Boyle Lecture Discussion Questions: A Full Initial Response

The short online panel discussion following the 2021 Boyle Lecture, The Rediscovery of Contemplation Through Science, was very rich, but attracted far more questions than we could handle at the time. I did (rashly?) promise at the time that I, and panel members if they wished, would try to address, at least in an initial form, all of the questions asked. Here is the result. I have decided that to minimise a fragmentation of response, that it is best to group the questions under subheadings. These turned out to be: Overall Rationale and Purpose, Contemplative Methodologies in Scientific Insight and Broader Practice, Science Culture and Politics, Psychological and Meditative Consequences, Natural Theology of Old and New Kinds, New Atheism, Education, Christian Practice, Lessons from the History of Science and Technology. These sections start with bold italic subtitles. The questions are in italic (followed by the questioner’s name). The response to each collection of questions follows in normal text. They are mine, except were specifically indicated.

Screenshot from the Boyle Lecture discussion with (from left top to right bottom) Prof. Fraser Watts, Prof. Michael Reiss, Prof. Tom McLeish (Boyle lecturer), Prof. Sarah Coakley, Dr. Sarah Lane Ritchie, Lord Williams of Oystermouth (Rt. Revd. Prof. Rowan Williams) (Boyle respondant)

Overall Rationale and Purpose 

Why are we doing this? (Bonnie Zahl – from a young family member)

Is the word God a verb or a noun? (Martin Bassants)

Talk of “religion” and “science” (and any type of “relationship” or whatever) seems utterly unable to capture what you are saying. What categories, and modes of thinking, including contemplation, poetry, rhetoric, understanding could you recommend to us, especially to theologians and scientists (but to all of us really) to move towards a better understanding of God as creator and ourselves as part of creation. (Esgrid Sikahall)

Why do theologians refer to God as he? (Jack Martin)

What is truth? (Rebecca Nichol)

It is inspiring to receive such perceptive and deep ‘framing’ questions stimulated by a discussion such as this one. They are salutary reminders that we tread on transcendent ground. Especially helpful is the bold and simple challenge from the young audience member. Keeping sight of the reason we are doing something is an important habit in science, theology, and everything really! 

We are doing this because it matters to being human, somehow, that we understand how our world works. This isn’t just curiosity, although it might start there, but goes deeper to a sense of responsibility we have to each other and to our world to treasure it. Another reason that I wanted to give this talk is to show directly, rather than argue in the abstract, that Christian faith is in fact a fruitful source of support for science in many ways (and this is exactly why Robert Boyle started the series of lectures all those years ago). There is a misunderstanding that it has, and does still, limit and frustrate science, and I wanted to show that this need not be the case at all. Rather, that science can be both God’s gift and calling, though as soon as you say that you need to do some work to find out what that means. Perhaps that is part of finding out what ‘truth’ means – after all ‘true’ is a woodworking term, indicating when pieces are lined up or properly parallel. ‘True’ has the sense of being in a right relationship with, and both theology and science working together aim to establish that sort of a ‘true-ness’ between us and the world, and therefore between those and Godself (the gender-neutral term that theologians now often use of God, by the way, Jack Martin). But to do that will require, as Esgrid already hints at, every mode of being human in expression and reception. 

Martin Bassant’s question turns us back to Coleridge’s (and for that matter, Moses’) experience of the divine, and of insight into the divine, at that radical moment in the Torah when God declares his substantiveness to be verbal: I AM. 

Contemplative Methodologies in Scientific Insight and Broader Practice

What kind of interaction do you suppose Dr. McLeish’s beautiful insistence on the importance of “imagination” and “suddenness” of scientific solutions through sometimes unconventional modes of contemplation and reflection might have with Bernard Lonergan’s understanding of “insight”?  (Alexander Fogassy )

Within the theoretical areas of the sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc., we have the process of the thought experiment.  How do you see the contemplative and the imaginative and the poetic inspiring this process? (James Fowler)

How would you recommend the jobbing scientist under pressure of funding and publication, make room for the contemplative element of their vocation? (Roger Bretherton)

How can theological reflection seeking an understanding of the mind of God, through Biblical Poetry and Wisdom Literature inspire one’s contemplative activity in the sciences? (James Fowler)

