Re-embedding Science in the Human

logo-zwart-poThis title was the one given to me by my hosts in Maastricht this week for the Brightlands Campus spring Science Lecture.  The experience was  rich and fascinating one.

I have been fascinated for many years by the effectiveness of deep collaborations between industrial and university scientists, and have tried several experiments along those lines myself.  For ten years I and a team of physicists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists from six UK universities worked with our industrial counterparts in six global companies in a giant project to elucidate and innovate with the molecular rules that govern the connection between molecular structure of polymers and the flow of their melts.  A number of us currently run an industry-university PhD training centre in ‘Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces’ between the universities of Durham, Leeds and Edinburgh, and 24 companies in polymers, coatings, food and personal care.Print

The point here is emphatically not the usual ‘application of research’, or ‘public benefit of science’ stories.  Told and retold by government departments to justify science spending, these Sheherezade-like tales that are needed every day to keep science funding from being cut-off I have criticized as part of the cultural lack of understanding around science today, in Faith and Wisdom in Science.  No, the truth is that more intellectual traffic flows from industrial screen-shot-2016-01-22-at-8-22-45-amscience into academic in a healthy collaboration – for the industrial research digs deeper than a disconnected academic lab would do, driven by business need into the rich loam of the world’s material complexity. And here new phenomena are discovered. This has been my experience for 30 years of doing science.  The most satisfying fundamental pieces of science that I have bee involved with have all arisen from long-term industrial collaborations.

But the Maastricht folk have taken this to a new level and invested in a shared site – labs, computers, pilot-plants, … academic and industrial groups from several businesses sharing the same campus.  I was impressed!  Even more so that 3 or 4 times a year everyone is encouraged to come to hear an afternoon of two lectures.  One is from an early-career scientist from university or industry, the other from a more experienced scientists.  Topics are of general interest but usually scientific, so I was surprised and delighted when Brightlands asked me to talk on what is really a secular version of my thesis in Faith and Wisdom.

lettherebescienceThe point is that if science is to become recognised as a public and human good in a way that goes beyond the instrumental or the monster, to take two of the poles that Dave Hutchings and I describe in the new Let There Be Science, then the science-religion question needs to be defined anyway.  For it is the theological tradition that leads to a rediscovery of the human purpose for science, and its human value in reconciling our precarious condition in the world.

Question time was fascinating – and one young scientist asked if I were able to stay for the Dutch March for Science – an international event, or series of events, taking place yesterday to appeal for the central importance of science in the face of its political marginalisation, especially in the USA. March for_sciencedcIt’s a good point – science will become truly valued when the science community create other ways in to enjoy and contemplate science, as well as urging its vital role in establishing truth, and good policy.

 

I also sold out of an entire suitcase supply of both books!

Rather looking forward to going back there again next year, which I think is the plan.

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Faith and Wisdom in Science in Vancouver – and Harvard

vancouverThis week I am enjoying my first ever visit to Vancouver to give a series of lectures and discussions on Faith and Wisdom in Science and the ideas and actions that flow from thinking through a Christian Theology of Science.  There are a few science lectures thrown in (in biophysics of protein dynamics – at Simon Fraser University, and the molecular rheology of polymer melts in processing – at UBC), and a final Friday night at St John’s (Graduate) College, UBC, on Medieval Science and the Ordered Universe Project.  Last night saw a fruitful and friendly welcome at Regent College.

The question sessions following the science/theology talks so far have been fascinating

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Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014)

and inspiring (the questions that is – I can’t speak for the answers). The central section of the presentations, focussing on drawing resource from Biblical wisdom literature, draws on the close reading of the Book of Job that forms the central chapter of Faith and Wisdom.  So one of the questioners wanted to know about Jesus’ sayings about nature in the gospels, and their significance.  As in the cycles of speeches between Job and his comforters, way before the probing questions of the Lord’s Answer in chapter 38, the gospels, too, are full of nature metaphor and action.  The calming of the waves, the wind-image of the Spirit, the liking of the ‘signs of the times’ to the signs that the coming of the Kingdom is close – all these speak of a relationship with the natural world that reflects the Godly Wisdom of a deep seeing, an inner understanding, and an investment of significance into the material, natural world.  More thinking required here!

