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Non Sequitur in five parts
effort to bolster his faith via modern physics and Gödel's theorem
By Mark Perakh
Posted May 29, 2007
The main thesis of Barr
Scientific materialism and nature
In the beginning
Is the universe designed?
The design argument and the laws of nature
Overview of the remaining chapters
A few years ago, just after having retired from a university
where I taught physics, I was approached by some friends who requested that I
reply to a number of very popular books whose authors diligently tried to prove
the compatibility of the biblical story with science. I must admit this was a
not very exciting task. Among the writers subjected to my critique happened to
be both religious preachers (like Grant Jeffrey) without any scientific
credentials, and also holders of advanced degrees, sometimes from prestigious
institutions (like MIT, as Gerald Schroeder, or some good universities, like
Hugh Ross) and even professors currently teaching physics at quality
universities (like Nathan Aviezer). However, there was little difference
between writing of either Jeffrey  or, say, Aviezer, [2a] in that both not
only offered plainly fallacious arguments, but also displayed sometimes amazing
lack of knowledge and understanding of even seminal concepts of science in
general and physics in particular. It
was easy to dismiss pseudo-arguments of, say, Schroeder [2b], by pointing to
such absurd claims as his statements that masers
emit atoms, or that mass and weight
are the same, or, say, by revealing
the misinterpretation of probabilities
by Aviezer. What credibility could be afforded their pro-biblical "arguments"
if they obviously were confused about elementary facts of science and/or math?
In a different category was a book (also very popular) by
Professor Kenneth Miller. Miller's approach seemed to be two-pronged. On the
one hand he provided a brilliant defense of evolution theory, incorporating
(but not limited to) Darwinian ideas, and demolishing anti-evolution attacks by
creationists, including intelligent design advocates. On the other hand Miller
also promoted the thesis that "science is a best friend of faith." The latter thesis was supported by feeble arguments,
as if they were products of a different mind, surprisingly inept as compared
with the ingenuity and logic displayed by the same author when defending
evolution (see ).
Since I am not a biologist, my assertion about Miller's
brilliant defense of evolution carries, probably, not much weight , as it is just
an impression of a layman. However, recently a friend wrote to me about another
book , this time by a professional physicist, a professor of physics, thus
my younger professional colleague, Stephen M. Barr, whose work seemed to be an
analog of Miller's book in that it also seemed to promote the same thesis about
modern science being a "friend of faith," the difference being in Barr's
turning to physics (and partially to mathematics) instead of biology (as Miller
did) as a science supposedly supporting faith. (Perhaps not a very important detail, but still worth mentioning, is
that both Miller and Barr are Catholics). So, judging Barr's book I am not a laymen any more, as physics is what I
used to teach for many years, both on undergraduate and graduate levels.
Barr's book was reviewed a number of times, mostly in
religious periodicals (like First Thing)
and on websites (like Metanexus)
where it was acclaimed in superlative terms. The religious reviewers
unanimously praised Barr's "accessible" writing, stressed his impeccable
scientific credentials [A] and asserted that he has brilliantly proved
his thesis about the supposed "fall" of "materialism" as a consequence of
scientific discoveries of the 20th century. On the other hand,
Barr's book seemed not to create much of an impact in secular publications,
where it remained almost invisible. In this review I shall partially fill the
void by discussing Barr's opus from the standpoint of a scientist not adhering
to any religious persuasion, thus estimating whether or not Barr's arguments
sound convincing for a skeptic.
Before turning to specific features of Barr's book, I'd like
to claim that its structure in many respects is analogous to that of Miller's
book. Like in Miller's case, Barr
devotes many pages to discussions of various aspects of science, in this case
of physics, plus rather extensive excursions into mathematics and philosophy of
Barr is obviously a well qualified physicist with a fairly
broad ken not only in physics per se
but also in various adjacent disciplines. Not only, unlike in cases of
Schroeder, Ross  or Aviezer, I can't point to any factual errors in his
narrative as long as it relates to facts of science, he also seems to be quite
apt at explaining many subtle and sometimes far from being self-evident
features of physics. His knowledge is wide and multifaceted, covering a wide
range of topics and displaying a rather mature penetration into complex and
sometimes controversial aspects of modern physics.
However, like in Miller's case, when Barr turns to his
thesis about science supporting faith, he, even to a larger extent than Miller,
appears like a different person, resorting to unsubstantiated assertions in no
way following from his discussion of matters of science.
In discussing science, Barr is often doing a good job at
staying impartial. When discussing controversial aspects of, say, quantum
physics, he faithfully presents various views and counter-views, often
abstaining from taking sides. Then suddenly, out of the blue, he makes a
statement regarding science as an alleged "friend of faith," not bothering to
offer any arguments but instead making claims having no roots in science he had
so carefully discussed on the preceding pages.
I'll turn now to specific examples illustrating the
statements I made in the preceding paragraphs.
Barr's book comprises 26 chapters organized in five parts,
plus three Appendices. The scope of material covered on about 300 pages is very
wide. However, there is an obvious general theme going through all chapters
with their various subjects and sub-subjects. This theme can be succinctly
defined as a dismissal of what Barr refers to as "materialism." This theme
becomes clear immediately in the first part titled "The Conflict between
Religion and Materialism." The titles of the first two chapters portend the
contents of the rest of Barr's narrative: "The Materialist Creed" and
"Materialism as Anti-Religious Mythology."
I can't speak for other readers, but as soon as I read the
above chapters' titles, I knew that I could hardly expect to find in this book
an objective analysis of the actual relationship between science and religion.
It is hard not to notice that Barr defines "materialism" as
"mythology" before offering any discussions of "materialism," so for him
"materialism being "mythology" and
"creed" are premises, rather than conclusions based on a rational
discourse. This allows me to assert that Barr's strong emotional aversion to
"materialism" blinded him, as for him "materialism" being just a "mythology,"
an irrational "creed," was a given, while
his religious emotions were likewise a given,
vastly superior "rational" attitude to reality.