I was struck with contemplation as a way to think about the unseen side and the hidden nature of things as being obvious in art- Cubism aimed to reveal all the unseen sides of an object at once, via the imagination- and the network of fungi that biologists found empirically verified as the probable source of trees being able not to talk to each other but to make protective chemical signals. But in practice we might need to show that this is how many solutions are revealed even to the non-scientist, and on perhaps Buddhism is getting close to doing this. Is the western faith lagging in this and will people of no faith tolerate this approach in education? (Mary lin Raisch)

An example of contemplation from an unexpected source, T.H. Huxley: ‘The student of Nature wonders the more and is astonished the less, the more conversant he becomes with her operations; but of all the perennial miracles she offers to his inspection, perhaps the most worthy of admiration is the development of a plant or of an animal from its embryo. Examine the recently laid egg of some common animal, such as a salamander or newt. It is a minute spheroid in which the best microscope will reveal nothing but a structureless sac, enclosing a glairy fluid, holding granules in suspension. But strange possibilities lie dormant in that semi-fluid globule. Let a moderate supply of warmth reach its watery cradle, and the plastic matter undergoes changes so rapid, yet so steady and purpose-like in their succession, that one can only compare them to those operated by a skilled modeller upon a formless lump of clay. As with an invisible trowel, the mass is divided and subdivided into smaller and smaller portions, until it is reduced to an aggregation of granules not too large to build withal the finest fabrics of the nascent organism. And, then, it is as if a delicate finger traced out the line to be occupied by the spinal column, and moulded the contour of the body; pinching up the head at one end, the tail at the other, and fashioning flank and limb into due salamandrine proportions, in so artistic a way, that, after watching the process hour by hour, one is almost involuntarily possessed by the notion, that some more subtle aid to vision than an achromatic, would show the hidden artist, with his plan before him, striving with skilful manipulation to perfect his work.’ (Joshua Luke Roberts)

What about the wonder of science as a way of encouraging wider participation/enthusiasm? (Timothy Jarrold)

In your view of science as contemplation, what I have heard so far, are explicit appeals to the theology of Christianity. But since science is now a truly global practice, how would we incorporate in science as contemplation the views of other traditions (mindfulness etc. for example)? (Deepanwita Dasgupta)

Contemplation, in the mystical sense, means union with the transcendent or even a rapture. can we talk about a rapture in the case of contemplation through science? I’m asking because rational science often seems to dominate the man. Thanks, (Paul Scarlat)

I think Astronomy is the way to go does the panel agree? (Jack Martin)

‘Contemplative science’: there is a story of nuclear physicists praying the Jesus Prayer as they pursued their research… (Elizabeth Theokritoff)

Could you say something about the use of language in the two magisteria, science and religion.  Science will interpret a ‘mystery’ as an as-yet-unexplained phenomenon, whilst religion seems to protect mystery as a mystery, and would not want it explained, almost putting it off limits. (Paul Devonshire)

This set of questions pushes towards a deeper understanding of what ‘contemplation’ might mean in science, and from where we might learn, or re-learn it. There are some very helpful and promising suggestions. Joshua Luke Roberts provides a lovely example from Huxley – writing like that witnesses to just the contemplative time, reflection, and long unrushed search for the right language to talk about science, that I have in mind as the beginning of the process. Note carefully the ‘watching the process hour by hour’ – how much time to scientists, or all of us for that matter, set aside for watching slow processes in the natural world and reflecting on them. Boyle would most certainly approve. 

But there is more. Here Mary lin Raisch is helpful in pointing out an analogy with cubist art – the practice of holding different perspectives on an object at one and the same time. Huxley is doing this in real time, by describing the visible aspects of the salamander egg in its early development, but also creating and holding a mental image of the latent, potential animal as well as the unknown present structures that must be present and hidden, that ‘code’ for the later forms. Robert Grosseteste, the great 13thcentury polymath to whom Rowan Williams referred in the discussion, put this aspect of contemplation in natural philosophy this way (he calls it ‘sollertia’:

Sollertia, then, is a penetrative power by which the vision of the mind does not rest on the surface of the thing seen, but penetrates it until it reaches a thing naturally linked to itself. In the same way as corporal vision, falling on a coloured object, does not rest there, but penetrates into the internal connectivity and integrity of the coloured object, from which connectivity its colour emerges, and again penetrates this connectivity until it reaches the elementary qualities from which the connectivity proceeds.

