Comments and Replies

The book Faith and Wisdom in Science brings a number of themes and ideas together to make its suggestion that we can and should reframe a long, human, cultural narrative for science.  It suggests that our inability to sustain a reasoned public and political conversation about troubled technologies, and our concerns with science policy, science education and the way science is portrayed in the media, all point to the lack of a deep narrative that supports the place of doing science and being human. It suggests that ancient wisdom literature is a place to look for a wellspring for the “missing narrative” and exemplifies the Book of Job, as a starting point.  This move opens a new way into science and religion questions, and in particular appeals to the need for a theology of science.  It suggests that science can be understood both theologically and anthropologically as the work of reconciliation of a broken relationship between the human and the material world.

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Cricial responses have emerged already from public launch events at universities and other fora in the UK and the US, which have sparked some very interesting discussion.  In the hope that some of these responses might be shared more widely, and perhaps even some of the open questions in the book followed up, this blog invites postings from readers.  If I have anything to say in response I will try to say it!

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6 thoughts on “Comments and Replies

  1. Tom McLeish’s reconciling project is based on the recognition that both science and theology claim to speak about all of human life, not just about distinct and separate magisteria, and it expresses his personal commitment to both perspectives.

    But what might this have to say to someone coming from my own standpoint? – someone who, while not disrespectful of science, takes it to have played a major part in leading us into our current tragedy, environmental and other; and who is also fairly firmly unpersuaded by any religious interpretation of the world? McLeish evidently brings a fund of relevant wisdom and experience to his undertaking, and it would be a great pity if he could only really be heard by those who share his theological outlook.

    So back to the Book of Job!
    “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
    Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?….
    Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?
    Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover thee?
    …Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?
    Canst thou number the months that they fulfil?”
    As put to Job, these are clearly (as we used to say in Latin class) questions expecting the answer No – or more fully, the answer: “No, I can’t, or we can’t – but you, Lord, obviously can”. Today, however, such questioning would be at least as likely to meet with the “Dawkins response”: “Yes, we can – broadly speaking, and given time, we can both understand and manage the natural world, in all those respects and others – while you, Lord, don’t exist.” And you might recoil from the humanistic hubris of that “Yes we can”, while still sympathising with the atheist rejoinder.

    McLeish, however, thinks he can be hopeful without hubris about planetary management, precisely because he has a theistic perspective. Importantly, he is under no ordinary illusions here. He says very cogently that “At no point in the history of homo sapiens on planet Earth have we been less prepared to think through the consequences of our own actions for the world we inhabit” (Ch 8, p.29), and he is also properly scathing about “the globally-paraded charade of climate-change conferences…” and “the bluster that passes for concerted political action.” (p.30). But nevertheless, in relation to the “troubled technologies”, as he calls them, which have been canvassed in response – the various forms of novel engineering from the nano- through the genetic up to the geo- levels – he deploys a what he calls a “qualified optimism”, holding that “we do, after all, have the mental and social capacities to manage our relationship with nature away from harms and into fruitfulness”. (p.40)

    So in response to the fear that desire makes us blind, so that we should be careful what we wish for – the recognition, perhaps, that our pathological craving for “progress” produces embedded denial of the downsides of what we are doing – and as a counter to the modest resignation (he calls it “conservatism”) which such a fear might induce in the neo-Stoic, he says this: “While guarding against a ruthless and exploitative domination of nature, the command at Eden…the beckoning invitation to wisdom of the Lord’s Answer to Job are…encouragements to wish for very great things indeed. This …theology of science…is not at all conservative in its estimation of what humanity is capable of, nor in what it ought to aim at”. (p.35)

    In response to the associated fear of opening Pandora’s box – the recognition of our liability to release the chaotic potentiality and randomness of the natural world unwittingly and of our inability then to control it, he avers that “the ‘beginning of Wisdom’ is not to double-lock the casket of our ignorance, but to seek the ‘fear of the Lord’, where this is understood to be a participation in a creator’s deep insight into the structure of what he has made…” (p.35)

    And what of perhaps the deepest fear in this domain, the fear of ‘messing with nature – the fear that in some forms of nano- and macro-engineering now theoretically available to us, even if we don’t happen to unleash what we can’t handle, we are still transgressing limits which we ought somehow to respect, are still (in that odd image for a secular age) ‘playing God’? Here he is in a position to appeal to the ideas of a “a participative ‘ministry of reconciliation’”, and of “a servant-priesthood of mediators between the human and non-human world. Within a religious tradition, science becomes a holy task…”. (p.35) As it were, worry about playing God loses its force for someone who can think that in deploying the latest and most sophisticated scientific knowledge and technical expertise, he or she is actually partnering God.

