps it alive and moving.) However (speaking of faith), unless I’m greatly mistaken, you’re demanding that something that must be taken on faith as a properly basic belief would instead be subject to scientific investigation. As you yourself assert, science can only deal with questions concerning material causes and effects, not immaterial, which God, by rational necessity, must be. We take more on faith than we realize. God’s existence may not be provable via the scientific method, but neither can it be scientifically proven that all reality didn’t suddenly pop into existence roughly 15-mins ago with all our “memories” previous to that simply injected into our heads. Similarly, nor can it be scientifically proven that any independent minds exist other than my own, or that my entire existence is not merely that of a brain floating in a vat somewhere with all “sensory” perceptions merely illusory. (Any of you guys ever watch this movie called “The Matrix”? I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, but it’s cool, you guys should see it!)

        (By the way, just in case, I don’t believe in ghosts either.)

        Finally, I haven’t clicked on your link yet but I will and, since you asked, I will let you know my thoughts on it.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        As Thomas Aquinas formulated it, I think the first cause argument is sound. To stop the infinite regress, there must be a first cause that has no cause and a first condition that has no conditions, and, as Aquinas puts it, “We call that God.” It’s that latter move I balk at. I don’t know whether or not that first cause has any personality or forethought or mind. It’s why I call myself an agnostic, not a theist or atheist. I don’t have any idea how I would find out whether it is mind or matter that is the brute and unconditioned fact at or from the beginning.

        I very much hope that it is mind and that mind knows and loves me, and that there is an afterlife. it is pleasant to think so, but that is very different from knowing that this is the case, or of having any proof that it is the case. It’s the issue of what to do about the “unknown God” in Acts 17. Do you light a candle to the first cause, just in case? Does it or She even care? What do you say to it? Is there any evidence that it specifically designed humans for its pleasure or knows anything?

        We are so alone. Perhaps you saw recently the new image of Earth and the moon from 900 million miles away, from Saturn, as taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Our planet appears as a tiny starburst alongside an even smaller dot (the moon), surrounded by inky blackness. And we know that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and that we are late-comers to the game (a distinct species with our current set of traits, mental and physical, for perhaps only 50,000 years). We also know that our galaxy has about 200 billion stars (if not more), and that it floats in a sea of other galaxies. It’s hard to discern a point in a “supermind” directing such a game with special attention on us.

        It’s why I think that all the major religions as conventionally practiced are faking what they think they know. They don’t know much of anything. Each has made some guesses and then institutionalized those guesses into practices and dogmas for group cohesion and success. That’s a very different result from what is actually true.

        Existence is an ontological mystery that one feels an impulse to gesture toward and acknowledge, and I think that, philosophically, the intellectuals in each major religion have done their best to get a hand on this or that aspect of the ontological elephant, and with some success. Aquinas is worth reading. The Tao te Ching is worth reading. Patanjali is worth reading. Heraclitus and the Buddha are worth reading. In philosophy, Descarte, Hume, Nietzsche, and Heidegger are all worth reading, as are so many others. East and West, there are writers who have spoken to and reflected on the ontological mystery (whether it proves to be a mind or matter as a brute fact at the beginning and what could possibly be our relation to it). And likewise, there have been atheists who have taken hold of a different aspect of the ontological elephant and had insights (Lucretius’s atomism being an obvious example).

        In all honesty, it’s hard to know how to move forward. Who are we? Where are we? What are we? There are all sorts of logical possibilities absent evidence for proceeding, and yet we are being urged by the certain from different camps to choose. But maybe adulthood entails doubt, being on the cross with the Jesus of Mark, crying “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Maybe the triumphalist resurrectionists who proclaim and know–rather than dialogue, search and doubt–are not the followers of Jesus. Jesus said his followers were to take up a cross, not a resurrection. So maybe the ones who take up the cross of doubt are the followers of Jesus (at least the Jesus of Mark), the ones focused on an honest encounter with what is (incomplete information and ambiguity everywhere).

        Mark’s gospel curiously breaks off at 16:8, whether on purpose or not. And that seems right to me. Not knowing for sure whether God exists and the resurrection happened, we go on. It’s our existential situation.

        I love the image of Jesus on the cross for that reason. Jesus is all of us, exposed, suffering, confused. It’s hard to think clearly in the midst of trauma. Once you have a body and consciousness in this world, you’re strapped in for a very difficult ride. It’s one reason I’m looking forward to seeing Woody Allen’s new film, which is, apparently, full of traumatized female Jesuses bearing their crosses in a harsh and cold world.

        Monty Python always had it right:


        David: Because of it’s length, I went ahead and made this a separate post. If you want to continue the conversation, let’s do so there.


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