Should a Christian do Science Differently?

FaWis_450Welcome, first of all, to a considerable number of new subscribers to the Faith and Wisdom in Science blog. I hope you find the posts and reports helpful, and do remember that its a blog in order to open up discussion. You can post questions and comments for me and others, although I will moderate to the standards of respectfulness and openness that this adventure is all about.
There are a few other resources on the blog site for those who are new – if you have a copy of Faith and Wisdom in Science then the (increasingly few with each reprint I hope) corrigenda are to be found on the Errata page. There is also a page containing links to media presentations, interviews etc. here.  lettherebescienceAnd don’t forget that if you, or someone you know, perhaps a high school or university student would like, or like to give away, a rather faster read of the message that science is not an obstacle to faith, but a gift from God, and not a threat to the Church but an equipping to a task, then the broader readership Let There Be Science co-written with school physics teacher Dave Hutchings is a great introduction.

 

Over the Easter break I had the fascinating experience of (1) speaking at the UK Christian festival Word Alive in Prestatyn, North Wales (of which a future blog when the materials are online) and also attending this year’s meeting of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT) in Lyon, France. Both in their different ways were challenging and interesting and full of people with good ideas and questions. The Lyon meeting was entitled Nature and Beyond: Immanence and Transcendence in Science and ReligionBut at both, very different, settings, the question, ‘What Difference does it make?’ was weaving throughout the discussions.

Of the very large topic of the ESSSAT title, the session that I spoke in was concerned with ‘Methodological Naturalism’ (MN) – that is the actual methods that scientists use to do science, the experiments, theories, hypothesis-testing, invocation of physical and chemical laws and so on. As first formulated formally by Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, the observation is that when we do science, we investigate nature on its own terms. Belief in God, in other words, is not necessary, nor impinges on the tools we use to find out about nature. ‘Methodological’ means ‘to do with tools and method’ and ‘naturalism’ means ‘on nature’s own terms’, or if you like, omitted explicit requirement of belief in, or actions of, God.

The first thing to be clear is that Methodological Naturalism is very different from ‘Metaphysical Naturalism’ – this is the entire worldview that omits the divine. But in spite of this, some Christians have expressed discomfort that MN works, and that Christians can somehow ‘forget about God’ in the function of science. One such is Andrew Torrence of St. Andrews University, who has recently written a paper about it, Should a Christian Adopt Methodological Naturalism in the journal Zygon.

I addressed the question in my talk at Lyon (and there will be a full paper later in the year), and others have written a reply for the journal itself, but there are a few very important things to say about this.

The first is about common grace – God gives gifts of tools for all sorts of reasons: gardening, medicine, cooking, teaching, singing, woodwork,… in an important way the scientific toolkit of method belongs to this set.  Everyone gets given this! (in principle – we need to learn and practice!). So to look for a special toolkit in science for Christians is like looking for a special way to bake a cake.

The second is to do with the three-way relationship between God the Creator, the natural creation, and ourselves. Since the articulation of the commission in Genesis 3 to make nature fruitful ‘by the sweat of our brow’ it has been understood that the work of gaining knowledge of nature as part of the work of healing our broken relationship with it, and that the way that nature works, has, like our own natures, a freedom to it, to explore possibility of structure and development, that does not require the moment by moment disruption by God.  Our calling as scientists is to look into nature with the same love and interest as its Creator, and doing that is part of our obedience.

Thirdly, MN does not exclude the possibility of miracles. Science is as able to detect anomalies as well as it detects regularities, but leaves it as that.  Reporting them is what science does, explaining them beyond science is, by definition NOT what science does.

Fourthly,  the relationship between the human and the natural world needs to be understood within the tradition of wisdom. This is the source of healthy relationship-building. It goes well beyond the, somewhat flawed, ‘two books’ analogy of reading nature as a second revelation, and becomes what theologian Eleanor Stump calls a ‘second person’ narrative (see short paper in appendix below).

But finally, Christian calling makes ALL the difference in doing science, as in doing anything. The reasons we do it, the way we interact with others in its performance, the choice of tasks to undertake, the very creative inspiration in the science we do – – all this and more can and does draw on a life of prayer, learning, worship and theological understanding. The toolkit is just the beginning.

 

For those who would like to read a little more deeply there follows, as an appendix, the 4-page ‘long abstract’ paper for the ESSSAT conference.