There is yet a third stage to this ‘contemplative methodology’ – if I might demean it so – that I am urging be recognized as more central and vital to science than it currently is. It is here that we come to the ‘insight’ that I think (who can be quite sure with Bernard Lonergan?) lies behind the Jesuit philosopher/theologian’s work Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. When we spend a long time absorbing, paying attention to, a chosen focus of the world, perhaps though the perspective of a question, then accompany that with other material from the ‘periphery’ of our attention (this we discussed briefly on the panel session), when all that is added to the mental imaginative re-creation of the unseen, hidden, structures that lie behind the perceived – then we might receive a token of ‘insight’. But although these glimpses into what really might make sense of the world are, according to Lonergan ‘two a penny’, the really worthwhile ones are not.

At this point the experience of the wilderness must come in. All of us must know the experience of trying everything we have talked about so far – the intense study, the attempt to find words, the adding off other ideas, the exercise of imagination – yet stillthe answer, the solution, the clarity of the way ahead, fails to materialize. We give up. We rest for a while, perhaps a long while. But our subconscious does not. When we are fortunate, a moment or rest the next day, week, year or even decade (all are recorded) allows the apparently effortless appearance of insight into our conscious mind. Those are the little or not-so-little experiences that I was trying to urge scientists to share more publicly. There are examples everywhere (certainly in astronomy, Jack Martin, yes – but everywhere else too). Part of the reason that this takes time, I conjecture, is that scientific practice on its own is not enough to generate the radically imaginative new ideas that intuit new scientific insight. Some of the material for these must come from elsewhere, including poetry, religious practice (from many traditions very possibly), music, exercise…. I researched and wrote about the commonalities in these experiences across the sciences and the arts and the humnaities for the book The Poetry and Music of Science,[1] and was astonished by the frequency I heard the same story of winning insight across all these disciplines.

The final experience of this insight feels like a gift at the time. That, in addition to the contemplative course through both focused attention and wilderness times, creates together a very strong analogy with religious contemplation. We might understand the reason for the story that Elizabeth Theokritoff gives us, or for the notion from Michael Faraday that Sunday was the ideal day for scientific experiments – the sabbath rest of our relationship with the world, perhaps?

Science Culture and Politics

How does a democratisation and ‘poetising’ of science deal with the prevalent post-truth culture in which ‘truth is what I choose to believe’? (Andrew Jackson)

Science and religion/culture are each a birthright and common grounds or lingua franca among individuals. Esau either did not understand or value his birthright /lingua franca. While the Jacobs among us are happy to pick up the ball and run with it, what are we to do about our brothers and sisters who do not value what we value? Need we run away, go into exile, only later to appease and reconcile? (Dan Collinson)

On the subject of ‘layman’s science’, do you find encouragement in the growth of ‘citizen science’ projects? (Jennifer Brown)

I think I also agree with Prof. Ritchie’s point. In a world of science as contemplation, how would you draw the boundaries between science and pseudo-science? (Deepanwita Dasgupta)

Might some of the wider engagement in the science enterprise be stimulated by an appreciation of uncertainty? Science involves recognition and appraisal of uncertainty, as a dynamic process. (Andrew Briggs)

My MP chairs the All Parliamentary Group of Christian MPs. At a hustings event he confirmed his disbelief in human-caused climate change. He has previously disregarded opportunities to discuss his reservations with a local Professor with relevant expertise. How helpful is this with regard to public understanding of science? (Alan Ramagek)

These are deeply relevant and practical questions on hard-nosed consequences of the right (or the wrong) public framing of science. I could not be more ashamed, saddened and frustrated to hear from Alan Ramagek of a Christian MP in a position of influence announcing against the weight of scientific evidence on climate change, and especially an unwillingness to enter into dialogue with someone with expertise there. But taking up an opposed, moral high ground and casting anathemas is also not the way forward. We might recall the panel discussion with Dr. Richie, who helpfully pointed out the cherry-picked bits of science by which pseudo-science (like climate change denial) proceeds. The uncertainty to which Andrew Briggs draws our attention is important to discuss, and paradoxically perhaps, it is through an offered and open discussion of that uncertainty that the skeptics might be attracted into a centre ground where there is something to play for. 

