Catholicism and Physics: "If I Were A Christian" (Article)

So, essentially, one day, I came across this tidy little reflection on the similarities between Catholicism and physics. It’s nice to have a secular intellectual on our side for once (ahem Richard Dawkins ahem), and he raises interesting points about the key role held by mystery in Catholicism that are absent in Protestantism. You’re welcome to discuss said points and any others that may be relevant.

Oh, and the article:

Oh snap! Wrong link.

Great article-thanks! Almost makes me wonder why he’s not a Catholic-maybe someday. Anyway I loved the mature perspective on the Church’s colored history-I was able to come back to the CC myself as I gave up on superficial, idealistic, and generally self-righteous versions of the Christian faith.


The article is OK. Unfortunately, not every good mind finds the time to research out many of their deep, unjustifiably held beliefs. This person fits in that category. I wonder if he has found the time or inclination to research those beliefs out yet? If not, he will never step across that muddied line.

God bless,

Anyone else have this song in their head when they read the thread title?

He still buys into some of the perceived “truths” about the Church, but there’s hope for him;):thumbsup:

Catholicism is a reflection of humanity, carrying within it the hopes, the dreams and the nightmares of the human spirit—its great triumphs and its great failures. And whatever its faults, Catholicism has for two millenia carried on the hard labor of grappling with Christianity in its full intellectual depth.

Well said!

I found this article very interesting. In talking to my own sister, who is by her own definition a casual Catholic, I discussed the role of science and religion and discussed my interpretation of Pascal’s wager to her. I discussed that it is not a “proof” of God’s existence, but as a way of justifying pursuing God in that there is nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In any case, how it relates to this article…hopefully the author will make a similar wager to explore with his apparently brilliant mind the truth of God.

In Christ,

fine article–it anticipates what I’m trying to do in my blog Reflections of a Catholic Scientist

Other scientists also believe there is a mystery–
a fundamental one, why can we explain what happens in the universe in terms of mathematics …“The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” (Eugene Wigner)
or the mystery…“The veiled reality” of quantum mechanics (Bernard d’Espagnat).

Nope. I had this song:
And then:

The author gets his position off to a conventional, and to me a disappointing beginning with his opening description of QM.

Quantum mechanics forms the basis for our understanding of atoms, nuclei, elementary particles, the structure of matter, light and a vast range of associated physical phenomena, from semiconductors to the Big Bang. Yet at its heart, quantum mechanics itself remains mysterious.

He is seriously mistaken about what QM really is. It represents a model for subatomic behavior, but no more than a model. It is a purely mathematical scheme for describing subatomic behavior within the constraints of our inability to actually measure what’s going on— in other words, within the constraints of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

QM describes how particles behave, not what they are. It gives us a tool for measurement, but provides
no understanding of the fundamental nature of exactly what we are measuring.

In this respect the analogy he makes between QM and Catholicism is correct. Like QM, the religion provides a set of behavioral rules we are to follow, at the behest of a mysterious God. But the Church tells us no more about the core, fundamental nature of God than QM explains the nature of electric charge.

I just this moment realized that this is why, a few years after giving up on making a serious commitment to conventional physics, I did the same with conventional religions. I refuse to be satisfied with models of reality that accept ignorance (uncertainty in the case of QM— mystery in the Church and other belief systems) as a fundamental limitation upon thought.

Wrong. Firstly, the author does not claim that QM explains everything. He only states that it forms the basis for our understanding of the microscale world, i.e. tells us how matter and energy behave at those levels. The author mentions the very faqct you cite, and I doubt you read on after being ‘disappointed’ by the opening. Secondly, what you seem to be looking for is the correct interpretation of QM, a very important problem in philosophy, physics and in the philosophy of physics, which has been argued over since the turn of the century. In recent years, humans, preoccupied with their own affairs, turned away from trying to learn the secrets of God, and chose to focus more on developing stuff they could use from these principles of QM (like quantum computing, etc.). But the older, but even more critical, problem of the implications of QM, was not forgotten. People like Alain Aspect have been trying to show rigorously that QM is indeterministic, which has profound implications for the nature of the universe, etc. I myself intend to perform an experiment to illuminate the circumstances under which wavefunctions can collapse. This is only a very small piece of the puzzle that is the Universe, but it is a piece nontheless. Attempting to understand the physical universe is called physics. Attempting to understand the spiritual reality and nature of God is done through prayer, reflection, meditation, philosophising, possibly even excursions into fields such as physics or physical sites exhibiting the majesty and perfection of God and his creation, and of course, arguing with Catholics on online forums. In a word, mysticism, and, to quote: “is not the Christian mystic—one who seeks union with the mystery through direct experience—most likely to be Catholic?”

