Stephen Barr on Quantum Physics, Religion, & the God Particle (Encore Presentation)
Date: August 2nd, 2015

The staff at Research on Religion, including Rocky Barkington, is taking a short summer vacation.  In the meantime, we present to you an encore presentation of an interview conducted back in 2012 and one of Tony’s all-time favorites.  Please stay tuned for new episodes in the coming week and sign up on our Facebook Fan Page and Twitter feed for regular updates.

Does quantum physics make it easier to believe in God?  And what is the story behind the “God particle” that was empirically verified to exist in the summer of 2012?  Did we really discover God and the origins of the universe?  Prof. Stephen M. Barr, professor of physics at the University of Delaware, helps us understand quantum physics and its relation to religious faith.

Don’t panic.  The discussion is highly accessible to anybody with a high school science background.  Indeed, Prof. Barr provides us with both an enlightening and fun discussion about these topics.  We begin with the controversy surrounding the name of the Higgs boson, which the popular media has dubbed “the God particle.”  Steve relates the story of how this rather uninteresting particle actually got its name, which in turn leads to an insightful discussion about the incentives facing research scientists at universities.

Putting that controversy to rest, we then take a journey way back to the beginning of the universe and Prof. Barr helps us to understand that the “beginning” of the universe is not the same as the “origins” of the universe.  This gets us to ponder some of our basic assumptions about the physical universe, including why our default assumption that “something” exists rather than “nothing exits.”  Prof. Barr uses this to explain the philosophy of “materialism” (or “physicalism”) one of the chief ideological competitors to the belief in God.  (Please note that round the 20 minute mark there is a brief hum that occurs on the recording that we could not edit out, but it is only temporary.)

The next step in our discussion is to explain what quantum physics (mechanics) is and how it relates to “classical” (Newtonian) physics.  This part of the interview was very accessible thanks to Steve’s excellent examples.  Consider this podcast not only a chance to learn more about religion, but about physics too!  And from all this comes an interesting philosophical discussion of free will versus determinism.   He then answers the payoff question, “Does quantum mechanics make it easier to believe in God?”  His answer is nuanced and relates to the nature of “mind.”  Is “mind” merely reducible to matter?  Or is “mind” something else?  And what does quantum physics have to say about that and whether or not God exists?  In short, quantum mechanics cannot prove the existence of God, but it makes it more difficult to subscribe to a philosophy of materialism, which opens the door to the possibility of something beyond the material world, such as an “ultimate mind.”  Prof. Barr cites a number of other physicists who share this notion.

The final portion of our interview brings up the question of whether or not science can play a role in informing our faith, and Steve notes that many, many of the great scientists of the past and present have been ardently religious individuals.  The notion of a war between religion and science, often championed by the likes of Richard Dawkins, is once again the type of media hype that gave us the term “God particle.”  Prof. Barr then reflects on his own background and what it has been like to be a faithful Catholic in the world of academia, providing advice at the end to any religious individual thinking of making a career in science profession.  Recorded: October 10, 2012.

RELATED LINKS

Prof. Stephen Barr’s biography at the University of Delaware and Prof. Barr’s Wikipedia biography.

Does Quantum Physics Make It Easier to Believe in God?” on the John Templeton Foundation’s blog “Big Questions Online.”

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, by Stephen Barr.

RELATED PODCASTS

Justin Barrett on the Naturalness of Religious Belief.

Rob Moll on Religion & the Brain.


2 Responses to “Stephen Barr on Quantum Physics, Religion, & the God Particle (Encore Presentation)”

  1. Karl says:

    Thoroughly enjoy all of your podcasts. This is another thought-provoking one that rightly focuses on the destructive nature of quantum theory to a reductionist worldview. I was pleased to here your guest cut through the pop-science crap and get to the more modest claims about the topic.

    One small point. Midway through the broadcast you played devil’s advocate and you countered your guest’s position with an appeal for fideism (which you defined as “faith” proper). That is to say you used faith as if it were opposed to rationality. Faith is not related to certainty inversely!

    I am relatively certain (pun intended) that you do not hold that belief in God is a conclusion you come to if you don’t have a reliable epistemic justification. This definition is a foundational piece of atheist propaganda!

    Thanks against for your efforts to get a broad spectrum of guests on your podcast.

  2. tonygill says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Karl.

    As for my comment halfway through the podcast, I must admit that I don’t know what I was thinking as this was recorded a few years back. Plus, I have the habit of letting unformed thoughts scroll down my brain stem and escape through my mouth quite frequently without any filtering.

    More good stuff on the way, including a discussion of just war theory and the Great Pig War of 1859 next week!

Leave a Reply to Karl

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