To know God and to make Him known.

Spirituality in Physics

Revisiting Some Archived Articles that Have Not Been Lost, but May Have Been Forgotten and Are Worth a Fresh Read
Original Post Date: May 19, 2011

My son is a big fan of Benjamin Franklin, because he invented and discovered so many things. Last year, it seemed like nearly every night I read to him, he wanted to me to read from one of his books about Benjamin Franklin. However, some of the books had a bit of a subtle, anti-Christian bent. One author went so far as to convey that once Benjamin Franklin discovered the physics behind thunderstorms, it was moved from the sphere of spirituality to the sphere of science.

This theme is one that is highly present within our culture. The idea is that as science (especially physics) gets larger and more advanced in its description of the world, the space for spirituality will get smaller. The “New Atheist” crowd takes this one step further and says that eventually all spiritual belief will be replaced by knowledge of physics.

Now, most Christians are aware that there is nothing deeply conflicting between science and Christianity. We have discussed that in a previous article. In fact, evangelical Christians who were pursuing God by learning more about what He made have built much of science. Nonetheless, the idea that as science grows the scope of the spiritual diminishes is a popular one among both Christians and non-Christians.

It may make intuitive sense that the growth of the one (science) will always be at the expense of the other (spirituality). However, the history of science shows that this is not the case. In fact, what the history of science shows is that physics repeatedly finds itself at an impasse, beyond which it cannot travel. It only moves beyond these impasses by embracing spirituality into physics.

The idea of physics taking on spiritual aspects may seem to be counter-intuitive, but I think a few examples from the history of science will show it to be true. To begin with, before Newton, physics was ruled by the paradigm set by Democritus, who was an essentially a materialist. His view of physics was that everything was composed of tiny, rigid bodies called “atoms.” While these are not exactly identical with what we would call atoms today, the basic concept was not too far away. Democritus thought that all of reality could be reduced to these “atoms” bumping into each other. He thought that the mind, the body, the planets, and everything else could be reduced to looking at how these “atoms” contacted, pushed, and pulled each other.

Christians, for the large part, adopted this view of physics, but allowed that “spiritual” things did not have to obey physical rules. For example, prayer did not work by particles bumping into particles, but prayers could have effects at a distance because the spiritual transcended physical limitations. Physics operated on this premise for about 2,000 years.

Sir Isaac Newton, who postulated that objects could cause actions at a distance, made the next major leap for physics. If you think about gravity, gravitational forces (at least as conceived by Newtonian physics) don’t operate by atoms bumping into each other, but by reaching instantaneously across vast reaches of space to touch every other object in the universe. Thus, in order to advance physics beyond where Democritus could take us, Newton introduced a spiritual concept into physics - non-local causation. Newton was criticized in his time for introducing spiritual entities into physics.

Newtonian physics was then the operating paradigm for several centuries. It was only replaced by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Relativity introduces another spiritual dimension into physics - the idea that time is part of the creation itself. Time had long been seen in physics as a fundamental part of the universe - almost as necessary as God. It was only the theologians who held that God stood outside time and created time. Yet Einstein’s breakthroughs in physics were based on viewing time from the theologian’s perspective instead of the physicists.

In all of these advances of physics, there was another underlying assumption which was about to be removed as well. All physics until this point had relied on a mechanistic idea of the universe. The idea was that, given the starting positions and motions of every element, one could predict the outcome of the universe. Theologians, not scientists, only spoke of “choice,” “free will,” and other non-deterministic concepts. But the next major revolution in physics was quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics removed the mechanical conception of nature. It rewrote physics from the ground up, saying that determinism was false. Physicists such as Einstein thought that Quantum Mechanics must be a transitory science, as this seemed to go against what science was about. Yet, quantum mechanics remains the operating paradigm of physics. In addition, some models of quantum physics explicitly include conscious observation as part of the core paradigm, rather than conscious observation being an effect of other physical systems.

Therefore, as you can see, each major step in physics came about not by removing the spiritual in place of the physical, but by incorporating spiritual elements into physics. If the history of science is any guide, the next great breakthrough in science will come as the result of a fearless scientist including even more spiritual wisdom into physics itself. As scripture says, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).

Read Jonathan's previous articles on science:

Changing the Grammar of Science
Relating Science to Faith


This article was written by Jonathan Bartlett and does not necessarily represent the views of Classical Conversations.

CATEGORIES: Classical Christian Education

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