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Scientific Theory and Religion

1927 to 1929
University of Aberdeen

The World Described by Science and Its Spiritual Interpretation

In his series of twenty lectures, Barnes presents an informed philosophical overview of contemporary scientific theory. In light of common responses to science in light of religious considerations, he aims to give a sober account of the rationality of religious belief in light of the developments of scientific theory.

In his introduction, Barnes presents the familiar story of Jewish cosmology being overturned by modern science. Though many problems of philosophy remain as unsolved in the context of modern science as they were in that of traditional theology, no rational mind can reasonably reject the former and hold the latter to be more plausible. Based on a moderate realism regarding scientific theories and the external world, science must be viewed as a progression constituted by ever-closer approximations to the truth. Given this and the success of the scientific theories of his day, Barnes rejects as irrational the type of obscurantism that holds to the view that since scientific theories always end up being repudiated by the next generation, we can reject any scientific theories that contradict traditional theology. He aims to show that despite this, a rational approach to religious faith is harmonious with a proper philosophical understanding of science.

Lecture II begins Barnes’s substantive overview of scientific theory. Matter, whatever it is, is inextricably linked to our understanding of the universe. Barnes outlines various scientific attempts to understand it, beginning with Aristotle and the ancients. Notions of a law of conservation of matter, force and Newton’s second and third laws of motion are followed through to the law of conservation of energy, and their experimental status is highlighted. The experimental successes of Einstein, Dalton and Mendeleev’s theories of matter and the structure of atoms are then noted.

Lectures III and IV examine scientific conceptions of space. Barnes starts by examining parallels between our conceptions of space and time; both are abstractions from perspectival experience of phenomena. From considering ideal measuring systems, he goes on to examine various forms of geometry and axioms, invoking frequent detailed illustrations. These forms of geometry are considered in light of philosophical conceptions of space and solid bodies. Lecture IV provides a detailed study of Riemann’s general theory of space, with a considerable section devoted to the intricate calculus involved. He ends by returning to our notion of space derived from common experience, and how the concepts of space discussed might apply to ‘our’ space.

The suggestion that space is an abstraction from space-time leads into the following two lectures on special and general relativity. Lecture V outlines the rejection of absolutism about space and time and the consequent elimination of notions of ether in science. Barnes details the work of Michelson and Morley, Fitzgerald and Lorentz, Minkowski, Weyl and Fizeau. In Lecture VI, he explains the transition into general relativity, with detailed reflections on gravity and the curvature of space-time. After an examination of Einstein’s equations, he speculates on how God might be understood in such analyses of the cosmos.

The following three lectures examine the electrical theory of matter, heat and light and quantum theory. In Lecture VII, he summarises the development of theories of electricity and magnetism and their relation to matter with the discovery of electrons and ions. Radiation is explained, and the uses to which the integrated theories can be put—such as determining the age of the earth—are considered. Scientific conceptions of heat and light are given an overview in Lecture VIII, focussing particularly on the first law of thermodynamics and radiation. These two lectures are further tied together with the introduction of quantum theory and Röntgen rays, and the consequences for theories of matter, light and energy are suggested and assessed. He concludes by pondering the notions of determinism and spirit in this context.

The first half of the series, concentrating on space, time, matter and stars, concludes with lectures on the solar system and the galactic universe. Barnes summarises contemporary understanding of the origin and make-up of our planetary system and considers reasonable speculations on unanswered questions. Lecture XI details theories on galaxies and their constituents. Previously outlined material forms much of the backdrop of understanding, and the picture of the cosmos that emerges leads inevitably to a contemplation on the place of man and God in such an understanding.

Lecture XII and the subsequent four lectures see a return to terrestrial matters, examining the origin of life and the geological record, the evolution of plants and sex, the evolution of animals, the machinery of evolution itself, and then the origin and past of man. The first lecture gives an overview of the established science whereby the history of life on earth is known through fossil records. Obvious conflicts with traditional theology are mentioned, and the importance of the gaps in scientific knowledge is assessed. The next lecture proceeds to a detailed outline of the evolution of plant life and the features had in common with animal life, the emergence of sexual reproduction and the implications of instinct and intelligence as features of life. The evolution of animals and the theory’s well-established status is affirmed, and the role and significance of the herd instinct and then Mendelian theories of inheritance and mutation are detailed. The following lecture examines Darwinian evolution in general, and his view on a satisfactory understanding of God’s place in any such theory is presented. In Lecture XVI, Barnes presents an informed speculative history of the development of man from the primates to the emergence of intelligence and civilisation and the birth of primitive religion.

The final four lectures draw on previous discussion and give general conclusions and reasonable speculations on the developed themes of science, God, religion and life. In Lecture XVII, Barnes presents his views on the nature and status of scientific theories and the occasionally unrecognised importance of metaphysics, examining science's relation to realism, idealism, naturalism and determinism. The next lecture draws on this discussion in defending the value and reasonableness of belief in God in the light of contemporary science and the traditional arguments for his existence. Barnes proceeds to examine the nature of civilised religion and religious experience, interspersed with observations regarding contemporary Christianity. The final lecture resurrects the scientific and metaphysical themes in a discussion of soul, body and immortality, concluding with optimistic reflections on the advance of knowledge and the future of religion.

  • Sam Addison, University of Aberdeen