ESSAY
Steven Weinberg Destroyed My Faith
POSTED
May 18, 2021

Just in case a reader may not know Weinberg, he is a theoretical physicist and the winner of the Nobel prize in physics in 1979, as well as countless other prizes for his research. He is also a prolific, lucid, and captivating writer. If you want to read something on physics that will not put you to sleep, try Steven Weinberg or, if you prefer a Christian writer, Stanley Jaki — a Roman Catholic scholar whose writing and scholarship are truly amazing.

So, Weinberg has written many books. Of them, I have only read a few, but his Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental Laws of Nature utterly undermined my dreams, though I must confess I was never much of a believer.

However, I need to back up. I became interested in the philosophy of science in the 1980s when R. J. Rushdoony introduced me to Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions revolutionized my view of the history and philosophy of science. At University, I had been taught the out-dated and historically inaccurate view — out-dated and inaccurate, at least, according to Kuhn — that science progressed incrementally, each great genius and each age adding one brick to what had proceeded, so that the glorious edifice grew ever more glorious.

Needless to say, I had never done any original research in a field that had no obvious connections to my own study, which was, before my conversion, psychology, and after my conversion, the Bible and theology. Of course, when I say, “had no obvious connection,” I am speaking in terms of how I understood things at the time, not how I see things now.

Kuhn’s book persuaded me — and not just me, his book is one of the most influential books in the history and philosophy of science in the 20th century — that scientific work — whether theoretical or experimental — finds its foundation in faith. Kuhn is thinking of commitment to “paradigms” that give direction to experiments, not the most fundamental metaphysical presuppositions for scientific endeavor, which is my interest. So, Kuhn does not elaborate things in exactly this way, but I want to say that the faith on which science is founded has various levels. At bottom, a scientist must believe that the cosmos is a rational system and that the rationality of the cosmos is somehow connected with the rational working of the human mind.

The idea of the cosmos as rational and designed to fit the way we think is a topic more researched and expounded by Stanley Jaki than by Thomas Kuhn. Jaki shows in great and fascinating detail, this most basic faith required Christian foundations. Ancient Chinese, Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, and Mesopotamians showed stunning brilliance in their “scientific” observations. Scientific genius has not been rare or racially prejudiced in human history. Science as a discipline, however, has been religiously prejudiced. For none of the great ancient civilizations were able to develop “science” as a discipline — an empirical approach to the study of physical reality. The ancients’ observations, calculations, and wisdom, as mind-boggling as they all were, could not be systematically formulated because they believed that the cosmos itself was ultimately irrational.

Of course, there were many different ways in which they believed in the irrationality of the cosmos, polytheism being the most popular — many gods with no one in charge and lots of unfriendly competition. But if the cosmos itself is irrational and further if there is nothing in the mind of man to connect man to the wonderful workings of the cosmos, then science as a systematic approach to the study of the material world is impossible. That was the problem that crippled the ancients in their quest to comprehend the cosmos.

Thomas Kuhn does not discuss any of this, but he does show that science functions by faith. Scientists do their daily work within the framework of faith-based constructions that Kuhn calls “paradigms.” More recently, he prefers the term “disciplinary matrix,” but for me “paradigm,” even when it is ambiguous, is a much more attractive term.

Kuhn’s most famous example is Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). From ancient times, most Greeks, Ptolemy (100-170 AD) no less than Aristotle before him (384-322 BC), assumed that the planet earth was the center of the universe. Primarily because of Aristotle, but also through Ptolemy, throughout most of Christian history, the earth was assumed to be the physical and spiritual center of the universe.

The problem became that observers of the movements of the stars and planets faced more and more detailed difficulties in their calculations. Even though Copernicus’ view of things did not immediately solve all the problems scientists confronted, it apparently offered enough promise, on the basis of “harmony,”[i] that it gave birth to a slow revolution. Though he may not himself have fully comprehended what he was doing, Copernicus was not adding another brick to Ptolemy’s castle, he was tearing it down to replace it with an altogether new castle.

However, as Kuhn points out, Copernicus did not have adequate empirical data to overthrow Ptolemy. He offered a different view that was equally unprovable as Ptolemy’s but it was believed by some because it was judged to have more promise. And indeed, to a degree, the promise was fulfilled, though his revolution was, in fact, a “team effort.” Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), “Galileo” (Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei, 1564-1642), and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) were the star members. Copernicus revolution, therefore, began in faith. Empirical demonstration followed as believers took up the cause.

What is the point of this Copernican digression? The point is that scientific investigation is inescapably a faith-based venture. That means that Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory is a call to faith. There was a time when I would have blissfully walked up the aisle and pledged my allegiance. But that time was long ago.

There are at least two fundamental problems with Weinberg’s invitation and the faith his dream is supposed to inspire.

First, Weinberg’s “final theory” is materialistic. In other words, it requires faith in the metaphysical presupposition of materialism. In his words, a successful scientific explanation would have to provide “the quantitative understanding of phenomena.”[ii] Though he seems to be a less strident atheist than Richard Dawkins, nevertheless, he rather clearly sees the cosmos as impersonal: matter plus energy plus forces — gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. This impersonal world is governed by the “laws of nature.” There is no room for God, the soul, or any other non-material entities — though, if they exist, the laws of nature would, of course, be non-material!

In Dreams of a Final Theory, he reflects on his remark in an earlier book, The First Three Minutes, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” Apparently, the statement has haunted him and he feels compelled to explain, “I did not mean that science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but rather that the universe itself suggests no point.” However, this might be a distinction without a real difference, since he quotes with approval Margaret Geller’s comment on his remark: “Why should it have a point? What point? It’s just a physical system, what point is there?”[iii]

Weinberg’s dream — something of a nightmare, in fact — requires a faith-commitment to accept the notion that the universe is a physical system and nothing more. To believe in the world created by a loving Triune God, a world with a point, with meaning, also requires faith, but the resurrection of Jesus from the dead invites us to that faith, an invitation to something more substantial than a dream.

Second, and this is the point that hit me hardest, is that he wants me to believe in hope of a final theory, in spite of how he introduces this hope. In his words, “The most extreme hope for science is that we will be able to trace the explanations of all natural phenomena to final laws and historical accidents.”[iv] If this were not hopeless enough, he adds, “Not only is it possible that what we now regard as arbitrary initial conditions may ultimately be deduced from universal laws — it is also conversely possible that principles that we now regard as universal laws will eventually turn out to represent historical accidents.”

Now, it should be clear, I think, that if most extreme hope is to find a combination of laws and accidents, then we have no hope whatsoever for a “final theory,” for accidents, in the nature of the case, are outside the realm of explanation. But if it is possible that we really cannot be sure if we have properly distinguished arbitrary initial conditions and universal laws, we seem to be in something of an epistemological mire.

Perhaps the title of his book should have been, “Nightmares of Epistemological Schizophrenia.” At any rate, Weinberg killed my faith in a final theory — though actually Jesus killed it long ago. I should say, Weinberg put another nail in the coffin.

Jesus offers hope for resurrection life to those who believe in Him. He does not explain all the mysteries of the world to us; He hides the secrets for us to search out. We face mystery and tragedy in our personal lives and there will be questions for which we will not find answers in this life, but we know that there are answers, meaningful answers, that we will eventually know. Jesus does not offer a dream of a final theory, but the promise of final resolution.


Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.


[i] Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), pp. 181 ff.

[ii] Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental laws of Nature (London: Vintage, 1993), p. 4.

[iii] Ibid., p. 204.

[iv] Ibid., p. 28.

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