NON SEQUITUR IN FIVE PARTS
Professor Barr’s effort to bolster his faith via modern physics and Gödel’s theorem
By Mark Perakh
Posted on May 28, 2007
A few years ago, just after having retired from a university where I taught physics, I was approached by some friends who requested that I reply to a number of very popular books whose authors diligently tried to prove the compatibility of the biblical story with science. I must admit this was a not very exciting task. Among the writers subjected to my critique happened to be both religious preachers (like Grant Jeffrey) without any scientific credentials, and also holders of advanced degrees, sometimes from prestigious institutions (like MIT, as Gerald Schroeder, or some good universities, like Hugh Ross) and even professors currently teaching physics at quality universities (like Nathan Aviezer). However, there was little difference between writing of either Jeffrey  or, say, Aviezer, [2a] in that both not only offered plainly fallacious arguments, but also displayed sometimes amazing lack of knowledge and understanding of even seminal concepts of science in general and physics in particular. It was easy to dismiss pseudo-arguments of, say, Schroeder [2b], by pointing to such absurd claims as his statements that masers emit atoms, or that mass and weight are the same, or, say, by revealing the misinterpretation of probabilities by Aviezer. What credibility could be afforded their pro-biblical “arguments” if they obviously were confused about elementary facts of science and/or math?
In a different category was a book (also very popular) by Professor Kenneth Miller. Miller’s approach seemed to be two-pronged. On the one hand he provided a brilliant defense of evolution theory, incorporating (but not limited to) Darwinian ideas, and demolishing anti-evolution attacks by creationists, including intelligent design advocates. On the other hand Miller also promoted the thesis that “science is a best friend of faith.” The latter thesis was supported by feeble arguments, as if they were products of a different mind, surprisingly inept as compared with the ingenuity and logic displayed by the same author when defending evolution (see ).
Since I am not a biologist, my assertion about Miller’s brilliant defense of evolution carries, probably, not much weight , as it is just an impression of a layman. However, recently a friend wrote to me about another book , this time by a professional physicist, a professor of physics, thus my younger professional colleague, Stephen M. Barr, whose work seemed to be an analog of Miller’s book in that it also seemed to promote the same thesis about modern science being a “friend of faith,” the difference being in Barr’s turning to physics (and partially to mathematics) instead of biology (as Miller did) as a science supposedly supporting faith. (Perhaps not a very important detail, but still worth mentioning, is that both Miller and Barr are Catholics). So, judging Barr’s book I am not a laymen any more, as physics is what I used to teach for many years, both on undergraduate and graduate levels.
Barr’s book was reviewed a number of times, mostly in religious periodicals (like First Thing) and on websites (like Metanexus) where it was acclaimed in superlative terms. The religious reviewers unanimously praised Barr’s “accessible” writing, stressed his impeccable scientific credentials1 and asserted that he has brilliantly proved his thesis about the supposed “fall” of “materialism” as a consequence of scientific discoveries of the 20th century. On the other hand, Barr’s book seemed not to create much of an impact in secular publications, where it remained almost invisible. In this review I shall partially fill the void by discussing Barr’s opus from the standpoint of a scientist not adhering to any religious persuasion, thus estimating whether or not Barr’s arguments sound convincing for a skeptic.
Before turning to specific features of Barr’s book, I’d like to claim that its structure in many respects is analogous to that of Miller’s book. Like in Miller’s case, Barr devotes many pages to discussions of various aspects of science, in this case of physics, plus rather extensive excursions into mathematics and philosophy of science.
Barr is obviously a well qualified physicist with a fairly broad ken not only in physics per se but also in various adjacent disciplines. Not only, unlike in cases of Schroeder, Ross  or Aviezer, I can’t point to any factual errors in his narrative as long as it relates to facts of science, he also seems to be quite apt at explaining many subtle and sometimes far from being self-evident features of physics. His knowledge is wide and multifaceted, covering a wide range of topics and displaying a rather mature penetration into complex and sometimes controversial aspects of modern physics.
However, like in Miller’s case, when Barr turns to his thesis about science supporting faith, he, even to a larger extent than Miller, appears like a different person, resorting to unsubstantiated assertions in no way following from his discussion of matters of science.
In discussing science, Barr is often doing a good job at staying impartial. When discussing controversial aspects of, say, quantum physics, he faithfully presents various views and counter-views, often abstaining from taking sides. Then suddenly, out of the blue, he makes a statement regarding science as an alleged “friend of faith,” not bothering to offer any arguments but instead making claims having no roots in science he had so carefully discussed on the preceding pages.
I’ll turn now to specific examples illustrating the statements I made in the preceding paragraphs.
THE MAIN THESIS OF BARR
Barr’s book comprises 26 chapters organized in five parts, plus three Appendices. The scope of material covered on about 300 pages is very wide. However, there is an obvious general theme going through all chapters with their various subjects and sub-subjects. This theme can be succinctly defined as a dismissal of what Barr refers to as “materialism.” This theme becomes clear immediately in the first part titled “The Conflict between Religion and Materialism.” The titles of the first two chapters portend the contents of the rest of Barr’s narrative: “The Materialist Creed” and “Materialism as Anti-Religious Mythology.”
I can’t speak for other readers, but as soon as I read the above chapters’ titles, I knew that I could hardly expect to find in this book an objective analysis of the actual relationship between science and religion.
It is hard not to notice that Barr defines “materialism” as “mythology” before offering any discussions of “materialism,” so for him “materialism being “mythology” and “creed” are premises, rather than conclusions based on a rational discourse. This allows me to assert that Barr’s strong emotional aversion to “materialism” blinded him, as for him “materialism” being just a “mythology,” an irrational “creed,” was a given, while his religious emotions were likewise a given, vastly superior “rational” attitude to reality.
Indeed, as I proceeded through chapter after chapter, the expectations created at the first paragraphs were confirmed time and time again. On the one hand, Barr appeared as a well qualified scientist1 with a wide ken in various fields of physics and adjacent disciplines, but on the other hand his repeated mantras against “irrational” materialism, lacking any serious arguments, seemed to display a mind closely confined to certain unsubstantiated notions apparently stemming from his religious upbringing.
