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)

 

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Faith in Science Education – Wisdom in how we do it

Faith and Wisdom in Science – the blog did take a summer break.  But other things happened.  In particular I had the opportunity to write (at 24 hours notice) an opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper in the UK (published August 14th) on the importance of children experiencing open-ended experimental science while at school.  There is growing evidence that this is enormously beneficial to core science learning, but, as readers of Faith and Wisdom in Science will know, it also touches on a deeply theological nerve.  Becoming reconciled with nature means working with it and observing.  This is something that everyone can experience and enjoy.

The Guardian article as printed is here (it also made the weekly printed Guardian International, to which we have subscribed for years – I was delighted!). But I thought that the full original drafted version, before editor’s cuts, might be interesting to post.  So that follows.  The most important thing is that Job made the final cut!

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Science is not just the preserve of stereotypical brainy boffins you see on TV. Speaking to the Times yesterday, head of the British Science Association Katherine Mathieson, said this public image was not helpful and that she’d prefer to “see a few years of genuine open-ended research by pupils, rather than fiddling around with beakers”. She also worries that science is not a topic of common conversation. Rightly so – if we can get our minds around Premier League strategy then complexity is not the issue.’

Mathieson is right to raise concerns. The ability of people to understand the world they live in increasingly depends on their understanding of scientific ideas. Science allows us to learn reliably about nature – if an experimental result does not support a specific idea, then the idea has to be rejected or modified and then tested again. For most people such understanding by imagination and experimentation comes through education. ​Great teachers are the driving force behind the UK’s position as a global scientific powerhouse.

However, overly-tight accountability measures, rapidly changing curricula and burdensome pupil progress monitoring are just some of the enormous pressures on schools that impede creating an environment in which tomorrow’s scientists can learn and grow. Teachers often have to carry out experiments in their own time and beyond the curriculum by joining schemes like our Partnership Grants.

In 2013, a report published by SCORE found that a worrying number of primary students were not experiencing a complete science education due to a lack of resources for practical work, with the average school having only 46% of the equipment needed. The UK is failing to create a scientifically informed society that can confidently hold science properly to account by engaging, enjoying and, yes, criticising it.

Children learn about music by trying their hand at composing a song or joining a jazz trio or string quartet. Others take GCSE Art, where we expect them to try out sketching and use watercolours, mixed-media or creative photography to learn about the subject. Even the most doting relative does not expect these creations to end up in a museum or concert hall, but what they teach our children about the artistic process is essential.

Science should be treated the same way. Humans have always been curious about the natural world and the stuff that makes it up. In the Book of Job, an ancient poem asks why the stars of the Pleiades are bound together, while those of Orion are scattered. Centuries before we formalised the scientific method, we had thoughtful and playful experiments with light, glass and water as well as astonishingly careful observations of the stars. People dreamed up imaginative theories of what might be going on up in rainbows and down inside liquids and solids. It wasn’t always right, but even now science can be a messy business on the path to truth. Why should things be different in 2017?

The Royal Society emphasises ‘experimental’ over ‘practical’ science, where curiosity should go beyond following a simple recipe and people should simply try something – a thoughtful way of looking for answers. We need to reverse recent trends and increase the amount of time and money invested in experimental and problem-solving work in science and mathematics education through access to adequately resourced laboratories and well-trained teachers. To support this activity in primary schools, Brian Cox, the Royal Society’s Professor for Public Engagement in Science, presents a series of video resources to increase teachers’ confidence with experimental science and relate the experiments to the real world. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLg7f-TkW11iU11yatk_TcbA2tGH_WLe8d

Before you reach out for your Rousseaus to bash me over the head with, I want to reassure you that experimental science in education complements rather than replaces the learning of core scientific understanding. Sir John Holman found that investigative science improved attainment in core science exams, with greater effect for pupils in less privileged areas. There are other signs of new growth – the new Institute for Research in Schools is right now realising Mathieson’s vision of ‘genuine open-ended research by pupils’.

We currently have many examples of good practice at primary and secondary schools and colleges across the UK. Investing in experimental science in all our schools to help future generations make better sense of the world around them means that one day we will have confident opinions on scientific issues like we do on technical matters like Premier League team strategies.