Appendix:

Methodological Naturalism but Teleological Transcendence: Science as Second Person Narrative

A metaphorical story of reading has dominated the theological framing of science, or more properly natural philosophy, since the high Medieval period.  It is the dual narrative of the Two Books: that of a twin revelation though the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. The 12thcentury scholar Hugh of St Victor in his compendium, the Didiscalion, wrote,[1]

This wholw world is like a book written by the finger of God …’,

Reading the two books became a dominant metaphor for the application of human sense, reflection, and insight into nature. It surfaces in Grosseteste in the 13thcentury, notably in Galileo in the early 17th, and especially in the ‘hermeneutical stance’ of early modern science. An example is found in Boyle’s advocacy of the early form of ‘citizen science’ known as Occasional Meditation. He writes[2]

The World is a Great Book, not so much of Nature as of the God of Nature, … crowded with instructive Lessons, if we had but the Skill, and would take the Pains, to extract and pick the out: the Creatures are the true Aegyptian Hieroglyphicks, that under the rude form of Birds, and Beasts etc. conceal the mysterious secrets of Knowledge and of Piety.’

The metaphor finds its flourishing in the natural theology of Paley and the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises. To deduce a personal creative agent of interventionist design in the structure of a biological lensed eye is precisely to read and interpret the text of the Second Book in terms of its author. The narrative of the Two Books is compelling for aesthetic, cultural and theological reasons. The parallel growth of literacy and science in Europe from the medieval period onwards, the emergence of printing, widespread education, and the new forms of writing and publication that accompany early modern science, render it almost irresistible. But we now know that simplistic adherence to the metaphorical reading of the Book of Nature as a conceptual framing for science generates a set of irresolvable problems at its nexus with theology.

The first is the structural flaw in natural theology that became increasingly visible during the nineteenth century, and was exposed in the greatest clarity by the ascent of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The passivity of written text fails to follow faithfully the emergent explorative potential of the tree of life. A written word implies an immediate and proximal author, yet an evolved species, perfectly accommodated to its environmental niche, did not require a pen to inscribe it there.

The second implication of the metaphor of the book is that its readers may deduce the character and purpose of its author through sophisticated levels of reading. Nature becomes a veiled or coded message from, and concerning, its Author. So if the Sacred Page can say of itself, [3]

In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as I has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.

then nature also becomes a once-veiled but increasingly transparent mode of insight into the person and nature of God. In the developed form of reading nature that became Natural Theology, we look throughnature towards a vision of its Creator. Attractive though such neo-oracular, albeit Christianised, interpretation of how to read nature might be, it runs rapidly into the thicket of theodicy – what must we deduce, in this mode, about the creator of catastrophes and carnivores?

A third issue, delayed until it appears on the beach of the late-modern period as the tide of near-universal theism retreated, is a problematizing of scientific method. If the effective practice of science is unaffected by any personal stance of belief, and if both its methods and conclusions align with a material metaphysics, namely the set of practices and assumptions termed ‘methodological naturalism’,[4]what value theistic belief and practice? The adoption of methodological naturalism has sat uncomfortably with some believers, and some theologians,[5]because its deployment of method that ostensibly ignores the divine seems to imply irrelevance of a position of faith.  Attempts to reintroduce particular differences in scientific methodology with a theistic philosophy run into insuperable problems at the experiential and epistemological levels.

The impasse at all three of these levels can be traced to the progressive narrowing of a philosophy of science to epistemology, ontology and methodology – the very categories that would be employed in literary criticism (of reading), ignoring another essential human category of teleology. The gradual silencing of the category of purpose from academic discourse is itself a potential source of its marginalisation, and plays to the pretence of a human viewpoint onto nature abstracted from it, rather than embedded.