Here are some typical quotations. On page 2 we read: “…a number of discoveries in the twentieth century have led in surprise directions. Paradoxically, these discoveries, coming from the study of the material world itself, have given fresh reasons to disbelieve that matter is the only ultimate reality.” If Barr added a phrase like “in my opinion,” or “as it seems to me,” the above assertion would meet no objections. Barr is entitled to his opinion. However, the quoted assertion is made in a categorical form, as something requiring no proof. I dare to disagree with Barr’s quoted statement. Indeed, many scientific discoveries of the twentieth century “led in surprise directions.” However, to my mind of another professor of physics, none of these discoveries have given any reason, either fresh or stale, to surmise the existence of anything beyond the material world. If Barr thinks otherwise and set out to write a book dealing with this topic, I’d be interested to hear his arguments in favor of his position. Having read Barr’s book, I found not a single argument supporting the quoted statement. Time and time again Barr describes this or that fact of science, and then claims that the mentioned facts are contrary to “materialism.” To my mind, while Barr’s descriptions of facts of science are usually fine, none of them in any way supports his conclusions regarding lack of credibility of “materialism.”
Claiming the superiority of religious faith over “materialism,” Barr never refers to any religions other than Judaism and Christianity. I can’t read Barr’s mind and therefore can’t explain the odd exclusion of all multiple religious beliefs from discussion. There are thousands of various religions besides Judaism and Christianity, whose tenets often drastically contradict each other. Moreover, there are many versions of Judaism and Christianity, also often at odds with each other. If Barr asserts the superiority of religious beliefs over “materialism,” would it not be proper to say a few words about the discrepancies among various religions and sub-religions? Just the omission of this, rather crucial point makes, in my view, Barr’s asseverations of the faults of the “materialist creed” rather feeble.
While rejecting various arguments in favor of “materialism” and replying to arguments critical of “anti-materialist” attitude, sometimes in great detail, Barr pays little attention to the most powerful argument against the idea of a supernatural Creator of the universe. To my mind, the argument in point is so convincing that belief in a supernatural Creator (“Designer,” God, or whatever title this supposed entity is given) looks like a very non-parsimonious surmise. I refer to the argument about infinite regress. The notion of an infinite regress may sound for Barr and his admirers as a puerile question of an unsophisticated mind, but it is nevertheless non-refuted and perhaps non-refutable.
It has a close relation to the argument from design (which Barr discussed in one of the subsequent chapters). One of the best known renditions of argument from design was offered more than 200 years ago by Paley (“the watchmaker argument”). Probably most readers are well acquainted with Paley’s argument, so I apologize for briefly summarizing it once again. Looking at a watch found on the ground, we notice that it is a complex contraption, performing a well defined function. We conclude that it is an artifact, a product of an intelligent design by a watchmaker. Hardly anybody would object to such a conclusion. By analogy, the universe, which is immensely more complex than a watch, and seems to be clock-like in that its parts seem to obey well defined “laws,” “must” be a product of an intelligent “designer,” that for Paley was the God of the Bible.
The simplest and most immediate counter-argument points to an insurmountable inner contradiction of the watchmaker argument. If the complexity and orderliness of the universe require a hypothesis of a supernatural “watchmaker,” why the same notions should not be applied to the “watchmaker” himself (herself? themselves?).
The proponents of the argument from design often reply that the universe had a beginning and therefore needed a “creator,” while the supernatural creator had no beginning (or exists “outside time”) and therefore should be believed to exist without regress to a “super-designer.”
Various people believe many different things. Many of these beliefs are as arbitrary as the “argument from design.” To my mind, the argument from design belongs in the same category as the belief that the earth rests on three turtles.
If we choose to accept the notion that not everything should have an antecedent reason to exist (as the proponents of argument from design do regarding the supernatural “designer”) then I feel that it is more reasonable to accept that the universe exists without a specific reason, and there is no need to surmise the existence of the supernatural “creator,” whose supposed existence is not supported by any factual evidence.
Moreover, there are powerful arguments regarding the reason why “there is something rather than nothing,” without resorting to any arbitrary assumptions about supernatural entities. One set of such arguments is, for example, discussed in the book by Victor Stenger . According to this idea, “nothing” (or void) is perfectly symmetric; the perfect symmetry entails instability. Breaking symmetry results in a more stable state. Therefore the unstable void tends to convert to a more stable “something.”
I am not trying to assert that the above idea, either in Stenger’s or in some other rendition, is perfectly “proven.” The notion of symmetry breakdown as a source for emerging a universe out of void, may perhaps be criticized from certain standpoints, but overall it offers an explanation based on well established facts of science, not invoking arbitrary assumptions, and is rational. A critical comment regarding the complete absence of any serious discussion by Barr of the problem dealt with by the above idea is, in my view, quite relevant for judging the foundations of Barr’s thesis.
One more point Barr keeps silent about, is the veracity of specific tenets of his Catholic faith. I suppose that were Barr born in Islamabad, he would be as fervent a Muslim as he is now a Catholic, but he does not bother to argue in any form in defense of his Catholic faith, which obviously is the root of his rejection of “materialism.”
Historical evidence is clear about a simple fact: the story told in the four Gospels cannot be true. The Sanhedrin, which was the supreme court of the ancient Israeli state, did not deal with petty crimes like hooliganism in the Temple’s outlying courts. The Sanhedrin would never conduct any business on Friday evening, when the Shabbat already started, and even more so after the holiday of Passover started. Furthermore, Jewish law strictly forbids transferring a Jew to Gentiles for trial, regardless of what crime a Jew could have committed. A “crowd” of Jews demanding to crucify a Jew was impossible, as execution by crucifixion was an abomination for Jews. There are many other details in the Gospels’ story which could not be true and obviously are products of anti-Judaic polemics by the Gospels’ authors. Barr is not under obligation to discuss these points in a book about “religion vs. “materialism,” but accounting for the shaky foundation of Barr’s faith, which underlies his asseverations, should make a skeptical reader take Barr’s notions with a good dose of salt.
