Faithful to Science, Cambridge 02/15
I gave a talk entitled “Faithful to Science” at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge, on 3rd Feb 2015. Here I provide a video of the talk and discussion after it, and then the text of the talk, with some of the pictures.
If the video fails to play for some reason, then you can find it at the web site of the Faraday Institute, under resources/multimedia, here:
At the Faraday multimedia page either search through the list or type “steane” into the search box, then click the title of the talk to launch the video.
There follows here the complete text of the talk.
Talk given at the Faraday Institute for science and religion, February 2015.
Thank you for inviting me to the Faraday Institute to give this talk. I am very pleased to have this opportunity to speak, and I hope that what I say will be helpful to you.
I will begin with a poem called “Grace Notes”. It is about a person – an ordinary human being – any one of us.
This absurd cathedral which struts about
on flopping slabs of meat,
This crazy lug-eared moon,
Big Ben whose driven face
its incidental time and place,
This masked intruder
on the African plain,
Peerer through twin key-holes,
Bearer of a vastly hidden space,
is the entirely given vehicle
and the lovely means of grace.
I will return to this poem shortly, and it will become clear why I have included it.
My talk has a main title “Faithful to Science”, and a sub-title, “the role of science in religion”. I use the word “religion” here with some hesitation. I considered trying to avoid the word altogether. I think we all know that what is commonly called “religion” or “religious” includes a large amount of bad, or truly awful things. Some of the worst aspects of human behaviour are religious. That is bad religion.
There is also bad politics, and bad poetry, and bad sport, and bad science. But it is not all bad. You can have good politics, and good poetry, and good sport, and good science, and good religion.
Nevertheless, I, and I think many of us, would have some hesitation about applying the word “religion” or “religious” to ourselves, because we want to distance ourselves from the idea of religious ritual as an end in itself, and we especially want to distance ourselves from the idea of religion as a way of trying to gain acceptance with a mysterious figure somehow looming over us. We share all the reservations about “religion” that Jesus of Nazareth voiced when he opposed many of the religious assumptions of his day.
But, after admitting all these reservations, I will be using the word “religion” in this talk. For the purposes of this talk, I mean religion in its best form. Good religion.
So, then: what is “good religion”?
I would define it as essentially about two things:
Reconnection and Recognition
Religion is about connecting up the complete picture of who we are.
We are in a three-fold relationship. We are part of a natural world: a physical world, an ecosystem that produced us, and on which we depend.
We are also linked to one another, and indeed my identity is bound up with how I relate to other human beings, and how they hear me and respond to me. Another person’s identity is similarly shaped by, and even, partly, carried by, my reactions to them.
And, thirdly, we reach up above, or out beyond, or deep to the roots of, all these other links, and we find a further connection “out there”, or “in there”. We find our connection to the root of reality, a connection we find it hard to put into words, but the best words are about love, and integrity, and about perseverance, and kindness, and courage and recognition.
And there is that word recognition. Religion is very much about learning to recognize the truth of the world and our place in it. It involves being receptive to the deep beauty of even such a simple thing as a lump of rock, or a spider, or a tub of custard. It involves knowing the appropriateness of words like “reverence” when we encounter the natural world. It is also to recognize each other, and to see that a single human individual should command our attention much more than something that is only an abstraction, such as a nation-state, or a commercial enterprise, or a political party, or a university. And, thirdly recognition is to recognize that larger all-embracing reality. The reality in whom we find ourselves, or, better, in whom we are found, or who finds us.
I say “whom”, not “which” or “it”, for good reasons. But I admit there is an element of mystery here, so I will have to return to that.
To summarize so far, I have introduced a poem, and I have said a bit about what I mean by good religion. I have defined it as all about the fullest and most authentic reconnection and recognition.
Another important word is faith. This also is a word that is much maligned, but which I will need to use.
The word “faith” is misused when people employ it to talk about ideas that have no motivating evidence, or subjective beliefs with little or no reasonable credentials. That is a misuse of the word, because faith is not about belief without evidence. Faith is about willingness to rise to the challenge that evidence presents.
Because faith is such an important concept, I will need to say a little more about it.
