Philosophy and Modern Physics - Request for Comment

What is your take on the philosophical, or theological, tone in some recent popular treatments of modern physics?

Mark Vernon is a journalist and author of After Atheism and other books.

Mark is looking for feedback from readers of popular books on modern physics or cosmology which touch on the philosophical issues, including theological implications, of some aspects of modern physics.

To whit:

"Mark Vernon would love to hear from any fans of popular science books written by physicists. Particularly the books of those who draw philosophical, even theological, implications in their writing.

  • Do you agree with Steven Weinberg? 'The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.' The First Three Minutes
  • Or do you side more with Freeman Dyson? 'You ask: what is the meaning or purpose of life? I can only answer with another question: do you think we are wise enough to read God's mind?' Book inscription
  • Dyson seems close to Paul Davies who has argued in books like The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? that the fine-tuning of the universe requires an answer because it appears to give rise to a universe that can understand itself.
  • Roger Penrose has a Platonic take on this: 'There is a very remarkable depth, subtlety and mathematical fruitfulness in the concepts that lie latent within physical processes.' Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness
  • Different again are the views of Martin Rees: '(A posthuman future) is a substitute for religious belief, and I hope it's true.' What We Believe but Cannot Prove
  • Or physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne: 'The insights of science and the insights of religion are both essential to that task, for the more we learn about the structure and history of the natural world, the more we need to ask the question of whether there is a meaning and purpose behind that fascinating story.' The Way the World Is: The Christian Perspective of a Scientist
  • Or again, many readers turn to cosmologist Brian Swimme: 'All fifteen billion years form an epic that must be viewed as a whole to understand its full meaning. This meaning is the extravagance of the creative outpouring, where each being is given its unique existence.' The Universe Story

What is striking is that the 'new physics' is characterised by substantial and intriguing uncertainties: the interpretation of phenomena such quantum entanglement; the reality or not of the multiverse; the possible role of consciousness. It is very hard to know what to make of these mysteries and they attract much speculation.

These writers, and others, try to make sense of the meaning of this science, if they believe it has one. It is no doubt why many readers turn to them. Discernment is key.



More like this

It's just 'speculation of the wise', i.e., metaphysics, i.e., philosophy. Entertaining and thought provoking, but not physics, imho.

I haven't read any of the books in question, but I know that Douglas Adams has also covered this ground. A couple of relevant quotes:

There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.


In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Jun 2008 #permalink

It's philosophy, of course...just like a lot of the "evolution" discussions are discusses the "how it works", philosophy discusses "why does it work" and theology discusses "who made it work".

I'd recommend inclusion of ideas from one or two books by Dr. William Pollard. He was both a well-renowned scientist at Oak Ridge National Lab and a member of the local Episcopalian clergy.
Aside from that, I agree with Weinberg. Determinism, both in science and in philosophy, is a scary and (thankfully) unrealistic concept.

Emphasizing theology and religion has consequences. Candidate John McCain refuses to answer questions like "Do condoms reduce the risk of STDs?" because of the importance people feel religion has.

So my feelings on encouraging such recreational discussions of theology are quite negative. Giving religion a boost by sitting it next to science has consequences.

By No One Of Cons… (not verified) on 19 Jun 2008 #permalink

Believe in free will. If free will is real, then you will not err. If belief in free will is false, then you will not err, because you didn't have a choice.
Don Moyer

Raymond J. Seeger, "Newton, Biblical Creationist" in The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 35 (December 1983): pages 242-243 (;
viewed 26 September 2005):
Isaac Newton... was devoutly religious in his search for God, puritanical in his morality, abstemious, scrupulous, austere, loveless and joyless.

Newton was wholeheartedly committed to the commandments of the Bible (O.T. and N.T.)-in an absolute sense. Unfortunately, he envisaged God more as a just ruler than a Father of grace, love, and mercy. He lacked emotion, although he did record 58 sins about Whitsunday when he was 19. He minimized ritual, as well as dogma. (He did not seek the last rites of the Church.) He noted that there were many rites among the early Christians, but only one faith.

Although the Royal Society had many divines as members, in the spirit of Francis Bacon, it barred any public discussion of politics and of religion-presumably for the sake of unity. Privately, however, Newton recognized that we all live in one world, our Father's world.

He regarded religion and science as interrelated; science, indeed, the handmaiden of religion, its Te Deum-hence no fundamental conflict. In both he insisted upon a common mental approach, a foundation of facts, historical and natural. He corrected the death date (34) of Christ,
and that of the Argonaut's search (956) and hence of Troy's fall, 904 (both about 3 centuries late by modern standards). His application of astronomical dating (eclipses, equinoctial precession, et at.) was revolutionary. He was, however, very much opposed to metaphysicians such as Descartes and Leibnitz, both in science and in theology. He looked upon history and nature as similar in that they both have latent secrets, both being actually simple and measurable.

Newton's whole life was dominated by religion, his search for the Creator of heaven and earth.