“Materialism” defined by Barr as a belief that matter is all that is there, has nothing to do with any “mythology”. Barr does not deny the existence of matter, he just believes that besides the matter, something else exists. “Materialists” see no need to hypothesize the existence of any undefined “something” beyond the matter which both “materialists” and Barr accept as at least part of reality. What has “materialism,” as defined by Barr himself, to do with any “mythology”? “Materialists” do not invent undefined entities, do not hypothesize anything beyond whatever obviously exists and can be “sensed,” at least in principle. Hence, “materialists” adhere to Occam’s razor, while it is believers in the supernatural who indeed resort to various myths not based on evidence. Just the terms applied by Barr to “materialism” show that, appreciating his fine explanations of scientific facts, readers have to be aware that as soon as Barr offers conclusions from his narrative, or leaves his professional field, his ruminations must be taken with a lot of skepticism.
Since Barr’s book is very long, its full discussion would take another thick volume. I don’t think it deserves that much, so I’ll discuss only several selected points in Barr’s opus. If I omit discussions of other passages, this will not mean I necessarily agree with them, but will only reflect the necessity to choose just a fraction of Barr’s notions for discussion, and thus keep my review reasonably short.
SCIENTIFIC MATERIALISM AND NATURE
In chapter 3, titled “Scientific Materialism and Nature” Barr asserts (as he does more than once at various points of his narrative) that 20th century science shattered the largely materialistic underpinning of the earlier science by unexpected discoveries. Let me slide through repeatable (and unsubstantiated) claims by Barr about alleged “materialistic prejudice” and discuss instead what Barr refers to as five “plot twists,” allegedly negating the “materialist prejudice” and leading to the acceptance of the “supernatural” as a necessary part of reality.
“The first plot twist.”
Barr states that “Jews and Christians always believed that the world, and time itself had a beginning, whereas materialists and atheists have tended to imagine that the world has always existed.”
This quotation at once shows that the sophistication of Barr’s discourse is sometimes superficial and that his knowledge of “materialism” on the one hand and of religious concepts on the other hand is rather shallow.
Let us start with the views of “Jews and Christians.” Here is a sample quotation from a well known rabbinical source, the tractate “Genesis Rabba” found in The Babylonian Talmud :
God created and destroyed worlds, none of which he liked, until he found this one.
Similar quotations can be found in various parts of the Talmud. Christian theology abandoned the view of multiple worlds preceding our universe, but the idea of many, or even of an infinite number of preceding universes, was part and parcel of certain variations of Judaic theology. Barr seems to be unaware of that, and his statement that “Jews and Christians always believed that the world had a beginning” is contrary to facts, at least regarding Jews.
And what about the scientific side of the problem? Here Barr seems to confuse science with philosophy of science. In science per se there never was a concept of an eternal universe adopted as part of any scientific theory. Philosophy of science is another matter. There we can find all kinds of views, which, as is typical of philosophy, are not necessarily based on evidence but often are just a “play of the mind.” The idea of eternal universe, or of multiple universes replacing each other, were not essentially “materialistic” as they could be compatible with a belief in a supernatural “creation” as well. The evidence for the “big bang” met no more resistance from “materialist” scientists than any other novel scientific hypothesis. In fact, the “big bang” was accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists much faster and with much less resistance, than, say, the theory of relativity or plate tectonics. Science is based on evidence, only evidence, and nothing but evidence. The idea of our universe having a beginning had nothing to do with “materialism” or “anti-materialism.” Science it not married to any theological or philosophical concepts. It follows evidence, and accepting the idea of a “beginning” for our universe did not require any revolutionary upheaval in science (although some individual scientists could have felt uncomfortable with that idea). The “first plot twist” claimed by Barr is largely his own arbitrary interpretation of the history of the scientific exploration of reality.
The second plot twist
In this section Barr points to the increasing penetration of science into ever deeper levels of reality, where, he asserts, the “question of a cosmic designer seems no longer irrelevant but inescapable.”
Of course, Barr and his fellow travelers are entitled to discuss the alleged “cosmic designer” at any stage of science’s development, not necessarily waiting until science reaches a certain level of depths. They did it since the ancient philosophers (like Cicero ), when science was very tentative and limited, and they continue doing so in the 21st century, when modern tools enable one to see and even manipulate individual atoms, and they certainly will continue doing so in the forthcoming years. However, it always had been speculation having little to do with scientific evidence. Science has no tools to study “the supernatural”, is not concerned with it and can be compatible with “materialism” as well as with various religious superstitions. Barr wants to believe that new discoveries in science justify his Catholic faith. It is his right, but his assertions to that end have no weight in view of science’s indifference to the philosophy of science or to theology.
The rest of “the Plot Twists.”
“Plot twists” numbers three, four, and five all are in the same vein as the numbers one and two. All this discourse is based on the confusion of science with the philosophy of science. “The third plot twist” deals with “anthropic coincidences,” aka “the anthropic principle.” Barr provides here just a very brief and schematic exposition of the problem, promising to discuss it in detail in subsequent chapters. Preempting that detailed discussion, it can be stated that Barr’s treatment of anthropic coincidences is one of the weakest parts of his book, inasmuch as he seems to be either unaware of the strongest arguments against the supernatural interpretations of the “coincidences” in point, or perhaps choosing to avoid arguing about them because of their strength. Telltale is the absence in his book’s index of the word “Bayes.” Discussing the anthropic coincidences in Bayesian terms is the most appropriate approach, but Barr does not even mention Bayes’s theorem, and this void alone makes his entire discussion of the anthropic coincidences too shallow to be taken seriously.