We exercise one kind of faith all the time in everyday life, in the context of our meetings with one another. When I meet someone unknown to me, I generally adopt a degree of trust towards them well beyond anything I have carefully tested or tried to prove to myself. When out shopping, for example, I trust that the assistant in the shop is not trying to rip me off.
At a scientific conference I trust that the speakers have not misrepresented their experimental data. In a taxi I trust that the driver will take me by an appropriate route. And so on. We all do this all the time. This is faith, and we can’t live without it.
There is faith involved in doing scientific research too, because we have to launch into a given investigation without knowing at the outset whether it will prove to be fruitful. Also, when I publish a paper, I never know for sure that I have made no mistake. There is a certain degree of risk and trust involved in publishing work—the risk that you may be mistaken, and the trust that others will give your work a fair appraisal. But we have to be willing to take such risks and trust one another, or we will not, as a community, learn and progress. This has something of the character of faith.
When there are really important new ideas in science, they very often involve a certain amount of willingness to champion the idea, even though there may be unresolved difficulties. The great works of Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Dirac, and many others, all involved this kind of faith.
Newton had the puzzle of why the cosmos did not collapse if everything attracted everything else by gravitation;
Darwin’s great work on the Origin of Species faced many unresolved dilemmas about speciation and the like when he first published it;
Einstein’s General Relativity had almost no experimental evidence to support it for a long time, but it was accepted by the physics community largely because of its mathematical beauty;
Dirac’s work on relativistic quantum mechanics involved a frankly bizarre physical picture of a cosmos filled with infinitely many negative-energy electrons. This was an almost nonsensical idea, and yet the theory proved to be highly insightful. Only later was it learned that the nonsensical physical picture was not needed, and the equations could be interpreted another way.
All these people exercised a type of faith. This faith is a willingness to champion a way of looking at things because of its elegance and broad scope, even though there remain puzzling predictions or apparent holes and inconsistencies.
I have now given a variety of examples of the meaning of the word “faith”. This is the meaning that is well captured by the phrase, “I acted in good faith”. It is a positive and good aspect of human life.
Religious faith is not exactly the same as all these other examples, of course, but the point is that it is something like them. It has an element of that same character: willingness to champion a way of looking at things because of its elegance and broad scope, even though there remain puzzling predictions or apparent holes and inconsistencies.
A well-motivated trust,
Eagerness for the journey,
Engagement, based on the beginnings of a sense of recognition
I am now ready to announce the central purpose of this talk. What I want to do today is proclaim liberty for captives. I want mainly to say that there is no shame in being serious about faith as well as about science, and holding them both together.
I say “no shame” because it is my experience that a lot of people want us to feel ashamed. There is, in the modern intellectual world, a conspiracy of embarrassment. The modern “solution” to religion is to patronize it, to regard it as an embarrassment, something with insufficient intellectual credentials, or something which simply cannot be talked about productively. Something so overladen with cringe-factor as to be banished from the public space. It is banished to the shameful hidden space of your private affairs, confined in the home, never to be allowed to see the light of day.
But I will challenge this. I will announce: “you can come out into the sunlight! You can breathe! You don’t have to be brash or loud or boastful, but you can be calmly unashamed to have joined the company of those who take faith seriously! And you can bring science with you.”
You see, science is not an awkward hanger-on to faith. It is not an afterthought or a difficulty. No, it is quite at home in a well-intrusted faith. That is where it can flourish, and faith can flourish with it.
Here is how a lot of people think about faith.
They imagine it as occupying a space on its own, off to the side of science, a wholly different thing.
That is wrong.
Here is the truth of the situation.
For those who have a good version of religious faith, science is not in another compartment, but rather sits within the overall adventure and willingness to trust. Faith includes, for example, a willingness to trust that our ultimate maker and caller is not out to trick us. And it includes the sense that investigating the natural world and understanding its patterns is part of what we are for.
Now, the point I am making here is stronger than you might think. When you see it on a simple Venn diagram like this, it seems all quite simple and tame. But it is powerful. I am saying that there is not a dialogue between science and religion, because science is already part of religion (good religion, that is). Science is what we do, if we are faithful, when we want to analyse the patterns of the physical world. “Dialogue” is the wrong way to see the relationship. Science is part of being faithful. It is the part appropriate to certain types of task.
