When modern evolutionary physicists
begin to connect the dots with abstract
ideas—such as string theory—that
can’t be tested, even they are alarmed.
Can they really call this science?
Physics has hit its
awkward teenage years.
After establishing many
fundamentals and enjoying several major growth spurts, physics
has reached the age of lost confidence. It is now unsure
of itself and its own “cold, hard facts.” Or, at least, leading
physicists are feeling this way. In their scramble to reduce all
of life to physical explanations and reasonings, they have run
into something of an identity crisis.
The favorite pets of modern theoretical physicists—such as
string theory, loop quantum gravity, and multiple universes—are
so theoretical that they may never be testable. This conundrum
has forced scientists to reexamine the basic questions, what is
science, and is this science?
In the effort to understand the underlying nature of reality,
theoretical physics has run into challenges that are so abstract
that the scientists are no longer able to provide concrete, testable
predictions about the world. They describe conditions
that we may never be able to replicate on this planet.
The problem came to a head in December 2014, when a
landmark paper in Nature, “Scientific Method: Defend the
Integrity of Physics,” warned: “This year, debates in physics
circles took a worrying turn. Faced with difficulties in applying
fundamental theories to the observed Universe, some
researchers called for a change in how theoretical physics
is done. They began to argue—explicitly—that if a theory is
sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested
experimentally, breaking with centuries of philosophical
tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical.”
The authors threw down the gauntlet. And a slew of articles,
books, and conferences followed.
One book, released in 2016, was shockingly titled Fashion,
Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe. The
author, eminent theoretical physicist Roger Penrose, worried
that too many people were equating theories that work
on paper with reality. Nature’s review of the book was aptly
titled, “The Emperor’s New Physics.”
A major conference in December 2015 brought together
physicists and philosophers to address the problem. “At
stake is the integrity of the scientific method,” Nature
reported about the organizers’ motives, “as well as the reputation
of science among the general public.”
what’s real and
whom we trust
to tell us.
This debate affects everyone. It concerns what’s real and
whom we trust to tell us. After three centuries of enthroning
science as our ultimate authority, scientists are investigating
these basic issues again.
How ironic. The modern scientific
method helped give birth to the modern
way of thinking: we don’t need God to
help explain reality. But now scientists
can’t even agree among themselves.
God made clear in his Word where
reality comes from. Jesus Christ “created
the world” and he “upholds the
universe by the word of his power”
(Hebrews 1:3). Any effort to explain the ultimate nature of
reality without acknowledging him as the originator and the
sustaining power of the universe is doomed to failure.
That’s a sobering lesson for all of us. Secular scientists are
discovering more and more about the marvelous, infinite
complexity of the universe, but they are still in the dark
about the ultimate explanation for nature and its laws,
“always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of
the truth,” as Paul so eloquently put it (2 Timothy 3:7).
Two Modern Theories of Reality, Both Accepted But Irreconcilable
You don’t have to know physics to understand what’s
happening. After three centuries in which science has been
revered as the ultimate source of hope and understanding
about reality, the leaders in the “hard sciences” are admitting
that they still can’t reconcile their various theories
about physics. Some underlying, unifying principle still
The physics of early greats like Galileo and Newton
described everyday life as we experience it, but later scientists
like Einstein realized that their fine mathematical
equations couldn’t explain special cases. Two branches of
physics arose to explain the very big (on the scale of stars
and the travel of starlight) and the very small (the interaction
between energy and the smallest particles).
Einstein’s theory of general relativity tried to explain the
large-scale motion of stars and the universe, while quantum
field theory attempted to explain the behavior of tiny particles.
From the beginning, however, scientists recognized that
these theories didn’t work together.
In reviewing four books that came out at the end of 2016,
New Scientist summarized this problem well: “In one sense
fundamental physics is flowering like never before. In
another, it is in one of its deepest funks.”
Recent discoveries, such as gravitational waves,
have confirmed quantum field theory (the basis for the standard
model of particle physics) and the theory of general relativity
(the basis for the standard cosmological model). Yet,
the New Scientist article goes on to say, “Not only do they
contradict each other, they contradict how we feel reality
The problem goes back to the basic issue that troubled Newton.
Gravity. It just does not want to play nice with others.
Quantum mechanics describes how atoms, electrons, and
the smaller bits of reality behave. When a lightbulb releases
a stream of light, it’s not actually a steady stream. The light
goes out in “packets” (or quanta, hence the name quantum
mechanics). The atoms that produce different colors of light
require specific amounts of energy, like gift boxes.
What does this have to do with gravity? Gravity cannot be
broken into gift boxes the way energy can. As far as we currently
understand, gravity is a smooth, continuous force felt
throughout the space-time continuum. This stark incompatibility
has plagued physicists for over a hundred years. This
gave rise to the chase after the “theory of everything,” a way
to explain quantum mechanics and general relativity both
under one grand description.
Except, it turns out it’s not so easy, and some weird things
started to happen.
Chase for a Theory of Everything
For a number of years, string theory has
been one of the hottest ideas in theoretical physics. String
theory postulates that the particles that combine to form electrons,
protons, and neutrons are themselves made of vibrating,
one-dimensional strings. Furthermore, this theory means
that our universe has at least six additional dimensions to the
three spatial and one time dimension that we’re all familiar
with. And you thought light as packages was strange.
