This issue’s Did You Know is excerpted from Chapter 6 of a new book, Changed by Grace by Glenn Chesnut: How the scientific discoveries of the twentieth century tore away the supporting pillars of modern western atheism. There is a great and infinitely tragic irony in the survival of atheism among many intellectuals in today’s world. The classical western atheists of the 1800s knew nothing about the discoveries that were going to be made by twentieth-century science and philosophy, and for that one supposes they can be forgiven. They thought they could remove all the mystery from the world, and in the process, put themselves into god-like control of all things. But we know better nowadays, or at least we ought to.
During the course of the twentieth century, further advances in science and philosophy truly revolutionized the human understanding of the world, but contrary to the expectations of the previous century, the most important discoveries brought the mystery back into the universe—that mystery which the nineteenth century had tried so hard to remove. It began with the discovery of statistical thermodynamics (Ludwig Boltzmann’s Lectures on Gas Theory was actually published slightly before the beginning of the twentieth century, in 1896), which made it clear that the element of chance and randomness could not be removed from the universe. Einstein published his famous initial studies in 1905, and introduced the strange world of relativistic physics, where the fabric of space and time itself could be stretched and bent. Quantum theory (Niels Bohr developed his model of the atom in 1913) led eventually to wave mechanics and the discovery of the peculiar way in which electrons can function both as waves and as particles (deriving from Edwin Schrodinger’s publication of the Schrodinger equations in 1926). The uncertainty principle (discovered by Werner Heisenberg in 1927) made it clear that science would never be able to explain all things in the universe with infinite precision. Gödel’s proof (published in 1931) showed that in any reasonably complex scientific theory of the universe, it would be possible to ask questions to which the theory could not give an unequivocal yes-or-no answer. Scientists found themselves in a strange new world where threads of mystery ran through the entire fabric of the universe.
The atheist of the nineteenth century had believed that scientific knowledge would automatically keep growing more and more complete and precise until finally all the possible questions about the universe had been answered, with no uncertainties, mysteries, or loose ends left over. We human beings would be in possession of god-like knowledge, and would become our own gods. By the end of the twentieth century however it had become clear that what actually happened in real life was that we human beings were continually called upon to make creative and novel responses to an ever-changing universe which was shot through with mystery from beginning to end. Where we got into trouble was when we fooled ourselves into believing that we knew more than we really did, or that we could control more than we were really able to. God—the great, eternal Mystery—was the real ruler of all.
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