If you will allow me, I will quote from a book of mine here, because I feel quite passionate about this. Here is what I wrote in a book called “Faithful to science.”
“The phrase ‘science–religion dialogue’ has been introduced in an attempt to be polite; but it is misconceived.
The situation can be called ‘science and religion dialogue’ only by people who disagree with religion but are doing their best to respect it nonetheless. To those who might be called (or be willing to be called) ‘religious’, and who have, by God’s grace, reasonably well-integrated intellects, there is not a ‘dialogue’ with science, because science is not an alien creature with whom they try to speak. Rather it is in their spinal cord and in their bloodstream; it is a considerable part of the way they already think.”
Here is another common confusion.
[FAITH – REASON picture]
This is a picture which seems to suggest that faith and reason are utterly separate and unlike. Faith is not exactly the same as reason, of course, but this does not mean they are alternatives. Rather, faith and reason work together.
Faith shapes the questions you ask, reason helps you to ask them. Reason may show you evidence that a bridge is sound; faith steps onto the bridge. Reason explores a territory based on given assumptions; faith seeks the best assumptions. And so on.
Here is the relationship between faith and rationality.
Faith is not irrational, and it does not embrace irrationality. It resists all forms of superstition. However, faith does venture beyond reason, because it includes those aspects of our lives that cannot be captured by reason alone.
Let me return now to this character, and the poem with which I began. I wish to use it to illustrate how science and faith work together.
We start off in the poem by announcing “this absurd cathedral”. There is religion coming in at the beginning, saying we have here a cathedral, a house of God, a throne of meaning. But we announce this with a sense of the ridiculous, an attempt to avoid pomposity. This human being is not going to incarnate God in any confident powerful way, but in a haphazard, hopelessly compromised way.
Next we go to science, to the unavoidably physical nature of the human body, and to our place in the natural world. There is the out-of-Africa statement of human origins, and also the admission that we are not altogether free. We are driven by psychological drives, and we do, up to a point, just repeat back the attitudes of our culture, helplessly ding-donging the accidental circumstances of our birth.
There is another nod to psychology and the arts in the reference to “peering out” and “carrier of a vastly hidden space”, and in the reference to our masks, which is also about insecurity and moral failure. The poem comes back to faith and religion again at the end, and what does religion do? What difference does it make?
It makes all the difference. Because it announces that what we have here, this awkward, crazy figure, stuck in the midst of the natural world, is in fact the entirely given vehicle and the lovely means of grace.
Entirely given. Once you see that, once you realise that everything you are is entirely gift, and everything that forms you and helps you grow is also gift, entirely given, not taken, nor owed, nor owned, nor earned, nor merely acquired — once you know this, then it is obvious what you have to do. … Give back.
And once you know that you are the lovely means of grace — grace to the world around you and other people in it — once you know this then you also know that you can give back, because you have something to give. You have something worth giving. So you are set free to do it.
So you see, from one point of view, religion adds nothing. It adds nothing to the scientific story. It will not change the analysis of this physical system, or any other.
And yet, it adds everything.
All this seems very positive, and hopeful and joyful too. But now let’s come back to the world we find ourselves in. Let’s come back to the fact that a lot of people do not see it this way. They think religion is bad and outdated, and science is a wholly different sort of thing. The situation is widely felt to be something like the following.
I will read out four statements, and then give replies.
(S1): “There is something characteristically atheistic or deistic about science. That is its natural ambience.”
(S2): “The fact of the matter is that science has slowly but surely pushed God aside. Science is a sensible and productive way forward to learn about the real world. Where once it seemed that God must be the explanation for things, science has shown that this is not required. We can’t be sure that God is real in any case. The most honest, and really the most creative, attitude is to let all religious ideas simply evaporate and not bother with them.”
(S3): “Religious ways of thinking, involving sacred truths, dogma and authority, are stifling to the whole scientific enterprise.”
(S4): “Science reveals a fully mechanistic description of the world and people in it. This is the straight truth which we must accept.”