Indeed, as I proceeded through chapter after chapter, the
expectations created at the first paragraphs were confirmed time and time
again. On the one hand, Barr appeared as a well qualified scientist [A]
with a wide ken in various fields of physics and adjacent disciplines, but on
the other hand his repeated mantras against "irrational" materialism, lacking
any serious arguments, seemed to display a mind closely confined to certain
unsubstantiated notions apparently stemming from his religious upbringing.
Here are some typical quotations. On page 2 we read: "…a
number of discoveries in the twentieth century have led in surprise directions.
Paradoxically, these discoveries, coming from the study of the material world
itself, have given fresh reasons to disbelieve that matter is the only ultimate
reality." If Barr added a phrase like
"in my opinion," or "as it seems to me," the above assertion would meet no
objections. Barr is entitled to his opinion. However, the quoted assertion is
made in a categorical form, as something requiring no proof. I dare to disagree
with Barr's quoted statement. Indeed, many scientific discoveries of the
twentieth century "led in surprise directions." However, to my mind of another
professor of physics, none of these discoveries have given any reason, either
fresh or stale, to surmise the existence of anything beyond the material world.
If Barr thinks otherwise and set out to write a book dealing with this topic,
I'd be interested to hear his arguments in favor of his position. Having read Barr's
book, I found not a single argument supporting the quoted statement. Time and time again Barr describes this or
that fact of science, and then claims that the mentioned facts are contrary to
"materialism." To my mind, while Barr's descriptions of facts of science are
usually fine, none of them in any way supports his conclusions regarding lack
of credibility of "materialism."
Claiming the superiority of religious faith over
"materialism," Barr never refers to any religions other than Judaism and Christianity.
I can't read Barr's mind and therefore can't explain the odd exclusion of all
multiple religious beliefs from discussion. There are thousands of various
religions besides Judaism and Christianity, whose tenets often drastically
contradict each other. Moreover, there are many versions of Judaism and
Christianity, also often at odds with each other. If Barr asserts the superiority of religious beliefs over
"materialism," would it not be proper to say a few words about the
discrepancies among various religions and sub-religions? Just the omission of this, rather crucial
point makes, in my view, Barr's asseverations of the faults of the "materialist
creed" rather feeble.
While rejecting various arguments in favor of "materialism"
and replying to arguments critical of "anti-materialist" attitude, sometimes in
great detail, Barr pays little attention to the most powerful argument against
the idea of a supernatural Creator of the universe. To my mind, the argument in point is so convincing that belief in
a supernatural Creator ("Designer," God, or whatever title this supposed entity
is given) looks like a very non-parsimonious surmise. I refer to the argument
about infinite regress. The notion of an infinite regress may sound for Barr
and his admirers as a puerile question of an unsophisticated mind, but it is
nevertheless non-refuted and perhaps non-refutable.
It has a close relation to the argument from design (which
Barr discussed in one of the subsequent chapters). One of the best known renditions of argument from design was
offered more than 200 years ago by Paley ("the watchmaker argument"). Probably most readers are well acquainted
with Paley's argument, so I apologize for briefly summarizing it once again.
Looking at a watch found on the ground, we notice that it is a complex
contraption, performing a well defined function. We conclude that it is an
artifact, a product of an intelligent design by a watchmaker. Hardly anybody would object to such a
conclusion. By analogy, the universe, which is immensely more complex than a
watch, and seems to be clock-like in that its parts seem to obey well defined
"laws," "must" be a product of an intelligent "designer," that for Paley was
the God of the Bible.
The simplest and most immediate counter-argument points to
an insurmountable inner contradiction of the watchmaker argument. If the
complexity and orderliness of the universe require a hypothesis of a
supernatural "watchmaker," why the same notions should not be applied to the
"watchmaker" himself (herself? themselves?).
The proponents of the argument from design often reply that
the universe had a beginning and therefore needed a "creator," while the
supernatural creator had no beginning (or exists "outside time") and therefore
should be believed to exist without regress to a "super-designer."
Various people believe many different things. Many of these
beliefs are as arbitrary as the "argument from design." To my mind, the argument from design belongs
in the same category as the belief that the earth rests on three turtles.
If we choose to accept the notion that not everything should
have an antecedent reason to exist (as the proponents of argument from design
do regarding the supernatural "designer") then I feel that it is more
reasonable to accept that the universe exists without a specific reason, and
there is no need to surmise the existence of the supernatural "creator," whose
supposed existence is not supported by any factual evidence.
Moreover, there are powerful arguments regarding the reason
why "there is something rather than nothing," without resorting to any
arbitrary assumptions about supernatural entities. One set of such arguments
is, for example, discussed in the book by Victor Stenger . According to this
idea, "nothing" (or void) is
perfectly symmetric; the perfect symmetry entails instability. Breaking symmetry results in a more stable
state. Therefore the unstable void
tends to convert to a more stable "something."
I am not trying to assert that the above idea, either in
Stenger's or in some other rendition, is perfectly "proven." The notion of
symmetry breakdown as a source for emerging a universe out of void, may perhaps be criticized from
certain standpoints, but overall it offers an explanation based on well established
facts of science, not invoking arbitrary assumptions, and is rational. A critical
comment regarding the complete absence of any serious discussion by Barr of the
problem dealt with by the above idea is, in my view, quite relevant for judging
the foundations of Barr's thesis.
One more point Barr keeps silent about, is the veracity of
specific tenets of his Catholic faith. I suppose that were Barr born in
Islamabad, he would be as fervent a Muslim as he is now a Catholic, but he does
not bother to argue in any form in defense of his Catholic faith, which
obviously is the root of his rejection of "materialism."
Historical evidence is clear about a simple fact: the story
told in the four Gospels cannot be true. The Sanhedrin, which was the supreme
court of the ancient Israeli state, did not deal with petty crimes like
hooliganism in the Temple's outlying courts. The Sanhedrin would never conduct
any business on Friday evening, when the Shabbat already started, and even more
so after the holiday of Passover started. Furthermore, Jewish law strictly
forbids transferring a Jew to Gentiles for trial, regardless of what crime a
Jew could have committed. A "crowd" of Jews demanding to crucify a Jew was
impossible, as execution by crucifixion was an abomination for Jews. There are many other details in the Gospels'
story which could not be true and obviously are products of anti-Judaic
polemics by the Gospels' authors. Barr is not under obligation to discuss these
points in a book about "religion vs. "materialism," but accounting for the
shaky foundation of Barr's faith, which underlies his asseverations, should
make a skeptical reader take Barr's notions with a good dose of salt.
