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Theology and the Natural Sciences

Posted by Arjendu on December 29, 2007

I was/am a little woozy from the one of those mild flus that I often seem to succumb to during breaks (presumably when I have the luxury to acknowledge them). And emerged to start an electronic conversation with Bob Russell about a visit he’s going to be making to Carleton, and to my Revolutions in Physics class, in a couple of weeks.

Bob is giving the inaugural Ian Barbour Lecture in Religion and Modernity: ‘Five Issues on the Frontier of Science and Religion: Ian Barbour’s Lasting Impact on the Dialogue’. And runs the Center for Theology and The Natural Sciences out in Berkeley.

I don’t know Bob Russell at all, but I do know Ian somewhat. The 1-line introduction to Ian Barbour: Ph.D. in Physics, Chair of Physics at Kalamazoo College at age 28, decided thereafter to go to Yale Divinity School, landed up at Carleton appointed in both Physics and Religion, and in 1999 was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion “in recognition of efforts to create a dialogue between the worlds of science and religion”.

I was introduced to Ian shortly after I came to Carleton — mutual friends thought that we would have areas of common interest. And they were right — I had struggled long and hard on a personal basis to understand issues of spirituality as a physicist, and what resolution exists in my head comes from my understanding of ideas from ‘complex systems’. And it turned out that Ian was also interested in complex systems thinking as illuminating some of the issues of things like free-will and consciousness. I have thoroughly enjoyed the few conversations I have had with him. And if quantum mechanics wasn’t so fascinating a source of mystery to me, I might go back to thinking about complex systems and religion, and consciousness, and … oh so many things … some day in a more serious manner.

In the meantime, though, the far more mundane task of orchestrating a successful visit from Bob to my class. He’s coming right at the end of the Newtonian mechanics section which I believe would be a perfect time to talk about free-will and determinism, for example (the 3-line syllogism I use to generate a writing assignment on this: ‘Matter behaves either completely deterministically or completely randomly. You are made of matter. Therefore you have no free-will.’) I am looking forward to seeing what this visit could do, both for the class and for me.

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One Response to “Theology and the Natural Sciences”

  1. David Davis-Van Atta, '72 said

    I wonder how the visit from Russell worked in the class. And if it offered something of substance on the personal level. I think of these things too. And knowing Ian Barbour, at least a little, just being with him also at Carleton was invaluable.

    A little side-note: did you know that Ian Barbour learned his QM from Edward Teller? He did. Just being around him sometimes felt like a link to that past, to that era in Physics. It’s all rather awesome at times when I think of it.

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