Killing off the Conflict Narrative (of Science and Religion)

It’s been a long and tiring century or more of fake news, but I nurture a precious hope (how can one live otherwise?) that the voices of evidence, reason and truth will ultimately prevail.

One of the more persistent myths that have invaded our conversation, media and (very sadly) education, is the late Victorian invention that religious faith and science are necessarily in conflict. So prevalent and normalised is this assumption, that recent surveys in UK high schools find up to 70% of 15 year olds think it (but without being able to say why). I say ‘late Victorian’ for before the publication of two books, now forgotten and unread but best-sellers in their time, there is no great ‘conflict narrative’. The books were: History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), by Andrew Dickson White, and History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, by John William Draper (1874). Purportedly historical writing, more recent scholarship has demonstrated that these (actually anti-Catholic, rather than anti-religious) texts are largely polemic. When history failed to rise to Draper and White’s expectations, they simply invented it.

Fortunately, recent years (including this one) have seen an abundance of good recent writing both scholarly and for lay readership, that puts the conflict myth to bed, from historians, sociologists and philosophers as well as scientists themselves.

Readers still under the misapprehension that the history of science can be accurately characterised by a continuous struggle to escape from the shackles of religious oppression into a sunny secular upland of free thought (loudly expressed by a few scientists but no historians) can consult Peter Harrison’s masterly The Territories of Science and Religion (OUP 2015), or dip into Ron Numbers’ delightful edited volume Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard UP 2009).

Likewise, assumptions that theological and scientific methodologies and truth-claims are necessarily in philosophical or rational conflict might be challenged by Alister McGrath’s The Territories of Human Reason (2019) or Andrew Torrance’s and Thomas McCall’s edited Knowing Creation (2018).

The late-Victorian Draper-White origin of the ‘alternative history’ of unavoidable conflict is fascinating in its own right, but as we saw, is also damaging in that it has multiplied through so much public and educational discourse in the 20th century in both secular and religious communities. That is the topic of a new and fascinating study by historian James Ungureanu: Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict (2019).

 

Finally, the concomitant assumption that scientists must, by logical force, adopt non-theistic world-views is roundly rebutted by recent and global social science, such as Elaine Eklund’s major survey, also published in a new book Secularity and Science (OUP 2019).

 

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Nick Spencer (and Darwin) on the BBC Radio 4 website for The Secret History of Science and Religion

The history of scientific, philosophical and social evidence that the relationship of science and religion is much more entangled and interesting was the subject of a recent three-part BBC Radio 4 series by Nick Spencer, The Secret History of Science and Religion. It’s well worth a listen. Nick’s interesting report on the current state and effect of the conflict myth and its associated misperceptions is available here

 

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It is, of course, the rich and creative consequences of a future public discourse that recognises the falsity of the conflict narrative, that Faith and Wisdom in Science is all about. In particular we need to ask what a ‘Theology of Science’ might look like, rather than negotiating an uneasy standoff between Theology and Science. More than that, we need to explore ways that the Church can first understand how to receive science as a gift,  and secondly how to support it. That is the role of (among many other movements and projects) the St. John’s College Durham/University of York/Church of England project Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science (ECLAS). But that is another story.

 

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Faith and Wisdom on the Moon

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Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 LM pilot, photographed on the Moon’s surface by Neil Armstrong, whose image is reflected, alongside a leg of their lunar lander, in Aldrin’s facemask.

I started this day, exactly 50 years ago, rather early in the morning. The 7 year old me, woken by my father at 1am on 21st July 1969, crept downstairs and sat cross-legged in front of our black and white TV to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their, and humankind’s first steps on the Moon. The experience seeded and nurtured a passion for the universe that has inspired me ever since.

I have learned since that the astronauts had a rather more arduous and problematic final descent to the surface than was public at the time – loss of communication with Houston Mission Control, overshooting the planned landing site, repeated computer overload alarms, and Armstrong’s final desperate search for a boulder-free landing site while there remained less than a minute’s worth of fuel for the descent engine.

No wonder that Aldrin invited people around the world, soon after landing, to pause in a moment of silence and ‘give thanks in their own way.’ His own actions in that moment were pre-meditated, however. He had brought a tiny chalice and communion plate from his church at home, together with consecrated bread and wine, for a short and personal celebration of the great Christian Thanksgiving (Eucharist). This repeated meal commemorates the disciples’ last supper with Jesus before his crucifixion and resurrection, and constitutes and act that brings Christian people the world over and every day to an embodied encounter with the living Christ.