I present these assertions like this in order to try to give a frank and clear presentation of how a lot of people honestly see the situation. As you can guess, I think these assertions are mostly wrong, and I have already given some pointers to what is wrong with them. But although I mostly disagree with these assertions, I can understand why people might hold them. My replies will be brief because I also want to fit in some other material. Here they are.
First: “There is something characteristically atheistic or deistic about science. That is its natural ambience.”
I reply: not at all. I have already given examples of the fact that science is not altogether a dry exercise of deriving facts by logic. It is much more adventurous, exploratory, and open-ended than that. But it does include logic, of course, and some of the time we are working our way through abstract calculations. And when you are thinking about patterns of abstract or impersonal phenomena, that is what you are thinking about.
When you are doing a calculation, you are not, at that moment, thinking about whether or how much you love your children. This does not mean that science is naturally opposed to love for children. Similarly, you are not, at that moment, thinking about how much or whether you love God. This does not mean that what you are doing is at all atheistic. We adopt the tools appropriate to the job in hand.
Your love for your children, and your love for God, is signalled, at that moment, by the care you bring to the analytical task that is, for a while, what you are focussed on.
Being “real” about God is to do with being fully human, alive and humble, thankful and productive. Science is just as theistic as everything else, if we make it so. The reason that many theists do not mention this in their scientific lectures, books, and conferences is simply an act of courtesy, a respect for diversity and a wish not to intrude themselves into their work.
Now for (2):
“The fact of the matter is that science has slowly but surely pushed God aside. … we can (and should) let all religious ideas simply evaporate and not bother with them.”
I reply that this statement is simply too sweeping. What science has helped to get rid of is not all religious ideas but just those that were wrong in ways that science can detect. This is largely about getting rid of superstition. But Christian faith has always opposed superstition.
It has thought long and hard about reason and faith. Religious leaders have, mostly, patiently resisted the superstitions arising in their congregations. Of course there have been huge failures too, but the overall record is much stronger than people nowadays are aware. As I understand it, the church largely originated, and certainly massively promoted, the idea of universal education, for example. I would be happy to be put straight if I have misrepresented this, but I think the origins of literacy for all in the UK lie with a concerted effort by the Anglican church in an era when the secular state could certainly have taken this on but did not. This is just one example.
My present point is that in helping us get rid of superstition, science has been a true friend to, and indeed, a part of Christian commitment. And after we have got rid of all the superstitious ideas about God, we are still left with all the best ideas. For example, the idea of grace, and the idea of a relationship enacted by mutual recognition. The idea of love as the fundamental principle of the universe, rather than a lucky off-shoot of mindless processes. No, science has not disproved that idea.
The idea, also, of a relationship with the well-spring of authentic life, based on compassionate love for who we really are, and not at all about rewards for doing good. Science has not unpicked this at all (pace Richard Dawkins). And the idea of partnership, of sharing the painful task of reconciliation, bearing pain and confronting the power-brokers of the world.
I could go on, but for now I will leave it there and repeat again that science is part of a life of faith in God, not an alternative to it.
Now (3): “Religious ways of thinking, involving sacred truths, dogma and authority, are stifling to the whole scientific enterprise.”
Here I will admit that sometimes religion degenerates into this type of thinking. But the stifling or controlling type of “religion” described here is not what following Jesus of Nazareth is about. Churches, and religious people, do sometimes fall into that way of thinking, but they do not need to, and often do not. Furthermore, far from stifling science, the Christian community has largely nurtured science and done it well.
And, I think we should add, it is not quite true that there are no sacred truths in science. There is, for example, the “sacred truth” that ideas should be tested; and that arguments should be reasonable. There is the sacred truth that fellow scientists should be treated with fairness; and so on and so forth. There are plenty of sacred truths.
Finally, (4): “Science reveals a fully mechanistic description of the world and people in it. This is the straight truth which we must accept.”
This one I oppose. I think it is quite false. The mechanistic (algorithmic or automaton-like) description is not revealed by science but assumed by much science as a working model. We are far from being able to tell that this sort of automaton model can correctly describe what goes on in human bodies when we make decisions and try to be rational and loving. And I would say that the weight of the evidence is against it.
