Welcome to the homepage of
Asaf Pe'er

Physics for all



Can physics prove whether God exists?

The simple answer is obviously not. Physics (and science in general) deals only with things that can be measured, while, by definition, we cannot measure anything related to god. The basic idea of religion - every religion - is faith; if there was a way to prove (or disprove) the existence of god, there was no room for faith - it would simply be acceptable as a fact, the same way as we take for granted the fact that the sun shines. Thus, there really isn't any conflict between physics (that deals with things we can measure) and faith (which deals with things we cannot measure). Indeed, some of the most famous scientists, such as Isaac Newton, were known to believe in god.

However, at some philosophical level, there is a very big conflict between science and religion. It is manifested in two main directions.

The first is the fact that science is able to provide answers to many questions that bothered mankind for many generations. Lacking alternatives, for many generations religion provided the only explanation to many questions that bothered people. Often, praying for god to help was the only possibility for someone who needed help. However, today, after about 500 years of scientific revolution, we have good answers to many questions (though, of course, there are many questions which we still do not have good answers to!). This enabled us to get enormous power, and solve many problems which were unsolvable for generations.

Perhaps the best example is the dramatic revolution in medicine. For generations, hundreds of millions of people died from various diseases. The "black death" pandemic for example, killed about 1/3 of the entire population of Europe, within a few years (1346 - 1353). If you happened to live at that time and were sick - really, your only hope was to pray.

The first breakthrough in understanding and treating diseases came from an unexpected place: study of lenses. The 17th century Dutch scientists Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who was interested in glasses and their properties, put together a few magnifying glasses to produce a microscope (he wasn’t the first to do that, actually). Using his microscope, he was the first to discover tiny little creatures, so small that we cannot see them with our bare eye (these are, of course, germs and bacteria). The next step was the realization that germs are related to diseases; this connection was proven by Louis Paster, in 1860 - 64, and by Robert Koch at around the same time. At that point, people still did not know how to cure a diseases, but at least understood that they got something to do with germs. This led to the realization of the importance of hygiene and sanitation. Not so long afterwards, the first effective treatments were discovered - vaccinations and pasteurization. Finally, in 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered that a type of Fungus (mould) known by the lovely name of Penicillium chrysogenum (which is extremely common - you have it in your kitchen) kills bacteria very effectively. As it turns out, this mold is not harmful for humans. Today we call it an antibiotic.
The final outcome of all this scientific progress, which lasted several centuries, is that many diseases that killed many millions of people in history, are now gone, or have very simple treatment. If you are sick today, you can still pray to god; but you also have the option to go to the doctor who will examine you, identify the cause of illness, and in many cases will provide you with an effective treatment, something that simply didn't exist before the scientific revolution. Thus, science provides alternative answers to those given by religion to many of the questions that trouble people.

There is a second deep philosophical difference between science and religion.
In all religions, by definition while many questions can be asked, there is one question that cannot be asked: one cannot question the existence of god itself (and still be considered religious). However, the scientific approach is exactly the opposite. A scientist must always be prepared to test his/hers knowledge against new results or new ideas. A scientist is always constantly alert, as it is always possible that tomorrow morning someone will conduct a new experiment, or come with a new idea that is contradictory to what today is thought as "true". In science, there is no question that cannot be asked. Furthermore, scientists must always be open to new ideas - even if they originate from someone who is not known, etc. The only criterion is the correctness of the ideas, in the sense that they are consistent with scientific experiments (see above, "what is physics"). Thus, scientists must be very tolerant towards different ideas, even if these ideas may look "strange", non-conformist or outside the main stream. In this sense, progress in science is closely related to progress in other aspects of modern societies. Similar ideas hold in the heart of the concept of democracy, etc. Similar to science, democracy can only exist in societies which are open enough to accept new ideas, and admit the limitations of the current leader ("king", president or prime minister). Therefore, it is no coincidence that science flourish in societies which are tolerable, open, and accept ideas (and people) that are different.

previous Back to "Physics for all" previous Previous: dimensions previous Next: mocking bird