Live Blog: Theoretical Physicist Ard Louis on “Science and Faith”

Swarthmore Christian Fellowship (SCF) invited Ard Louis, a Reader in Theoretical Physis at the University of Oxford, to speak on the compatibility of faith and science.  His interdisciplinary work in the evolution of molecular structure bridges the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology.  In addition to being a Royal Society University Research Fellow, Louis is also the International Secretary for Christians in Science and an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science.

At tonight’s event, Professor Catherine Crouch will present questions to Dr. Louis that have been collected from the Swarthmore community. Like Louis, Crouch has experience speaking on the issues of science and faith. She has personal investment as a Christian and is connected Veritas Forum, an organization that hosts discussions of theological and philosophical questions.

Earlier in the week, students, faculty and community members anonymously submitted their questions and reflections on index cards. As of Thursday afternoon, Crouch says they received 14 specific questions.  She says that there’s a definite need for and interest in “real dialogue” on the intersection of science and faith, citing as example, a moment in teaching Physics 5 last semester when a discussion of philosophical issues in quantum mechanics piqued student interest. Reflecting on this atmosphere, Crouch says that “curiosity about these questions is growing.”
The event is co-sponsored by the Veritas Forum.

Note: The logs in this post have been reversed after the lecture

7:05 Kathryn Wu from SCF introduces Ard Louis and Catherine Crouch.

7:08 Crouch begins to present the questions of the Swarthmore Campus. She asks Louis why he became a physicist.

7:10 Louis describes his background. His parents were biologists. He describes, rather tongue in cheek, telling his parents, “I don’t want to be a biologist.” He gets a laugh as he says his work now centers on physics as applied to biology.

7:14 Louis grew up in Gabon, and shows an image of himself with a chimpanzee. He uses the example of the chimpanzee to launch into his work with genes, comparing similarities between human and chimpanzees in the genome.

7:16 Louis speaks on why he became interested in flagella motors in bacteria, “little machines” that could construct themselves.  He describes this interest as wondering “How do these proteins know where to go?”

7:17   He describes the structure of a virus as like a football, rather, a soccer ball as he notes, it is called in America. Here, he says, “nature got there first.” This gets a laugh. He playfully describes self-assembling molecules like Lego Blocks that, if you were to shake them up, formed a Lego train. “Science is really fun,” Louis says.

7:19 Modern physics, for Louis, is beautiful. He describes the concept of ”antimatter” as uniting special relativity, the very fast, with quantum mechanics, the very small. When he learned this, he thought, “This is too amazing too be true.”

7:22 Louis says he wanted to take some of this beauty to how he approached biology.

7:25 “Where do the elements come from?”  Louis describes fusion of simple elements like hydgrogen in stars as a domino effect that leads to the creation of all the elements – “You and I are all made of stardust.” How elements fuse was a huge question in science, and Louis describes his fondness for physicist Fred Hoyle. Holye was the first to determine that the temperature at which hydrogen fused occurred within an incredibly narrow range. Any temperature outside of this, and we wouldn’t have the universe as we know it. Discovering this delicate balance shook Hoyle’s sense of atheism, in that, in his eyes, it required a “superintellect” behind it.

7:28 The first question: Were you first a scientist or a Christian? Louis: ”I became a Christian when I was 15, around the time I told my parents I wasn’t going to be a biologist.”

7:30 “Are science and faith incompatible?” Louis says that there exists a “conflict myth,” that science and faith must be in conflict. He says “it’s complicated.” He doesn’t think that one is about feelings and the other about facts, but rather, that both are part of one larger framework.

7:32 Crouch describes how community members responses presented a common definition of faith as a belief in something “without evidence.”

7:33 In response to this definition of faith, Louis says that science has limits. He uses the example of rationality versus irrationality. He uses the example of marriage – “Marriage. Something did a while ago, I a highly suggest you do” gets a laugh.  He says that in marriage, there are things that can’t be done rationally through the scientific process.

7:36 Like marriage, there are some things in life that require a leap of faith, Louis argues.

7:37 Question 3: “What do you say to science and miracles?” Science, historically, Louis says, was influenced by faith. Principles taken for granted are metaphysical assumptions. He says that regularity and uniformity were indications of a higher being.  Louis engages in biblical exegesis and looks at the meaning of “miracle.” He says that miracles are not “testable” and are “outside the realm of repeatable science.”

7:42 Questions are raised about the origin of the universe: “Does the Big Bang Theory conflict with the Bible?” “Do you belief that the universe was created by intelligent design?” For Louis, the question of the origin, he says, is whether the universe existed forever, appeared out of nothing, or was there a Creator. All three options, he says, are “strange.” Louis says, we need to think more about the way we think about these questions, not just the questions.