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The tiny chalice used by astronaut Buzz Aldrin to take communion on the Moon during the Apollo 11 landing.

It’s a quiet act, not drawing much publicity. Even Jerry Coyne’s ‘Why Evolution is True’ (as if that needed explaining) blog merely reports on it, without the usual explicit scorn of that web-page on all things Christian.

Yet the record that some of the first words uttered by humans on the surface of another world echoed those of Christ’s last on this one, holds great significance. That moment in space and time acts as a focal point of the history of science: of the centuries-long dreams of voyages to the stars (see my Apollo 8 piece for TheConversation), of the theory of gravity and the dynamics of the solar system, of the chemistry of combustion, the physics and engineering of rocketry, of the physiology of respiration, nutrition and survival that permits humans to travel outside our atmosphere … And at that very point is celebrated the Christian wisdom that God took an incarnate form, assumed molecules and atoms, for a second time called the material creation ‘Good’. So good that God became it.

St. Paul, in his letter to the church at Colossi, identifies Christ, the second person of the Trinity, not only as the one incarnate in creation but also the agent of creation, before the world (Colossians chapter 1:15-20):

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross

It is all too easy to imagine one of the great cathedral friezes of ‘Christ in Glory’ when reading this – a distant, enthroned and haloed King. But the last verse here indicates that Paul had another picture in mind. It is the bleeding and tortured man on the wood, the teacher of the power to grow of small things like a mustard seed, the healer – out of sight of the crowds – of the sightless, that created all things. Stepping out into the world, and onto other ones, with an attitude of care, of wonder, of servanthood, is the way we follow.

Aldrin steps on moon

The Poetry and Music of Science

In this month’s blog, I write about the story of a new book, out in March 2019 with OUP, The Poetry and Music of Science. It follows from one of the consequences of a ‘theology of science’ articulated in Faith and Wisdom in Science – that of the ‘healing of the academy’. If the first is my ‘not a science and religion book’, then this is my ‘not the two-cultures book’. Here is how it happened, once upon a time ….Coverpic small

 

‘I just didn’t see in science any room for my own imagination or creativity.’

Not just on one occasion, but repeatedly have I heard this from young students bright enough to have succeeded at any subject they set their minds to. Yet it doesn’t take an Einstein to observe that without the essential first step, without a creative re-imagining of nature, a conceiving of hypotheses for what might be going on behind the perceived surface of phenomena, there can be no science at all. Einstein did of course have something to say on the matter, in his book with Leopold Infeld:

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

Every scientist knows this, but for two centuries we have fallen largely silent about it, preferring instead a narrative about the ‘empirical method’ or, ‘the logic of scientific discovery.’ Science education is full of it, favouring the presentation of results, rather than the human stories of wonder, imagination, failed ideas and those glorious and uninvited moments of illumination that thread through the lives of all who actually do science. Our media mouths the same message – ‘there is no room for imagination in science’ assured the presenter of a TV documentary on computer science, face to camera. No wonder my young colleagues became disillusioned.

If scientists are somewhat shy about their experiences of imagination, then I found that the artists, writers and composers I spoke to needed the same patience (and similarly the occasional drink) to draw them out on their repeated need to experiment. Scraping the paint from the canvas, re-drafting the novel for the tenth time, rescoring the thematic musical material is, as every artist knows, the consequence of the material constraints that creativity meets unanticipated. The artist, too, makes hypotheses about how her material, words or sounds will achieve the goal in mind, however indistinctly conceived. The historically simultaneous birth of the English novel and the experimental method in science turns out to be no coincidence. Without making the naïve claim that art and science are in any sense ‘doing the same thing’, the similarities in the experience of those who work with them are remarkable. They need digging out because they become obscured by scientists shy of talking about imagination and artists about experiment.

physics-schrodinger-s-formula-freezelight-bokeh-schrödinger-equation-quantum-mechanics-99006614The project of listening to anyone who creates, be it with music or mathematics, oil paint or quantum theory, and the creative power of the constraints they encounter, became itself the project of a book. Yet in a strange obedience to the pattern of its material, the originally-imagined plot of The Poetry and Music of Science refused to play out. Juxtaposed catalogues of creation in science and art, followed by an extended ‘contrast and compare’ essay, increasingly failed to do justice to the material. Historical and contemporary sources were telling a very different story about creative imagination, one that did not divide across the worn-out lines of ‘The Two Cultures’. Instead, a pattern of three ‘modes’ of creative expression seemed more faithful.