The problem when science is not shared by the experts is that truth becomes, as Andrew Jackson reminds us, ‘what I choose to believe.’ A more honestly shared process by which we come to know things, including the concomitant uncertainties, will, I believe, lead to less pseudo-science and anti-science, not more. Of course, I am not sure about that. But surely it is worth a try?

Psychological and Meditative Consequences

It seems to me that contemplation is often viewed as similar to other states, such as mindfulness and reflection. Does the panel have any thoughts on the difference/similarity between contemplation, mindfulness and reflection? (Roger Bretherton)

The practice of lectio divina is very well known in dealing with the Holy Scripture. Is it possible to develop something analogical in dealing with the Book of Nature? (Frank Velic)

The original Sanskrit word for ‘mindfulness’ is Samyak Smriti — literally ‘complete memory’. Deepanwita Dasgupta

These insights might add some depth to the ‘hidden’ or sub-conscious stages of insight that we discussed above. For the verification of scientific truth there is a (relatively) clear method of approach, but for the deeper process of insight – the creation of fresh scientific ideas about the world in the first place, there is no method. The case of lectio divina to which Frank Velic draws our attention, for example, contains the notion of reading from multiple perspectives. My own experience of science affirms that ‘reading’ nature in just one way is typically insufficient to set create a pathway to insight and new knowledge. Perhaps a more structured practice within science that drew on these traditions would be a way of instantiating the more recognized role of contemplation in science that I am recommending.

Natural Theology of Old and New Kinds

What do you mean by natural theology? (James Fowler)

From proverbs 2:

indeed, if you call out for insight

    and cry aloud for understanding,

and if you look for it as for silver

    and search for it as for hidden treasure,

then you will understand the fear of the LORD

    and find the knowledge of God.

And given the journey of the wise men – following the science (if you will) – bringing them to truth, a person – Jesus. To what extent is there a still a place for scientific truth leading directly to God? (Tim Craggs)

What Prof. McLeish is talking about – trying to see nature through God’s eyes – sounds remarkably like what the ascetic Fathers call ‘natural contemplation’. And the formulation ‘seeing through God’s eyes’ helps explain why such contemplation is seen as requiring a prior transformation in ourselves. An interesting question is the extent to which a scientific engagement with the creation of which we are part can contribute to that process of transformation – perhaps through deepening our awareness of our creaturehood? (Elizabeth Theokritoff)

Do you see it as an anthropological inspiration of the divine or merely seeing God within the confines of what you perceive nature to be? (James Fowler)

What is the methodology of looking with God into to the universe? Theologically, what are the spiritual disciplines of coming into alignment with the referent of God’s gaze into the ever-creative creation as the birthplace of wisdom/understanding? (Kaley Casenhiser)

Kaley Casenhiser asks the key question – so how do we do this? With what spiritual disciplines? Her question makes me think that science itself might be the ‘spiritual discipline’ that we seek, and that the answer is to recognise it as such, at least for those who practice it within a confessional calling. This may seem elitist and abstruse, but that is also, we recall, part of the problem of science currently – that it does not possess a ‘ladder’ of engagement from the lay to the professional. Once that is added back in, then the enjoyment of knowledge of the world becomes a shared spiritual discipline. I think that there are active extensions of this, however. For example, churches are natural local and global agents of ‘creation care’ as a result of scientific knowledge about anthropogenic effects on the planet. Kaley’s own work at the Creation Care Collective is, I think, a very good example (https://creationcarecollective.com/growingtogether/ ).

Kaley’s hint of an ingredient of the answer within her question – the ‘spiritual’ discipline that corresponds to a co-creaturely gaze into nature – suggests another direction, that of the third person of the Trinity. It is not merely that we are created in God’s image that allows us to invest meaning in this aligned, Divine gaze, but that we are ‘temples’ of the same Spirit.[2] This is surely the guarantee for Coleridge’s sanctification of the creative imagination as ‘little I AMs’. The point is made again by Malcolm Guite in contrasting Milton and Virgil in the connection, and disconnection, respectively, that they could claim with the foundational events of the distant past:[3]

For Virgil writing the Aeneid, there is an unbridgeable gap between the urbane Roman poet and the events of the heroic age he is describing. But, when Milton comes to describe the Spirit of God moving over the face of the water in the beginning, he does so in the conviction that the very same Spirit is equally present in his mind.