 

‘Faith & Wisdom in’, and ‘Let There Be’ Science – go West: Lent Sermons, Pentecostal Theology, a Fallen world and Sacred Nature

lettherebescienceIt sounded like a good idea at the time … invitations to talk about the ideas in Faith and Wisdom in Science and the new, broader readership, Let There Be Science in Oxford, Malvern, Exeter and Bristol.  Joining them all up would be efficient, wouldn’t it? A good use of time?  Well it was marvellous, but it WAS exhausting!  What made it so encouraging was the deep, broad and insightful questions at each place.  There is a huge thirst in the church, across denominations and styles of theology and worship, to grasp a positive understanding of science as God’s gift, to use for a purpose, and to discard once and for all the pernicious ‘alternative fact’ that science and Christian belief are in conflict!

The long week opened with the start of a Lenten Evensong series on ‘New Reformations’ at St. Mary’s Church , Warwick.  Vicar Vaughan Roberts had spotted me on the web (!) and thought that the ideas looked interesting.  The link to the sermon is here, but the open Q&A afterwards was especially precious. One I recall especially asked why there was not more of an intelligent, Christian voice in the media, refuting the standard and supercilious conflict thesis.  The questioner had a point – and half of the answer is that Christians in scientific positions are just not speaking loudly enough.  Corporately, the Church needs to acquire a voice on science as gift too.  But then that is what the talks, books, and projects like Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science are all about.

Next stop Elim Pentecostal Theological College – Regents College in Malvern. To my eternal shame I had not credited the Pentecostal movement with perhaps the deepest of theological traditions.  This visit proved me wrong.  A nuanced and thoughtful reception of a Faith and Wisdom talk – with a LOT on Job was very thought-provoking (and they bought all the books, necessitating a rush-delivery for Bristol – no chance for Exeter the next day!). Every theological audience I engage with reminds me that we need to think afresh about the Fall in a way consistent with the Genesis, and NT narratives, as well as what we learn from science about the history of the universe.

ExeterCathedralExeter Cathedral is launching a series of talks on Science and Faith funded through the Durham Scientists in Congregations initiative. I opened the series with The Continuing Dance of Science and Religion (now on YouTube) (not really my title – as some readers know I’m more for moving in for the embrace). Again a moving series of questions.  One mentioned the problem of young earth creationism.  Although normally reticent about this, and keen not to offend, I am increasingly persuaded that this is part of the church’s problem – we have failed to call out this lie.  It does untold damage within the church (young people forced into unbearable cognitive dissonance between their doctrinaire churches and the science that they love), and outside (anyone who is made to think that they have to swallow a literal 6-day creation in order to be a Christian is not going to think twice if they have any notion of evidence-based thinking).  Enough is enough.  I called on the Bishops to make a public and clear stand.  Heresies are wrong teachings that prevent people entering the Kingdom, and this is clearly a teaching that does just that.  Not in accord with an authoritative and respectful view of scripture, nor of Christian teaching, nor with the whole of God’s gift of science.  That got a round of applause!

Final stop Bristol Christians in Science – talk with slides available here, along with others in the series.  A powerful question on how to make this message with theological roots in Wisdom, Book of Job, Reconciliation and Healing accessible to a secular world.  That is of course the entire task of getting the ‘mising’ narrative of science as the search for wisdom and healing of our relationship with the world, heard broadly.  But starting with the Church is no bad place.  On the other hand, Dave and I were clear in the writing of Let There Be Science that we wanted this to be what moderate secular scientists needed and wanted to hear to explain to others how deeply and naturally human science is.  Several of the positive blurbs are from just those people.  Like all the truest Christian messages, they are welcomed by the world when they are recognised as the water in the desert that is so needed.

 

 

 

Let There Be Science! – a guest-blog from its first author

lettherebescienceI have already said something about the new book for school-age and wider readership that takes the simple message of Faith and Wisdom in Science further.  But Let There Be Science! – Why God Loves Science and Why Science Needs God, would never have even got to the ‘twinkle in the eye’ stage, let alone a finished book, without the vision, energy, wonderfully engaging writing style and encyclopaedic knowledge of scientific anecdotes, of the chief author, Dave Hutchings (I am really the co-author).  As committed to teaching physics as he is to his Christian conviction, and as studied in both, Dave was the ideal collaborator on this project.  I have enjoyed working with him immensely, and learned a great deal.  As a result of the project, we are both even more  convinced that the message that you don’t have to choose between Science and Christianity .