The weight of the evidence is that humans are not automatons, in my opinion. The reductionist model of the universe is highly questionable, and I do question it.
Let me now pause to summarize what I have said so far, and what I want to cover before finishing.
So far, mainly I have indicated how words like “religion” and “faith” should be understood. Then I have given some pointers towards how these interact with science. I have remained a bit elusive about the object of Christian faith. But by talking about gift, and giving back, and by using words like recognition and grace I have gestured towards what religious language means.
With this background, the remainder of the talk can go quicker. What I will do with the rest of this discussion is first give some encouragements, and then take a look at the limits of science. I will also emit a warning. I want to emphasize how important it is to understand those limits correctly.
In this list I have given some pointers to what I will say.
I begin first with an encouragement:
- Let’s celebrate science and do it well
Let’s remind ourselves that science is not some sort of add-on to the “Kingdom” or way of community life that Jesus of Nazareth talked about. Rather, it is part of that Kingdom and completely at home there, along with schools and hospitals, freedom of speech, democratic political process, and so on.
To love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength includes, for people with the relevant gifts, carrying out scientific study thoroughly, carefully, and at the highest level. This is how the people I have illustrated here saw it. Picking examples only from physics, and restricting the selection to people not now living, one can find, for example, Galileo, Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), and Arthur Eddington, among many others. These are all people who went out of their way to discuss and affirm their religious commitments. They are people whose faith was reflected upon and publicly owned by them, not just following a social convention. Such people are in a minority in science, as they are in every other discipline. But their net contribution is very great. It is out of all proportion to their relatively small numbers.
(Here I include Newton, by the way; I am aware that his theistic faith was unorthodox from a Christian point of view, but it is clear enough from his writings that he would want to be included.)
In the case of the science of physics, it is in fact hard to overstate the net contribution of serious Christian people.
Let’s continue their example, and encourage the gifted amongst the next generation with the thought that they have an honourable tradition to uphold.
The other encouragement I want to offer is an encouragement to see and interpret biological evolution correctly. It is true that there is much pain in the natural world, much disease and starvation. But it is also true that there is much harmony, depth, and balanced, rich ecology.
We can take a long, careful look at all this, and we do not need to buy into the metaphors of selfishness, aggression and blindness that have been offered by certain vocal commentators.
Here I offer you the phrase “the eager gene”. Genes are not selfish, and they are not eager, but the net result of what genes do is better captured by the metaphor of eagerness than that of selfishness.
Randomness in natural processes is often portrayed as some sort of defect or problem. But randomness could also be named openness. It is freedom from micro-management.
The petals of the rose illustrated here are not altogether random, anyway. They show much structure. This is owing to profound mathematical harmony deep in the nature of the physical world.
Biological evolution shows much signs of improvisation, of making do, of finding new uses for old tools. It is often a story of making something wonderful despite the imperfection of the component parts. This is very much like creativity in human art and artfulness. It is also a law of spiritual life, of how we must learn to live. Here is something of the character of creative love, and so of God.
I could go on. I guess others have already been working at this re-think of the Darwinian process, and made more progress than I have. The aim is not to gloss over the pain of the story, nor to see it all through rose-tinted spectacles, nor to impose metaphors which it won’t bear. The aim is to be true to the story, to see it truthfully, and help others so to see it.
Now let us turn to the limits of science.
By science I mean, broadly, the organized application of empirical test and analytical thought. It is widely felt that such thought is, in the end, the whole of what we need in order to understand our place in the universe. In principle, after all, science is applicable to every physical phenomenon, and that means it is applicable to every last detail of everything we ever experience. What more would we want? What more could anyone add?
Well, first of all, the continued, moment-to-moment existence of the universe is deeply mysterious. The equations that we call “laws” are descriptive, not prescriptive. They tell us something of the nature of what exists, but they do not tell us how it can exist. As Hawking put it so well,
“… It is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”
This first point is intriguing, but perhaps not too troubling. But the second point, about descriptions, is really striking. Think of a description of the Rosetta Stone, for example. Imagine a complete physical description. Suppose it is a description that told you every last detail of the rock and the size and shape of the markings on it. (You can already see where I am going with this.) Such a description is complete in its own terms, but it lacks the most central and crucial insight. It is an apparently complete description, and yet it totally fails. It fails to even grapple with the fact that those markings signify something. Those markings are about feasts and kings and corn, not stones and angular crevices.