The “Fourth Plot Twist” is about the question of whether mind is just a machine, a kind of a “wet computer”, or something more that that. Barr admits that arguments against the “materialist” interpretation of mind have mostly been philosophical. Since science cannot be held responsible for philosophical arguments, Barr wants to find anti-materialist arguments regarding the essence of the mind within science itself. He can’t do so, so the second best thing seems to him to find such arguments in mathematics, which seems to be so closely intertwined with science. He allegedly finds such arguments in Gödel’s famous theorem.
I’d like to say that in my opinion Barr’s discourse regarding Gödel’s theorem (and the related Lucas-Penrose argument), is very impressive. He displays here, first, a rather deep understanding of that far from trivial theorem, and, second, his ability to explain its essence in terms accessible to laymen, without turning his explanation into platitudes. This section is, arguably, the best part of Barr’s book. However, as far as Barr’s goal is in question, it is hard not to wonder why a mathematical theorem, with all of its grandeur and beauty, is considered a “scientific” argument in favor of Barr’s anti-materialist endeavor. Moreover, if we agree that mathematical argument can be in principle legitimate in solving the controversy, there seems to be no connection between the powerful theorem in question and the “materialism vs. supernatural” dilemma. Gödel’s theorem has nothing to do with “materialist” vs. supernatural interpretation of any problems of philosophy of science, however flexible philosophy is capable of being, and even less with interpretation of scientific facts.
Barr ends his discussion of the “fourth twist” with an assertion that denial of his favorite interpretation of Gödel’s theorem and of Lucas-Penrose argument “verge on fanaticism.” Never mind that science is essentially inimical to any fanaticism, while religious faith, including Barr’s own preferred brand of faith, is known for many occasions when fanaticism was (and continues to be in our days) rampant and leading to inquisition, persecution of “heretics,” religious wars, events of September 11, 2001, and other equally appalling “twists.”
The Fifth Plot Twist, according to Barr, was the supposed collapse of determinism caused by the advent of quantum physics.
Quantum physics had indeed caused a deep reconsideration of the Laplacian type of determinism, but rather than cause the “collapse” of determinism, led to a new, deeper understanding of it. A real “collapse of determinism” would mean collapse of science as a reasonable human endeavor. Science is based on the basic acceptance of the idea that the material world obeys certain “laws.” These intrinsic laws can be reasonably approximated by postulated constructs which are usually referred to as “laws of physics.” Laws of physics, albeit being postulates, are powerful generalizations of the behavior of the natural world. They embody determinism, which in today’s science is no longer reduced to the one-dimensional determinism of the 19th century science, but is a more complex concept, underlining the orderliness of the material world. Whereas we can’t predict which particular atom of a radioactive material will decay at a specific moment of time, we can confidently predict which fraction of atoms will decay and when. Likewise, we can confidently predict the overall outcomes of other experiments in quantum physics, which would be impossible if determinism were indeed absent. This question requires a more detailed discussion, but the rumors about determinism’s death are greatly exaggerated.
Referring to prominent theoretical physicists like Wigner and Peierls, Barr writes that “fundamental principles of quantum theory are inconsistent with the materialist view of the human mind.” This is the usual position of various brands of crank “science” based on arbitrary interpretations of quantum phenomena. This position is beyond science as it is not based on a really scientific foundation, but only reflects puzzlement of certain individuals in view of the seemingly esoteric behavior of quantum systems. There is nothing in science itself, including quantum physics, to lead to such assertions. (See, for example, a rather detailed discussion of related problem }.
Barr concludes the first part of his book with a statement that it “is not about proof.” (page 29). Here I am in agreement with Barr. I don’t think there is convincing “proof” favoring either “materialism,” or a belief in supernatural entities. Therefore, as I wrote before  in my view both atheism and theism are irrational, while only agnosticism is rational. The term “irrational” does not mean “wrong”. Obviously, despite being irrational, either atheism or theism is right, with no tertiary quid. My difference with Barr is in accepting which of the two unprovable positions – atheistic or theistic - is more plausible. To my mind, the existence of supernatural entities is highly unlikely. Barr’s goal in his book is to show that data of modern science make theism the more plausible position. To my mind Barr’s arguments are fallacious. Having told about this or that result of a scientific exploration of the material world, Barr jumps over a logical pit, arbitrarily asserting that the data in point somehow support his theistic position. In no case does Barr’s conclusion follow from the discussed data. The entire book is just a series of non sequiturs presented as allegedly logical conclusions.
I shall turn now to specific points of Barr’s narrative in order to reveal the lack of substantiation for his conclusions.
Comment: Having said that in my view neither existence nor non-existence of supernatural entities can be proven, I did not mean to say that arguments for and against theistic position are equally non-convincing. Although neither side can claim to have offered “proof” of its position, to my mind the arguments in favor of “materialism” are much more plausible than the pro-theistic arguments. In this review I shall not discuss the arguments in favor of atheistic position, but instead refer to some sources where such arguments are presented in great detail. In this respect, I’d like to specifically mention books by Victor Stenger [7, 12]. Stenger, like Barr, was raised as a Catholic; he is reasonably close to Barr in age; like Barr, he is a university professor of physics (and astronomy) but also of philosophy of science. Like Barr, he is eminently qualified to discuss problems of modern physics. Although the atheistic position held by Stenger cannot be considered as “proven,” unlike Barr, Stenger, while not necessarily correct in every detail of his narratives, is usually logical and consistent, so his interpretations of the paradoxes of quantum physics, as well as his overall atheistic argumentation, are, in my view, immensely more persuasive than Barr’s multiple non sequiturs.
IN THE BEGINNING
The title of this section reproduces the title of Part 2 of Barr’s book. I have little problem with that part. Barr writes there about the discovery of the Big Bang, his narrative reasonably adhering to facts. However, sometimes, within that reasonable story here and there suddenly appear sentences which have little relation to the science of Big Bang. For example, on page 48, within the discussion of the “beginning of time,” we see the following sentence; “It should be emphasized that this modern discovery of beginning of time was a vindication for Jewish and Christian thought.”