Within Christian theology it has become necessary to look for another narrative metaphor, that more faithfully frames the relational aspect of the human condition to the natural world, accounts for the success of methodological naturalism within a theodicy, and places science within a coherent setting in relation to the narrative of creation-fall-election-incarnation-resurrection-new-creation. In particular, its relational content must be at the same time faithful to our experience of nature, and to the theological story with which we make sense of our human condition. In complementary terms, late-modern discourse has tended to categorise narratives about nature as ‘third person’. In her magisterial reworking of theodicy by example, Eleanore Stump[6]points out that much Biblical narrative is inherently ‘second person’, however, and that the category-error of forcing ‘third person’ structure onto it leads to artificial hermeneutical problems, rather like the three we have identified in the ‘Book of Nature’ approach to science.  A vital case in point is found in the Book of Job, which adopts not only a second-person approach to theodicy, and to the relationship between God and humans (through the example of Job himself), but also introduces a second-person approach to the relationship between humans and the natural creation.[7]In support of the claim that, within the Biblical Wisdom tradition, the Book of Jobconstitutes the best Biblical starting point for a narratology of the human relationship of the mind with physical creation, let us read from the point at which God finally speaks to Job (after 37 chapters of silence) in chapter 38:4-7:[8]

Where were you when I founded the earth?

Tell me, if you have insight.

Who fixed its dimensions? Surely you know!

Who stretched the measuring cord across it?

Into what were its bases sunk,

or who set its capstone, when the stars of the morning rejoiced together,

and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

 

The writer delineates a beautiful development of the core creation narrative in Hebrew wisdom poetry (a form found in Psalms, Proverbs and some Prophets that speaks of creation through ‘ordering’, ‘bounding’ and ‘setting foundations’[9]), but now in the relentless urgency of the question-form, throughout its history the imaginative core of scientific innovation. The subject matter of the poetic question-catalogue moves through meteorology, astronomy, zoology, finishing with a celebrated ‘de-centralising’ text that places humans at the periphery of the world, looking on in wonder at its centre-pieces, the great beasts Behemoth and Leviathan. This is an ancient recognition of the unpredictable aspects of the world: the whirlwind, the earthquake, the flood, unknown great beasts.

Long recognised, as a masterpiece of ancient literature, the Book of Job has attracted and perplexed scholars in equal measures for centuries, and is still a vibrant field of study right up to the present day. David Clines, to whom we owe the translation employed here, calls the Job ‘the most intense book theologically and intellectually of the Old Testament’[10]. Job has inspired commentators across vistas of centuries and philosophies, from Basil the Great, to Kant, to Levinas. Philosopher Susan Neiman has recently argued the case that the Book Job constitutes, alongside Plato, a necessary source-text for the foundation of philosophy itself.[11]

However, although readers of the text have long recognised that the cosmological motif within Job is striking and important, it has not received as much comprehensive attention as the legal, moral, and theological strands in the book, albeit with a few notable exceptions.[12]Arguably the identification of a direct link of the subject matter of Job to the human capacity for natural philosophy goes back at least as far as Aquinas, who refers at several points to Aristotle’s Physicsin his extensive commentary on the wisdom book,[13]  but these connections are rare in preference to metaphorical readings. This de-emphasising of cosmology might partly explain why Job 38, from which we have taken the extracts above, known as ‘The Lord’s Answer’ has had such a problematic history of reception and interpretation. Does it really answer Job’s two questions about his own innocence and the meaninglessness of his suffering? Does the ‘Lord’ of the creation hymns correspond to the creator Yahweh of the Psalms, the Pentateuch and the Prophets? Does the text even belong to the rest of the book as originally conceived? Some scholars have found the Lord’s Answer to Job spiteful, a petulant put-down that misses the point and avoids the tough questions.[14]But are these interpretations justified? Even looking at the text through the fresh lens of science today resonates with the difficultyof questioning nature, even its painfulness, as well as its wonder––that is how scientists respond at a first reading time and again.

To begin to answer, at a textual level, the charge that the ‘Lord’s Answer’ isn’t an answer, we need to observe that the intense nature imagery of the Book is by no means confined to Yahweh’s voice. On the contrary––nature imagery is employed from the very outset of the prologue, and throughout the disputations between Job and his friends. Indeed, every theme picked up in the Lord’s Answerhas already appeared in the cycles of dialogue between Job and his friends. The entire book is structured around the theme of wild nature. There is, furthermore, an ordered pattern in the realms of creation explored predominantly in the three cycles of speeches, moving from inanimate, to living then cosmological nature, as the tension between Job and his friends reaches its crescendo of personal invective in the third cycle.

Between the speech-cycles and the Lord’s Answer is a third vital strand of material. For the question to which chapter 38 is the answer, is found in the equally magisterial ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ of chapter 28, which begins with a remarkable metaphor for human perspicuity into the structure of the world – that of the miner underground:

Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place where gold is refined.