Another question searched the dilemma facing the church in sharing both the positive narrative for science and its consequences for an ethical, hopeful and fruitful managing of nature in future.  Given the explicit Creation-Fall-Election-Incarnation-Resurrection-Ministry of Reconciliation-New Creation story within which science and technology make sense as God’s gifts, how is all this worked through in a world that largely does not recognise that big story?  It reminded me of a wonderful question from an atheist sociologist at one of the first ever university-based discussions of the Faith and Wisdom in Science idea: ‘I wish I could share in your vision and hope, but as an atheist I can’t begin to share your assumptions: what can you give me?’

I think that the answer is not ‘nothing’ by any means.  Back to St. Paul and his brilliant summary of the work of the Church – the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ of 2 Corinthians 5.  To talk about our work being that of ‘healing broken relationships’ is something that everyone knows about and everyone wants.  To point to ways in which we can hope to reverse the mutual harm that we and our planet are inflicting on each other, by framing the challenge in those terms, and then by proceeding as one does in the healing of any broken relationship, is a practical way ahead that anyone can buy into.  Replacing ignorance with knowledge, fear with wisdom, and mutual harm with mutual flourishing – this is a framework for political and social care that has already generated practical outcomes, such as the Responsible Research and Innovation policy in the UK and Europe.

I hope to be able to say more about the work that new theologically-generated narratives can do in our managing of science and technology at a Harvard STS-Programme seminar next week (on the day of the US presidential election!), Narratives of Hope: Science, Theology and Environmental Public Policy rainbow.  But that is for next week. Today there is more at UBC with Investigating the Deep Structure of Modern Science: the Search for Wisdom.

I am extremely grateful to the Canadian Scientific and Christian affiliation for supporting the visit, and to my kind hosts and organisers for all their tremendous hard work.

NATURE features Christian Leaders and Scientists Project

Nature, the international general science journal, published an article this week about the Christian Leaders in an Age of Science project that I co-lead with Revd. Prof. David Wilkinson, Principal of St. John’s College Durham University. Written by our Project Manager, Revd. Dr. Kathryn Prichard, it’s pithy and personal approach has attracted a long and varied comment stream!

Kathryn tells it how it is from the title on:

kathrynReligion and science can have a true dialogue

She begins with a personal account of the sort of activity that senior church leaders (bishops and equivalent) get up to with the scientists at Durham University when we get them all together for a day:

Eagle Dark matterI work for the Archbishops’ Council in the Church of England, and this summer I did something that many people would think is impossible. I sat in a dark lecture theatre engrossed in a computationally generated 3D journey through the Universe. Virtual stars whizzed past and seemed narrowly to miss colliding with my head as we accelerated through galaxies and past exploding stars. I listened to cosmologists speak on research into dark matter, particle physics, the rate at which the growth of the Universe is accelerating and the possibi­lity of multi­verses. I asked questions and they responded.

Read the open-access article itself to find out more!

The comments have been very varied – from the predictable (the article itself anticipates them) vilifying Nature for dropping its standards, to nuanced and personal comments from scientists who are Christians, and have thought deeply about the relation between their faith and their science.  Those that see only negative tensions between religion and science might bear in mind a few sets of ‘data’:

(1) It is historically uncontroversial that religion, and Christianity in particular, served as a stimulus and support for science. Francis Bacon articulates the theological reasons for the rise of experimental science in the early modern era, to take just one key example.  A great collection of reading here is Galileo Goes to Jail – and other myths about science and religion (edited by Ron Numbers)
(2) The ‘conflict’ notion is, for the most part, a historically invented polemic myth from the late 19th century (see the ‘Draper-White’ thesis), constructed for other reasons (the new book Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison is well worth a read for both these points)
(3) The extraordinary scientists throughout history who have found deep motivation from and connections with, their faith to do science, are testimony to the positive support for science at the personal level (Copernicus, Newton, Boyle, Maxwell, Faraday, Born, … to name a very few)
(4) Our project aims at catalysing the potential support for a healthy understanding of science and scientific thinking that the church can give at personal, local and national level, and which is natural for it to do. We’ve seen great examples of churches supporting science festivals, for example. We are working with senior leaders because they tend to come from humanities backgrounds and lack confidence (but not intelligence, learning or enthusiasm) in science. Their meetings with the scientists we arrange under science themes have been transformation for both, time after time.

Perhaps the most important clue to the ways in which a healthy religious life can support science at its core was given by the Nobel Laureate Isidor I. Rabi when once asked why he became a scientist:

”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me become a scientist!”