    What are the conditions for hopeful intervention in a world made increasingly dangerous by science, one where science is both indispensable and always tending into overweeningness – a matter of wonder and legitimate ambition but always tempted to be wilfully cavalier with risk, and thus always haunted by apprehension and edged with guilt? How can we check the human wilfulness which makes our knowledge dangerous. That’s certainly one of the crunch questions of our time. McLeish’s answer is, I take it: to see ourselves as deploying science in co-creative partnership with a will which is not our own, a greater will which encourages us, holds us responsible, but also cherishes us.

    But what if the only conscious will and purpose in the world are human?

    In those circumstances, the fears which McLeish tries to overcome by faith surely leap out again. If there is only human will, desire remains dangerously liable to blind us, because desire can always corrupt the rational will from within. The constraint which Kant and his followers have hoped that will could recognise as internal to its own rationality, that of having to will our maxims of action universally, can readily be circumvented by our desire-driven choice of what we are going to take to be our maxims. So for example “we will impose on future people burdens which we are not willing to shoulder ourselves” is not universalisable, but try instead: “we will enrich future people materially and technologically, enabling them to cope with burdens which we cannot presently shoulder”. That clearly passes any Kantian test, but it is equally clearly down to our self-interested selves which of those alternative descriptions of what we are actually doing we tacitly decide to offer ourselves.

    By the same token, Pandora’s box will always remain dangerous to open, because human will as the only kind of will in the world encounters limitation imposed from outside itself, which would have to be natural limitation, only as something posing a challenge to be overcome. That the will inherently can’t be constrained by facts of nature is precisely the source of the huge dangers into which we run as our scientific knowledge and technological powers increase – more and more, the actually-encountered structure of the natural world presents itself as an in-principle removable obstacle to the realisation of whatever we want.

    And such a striving will is always going to be haunted, but never really restrained, by the fear of ‘playing God’ – since as that very phrase indicates, we seem to have no language other than the religious, for the recognition that there are things which we radically betray ourselves by willing. But what is our case, once that religious language is superannuated?

    In other words, the question which McLeish answers from his own perspective turns into questions which he raises for us atheists, but doesn’t answer. How can human will, which encounters the phenomenal only as something necessarily over against itself, discover natural limitation within itself, if there is indeed nowhere else for such limitation to lie? How can it thereby engage itself in anything corresponding to what is powerfully but darkly expressed in McLeish’s imagery of a “ministry of reconciliation” and of “co-creative partnership”? How can we say and mean something like “Thy will be done”, opening ourselves to unchosen willing, when we no longer take that subjunctive to be addressed to anyone? What are the conditions for hopeful intervention in a dangerous world where science has to be practised in due humility, has – if we are to survive at all – to be a practice of a kind towards which his idea of “co-creative partnership in reconciliation” very intriguingly points, and a world where technology has to be governed in correspondingly responsible ways – but a world where we are on our own?

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  2. John Foster (of Lancaster University) makes a very pertinant point. Although I have ‘mined’ Biblical Wisdom material, Christian theology and the history of medieval, early modern and modern science for a ‘cultural narrative of science’ and linked this explicitly to the ‘theology of science’ that I have attempted to outline, does this methodology exclude the agnostic, atheist, humanist and materialist? If it does then a large part of the “Faith and Wisdom in Science Project” is doomed to failure, as my thesis is that it is just these resources that can and ought to speak into our current public, political and global problems.

