Peter Bussey. Signposts to God: How Modern Physics and Astronomy Point the Way to Belief. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Peter Bussey is a particle physicist with a Ph.D. from Cambridge. In Signposts to God, Bussey argues that modern physics is either compatible with Christian theism or points to a creator.
This review will go through each chapter, commenting on select
points. It will not be a comprehensive review, but it will hopefully
provide readers with a taste of what the book is like, and what I
consider to be its strengths and weaknesses. I should add the
disclaimer that I am not a scientist.
Chapter 1 is the introduction. Here, Bussey criticizes physicalism.
Physicalism appears to be similar to materialism, a view that excludes
the spiritual by saying that matter is all that there is. According to
Bussey, humans have a sense that life includes more than the material,
Chapter 2, “The World of Physics: A Quick Tour,” talks about basic
aspects of physics: force, gravitation, electricity and magnetism,
light, heat, and atoms. This chapter also has a section on the “God
particle,” or the Higgs particle. The prose is not particularly
complex, but a lot of information does come at readers at once, which
may challenge people (like me) who have difficulty absorbing scientific
Chapter 3, “Revolutions in Physics,” covers relativity, the big bang,
light as particles, and quantum physics. This chapter briefly mentions
theological problems that C.S. Lewis and Albert Einstein had with the
randomness of quantum physics, but, overall, this chapter is rather thin
in theological reflection, in comparison with the other chapters of the
book. Bussey does say that quantum physics may pose a challenge to
physicalism, or at least rigid forms of physicalism that portray humans
as “just physical machines” (page 37). Bussey also refers to views that
there is actually an order underneath the randomness. Bussey does not
necessarily endorse such views, but, throughout the book, he does appear
to be more comfortable with order than with randomness. For Bussey,
order (i.e., laws) point to God.
In Chapter 4, “Laws of Nature and of Physics,” Bussey argues that
there are physical laws, and he believes that these point to a lawgiver,
God. Bussey presents various arguments against those who deny the
existence of physical laws; his most convincing argument is that
scientists have made predictions on the basis of laws, and the
predictions have come to pass. This chapter was lucid in its discussion
of nominalism (i.e., there are only particulars) and universalism; it
was informative, albeit not as lucid, in summarizing Aristotelian and
medieval views on form, and the contrast between those views and modern
In Chapter 5, “Dangerous Infinities,” Bussey talks about the
theological implications of the view that the universe is either
infinite in space, or finite. Some, such as Newton, held that the
universe was infinite and that this reflected God’s infinity. There was
a fear among some theologians, however, that regarding the universe as
infinite could make it too much like God, and they wanted to preserve
God’s distinctness. This chapter did not knock me out of my seat, but
it was interesting to read what prominent thinkers have believed about
the infinity of the universe and the theological implications thereof.
In Chapter 6, “Modern Astronomy: Where Has God Gone?”, Bussey
addresses the theological implications of the vastness of the universe.
When the world was believed to be the center of the universe, God was
deemed to be near, paying close attention to what occurred on earth.
Can we believe this now that we know that the earth is not the center
but is rather a tiny speck in a vast universe? Bussey responds as one
would expect, saying that God’s eye is on the sparrow, so God is paying
attention to us, small as we are. In terms of science, he talks about
how the vast universe is necessary for life to exist on this planet.
What was especially interesting in this chapter, though, was when Bussey
argued that, even in medieval times, there was some sense that the
universe was large: not as large as we today understand it to be, but
Chapter 7, “The Human-Friendly Universe,” is about the origin of the
universe and earth. Bussey is essentially presenting the argument from
design: that things had to turn out a certain way for life to exist, and
that this points to a designer. On page 100, Bussey made an intriguing
statement: “Somehow, some extremely large numerical quantities, given
by the fields individually, are apparently canceling each other out
almost exactly, but there is no known reason why they should.” I was
somewhat lost in terms of the science that Bussey was discussing, but I
could tell that Bussey was referring to something here that he
considered to be enigmatic. In his narration of the development of the
universe, things were taking place naturally: one event followed the
other, and we could see why one event followed the other (even though
things could have occurred otherwise, and, fortunately for us, they did
not). Here, by contrast, something occurs that turns out well for life,
but it is unclear why exactly it occurred. Bussey may be open to
seeing that as pointing to God.
