In the beginning was the Word
Wieslawa Lewandowska talks to Prof. Krzysztof A. Meissner about the darkness of the enlightenment, laws of physics, the Big Bang and the encyclical ‘Fides et ratio.’
Wieslawa Lewandowska: – The contemporary world constantly, and perhaps more and more, pushes faith and religion to the margin of life and at the same time allegedly half of American scientists believe in personal God and effectiveness of prayer. What does it mean?
Prof. Krzysztof A. Meissner: – It may mean that the dispute between science and religion, which has lasted since the enlightenment and has been constantly fanned, seems to lose its sharpness and significance due to new trends in science. Speaking about this dispute one should remember that in religion we have two layers: ‘spiritual’ concerning our relationships with God, salvation or sense of suffering – science does not speak about it in any way – and ‘material’ concerning the influence of God on the material world, the relation between man and this world. Although in Christianity, especially in the New Testament, the second layer plays a rather marginal role as compared with the first one, we can only speak about it in this context in a natural way.
– What is the origin of the dispute between science and faith?
– The dispute had many causes but from the point of view of physics, in huge simplification, it resulted from the fact that in the enlightenment the thinkers made far-reaching conclusions based on the classical physics (though it is worth mentioning that the work of one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, which contributed to the promotion of the conception of the laws of mechanics and Newton’s gravitation in Europe, betrays his very weak understanding of Newton’s physics). This physics, as differentiated from the contemporary quantum physics, presumes a complete determinism. It meant that knowing the condition of the world at a given moment one can both reconstruct what was in the past and foresee exactly what will happen in the future. Man could gain enormous self-confidence. Towards the end of the 19th century it seemed that everything was completely understood, to the extent that people wanted to close all faculties of physics, saying that the rest could be left to engineers since we knew all things… Because of that the existence of mystery, free will, transcendence, God had to painfully collide with the scientific viewpoint of the world of those days.
– And had to lose?
– If we undermine the existence of free will, the need of faith, as I am convinced, becomes much more difficult to understand… Science got separated from religion more and more, and excluding God from its research interests it indirectly made the impression that it denied his existence at all. Laplace, answering Napoleon’s question why in his treatise about the mechanics of the sky he did not mention God at all, said, ‘I did not need this hypothesis.’ Then this sentence, not completely in accordance with his first intention, was promoted as the atheist’s manifest in science. Since that time, which Prof. Andrzej Staruszkiewicz calls ‘darkness of the Enlightenment,’ we have been bombarded by the enlightenment vision of the relation between faith and science.
– Why has this ‘darkness of the Enlightenment’ still remained although the deterministic model in science broke down?
– Because for almost 300 years the statement that faith is immanently contrary to science has been maintained by certain environments that try to convince us till today that the matters of faith and religion are exclusively private and it would be better not to confront them with science because the result of this confrontation will be bad. The French Enlightenment maintained all the time: if you put aside rationality you can believe what you want. However, today we have strong premises to believe not despite our rationality but because of our rationality. For the last two centuries it was attempted to stress – sometimes the Church’s guilt was obvious because it allowed such a relation between science and faith – that there are as if two bordering states so that the growth of one state causes that the other state reduces inevitably.
– And now it is not?
– Currently, perhaps it is better to see two islands on an immense sea, and each of them can grow without harming the other.
– And the island on which the scientific outlook is binding is still bigger.
– One cannot speak about such a thing as scientific outlook. Such a thing simply does not exist because there are justifiable and rightly posed questions concerning the world which must be answered, ‘believing in something.’ The statement ‘the world simply exists’ is in no sense deeper or closer to science than the statement ‘God created the world.’ If philosophy of life is all my views regarding the world, i.e. all sensible questions that I can ask about the world there are also other questions which science will never answer, so the adjective ‘scientific’ is simply misleading considering any outlook.
– What are these questions?
– The fundamental fact directing me towards transcendence is that there are laws of physics. Why is this world subordinate to any laws, why does all that surrounds us come under laws at the deepest level, why is there no chaos? After all, the universe taken accidentally from a hat should be chaotic (I will omit the explanations known as the anthropic principle, which is little convincing to me)…The existence of laws cannot be justified inside science, they can be discovered but their existence cannot be justified. Physicists accept their existence as fundamental assumption that need not be even verbalised since without it no science can exist. The existence of laws is fundamental not only to cultivate science but also to our existence…The excellent summary is the saying of Einstein, ‘The most incomprehensible is that the world can be understood at all.’ It is an extremely profound statement.
– And exactly here the question about God can be asked straight?
– It can be asked but let us not expect any answer: it results from accepting either the original ‘yes’ or the original ‘no’ and science can authenticate one of these original premises but can prove none.