As it turns out, ‘Izzy”s mother was displaying the most faithful awareness of her Jewish tradition – for any close reader of the Bible (this ought to include Christians as well of course) is immediately struck by the importance all the writings urge of questions.  One of the tired  and uninformed canards in the science and religion conversation is that the latter cuts off questions in place of acceptance of dogma.  Nothing could be less accurate.  One of the oldest nature-wisdom poems we possess is to be found as ‘The Lord’s Answer’ in the Book of Job. It consists entirely of questions about the workings of the natural world, from the stars to the lightning and snow, to the wild animals and the trees.

The very greatest question, ‘What is Truth?’ appears at one of the most climactic moments of the whole Biblical narrative, in the tense and probing discourse between Jesus and Pilate before the crucifixion. There is no greater gift to those who would seek to know and to understand than a great question.

 

 

 

Take your Vicar to the Lab – and she can bring her Bishop too

The ‘Theology of Science’ developed in Faith and Wisdom in Science leads to a set of consequences for how science might find new resonances and recreation in the media, arts, education and the church (these are discussed in chapter 8 of the book – Mending our Ways, Sharing our Science and Figuring the Future). In particular, once the false mythology of a necessary conflict between science and the church is discarded in the face of actual history, practice and philosophy, and when it is replaced by an understanding of science as God’s gift, then all sorts of possibilities for a positive role for the church in science opens up once more.

labAn opportunity to experiment with ways that churches can support science and scientists is currently being provided by a large project based at St. John’s College, Durham University, UK.  Funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science has five strands, one of which invites churches of all denominations to submit proposals for projects, costing up to £10 000, under the umbrella title Scientists in Congregations.

The first eight projects have just been announced, as varied in geographical placement around the UK as they are in approach.  From a large cathedral-based project to mount spectacular science exhibits ‘from Dinosaurs to DNA’ in Ely, to café-style debates with scientists on the implications of their work around north Leeds, applicants have used their imagination.  A title that has caught the attention of the media such as Christian Today (and by no means just the Christian media) was Take your Vicar to the Lab.  ‘Why on earth would either you or they want to?’ was the question in the minds of many who heard about it.  It was thrown at me in a live interview on BBC Radio York this morning, and the subject of a rather perplexed article in Computer Weekly.

So why would a vicar (pastor, priest, etc. …) want to ‘visit a lab’? The great Christian thinkers of former ages would have no problem understanding (once they had had explained the concept of a ‘lab’).  Gregory of Nyssa, one of the formulators of the Christian creeds we know today, and the doctrine of the Trinity, writes of the way that our God-given minds evidence themselves by the way they think into to workings of nature.  The deduction of the existence of invisible air, and the cause of the phases of the moon, are just two examples given in his remarkable 4th century treatise On the Soul and the Resurrection.  The extraordinary English 13th century polymath, Robert Grosseteste, later Bishop of Lincoln, saw our re-thinking nature as part of a work of healing a relationship with the world dimmed by disobedience and Fall.  And this very thought can be found at the birth of early modern science in the writings of Frances Bacon.

Talking of Bishops, another strand of the Durham-based project held a conference of senior Christian

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Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, Durham University

leaders this week (some of them did indeed sport the purple shirt) considering the science of earthquakes and floods, including the social science of managing their aftermaths.  Together with thinking together about evolution and the human experience of pain, this was theological thinking ‘on the wild side’. A visit to Durham University’s Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience created a productive forum for the church leaders and scientists to talk about the global and cultural pattern of risk, and how local faith communities might work better with international aid organisations.  Practical action, amid the answerless and shared experience of loss – that sounded like a faithful continuation of some of the Biblical wisdom we read and studied together from the Book of Job.

 

So Vicars, Bishops in the lab, yes, and in the earthquake zone, the epidemic and the flood plain, and working along scientists, doctors, engineers and aid workers in mutual service of both God and fellow human being.

Can Science and Faith Coexist? – The Times Debate for the Cheltenham Science Festival

This year’s Cheltenham Science Festival is running, sponsored as usual by The Times newspaper, a festival debate.  The topic will be ‘Can Science and Faith Coexist?‘.  Chaired by journalist Oliver Kamm, there are three speakers – Robert Winston, the celebrated reproductive surgeon and public communicator of science, Mohamed El-Gomati, professor of electronics at York University, and Tom McLeish, professor of physics at Durham University (that would be me).

cheltenham-762331

A casual observer might be a little surprised at the lineup.  For Winston is a practicing Jew, El-Gomati likewise a Muslim, and I a Christian.  All are working scientists.  Where are the atheists necessary to knock some sense into these faith-heads and supply the resounding answer, ‘NO!’ to the question of the debate that the current conflictual model of science and religion demands at every turn? I dare say that we will meet a few on Tuesday June 8th in Cheltenham, but I think that the organisers of the Festival have made an interesting move.

