Pure atheistic materialists would claim that nothing exists beyond the empirical reality we encounter through our senses. They endeavor to explain everything in the universe by causal relations with the rest of the empirical universe. It is a self-contained system. Sometimes discoveries emerge which cause the materialists to admit that there may be more to the empirical universe than previously acknowledged. So their sense of the material universe does grow to include dark matter, dark energy, parallel universes, bubble universes and the like. Theory or experience may lead to the conjecture about these unobservable aspects of the universe which remain beyond our direct observation but are suggested because current theory and knowledge cannot fully account for the known universe (as it turns out 70% of the universe is dark energy and 25% is dark matter while the to us observable universe is only about 5% of all that exists).
For example, physicists puzzle over why gravity is such a feeble force. As noted in the July 2012 issue of DISCOVER MAGAZINE, it is not easy to explain how a small “magnet can pick up a paper clip even though the gravitational force of the entire earth is pulling the clip down.” This led to speculation that perhaps there are other spatial dimensions, so far unknown to us, that affect the force of gravity. Dr. Eric Adelberger of the University of Washington and colleagues have invented a pendulum, a torsion balance, which would be able to detect whether on some micro scale gravity breaks down. So far they have not detected any unusual results in how gravity works.
Another scientist who acknowledged that there are things science cannot explain is Sir Andrew Huxley who died in May of this year. Huxley was a neurophysiologist who was responsible for discovering how a nerve impulses work which opened the door for much of modern neuroscience. Sir Andrew considered himself an agnostic and admitted “that there is no scientific explanation for the fact that we are conscious.” That fact plays a significant role in Raymond Tallis’ APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY. Tallis, though an atheist himself, is not shaken by the fact that there are some things in the universe which science cannot yet explain. He is willing to acknowledge that there are some things we do not know, and may never know. His book is a rebuttal to the claims that some atheists make about neuroscience proving there is no free will. His take on the world is that realism demands even materialists to acknowledge that currently our state of understanding certain realities is incomplete and we in fact cannot explain everything purely from materialism. It is dishonest to contrive theories denying for example, free will, just to maintain an atheistic belief.
As I was thinking about the above two points, I read with great interest an article by Fr. John Breck in the Number 4, 2011 issue of ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, entitled “God in a Quantum World.” Fr. Breck explores some of the new science that is emerging which challenges long held beliefs by scientists; some of these beliefs were thought to be certain and non-negotiable. The marvel of science is of course that new evidence requires new theories, and so “scientific truth” is something that becomes modified over time as new evidence demands new theories. Breck says that especially in France new questions are being asked by scientists which challenge the established order of things in physics, evolution and the neuroscience of consciousness. He offers a list of ideas that are being challenged in science today, but I’ll jump to his concluding comments for the sake of brevity.
“If a person cannot accept an ‘apophatic” approach to reality, declaring what it is not before seeking to affirm what it is, then there is little way of dealing with the givens of quantum mechanics and general relativity.”
Some of what the new scientific discoveries are showing is that there is built in the physics of the universe some indeterminacy or uncertainty. There actually are things we cannot know – not because we lack the instruments but because of the very way things are.
One of the mysteries at the quantum level of the universe is that the conscious observer is needed for certain events to take place – they remain in an indeterminate state until observed. Breck writes:
“On the quantum level, consciousness is also required to ‘bring into existence’ elementary particles and, variously, to determine their mass, location and velocity. This is scientific fact, demonstrated experimentally and repeatedly over the course of the last century.”
Here we enter into a most marvelous mystery of the universe: if a conscious observer is needed for certain things to exist on the quantum level, then in fact we humans as observers also are creating or bringing into existence things which before were not. This means two important things: 1) we actually are co-creators with God in the world, and 2) absolute determinacy, which so many atheists materialist rely on as the basis of their own epistemology, is simply false. At the quantum level at least determinacy makes no sense. There is mystery in the universe, and free will is quite possible. Strangely, even before we understood the laws of quantum mechanics, we were observing the quantum universe and thus bringing things into existence, even though we were unaware that it was our conscious observation that was making certain things exist.
“If we have the capacity to bring elementary particles into physical existence by the sheer act of observation, then perhaps something analogous occurs in the realm of God’s own being and activity . . . God, who creates not by modeling clay from a riverbed or from some pre-existing, unformed matter, but rather by an act of conscious perception that looks upon the world and ‘sees that it is good’ (cf. Genesis 1).
It might well be, then, that God creates ex nihilo and sustains the creation by employing the very quantum laws that he himself devised.”
For believers all of this means that we do not have to choose between science and religion, or between faith and reason. For what may be emerging is that science is recognizing that mystery is part of the universe, and that there may be more to the universe than we can measure or observe or test in experimentation.