As I mentioned before, such a statement is unduly simplifying at least the “Jewish thought.” Barr refers to the first sentence of the Torah, which usually is translated into English as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”.
This reference calls for a few comments. First, it admits that the real reason for a “Jew and Christian” to accept that the universe had a beginning, was not any scientific data, but the alleged “revelation” directly from the Creator. For a skeptic, such a basis for conclusion regarding “the beginning” sounds rather dubious. Skeptics can’t fail to notice the multiple contradictions in the biblical story making the idea of its being a direct revelation from a supreme mind very shaky. If Barr believes in the Bible’s reliability, it is his privilege, but such a belief has no power of persuasion for skeptics.
Furthermore, there are some problems with the exact meaning of the quoted first sentence of the Torah. Its Hebrew text as rendered in Latin characters is: “Bereshit bara Elohim et ha shamaim veet haaretz.” The first word of that sentence – Bereshit – is usually translated as “In the beginning.” In fact the expression “in the beginning” would be in Hebrew “Behatkhalah,” rather than “Bereshit.” “Beginning” in Hebrew is “Hatkhalah.” The word “Bereshit” more precisely should be translated as “First of all.” Hence, the sentence in question tells about the order of creation, stating that the first things created were the heaven and the earth. It mentions no beginning of time, and does not necessarily imply a “beginning” in general.
Moreover, as Barr correctly states elsewhere, the discovery of the Big Bang allows for various interpretations, including such versions which entail no ‘beginning.”
Therefore Barr’s assertions that the discovery of the Big Bang justified tenets of whichever religion, while being puzzling for “materialists,” reveal his wishful thinking but have little relation to reality. Of course, some “materialists” might have been puzzled by the discovery of the Big Bang as many of them indeed believed in the eternal universe, but their “discomfort” was nothing more than a matter of personal disappointment, while in no way objectively supporting any “anti-materialist” arguments. The discovery of the Big Bang in no way contradicted any essential features of the “materialistic” worldview. (A rather simple Bayesian analysis shows that attribution of the Big Bang to a divine act is an arbitrary supposition, while “materialistic” interpretation is logically consistent – see publications  and ).
In view of the above, Barr’s entire chapter 5 titled “How Things Looked One Hundred Years Ago,” in my view makes no sense, because it suggests a false picture wherein “materialist” science was allegedly married to the concept of an eternal universe. In fact, while the idea of eternal universe was indeed wide spread, it was not an inherent part of a “materialistic” view, which did not and does not depend on any such assumption and is quite comfortable with the Big Bang.
To give credit where it is due, Barr offers a discussion (in chapters 7 and 8) of such interpretations of the Big Bang which entail no “beginning.” In chapter 7 he talks about alternatives (which have little support of the overwhelming majority of scientists) to the commonly accepted theory of the Big Bang. This chapter is largely uncontroversial, but also only remotely related to Barr’s main thesis. In chapter 8 Barr turns to a more important point – whether the Big Bang, as viewed by the most commonly accepted theory, does indeed necessarily mean the “beginning” of the universe and of time. Barr’s brief discourse, while discussing the question of whether or not the Big Bang could be preceded by some earlier universe(s) whose trace was obliterated by the Big Bang, omits another aspect of the problem: whether or not the event of the “Big Bang” was indeed a real “beginning” of the universe and of time (although he mentions this point elsewhere). There are interpretations of the Big Bang (as eloquently explained in the immensely popular book  by Stephen Hawking) where the very existence of a “singularity” within the temporal boundary of Planck’s time is denied. The verdict on this point is still pending, but this and many other considerations tell us that Barr’s asseveration about the Big Bang’s supporting tenets of his (or any other) religion and working against “materialism” are unsubstantiated and reflect nothing more than Barr’s personal religious preferences instilled by his Catholic upbringing but not based on any evidence.
IS THE UNIVERSE DESIGNED?
The title of this section reproduces the title of Part 3 in Barr’s book. Of course, Barr’s answer to this question, as was easily predictable given the overall thesis of his book, is “Yes!” As Judaic and Christian religions, which are the only two faiths Barr writes about, maintain that the world is “creation” of a supernatural entity referred in these religions to as “God,” such a notion naturally segues into the idea of “design.” Barr writes (page 65): “Our discussion now shifts to another aspect of our universe, not where it came from but what it is like.” He continues, “And just as the universe around us may show traces of creation in the first sense, so it may show traces of creation in the second sense. That is, just as its existence may point to the God who gave its being, so its structure may point to the God who designed it”.
Frankly, I was surprised by the above distinction between a “the God who gave it being” and “the God who designed it.” Does it mean that there “may be” two gods, one that gave the universe its being and another who designed it? If a faith is indeed monotheistic, as Judaism and Christianity claim to be, obviously the God whose existence both faith proclaim, “gave it being” and also “designed” the universe.
The real, oddly illogical separation of “two senses” is, in fact, just the way chosen by Barr to assert that the natural world displays such features which point to its being designed.
The question of the world’s design has been discussed endless number of times since ancient philosophers offered essentially all the arguments “for” design (see for example ). One of the most commonly known renditions of the idea of world’s design was offered over 200 years ago by Paley
[6 ]. All modern versions of the “argument from design” have been just various modifications of Paley’s concept, without adding to it anything essentially novel. Moreover, there are many counter-arguments against the argument from design. One such counter-argument, which is, in my view, non- refutable, is an argument against both “senses” Barr writes about. As I mentioned before, it is the infinite regress argument. As Richard Dawkins  pointed out, among all the arguments in favor of the religious faith, the argument from design is the least convincing because of its utter lack of logic. If the features observed in the natural world are explained by the hypothesis of “design,” inevitably the following question arises: why is the same argument not applied to the designer as well?
Has Barr offered any new idea in favor of “design?” The answer is a resounding “No!”