Visual imagination is, of course, the chief source for the artist, but the same is true for many scientists, from molecular biology to astrophysics. Astronomy is the provider of the original projective perspective. If the observer of a painting is asked to re-create a three-dimensional world from a representation or impression on a two-dimensional canvas, then the task of ‘seeing’ the universe from the picture that we call the sky, bears clear structural resemblance.

A second mode is textual and linguistic. The entanglement between science and the written word in prose or poetry may possess a principle knot at the birth of the novel, as we have already noted, but its story is a much longer one. It also has an ‘alternative history’, envisioned by Wordsworth (and surely Goethe and Humboldt before him) in which

The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us.

With notable exceptions (such as R S Thomas and occasionally W B Yeats in poetry, and the ever-present fluttering trespass of Vladimir Nabukov’s beloved butterflies from his scientific work into his novels) this early-Romantic vision has sadly yet to be fulfilled, and is surely frustrated by the very desiccated presentation of science with which we began.

Imagination’s third mode appears as both pictures and words fade away. For there, when we might have expected a creative vacuum, we find instead the wonderful and mysterious abstractions of music and of mathematics. This shared space is surely why these two have something in common – it is surely not their superficial sharing in numerical structure that links melody and harmony with mathematical structure, but their representational forms in entire universes of our mental making.

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The 40000 year old ‘Lion Man’ ivory (Museum of Ulm)

When a journey has taken one to as numinous a place as this, it is but a short step to recognise the need for theological thinking to make sense of it all. The anthropology and cognitive neuroscience of creativity is fascinating, the one taking as to the stone tools of our distant ancestors at the dawn of humanity, the other to the delicate balance between the analytic left hemisphere of our brains and the integrative right. The philosophical tradition is equally rich, discovering, for example Levinas’ suspicion of the ‘visual’ mode for its implied distancing, preferring the ‘musical or auditory’ for its immersion of subject in object. But theology seems to be unique in maintaining possession of the critical tools necessary to tease out the role of purpose in human creativity. Both the artistic and scientific modes of re-imagining nature seem to have been part of what drives humans to be human for as long as the records of those attempts have survived. It is the rich tradition of understanding humans themselves as some form of living ‘image’ – the Imago Dei – that does justice to the experience of deploying creativity to a purpose. George Steiner wrote in his Real Presences:

Only art can go some way towards making accessible, towards waking into some measure of communicability, the sheer inhuman otherness of matter
I could say precisely the same of science.

50 Years Ago Apollo 8 Fulfilled a 2000 Year-Old Dream

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NASA

This blog was originally written for and published by TheConversationUK

Half a century of Christmases ago, the NASA space mission Apollo 8 became the first manned craft to leave low Earth orbit, atop the unprecedentedly powerful Saturn V rocket, and head out to circumnavigate another celestial body, making 11 orbits of the moon before its return. The mission is often cast in a supporting role – a sort of warm up for the first moon landing. Yet for me, the voyage of Borman, Lovell and Anders six months before Neil Armstrong’s “small step for a man” will always be the great leap for humankind.

Apollo 8 is the space mission for the humanities, if ever there was one: this was the moment that humanity realised a dream conceived in our cultural imagination over two millennia ago. And like that first imagined journey into space, Apollo 8 also changed our moral perspective on the world forever.

In the first century BC, Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero penned a fictional dream attributed to the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus. The soldier is taken up into the sphere of distant stars to gaze back towards the Earth from the furthest reaches of the cosmos:

And as I surveyed them from this point, all the other heavenly bodies appeared to be glorious and wonderful — now the stars were such as we have never seen from this earth; and such was the magnitude of them all as we have never dreamed; and the least of them all was that planet, which farthest from the heavenly sphere and nearest to our earth, was shining with borrowed light, but the spheres of the stars easily surpassed the earth in magnitude — already the earth itself appeared to me so small, that it grieved me to think of our empire, with which we cover but a point, as it were, of its surface.