– In the 19th century when the thought of the Enlightenment was most triumphant, during the First Vatican Council, it was stated that the existence of God could be also known with full certainty without faith and without God’s revelation through ‘natural clarity of human mind.’ Can we get to know God through science?
– St Augustine and St Thomas wrote that believing we must use reason but it did not mean that when we used reason (in any case in such an imperfect way that we are able to do as humans) we must believe. Rationality was given to us and we should use it in case of hesitation and doubt in any field. Discovering God’s signs we encounter some limit beyond which there is only the word ‘I believe.’ The important thing is to identify this limit well so that we do not confuse the order of science with the order of faith. Similarly, in our understanding of the world there is a whole big area, for example defined by this question why the laws of physics exist, that also requires the word ‘I believe.’
– In his encyclical ‘Fides et ratio’ John Paul II says that man using his reason reaches the truth because enlightened by faith he discovers the deep sense of all things. Does faith help science?
– I think it does although, naturally, not in the direct sense. ‘Fides et ratio’ includes the statement that faith illuminates our search. I, as the one who seeks, must first of all get to know the subject of my search well in order to discern the need of this extraordinary enlightenment… After accepting the original ‘yes’ faith illuminates the world, gives meanings to things that otherwise might be more difficult to understand.
– Has the contemporary physics taught scientists humility?
– The whole development of physics in the 20th century, thanks to which we understood many things – suffice to look around to appreciate it – also shows us how much we do not know… In fact, I am convinced that for example, no one understands quantum mechanics fully today. We can use it excellently, calculating certain quantities to twelve decimal places; all things match observations but the fundamental problem of measurement seems to be unsolved conceptually and the question whether we ourselves or the whole universe are fully quantum objects and in what sense, remains unanswered.
– Professor Meissner, what is the difference between a believing scientist and a non-believing scientist today?
– No difference in the methodology of practising science whereas a non-believing physicist, discovering a law that is beautiful, simple and elegant – since only such laws have chances to describe the reality well – will justify that the law is such because we can simply see it this way whereas a believing physicist will say that the law is beautiful, simple and elegant because it is a pale reflection of God’s perfection…Certainly this admiration of ours is increasingly bigger: the deeper we get to know matter, and actually the laws that govern it, the better each man, seeing these equations that describe it and is able to overcome the barrier of mathematics required, must admire them. The equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity are so beautiful that they simply go beyond the possibility of any description and understanding…
– Is it like delight in God?
– If one believes it is but in no sense we can speak that we have a proof of God’s existence.
– However, we have still the inclination to a very literal explanation of scientific discoveries as confirmation or negation of God’s existence. Recently we have been excited by some ‘the God particle’ again…
– I understand the reasons for which Leon Lederman entitled his book about the Higgs particle but I do not like this term very much and I think it is misleading.
– It has little to do with God?
– It has the same as all other particles. I prefer the only term used in physics, i.e., simply the Higgs particle. In the contemporary theory of the elementary particles, the so-called Standard Model, we have, besides this theoretically foreseen but still non-observable particle, many other recognisable particles, quarks, leptons and bosons of marking. Seeking this particle today we rather aim at confirming the existence of the Higgs field, filling up (according to the Standard Model) homogenously the whole universe and thus effectively giving mass to e.g., electrons. The research conducted n CERN near Geneva focuses among other things on proving that Higgs field actually exists, which would mean that our understanding of this theory is right.
– We are eager to associate God and the creation of the world with the Big Bang… Is it not a too big desire?
– I think it is. I am convinced that the claim that the Big Bang in the sense of the so-called initial peculiarity (even if it happened, which is not fully clear) matches the act of creation of the world as described in the Book of Genesis, is unjustifiable mixing of the orders.
– Because if it occurred that it were not an initial peculiarity but only a condition of extremely high temperature and density, which has some earlier history, suddenly one needs to push God somewhere further again… Currently, there is no theory that would let us say what happened before the moment of 10 to minus 42nd second after the conventional moment 0, and even state whether the question is sensible at all…Time is an absolutely fundamental conception but we still understand it very little. It was St Augustine that said that if you did not ask me what time was I knew, but if you asked me I did not already know. And up till now it is a right observation. I would stop only – and as much as! – to say that God gives meaning to all things whereas I would not dare to locate his intervention in some concrete place and time…
– Do you often read the Bible?
– Certainly I should read it more frequently although of course I do not look for scientific inspirations in it but rather for spiritual support because as we have already said the axis of this message is the spiritual sphere and not the material one. But for me, a physicist, the unrivalled summary of the problems we have discussed remains the brilliant beginning of the Gospel of St John, ‘In the beginning was the Word: and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (1:1).