At the beginning of this review, I mentioned that I could not point to any factual errors in Barr’s narrative. This statement needs to be qualified. I meant to say that Barr’s explanations of facts of science are correct. It does not mean that Barr’s statements are factually correct in any other sense. For example, one of Barr’s notions, offered in chapter 9, is that the Bible, despite its “non-scientific outlook” (page 65) “helped to clear the ground and prepare the soil for the much later emergence of science.” This is a factually incorrect statement. It is commonly accepted that science’s roots are in the ancient Greece. The work of Greek scientists (like Archimedes) had nothing to do with the Bible. The ancient philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists needed no Bible to see that the natural world was not “populated by capricious beings,” as Barr asserts. Observing the regular replacement of seasons, the sunsets and sunrises, the phases of the moon, the ancient Greeks had a clear idea of “laws” seemingly governing the “clock” of the natural world.
Continuing his narrative, Barr stresses the distinction between two “kinds of design” (page 69): “cosmic design,” and “biological design.” In fact, while the particular arguments for these two types of design refer to two different classes of phenomena, essentially both boil down to the same logical construction, and therefore both are vulnerable to the same counter-arguments. The argument from design is little more that an argument “from a personal incredulity” as well as an “argument from ignorance”.
Observing either the clock-like working of the universe or the complexity of the biological life, proponents of “argument from design” can’t imagine how those observed features of either the universe or of biological life could exist without a supernatural “design.” Often their argument from design deteriorates to the “God-of-the gaps” argument (whose weakness is acknowledged even by many believers in “design” ).
While Barr is entitled to whatever beliefs he may prefer, he offers no arguments in favor of supernatural design that have not been suggested many times before. Interestingly, although Barr mentions elsewhere2 such active proponents of the design argument as Dembski and Behe (to whom he refers as “the best writers” among design proponents) in fact in his book he never explicitly uses any of the pro-design arguments of these prolific design advocates. Whatever the reasons for such omissions, at least Barr’s book is not poisoned by the pseudo-mathematics of Dembski and preposterous ruminations of Behe regarding “irreducible complexity.”
In chapter 10, Barr briefly refers to the “attack on the argument from design.” A reader would in vain look in this chapter for a real explanation of the arguments against design – Barr avoids even a simple enumeration of such arguments, not to mention discussion of their essence. His discourse about natural selections’ inability to explain the “origin of life,” while correct, is irrelevant. The Darwinian concept of natural selection, which is an important part of the evolution theory (albeit by no means all of its contents) relates only to the emergence of the diversity of species via descent with modification from common ancestors. Evolution theory is not about the “origin of life” and does not claim to explain it. Origin of life is a separate problem which, unlike evolution of biological forms, has not yet found scientific explanation. Referring to the yet unexplained origin of life as allegedly pointing to life’s supernatural origin is an example of the discredited “God-of-the gaps” approach. Arguments based on small probabilities of a spontaneous natural emergence of first “replicators” as precursors to living organisms usually are based on misinterpretations of probabilities. . The problem of origin of life is pursued by scientist in labs, and substantial progress is taking place day in and day out, with many plausible hypotheses offered and tested.. If the history of science portends its future course, there is a good chance science will one day find a convincing explanation of a natural mechanism for the emergence of life.
Applying the argument of the minuscule probability of the spontaneous emergence of first “primitive life form,” Barr asserts that even that primitive “living cell” must have been immensely complex, so its natural emergence was as improbable as monkeys randomly hitting a typewriter keyboard and “producing an epic poem.” (page 74). Barr seems not to understand that scientists working on the problem of life origin do not consider the emergence of the first “living cell” as having occurred via a random serendipitous encounter of its components. Before such a “primitive” cell emerged, it had to be preceded by the emergence of much less complex “replicators,” not yet qualified as “living” cell, but just milestones on the way to such a “living cell.” The probability of the emergence of such very primitive “replicators” was not as minuscule as Barr imagines, but in fact in various scenarios discussed by scientists, it turns out to be reasonably large. .
Continuing his argumentation for “design” Barr writes (page75): “… it is interesting that in order to explain the origin of life from inanimate matter in a way that does not invoke divine intervention it may be necessary to postulate an unobservable infinity of planets”.
The fallacy of that statement is striking. To start with, just a few years after Barr’s book was first published, science, in this case astronomy, has once again proved its superiority over any philosophical constructs. Many planets have already been discovered, including such where conditions are similar to those on the earth . There is no need to “postulate an unobservable infinity of planets.” It is sufficient to account for a possibly finite but obviously immense number of definitely existing planets in the observable universe to fully rebut the argument from improbability of life’s natural emergence.
Furthermore, if we move from multiple planets to multiple universes, even in the absence of observation of multiple universes, a hypothesis regarding their existence is much more parsimonious than a hypothesis regarding the existence of unobserved supernatural entities. At least one natural universe (ours) obviously exists; many of its features are known. There is nothing especially non- parsimonious in assuming that other universes, perhaps differing in certain respects from our universe, but essentially being also natural worlds, may exist as well while assuming the existence of unobservable supernatural entities is clearly against Occam’s razor.
THE DESIGN ARGUMENT AND THE LAWS OF NATURE
The title of this section reproduces the title of chapter 11 in Barr’s book. There are two notions Barr discusses in this chapter. One is a distinction between two types of “laws.”
According to Barr, there are two types of “laws” – to one type belong those laws that “cannot help but be true.” As an example of such laws Barr points to “laws” of arithmetic.
Indeed, a “law” asserting that “every whole number can be factorized in a unique way into primes,” using Barr’s expression, “cannot help but be true.” The other type of laws, according to Barr, is such laws which may happen to be true, but not “must be true.” Barr’s example of a law of the second type is what he calls “Law of Chairs.” This odd appellation refers to the chairs set in a regular pattern in a hall. While the chairs’ setup obeys a certain formula determining the position of each chair, the setup in question is not of a kind which “can’t help but be true.”
To my mind, the distinction suggested by Barr makes little sense. It is antecedently obvious that there is no “Law of Chairs.” When we see the chairs in a hall that are set in a regular pattern, we know that the chairs have been set in the observed order by humans rather than spontaneously. We know that because we know about the common features of human behavior, because we have extensive experience with that behavior, and likewise similar experience with the behavior of inanimate objects like chairs.
