An Easter-Week Expression of Hope for Faith and Wisdom in Science

Easter-time seems a good moment to draw back the curtain a little bit on some big words with theological resonance that bridge between the practice of science (or of life in general for that matter) and the foundation of faith.  It also recthe-stone-is-rolled-awayords an interesting question put to me in the discussion-time following a recent James Gregory Lecture at the University of St. Andrews (which you can see, including the discussion, here).   I was asked, ‘Why haven’t you talked at all about God? I was expecting you to do that in a lecture on Science and Religion!’.  The odd thing was that I had the impression that I had been talking about God all the time – after all, a Theology of Science based on the deep Old Testament Wisdom books, intrepreted through a New Testament lens (that’s the academic soundbite folks) could, I thought, hardly be interpreted as godless.  But perhaps the questioner had a point.  After all, much of the OT wisdom sayings also take an implied or implicit presence of God rather than an explicit one.  Some analyses of the Book of Proverbs, for example, even divide the sayings into ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’.  The Book of Job, my textual centrepiece in Faith and Wisdom in Science, depends for its narrative thrust on the absence of God for most of its course.  Without the silence of the voice of Jahweh for the first 37 chapters, the ‘Voice from the Whirlwind’ in chapter 38 would lose some of the ‘frisson’ that Job scholar David Clines describes accompanying his every reading.  It is, perhaps, too easy to assume the same silent voice when talking about the theology of science – in which God is always implied but mostly in the background.  There is one very good reason for this.  Silence from and about God allows human activities to proceed within a secular setting.  Science may have had Christian roots in the past, and as I claim theological underpinnings in the present, but these must not appear to make it exclusive as a human enterprise.  But for a Christian (or Jew or Muslim – see chapter 8) we need God to step out from the shadows of the cave. Time to roll back the stone!

‘Faith’ itself, is of course one of the big words we need to talk about.  As I explain in Faith and Wisdom in Science, ‘faith’ (with a small ‘f’) is a commonplace requirement in the methodology of science.  Early in the life of a scientific idea it will be too underdeveloped and too weakly-supported by data to stand up against the established theories, however cracked they might be.  The proponents of a new idea, usually still in ostensible contradiction with observation in some cases at least, must exercise ‘faith’ that it will come good, that the inconsistencies will be ironed out one day, that further insights into the structure of the new idea will render it more plausible and stronger rather than weaker.  I went through this experience myself in the early years of a new theory of how polymer (plastic) liquids behaved.  It challenged existing orthodoxy and received considerable oppostion.  It’s detracators were able to point to experiments that our new idea totally failed to account for.  Under a strictly Popperian methodology of science it ought, refuted, to have died at birth. Yet the way that it made sense of so much of the rest of the phenomena of ‘elastic liquids’ from their molecular structure persuaded some of us that it was on the right track.  In the early days this wasnt really rational thinking.  We had just developed a ‘love’ for our beautiful baby theory and we had ‘faith’ that one day it would grow into a more powerful scheme that accounted for the present gaps as well.  And so it proved, after 20 years or so.

This linked activity of such faith in and love of new ideas within the progress of science is a central source of energy for its growth.  I discuss this at a little more length in chapter 7 of Faith and Wisdom, thinking about the much more significant story of the Copernican Revolution.  Of course at first sight this ‘faith with a small f’ looks rather different to the religious form of ‘Faith with a large F’ that characterises, for example, orthodox Christian belief.  But I am not convinced that they are so very far apart. Mark Twain’s (allegedly) classic definition of ‘believing things  you know aint so’ is amusing but doesnt work as a faithful account of Faith.  Belief in the Easter affirmation ‘Christ is risen!’ is more than an assent to historical events in 1st century Palestine (on the basis of arguably fair evidence for history in the ancient world, but flimsy if they were recent).  It is a recognition that the other big Easter word – Hope – has its source in a living Person who can be encountered, and who can transform with love and healing in communities today as vibrantly as he did then.  Hope is also, and always unreasonably, at the heart of science.  We carry on doing science because we hope that by it we will come to understand how the universe works.  We hope to see below the surface of phenomena into the logic, the symmetry, the layers of emergent structures of complexity, that this breathtakingly beautiful world supports. Nothing in the philosophy of science gives any a priori reason that we might expect to be able to do this.

In short we hope to heal our current ignorance and flawed relationship with nature, replacing it by one characterised instead by knowledge and wisdom. The resurrection is ultimately the source of all hope, including the hope that drives the humblest aspect of our calling to be menders of broken relationships – the task we call ‘science’.

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One thought on “An Easter-Week Expression of Hope for Faith and Wisdom in Science

  1. Isn’t your ‘faith with a little f’ evidence? We look at our work, we look at the stats, we look at the rest of described science, and say that ‘this should fit’. It isn’t hope or faith. That’s mushy language. I think you are playing with words to try to cram religion in where it has no place – evidence based reality.

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