If you imagine these strings folding in on themselves,
vibrating at differing frequencies, not only does the universe
turn into an ongoing orchestra, but these strings allow the
math to describe both quantum interactions and gravity.
This elegant theory, which only a mathematician could
properly appreciate, has a couple of problems (more than a
couple, actually). One is that it can’t be tested, as far as we
know. Another is that it leads to some other really bizarre
predictions, such as the existence of a virtually infinite
number of universes (10500).
Loop Quantum Gravity
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is
convinced that string theory is the best way to describe the
universe. The next best explanation is called loop quantum
gravity. This takes a wildly different approach from string
theory. Its supporters suggest that more than subatomic
particles exist in discrete “packets” (quanta). What if space
itself is a discrete packet? What if things move in discrete
distances (and they can’t move shorter distances than
that)? In other words, if you try to take a shorter and shorter
step, there comes a point where you can’t walk another
“half a step.”
This theory describes space as a finely woven tapestry of
finite loops. Indeed, the thing we call “space” has a structure
like an atom. Sound weird? Hard to understand? Physics
takes us to these weird places when it tries to put all the
In this description of reality, where space is like a woven
blanket as opposed to a smooth expanse, gravity can also be
broken down into smaller amounts. This would allow both
general relativity and quantum mechanics to work together.
Huzzah! We have an answer. Theoretically.
This theory has its own problems. It’s not yet testable.
And it seems to conflict with the smoothness of reality. We
know that glass, though it appears smooth, is actually made
of imperfectly joined molecules. But nobody has ever seen
smaller pieces of space; nor do we know how to look for them.
The Limits of Science
The math may be elegant, the reasoning consistent, but
these new theories cannot be proved without being tested.
And they cannot be tested. Some physicists are beginning
to wonder whether they should be considered science at
all, while some of their supporters argue that science needs
to move away from such an unhelpful over-dependence on
At the major workshop mentioned earlier in the article,
which brought together some of the greatest scientific and
philosophical minds in the world, two perspectives arose on
science. In the opening talk, David Gross, a theoretical physicist
at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argued
that just because a theory cannot be tested now doesn’t
mean it will never be able to be tested. The atomic theory
was proposed a hundred years before we had the technology
to observe objects that small. Why should string theory be
Furthermore, he argued, we like to explain the scientific
method as a rigorous testing of hypotheses, but that isn’t
how great advances in science have historically worked.
Einstein, for instance, came up with the theory of general
relativity because he believed that’s how the world should
work rather than by observation and experimentation.
The other side fell back on a defense of empirical testability
and experimentation, spelled out in the 1930s by a secular,
materialist philosopher named Karl Popper. He wanted
to reduce science to a testable series of claims that could be
falsified, and he hoped to define science that way.
The problem goes deeper than asking whether there’s a
place for untestable speculation. Few philosophers or scientists
would dispute that. The problem is whether physics (and
science) is equipped to answer some fundamental questions.
Indeed, mathematicians proved back in the 1930s, using
the basic elements of logic and math, that mathematical
models will always be incomplete. Every model must depend
on outside assumptions that it cannot prove. This is known
as Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.
The problem isn’t
with the physics
but with the limits
of trying to
New Scientist, when it reviewed the latest books on this
subject, summarized the dilemma well with these concluding
words: “Ultimately, physics only describes the part
of reality that is susceptible to mathematics . . . No doubt
physics is important, but it could be there is much that is
important about reality that is not physics.”
The problem isn’t with the physics but with the limits of
trying to explain existence without God. If you accept the
physical world as the only way to explain everything, leaving
out “the word of his power” as the force that ultimately
explains everything, then you can never come to the final
grand unifying “theory of everything.”
The rise of modern physics has been interesting to watch,
with all its fits and starts. Christians don’t have to rush to
take a position or debunk one theory over another, as long
as no biblical issues are at stake. As creation astronomer
Danny Faulkner says, “Many of these very speculative ideas
about physics are relatively neutral when it comes to biblical
issues. One exception is the multiverse, which appears to be
an attempt to explain away the clear design that we see in
You don’t need to
understand the details
to inform others that
admit they still don’t
understand the basic
nature of reality.
The most important takeaway is that biblical Christians
should continue to place their full, unwavering faith in God
and his Word, and boldly challenge anyone who prefers to
trust the words of scientists and popular science as their
ultimate authority. You don’t need to understand the details
to inform others that physicists openly admit they don’t
know everything and they can’t agree among themselves on
the basic nature of reality, even in the “hard sciences” that
aren’t supposed to be subject to bias.
God’s Word gives us the big picture about nature and the
history of the world. It forms the bedrock of understanding
from which to investigate everything else about the universe.
(And in fact, the early greats like Newton based their science
on an acceptance of the Creator revealed in Scripture.)
While the Bible doesn’t say anything directly about quantum
mechanics, it does say, “
By him [Jesus Christ] all things”
were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all
things were created through him and for him. And he is
before all things, and in him all things hold together
earned dual degrees in English and chemistry from Clemson
University. She writes for Answers magazine as a freelance author