That’s So Second Millennium
Episode 009 – Ways to Think of Science and Religion as Parallel

Episode 009 – Ways to Think of Science and Religion as Parallel

May 28, 2018

Bill’s introductory question: Would there be a quick curriculum in basic philosophical principles, including the philosophy of science, that could discourage people from assuming that science and religion are at incompatibly opposite ends of the spectrum of “how to think about things”?

We discuss the difficulty of canning a “curriculum” or “program” to address anything, let alone a problem as nuanced as this is, before plunging ahead and taking our chances.

Paul argues that there are actually significant parallels between the religious, and specifically Christian, concepts of “mystery” and “dogma” and inescapable aspects of thinking about and doing science.

A mystery is an issue within a system of religious doctrines where it is confidently pronounced that human debate and philosophizing will never exhaust the issue and solve it completely. That is very different than saying a mystery is something to encounter and then stop thinking. It’s the opposite. It’s a promise that continued thinking and contemplation will continue, world without end.

Even the concept of dogma has analogues, especially if you broaden your horizon of scientific thinking enough to take in the observational or descriptive sciences like geology, zoology, and paleontology. In these sciences, we try to understand phenomena that we don’t have the power to replicate. We can’t run the experiment “Venus” over again, changing the parameters until we understand for certain why it came out with this thick carbon dioxide atmosphere and high surface temperature as opposed to being more like Earth or Mars or anything else. We can do experiments that help us interpret the observations we make, but we have to accept the testimony of the geologic, paleontologic, or astronomic record as it has been presented to us.

Christian dogmas boil down to testimony. We can’t run the experiments Mary or Jesus of Nazareth over again. A Catholic Christian accepts testimony that has been handed down, and if he is a thinker of any kind, he works that into his worldview.

Again, key points in this discussion we owe to Stephen Barr’s Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.

Paul’s profile on Goodreads:

Episode 008 - Paradigm Shifts in Science and Religion

Episode 008 - Paradigm Shifts in Science and Religion

May 21, 2018

Resuming the cliffhanger: the breakdown of classical physics

Shift from the classical to the quantum paradigm

Light is in individual packets of energy whose size is keyed to the frequency of the light.

This is the solution to the blackbody problem: the mathematics of emission of quanta of light energy produces the well-behaved curve with a peak at a given color that we see for hot objects, whether the Sun, iron in a forge, or a light bulb filament

It is also the solution to the photoelectric effect: light of high enough frequency is needed for the individual light quanta to add enough energy to eject electrons. Apparently the atoms can only interact with these photon quanta one at a time; you cannot add multiple red photons to eject an electron, but rather you need a single blue one.

The spectra of the Sun (with absorption lines) and energized gases (like neon or sodium lamps, with emission lines) turned out to be compatible with this quantum theory as well. The structure of the atom itself must be quantized, and electrons must live in well-defined energy shells; when they move from one to another, they emit or absorb photons of a well-defined frequency. Quantum theory began to solve problems chemists did not necessarily even realize they had about, e.g., why chemical bonds tend toward exchanging or sharing electrons so as to reach the number 8 in the outer shell.

Still, even with all this evidence, as the saying went, “Science progresses funeral by funeral.” Many older scientists stayed in the old paradigm to the end of their careers, whether as recalcitrants who refused to even believe in the new paradigm, or perhaps more often as castaways adrift in the new sea, clinging to the old research programs they were comfortable with and hoping, implicitly, that their work would add up to something that would remain untouched in the new world order their students would inhabit.


Religion: why do people believe? Is it reasonable or just arbitrary?

Picture a craftsman in Corinth c. 50 AD/CE.

This guy named Paul shows up in the stall next to you and starts making tents. While he’s not making tents, he’s talking about this Jesus guy with these crazy claims that he’s been killed and then “rose from the dead,” whatever that means.

You don’t think too much of it until the day you watch him grab Alexander the cripple by the hand and he suddenly starts walking! You’ve seen this guy for 15 years sitting there begging…

Yet for all the miracles, do you change your beliefs?

It helps that Paul is talking about this Jesus as the Son of, not some Greek god few of you really believe in any more, but some transcendent God that sounds a lot more like Plato’s Form of the Good or Aristotle’s Prime Mover.

It helps a lot more that you see changes in yourself as you listen to Paul: the things you’ve done and the things you’ve suffered make more sense. You want the forgiveness and the joy that Paul says this Jesus brings.


All of which is to say, in both scientific paradigm shifts and religious conversions, it takes a convergence of falsified old predictions, verified new predictions, and the ability to fit things that still work from the old paradigm into the new paradigm for the paradigm shift to take place.