Science becomes a Spiritual (with a large ‘S’) discipline in this light. Again, perhaps this helps us to see why there is a tradition in confessional scientists, from Copernicus to Faraday, who see doing science as a form of worship.

So, there are two ways in which we must respond to this extremely deep question: first I think is the step of recognition that science is (or can be) the spiritual discipline of being a little I AM. Secondly, we need to let that insight drive a transformationwhat science is, certainly for believers, but beyond us, the communities we affect. There is one, perhaps bold, suggestion that presents itself here which parallels Sarah Coakley’s analogous thinking into a Théologie Totale – a practice of academic theology that is also an act of worship and religious contemplation. Might we explore a ‘Science Totale’, a practice of science, even a methodology, that unashamedly includes practices we would affirm as worship, meditation, contemplation of a devotional nature within scientific work? At the very least, such new modes of approaching scientific reflection might open up new channels of imaginative creativity, in which the deep, even sub-conscious interplay of structures and dynamics of our representations of the world come together in new ways. It would also call on new sources of desire – energies that are necessary to drive all creative processes.[4]

New Atheism

“Popular” science seems to be closely allied to a “new atheism”. Why do you think this is? (Gary Cliffe)

The way I look at it, science is a process; you make observations, and then develop theories — hypotheses if you like — to explain them (the World Around Us).  Facts emerge, but the theories or new hypotheses are a human construct and in a constant state of flux.  God doesn’t enter the process at all. (M E Bailey)

Doesn’t the conversation pantomime between the devout and the atheist need to be transcended? The crushing reality that ensues and the resulting understanding of the ‘nothingness’ that is exposed, this is the ‘something’ so powerful that can give meaning of life. The internal monologue of the struggle with our ‘self’ which characterises so much of the scholarship from Aristotle to Aquinas and to the Enlightenment is not necessary. I’m sure if Jesus was here right now, he would be saying: “You did what? You created what? A Church! No, No, that’s not what I meant !!” As William James stated, a ‘deflation at depth’ is necessary for Humans to ‘get out of the driving seat’, in order to allow an understanding of the concept of ‘there is a power greater than myself’. Discuss. (Andrew Meikle)

I wonder if M. E. Bailey helps to answer Gary Cliffe’s question? He hints at the story, so often constructed in the ‘new atheism’ (as well as the not-so-new to be honest), that the story of science is the story of a dawn-line slowly and inevitably traversing the world, replacing the darkness of ‘religious’ explanations of the world with the light of scientific ones. Among many modern voices, a version of this idea lies behind August Comte’s eras of civilization. Of course, the problem with it is that it can only be supported by processing historical evidence through a cherry-picker already set to its colour and size. It seems to me odd that it is ever claimed that fact of the ability to do science without a practicing belief in God is evidence of God’s non-existence. We don’t claim this for agriculture, medicine, knitting …, after all. The sleight of hand here is to pretend that the ‘facts’ of the world, ‘discovered’ by science amount to all that there is. What we have been affirming at this event is that science, as all human activity is relational. That relations between feeling, loving, fearing, suffering and hoping beings exist, and between them and their material world, and that these relations require healing and care, is itself an observation that, while true, is not a scientific one. It is part of the framing of science. Rowan Williams reminded us that we too often forget what it is to which we choose to pay attention. This is necessary to do science. It is necessary to do everything. But we should not forget that we are doing it, and that we need to pay attention to different things, and different aspects of the same thing, if we are to find the truth. 

Andrew Meikle reminds us correctly that this exercise of taking multiple perspectives onto the world will involve a de-centering of self. This is another reason, in passing, that the Book of Job, is so relevant a foundation-text for the relational discipline that became science. However, I cannot agree that being the Church is not an appropriate response to Jesus. Our church may indeed leave a lot to be desired. But I believe that a radical community in which there is no male nor female, no slave no free, no Jew or Gentile, that sort of radical community which also ‘groans with all of creation’ is to be the church that can effect the changes we have been discussing.

