Stephen M. BARR. The Believing Scientist: Essays on Science and Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016. Pp. 226. $25. ISBN 978-0-8028-7370-5. Reviewed by Michael Horace BARNES, University of Dayton, Dayton, OH 45469.
A collection of articles and presentations from the last 20 years could have been hit and miss, but generally speaking this book is a useful set of commentaries on topics in the interface between religion and science. Barr is listed as a University of Delaware “professor of theoretical particle physics,” but he writes lucidly in generally plain English. In fact, he brings to his task fairly sophisticated theological notions and tools. His analysis is often familiar to theologians, yet new in its style and angle.
This shows especially in his treatment of God and time, especially in Ch. 16. He nicely reprises Augustine’s analysis in the Confessions about God’s timelessness. In book XI Augustine addressed the skeptical question of what God was doing before he created the universe with the observation that time itself was created with the universe, as it has a process of change. God, utterly changeless, is outside of time, albeit fully present to time as that which God sustains in existence. Barr applies this idea of God and time to questions, such as whether the Big Bang was the absolute start of the universe or was simply a major event in the ongoing existence of the quantum vacuum (or some of other pre-existing reality). If the latter is true, then perhaps some noted skeptics have argued—Stephen Hawking for one, not too long ago – there is no need for a Creator. Barr’s point is an old one, but one not understood by modern skeptics, that even if there has been an everlasting reality like that quantum vacuum, one can still ask why that exists and continues to exist at all. A Creator outside of time can explain why there is time, even everlasting time.
The initial essay, “Retelling the Story of Science,” raises themes that will be repeated. He challenges mechanistic materialism, which Barr finds in several sources. It is human consciousness and freedom in particular that Barr argues constitute evidence against a fully deterministic view of the world, a claim he returns to more than once in the seven chapters that make up the section entitled “Mind and Soul.” The rather impressive powers of reflection exhibited by those who argue for materialism are powers that require more than blind and mechanical matter. Barr is rightly impressed, in this reviewer’s mind, with human intellectual activities, but perhaps a biologist would be more alert than a physicist to marvelous things that mere matter seems to do as it produces more and more complex biological forms out of mere matter, first life, then sentience, and at least simian consciousness. He needs a bit more of an argument to show that human consciousness might not have emerged in its turn from biological evolution.
A second theme that recurs is the question of purpose in the universe. From Darwin to the new atheists, many have insisted that reality is fully random and without purpose. Barr offers a rather ingenious description, relying again on the notion of God’s eternity, outside of all time, that what is random in human observation might nonetheless have been seen by God from our beginning to be part of a purposeful outcome. At times Barr might be echoing something like Augustine’s notion of rationes seminales” (germinating patterns?) borrowed from the Stoics, that God (or the Logos) had constructed the universe and its entire history to produce in the long run exactly what God wanted, even though some of the events looks random, or even miraculous.
Evolution, Intelligent Design, the human genome, science as a kind of religiousness – these also are taken up by Barr. He has interesting and informative perspectives on all of them, and other topics. This is pleasant reading for anyone interested in a Catholic physicist’s response to modern challenges.