Overall, reading this chapter had a rather different effect than what
Bussey may have intended. As Bussey described the natural development
of the universe, that seemed to me to contrast with the picture that we
get in Genesis 1, in which God simply spoke, and things came to be
(fiat). Perhaps God could have used natural processes, but I can
understand how some can arrive at the conclusion that a natural
explanation makes God unnecessary.
In Chapter 8, “Implications of a Universe ‘Fine-Tuned’ for Us,”
Bussey responds to detractors of the argument from design. He addresses
such topics as the concept of multiverse and the alleged “Theory of
Everything.” In one case, Bussey lucidly, and I would say accurately,
laid out an argument against design, but his response to it was rather
weak. The argument is: “Advanced life is indeed a complex phenomenon,
but it is of no real significance. It is merely one physical
possibility among many. The cosmic tea leaves just chanced to fall this
way.” In other words, just because advanced life is important to us,
that does not mean that there had to be a God who intended for it to
exist; things just turned out as they did, and we got lucky. Bussey’s
response was that consciousness is significant. Not only is he basing
his argument on a subjective judgment, but his argument does not answer
this objection against design.
To his credit, Bussey in this chapter offers criticisms of the
Intelligent Design movement. Bussey notes that biologists have found
natural, scientific explanations to the puzzles that have been
attributed to design. For unclear reasons, Bussey does not believe that
the same situation applies to physics.
Chapter 9, “God As First Cause: An Argument That Seems to Hold,” is
about the cosmological argument: the idea that someone caused the
universe to exist. Bussey argues against the idea that the universe has
existed forever, and, overall, his arguments were effective. In
refuting the idea that the universe has been in a continuous, unending
cycle of expanding and contracting, for example, Bussey states that,
were this true, there would be a lot more background radiation in the
universe, enough to preclude stars from developing. In my opinion, this
chapter was the best in the book, in terms of clarity and meeting
objections head on.
What stands out to me in Chapter 10, “Explanations and Evidence,” is
Bussey’s paragraph on page 159 about why belief in God is reasonable:
order, human intelligence may point to a higher intelligence, etc. I
did not care that much for his statement on page 158: “But rather than
saying, ‘God cannot exist because I would have done it better!’ it may
be wise to acknowledge our limited understanding.” Our understanding is
limited, and, as Bussey most likely knows, that is something that
various sides in the debate over the existence of God can cite: atheists
can say that there is a natural explanation for the things that theists
attribute to God, even if that explanation is unknown, so we should not
jump to the “God did it” explanation just because our understanding is
limited. My problem with Bussey’s statement on page 158 is that I think
that an appeal to “flawed design” should be considered relevant in
debates about the existence of God. Many apologists like to appeal to
design and order to justify their belief in God, so what is wrong with
skeptics asking about apparent flaws in the design structure, or
Chapter 11, “Mental Reality,” is about the soul and human
consciousness. Bussey contends against the idea that the human mind is
merely the product of the physical brain, as he maintains that humans
have a soul, and that God (not nature) is responsible for the human
mind. This chapter provided the interesting detail the Descartes may
not have been as dualistic in his conception of the soul and the body as
many might think. There were also judicious aspects to Bussey’s
discussion, as when Bussey stated that we cannot make flawless judgments
about the thinking-ability of animals, since we are not them. Bussey’s
arguments against materialism (or epiphenomenalism) were rather
elliptical, however. Plus, there is a lingering question in my mind:
What exactly does the human brain do, according to people who believe
that humans have a soul? Does the brain do anything or serve any
purpose, if the soul is what gives us our thinking ability? If humans
have a soul, is their brain superfluous?
In Chapter 12, “Mystery and Ignorance,” Bussey talks about having a
sense of wonder at the universe. He criticizes the romantic notion that
greater knowledge and understanding detract from wonder. Bussey is
probably implying that the sense of wonder that even non-believing
scientists experience is a signpost to God.
Chapter 13, “Beyond Physicalism,” criticizes the idea that science
can know or understand everything. Bussey also spends time critiquing
Carl Sagan’s view that religion encouraged superstition, until science
showed the truth, and that we should stick with what is “rational”
rather than pursuing religion.
This book was over my head, in areas, but it was also informative.
There were times when Bussey seemed to be jumping to conclusions, but
there were also times when his discussions were judicious.
I apologize for any misunderstandings on my part in reading and reviewing this book.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!
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