Come home to the Church, my friend. Then go be a mystic hermit and come back when God reveals to you the TOE.

(emphasis added)

I tend to agree with your opinion that physics is a model, although a fairly exhaustive and coherent model. Nevertheless, the fundamental mystery is there: why the world (or a good portion of it) can be explained in mathematical terms.

And with respect to mystery in religion, I agree with Pascal:
If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is.” (Pensees, #233).

A god is not God if he is finite and comprehensible to our limited mind.


I was always under the illusion that mystery enhanced or challenged rather than limited one’s thought processes.

It depends upon how the mystery is presented.

When I asked about religious mysteries as a curious child being educated in the Catholic Church, I was told to have faith and shut up.

Physics was a great relief. When I learned about experiments that were not well understood but were given an interpretation anyway, I was never told to accept the interpretation. Such interpretations, such as the mystery of wave-particle duality, were not examination components. I and other young potential physicists were allowed to retain an open mind on that, and other subjects within the purview of physics.

This has changed, and is a function of the topic. For example, last year I posted a question on in which I requested a computation for the probability that a single human gene might have come into existence via random chance. (I had already performed my own computation, but because the number was so overwhelmingly ridiculous, I sought verification.) The result: Two moderators got on my case for promoting Creationism and the thread I had initiated was terminated and removed from further access— but not before my computation, which showed that based upon simple mathematical theory, Darwinism was a ridiculous belief, had been verified.

Regrettably, way too many bad answers to important questions, like the true origin and purpose of humanity, have been marked with the kiss of intellectual death, stamped as dogma, with questions thereon directed into the Mystery Bin.

I could not determine if your response was serious or sarcastic. My previous answer assumed a serious response. If I was wrong, and you were being sarcastic (a common trait of posters here, myself included), ask yourself how much imaginative thought you’ve put into questions such as:

Why are three Gods regarded as one?

How can wine be blood, or bread be flesh?

If God is all-knowing, including the future, how can man’s alleged “free will” overcome the power of God’s knowledge?

If God knows in advance that some sorry human is destined for hell, why does he create said person?

Does God’s omnipotence trump the First Law of Thermodynamics— or the Third?

When Christ transformed a barrel of water into a barrel of fine wine, he needed to create many other atoms than those included in water (oxygen and hydrogen). What happened to the thermonuclear energy that would have been released in the process of making larger atoms, and which, according to basic nuclear physics, would have vaporized the entire city of Jerusalem?

Etc. etc.

If you were being sarcastic, then my guess is that you’ve not thought about these questions, or anything more interesting than whose turn it is to walk the dog or empty the litter box.

Thank you for a thoughtful reply.

I’m not quite as convinced as you that physics’ model is all that coherent, and must disagree strongly that it even approaches the notion of “exhaustive.” You’ll see what I mean if you live another 20 years.

I love your comment about the relationship between reality and mathematics. I don’t regard that as a mystery, because I regard math as God’s first language, and I regard the universe as the product of very intelligent engineering, in which raw energy was transformed into the stuff of our universe by entities capable of violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Without an extraordinary grasp of multi-dimensional mathematics, God could not have done the job.

From this perspective, the mathematical coherence of our universe is an inevitable outcome of the manner of its construction, no more a surprise than the discovery of mathematical principles in the design of Egyptian pyramids or a Mars Rover.

While I agree with Pascal’s mathematics, of course, his pronouncement about the nature and properties of God reflects the opinions of early theologians, men such as Augustine and Aquinas. While these were certainly thoughtful individuals, they were also rather ignorant. They knew nothing of even classical physics or basic chemistry, and like others of their primitive time, were certain that the sun, planets, and stars revolved around a flat earth.

Pascal’s statement is false on its face. To be the God in whom he was taught to believe, yes, God had to have the designated properties. That’s pretty much a tautology.

But really, to be God, the Creator of the Universe, an entity needs to be powerful enough to create the observed universe. Nothing more than that is required.

When creation is examined objectively, it does not support the assertion that God is infinite, omnipotent, or omniscient. For example, the evidence of evolution shows that life forms were not created in one fell swoop, in a day or two. The evidence is that of an engineering process akin to the development of automobiles and their support systems, showing many signs of trial and error, design development, redesign, engineering improvements, etc.

Pascal was a theoretical mathematician, who adjusted his opinions to fit the beliefs he’d been taught, to fit the words of the Bible.

But the Bible is only the words of men, however divinely inspired that some men claim them to be. The only true Bible is the physical universe, for it is the only form of scripture certain to be the unadulterated work of the Creator.