Iron is taken from the soil, rock that will be poured out as copper.

An end is put to darkness, and to the furthest bound they seek the ore in gloom and deep darkness.

A foreign race cuts the shafts; forgotten by travellers, far away from humans they dangle and sway.

That earth from which food comes forth is underneath changed as if by fire.

Its rocks are the source of lapis, with its flecks of gold.

The subterranean world takes us completely by surprise – why did either an original author or a later compiler suppose that the next step to take in the book was down a mineshaft? Reading on,

There is a path no bird of prey knows, unseen by the eye of falcons.

The proud beasts have not trodden it, no lion has prowled it …

There is something uniquely human about the way we fashion our relationship to the physical world. Only human eyes can seethe material world from the new viewpoint of its interior. It is an enhanced sight that asks questions, that directs further exploration, that wonders. The conclusion of the hymn points to the shocking parallel of the human wisdom of the miner, and the divine wisdom of the Creator (28v23):

But God understands the way to it; it is he who knows its place.

For he looked to the ends of the earth, and beheld everything under the heavens,

So as to assign a weight to the wind, and determine the waters by measure,

when he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderbolt –

then he saw and appraised it, established it and fathomed it.

 

It is by no means true that the hymn concludes that wisdom has nothing to do with the created world, for the reason that God knows where to find it is precisely because he ‘looked to the ends of the earth, …, established it and fathomed it’. It is, as for the underground miners, a very special sort of looking – involving number (in an impressive leap of the imagination in which we assign a value to the force of the wind) and physical law (in the controlled paths of rain and lightning). This is an extraordinary claim: that wisdom is to be found in participating with a deep understanding of the world, its structure and dynamics.

A reading of the entire book reveals that it continually navigates possible relationships between the human and the material, throughout the cycles of speeches, the Hymn to Wisdom and the Lord’s Answer.[15]From ‘nature as eternal mystery’ to ‘nature as moral arbiter’, alternatives are rejected, until the Hymn to Wisdom itself points to a new notion of relationship. This new voice hints at a balance between order and chaos rather than a domination of either. It inspires bold ideas such as a covenant between humans and the stones, thinks through the provenance of rainclouds, observes the structure of the mountains from below, wonders at the weightless suspension of the earth itself. It sees humankind’s exploration of nature as inImago Dei, and a participation in Wisdom herself.

The story of search for wisdom through the perceptive, renewed and reconciliatory relationship with nature, begins to look like a potential source for a new theological narrative of nature in our own times. It is rooted in creation and covenant, rather than Aristotelian tradition; it recognises reasons to despair, but undercuts them with hope; it points away from stagnation to a future of greater knowledge, understanding and healing – it is centrally teleological. Furthermore, it offers a stark opposition to the stance of natural theology.  Rather than looking into nature in the hope of perceiving God, we look with the Creator into creation, participating in his gaze, his love, and his co-creative ability to engage in nature’s future with responsibility and wisdom.  The applicability of methodological naturalism is unproblematic because it is God’s gift of sight, as creative chaos  becomes the gift to nature of freedom in possibility.

[1]Hugh of St. Victor Didascalicon (Book 7)

[2]The Works of the Honorable Robert Boyle, Vol. I, New Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching the Spring of the Air, p.16 A new edition (1772) London: W. Johnson et al.

[3]Ephesians 3vv. 4,5 (NIV)

[4]See e.g. Joseph B. O. Okello (2015) A History and Critique of Methodological NaturalismEugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock.

[5]Alvin Plantinga (1997) Philosophical Analysis Origins & Design18:1

[6]Eleanor Stump, Wandering in DarknessOxford: OUP (2010)

[7]Tom McLeish, Faith and Wisdom in Science, Oxford: OUP (2014)

[8]We take quotations of the text from the magisterial new translation and commentary by David Clines, Thomas Nelson pubs., Nelson, Vol. 3 (2011).

[9]W. H., Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010).

[10]David J.A. Clines, Job 1-20 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), Introduction.

[11]See her article, ‘The Rationality of the World: A Philosophical Reading of the Book of Job, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/10/19/4559097.htm (date accessed: 7/12/2016).