Bonus Episode - Science, Scholarship, and University Teaching

Bonus Episode - Science, Scholarship, and University Teaching

May 17, 2018

Bill prods Paul into discussing how the mindset of the saying, "Science progresses, funeral by funeral" and its attitude of constantly discarding the past in favor of the new has taken over the academy. It isn't the right mindset for, say, literature, or even for undergraduate teaching, but because of the prestige (and funding) accorded to science research in the modern university, other disciplines have begun to imitate it. Top researchers often do not make the best teachers, either...

Episode 007 - Falsifiability and Scientific Revolutions

Episode 007 - Falsifiability and Scientific Revolutions

May 14, 2018

Science’s origins in “natural philosophy”

Tension between Aristo-Thomist metaphysics, post-Cartesian idealism and Kantian/Humian criticism and etc., and science

Philosophy of science: what is it?

My own introduction: Popper and falsification key, Kuhn and the sociology of science revolutions / paradigm shifts

Tendency to exaggerate contrasts and play down common elements between them


Quantum foundations, classic experiments leading to quantum physics, wave-particle, uncertainty principle – falsifying classical physics, bringing about a new paradigm

Existing paradigms of classical physics & chemistry:

Light is definitely a wave phenomenon, period. It displays diffraction / interference effects that only make sense for waves, not little shooting corpuscules a la Newton

The electrons (protons and neutrons not being discovered yet) are particles with a given mass, location, charge, velocity.

Classical failures of light

Why do hot objects give off light, or rather, how? Classical physics applied to this problem winds up with a completely unworkable “ultraviolet catastrophe” where all objects at all temperatures have a frequency – intensity curve that shoots off to infinity.

Why do photoelectric materials only shed electrons once light of high enough frequency hits it? That makes no sense; it should be the brightness / intensity of the light that matters, right?

Episode 006 - Evolution in Christianity and Geology

Episode 006 - Evolution in Christianity and Geology

May 7, 2018

We follow up on last episode's promise to talk a little more about evolution. Evolution literally comes from the Latin "to turn outward" and had a huge meaning cloud. One classic image it might evoke is that of a flower bud opening and the petals turning outward to reveal the whole flower.

This is not an alien concept to religion, and certainly not to Christianity. The moment you take the Christian scriptures as a set of texts written by real people scattered across over a millennium of history, you have to accept that God's revelation has unfolded over time. Evolution has mileposts, and the time before the scriptures began to be written, the time during which they were written, and the time afterward are all marked off by mileposts just as the time before and after, say, multicellular life first evolved is different. There is no going back.

Paul takes the excuse to geek out a bit about how minerals evolve as well. The fairly averaged, semi-homogenous solar nebula that gave birth to the Sun and planets condensed into particles, a few of which collected into the rocky planets like Earth and Mars. From their original fairly undifferentiated state, these planets evolved by segregating out a core full of reduced metallic iron, while the surface was irradiated by the Sun and oxidized. On Earth the process led to even more evolution of minerals as its watery surface gave birth to life, and that life eventually started pumping this ludicrously caustic gas we call "oxygen" into the atmosphere. Of the many thousands of minerals known to science, a very large proportion of them have come into existence only since that time as minerals have "evolved" to meet the "demands" of Earth's unique atmospheric chemistry.

Getting back to religion...if evolution is a concept contained within Christianity, why are other instances of it now claimed to be alternatives to it? One major influence is the trend of the latter half of the second millennium to rebel against the hypocritcal leadership of theoretically Christian kings and prelates who luxuriated in wealth and power. Once there were Protestant churches, these were eventually rebelled against as well, and now the secular institutions and culture are engaged in attacking themselves. The habit of criticism has certainly allowed us to make astounding advances in science--20th century physics could not have emerged without it. Yet the cry "totally revolutionary new way of..." is now a hackneyed piece of salesmanship all across our culture.

Next time we plan to start discussing some of the concepts of philosophy of science, including the role of criticism and falsification. Paul wants to ask whether there's really such a hard line between religion and science as is commonly supposed, both by religion's enemies and its adherents...

Episode 005 - Evolution in Biology, Physics, and Faith

Episode 005 - Evolution in Biology, Physics, and Faith

May 1, 2018

Bill asks about whether evolution and the randomness it seems to imply are problematic for faith. Paul discusses the difference between evolution in biology (with a succession of species) and physics (where new laws layer on top of old laws without destroying them). We talk about the mindsets of physicists and biologists, and tangle more with that problematic phrase "shades of gray." Bill confronts Paul with Einstein's comment that "God does not play dice," and Paul responds with commentary mostly from Harvey Brown and Steven Barr about the alternative interpretations of quantum theory: hidden variables and determinism, or the Copenhagen sense that the probabilistic interpretation of quantum events is physically, ontologically, metaphysically real, and the room in the Copenhagen interpretation for interactions between the spiritual (souls, God) and the physical (body, miracles).