It is common for those who never think, who never question, to trust the beliefs they’ve been taught above the evidence of reality. IMO if theology is to survive in an atheistic, socialistic environment, theology must question its ancient premises. That can only begin within the minds of questioning men-- like Einstein challenged Newton’s theories, and like physicists today who question Einstein’s theories.


Whew! I’m biting my lip.

God bless,

Maybe it’s just me then: mysteries have always expanded my thought process, even when emptying the litter box or walking the dog.

There is mystery in the mundane too.

As a Catholic and a physicist I don’t know what is worse people’s misconceptions of Catholicism or people’s misconceptions of physics. In both cases, people who haven’t studied the topic for more then a few minutes somehow think that by finding one key fact they can know more than those who make it their job to study it.

I did not read the linked article, mainly because these types of things have a tendency of irritating me. So I will not comment on it. I think some of the comments here are worth discussing, though.

I am a little weary about comparing the ‘mysteries’ of physics to the mysteries of Catholicism. There are several different ‘interpretations’ of what underlies quantum mechanics, but I always thought that they were worthless as they are essentially untestable. QM is what it is as is gravity and matter and many other things we take for granted as the building blocks of the universe.

As far as the statement of the extremely small chance of creating an individual human chromosome by chance. That is not how natural selection works. The hard part is getting natural selection to work to produce the first living reproducing organism. Once that is done, with every birth of every organism there is a chance of that organism becoming more like a human with a random walk. Now the chance of producing a human chromosome is extremely small, but the number of chances is also huge. The number of organisms on Earth is enormous and the number that have ever lived is even vastly greater.

Further, there is an extreme reduction in the number of possibilities when you consider that evolution only picks out those much much tinier portion of possibilities that produce a living being. To see what I mean imagine that the human chromosome is one particular spot (on a river) on our vast earth. If you try to calculate from scratch what is the chance of producing a human chromosome from scratch then you are dividing the area of the spot by the area (or volume if you prefer) of earth. But if you know that it is a spot on a river, (the river represents all the possibilities for chromosomes that produce living beings) then it is relatively simple to send out billions of billions of billions of explorers from a random spot in a river that randomly walk and eventually find the particular spot that represents the human chromosome. The chances are still very small, but there are many ways to produce something very much like a human.

The final flaw with that logic is that you are picking chances after the fact, also known known as unspecified coincidences. Feynman is quoted as saying at a meeting something to the effect of ‘when I came in today I saw a license that read JPB973. Now what was the chance of getting that exact number.’

Yikes, I just realized how long this message is on a topic I didn’t mean to discuss.

I read the entire essay, and re-read a few sections to be certain of their content or look for additional meaning. That is much more attention than you seem to have given to my post before declaring me to be wrong.

I shall reiterate. If there was a way to write more slowly, I’d employ it.

QM provides no understanding. It models, or describes how some things work.

Here is an example. I enjoy Green Bay Packer games and watch all of them. I know the rules of NFL football, most of them anyway, and know where to go to find them in case I forget. I’ve played the game when younger, learning how to tackle, block, throw and catch. But do I understand the game?

No way! I might complain at Coach McCarthy’s decisions, based upon their outcome, but do I understand why he made them? No way! I might wish that quarterback Rodgers would throw to one guy instead of another, or run left instead of right— but do I understand the game well enough to make better choices, even if it was my mind running his body? No way!

There is a big difference between knowing a set of rules, and understanding the game that those rules constrain.

Knowing a bunch of rules that someone made up is not the same thing as understanding.

The rules of football simply tell a group of men the manner in which they are allowed to run around a football field without incurring a penalty during the game. They convey no understanding of the game.

The dogmas of a religion simply declare how men are supposed to run around the planet so as not to incur a penalty when the game is over. They do not offer an intelligent explanation of why the game of life exists.

The formulas of QM describe how mindless little particles of matter interact with one another, and with the occasional photon. They do not describe the particles or the photons, Nor do they explain why the particles came into being, or exactly what the particles are. From our perspective, the equations of QM are exactly as arbitrary as the laws of God or the rules of football.

BTW, after you finish performing QM experiments that have already been performed, why not do something interesting, like explain the double-slit experiment, or why God chose to quantize subatomic behavior?

By any useful definition of the word, “understanding,” fans of the game do not understand football, physics does not understand QM, and no religion understands God.

Only someone who actually gets that can move on to seek genuine understanding.

The kind of understanding I am personally seeking is the deep integration of physics and theology. There is no more room for that in the Church, or in any other religion I’ve examined than there is in physics. Homelessness is a better alternative than trying to live where one does not belong.

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