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How can a physicist be a christian at the same time?

  1. Aug 20, 2012 #1
    Unsure if this is the right section to post this in, but anyway...

    There is a professor in my university's physics department that I have great respect for, as he is an obviously intelligent, likeable man and an accomplished physicist. However, I recently found out that he is also a catholic, and this just puzzles me.

    Before anyone says anything about "God", I just want to say that we can leave "God" out of this - I don't know how the universe came to exist and I suspect no person alive or dead has ever had the slightest idea. If it turned out to be true that there was some sort of supernatural entity responsible for this crazy reality, then I wouldn't be particularly surprised - but it's pure speculation. However, you can definitely separate "God" from religion. Religions contain lies, blatantly incorrect statements that we should know better than to take seriously in 2012.

    How can it be possible for a proper physicist, a rational, thinking man to be a catholic?

    Are there any physicists reading this that follow a religion, and if so... why? Is it just something that gets ingrained in childhood and becomes too painful to give up? Or do you people know something that I don't?
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2012
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  3. Aug 20, 2012 #2


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    Every subject known to man is plagued with lies, blatantly incorrect statements that we should know better than to take seriously in 2012: crackpottery is a universal phenomenon.

    The perceived conflict between science and religion is mostly imaginary, and what remains is insignificant. I expect the perception stems mainly from two sources:

    • Charlatans taking advantage of the prevailing attitude towards religion to slip things past people
    • Epistemological biases.

    Some of people make rather severe claims about their preferred epistemological philosophy. For example, rationalism is the philosophy that reason is a source of knowledge. But some people push a very extreme form of rationalism, that reason is the One True Path to knowledge. Empiricists do this too. I find it to be particularly ironic, because they usually view science -- a method that relies heavily on abstract reasoning and concrete experiment working in concert -- as the pinnacle of their extreme views.

    Some religious people do this too, of course; I'm not trying to imply otherwise.

    But really, one should draw knowledge from a variety of sources. Experience, reason, and religion (and other methods as appropriate) should all be used in concert to gain knowledge. While I doubt this will convince you to convert, I hope it at least dissuades you from the cartoon that all knowledge stems from pure reason.
  4. Aug 20, 2012 #3
    Would you be OK if the professor was a Protestant?
  5. Aug 20, 2012 #4


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    Religion can fulfill many needs. Perhaps he enjoys the social aspects (community, charitable work, family tradition, etc.). You can't know (and it would be highly inappropriate to ask, IMO) what place "faith" has in his mind.
  6. Aug 21, 2012 #5
    No. You're doing so by exclusively focusing on the concept of God as a creator. In fact, God functions in religion as the supreme authority of ethics; good behavior vs bad behavior.

    This is one reason a physicist might be a Catholic. It could serve as a moral compass for him, which is something science doesn't remotely pretend to be.
  7. Aug 21, 2012 #6


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    It is likely that he doesn't follow the bible and other religious texts as the "literal truth", but merely a figurative or abstract description of a divine being that created everything. I find this to be the case with most people I discuss this subject with.

    As for why, I think its a combination of things, which could include being raised as a christian. Some people also just "need to believe". That is, they literally cannot function in life without a belief in some sort of god. The loss of this belief would be world shattering to them, and lead to depression and other issues. (I say this because I've seen it happen and read about it happening to others) One of the hardest things a person may have to do is to consider the possibility that what they believe is not true. Many many people will do everything in their power to prevent having to face this.

    Personally I can't see any reason to believe in a religion. But that's just me.
  8. Aug 21, 2012 #7
    I have long been of the opinion that there is nothing the least bit incompatible in being a serious scientist and in remaining loyal to your religious faith. It seems to me that the two things are completely different. Personally, I am not at all religious, but I don’t accept that an understanding of modern science requires atheism or even agnosticism.

    But it is only recently that I discovered a video on the web of the mathematician and physicist, Freeman Dyson being interviewed by the American journalist Richard Wright. I shall not post a link because I don’t believe it to be necessary. It is easy enough to find. It is on the Videosift website and is titled Richard Wright interviews Freeman Dyson. In the interview they consider this very question at great length, and Freeman Dyson explains very eloquently why it does not follow that a scientific mind cannot also be a religious mind. Toward the end of the interview, Dyson mentions a wonderful analogy. My understanding is that it is not Dyson’s own analogy, he only makes reference to it, but I think it very telling. He says that science and religion are only two different windows on the universe. Clearly, it is not possible to look through both windows at the same time, and the perspective from each window is very different. But they are looking on the same universe, and it is perfectly possible to look through each window at different times.
  9. Aug 21, 2012 #8
    Even a scientist wonders why once in a while.
  10. Aug 21, 2012 #9


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    One could use the same argument for astrology and astronomy. The point being that just because they address similar subject matter doesn't mean they are equivalent in any way.

    At the end of the day it's obviously possible for someone to be religious and scientific but only if they keep those very different practices separate. Mixing them will lead to the detriment of one, or both.
  11. Aug 21, 2012 #10
    I have a feeling that this thread has had it's longest time but before it goes, I'd like to refer to the idea of cognitive dissonance, how to deal with mutually exclusive ideas, than can interfere with logic alone.