"Materialism" defined by Barr as a belief that matter is all
that is there, has nothing to do with any "mythology". Barr does not deny the
existence of matter, he just believes that besides the matter, something else
exists. "Materialists" see no need to hypothesize the existence of any
undefined "something" beyond the matter which both "materialists" and Barr
accept as at least part of reality. What has "materialism," as defined by Barr
himself, to do with any "mythology"? "Materialists" do not invent undefined entities, do not hypothesize
anything beyond whatever obviously exists and can be "sensed," at least in
principle. Hence, "materialists" adhere to Occam's razor, while it is believers
in the supernatural who indeed resort to various myths not based on evidence.
Just the terms applied by Barr to "materialism" show that, appreciating his
fine explanations of scientific facts, readers have to be aware that as soon as
Barr offers conclusions from his narrative, or leaves his professional field,
his ruminations must be taken with a lot of skepticism.
Since Barr's book is very long, its full discussion would
take another thick volume. I don't
think it deserves that much, so I'll discuss only several selected points in
Barr's opus. If I omit discussions of
other passages, this will not mean I necessarily agree with them, but will only
reflect the necessity to choose just a fraction of Barr's notions for
discussion, and thus keep my review reasonably short.
In chapter 3,
titled "Scientific Materialism and Nature" Barr asserts (as he does more than
once at various points of his narrative) that 20th century science shattered the largely
materialistic underpinning of the earlier science by unexpected
discoveries. Let me slide through
repeatable (and unsubstantiated) claims
by Barr about alleged "materialistic prejudice" and discuss instead what Barr
refers to as five "plot twists," allegedly negating the "materialist prejudice"
and leading to the acceptance of the "supernatural" as a necessary part of
"The first plot twist."
that "Jews and Christians always believed that the world, and time itself had a
beginning, whereas materialists and atheists have tended to imagine that the
world has always existed."
at once shows that the sophistication of Barr's discourse is sometimes superficial and that his knowledge of
"materialism" on the one hand and of religious concepts on the other hand is
Let us start
with the views of "Jews and Christians." Here is a sample quotation from a well
known rabbinical source, the tractate "Genesis Rabba" found in The Babylonian Talmud :
God created and destroyed worlds, none of which he liked,
until he found this one.
Similar quotations can be found in
various parts of the Talmud. Christian theology abandoned the view of multiple
worlds preceding our universe, but the idea of many, or even of an infinite
number of preceding universes, was part and parcel of certain variations of Judaic
theology. Barr seems to be unaware of that, and his statement that "Jews and
Christians always believed that the world had a beginning" is contrary to
facts, at least regarding Jews.
And what about the scientific side
of the problem? Here Barr seems to confuse science with philosophy of science.
In science per se there never was a
concept of an eternal universe adopted as part of any scientific theory.
Philosophy of science is another matter. There we can find all kinds of views,
which, as is typical of philosophy, are not necessarily based on evidence but
often are just a "play of the mind." The idea of eternal universe, or of
multiple universes replacing each other, were not essentially "materialistic"
as they could be compatible with a belief in a supernatural "creation" as well.
The evidence for the "big bang" met no more resistance from "materialist"
scientists than any other novel scientific hypothesis. In fact, the "big bang"
was accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists much faster and with
much less resistance, than, say, the theory of relativity or plate tectonics.
Science is based on evidence, only evidence, and nothing but evidence. The idea
of our universe having a beginning had nothing to do with "materialism" or
"anti-materialism." Science it not married to any theological or philosophical
concepts. It follows evidence, and accepting the idea of a "beginning" for our
universe did not require any revolutionary upheaval in science (although some
individual scientists could have felt uncomfortable with that idea). The "first
plot twist" claimed by Barr is largely his own arbitrary interpretation of the
history of the scientific exploration of reality.
"The second plot twist."
In this section Barr points to the
increasing penetration of science into ever deeper levels of reality, where, he
asserts, the "question of a cosmic designer seems no longer irrelevant but
Of course, Barr and his fellow
travelers are entitled to discuss the alleged "cosmic designer" at any stage of
science's development, not necessarily waiting until science reaches a certain
level of depths. They did it since the
ancient philosophers (like Cicero ), when science was very tentative and limited,
and they continue doing so in the 21st century, when modern tools
enable one to see and even manipulate individual atoms, and they certainly will
continue doing so in the forthcoming years. However, it always had been
speculation having little to do with scientific evidence. Science has no tools
to study "the supernatural", is not concerned with it and can be compatible
with "materialism" as well as with various religious superstitions. Barr wants
to believe that new discoveries in science justify his Catholic faith. It is
his right, but his assertions to that end have no weight in view of science's
indifference to the philosophy of science or to theology.
The rest of "the Plot Twists."
"Plot twists" numbers three, four,
and five all are in the same vein as the numbers one and two. All this
discourse is based on the confusion of science with the philosophy of science. "The
third plot twist" deals with "anthropic coincidences," aka "the anthropic principle." Barr provides here just a very brief
and schematic exposition of the problem, promising to discuss it in detail in
subsequent chapters. Preempting that detailed discussion, it can be stated that
Barr's treatment of anthropic coincidences is one of the weakest parts of his
book, inasmuch as he seems to be either unaware of the strongest arguments
against the supernatural interpretations of the "coincidences" in point, or
perhaps choosing to avoid arguing about them because of their strength. Telltale
is the absence in his book's index of the word "Bayes." Discussing the
anthropic coincidences in Bayesian terms is the most appropriate approach, but
Barr does not even mention Bayes's theorem, and this void alone makes his
entire discussion of the anthropic coincidences too shallow to be taken
The "Fourth Plot Twist" is about
the question of whether mind is just a machine, a kind of a "wet computer", or
something more that that. Barr admits that arguments against the "materialist"
interpretation of mind have mostly been philosophical. Since science cannot be
held responsible for philosophical arguments, Barr wants to find
anti-materialist arguments regarding the essence of the mind within science
itself. He can't do so, so the second best thing seems to him to find such
arguments in mathematics, which seems to be so closely intertwined with
science. He allegedly finds such arguments in Gödel's famous theorem.