[12]N.C. Habel, The Book of Job,(SCM Press 1985)

[13]Thomas Aquinas Expositio super Iob ad litteram, translated by Brian Mulladay and available on the web here: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/SSJob.htm#382

[14]David Robertson, “The Book of Job: A Literary Study,” in Soundings, 56 (1973) 446-68.

[15]McLeish op. cit.

 

 

 

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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…’

physics-schrodinger-s-formula-freezelight-bokeh-schrödinger-equation-quantum-mechanics-99006614

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)

 

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

Sun Beams Entering Cave

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

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

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

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

Presented in collaboration with the Royal Society.

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

 

Dear Tom,

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Colin,

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

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

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

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

**********************************************************

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

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

Dear Tom,

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

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

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

*************************************************************

Dear Colin

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

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

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

 

 

Does the Size of the Universe Prove God Doesn’t Exist?

FaWis_450A good colleague of mine at my University of Durham’s philosophy department, Dr. Emily Thomas, recently posted a short essay with this title on the (wonderful) academic multi-disciplinary blogsite TheConversation. It’s had a great number of readers, one of whom was me. I like most of what Emily writes, but this time, as she knows, I had a rather strong negative reaction! So I thought I would write a little about this question on the Faith and Wisdom in Science blog, as it is clearly important for a good number of people.

Eagle Dark matter

A massive computer simulation of the cosmic web of Dark Matter, Gas and Galaxies from the Eagle Project 300 million light years across- itself only a 30th of the diameter of the observable universe

Here is the short version:

  • Yes the Universe is ‘mind-bogglingly big’ (thanks Douglas Adams) on the scale of the human being (see image and caption above)

but

  • No, that does NOT imply in any way that the ‘Christian God’ is less likely to exist

because

  • The argument confuses the two distinct categories of scale and significance (the old ‘size matters’ problem)

and

  • Is, as typical of arguments from philosophers and scientists today that they believe impact on Christian theology, based on a level of triviality of theological learning and sophistication that makes me blush to read it.

So, just a little more on that.  The confusion of scale and significance is an easy one to make – we are overawed by size, vastness, immensity. Of course we are. But that is a visceral reaction not a cognitive one.  I hesitate to illustrate the point, but we do not ascribe a greater significance to a mountain than to a human baby simply because the first is 7 orders of magnitude larger than the second.  One of the special abilities that humans have is to identify meaning and significance, and to associate that with narrative place and relationship.

To take a more cosmological example, we do not know how common life is in the universe (yes Drake equation, Fermi and all that – another time perhaps – but we really have no idea because we don’t yet have a process for the origin of life).  We might be alone or the galaxy might be teeming with life.  But whichever of those turns out to be the case, the microscopic and special event or events that start a tree of life on its way are extraordinarily significant, yet vanishingly tiny in time and space, compared with the 13 billion years, and light years of the cosmic T and R. Another vital point rides on this – namely that in order to have had enough time to manufacture heavy elements in the first generation of stars since the Big Bang, and to evolve a second generation of stars, planets and life since then actually requires a universe the size of ours.  So the length scale of the cosmos and the human scale are physically and causally related, it turns out.

Thirdly, those who take the line that the largeness of the universe rules out a theology of specificity have forgotten that even our notion of scale ordering is conventional.  Physicists, mathematicians, chemists and molecular biologists are used to thinking in ‘reciprocal space’.  Its the space in which the diffraction patterns of molecular structure dwell, the realm of the Fourier transforms, of the photon fields in theoretical physics.

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X-ray diffraction pattern of Beryl in reciprocal space (Bruno Juricic)

The figure shows an example.  The point is that descriptions of reality can be made either in ‘real space’ or reciprocal space, in which the information on large objects is held in small places, and vice versa.  In many ways, physics looks more natural in this space.  If we were to apply the ‘large matters’ mantra in a view of the world through reciprocal space, then we would be led to favour the small, the detailed, over the large.  Of course I am not advocating that automatically any more than its opposite, merely pointing out that the ascription of large or small numbers to objects in the world is conventional, so cannot carry any philosophical weight at all.

