Does Modern Scientific Discovery Have Significant Metaphysical and Theological Implications?

Francis Selman FAITH Magazine November – December 2011

Fr Francis Selman, lecturer in philosophy at Allen Hall seminary in Chelsea, succinctly offers some thought-provoking evidence against the thesis in the title. As our review of the CTS "Science and Religion" pamphlet later in this issue shows, we would have a different angle, particularly concerning the nature of the renewed concept of the "form" to which Fr Selman refers.

The relation between philosophy and natural science must be a close one, for both are concerned with physical reality. The point on which both philosophers and scientists have differed is whether only natural science tells us about reality or whether there is a reality beyond that which science can reach. If you take this second point of view, you are led from physics to metaphysics. Metaphysics in its traditional sense leads us to see that the world has a cause outside itself and also has purpose in itself. Philosophy in the West began as an inquiry about nature and thus was the beginning of natural science. For example, the atomic theory goes back to Democritus and Leucippus. Philosophy has to take notice of what is established by natural scientists but, equally, philosophy enables usto judge some of the things said by scientists, for example, about the nature of matter. I shall discuss how much traditional metaphysics and theology needs to be revised in the light of modern scientific discoveries with four examples: the 'new physics' of the 17th century, the theory of relativity, quantum theory and evolution.

The New Physics

One might think, like Anthony Kenny, that the discovery of momentum, that things just keep moving unless acted upon by an external force, renders a first mover that is itself unmoved unnecessary. But momentum contains an assumed clause,  that an object is already in motion; so momentum still brings us back to the question why things move in the first place. Richard Feynmann once wrote that there is no known origin of gravity.[1] The same can be said about momentum.


The first thing to notice about relativity and quantum theory is that one is dealing with theories, not with laws of nature that have been demonstrated beyond doubt. The General Theory of Relativity has obviously provided a necessary addition to Newton's view of gravity, and Einstein's predictions about the bending of light in strong electro-magnetic fields were confirmed by observations of the eclipse of the sun in 1919. But Einstein's theories also caught the popular imagination in a way that allowed people to think that everything is relative. The consequence has been the widespread relativism in most people's thinking about religion and morals in our society today. I make just two comments about relativity. A few years ago I saw a poster for the observatory at Greenwich, which claimedit was the centre of space and time. Is this as untrue as one might first think? After all we take all our measurements of space, for example, of latitude and longitude and the positions of the stars, and of time from an agreed starting-point: the meridian at Greenwich. Second, everything relative is relative to something else; we thus eventually come back to something that is not relative to anything else. This also applies to many universes if there are many (I believe there is only one). Einstein's theories of relativity are themselves founded on something that is not relative to the observer but constant in all directions: the speed of light.

Quantum Theory

In 1900 Max Planck discovered that bodies do not radiate heat in a continuous stream but in small packets of energy, called quanta. It was later found that when a photon is fired at a screen in a chamber through a barrier with two slits, the photon appears to pass through both slits: only this could account for the interference pattern on the screen. Quantum theory overthrew the deterministic and mechanistic view of the 18th century and made people think that matter moves at random in unpredictable ways. Quantum theory, however, has deflected people's attention from the larger pattern of the universe, which still moves and keeps its order according to universal laws of nature that must come from an Intelligence, for laws do not arise by chance but need to be thought up bysomeone. We thus have little reason for ignoring the view of Plato who, when he contemplated the order of the universe, thought it did not come about automatically (of itself) but from reason (logos) and knowledge.[2] Quantum theory is still very debatable and in part counterintuitive.

As Feynmann said, "We do not understand it, but it works". It needs further clarification before we can regard it as overthrowing a more stable view of the universe.


Perhaps no scientific theory has done more to persuade people that we no longer need God to explain the universe than Darwin's theory of evolution in the mid 19th-century.

There are, however, several major difficulties for a purely materialist theory of evolution. First, as Aristotle remarked, things do not on the whole turn out for the best in nature (and reproduction) by chance. Second, any theory that wants to explain the evolution of living species by the chance movement of matter by itself will also have to show that life could have arisen from inanimate matter by itself to begin with. No scientist has yet succeeded in making living matter out of non-living matter. It is far from certain that if scientists succeeded in synthesising all the chemical constituents of an organism or of a piece of DNA they would thereby produce a living thing.

Third, it is difficult to see that reason could have occurred in one species (the human) in an otherwise irrational universe (where everything happens by chance). As Alfred Russell Wallace saw, human intelligence is not explained by physical evolution but by "some new cause or power".[3] But Wallace's voice is not heard besides Darwin's today.


Modern science has extended rather than radically altered our understanding of the universe, in two directions: the very large, with the expanding universe, and the very small, in genetics and particle physics. In some ways, modern science leads us to theology.

For example, the Big Bang theory is a logical consequence of the expanding universe: all the matter of the universe must be flying outwards from one point. This calls for creation out of nothing, for how was the matter there in the first place?

On the small scale, our knowledge of atomic particles seems to make the old philosophy of substance, matter and form obsolete. But recently some philosophers have begun to recognise that perhaps Aristotle was not altogether wide of the mark. There is a special need to return to the concept of 'form', which has been absent from modern philosophy from Descartes. Things like chairs are not just a mass of moving electrons and protons but have a unity, with a form and a nature. We need to see things again as wholes.

Some major issues in the science of the past century remain unresolved, notably the inconsistency between relativity and quantum physics. Only when these issues have been resolved shall we see whether we need to give up classical metaphysics. Far from science determining philosophy, it may even be that science requires metaphysics. As Mary Hesse wrote: "A society which is uninterested in metaphysics will have no theoretical science."[4]

[1]The Character of Physical Law, p. 19.
[2]Philebus 30a; Sophist 265c.
[3]Darwinism (Macmillan 1890), p. 474.
[4]Forces and Fields (1961), p. 303.

Faith Magazine