Earth-centric

Even for those of us who are familiar with the ancient and medieval Earth-centred cosmology, with its concentric celestial spheres of sun, moon, planets and finally the stars wheeling around us in splendid eternal rotation, this comes as a shock. For the diagrams that illustrate pre-modern accounts of cosmology invariably show the Earth occupying a fair fraction of the entire universe.

The geocentric model. Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris). Wikimedia Commons

Cicero’s text informs us right away that these illustrations are merely schematic, bearing as much relation to the actual imagined scale of the universe as today’s London Tube map does to the real geography of its tunnels. And his Dream of Scipio was by no means an arcane musing lost to history – becoming a major part of the canon for succeeding centuries. The fourth century Roman provincial scholar Macrobius built one of the great and compendious “commentaries” of late antiquity around it, ensuring its place in learning throughout the first millennium AD.

Cicero, and Macrobius after him, make two intrinsically-linked deductions. Today we would say that the first belongs to science, the second to the humanities, but, for ancient writers, knowledge was not so artificially fragmented. In Cicero’s text, Scipio first observes that the Earth recedes from this distance to a small sphere hardly distinguishable from a point. Second, he reflects that what we please to call great power is, on the scale of the cosmos, insignificant. Scipio’s companion remarks:

I see, that you are even now regarding the abode and habitation of mankind. And if this appears to you as insignificant as it really is, you will always look up to these celestial things and you won’t worry about those of men. For what renown among men, or what glory worth the seeking, can you acquire?

The vision of the Earth, hanging small and lowly in the vastness of space, generated an inversion of values for Cicero; a human humility. This also occurred in the case of the three astronauts of Apollo 8.

A change in perspective

There is a vast difference between lunar and Earth orbit – the destination of all earlier space missions. “Space” is not far away. The international space station orbits, as most manned missions, a mere 250 miles above our heads. We could drive that distance in half a day. The Earth fills half the sky from there, as it does for us on the ground.

Apollo 8 crew-members: James Lovell Jr., William Anders, Frank Borman (L-R). NASA

But the moon is 250,000 miles distant. And so Apollo 8, in one firing of the S4B third stage engine to leave Earth orbit, increased the distance from Earth attained by a human being by not one order of magnitude, but three. From the moon, the Earth is a small glistening coin of blue, white and brown in the distant black sky.

So it was that, as their spacecraft emerged from the far side of its satellite, and they saw the Earth slowly rise over the bleak and barren horizon, the crew grabbed all cameras to hand and shot the now iconic “Earthrise” pictures that are arguably the great cultural legacy of the Apollo program. Intoning the first verses from the Book of Genesis as their Christmas message to Earth – “… and the Earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep…” – was their way of sharing the new questions that this perspective urges. As Lovell put it in an interview this year:

But suddenly, when you get out there and see the Earth as it really is, and when you realise that the Earth is only one of nine planets and it’s a mere speck in the Milky Way galaxy, and it’s lost to oblivion in the universe — I mean, we’re a nothing as far as the universe goes, or even our galaxy. So, you have to say, ‘Gee, how did I get here? Why am I here?’

The 20th century realisation of Scipio’s first century BC vision also energised the early stirrings of the environmental movement. When we have seen the fragility and unique compactness of our home in the universe, we know that we have one duty of care, and just one chance.

Space is the destiny of our imagination, and always has been, but Earth is our precious dwelling place. Cicero’s Dream, as well as its realisation in 1968, remind the world, fresh from the Poland climate talks, that what we do with our dreams today will affect generations to come.

Stephen Hawking and the Mind of God

IMG_0006It was one of those mind-blowing moments gifted to students when we have direct access to the great thinkers of our times.  The speaker at the Cambridge mathematical physics seminar sat hunched in his wheelchair, a PhD student of his assisting with the acetate slides on the overhead projector (this was 1987 after all). The robotic voice that even then Stephen Hawking had to use accompanied the appearance of a slide of mathematics that was clearly a version of quantum mechanics’ fundamental ‘Schrödinger Equation’ – but with an enormous ‘Psi’ character for the wave function.