For, by implication in those they have invited to discuss the topic, the real question of the debate is much more interesting – it is how science and faith do co-exist in the lives and thought of three scientists like us.  And underlying that question is a deeper one still, and one that we might end up answering in different ways: what place does science have in our lives of faith, what, after all, is science for in the service of God?  For a believer, X and faith never just ‘co-exist’, whatever X might be.  As Paul wrote of the work of Christ in creation (Colossians 1:17),

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together

This is the question I took as primary in the book Faith and Wisdom in Science, that started this blog off.  Answering it, even for someone who  had tried to live the question for a long time, was a long but fascinating journey through history, science itself and theology.  And the answer (so far – I don’t expect that sort of journey ever to finish), has a great deal to say about how we can do science better, with more human connectivity, and a much better community engagement into what science does for humanity and how we can all engage with it.

It turns out that, even in a ‘confrontation’ with a scientist who holds and atheist position, this approach is much more constructive than the usual oppositional one.  For one thing, a Christian who see science as God’s gift, and a mark of the extraordinary way in which we are made in the creator’s image, is by virtue of that theological understanding, the strongest possible supporter of science.

A debate last year at Keele University illustrates the idea (the link is a YouTube video of the evening).  Exoplanet hunter and astronomer Coel Hellier and I were pitted against each other in a ‘Science vs. Religion’ public setting.  But we were able to explore the nuanced reasons for our differences as well as just stating them, and we engaged in thinking through ways in which science could be more celebrated and contemplated by anyone.

I’m looking forward to Cheltenham 2016!

 

Science and the Church: Gift, Celebration and Re-Creation

NorwichCathedral I spent Friday afternoon sitting next to Bishop Graham of Norwich in his Cathedral’s spacious conference room, fielding questions about science and faith from a determined field of 6th formers.  Dean Jane Hedges chaired a mixed panel of lay ordained, religious believers (of different kinds) and not, and including two working scientists (I was the physicist – at the other end of the row an Oxford biologist).  What are the top questions young people in Norwich want to explore, when given that opportunity?  Before reading on you might want to see how many you can guess.  Here are five of them…

  • Did the laws of physics spring from nothing? How does this relate to the idea of God?
  • Many churches still preach creationism as a literal interpretation of Genesis. This message is in direct contradiction to evolution and the evidence provided by physics. Is there too great a gulf between faith and reason to reconcile the two?
  • If God is the God of ‘gaps’, what gaps are left for God to fill?
  • How would science explain apparent metaphysical features of the world such as free will?
  • Science is based on empirical evidence and religion is based on ideas. Should religion have to prove itself in order to be valid in today’s society?

This isn’t the place to record our answers – but to reflect on the diverse concerns and assumptions behind these probing questions. Take the last – there is essentially no public grasp of the history of thought informed by anything deeper that the historically-false ‘conflict’ paradigm of Christianity and Science.  The information that not only were all the early modern pioneers of science Christians (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Boyle, and Newton a Unitarian), but that they worked under an explicit theology for why they were doing science [1], comes as rather a surprise.

From that starting point it is not a surprise that faith and science have become tangled in pupils’ minds as competing explanatory frameworks – so God rescues and inhabits the ‘gaps’ in our explanations (until there are no gaps left…). Science itself becomes misunderstood – the notion of ‘scientific proof’ is appealed to (it doesn’t exist) – and a grasp of ‘religion’ also – we found ourselves asserting that Christianity is not just ‘about ideas’ but about practical living that works.  The most troubling questions – troubling because they arose, not because they are hard to answer – were about the conflict of science with young earth creationism (and it came up more than once).  This is a terrible 20th century heresy that is taught in more churches than most people think, poisons young minds and reduces Bible-reading to thin, selective and disrespectful proof-texting.  The Church needs to speak out on this much more strongly, for here is a real conflict – one has to throw out essentially all that we have learned through science to countenance it.

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Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014)

So it is a wonderful thing that Churches and Cathedrals are increasingly recognising that they are natural places to host science festivals, such as the Norwich science week in which the debate took place.  Lectures, hands on experiments – even a simulated volcano spewing fire – all graced the festival week.  To move from seeing science as a vague secular threat, towards celebrating it as God’s Gift, is an essential journey for the Church today.  This is not only so that the apologetic questions can be re-framed in proper historical and philosophical light, but because science needs the church to support its mission even more now than it always did.  This is the central point of the book Faith and Wisdom in Science, in which I argue that a ‘Theology of Science’ needs urgently to replace the opposition of theology and science.