On the other hand, we have no such experience with biological structures or with cosmic entities, and, moreover, all experience tells us that no human intelligence was involved in the emergence of patterns in either biological structures or on a cosmic scale. The human intelligence is the only type of intelligence we are familiar with. Therefore it is easy to explain the pattern in chairs position by attributing it to human intelligence, but there is no basis except for unsubstantiated surmises for attributing the biological or cosmic pattern to some unobservable supernatural intelligence.
The other notion offered by Barr in this chapter can be succinctly expressed by the title of one of the sections in that chapter, “In Science, Order Comes from Order.” This notion is plainly false. Science knows of multiple examples of order spontaneously coming from disorder. Has professor of physics Barr never heard about self-organization in natural systems? Has he not heard about, say, Belousov-Zhabotinski reaction, or about Benard cells? Has he never heard of the work conducted, say, at the Santa Fe Institute? Has he never heard about, say, publications by Stuart Kauffman, or Niall Shanks and Karl Joplin, or by many other authors discussing self-organization and natural emergence of order?
I leave the discussion of Barr’s fallacious position regarding order vs. disorder to those readers who are prepared to waste time on disproving a plainly false asseverations, coming, strangely, from otherwise well- educated and obviously smart physicist.
Having encountered Barr’s fallacious asseveration about order vs. disorder, I instantly lost a substantial part of my interest in further discussion of his book. I suspect that rave reviews of that book found both in print and online, are stemming not as much from the real merits of that book, as from sympathies of the reviewers to the overall thesis evinced by Barr – his assertion that facts of science support religious outlook and negate “materialism”.
In view of the above, I’ll not continue reviewing Barr’s book chapter by chapter, but shall instead briefly comment on selected points in the rest of his book.
OVERVIEW OF THE REMAINING CHAPTERS
First I’d like to say that there are in Barr’s book many parts I have no problem with. For example, chapter 12, titled “Symmetry and Beauty in the Laws of Nature” is, in my view, interesting, well written and informative. I can’t point to any factual statements in that chapter as being wrong or misinterpreted. On the contrary, a reader will find in this chapter a fine discourse regarding various features of symmetry usually not found in textbooks on physics. Were this chapter a stand-alone article, I’d gladly acclaim it as a fine achievement.
Likewise, I have few problems with the main contents of chapter 22, titled “Is the Human Mind Just a Computer?” (although it is in my view still short of really elucidating the problem in a fully unbiased manner, and contains a number of dubious statements not following from the factual material presented in that chapter).
Unfortunately, the good parts of Barr’s book are more like exceptions than a rule. Even in the above mentioned “good” chapters, a question inevitably arising after having read them is “So what?”
For example, chapter 23, containing a reasonable discourse regarding the interpretation of the human mind as a computer (and criticizing such an interpretation) ends with a section titled “Is the Materialist View of the Mind Scientific?” The predictable answer by Barr to such question is “No!” Unfortunately, Barr’s answer does not follow from the preceding discourse, which does not offer a reasonable solution to the dilemma but only reviews arguments related to it. Barr’s “No!” is nothing more than expression of his personal beliefs of a religious person, who fervently resists acceptance of “materialism” and is strongly biased against any arguments contradicting his heartfelt faith. There is nothing scientific in Barr’s conclusion from the preceding discourse. His conclusion that the materialist view is unscientific is itself unscientific and arbitrary.
Without having laid the foundation for his conclusion, Barr asserts that the human mind results from a special creative action of some unobservable entity referred to as God, but proclamations of faith are hardly persuasive for skeptics.
Barr is entitled to his beliefs, but in my view his assertions of the fallaciousness of “materialism” have nary a chance to change the mind of a single skeptic.
Perhaps this is a proper point to end my review, as detailed discussions of other chapters in Barr’s book would not add anything of essence to what I have already said.
2. In a post at http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=238 Barr writes: “To their credit, many of the best writers in the Intelligent Design movement, including William Dembski and Michael Behe, also insist the issue is one to be settled scientifically“. (The issue is whether random chance plus natural selection can account for diversity of the biosphere). In fact, both Dembski’s and Behe’s arguments, while claimed by them to be purely scientific, by and large are scientifically vacuous. Professor of mathematics Jeffrey Shallit (who used to teach a class in which Dembski was a student) referred to Dembski’s contribution to the Intelligent Design as “pseudo-mathematics” . Dembski’s work has been thoroughly critisized by many authors . Likewise, Behe’s “contribution” to intelligent design, the notorious ”irreducible complexity” has been overwhelmingly rejected by the mainstream scientific community . Barr’s positive reference to the two prolific proponents of Intelligent Design, who are commonly viewed by mainstream scientists as cranks, casts additional shadow upon Barr’s position.
1. Jeffrey, Grant. 1966. The Signature of God. Frontiers Research Publishers, Toronto CA.
2. (a) Aviezer, Nathan. 1990, In the Beginning, Biblical Creation and Science, KTAV Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ.
(b) Schroeder, Gerald L. 1992. Genesis and the Big Bang, The discovery of the harmony between modern science and the Bible. Bantam Books, NY.
3. Miller, Kenneth. 1999. Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search For Common Ground Between God and Evolution. Cliff Street Books, NY.
4. Rossow, Amiel. 2002. “Yin and Yang of Kenneth Miller: How Professor Miller Finds Darwin’s God.” In Talk Reason at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Yin.cfm . Accessed May 24, 2007.
5. Barr, Stephen M. 2003. Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN.
6. Ross, Hugh. (a) 1989. The Fingerprint of God. Promise Publishing Co., Orange, CA.
(b) 2004. Creation and Time. NAV Press, Colorado Springs, CO.
6. Paley, William and James Paxton. 1854. Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearance of Nature. Boston: Gould and Lincoln. (Originally dated 1802. Quoted from the reprint issued by Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish, MT).