Finally we need to do out theology just a little better.  Yes of course there is a strong strand of the particular and special in Judeo-Christianity.  Israel, Moses, election, … and supremely the incarnation.  But that is not the only strand.  From the oldest texts there is alongside this an decentralising narrative as well.  Readers of this blog will at this point not be surprised that we are going to go to the Book of Job for a reminder of the warning not to be exclusively anthropocentric about the world.  For the pinnacle of Yahweh’s creation as displayed to Job in the ‘Lord’s Answer’ is not the human, but the sublime and ‘other’ creatures of Leviathan and Behemoth (from Job chapter 40):

15“Look at Behemoth, which I made along with you  and which feeds on grass like an ox.16 What strength it has in its loins,  what power in the muscles of its belly!17 Its tail sways like a cedar;  the sinews of its thighs are close-knit.18 Its bones are tubes of bronze,    its limbs like rods of iron.19 It ranks first among the works of God, yet its Maker can approach it with his sword.

Even the later and highly-developed Genesis 1 creation narrative does not stop with humankind, but reaches its climax with the Sabbath, God’s rest, where He is central.  Jesus takes up the non-anthropocentric theme at several points in the Gospel narrative.  It’s not ‘all about us’.  A number of theologians have explored this theme – Christopher Southgate’s book The Groaning of Creation is a good starting point for a discussion that goes back to Aquinas and further.

So in conclusion, the findings of modern cosmology turn out to balance the place and significance of humans in much the same way that the Judeo-Christian narrative does.

It’s not the size, it’s what you do that matters, and who you are.

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

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Is the Lord’s Answer to Job a Slap-Down or an Invitation?

screen-shot-2016-01-22-at-8-22-45-amIn public and private presentations of Faith and Wisdom in Science, discussions of the central Book of Job often arise.  In particular, in regard to the interpretation of the ‘Lord’s Answer’ in chapters 38-42, I have been encouraged to give a little more.  To recall, I find this extraordinary ancient nature-poem of questions (Were you there when I laid the foundations of the Earth? … Do you know the way to the abode of light … Can you count the clouds …) by no means a divine ‘put-down’, as it is sometimes interpreted, but rather an invitation to take the Creator’s perspective, and to engage with the natural world.

There are a couple  preliminary ‘ground-clearing’ operations to do. It would be wrong to suggest that YHWH is inviting Job to ‘do science’ in the modern sense. My thesis is that ‘science is the name of the current chapter in a book that humankind has been writing since its origin’. So the earlier ‘chapters’ are not ‘science’ in the modern sense but are in continuity with it. The point is that the passage is inviting a cognitive questioning of the natural world, a perspective of responsibility and care rather than abdication and complaint – it is about relationship above all. Our relationship with the natural world underlies what ‘science’, which is more a set of tools to achieve it, lies deeper and is foundational to science, not science itself. Job is at the headwaters of that narrative – that is the claim.

Job Blake

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

The other essential preliminary is the implied claim about what YHWH is notdoing.  What you term the ‘standard’ interpretation of Job 38-42 (though when you actually work through the commentaries it doesn’t look that way, especially among the more scholarly of them) is that the string of questions is meant as what we would term a ‘put-down’.  This is YHWH speaking from an elevated position of authority down to the presumptuous Job, unleashing a volley of rapid-fire tests of his knowledge and understanding to the end that it is clear to Job that he has neither [1].  So part of the support for an invitational interpretation needs to be a critique of this one.

(1) The introductory trope (v3) ‘Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me’. This is of course as close an answer to your original question as you could want – it is of course, and quite explicitly, an ‘invitation’.  Specifically it is an invitation to (metaphorical) combat between two male (the verse is gendered) contenders. Quite the opposite of denigration, the invocation of this standard invitation to combat [2] is a mark of respect as an opponent, so Hartley, ‘Neither [Job’s] affliction nor his inflamed rhetoric has diminished his intrinsic worth as a human being’ [3].  Job scholar David Clines imputes a desire to win to YHWH, rather than to browbeat at this point [4].  This may ‘locally’ be the point, but as Stump points out in her magisterial study of Biblical wilderness experience and theodicies, the overarching aim of YHWH is to love – understanding that love must at times be severe, permissive of a free response, and teleologically restorative [5].