Education

I tried as a middle school science teacher to excite my student’s imagination. For example, I challenged them with the true statement of there only being one simple machine. Based on that information explain why there aren’t eight simple machines instead of the six we are told about. Why isn’t there a greater exposure to hermeneutics in education? (Richard Dube (he, him, his))

How could concepts such as creativity, imagination, joy of science, and their relation to Christian faith (looking WITH God) be combined into a module for teenagers at (UK) Sunday schools or (NL) midweek catechism sessions? (Jaap Den Doelder)

Talking about little leaps, can we have classic texts such as Faraday’s History of the Candle, or Darwin’s Origin of Species as readings on the Humanities side? (Deepanwita Dasgupta)

As an undergraduate scientist, “old science” seems full of poetry (Kekule’s, Loewi, etc) and a marvellously exciting process, while all the new fellows at my college just use machine learning or a set of bought assays! – is there hope for doing this excited poetic science even as technology advances? Google is unweaving the rainbow before we can look! (Ben Norris)

Might the ongoing and growing issue of Climate Change be a significant driver in persuading curriculum designers to move from their domain silos of separate subjects to a model where a range disciplines are in respectful dialogue and bring their expertise to bear on the great existential threat?   (Adrian Brown)

People like the panelists are part of the problem from a student’s point of view – universities use A level & GCSE grades to accept students for their courses.  Also universities want the ‘best’ students! (Martin Bassants)

That experience of sudden ‘insight’ – the coming together of ideas when making connections and discovering congruence – is not exclusively an activity when reasoning across science and religion. Do you agree that what makes it so hard today for children in school – is that this activity of ‘making connections’ is excluded by the setup of the isolated science classroom. If yes – and if schools demand assessment – can we ‘assess’ ability to make connections? (Berry Billingsley)

I think the ladder analogy is really important. Climbing higher involves work and effort from a secure lower step. I have a concern that in science teaching we try to be inclusive by holding it up as ‘easy’ – with perhaps the accumulation of facts being the relatively simple and simplistic way to measure it.  Do we need to get the idea across that you can have ‘fun’ as well as satisfaction from the hard as well as from the trivial. Not just in science, genuine thinking in any subject IS hard as you need both knowledge and imagination (and thanks to Tom poetry!). And also challenging debate! (Chris Hudson)

In addition to what may need to be improved in teaching science in schools and universities (as discussed this evening), what could be done at the other end – eg at seminaries / theological colleges – to improve the conversation and mutual learning between science and theology? (Guido de Graaff)

There are some wonderful examples of fresh, interdisciplinary and radical teaching in these comments and questions that are worth simply sharing with a ‘hooray,’ I think. I do know of some very successful science teaching that uses examples from the history of physics, for example, to teach the physics itself. There is every hope that, alongside a core curriculum of scientific knowledge, there will be room at every stage for an element of exploratory, even ‘playful’ science,  as Chris Hudson suggests, so that pupils will never have experience that would lead them to conclude that ‘science has no room for my imagination.’ Berry Billingsley points to the experience of ‘insight’ that may arise if this is done.

There is also a desperate need to develop post-16 curricula that do not ‘silo’ young people into the strict A-level boxes against which Martin Bassants inveighs. Texts such as Faraday’s candle, or current political issues such as climate change, or the Romantic poetry of the rainbow, are all examples through which humanities-leaning students might be found ways to shape a dialogue of learning with science, and by which science-leaning students might develop a maturity of language, writing and history. 

Christian Practice

Is part of the problem that Christians and many religious people have lost the art of contemplation? For example, Christianity in churches tends to represent God and what it offers as something to gain as if from a distance, rather than as closer to us than we are to ourselves, to half quote Augustine. To put it more epistemologically, Christianity has bought into the modern flip, in which truth is no longer thought to belong to the subjective realm, but the objective. (Mark Vernon)

Can a panelist address the role of discursive reason, or “rational” intellect? In eastern traditions it is often seen as divisive and dissecting. That is, it understands by dividing into component parts. It is not a “clear” seeing but rather heavily conditioned. Quite the opposite of “DIS-covery”. In some sense this suggest that “imagination” is not an activity of the “self” but rather a quieting of the self. A move beyond conditioning into open awareness. The reason I ask is because as a scientist it seems the generation and imagination of hypothesis is too often confused with deep thinking which in turn is often quite the opposite of unconditioned sight. (Carlos Neira)