to say that in my opinion Barr's discourse regarding Gödel's theorem (and the related
Lucas-Penrose argument), is very impressive. He displays here, first, a rather
deep understanding of that far from trivial theorem, and, second, his ability
to explain its essence in terms accessible to laymen, without turning his
explanation into platitudes. This section is, arguably, the best part of Barr's
book. However, as far as Barr's goal is in question, it is hard not to wonder
why a mathematical theorem, with all of its grandeur and beauty, is considered
a "scientific" argument in favor of Barr's anti-materialist endeavor. Moreover,
if we agree that mathematical argument can be in principle legitimate in
solving the controversy, there seems to be no connection between the powerful
theorem in question and the "materialism vs. supernatural" dilemma. Gödel's
theorem has nothing to do with "materialist" vs. supernatural interpretation of
any problems of philosophy of science, however flexible philosophy is capable
of being, and even less with interpretation of scientific facts.
Barr ends his discussion of the
"fourth twist" with an assertion that denial of his favorite interpretation of
Gödel's theorem and of Lucas-Penrose argument "verge on fanaticism." Never mind
that science is essentially inimical to any fanaticism, while religious faith,
including Barr's own preferred brand of faith, is known for many occasions when
fanaticism was (and continues to be in our days) rampant and leading to inquisition,
persecution of "heretics," religious wars, events of September 11, 2001, and
other equally appalling "twists."
The Fifth Plot Twist, according to
Barr, was the supposed collapse of determinism caused by the advent of quantum
Quantum physics had indeed caused
a deep reconsideration of the Laplacian type of determinism, but rather than
cause the "collapse" of determinism, led to a new, deeper understanding of it.
A real "collapse of determinism" would mean collapse of science as a reasonable
human endeavor. Science is based on the basic acceptance of the idea that the
material world obeys certain "laws." These intrinsic laws can be reasonably
approximated by postulated constructs which are usually referred to as "laws of
physics." Laws of physics, albeit being postulates, are powerful
generalizations of the behavior of the natural world. They embody determinism, which in today's science is no longer reduced
to the one-dimensional determinism of the 19th century science, but is a more
complex concept, underlining the orderliness of the material world. Whereas we
can't predict which particular atom of a radioactive material will decay at a
specific moment of time, we can confidently predict which fraction of atoms
will decay and when. Likewise, we can confidently predict the overall outcomes
of other experiments in quantum physics, which would be impossible if
determinism were indeed absent. This question requires a more detailed
discussion, but the rumors about determinism's death are greatly exaggerated.
Referring to prominent theoretical
physicists like Wigner and Peierls, Barr writes that "fundamental principles of
quantum theory are inconsistent with the materialist view of the human
mind." This is the usual position of
various brands of crank "science" based on arbitrary interpretations of quantum
phenomena. This position is beyond science as it is not based on a really
scientific foundation, but only reflects puzzlement of certain individuals in
view of the seemingly esoteric behavior of quantum systems. There is nothing in
science itself, including quantum physics, to lead to such assertions. (See,
for example, a rather detailed discussion of related problem ).
Barr concludes the first part of
his book with a statement that it "is not about proof." (page 29). Here I am in agreement with Barr. I don't
think there is convincing "proof" favoring either "materialism," or a belief in
supernatural entities. Therefore, as I wrote before  in my view both
atheism and theism are irrational, while only agnosticism is rational. The term
"irrational" does not mean "wrong". Obviously, despite being irrational, either
atheism or theism is right, with no tertiary
quid. My difference with Barr is in
accepting which of the two unprovable positions - atheistic or theistic - is
more plausible. To my mind, the existence of supernatural entities is highly
unlikely. Barr's goal in his book is to show that data of modern science make
theism the more plausible position. To my mind Barr's arguments are fallacious. Having told about this or that result of a
scientific exploration of the material world, Barr jumps over a logical pit,
arbitrarily asserting that the data in point somehow support his theistic
position. In no case does Barr's conclusion follow from the discussed data. The
entire book is just a series of non
sequiturs presented as allegedly logical conclusions.
I shall turn now to specific
points of Barr's narrative in order to reveal the lack of substantiation for
Comment: Having said that in my view neither existence nor non-existence of
supernatural entities can be proven, I did not mean to say that arguments for
and against theistic position are equally non-convincing. Although
neither side can claim to have offered "proof" of its position, to my mind the
arguments in favor of "materialism" are much more plausible than the
pro-theistic arguments. In this review I shall not discuss the arguments in
favor of atheistic position, but instead refer to some sources where such
arguments are presented in great detail. In this respect, I'd like to
specifically mention books by Victor Stenger [8, 13]. Stenger, like Barr, was raised as a Catholic; he is reasonably
close to Barr in age; like Barr, he is a university professor of physics (and
astronomy) but also of philosophy of science. Like Barr, he is eminently
qualified to discuss problems of modern physics. Although the atheistic position held by Stenger cannot be
considered as "proven," unlike Barr, Stenger,
while not necessarily correct in every detail of his narratives, is usually
logical and consistent, so his interpretations of the paradoxes of quantum
physics, as well as his overall atheistic argumentation, are, in my view,
immensely more persuasive than Barr's multiple non sequiturs.
The title of this section
reproduces the title of Part 2 of Barr's book. I have little problem with that
part. Barr writes there about the discovery of the Big Bang, his narrative
reasonably adhering to facts. However, sometimes, within that reasonable story
here and there suddenly appear sentences which have little relation to the
science of Big Bang. For example, on page 48, within the discussion of the
"beginning of time," we see the following sentence; "It should be emphasized
that this modern discovery of beginning of time was a vindication for Jewish
and Christian thought."
As I mentioned before, such a
statement is unduly simplifying at least the "Jewish thought." Barr refers to the first sentence of the
Torah, which usually is translated into English as "In the beginning God
created the heaven and the earth".