‘…. Consider Psi …. The… wavefunction….of….the….Universe…’

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I reeled mentally, my mind unable to catch up with the cosmic change of perspective that it was being asked to follow. This was the equation used, in my experience, for systems like single electrons; now we were being asked, even casually, to apply it in one go to the entire universe!

But this was typical of Steven Hawking’s capacity to think on a vast canvas and in ways that others had not even imagined, making connections that others had never seen. Most of his physics orbited around the extraordinary objects we call ‘black holes’ – the collapsed remains of dead heavy stars whose gravity is so strong that even light is unable to escape from them. His imagination reached though the ‘event horizons’ of the black holes to the weird points inside them where space-time breaks down, he wrestled with the problem of the apparent disappearance of information from the universe (that was the big Psi thing it turned out), and predicted the holes’ strange ‘Hawking radiation’ by connecting two of Einstein’s great loves – the gravitational curvature of space and the thermodynamics of heat – with one of his great loathings: the weird unpredictability of quantum mechanics.

No wonder that he used, in his best seller A Brief History of Time, the metaphor of the ‘mind of God’ when trying to describe the ultimate goal of understanding reality:

“If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of reason – for then we should know the mind of God.”

But it was always a metaphor for him.  Hawking was clear time and again that he found the ‘case for a Creator’ unconvincing, but the reason for that seems to have never moved from a failure of that otherwise all-seeing mind to see beyond physics itself. His conclusion that we do not ‘need God to light the blue touch paper of the Big Bang’ is not contested in terms of physics. But ‘why there is something rather than nothing’ is not a physics question – it lies in the theological realm to which, in spite of many thoughtful Christian correspondents over the years, including former archbishop Rowan Williams and Oxford mathematician John Lennox, Hawking seemed to remain impervious.

While we may sorrow over Hawking’s rejection of God, the Creator who is and loves and gives – rather than just ‘explains’, we may nevertheless be thankful to that God for the gift of one who articulated, even in unbelief, that our Biblical calling is indeed to know His Mind, to look into nature with the same love and insight as its creator, and to live with courage using the gifts we have rather than surrendering to our incapacities.

(first written for Premier Christian Radio Blog)

 

Why we have to think differently about science and religion

This is an article commissioned from me from the American Physics Journal Physics Today. With their permission I am republishing it here for readers of this blog,

Maintaining the “alternative fact” that science and religion, and in particular Christianity, are in conflict is hurting science. Over the past year, three occasions have left me with strong visual memories and deep impressions that point towards a better approach.

The first, held at St John’s College of Durham University in the UK, was a debate on the sensitive topic of ‘fracking’—shale-oil recovery by hydraulic fracturing. I have witnessed several such discussions, both live and broadcast, and they rarely succeed in anything except escalating entrenched positions and increasing misinformation and fear; few participants bother to treat the science with respect.

Tom McLeish seminarThis gathering was different. Strongly opposing views were expressed, but their proponents listened to each other. Everyone was keen to grasp both the knowns and the uncertainties of the geological science and technology. Social science and geophysics both drew sustained civil dialog. The notion of different priorities was understood—and some people actually changed their views.

The second occasion was some reading I have been doing for a book on the role of creativity and imagination in science. Research for one chapter had led me to connections between the explosion of new science in the 17th century and ideas from the same period expressed in literature, art, and theology.

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Those ideas included a discussion of the nature of God to a depth unseen since the fourth-century ecumenical councils. One treatise impressed me hugely with its author’s detailed knowledge of textual analysis, variants in New Testament manuscripts, and nuances of Greek; it would rival any current scholarship. Furthermore, it evidenced a scientific logic and a perception of the revolutions in natural philosophy that is very rare in theological writing today.

Job on stageA one-act play I attended in my hometown of York in the UK supplied the third occasion. I’d heard that a respected national theater company had long wanted to create a work based on the ancient book of Job. I admit to a personal love for that ancient poem. No one really knows where it came from, but for my money it contains the most sublime articulation of the innate curiosity into nature that still drives science today but that has clearly deep human roots. Its probing questions seek answers to where hail, lightning, and clouds come from, why stars can be clustered together, how birds navigate huge distances, how the laws of the heavens can be applied to Earth, and so on.