To take just one strand of evidence for this claim: examine the fractious and conflictual

Durham Cathedral

The north view of the massive norman nave of Durham Cathedral seen from Palace Green.

public and political debates about science-based issues like climate change and genetic medicine. These discussions need the patient, reconciliatory service of our community of faith if they are to progress.  St. John’s College, Durham University is currently running a project Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science (funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation) to bring senior Christian leaders and scientists together.  Earlier this year it hosted a remarkable workshop on earth sciences, theology and the church in which I experienced for the first time a thoughtful (and prayerful) engagement of opposite views on fracking. Another strand of the project, recently launched, is the offer of competitive funding to churches with imaginative ideas on engaging with science.  The Scientists in Congregations initiative awaits your ideas.

 

[1] As historian Peter Harrison has written about in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science

Earth Scientists, Bishops and Fracking … a heady mix at Durham

frackingDavid Wilkinson has a succinct way to say it: ‘Learn to see Science not as a secular threat, but as God’s Gift’. From that notion follows everything we are excited about. David is Principal of St. John’s College, Durham University, where I have just emerged, dazed, from a discussion of fracking that brought together theology, oil and gas engineering, earth science theory, local community politics, national policy frameworks, global environmental science and more in a group of bishops and scientists. How on earth did we get to this?

David and I have been working together since I joined the university in 2008 to find ways of helping the church, and the world beyond, to see and work with science in new ways. For some time we have been thinking through this germ of an idea – science as God’s gift – talking with others about it, writing books, working with congregations, graduate students, leaders of churches – more or less anyone who will listen and argue about it.

It’s a central thesis and consequence of Faith and Wisdom in Science, that the church theologically can, and politically must engage deeply with science, technology and their social setting.

It dawned upon us that there is a critical group of influential people that much of the ‘science and religion’ discussion either bypasses or forces onto the back foot: senior church leaders at the level of bishop or their equivalent in other denominations. How could we help these crucial opinion-formers, leaders and enablers to navigate what for many of them is unfamiliar territory (only a small minority have a science background) and yet one that is cited over and again as an area in which the church looks ill-equipped and on the defensive? After all, if ‘natural philosophy’ – ‘love of wisdom to do with natural things’, the more theologically-resonant name for ‘science’ – is really God’s gift, then our whole perspective on it changes. For a start, science would now need theological thinking alongside and in support of it, rather than in opposition or defence. It then follows that the repetitive conflict narrative that all too often glues itself to the ‘science and religion’ debate needs complete reframing. Science becomes a human mandate in continuity with the Biblical story of creation and re-creation, and the church a needed voice in the constructive guiding of the new technologies that offer both promise and risk. Scientists in congregations might even be able to feel wanted and valued, rather than hymn-singers on their day off, and scientists with no church connection at all ought to find natural conversation partners in bishops! That last conclusion is a radical prediction of our hypothesis that simply had to be tested.

But how to set about it? The John Templeton Foundation and Templeton World Charitable (TWC) trust came (afterjohns-32 considerable negotiation, discussion, and a pilot project – all long stories for another time) to our aid. TWC has just funded a four-year programme, supported by both Anglican archbishops and the Archbishops’ Council’s Mission and Public Affairs Division, and based at St. John’s College,Christian Leaders in an Age of Science’. It simultaneously supports five strands of work that explores the radical vision:

(i) a full-time researcher (Dr. Lydia Reid) working with Christian leaders nationally,

(ii) the development of material in the theology and ministry of science for ordinands (it’s handy that Durham now runs the Church of England’s Common Awards through St. John’s College),

(iii) a project manager (Revd. Dr. Kathryn Prichard) stationed in Church House, Westminster, who also co-ordinates a growing network of theological and scientific advice on science to the church’s Ministry and Public Affairs division.

(iv) a ‘Scientists in Congregations’ project sponsoring awards to churches of up to £10k that explore locally the consequences of a theology of science as gift-to-a-purpose.

And fifthly? A programme of 3-day workshops where the bishops and scientists work together – visiting labs, meeting young researchers, hearing about new research, exploring history and theology, thinking though new messages in the media … THAT’s where the fracking discussion happened. Just the first of six – this one on Earth Sciences but later we will be tackling complexity, the brain and mind, cosmology, the evolution of humans … most seem to be sold out already. I can’t wait.

(a modified version of this article was posted on the Church of England’s Website)