7. Stenger Victor J. 2006. The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY.
8. The Babylonian Talmud, ”Genesis Rabba,” 3:7.
9. Cicero. De Natura Deorum. 1982, Translated and edited by H. Rackham. Loeb Classical Library 268. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
10. Rossow, Amiel. 2002. “Betsel HaTorah: In the Shadow of the Torah.” In Talk Reason at http://talkreason.org/articles/Betsel.cfm, accessed on May 24, 2007.
11. Perakh, Mark. 2003. “Science in the Eyes of a Scientist.” Chapter 12 in Unintelligent Design, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY. Also available online (dated 2003 ), accessed on May 24, 2007): http://www.talkreason.org/articles/good_bad_science.cfm
12. Stenger, Victor J. (a) 1995. The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology.
(b). 2007. God: the Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY.
13. Perakh, Mark. 2004. “The Anthropic Principles – Reasonable and Unreasonable.” Skeptical Inquirer. Vol..27, issue 4,. Sept-Oct.. Also available online at http://talkreason.org/articles/anthropic.cfm. Dated 2001. Accessed on May 24, 2007.
14. Ikeda, Michael, and Jefferys, Bill. “Anthropic Principle Does Not Support Supernaturalism.” In Talk Reason, at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/super.cfm . Accessed on May 24,2007.
15. Hawking, Stephen. 1996  . A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books, NY.
16. Dawkins, Richard. 2006. “Intelligent Aliens.” In John Brockman, ed. Intelligent Thought: Science versus Intelligent Design Movement. Vintage Books, NY.
17. Plantinga, Alvin. 2001. “Methodological Naturalism?” In R. Pennock, ed., Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 349-350.
18. Perakh, Mark. 2003.“Improbable Probabilities.” Chapter 13 in Unintelligent Design. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY. An updated version is available online (dated 2006 ), accessed on May 24, 2007) at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/probabilities.cfm ).
19. (a) Robinson, Richard. 2005. Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks. Available online at http://biology.plosjournals.org/archive/1545-7885/3/11/pdf/10.1371_journal.pbio.0030396-S.pdf .
(b) Brauer, Matt. 2005. Abiogenesis: How Plausible Are the Current Models. Available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/models.cfm .
20. Reuland, Steve. 2007. Potentially Habitable Planet Found. In The Panda’s Thumb blog, at http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2007/04/potentially_hab.html .
21. Shallit, Jeffrey O. 2005. Expert Report Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26. Available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/?http://www2.ncseweb.org/kvd/experts/shallit.pdf .
22. Critical comments on Dembski’s prolific output are numerous. Here are a few examples.
(a) Shallit, Jeffrey, and Wesley Elsberry. 2004. “Playing Games with Probability: Dembski’s Complex Specified Information.” Chapter 9 in Why Intelligent Design Fails: a Scientific Critique of the New Creationism, ed. By Matt Young and Taner Edis, Rutgers Univ. Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
(b) Perakh, Mark. 2004. “There Is a Free Lunch After All: Dembski’s Wrong Answers to Irrelevant Questions.” Chapter 11 in Why Intelligent Design Fails. Also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Chap11.pdf . Accessed on May 24, 2007.
(c). Perakh, Mark. 2003. “A Consistent Inconsistency.” Chapter 1 in Unintelligent Design. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY. Also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/dembski.cfm . Dated 2001, accessed on May 24, 2007.
(d). Perakh, Mark, 2005. ”The Dream World of William Dembski’s Creationism.” Skeptic, vol. 11,
No 4. Also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Skeptic_paper.cfm . Dated 2005, accessed on May 24, 2007.
(e). Wolpert, David. 2002, “William Dembski’s Treatment of the No Free Lunch Theorems Is Written in Jello.” In Talk Reason, http://www.talkreason.org/articles/jello.cfm . Accessed on May 24, 2007.
(f) Wein, Richard, 2002, “Not a Free Lunch but a Box of Chocolate,” at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/choc_nfl.cfm . Accessed on May 24, 2007.
(g). (Tellgren), Erik, 2002. “On Dembski’s Law of Conservation of Information.” http://www.talkreason.org/articles/dembski_LCI.pdf . Accessed on May 24, 2007.
(i). Olofsson, Peter. 2006. “Intelligent Design and Statistics: a Troubled Alliance.” http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Pandsthumb.pdf. Accessed on May 24, 2007
These are just examples, as many more publications are highly critical of Dembski’s output. In particular, many of such critical essays are found on the Talk Reason website ( http://www.talkreason.org/) in sections “Critique of Intelligent Design” and “The Art of ID Stuntmen” as well as on The Panda’s Thumb blog ( http://www.pandasthumb.org )
23. There is extensive literature wherein mainstream scientists reveal the fallaciousness of Michael Behe’s position. Here are a few examples:
(a) Kenneth Miller – see ref.3.
(b) Perakh, Mark . “Irreducible Contradiction.” Chapter 2 in Unintelligent Design, see ref.11. Also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Behe2.cfm Dated 1999. Accessed on May 24, 2007.
(c). Ussery, David W. 1999. “A Biochemist’s Response to ‘The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.’” Bios, 70. 40-45.
(d) Orr, H Allen. 1996-97. “Darwin Against Intelligent Design (Again). Boston Review, 21, No.6, Dec-Jan, 28-31.
(e) Perakh, Mark. 2000. “Razumnyj Zamisel Ili Slepaya Sluchajnost?” Kontinent, 107, 338-362; in Russian; there is also a Polish translation.
(f). Perakh, Mark. 2005. “Does Irreducible Complexity Imply Intelligent Design?.” Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 20, issue 6. Also available online at www.talkreason.org/articles/Suboptimal.cfm . Accessed on May 24, 2007. .
There are many more publications critically dismantling Behe’s position, including numerous posts at Talk Reason website ( http://www.talkreason.org/ ) and on The Pandas’s Thumb blog. ( http://www.pandasthumb.org ).