Common across the three occasions is the theme of surprisingly deep and constructive mutual engagement of science and religious belief. The conference on shale-gas recovery was between academic Earth scientists and a few dozen senior church leaders, including bishops of the Church of England. The author of the impressive New Testament scholarship was Isaac Newton. And the play that so impressed me, staged by the Riding Lights Theatre Company in the elegant renaissance church of St Michael le Belfrey in York, featured a 20th-century Job as a research physicist. After the performance a panel of scientists discussed how their faith supports their scientific research. Anyone who has not read beyond the superficial yet ubiquitous stories of conflict between science and religion that receive so much airtime today would be surprised to see such deep entanglements of scientific and religious thinking, from the ancient past of the book of Job to current scientifically informed political decision making.

Between the ancient and the contemporary lies the history of early modern science. There, too, the public sphere today seems dominated by a determined program of misinformation. Newton himself is testimony to the deep formative role of Christian theology in the rise of experimental and mathematical sciences. Far from being a sort of secular triumph over centuries of dogmatic obscurantism, the writings of early modern scientists such as Newton and Robert Boyle make it clear that they were motivated by the theological philosophy of Francis Bacon.

For Bacon, science became the gift by which humankind restores an original knowledge of nature, lost as a consequence of rejection of God. The truth that faith conveyed direct motivation and influence for many great scientists can be uncomfortable. Historian of science and biographer Geoffrey Cantor, author of Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist—A Study of Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (1991), still receives ‘hate mail’ from readers incensed at the suggestion that such a scientific mind might also have been a Christian one.

We are even learning to readjust our schoolbook picture of the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual stagnation, generally repressive of science. History is far more interesting. The scientific enlightenment that gave birth to the Copernican Revolution, the Royal Society of London, the universal theory of gravitation, and the telescope and microscope did not, of course, arise from nowhere. The long fuse for that intellectual fireworks display was lit in 12th-century Europe by scholars like Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon through the movement to translate Aristotle’s scientific texts. They were mostly lost to the West since late antiquity but were preserved and developed by brilliant Islamic scholars in Baghdad, the Levant, and Spain. Arab natural philosophers Al-Kindi, Averroës, Alhazen and Avicenna ought to be far better known as beacons in the long history of science; they, too, saw their task of comprehending the cosmos as God-given. The consequent scientific awakening in the West saw the new learning about the cosmos, not as conflictual with the Bible, but as a ‘second book’ to be read alongside it.

The scholars’ work allowed 13th-century English thinkers Grosseteste, Bacon, and others to develop theories of light, color, and motion. Their work led, for example, to the first complete theory of the rainbow at the level of geometric optics, from the laboratory of Theodoric of Freiberg in the 1320s and to the first mathematical articulation of accelerated motion by Jean Buridan of Paris a decade later. Small wonder that Nicolaus Copernicus saw his astronomical work as a form of worship and that Galileo Galilei viewed it as reading God’s second book.

Maintaining the alternative fact that science and religion are in conflict does no one any favors and is hurting science. The damage comes not only through a warped transmission of history but also because it suggests to religious communities that science is a threat to them rather than an enterprise they can celebrate and support. The bishops’ fracking conference is just one example of how the quality of social support of and discussion around science can be raised once churches get involved. After all, a community with a commitment to core values of truth and a banishment of fear might well offer the clarity and calm needed in a public debate currently marked by far too much falsity and fear.

Equally tragic is that in families with a faith tradition, even very young children may receive the idea that science is not for them or that it somehow threatens their community. The truth is that throughout most of history, scientific investigation has gone hand in hand with a commitment to theism, at least in the three Abrahamic faiths. It is, sadly, possible to invent conflict where none needs to be.

The “literal” reading of texts such as Genesis–as if they were scientific documents rather than part of a story in which we inquire about the universe–is a 20th-century aberration away from orthodox Christianity. Conversely, misrepresenting faith as mindless adherence to beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary needs to give way to a more thoughtful understanding. The term can describe painstaking engagement with the world through the true stories we are part of. Reflecting the vital presence of what we might call “reasoned hope,” faith is not so very far from descriptions of the experience of doing science.