Especially in evangelical churches, contemplation is rather rare. The nearest opportunity, even permission, we get is corporate worship. In these same churches there is the alarming suspicion of science and the active rise of the tawdry conflict between science and faith, witnessed by the rise of heterodoxy of young-earth creationism. Isn’t this a real and present danger to our Christian faith and witness? What coordinated steps can we take to provide resources to churches that actively include real science in the contemplation of corporate worship? (David Lee)

These comments and observations are so interesting, because they indicate that there is a forgetfulness of contemplation in (at least some) places in the church, as well as in science. As Mark Vernon suggests, this is not unconnected with the pretended dissection of subjective and objective that I tried to talk about in the lecture. Carlos Neira articulates beautifully the ‘in-betweenness’ of contemplation in science that allows the generation of ideas rather than the routine of measurement and checking. Perhaps there are new avenues of prayer and spiritual contemplation that might be fed by the wonder of material contemplation?

Lessons from the History of Science and Technology

Thanks for a great talk. Historians of science are also keen to think about practical science as well as what’s sometimes thought of as ‘pure’ science.  This involves awkward and apparently less spiritual things than Boyle talks about, such as money … I wonder where technology fits into your account, and the practice of thinking/imagining with our hands? (Charlotte Sleigh)

Might I suggest (from my own experience) that Industrial Science (if such a thing is allowed as a definition) provides plenty of cases where awe, wonder leads via creative technology development to results that might encourage the lay public in their faith in science (Jaap Den Doelder)

Question for Tom: why do you think it was possible for early modern people like Newton, Boyle, etc. to transgress disciplinary boundaries (e.g. between theology and natural philosophy), in a way that we are not able to do in our society and universities today? (Pui Ip)

As both the lecture and the response tonight showed, there’s a rich history of thought within the European Christian tradition that we can draw on to reclaim a contemplative, imaginative practice of science. If we aim to cultivate this kind of culture around science in multicultural societies with all kinds of complicated power dynamics at play, don’t we need to cede some of our intellectual ground to thinkers from other traditions which have less of a stark divide between science and contemplation/religion in their recent history?(Jenna Freudenburg)

Religion and science have been so intertwined since the very earliest of days. Religion to understand ourselves and our creator; science to know ourselves in the great scheme of the Almighty.  Why, how and when did religion and science become such “opponents” in the search for “truth”? When did the clear divide of what they are searching for become so blurred? The seemingly dogmatic argument in current times of “it is either science OR religion” ignores many beautiful characteristics of both disciplines.  When will scientists and the public who proclaim every new discovery, by either disproving a former scientific statement or at least proving it not concrete as formerly claimed, as absolute truth come to realise it proves the opposite for the argument of science as the sole custodian of that trophy?  Ignoring the miracles of both leads to a far less enlightened world. (Matt Burrows)

Would you recommend the education of the medieval concepts of virtue ethics, development of habit to graduate students in the hard sciences? This education would include the practice and perfecting of scientific experimentation, interpretation, to the point that there is not only technical mastery and data interpretation, but also to passively let the data inspire us to generate novel scientific paradigms (to be Kuhnian). How would you paraphrase the medieval contemplative terminologies to contemporary science postgrad students?(Arvin Gouw)

John Keats’ concept of ‘negative capability’ which has been given a more recent expression in popular culture thanks to Dust and the heroine Lyra’s use of the alethiometer in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials’ trilogy (the irony of bringing these books up in a debate involving theology is not lost on me!) springs immediately to mind as having some possible bearing on the understanding of the contemplative disposition and how it opens us up and connects us to the universe. (Kersten Hall)

Jaap Den Doelder and Charlotte Sleigh come at the question of technology from very different perspectives, and adding the essential historical insight into the entwining of industry and science, it is clear that we need to reform our fragmented notion of ‘pure’ and ‘applied’, just as much as we need to reconfigure and relate ‘science’ and ‘humanities.’ I am not sure that there are fundamental reasons why money, economy and industry should be less ‘spiritual’ than science – we are the inheritors (in the West at least) of centuries of snobbism over the hierarchical structure within which philosophy and industry occupy and upstairs and a downstairs, respectively. That also needs to change.

