(This is the text of a short talk during a Lenten Worship)
Lent Reflection Faith and Physics. Dr Rick Marshall
As many of you know, I am a physicist – revealing that at a party is an almost guaranteed
conversation stopper. The exception is when it also becomes apparent that I am a
paid up member of the Anglican Communion. Then in the nicest possible way I am sometimes
accused of being irrational, and going against the basic modus operandi of my academic
discipline – adherence to the Scientific Method as the best way to learn about the
world, or, to put it another way; How we think we know, that we know, what we know!
The Scientific Method reveals that all scientific knowledge is to some extent provisional.
No matter how much evidence can be mustered in favour of a theory, just one validated
false prediction is enough to realise that the theory in question cannot be the whole
In what follows I want to draw a distinction between faith and belief. For me belief
is stronger than faith for it relies on evidence.
I have never seen an electron. I do have direct experience of some of the evidence
that electrons do indeed exist. I also know of many scientists who have investigated
the matter and also accept the reality of electrons. Accepting the reality of electrons
makes sense of so many things I know about the world I live in. To give just a few
examples: understanding how light bulbs work, why materials have different strengths,
what happens in a chemical reaction, how a digital camera takes and preserves an
image. In fact, almost everything we are aware of depends upon what electrons are
Scientists no longer doubt the existence of electrons. Indeed as far as scientists
are concerned anyone not accepting the reality of electrons cannot even be a scientist.
Is a belief in God in any way like my belief in electrons? Can I use scientific
arguments to defend a belief in God?
Let’s look at one argument based on physics for the existence of God. For planet
Earth to support life depends, amongst many things, on the very precise nature of
an esoteric and extremely feeble nuclear interaction taking place deep inside our
Sun. It has to be precisely right for conditions here on Earth to be suitable for
life to exist. Surely this is too much of a coincidence? It just cannot be an accident?
For some this means that the odds are stacked heavily in favour of God. In other
words, although it may be hard to believe in God, taking everything scientifically
into account it is even harder not to believe in God.
The trouble with this type of argument is that it ignores the consequences of the
fact that as time goes by, scientific knowledge improves. The basic aim of fundamental
physics is to unify our understanding of the physical universe. As our theories
develop by trying to falsify them, we find that many apparent coincidences - and
much fortuitous behaviour – can be explained. They come to be understood directly
as a consequence of the laws of and principles of physics.
So I do not need to accept the existence of God to understand the way the world around
me “works”. What I have found intolerable is that we as investigators of the world
could be explained in essentially the same way. Human beings are more that just
the functioning of an intricate set of scientific laws.
As we understand more and more about our scientific selves, as we delve further and
further into molecular biophysics, as we find that the strangeness of quantum theory
appears to be vital for life, we marvel at the subtly if it all. But this in itself
is not for me evidence for God. It seems to me that there are aspects of being human
that cannot be understood, let alone predicted, even if we had a perfect understating
how all the physical bits of us worked.
So for me there would be no meaning to life if it were only to be understood in scientific
terms. Delving into scientific mysteries is not the way to know if there is a God.
However, God does not exist just because I find a world without a God intolerable.
God does not exist just because I want him to exist. On the contrary, I can only
exist because God wants me to. For me, God is revealed by my interaction with
others; in the circumstances when God acts through others on my behalf or through
me for the benefit of others.
A true story will illustrate this much better than any amount of philosophising on
my part. There was a lady living in London - she had two sons. The eldest was doing
very well at school, but was unsure what he wanted to do next. Although no one from
the family had been to university his mother was very keen for him to go, and worried
that he might miss the opportunity and come to regret it. She prayed for guidance.
Her younger son was having a holiday in the care of a family friend who happened
to be a monk at a monastery. The younger son was quite unaware of his mother’s anxiety.
I was also staying at the same monastery on a personal retreat. At the time I was
not a confirmed Christian, although I was exploring what such a commitment might
mean for me. My questioning and search sprang from my dissatisfaction with science
as the only explanation of the world around me, the world in which I actually live,
a world full or people that
sometimes I found it hard to understand.
My experience at the monastery, and the fact that I had been guided there by someone
who understood something of my needs, I now see as God’s way of helping me through
Both the younger son and I were due to end our stay at the monastery on the same
day. As he lived not far from where I intended to go, his temporary guardian asked
me if I would give him a lift home in my car. When we arrived his mother insisted
that I stay to tea as a way to say thank you for bringing her son home.
Over tea she began to talk about her older son, and her worries about his future.
“Wasn’t it unwise to pass up the opportunity to go university?” she asked.
She was not to know that not only did I work in a university, but that one of my
responsibilities as a lecturer was as admissions tutor for my department. I counselled
her that a gap year was often a positive advantage, and that in any case he could
apply for a place and if successful could ask for it to be deferred for a year. This
proved to be a course of action that satisfied all concerned.
Through me God had answered the woman’s prayers. Of that she had no doubt what so
ever. Some might see our meeting a piece of good luck for her – a happy coincidence
– but now I see it quite differently. This is the sort of happening that shows me
that God is real. Through the boys’ mother, God’s reality had been demonstrated
Often we may never know the significance that our actions and words have for others,
but they can, and do, reveal much about the reality of God, just as the actions of
others can confirm his reality for us.
To finish, let’s go back and compare those electrons with God! I have evidence for
both – so belief in both makes the world easier to understand – admittedly in very
different ways. I know many others whose belief in either electrons or God (or both!)
bolsters my beliefs - I do not need to be acquainted with all the evidence for either
electrons or God myself, to come to accept both as ways to understand how I experience
In fact I’m sure more people are brought to a belief by exposure to it, rather than
by argument for it. If argument alone is all that was needed, then perhaps many
more scientists might believe in God?