Driving an unhistorical and unrealistic wedge between science and religion has got to stop. It leads, in part, to the optionalism that we see in some public and political attitudes toward science, from climate change to vaccination. It damages the educational experience of our children, and it impoverishes our understanding of our own science’s historical context. Human beings live not only in a physical world but within historical narratives that give us values, purpose, and identity. Science sits on the branches and draws from the sap of many of those stories whose roots are anchored in the great themes of creation, redemption, and renewal that course through our religious traditions and endow us with humanity. We are still looking for answers to some of the questions God asks of the luckless Job:

The-Lord-Answering-Job-out-of-the-Whirlwind-Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the Earth? …

What is the way to the place where lightning is dispersed …?

Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades?

Living with the Gods: a British Museum Conversation with Prof. Colin Blakemore

Sun Beams Entering Cave

The British Museum is currently running a exhibition Living with the Gods that features a rich material heritage of humankind’s historic engagement with the numinous, religious and theistic. There are a series of events planned over its course, including an evening conversation called The Science of Belief on January 26th 2018 between me, Samira Ahmed of the BBC and Prof. Colin Blakemore of University College London.  It is advertised thus:

Humans, through time and across the world, have consistently expressed patterns of believing and belonging through shared narrative and practice.

In this discussion, chaired by award-winning journalist, writer and BBC broadcaster Samira Ahmed, scientists Colin Blakemore and Tom McLeish examine how the cognitive impetus that drove the emergence of science might be considered to be the same impetus that fostered religion and other metaphysical beliefs.

They will discuss how science is itself at the heart of being human, and can be traced back through art, philosophy and ancient stories, including those in religious traditions.

Presented in collaboration with the Royal Society.

Leading up to that event, Colin and I were invited to post a conversation on the British Museum blog. With the Museum’s permission, I thought that readers of this blog might be interested in reading how the conversation went. Colin starts off …

 

Dear Tom,

As scientists, we surely both subscribe to a view of the universe that is compatible with the scientific method. Without the belief that the world is orderly, causally complete, and (in principle) explicable in terms of the properties of physical matter and lawful forces, the methods of science would be unreliable. But they are not. One after another, phenomena that previously seemed utterly mysterious – from the motion of stars to the nature of life – have succumbed to the explanatory power of science.

Curiosity and exploration are essential for the survival of mobile organisms. Exploring the environment in order to understand it and to use that knowledge to predict events is clearly important for any animal looking for food or a mate, and trying to avoid being someone else’s dinner. Presumably it is the enormous brain of human beings that propelled us into the state of exaggerated curiosity that distinguishes our species. Perhaps we should have been called Homo curiosus, rather than Homo sapiens: without curiosity, there could be no wisdom.

I suspect we’ll agree that a lust for understanding underpins both religion and science. But, to my mind, they are epistemologically incompatible. In our quest to comprehend nature (including our own nature), there is no place for ideology, dogma and unjustifiable faith. Nor for appeals to the ‘super’-natural.

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Lion-man-angles-Vergleich-drei-Ganzkörper-Ansichten

EnLion Man from three angles. Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 40,000 years old. © Ulmer Museum.

Dear Colin,

I was rather hoping for something that I might be able to disagree with!  Love the Homo curiosus idea, and the ‘lust for understanding’. Well perhaps I can disagree with your assumption at the end that ‘religion’ is some sort of alternative epistemology for finding out knowledge about the world.  You sketch the convenient (Auguste) Comptean picture of science slowly replacing ‘religion’ as explanation, as it paints the priest and prophet into an ever-vanishing corner of the epistemological room. It’s such a common misunderstanding, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is just that.  So, I’m not surprised at the hurling around of words like ‘ideology’, ‘dogma’ and ‘unjustified faith’ – perhaps there is rather a lot to unpick here after all.

Let’s start with your (and our shared) ‘belief that the world is orderly …’.  It’s true – continually, miraculously (in the bare sense of the word) it’s faith that turns out to be justified.  We don’t know if that will continue of course, but both suspect that it will.  Kepler, Faraday, Maxwell, Einstein, Hoyle and many other scientists have not unreasonably raised the theological significance of the discovery that mental structure is there in the universe.

My tradition of Judeo-Christianity is not a set of rival explanatory ‘super-natural’ causes for the world, but (among many other things) a story of how humans have come to terms with their relationship to that world (and yes with its Creator).  The great medieval scientific enlightenment lit the fuse that led to the events we call the ‘scientific revolution’ with methods of observation and cognition, and with a driving narrative of purpose and hope, that was explicitly generated by a theological narrative.  The early moderns, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Newton himself – drove experimental science from the same source.

