We're continuing our "Casebook" in the middle of Roy Clouser's The Myth of Religious Neutrality (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), looking at how religious beliefs influence beliefs in particular areas. Last time it was mathematics; this time: physics.

But first, a few of my own ruminations. If in a particular area of study we are aiming to focus on a particular set of related properties that things possess, and to identify and explain the ways in which those properties relate to each other, then I suppose that our religious beliefs (our beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality) could affect what we think about the following:

  1. The properties themselves. If our beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality lead us to believe that certain properties that things appear to possess are merely illusions, then we're not likely to bother to study those properties in great detail. In other words, our religious beliefs could influence what we think are the legitimate boundaries for a discipline.
  2. The laws relating those properties. If properties appear to relate to each other according to some law, then we might not believe that to be the case if our religious beliefs contradict that. (I suppose this would only happen in the scholastic or fundamentalist ways of relating religious beliefs to other beliefs.)
  3. The explanations for the laws. It is not enough simply to identify the laws relating different properties. Far more important is to explain those laws. This is something that Clouser emphasises. We tend to explain laws by proposing the existence of some entity: an entity hypothesis. But what is the nature of that entity? Does it possess properties that would have relevance for other areas of study? Do my beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality allow me to believe that such an entity could exist? This was dealt with in Chapter 4 (and I think it's going to feature quite heavily in the monster-chapter 10).
  4. The purpose of the discipline. This point and the previous point both touch on how the discipline relates to the rest of reality. Why would I bother spending my time researching a particular area? Which particular questions are interesting to me? Why should people give their money to fund research into that area? What is important for people to do with their lives? What are human beings for? While this might not influence the details of the discipline itself, it clearly has a large effect on the broader features of the discipline and its place in society.

Anyway, back to physics. Atomic theory, to be more specific. Clouser takes us through three major theories about atoms, from the twentieth century, showing how the religious beliefs of their proponents guided them in formulating their views. Note that the differences are all of kinds (3) and (4) above, in that religious beliefs constrain the kinds of entities proposed to explain the laws (about which there was general agreement), and in that they guide the interpretation of physics as a whole.

1. The theory of Mach, who "did not believe that atoms exist", seeing them rather as "useful fictions" (p.149). He and others took so seriously the distinction between the world as it is and the world as we experience it that they "concluded that so far as we can ever know from our experience, reality is made of sensations" (p.150). This reflected Mach's own beliefs about what is fundamentally real. In his own words: "The assertion, then, is correct that the world consists only of our sensations" (p.157). In collapsing all of reality onto the sensory aspect, he was taking the same approach as that of John Stuart Mill towards mathematics, which we saw last time.

2. The theory of Einstein, who "believed that we are entitled to say there are (purely) physical objects outside our minds which cause our sensations, while Mach denied it" (p.152). In terms of Dooyeweerd's aspects (see last time), "he attributed independent reality to the logical and mathematical properties and laws" (p.152). And belief about what is independently real constitutes religious belief.

3. The theory of Heisenberg, who asserted, contrary to Mach and Einstein, "not only that elementary particles lack any sensory qualities, but that it is not even accurate to say they have being". "Instead, he holds the view that they are essentially mathematical possibilities" (p.154). "For Heisenberg [atomic theory] meant postulating micro-entities that comprise reality and that, while composed of physical energy, are essentially mathematical in nature" (p.157).

So what difference does this make? As in (4) above, religious beliefs help researchers to decide which questions are worth addressing. "For example, on Mach's view it would make no sense to attempt to confirm the existence of entities such as atoms and subatomic particles" (p.156). It would probably be fair to say that the neutrino would not have been discovered if physicists had generally held the religious belief that all of reality is purely sensory.

The great expense and effort highlights the motive which drove the physicists involved. Clearly, the motive was the belief that theories are attempts to know reality; that is, theories try to discover what exists and to know its nature. My point it that this belief presupposes a philosophical perspective which would have to accept (minimally) the logical, mathematical, spatial, physical, and sensory aspects of experience as (at least part of) the nature of reality. So whether that view was consciously adopted by those thinkers or not, it is the sort of perspective on reality that science needs. It needs, and is most benefited by, a view of reality that openly accepts its multi-faceted nature (p.157).