    Also I was raised in a deeply religious community and for some reason the enormous amount of fallacies were increasingly bothering. Now, navigating between logic and relatives gives a define cognitve dissonance feeling.

    Maybe that also group polarization plays a role. All these people in the group that are your roll models are believing. So they can't be wrong, can they?
  12. Aug 21, 2012 #11
    Ah, but science does offer the very real possibility that there is no why. It just is. But a professional scientist is not forced to that conclusion. Standing by their faith that there just might be a why does not, in any way, compromise their science.
  13. Aug 21, 2012 #12
    I strongly agree. The stories of Galileo and Newton are prime examples. In both cases they had to alter their interpretations of religion to accommodate what they believed scientifically. One can also find examples of people who alter their interpretations of science to accommodate their religious beliefs.
  14. Aug 21, 2012 #13
    Yes, Galileo's case is a good case in point. The truth is that Galileo's heresies were not really religious, they were purely political. In that Dyson interview I referred to, Dyson, somewhat tongue in cheek, describes himself as a Christian without the theology. Wright, quite reasonably, asks what is left of Christianity once you have removed the theology, but you'll have to watch the video to get Dyson's response. In any case, there is some evidence that those who persecuted Galileo knew very well that he was right, but the truth's he was telling the world threatened a status quo that advantaged them. It was vested interest, not actually religion, that was incompatible with Galileo's science.
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2012
  15. Aug 21, 2012 #14
    well I wouldn't quite say that ALL knowledge stems from pure reason, there's certainly something to be said for experience, but even so, you've gotta draw the line somewhere - there's no getting away from the things that are said in the bible.

    I mean, is it really such an extreme view if a person can't take seriously a book that claims that a son could be born to a virgin mother, who could turn water into wine, or walk on water, or feed thousands with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, or possess magical healing powers, or raise dead people back to life, or come back from the dead himself, or... that's not even close to an exhaustive list. All that stuff is in there, why should any of it be taken seriously? Would it be taken seriously if it was just a new religion, or would be openly ridiculed in the way scientology is?

    Does it not seem much, much more likely that it was all just made up by some imaginative people in an age when people were easier to deceive? The only plausible theory I've heard that could explain the things said in there is that the people who came up with it were tripping on some sort of psychedelic plant or other.
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2012
  16. Aug 21, 2012 #15


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    That's a good example of Hurkyl's comment about "iblatantly incorrect statements" - the only basis for it is a mistranslation that has been copied and re-copied, but most of the "literal interpreters" don't know any ancient languages. Rreplace "virgin" with the more accurate "unmarried woman", and there's nothing much to frighten the horses there.

    But taking a wider view, the works of Shakespeare can tell you a huge amount about the human condition, and some false statements like "the ancient Romans had chiming clocks" doesn't detract muich from that fact.

    FWIW senior officials in some churches don't have any hang-ups about ignoring literal interpretations of scripture. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honest_to_God for example.
  17. Aug 21, 2012 #16
    If you cannot believe two completely opposing things at the same time you cannot be a physicist.
  18. Aug 21, 2012 #17
    This is true. Galileo never directly confronted Church beliefs or the Bible, but he was continually debunking Aristotle. The people who agitated against Galileo, stirring the Inquisition up against him, were actually Aristotelian philosophers who had ingratiated themselves with the Catholic church. These are the people who generated the arguments that his assertions were counter to various Biblical statements.

    Galileo had been given permission by the Pope to speculatively explore the notion the sun was at the center of the solar system in print, but only if he presented his thoughts as hypothetical. The Aristotelians argued that he had violated the terms of that permission by presenting a seemingly airtight argument in favor of this system, and the Inquisition prosecuted him for that, for not being hypothetical enough.

    Given the precise nature of the charge, the Inquisition was actually right. Galileo had not pulled his punches as he had promised. The Pope, rather liberally under the circumstances, gave him an inch, but he took a yard. The Aristotelians jumped on that to get him brought before the Inquisition.

    Galileo had violated his religion in the sense he tried to pull a fast one on "God's Vicar," the Pope, while disingenuously claiming his dialog was, in his view, just as hypothetical as the Pope had stipulated it should be. His defense boiled down to, "I don't understand what you're talking about. It seems pretty hypothetical to me."

    His "crime" was, in fact, essentially political, but there being no difference between political and religious authority under the circumstances, it was commonly advertised as a religious transgression: Galileo vs the Bible.
  19. Aug 21, 2012 #18


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    Are you implying that a physicist should be atheist or agnostic? And cannot be a theist?
    Or even belong to a Christian faith? Should his understanding of physics be questioned or possibly discredited in this year of 2012 simply because of the denomination or religion to which he/she has been aquainted with.
    I just fail to understand from where you are coming from with this post, because religion is a moral and ethical endeavour for the individual.

    If the said individual in question was Jewish, Hindu, Islamic would you have even bothered to even think about the association of physics and religion as being troublesome?
  20. Aug 21, 2012 #19


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    If you read the thread title it specifically says CHRISTIAN. DUH.
  21. Aug 21, 2012 #20


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    So it does. But why single out christanity and not include other religions in the mix is what I am asking.
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