This reference calls for a few
comments. First, it admits that the real reason for a "Jew and Christian" to
accept that the universe had a beginning, was not any scientific data, but the
alleged "revelation" directly from the Creator. For a skeptic, such a basis for
conclusion regarding "the beginning" sounds rather dubious. Skeptics can't fail
to notice the multiple contradictions in the biblical story making the idea of
its being a direct revelation from a supreme mind very shaky. If Barr believes
in the Bible's reliability, it is his privilege, but such a belief has no power
of persuasion for skeptics.
Furthermore, there are some
problems with the exact meaning of the quoted first sentence of the Torah. Its
Hebrew text as rendered in Latin characters is: "Bereshit bara Elohim et ha shamaim
veet haaretz." The first word of that
sentence - Bereshit - is usually translated as "In the beginning." In fact the
expression "in the beginning" would be in Hebrew "Behatkhalah," rather than
"Bereshit." "Beginning" in Hebrew is "Hatkhalah." The word "Bereshit" more
precisely should be translated as "First of all." Hence, the sentence in question tells about the order of creation, stating that the
first things created were the heaven and the earth. It mentions no beginning of time, and does not necessarily imply a
"beginning" in general.
Moreover, as Barr correctly states
elsewhere, the discovery of the Big Bang allows for various interpretations,
including such versions which entail no 'beginning."
Therefore Barr's assertions that
the discovery of the Big Bang justified tenets of whichever religion, while being
puzzling for "materialists," reveal his wishful thinking but have little relation
to reality. Of course, some "materialists" might have been puzzled by the
discovery of the Big Bang as many of them indeed believed in the eternal
universe, but their "discomfort" was nothing more than a matter of personal
disappointment, while in no way objectively supporting any "anti-materialist"
arguments. The discovery of the Big Bang in no way contradicted any essential
features of the "materialistic" worldview. (A rather simple Bayesian analysis
shows that attribution of the Big Bang to a divine act is an arbitrary
supposition, while "materialistic" interpretation is logically consistent - see
publications  and ).
In view of the above, Barr's
entire chapter 5 titled "How Things Looked One Hundred Years Ago," in my view makes
no sense, because it suggests a false picture wherein "materialist" science was
allegedly married to the concept of an eternal universe. In fact, while the
idea of eternal universe was indeed wide spread, it was not an inherent part of
a "materialistic" view, which did not and does not depend on any such
assumption and is quite comfortable with the Big Bang.
To give credit where it is due,
Barr offers a discussion (in chapters 7 and 8) of such interpretations of the
Big Bang which entail no "beginning." In chapter 7 he talks about alternatives
(which have little support of the overwhelming majority of scientists) to the
commonly accepted theory of the Big Bang. This chapter is largely
uncontroversial, but also only remotely related to Barr's main thesis. In
chapter 8 Barr turns to a more important point - whether the Big Bang, as
viewed by the most commonly accepted theory, does indeed necessarily mean the
"beginning" of the universe and of time. Barr's brief discourse, while
discussing the question of whether or not the Big Bang could be preceded by
some earlier universe(s) whose trace was obliterated by the Big Bang, omits
another aspect of the problem: whether or not the event of the "Big Bang" was
indeed a real "beginning" of the universe and of time (although he mentions
this point elsewhere). There are
interpretations of the Big Bang (as eloquently explained in the immensely
popular book  by Stephen Hawking) where the very existence of a
"singularity" within the temporal boundary of Planck's time is denied. The
verdict on this point is still pending, but this and many other considerations
tell us that Barr's asseveration about the Big Bang's supporting tenets of his
(or any other) religion and working against "materialism" are unsubstantiated
and reflect nothing more than Barr's personal religious preferences instilled
by his Catholic upbringing but not based on any evidence.
The title of this section
reproduces the title of Part 3 in Barr's book. Of course, Barr's answer to this question, as was easily predictable
given the overall thesis of his book, is "Yes!" As Judaic and Christian religions, which are the only two faiths
Barr writes about, maintain that the world is "creation" of a supernatural entity referred in these religions to as "God,"
such a notion naturally segues into the idea of "design." Barr writes (page
65): "Our discussion now shifts to another aspect of our universe, not where it
came from but what it is like." He
continues, "And just as the universe around us may show traces of creation in
the first sense, so it may show traces of creation in the second sense. That
is, just as its existence may point to the God who gave its being, so its
structure may point to the God who designed it".
Frankly, I was surprised by the
above distinction between a "the God who gave it being" and "the God who
designed it." Does it mean that there "may be" two gods, one that gave the
universe its being and another who designed it? If a faith is indeed
monotheistic, as Judaism and Christianity claim to be, obviously the God whose
existence both faith proclaim, "gave it being" and also "designed" the
The real, oddly illogical
separation of "two senses" is, in fact, just the way chosen by Barr to assert
that the natural world displays such features which point to its being
The question of the world's design
has been discussed endless number of times since ancient philosophers offered
essentially all the arguments "for" design (see for example ). One of the most commonly known renditions of the idea of world's
design was offered over 200 years ago by Paley . All modern versions of the "argument from design" have been just
various modifications of Paley's concept, without adding to it anything
essentially novel. Moreover, there are many counter-arguments against the
argument from design. One such counter-argument, which is, in my view, non- refutable,
is an argument against both "senses" Barr writes about. As I mentioned before,
it is the infinite regress argument. As Richard Dawkins  pointed out, among
all the arguments in favor of the religious faith, the argument from design is
the least convincing because of its utter lack of logic. If the features
observed in the natural world are explained by the hypothesis of "design,"
inevitably the following question arises: why is the same argument not applied
to the designer as well?
Has Barr offered any new idea in
favor of "design?" The answer is a resounding "No!"
At the beginning of this review, I
mentioned that I could not point to any factual errors in Barr's narrative.
This statement needs to be qualified. I meant to say that Barr's explanations
of facts of science are correct. It does not mean that Barr's statements are factually
correct in any other sense. For example, one of Barr's notions, offered in
chapter 9, is that the Bible, despite its "non-scientific outlook" (page 65)
"helped to clear the ground and prepare the soil for the much later emergence
of science." This is a factually incorrect statement. It is commonly accepted
that science's roots are in the ancient Greece. The work of Greek scientists (like
Archimedes) had nothing to do with the Bible. The ancient philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists needed no Bible
to see that the natural world was not "populated by capricious beings," as Barr
asserts. Observing the regular replacement of seasons, the sunsets and
sunrises, the phases of the moon, the ancient Greeks had a clear idea of "laws"
seemingly governing the "clock" of the natural world.