As Jaap well knows (and he is one of the great industrial scientists who taught me this), that there is every opportunity for healthy two-way flow of ideas in science between industry and academia. In fact, the fundamental piece of science on which we worked together – the relationship between the topological structure of branched polymers and the emergent properties of the viscoelastic fluids that they form – could only formulate its core-questions in the face of observations in an industrial setting. Yet they called on the deepest new imaginative work in statistical mechanics, which repeatedly called on exchange of samples, data, theories between university and industrial laboratories. I am increasingly convinced that we ought to write that story up as a case study in how ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ dissolve! And Charlotte’s point about ‘thinking with our hands’ is so very prescient – and I think might open up new routes into contemplative practice in science and spirituality (I think of the ‘Messy Church’ movement, for example).

Pui Ip’s question is perhaps a little strange given that it is from someone, to someone else, who have both ‘transgressed disciplinary boundaries’ in a way that he declares impossible (I do not claim for myself that I have done it successfully). But perhaps that indicates the answer: there are indeed institutional and cultural barriers to doing this; the rest is simply fear and lack of confidence. We live safely in our disciplinary silos of curricular, research topics, peer-review, professional organization, promotion criteria, journals, and so on. Quite a set of castle walls! But they do have doors in and people can walk through them. The more that do the better.

Jenna Freudenburg’s question turns our gaze not only on history but outside the Christian tradition, and is well taken. There have perhaps been misguided or overinflated attempts in the past to relate, e.g. modern physics to aspects of Eastern mysticism (I am thinking of The Tau of Physics and the like). But there is much more there of richness to absorb more gently. The ‘Ruist’ tradition of China. For example, contains clearer ideas of the embeddedness of human observers of nature in nature itself (the first of my four ‘turns’) than Western tradition, and poetry was always vital in Ruist cosmology.  

At the same (10th and 11th century) time, the great Islamic tradition of science was preparing the critical assessment and development of Aristotle that inspired, of course, the 12th century scientific renaissance in the Latin West. There is much of relevance here to students today, as Arvin Gouw suggests. I might have developed, for example, the insight that emotion and reason go hand-in-hand in working within the liberal arts, including the mathematical arts of the medieval quadrivium (they termed them aspectus and affectus). We need to teach our scientists not to be afraid of the emotional structure within the creative process of their work. And, equally ironically, Philip Pullman has (in Oxford theologian and contemporary of Darwin Aubrey Moore’s words) ‘in the guise of a foe, done the service of a friend’ in bringing a contemplative and poetic alternative framing of science.

Sarah Coakley adds:

 I don’t think we can simply fuse all kinds of ‘contemplation’ into one without some more intricate reflection on what metaphysic and practice(s) attend different versions thereof. There are certainly family resemblances between all sorts of things in this area (secular cognitive therapy, Buddhist mindfulness, attention to ‘school studies’, aesthetic ‘seeing’ of art objects, scientific wonder at the natural world, and so on); but ‘contemplation’ in the classic Christian sense does involve long-term commitment to particular practices of vulnerability and openness to God, including the enduring of inner ‘noise’ and many psychic upheavals, etc., en route to union with God. Above all, the major complication of sin cannot be left out of the Christian account of these matters, since sin – ex hypothesi – affects our senses and perceptions so profoundly. Hence the great interest in early modern science (see Peter Harrison’s work) in whether science itself could overcome these sin problems. 

In short, I don’t think the rhetorical call to ‘contemplation in science’ can, just by itself, overcome the profound issues of sin and blindness that those of us who are religious believe to be hugely problematic; nor can it short-circuit the commitments that much secular science has made to metaphysical adherences that stymie religious belief at the outset. 

Having said that, I profoundly agree with you that learning how to ‘see’ the world in the light of the divine infusion is the great invitation of Christianity, and hugely important to the scientific task too. But I fear there are no short cuts into this – which is why I’m continuing to work intensively on ‘spiritual sensation’ in the tradition and its many and conflicting interpretations. 


[1] Tom McLeish (2019), The Poetry and Music of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] I am indebted to Rosie McLeish of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, for this point.

[3] Malcolm Guite (2012) Faith, Hope and Poetry. Oxford: Ashgate

[4] This interplay of desire (and emotion generally) and cognition in all creative process came to the fore in the research for The Poetry and Music of Science, surfacing in its own chapter (6)

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