In a similar way, an analysis of how the universe works can be complete in its own terms, and yet totally inadequate.
Once you have had this pointed out, it is easy to see. But it is amazing how often it is ignored in scientific life nowadays. There is this idea that once we have got everything sorted out into algorithmic models and statistical tests, it will all fall into place. We will know who we are. What rubbish that is.
My third point arises from the other two. Science offers us a large and beautiful set of connections, but it runs out at both ends. It is like a cord hanging in the void. At one end there is the origins of things, and their depths in the present moment. At the other end there is the purpose of things, and the role they play in crystalizing goodness. Science does not explain, but forms part of a larger explanation. The larger explanation is one that does justice to science, and that also does justice to those two mysteries, the mysteries of depth and of purpose.
And this is not just about abstract analysis. This is practical. Here are a few questions which cannot be framed in scientific or analytical terms. They are examples of hundreds which one could ask, and which we have to ask every day in order to live our lives.
What can we learn from Shakespeare’s King Lear?
Should there be a minimal tariff for murder, and if so, what should it be?
How shall we weigh public spending between health care and defence?
Should we pay people for donating blood?
I don’t find it straightforward to say why it is that questions such as these cannot be framed in the language of analytical thought. It seems to me that the reason is that what is involved here is the need to place a value on human life. But that value cannot be wrestled down into a statistic or an abstraction. It simply is not possible to say that one person’s life is more valuable than another’s. We can only do our best to be fair and invite each other to accept voluntarily the unfairness that we cannot avoid. As Heaney put it in one of his poems, “passive suffering makes the world go round.”
So you see, science is a good servant but it is a bad master. It cannot be master, and it must not be allowed to become one.
We know that scientific knowledge brings power, and power can be abused, but I want to finish now by drawing attention to a more insidious abuse of science. This is the use of science to bolster a view of human beings (and, by extension, other animals) which rejects the language of love. You hear this a lot nowadays. It is the idea that in order to be clear-headed about ourselves, we have to adopt a reductionist picture in which our atoms and molecules, cells and neurons are the main story, and concepts such as “trust”, “love”, “hate”, “kindness”, “meanness” and so on are just convenient short-hands, a sort of illusion by which our brain-apparatus makes some sort of attempt at steering us around.
I have heard this argued from neuro-science, I have heard it argued from evolutionary biology. It is widely implied in economics and in social science. Much of modern-day thinking is in thrall to it.
And one thing I hate about all this, is that the arguments are made in the name of science. It is claimed that the “scientific” view of the human animal is the one in which we are little more than bags manipulated by genes. It is claimed that the “scientific” view of morality is that it is a no more meaningful than an off-shoot of a survival strategy. It is claimed that the “scientific” view of love is that it is a loose way of talking about certain neural networks, with the unstated implication that its insights will be superseded once those networks are more thoroughly understood.
But none of this is truly scientific. In fact all these unjustified conclusions are deeply oppressive to humans, and, consequently, to science too. This is because science is the organised application of rationality, and our very capacity to be rational is itself being rejected in these naïve and self-destructive pictures.
Of course I am now entering into subtle philosophical territory, and announcing my position without detailed justification. This is a valid thing to do as long as I am up-front about the fact that I have not presented a full justification of this last point today. I have included it because it is important. It is a warning we need to heed.
You can find some more comments from me at this blog. [grievingturtle.com]
To conclude, I have argued in this talk that science is an important and valuable part of the Kingdom of God, and indeed it forms one of the greatest gifts we share. It takes its place in the life of faith as a deep contributor to how we think.
I have talked about religious faith as a willingness to recognize the threefold nature of our connectedness. Science is not something sitting alongside such faith. Rather, it is part of the way such faith is exercised.
But science is not our master and it cannot tell us our meaning. We are liberated when we realise this. We are set free both to enjoy the true source of our meaning, and to handle science correctly.