7:46 Crouch presents Louis with a handful of origin-realted questions: “How do you justify your faith as legitimate when faced with contradictions? Do Creationism and Science oppose each other? How old is the Earth, from both a scientific and theological standpoint?”

7:47 Louis says that faith and science can be compatible, depending on your approach. He addresses the literalist reading of religious texts. He looks at the 6-day creation presented in Genesis, saying that when you realize that the sun and the moon are created on the 4th day. Louis asks, “How could you have a day without the sun and moon?” In Louis’ reading of Genesis, he says that a literalist reading is a misreading of it as a scientific text. He says contradictions should make one think, “Is science wrong, is the bible wrong? Neither is wrong. My reading of the text (…) is wrong.”

7:52 Louis acknowledges science has its limits.  The origin of value and purpose in life, morality, human worth all cannot be determined by science. Human value, he says, “is not something that is linked to our biology.” Return the example of Legos,  Louis says he thinks evolution can fit into a framework of purpose. “I think it’s more impressive if God created a system that created itself than if he created it fully formed.”

7:56 Crouch presents the final question: What is one of the hardest things about faith? How has Louis struggled with faith?  Louis says that an “evidentialist approach” is not the right way to think of God, because God exists outside the system. Louis says that we need to be critical of how science explains the world, and that this depends on how we weigh the evidence. “You have to look at how it makes sense of the who world and see whether that tapestry is wrong (…) Starting from the point of view that there is a good, that things like beauty, fine tuning makes sense.”  After this exposition, Louis says that the existence of evil is one of the largest problems facing Christianity, one that “tugs at the strings” of this tapestry. Louis says the “problem of evil is the big question, one that I don’t have an answer for.”

8:03 Crouch opens up the floor to questions from the audience.

8:04 A student asks, “The universe is out to get us – imploding galaxies, tornadoes, the fact that 90% of species are extinct. From a scientific standpoint this makes sense, but in terms of a higher being, I wonder how this makes sense?” Louis responds to this problem of “natural evil” by saying he doesn’t know. “If you take anybody that you truly admire. If you were to take away every bit of suffering, often times there’s not much left to admire of them (…) The Bible, although it talks a lot about evil, never gives a clear origin for evil.” He says that the Christian answer is that there is more to the world that remains unexplained. He does admit that this is an unsatisfactory response.

8:09 Another student asks for Louis’ argument for the Christian God- ”Why is the God the God of Abraham?” From the assumption that there is a God, Louis argues, he says we should look at Bible with a critical eye–”Does this make sense of the world?” – but he says that this is a topic for another talk.

8:12 “Does science give evidence for other faiths?” Louis responds saying this depends on personal adjudication. “Empirically,” he says, “we do have a sense of the divine.”

8:14 Another student questions the notion of absolute certainty, and says that something “not being surprising” is not a sufficient scientific approach.  100% certainty, Louis agrees himself, isn’t possible. He describes the assumption of the existence of God as setting off a chain of further assumptions, and that this starting point – whether or not you believe in a God–determines your ontological tapestry.

8:18 “How do you parse out the psychological comforts of having faith in a creator, the placebo effect of having a God versus conviction?” In framing the question, the student notes that Louis himself became a Christian because of the positive effect he saw it had on his friends in Gabon. The process is the opposite, Louis argues. Positive psychological comforts are derived from the presence of God. Louis is careful to problematize the assumption that God is only present in moments of miracles.

8:23 Referring to the observer effect in quantum mechanics, a student asks Louis, “How much of our thought affect physics experiments?” Louis believes that thoughts do not affect quantum events, but that the quantum world does have something “deeply mysterious” beneath it.

8:24 “Why would the mere appearance of ‘fine tuning’ imply the notion of God?” a student asks, and “How is Christianity used to justify unjust actions?” The second question Louis answers say Christianity has done an equal amount of good. Regarding the “fine-tuning” argument, Louis says that the brute facts stack up in favor of science, that it is merely one way of explaining the presence of a God. Ultimately, he argues, this evidence is “unbalanced” in favor of a divine presence.

 

8:29 The lecture concludes, and students are invited to ask their questions of Louis in the reception following.

 

2 comments

  1. Holly L Wilson

    It seems like his faith and his science is compatible only because he is not a literalist about scriptural interpretation. I do agree with him though that we have a great notion of God in one who creates the whole system that creates itself rather than one who creates each individual thing.

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  2. Jason Weyner

    Sierra-

    I agree w/ Holly’s comments above. It all depends upon the physicist’s individual beliefs to come up with his thoughts on how the world functions.

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