(2) The form of the Answer as questions. The pejorative use of questions, common (perhaps sadly) in our own society, is by no means universal.  In particular the question-form is not used this way in ancient Hebrew, but predominantly as a stimulus to reflection, thought and learning.  It is the central educational instrument.  The preponderance of questions throughout Biblical literature is itself significant.  The Jewish love affair with the questioning mind persists to this day.  It is enshrined in the Seder liturgy of course, in the role of the children present whose task it is to ask the important questions. The cultural love of the question carries down to to our own day; it is reflected in the story told by Jewish physicist Isidore Rabi, whose mother would ask him every day on coming home from school, ‘Did you ask any good questions today?’.  So the questions in The Lord’s Answer ought first to be interpreted through this, thought-provoking lens, not that of point- scoring (or several other possible interpretations such as a request for information, a rhetorical pathway to a trap and so on). A closely lasted set of divine questions, also referring to natural creation, as noted by Habel [6] is found in Second Isaiah (e.g. 40:12-15, 45:18-22) where their point is to generate reflection in the recipient to the end that they conceive of God’s power to act.  Westermann also refers to these ‘trial speeches of Second Isaiah where YHWH and the gods of the surrounding nations confront each other in a legal process, the purpose of which is to decide who is truly God.’ [7]  Essential to this background is that when YHWH defends himself that is not an end in itself, but rather a preliminary that then allows humans to follow the true God into their true task (in the case of Second Isaiah to take up the role of ‘The Servant’ in renewing the relationship with God’s People (Ch 49). A New Testament echo is Jesus invitation to John’s disciples to interpret what they see – he too answers a question with a question (Matt 11:2-10).  So the questions in Job, which fall into this pattern of ‘education’ (literally ‘leading out’ of course) to a purpose is the appropriate expectation – the readers task is to identify what it being learned and to what purpose.

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When all the angels sang for joy … Job Ch. 38

(3) The structure and quantity of questions, and the context of Job’s earlier questions. There are approaching 170 of them.  It would take 2 or 3 only to establish that YHWH possessed knowledge and Job ignorance. The extensive litany tells us from a structural point of view that more is going on here. I have detailed the categories, realms of nature, and detailed referential links to the nature metaphors invoked in the earlier cycles of speeches of the book before [8] so won’t go into unnecessary detail here. However, we must recall that these are productive, leading questions –  sort that suggest investigations in such of answers. They also cover the catalogue of nature’s wild side, from the depths of the oceans to the clustering of the stars. They touch on Job’s partial, but incomplete knowledge.  Within the framework established in (2) above of education to a purpose, it is more than suggestive that that purpose has to do with nature itself. The vital point here is that YHWH’s questions do tackle head-on the actual substance of Job’s complaint.  It bears repeating – Job’s accusation is not primarily that he is suffering unjustly but that this is just part of a much wider problem of a cosmos out of control.  It is the aleatory strike of the lightning bolt (36:32), the earthquake (9:5), disease (10:9) and the flood (6:15) that constitutes the foundation of his case against YHWH.  This is why it is appropriate for the Answer to address the free reign of natural processes that give rise to the rich complexity that the magnificent survey of Job 38-42 encompasses.

(4) The manner of YHWH’s appearing – of the whirlwind, is paradoxically what Job simultaneously most desires and most fears. He has already anticipated that an epiphany would crush him (9:34), yet repeatedly requested it (13:15). When it happens, it is far from crushing- Job is invited to stand up and ‘gird his loins’ (see 1 above). Furthermore the epiphany is more than suggestive of the canonical appearance to Moses on Sinai. The cover of cloud is replaced by the cover of a whirlwind, the spoken commandments by a speech of a different kind, but the context of covenant is very suggestive.

(5) The context of the Hymn to Wisdom in Job 28. The connection between YHWH’s answer and the Hymn to Wisdom is vital, for the ‘Answer’ is as much an answer to the great question there – Where can Wisdom be found? – as it is to Job’s demands for vindication and explanation. Again I have written about Job 28 in detail elsewhere [8] but the salient point is that the metaphor of the miner in Job 28 points out the special nature of humans that set us apart from other animals is that we are able to see into the structure of nature deeper than they, and by our own art. The shocking final passage of the Hymn to Wisdom parallels this as the characteristic function of God’s own wisdom. It is a call to follow the Creator into a deeper knowledge of creation. Job 38 takes the same journey to and through the depths as Job 28 – it is a personal enactment of the invitation there.  This is an invitation to take God’s perspective on nature.  That is explicit in Job 28 and a natural interpretation of Job 38, not only because of the context of the search for Wisdom of the whole book, but because that is precisely what Job needs to do.  For another stark example of being asked to take God’s perspective, see the close parallel of Jonah, where God’s lessons to Jonah are also worked through a phenomenon of nature (a sun-wilted bush) and where the key question is left hanging.  Alternatively and movingly see the entire book of Hosea, where the prophet is invited into YHWH’s emotional perspective of rejected love.