    I would make, I think, three points in response. First, narratives held and understood by many people become powerful, whatever their source. A narrative that all our science should be publically grasped, accountable and addressed at a reconciliatory and fruitful nurturing of nature can be politically effective whether its source is sacred or secular. Witness the power of the negative ancient narratives to which John refers to disrupt and confuse, as well as to warn.

    Second, it is perfectly possible, and evidently productve, for theologically-driven people with a social conscience to engage collaboratively with sthose driven by secular/humanist agendas. Examples that spring to mind are the social legislation for employment and abolition of slavery of the 19th century, and the truth and reconciliation commissions of the 20th. The church, broadly defined, does not have the strength of voice it needs to on “troubled technologies” because it does not recognise fully its mandate to adopt one, nor the resources at its disposal in the Biblical tradition. But it if did it would, my hope is, prove a strong partner to others concerned with human dangers to nature.

    But thirdly, of course there is a point at which the Christian thinker has to part company with the Atheist and (go futher? take a different path?…). There is a question in John’s post about the legitimacy of hope, and in that regard the only response of the atheist is existential. The Christian points to the resurrection as the sign of the possibility of new, re-created existence. But, as Steiner avows in ‘Real Presences’, which I quote in the book, we all know the “Friday, Saturday, Sunday” pattern of despair, waiting and hope. So perhpas the process of “meding our ways” is one that can be shared by believer and non-believer alike in caring for our relationship with the world.

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  3. Pingback: Faith and Wisdom in Science Discussion Blog: an invitation | Faith and Wisdom in Science

  4. Huge thanks to Tom for this excellent book! I found it very refreshing that he offers an integrative approach across the disciplines, and between the academic and the personal. He takes the faith-science debate beyond the obvious and somewhat stale areas of cosmology, evolution and the like (and indeed resists the notion of “debate”). And he when looking at the Bible he takes us properly on an adventure into many narratives of creation and not just those in Genesis.

    The heart of the book for me was on page 210: “Science turns out to be an intensely theological activity. When we do science, we participate in the healing work of the creator. When we understand a little more of nature, we take a step further in the reconciliation of a broken relationship.” This is drawing on a Trinitarian understanding of God – which I would love to see him explore more fully in a second volume. God is all the time and simultaneously creating potential from which complexity, pattern and meaning emerge and evolve, in ways which to an emerged and evolved consciousness seem extravagantly costly; is absorbing that cost, and recreating with and through it; and is inspiring our evolved consciousness to participate in this work of both creation and redemption/reconciliation. So science within this understanding is a thinking the thoughts of God after and a co-creating with him; is not able to sideline the moral challenges of that; and so is called to participate in the adventure and the challenge of building a good future.

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  5. I recall being amused at the Cambridge launch event when David *almost* complained that Faith and Wisdom in Science was not explicitly Christian enough in its theology and thinking – specifically in regard to Christology and the Trinity! I was smiling because thinking of responses similar to John Foster’s above, expressing a danger that the book and approach become too exclusively theist… (I guess in this business as in all you can please some of the people some of the time….).

    But of course this is an interesting and vital challenge. There is something very powerful about “Trinitarian thinking” broadly defined when tackling entrenched dualisms of any kind. In the book we meed to opposed dualisms of scientism and anti-science, of the narratives of sacred nature and instrumental exploitation, of the humanities and the sciences, and others. In many ways the book suggests ‘Wisdom’ as a third-way (I admit to being attracted by the political journal of the same title – perhaps I’m intrinsically averse to dualities) in breaking these false oppositions/alternatives simultaneously. Currently I am reading Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley’s “God, Sexuality and the Self”, in which she suggests that Trinitarian thinking breaks the dualistic deadlock of gender, and works this out in more detail. I am hoping that this might give some clues in our context to answer Bishop Davoid’s question.

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  6. Thanks Tom for your talk at Victoria University on 23/09/15. Really impressed. I have not read this site and the comments – or your book – yet. Look forward to doing both. I spoke briefly to you after your talk and offered you a copy of my book. I think it takes a different tack – it’s not scholarly at all. But like you I want to focus on reconciliation. I particularly want to bring the religious and non-scientifically cultured on board with science. You suggested I send you an electronic copy of my book. Is this the place? I don’t want to post it to open public access.

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