Let There Be Science! comes out with Lion Hudson Publishers in January 2017, and we are very excited that the many ‘blurbs’ we have collected are as positive from atheists as they are from Christians (you can read some on the amazon page). Among other things, this is surely a response to the excitement around science that Dave brings to its pages.  Here is his contribution to the blog:

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Firstly, may I say a big ‘thank you’ to Tom – for inviting me to guest on his blog, for asking me to co-write Let There Be Science, and (in both cases) for taking a risk by associating himself with a previously unpublished jobbing science teacher.

And, with those formalities out of the way (!) it would seem that the most sensible place to start is with an excerpt from the book itself. Here are some words from the preface:

The whole thing is almost depressingly predictable. Each school year, the students I teach find out that I believe in God – either because they have asked me outright or because it has turned up in conversation somehow. From then, I can count it down:classroom

3…2…1…

“But you’re a science teacher!”

It isn’t their fault, of course. Somehow, even before their mid-teens, they think that you just have to pick a side – God or science. Who has told them this?  Science-hating God-people?  God-hating scientists?  

Either way, it doesn’t take long to establish that there hasn’t been much real thought involved in their forming of the ‘it’s either God or science’ conclusion – it has just sort of happened.

This section is not part of the main text of the book; so why choose to use it here rather than something else? The answer is that it highlights one of the key aims of Let There Be Science: to make it very clear that the idea of having to ‘pick a side’ is totally unsupported by the evidence.

In reality, Christianity and Science have walked hand in hand for centuries. To demonstrate this, Tom and I tell stories – stories of success and frustration, of joy and despair, of the ancient world and the modern laboratory – all of which highlight the deep interconnectedness of the biblical worldview and scientific progression.

Time and again, Christians appear right at the forefront of scientific revolutions – frequently attributing their insights to their faith. Should we be all that surprised at this, though, when we take into account that any Christian has previously undergone a personal revolution in their decision to follow Jesus?  After all, what better preparation could there be for tearing up the science rulebook and starting all over again than having done that already with your whole life?

spockConnections like this – when the practice and priorities of the Christian life link so clearly to the attitudes and habits which produce good science – can be found all over the place. Let There Be Science recounts these profound bonds in all of their diverse glory: the reader should be prepared for tales of levitating frogs; of toddlers and video-gamers solving problems which stumped the experts; of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock doing some Bible study; and of what flipping 92 heads in a row can tell us about earthquakes.

So, buy yourself a copy whilst they are still available; and relax if you were worrying about which side to pick, because – as all of these stories will go on to show – you don’t have to!

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New Book: ‘Let There Be Science’

LetThereBeScience.jpgYou heard it first here – and I am very excited about this.  There is a new book coming out from Lion Publishing in January called:

Let There Be Science!

Why God loves Science and why Science needs God

Co-authored with York-based physics highschool-teacher and friend Dave Hutchings, it takes the message of Faith and Wisdom in Science to a broader readership.  It’s shorter, more direct, uses simpler language, and works with lots of real stories of scientists struggling to make sense of our world.  It also, like FaWiS, works with the wonderful Book of Job – as well as with Monty Python, Star Trek and other roads into the culture of our times.  But it makes (and also extends) the case of FaWiS, that when you ask, ‘What is Science for within a Christian worldview?’, you get much, much further than when grinding to a halt with the old saw, ‘how can you reconcile science and religion?’. We even explore how, over the centuries, Christian faith has supported and enhanced science, and how it can do that today.

Dave tested out the chapters on the pupils he teaches, atheist friends, and we have a dozen international readers who have read it and written excited blurbs. Here’s Marek Kukula, for example:

“Whatever your personal stance on matters of religion and science it’s surely encouraging to see calm and considered conversation being fostered between them. Let There Be Science makes a compelling case that the ethos of science and the insights that it brings into the workings of the natural world can have much to offer to people of faith. With passion and humility David Hutchings and Tom McLeish seek out common ground and show that, despite our differences, we are all united in our curiosity and capacity for wonder.”

Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer, Royal Observatory Greenwich

There’ll be more on Let There Be Science over the next few weeks, including a guest blog from Dave

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

Einstein and the Biblical Wisdom of Questions

EinsteinQuestionsLonger2Einstein has had a good month, all things considered. His century-old prediction, that the very fabric of space and time can support waves travelling at light-speed, was confirmed by the LIGO collaboration.  More, the bizarre and horrifying consequences of his theory of gravity, the singularly-collapsed stars that came to be called ‘black holes’ have been directly detected for the first time.  As is now widely known (but how could anyone actually conceptualise the monstrous event?), it was the mutual circling and merger of two black holes that set the gravitational ripples on their billion light-year journey across the ocean of space towards the shores of our solar system.

The events have reminded us of the powerful sense of inspiration that comes from contemplating any of Einstein’s scientific achievements. He showed how to interpret the ‘Brownian motion’ of particulate matter as a conceptual window into the molecular world, once it is understood as the random buffeting of tiny but visible particles from invisible molecules. He re-imagined light as a gas of massless particles, and in doing so opened up

EinsteinGravity

Einstein thought of gravity as a curvature of space (and time) generated by mass

a path to the quantum world of the atom.  He day-dreamed as a teenager about trying to catch a light-beam, a journey of the mind that led him to the universal constant of the speed of light, and to the mutual, relativistic, inter-conversion of space and time.  And of course, he wondered if gravity might better be thought of, not as a force, but as a sort of curvature in the warp and weft of space and time.

What glories indeed! But surprisingly, he never thought of himself as particularly gifted.  Rather he would attribute his success to the prioritisation of the question rather than the answer. ‘The important thing is not to stop questioning.’ was a frequent admonition in one form or another.  A long form of this urging of careful question-crafting attributed to him goes something like this:

‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.’

‘What would I see if I caught up with light?’

‘Why cant I tell the difference between being accelerated and being pulled on by gravity?’

‘What is the source of the jiggling motion of tiny dust motes suspended in water?’

‘How can I think of light in the same way I think of matter?’

These are the questions that lead to the greatest scientific discoveries of the last century. The centrality of the creative question is true at any level of scientific endeavour.  I find myself explaining to new PhD students that, although they have got to this point by proving themselves uncommonly adept and finding the right answers, this will be of little use to them now.  They need to learn instead to craft the fruitful question.  That is the central imaginative, creative act of science.

Job Blake
From William Blake’s series of paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Job. Behemoth and Leviathan Wikimedia commons

 

Perhaps that is why I have always been entranced by the ancient long-poem of Natural Wisdom found in the Biblical ‘Book of Job’. It is usually called ‘The Lord’s Answer’, for it is the long-awaited response of Yahweh to the angry Job’s railings that he is suffering unjustly, and that the world is consequently out of joint. But ‘answer’ is in every other way an inappropriate description of the speech.  For it takes the form of a list of questions, posed to the hapless Job, but directed outwards into the manifold mysteries of the natural world.  Here are just a few of the 160 or so:

Who cuts a channel for the torrent of rain, a path for the thunderbolt,

Where is the realm where heat is created, which the sirocco spreads across the earth?

Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades, or loose Orion’s belt?

Can you send lightning bolts on their way, and have them report to you, ‘Ready!’?

Is it by your understanding that the hawk takes flight, and spreads its wings toward the south?

A poem, with each verse a question, each trope probing its own domain of creation: the winds and weather, the sky and stars, the animal world. They are highly potent questions – the containment of flood and lightening is asking about the balance of chaos and order.  The binding of the Pleiades (a tight star-cluster of associated young stars much closer than those of Orion) is motivated by curiosity aroused by observation.  There is indeed a reason that they are closely-grouped.  The pattern of avian navigation holds puzzles for us still, although we know that birds also can register patterns in the stars.  I have often suggested to scientist colleagues that they read through the Lords’ Answer to Job.  Uniformly they respond with recognition that here lies a fundamental human motivation to look deeply into nature that we also share.

In some ways, Faith and Wisdom in Science is an extended scientist’s commentary on the Book of Job. That we would have been called ‘natural philosophers’ two centuries ago, rather than ‘scientists’, is a clue that the story of science begins in the ancient thought-world of ‘wisdom’.  Certainly one of its most luminous themes – the celebration of the creative question – has not dimmed.  Einstein would have approved, but can we, in turn, succeed in passing on the love of the question, including the unanswered question, to our children?