(6) The effect upon Job. Were the speeches meant as a crushing put-down (note I do not say that they are not corrective) then Job himself would have been crushed by them. Instead, his experience turns out to be palliative, and restorative – he does quieten down in terms of his complains, but he rises with a new confidence. Here the reading of 42: 6 is important and there has been considerable philological change of direction recently on the ambiguous Hebrew here (see both Habel and Clines on this verse in [4] and [6]).  The problem with translating nhm as ‘repent’ is that with the preposition used in this verse it is better rendered with the sense of changing one’s mind about something – so ‘repent of my dust and ashes’ is better than ‘repent in dust and ashes’.  Similarly the verb m’s which has been translated ‘despise’ is now thought much more likely to adopt here its legal connotations and mean ‘retract’ (‘my case’).  So Job is not crushed – he simply retracts his case and moves on: I withdraw my case and leave my dust and ashes behind me. There is an interesting aspect to the question-form of the Answer and Job’s restoration as well.  As Goldingay puts it’ ‘Much of the time what we need (not what we think we need) is the capacity to live with the questions. At one level this is what God wants for Job.’[8]

(7) The eschatological context. Comparisons with Isaiah have already been noted, but are not essential to situate the prophetic, wisdom-poem of Job within the arc of theological history of Judaism (and its inheritor).  Stories around individual characters (Moses, Samson, David, Elijah, Jonah, Job, Hosea, …) take place within a much larger and longer arc of creation, rebellion, election, redemption, restoration, new-creation.  They are themes, within movements within a symphony, and as such give to and receive from their narrative context extra meaning and depth.  In particular they give and receive along the communication channels of purpose.  The purpose of humans, called and in-breathed with the ruach and pneuma of YHWH’s own spirit, and created in his image, is to participate in the continuity of creation’s story. Job is future-directed, not only for its protagonist, but for its readers as well.

[1] D. Robertson, The book of Job: a literary study. Soundings 1973, 56, 446–68.

[2] See D.J.A Clines, ‘Loin-girding and other male activities in the Book of Job’ www.shef.ac.uk/bibs/DJACcurres/Loingirding.html

[3] J.E. Hartley in The Book of Job, Ed. W.A.M. Beuken BETL 114

[4] D.J.A. Clines (2011) World Biblical Commentary on Job, Nashville: Thos. Nelson, p.1097

[5] E. Stump (2012), Wandering in Darkness, Oxford: OUP

[6] N.C. Habel (1985) The Book of Job, London: SCM Press

[7] C. Westermann Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, London: SCM Press 1969

[7] T.C.B. McLeish (2014) Faith and Wisdom in Science Oxford: OUP, Ch. 5

[8] J. Goldingay (2013) Job for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press p.196

More on Job – and a breakfast discussion in Ann Arbor

UmichIt will take a few weeks to recount  and pass on some experiences of the Faith and Wisdom summer, but one needs must refer on now.  I spent a fascinating weekend visiting my long time friend and collaborator Ron Larson of the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (what a lovely, sylvan, name!) and of Knox Presbyterian Church of the same city.

Saturday morning Ron had gathered an ‘out for breakfast’ (bacon, two eggs over easy, hash browns) informal conversation of UoM faculty about the role of Christian faith in their life and work, and especially in science.  It was a stimulating and fascinating conversation.  One aspect new to me was the very wide range of experiences of being known (or not) as a believer in an academic setting.  Some found no issue, and were quite open about their faith (this tended to be the case in the faculty of medicine). Others felt that their intellectual ability would be called seriously into doubt, and promotion prospects dented, were they to ‘come out’ (some, but by no means all, in the science faculty).

But my task is made all the easier, as one participant (RJS) has blogged about the discussion here.  The writer has also commented previously on how to read Job, so we were especially happy to share a deep interest in that book, and its prescience for Biblical theology of the cosmos and our relation to it. I searched that whole blog for Job and found a collection of interesting articles here.

The main lessons seems to be not to project back New Testament notions into the thought world of Job or the writer of the book, and to realise that, as well as much else, this book is about living with questions, not insisting on easy answers.

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.