Continuing his narrative, Barr
stresses the distinction between two "kinds of design" (page 69): "cosmic design," and "biological
design." In fact, while the particular
arguments for these two types of design refer to two different classes of phenomena,
essentially both boil down to the same logical construction, and therefore both
are vulnerable to the same counter-arguments. The argument from design is little more that an argument "from a
personal incredulity" as well as an "argument from ignorance".
Observing either the clock-like
working of the universe or the complexity of the biological life, proponents of
"argument from design" can't imagine how those observed features of either the
universe or of biological life could exist without a supernatural
"design." Often their argument from
design deteriorates to the "God-of-the gaps" argument (whose weakness is
acknowledged even by many believers in "design" ).
While Barr is entitled to whatever
beliefs he may prefer, he offers no arguments in favor of supernatural design
that have not been suggested many times before. Interestingly, although Barr mentions elsewhere [B] such
active proponents of the design argument as Dembski and Behe (to whom he refers
as "the best writers" among design proponents) in fact in his book he never
explicitly uses any of the pro-design arguments of these prolific design
advocates. Whatever the reasons for such omissions, at least Barr's book is not
poisoned by the pseudo-mathematics of Dembski and preposterous ruminations of
Behe regarding "irreducible
In chapter 10, Barr briefly refers
to the "attack on the argument from design." A reader would in vain look in
this chapter for a real explanation of the arguments against design - Barr
avoids even a simple enumeration of such arguments, not to mention discussion
of their essence. His discourse about natural selections' inability to explain
the "origin of life," while correct, is irrelevant. The Darwinian concept of
natural selection, which is an important part of the evolution theory (albeit
by no means all of its contents) relates only to the emergence of the diversity
of species via descent with modification from common ancestors. Evolution
theory is not about the "origin of life" and does not claim to explain it.
Origin of life is a separate problem which, unlike evolution of biological
forms, has not yet found scientific explanation. Referring to the yet
unexplained origin of life as allegedly pointing to life's supernatural origin
is an example of the discredited "God-of-the gaps" approach. Arguments based on small probabilities of a
spontaneous natural emergence of first "replicators" as precursors to living
organisms usually are based on misinterpretations of probabilities . The
problem of origin of life is pursued by scientist in labs, and substantial
progress is taking place day in and day out, with many plausible hypotheses
offered and tested . If the history of science portends its future course,
there is a good chance science will one day find a convincing explanation of a
natural mechanism for the emergence of life.
Applying the argument of the
minuscule probability of the spontaneous emergence of first "primitive life
form," Barr asserts that even that primitive "living cell" must have been
immensely complex, so its natural emergence was as improbable as monkeys
randomly hitting a typewriter keyboard and "producing an epic poem." (page 74) Barr seems not to
understand that scientists working on the problem of life origin do not consider
the emergence of the first "living cell" as having occurred via a random serendipitous
encounter of its components. Before such a "primitive" cell emerged, it had to
be preceded by the emergence of much less complex "replicators," not yet
qualified as "living" cell, but just milestones on the way to such a "living
cell." The probability of the emergence of such very primitive "replicators"
was not as minuscule as Barr imagines, but in fact in various scenarios
discussed by scientists, it turns out to be reasonably large .
Continuing his argumentation for
"design" Barr writes (page75): "… it is interesting that in order to explain
the origin of life from inanimate matter in a way that does not invoke divine
intervention it may be necessary to postulate an unobservable infinity of
The fallacy of that statement is
striking. To start with, just a few years after Barr's book was first published,
science, in this case astronomy, has once again proved its superiority over any
philosophical constructs. Many planets
have already been discovered, including such where conditions are similar to
those on the earth . There is no need to "postulate an unobservable
infinity of planets." It is sufficient to account for a possibly finite but
obviously immense number of definitely existing planets in the observable universe to fully rebut the
argument from improbability of life's natural emergence.
Furthermore, if we move from
multiple planets to multiple universes, even in the absence of observation of
multiple universes, a hypothesis regarding their existence is much more
parsimonious than a hypothesis regarding the existence of unobserved
supernatural entities. At least one natural universe (ours) obviously exists;
many of its features are known. There is nothing especially non- parsimonious
in assuming that other universes, perhaps differing in certain respects from
our universe, but essentially being also natural worlds, may exist as well while
assuming the existence of unobservable supernatural entities is clearly against
The title of this section
reproduces the title of chapter 11 in Barr's book. There are two notions Barr
discusses in this chapter. One is a distinction between two types of "laws."
According to Barr, there are two
types of "laws" - to one type belong those laws that "cannot help but be
true." As an example of such laws Barr
points to "laws" of arithmetic.
Indeed, a "law" asserting that
"every whole number can be factorized in a unique way into primes," using
Barr's expression, "cannot help but be true." The other type of laws, according
to Barr, is such laws which may happen to be true, but not "must be true."
Barr's example of a law of the second type is what he calls "Law of Chairs."
This odd appellation refers to the chairs set in a regular pattern in a hall.
While the chairs' setup obeys a certain formula determining the position of
each chair, the setup in question is not of a kind which "can't help but be true."
To my mind, the
distinction suggested by Barr makes little sense. It is antecedently obvious
that there is no "Law of Chairs." When we see the chairs in a hall that are set
in a regular pattern, we know that the chairs have been set in the observed
order by humans rather than spontaneously. We know that because we know about
the common features of human behavior, because we have extensive experience
with that behavior, and likewise similar experience with the behavior of
inanimate objects like chairs.
On the other hand,
we have no such experience with biological structures or with cosmic entities,
and, moreover, all experience tells us that no human intelligence was involved
in the emergence of patterns in either biological structures or on a cosmic
scale. The human intelligence is the only type of intelligence we are familiar
with. Therefore it is easy to explain the pattern in chairs position by
attributing it to human intelligence, but there is no basis except for
unsubstantiated surmises for attributing the biological or cosmic pattern to
some unobservable supernatural intelligence.
