(This is the text of a short talk during a Lenten Worship)


Lent Reflection Faith and Physics.     Dr Rick Marshall


As many of you know, I am a physicist – revealing that at a party is an almost guaranteed conversation stopper.  The exception is when it also becomes apparent that I am a paid up member of the Anglican Communion. Then in the nicest possible way I am sometimes accused of being irrational, and going against the basic modus operandi of my academic discipline – adherence to the Scientific Method as the best way to learn about the world, or, to put it another way; How we think we know, that we know, what we know!


The Scientific Method reveals that all scientific knowledge is to some extent provisional. No matter how much evidence can be mustered in favour of a theory, just one validated false prediction is enough to realise that the theory in question cannot be the whole truth.


In what follows I want to draw a distinction between faith and belief.  For me belief is stronger than faith for it relies on evidence.  


I have never seen an electron.  I do have direct experience of some of the evidence that electrons do indeed exist.  I also know of many scientists who have investigated the matter and also accept the reality of electrons. Accepting the reality of electrons makes sense of so many things I know about the world I live in.  To give just a few examples: understanding how light bulbs work, why materials have different strengths, what happens in a chemical reaction, how a digital camera takes and preserves an image.  In fact, almost everything we are aware of depends upon what electrons are doing.


Scientists no longer doubt the existence of electrons.  Indeed as far as scientists are concerned anyone not accepting the reality of electrons cannot even be a scientist.  


Is a belief in God in any way like my belief in electrons?  Can I use scientific arguments to defend a belief in God?


Let’s look at one argument based on physics for the existence of God.   For planet Earth to support life depends, amongst many things, on the very precise nature of an esoteric and extremely feeble nuclear interaction taking place deep inside our Sun.  It has to be precisely right for conditions here on Earth to be suitable for life to exist. Surely this is too much of a coincidence?  It just cannot be an accident?   For some this means that the odds are stacked heavily in favour of God.  In other words, although it may be hard to believe in God, taking everything scientifically into account it is even harder not to believe in God.


The trouble with this type of argument is that it ignores the consequences of the fact that as time goes by, scientific knowledge improves.  The basic aim of fundamental physics is to unify our understanding of the physical universe.  As our theories develop by trying to falsify them,  we find that many apparent coincidences - and much fortuitous behaviour – can be explained. They come to be understood directly as a consequence of the laws of and principles of physics.


So I do not need to accept the existence of God to understand the way the world around me “works”.   What I have found intolerable  is that we as investigators of the world could be explained in essentially the same way.   Human beings are more that just the functioning of an intricate set of scientific laws.


As we understand more and more about our scientific selves, as we delve further and further into molecular biophysics, as we find that the strangeness of quantum theory appears to be vital for life, we marvel at the subtly if it all.  But this in itself is not for me evidence for God.  It seems to me that there are aspects of being human that cannot be understood, let alone predicted, even if we had a perfect understating how all the physical bits of us worked.  


So for me there would be no meaning to life if it were only to be understood in scientific terms.  Delving into scientific mysteries is not the way to know if there is a God.


However, God does not exist just because I find a world without a God intolerable. God does not exist just because I want him to exist.  On the contrary, I can only exist because God wants me to.  For me,   God is revealed by my interaction with others; in the circumstances when God acts through others on my behalf  or through me for the benefit of others.


A true story will illustrate this much better than any amount of philosophising on my part. There was a lady living in London - she had two sons.  The eldest was doing very well at school, but was unsure what he wanted to do next.  Although no one from the family had been to university his mother was very keen for him to go, and worried that he might miss the opportunity and come to regret it.  She prayed for guidance.


Her younger son was having a holiday in the care of a family friend who happened to be a monk at a monastery.  The younger son was quite unaware of his mother’s anxiety.


I was also staying at the same monastery on a personal retreat.  At the time I was not a confirmed Christian, although I was exploring what such a commitment might mean for me.  My questioning and search sprang from my dissatisfaction with science as the only explanation of the world around me, the world in which I actually live, a world full or people that

sometimes I found it hard to understand.


My experience at the monastery, and the fact that I had been guided there by someone who understood something of my needs, I now see as God’s way of helping me through others.


Both the younger son and I were due to end our stay at the monastery on the same day.  As he lived not far from where I intended to go, his temporary guardian asked me if I would give him a lift home in my car.  When we arrived his mother insisted that I stay to tea as a way to say thank you for bringing her son home.


Over tea she began to talk about her older son, and her worries about his future.  “Wasn’t it unwise to pass up the opportunity to go university?” she asked.


She was not to know that not only did I work in a university, but that one of my responsibilities as a lecturer was as admissions tutor for my department.  I counselled her that a gap year was often a positive advantage, and that in any case he could apply for a place and if successful could ask for it to be deferred for a year.  This proved to be a course of action that satisfied all concerned.


Through me God had answered the woman’s prayers.  Of that she had no doubt what so ever.  Some might see our meeting a piece of good luck for her – a happy coincidence – but now I see it quite differently.  This is the sort of happening that shows me that God is real.  Through the boys’ mother, God’s reality had been demonstrated to me.


Often we may never know the significance that our actions and words have for others, but they can, and do, reveal much about the reality of God, just as the actions of others can confirm his reality for us.


To finish, let’s go back and compare those electrons with God!  I have evidence for both – so belief in both makes the world easier to understand – admittedly in very different ways.  I know many others whose belief in either electrons or God (or both!) bolsters my beliefs - I do not need to be acquainted with all the evidence for either electrons or God myself, to come to accept both as ways to understand how I experience the world.


In fact I’m sure more people are brought to a belief by exposure to it, rather than by argument for it.  If argument alone is all that was needed, then perhaps many more scientists might believe in God?


Faith and Physics

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