Science can give helpful evolutionary and anthropological explanations of where curiosity came from, but it cannot give us the story we need to live in now, on why we do science itself, for what end and for whom, why human persons find, as Kant put it, a disjuncture between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’.  I am trying to get at what Einstein meant when he said, ‘Religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame’.

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The-Lord-Answering-Job-out-of-the-Whirlwind-Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind, by William Blake

Dear Tom,

Yes, we have plenty to agree on – especially the explanatory power of science, and its dependence on the regularity and lawfulness of the universe. And I agree that mystical notions might have provided human beings, in the past, with a normative mythology, partly reassuring, partly intimidating, about the role of people on this earth. But the existence of an idea, even if widespread among humans, even if powerful in its influence, doesn’t make it correct.

There are two themes in your reply that I’m eager to discuss when we meet on 27 January. The first is your suggestion that the Judeo-Christian narrative is not an explanation myth but “a story of how humans have come to terms with their relationship to that world”. Apart from the fact that Genesis 1:1 seems to have been forgotten, I wonder how you can accept fables and legends, bereft of evidence, as anything more than fiction. And if you mean that religious codes have provided people with essential guidance on how to relate to each other and to the natural world, I must remind you that religio-politics (from far-right Christian fundamentalism to Jihadist terrorism to Buddhist ethnic cleansing to Zionist Islamophobia) isn’t doing a very good job. Our only chance of coming to terms with each other and the world lies in the genuine understanding of that world and of the nature of human beings that comes from evidence-based scholarship (in the humanities as well as science).

The second is your notion that the inspiration for scientists (and even for science itself) was “a driving narrative of purpose and hope” provided by religion.  Human beings certainly have a tendency to see purpose and meaning in the world, as well as an inclination to perceive agency and intention. These cognitive dispositions are efficient ways of identifying the presence and actions of other people, but they can lead to a false model of causation based on intention, and the curious view that life is valuable only if it has some undefined ‘meaning’. I think that this is the more correct interpretation of your statement that “mental structure is there in the universe.” As for religion inspiring science, you proffer Bacon, Boyle and Newton. But I raise you Bohr, Medawar, Tinbergen, Higgs, Crick, Monod, Kroto, Chadwick, Brenner, Bondi, Pauling, etc. As for Einstein and the enigmatic words that you cite, I submit his own explanation: “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” (Einstein, 1954). Hear, hear.

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Dear Colin

We have established that very clever and wise scientists can be atheists, and equally can be theists. Very detailed sociological work along these lines has been carried out more recently by sociologists such as Elaine Ecklund at Rice University. But all that does is to give us pause before we take the line that either world-view is obviously right, or obviously wrong. I think that an equally sterile course would be to pivot an argument on the worst excesses of those who distort tradition to violent and poisonous ends (including those of the officially atheist regimes we have seen only since the 20th century).

We ought to discuss what ‘accepting fables and legends’ (I have always preferred ‘myths’) might mean. Since you mention Genesis 1 (forgotten by whom, by the way, and accepted as meaning what?) it might be helpful in the context of the British Museum to recall the many historical modes of reading such texts that are far more sophisticated than our repertoire today: analogical, anagogical, metaphorical, apocalyptical, normative, and so on. I am always saddened by the cultural failure to read the Bible in our age (irrespective of belief), simply because we miss the wealth of ancient evidence for the way humankind has looked for meaning, in just the way you point out.  Berlin philosopher Susan Neiman has claimed, for example, that the Book of Job should be considered alongside Plato as a foundation text for Western philosophy. In any case it contains some of the most sublime ancient nature poetry I know, and convinces me that the seeds of what we now call ‘science’ were sown many generations ago.

I would love it if we could get beyond and behind arguments ‘for’ and ‘against’ theistic belief at the public debate – and unpack the stated purpose on the blurb: ‘how science is itself at the heart of being human, and can be traced back through art, philosophy and ancient stories, including those in religious traditions’. I think that one can make a case that one reason for the damaging cultural divide between what we term ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ is the loss of the religious and theological glue that once held them together.