The other notion offered by Barr
in this chapter can be succinctly expressed by the title of one of the sections
in that chapter, "In Science, Order Comes from Order." This notion is plainly
false. Science knows of multiple examples of order spontaneously coming from
disorder. Has professor of physics Barr never heard about self-organization in
natural systems? Has he not heard about, say, Belousov-Zhabotinski reaction, or
about Benard cells? Has he never heard of the work conducted, say, at the Santa
Fe Institute? Has he never heard about, say, publications by Stuart Kauffman,
or Niall Shanks and Karl Joplin, or by many other authors discussing
self-organization and natural emergence of order?
I leave the discussion of Barr's
fallacious position regarding order vs. disorder to those readers who are
prepared to waste time on disproving a plainly false asseverations, coming,
strangely, from otherwise well- educated and obviously smart physicist.
Having encountered Barr's
fallacious asseveration about order vs. disorder, I instantly lost a
substantial part of my interest in further discussion of his book. I suspect
that rave reviews of that book found both in print and online, are stemming not
as much from the real merits of that book, as from sympathies of the reviewers
to the overall thesis evinced by Barr - his assertion that facts of science
support religious outlook and negate "materialism".
In view of the above, I'll not
continue reviewing Barr's book chapter by chapter, but shall instead briefly
comment on selected points in the rest of his book.
First I'd like to say that there
are in Barr's book many parts I have no problem with. For example, chapter 12,
titled "Symmetry and Beauty in the Laws of Nature" is, in my view, interesting,
well written and informative. I can't point to any factual statements in that
chapter as being wrong or misinterpreted. On the contrary, a reader will find
in this chapter a fine discourse regarding various features of symmetry usually
not found in textbooks on physics. Were this chapter a stand-alone article, I'd
gladly acclaim it as a fine achievement.
Likewise, I have few problems with
the main contents of chapter 22, titled "Is the Human Mind Just a Computer?"
(although it is in my view still short of really elucidating the problem in a
fully unbiased manner, and contains a number of dubious statements not
following from the factual material presented in that chapter).
Unfortunately, the good parts of
Barr's book are more like exceptions than a rule. Even in the above mentioned
"good" chapters, a question inevitably arising after having read them is "So
For example, chapter 23,
containing a reasonable discourse regarding the interpretation of the human
mind as a computer (and criticizing such an interpretation) ends with a section
titled "Is the Materialist View of the Mind Scientific?" The predictable answer by Barr to such
question is "No!" Unfortunately, Barr's
answer does not follow from the preceding discourse, which does not offer a
reasonable solution to the dilemma but only reviews arguments related to it.
Barr's "No!" is nothing more than expression of his personal beliefs of a
religious person, who fervently resists acceptance of "materialism" and is
strongly biased against any arguments contradicting his heartfelt faith. There
is nothing scientific in Barr's conclusion from the preceding discourse. His
conclusion that the materialist view is unscientific is itself unscientific and
Without having laid the foundation
for his conclusion, Barr asserts that the human mind results from a special
creative action of some unobservable entity referred to as God, but proclamations
of faith are hardly persuasive for skeptics.
Barr is entitled to his beliefs,
but in my view his assertions of the fallaciousness of "materialism" have nary
a chance to change the mind of a single skeptic.
Perhaps this is a proper point to
end my review, as detailed discussions of other chapters in Barr's book would
not add anything of essence to what I have already said.
[A] Regarding Barr's scientific
credentials, I found a number of references to his being a researcher in
various fields of modern physics. On the website of the University of Delaware there are
indications that he contributed to various areas of modern physics -
string theory, the nature of quarks and leptons, etc. However, I could not
locate any specific references to his publications and therefore can't
really form an opinion of him as a scientist. Incidentally, writing a book of this size should have taken
many months of a stressful and time consuming activity. Since Barr is in
his fifties, hence not yet retired, it could have been be done only at the
expense of other work, like scientific research. Anyway, I concede that he knows his stuff and is qualified
to discuss it, albeit his religious predisposition clearly impairs his
objectivity as soon as he derives conclusions from facts of science.
[B] In a
post at http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=238
Barr writes: "To their
credit, many of the best writers in the Intelligent Design movement, including
William Dembski and Michael Behe, also insist the issue is one to be settled
scientifically". (The issue is whether random chance plus natural selection can
account for diversity of the biosphere). In fact, both Dembski's and Behe's arguments, while claimed by them to
be purely scientific, by and large are scientifically vacuous. Professor of mathematics Jeffrey Shallit
(who used to teach a class in which Dembski was a student) referred to
Dembski's contribution to the Intelligent Design as "pseudo-mathematics" . Dembski's
work has been thoroughly critisized by many authors . Likewise, Behe's "contribution"
to intelligent design, the notorious "irreducible complexity" has been
overwhelmingly rejected by the mainstream scientific community . Barr's positive reference to the two prolific
proponents of Intelligent Design, who are commonly viewed by mainstream
scientists as cranks, casts additional shadow upon Barr's position.
1. Jeffrey, Grant. 1966. The
Signature of God. Frontiers Research Publishers, Toronto CA.
2. (a) Aviezer, Nathan. 1990, In
the Beginning, Biblical Creation and Science,
KTAV Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ.
(b) Schroeder, Gerald L. 1992. Genesis
and the Big Bang, The discovery of the harmony between modern science and the
Bible. Bantam Books, NY.
3. Miller, Kenneth. 1999. Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search
For Common Ground Between God and Evolution. Cliff Street Books, NY.
4. Rossow, Amiel. 2002. "Yin and Yang of Kenneth Miller: How
Professor Miller Finds Darwin's God." In Talk
Reason at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Yin.cfm. Accessed May 24, 2007.
5. Barr, Stephen M. 2003. Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN.
6. Ross, Hugh. (a) 1989. The
Fingerprint of God. Promise Publishing Co., Orange, CA.
(b) 2004. Creation and
Time. NAV Press, Colorado Springs, CO.
7. Paley, William and James Paxton. 1854. Natural
Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected
from the Appearance of Nature. Boston: Gould and Lincoln. (Originally dated
1802. Quoted from the reprint issued by Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish, MT).
8. Stenger Victor J. 2006. The Comprehensible Cosmos:
Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From.
Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY.
9. The Babylonian
Talmud, "Genesis Rabba," 3:7.
10. Cicero. De Natura Deorum. 1982, Translated and
edited by H. Rackham. Loeb Classical Library 268. Harvard University Press,
11. Rossow, Amiel. 2002. "Betsel HaTorah: In the Shadow of
the Torah." In Talk Reason at http://talkreason.org/articles/Betsel.cfm,
accessed on May 24, 2007.
12. Perakh, Mark. 2003. "Science
in the Eyes of a Scientist." Chapter 12 in Unintelligent
Design, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY. Also available online (dated 2003
), accessed on May 24, 2007): http://www.talkreason.org/articles/good_bad_science.cfm
13. Stenger, Victor J. (a) 1995. The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in
Modern Physics and Cosmology.
(b). 2007. God: the Failed
Hypothesis. How Science Shows That
God Does Not Exist. Prometheus
Books, Amherst, NY.
14. Perakh, Mark. 2004. "The
Anthropic Principles - Reasonable and Unreasonable." Skeptical Inquirer. Vol.27, issue 4,. Sept-Oct.. Also available
online at http://talkreason.org/articles/anthropic.cfm.
Dated 2001. Accessed on May
15. Ikeda, Michael, and Jefferys,
Bill. "Anthropic Principle Does Not Support Supernaturalism." In Talk Reason, at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/super.cfm. Accessed on May 24,2007.
16. Hawking, Stephen. 1996 . A Brief History of Time. Bantam
17. Dawkins, Richard. 2006. "Intelligent Aliens." In John
Brockman, ed. Intelligent Thought:
Science versus Intelligent Design Movement. Vintage Books, NY.
18. Plantinga, Alvin. 2001.
"Methodological Naturalism?" In R. Pennock, ed., Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics. MIT Press,
Cambridge, MA, pp. 349-350.
19. Perakh, Mark. 2003."Improbable
Probabilities." Chapter 13 in Unintelligent
Design. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY. An updated version is available
online (dated 2006 ), accessed on May 24, 2007) at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/probabilities.cfm).
20. (a) Robinson, Richard. 2005.Jump-Starting a
Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks.
Available online at http://biology.plosjournals.org/archive/1545-7885/3/11/pdf/10.1371_journal.pbio.0030396-S.pdf.
(b) Brauer, Matt. 2005. Abiogenesis: How Plausible Are the Current
Models. Available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/models.cfm.
21. Reuland, Steve. 2007. Potentially
Habitable Planet Found. In The
Panda's Thumb blog, at http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2007/04/potentially_hab.html.
22. Shallit, Jeffrey O. 2005. Expert Report Under Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 26. Available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/?http://www2.ncseweb.org/kvd/experts/shallit.pdf.
23. Critical comments on Dembski's prolific output are
numerous. Here are a few examples.
(a) Shallit, Jeffrey, and Wesley Elsberry. 2004. "Playing
Games with Probability: Dembski's Complex Specified Information." Chapter 9 in Why Intelligent Design Fails: a Scientific
Critique of the New Creationism, ed. By Matt Young and Taner Edis, Rutgers Univ. Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
(b) Perakh, Mark. 2004. "There Is a Free Lunch After All:
Dembski's Wrong Answers to Irrelevant Questions." Chapter 11 in Why Intelligent Design Fails. Also
available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Chap11.pdf. Accessed on May 24, 2007.
(c) Perakh, Mark. 2003. "A Consistent Inconsistency."
Chapter 1 in Unintelligent Design.
Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY. Also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/dembski.cfm. Dated 2001, accessed on May 24,
(d) Perakh, Mark, 2005. "The Dream World of William
Dembski's Creationism." Skeptic, vol.
11, No 4. Also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Skeptic_paper.cfm. Dated 2005, accessed on May 24, 2007.
(e) Wolpert, David. 2002, "William Dembski's Treatment of
the No Free Lunch Theorems Is Written in Jello." In Talk Reason, http://www.talkreason.org/articles/jello.cfm. Accessed on May 24, 2007.
(f) Wein, Richard, 2002, "Not a
Free Lunch but a Box of Chocolate," at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/choc_nfl.cfm. Accessed on May 24, 2007.
(g) (Tellgren), Erik, 2002. "On
Dembski's Law of Conservation of Information." http://www.talkreason.org/articles/dembski_LCI.pdf. Accessed on May 24, 2007.
(h) Olofsson, Peter. 2006. "Intelligent Design and Statistics: a
Troubled Alliance." http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Pandasthumb.pdf. Accessed on May 24, 2007.
These are just examples, as many
more publications are highly critical of Dembski's output. In particular, many
of such critical essays are found on the Talk
Reason website (http://www.talkreason.org/)
in sections "Critique of Intelligent Design" and "The Art of ID Stuntmen" as
well as on The Panda's Thumb blog (http://www.pandasthumb.org).
24. There is extensive literature wherein mainstream scientists
reveal the fallaciousness of Michael Behe's position. Here are a few examples:
(a) Kenneth Miller – see ref.3.
(b) Perakh, Mark . "Irreducible
Contradiction." Chapter 2 in Unintelligent
Design, see ref.11. Also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Behe2.cfm.
Dated 1999. Accessed on May 24, 2007.
(c) Ussery, David W. 1999. "A
Biochemist's Response to 'The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.'" Bios, 70. 40-45.
(d) Orr, H Allen. 1996-97. "Darwin
Against Intelligent Design (Again). Boston
Review, 21, No.6, Dec-Jan, 28-31.
(e) Perakh, Mark. 2000. "Razumnyj
Zamisel Ili Slepaya Sluchajnost?" Kontinent,
107, 338-362; in Russian; there is also
a Polish translation.
(f) Perakh, Mark. 2005. "Does Irreducible
Complexity Imply Intelligent Design?." Skeptical
Inquirer, vol. 20, issue 6. Also
available online at www.talkreason.org/articles/Suboptimal.cfm. Accessed on May 24, 2007.
There are many more publications
critically dismantling Behe's position, including numerous posts at the Talk Reason website ( http://www.talkreason.org/ ) and on The Pandas's Thumb blog (http://www.pandasthumb.org).