- Hardcover: 328 pages
- Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press (31 Mar 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0268034710
- ISBN-13: 978-0268034719
- Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 16.5 x 3.3 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,034,041 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The first chapter is introductory. The author, Stephen M. Barr, describes himself as "someone who adheres to traditional religion and who has worked in some of the subfields of modern physics that are relevant to the materialism/religion debate." Barr sees clearly that "the conflict is not between religion and science, it is between religion and materialism....a philosophical opinion that is closely connected with science. But it is not science." His purpose is to show how "new discoveries made in the last century in various fields have changed our picture of the world in fundamental ways. As a result, the balance has shifted in the debate between scientific materialism and religion.... [20th century] discoveries coming from the study of the material world itself, have given fresh reasons to disbelieve that matter is the only ultimate reality." Barr is honest about the stakes involved: "None of this is a matter of proofs.... What the debate is about, as I shall explain later, is not proof but credibility." And indeed, such simple honesty is characteristic.
In the second chapter Barr begins by restating, then demolishing, the anti-religious mythology. His paraphrase of the anti-religious mythos sounds like it was cold-pressed straight from the pronouncements of Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and other spokesmen of materialism. This chapter alone is worth half the price of the hardcover. He makes his points so clearly that it is a wonder we could all be duped by "scientific" materialism for so long. I particularly admired the tactic that he gainfully employed throughout the book: demolishing the straw-men that the materialists have raised against believers, e.g. that the Bible is unscientific. "In fact", he observes, "the Bible shows almost no interest in natural phenomena.... [The] primary concern is with God's relationship to human beings, and with human beings' relationship to each other."
Barr beautifully explains the concepts of religious mystery and dogma: "Dogmas do not shut off thought, like a wall. Rather they open the mind to vistas that are too deep and broad for our vision. A mystery is what cannot be seen, not because there is a barrier across our field of vision, but because the horizon is so far away." Masterfully he turns the tables on the materialists by observing, "Anything that stands in the way of materialism is ignored or denied [by the materialists]. The materialist lives in a very small world, intellectually speaking." Appendix A on the types of causes brings wonderful clarity to concepts that are often difficult for non-philosophers (including most scientists). It was very satisfying to see such common-sense explanations of the real positions of traditional believers, instead of the limp impostors put forward by the faithless and the lukewarm.
In chapter 3, Barr outlines the five "plot twists" that form the subject of the book:
1. Part II: "In the Beginning": The Big Bang as "a vindication of the religious view of the universe and a blow to the materialist view."
2. Part III: "Is the Universe Designed?": on the evidence that the universe was designed by an intelligence.
3. Part IV: "Man's Place in the Cosmos": on anthropic "coincidences" that make human life possible in the universe.
4. Part V: "What is Man?": is the human mind reducible to material laws?
5. Part V: "What is Man?": is there free will?
Twist 1 (Part II), that the Big Bang points to creation is of course an argument pregnant to be made. What recommends Barr's treatment is its completeness (Bible, authorities of faith, and scientific development) and the clarity of his writing.
Part III, on design, is on the whole wonderfully made. He describes the different kinds of order and how order seems to appear spontaneously but is in reality "the unfolding of an order that was already implicit in the nature of things, although often in a secret or hidden way." His examples are well chosen and brilliantly explained. However, Barr's definition of "symmetric structure" and its relationship to order seemed to my mind vague, and a field ripe for future investigation.
Part IV, on anthropic coincidences, was very authoritative and very thorough. He not only describes many of them, but also replies to the common objections to the coincidences, and answers alternative explanations of the coincidences.
Part V, on the mind, is near-perfect genius. The argumentation is simply brilliant. On the brain/mind distinction, he writes, "the existence of our own brains is an inference [a complicated series of arguments about sense data].... We experience [our minds] directly in the process of using them. We do not infer the existence *of* our minds, rather we infer he existence of everything else *with* our minds." Barr's explanation of the Lucas-Penrose argument, the technicalities of Goedel's theorem, and their implications was relatively straight-forward. I did think that Barr was a bit out on a limb in his adoption of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics to explain the immateriality of the mind. Such a tactic sadly succumbs to the Cartesian dualism that has plagued science from the beginning. Nevertheless, the widespread acceptance of Copenhagen among physicists is enough to justify Barr's use of it to support traditional belief.
Before I go, let me reiterate how much I liked the book. Even with the minor shortcomings I mentioned, I think it is *well* worth the imposing hardback price-and for a cheap-skate like me, that's saying quite a lot! It is well written, systematic, and authoritative: three rare qualities for a book that advocates anything in the neighborhood of traditional faith with regard to science-and Barr isn't just in the neighborhood, but right on the bull's eye. The book will be a powerful tool in the answering the many baffling ideologies and mind-numbing prejudices that dominate what passes for intellectual discourse these days.
Second, the author is an atomic physicist who has thought deeply about these issues and for our benefit has organized and explained these ideas in a very sympathetic yet comprehensive way that deserves the widest possible audience. The writing is clear, interesting and of the highest possible caliber. I only wish more scientists wrote this well, not just their works for the laymen but for professional consumption as well, it would make the role of a student far more pleasurable.
So what is the book about? What are the big issues that this author wants us to remember and to use in our intellectual life?
First is the issue of materialism as a faith. This is chapter 1 and continues to be an explicit organizing principle throughout the book.
"The fact of the matter is that there is a bitter intellectual battle going on, and it is about real issues. However, the conflict is not betwen religion and science, it is between religion and materialism. Materialism is a philosophical opinion that is closely connected with science. It grew up alongside of science, and many people have a hard time distingusihing it from science. But it is not science. It is merely a philosophical opinion. And not all scientists share it by any means. In fact, there seem to be more scientists who are religious than who are materialists." pg 1
This is what i term the "like speaks to like issue". Materialism is the idea that all is matter in motion, sufficent to explain all phenomena in the universe. As he aptly points out this is philosophic opinion, or metaphysics. Christianity competes with a rival faith materialism not with science as technic of reading the book of nature.
The second big idea is the human mind. This is the issue that materialism is unable to explain the fact that we are conscious of ourselves as free, thinking, acting beings in a material world where consciousness appears to be limited to ourselves. These are the related topics of part 4, chapters 19-25. I word the issue a little bit differently than does he, i use the term methodological naturalism to explain how science investigates the things of this universe, and further believe that the MN breaks as it encounters the human consciousness. This is what stops MN from being philosophic materialism. It is not a sufficent principle to explain everything we experience. The introduction to chpt 19 contains one of the most concise explanations of the problem of the consciousness of man that i can remember reading. If you only have time to skim this book, read chpt 1 and 19.
It is truely an important and timely work, i deeply thank the author for the time, energy, sweat and tears that so evidently went into the writing of this excellent 5 star book. The clarity of thought, the organization and structure do justice to the loftiness and sophistication of the ideas he presents.
thanks for reading this review and if you encounter other books in the field of this importance i would be grateful for a quick email so that i can obtain and read them....books like this are gems to be treasured and shared with like minded readers.