Faithful to Science, Oxford 05/15
This is most of the text of a talk given at the Graduate Christian Forum, Oxford, 18 May 2015. In the event the talk varied from this script a little. You can listen to the talk at
Text of the talk.
I take it that folks here at the Graduate Christian Forum are, broadly speaking, pretty positive about the idea of faith. And we think faith is to do with responding, as fully as we can, to One who can and does know us, and Who is interested in inner transformation and social justice. But if you ask us to say more precisely Who it is we are talking about, we will struggle to put it into words.
Now my point is the following. If you think I am speaking about something you recognize, then listen up.
Whether or not you think it is called “faith”, if this humble, truth-seeking, brave and creative attitude is something you feel you want to buy into, then I want to say: hooray! There is no shame in what you are doing.
I say “no shame” because a lot of people want us to feel ashamed. They want us to feel that this deep-seated part of us is shameful and childish, despite all the efforts that you and I make, week in, week out, to think it through and hold it up to intellectual scrutiny. I am speaking about this here because I want, if I can, to reduce the sum of suffering in the world, and I can do this by declaring the truth of the situation accurately. I think it is a bit like the experience that, in other times and places, ethnic or other minorities have been made to undergo, in which the mud slung at them begins to stick right down to their hearts and souls. They began to suspect that perhaps they really were some sort of sub-class of human being. And now, for all the confident posturing of the Evangelical part of the Christian community, I think that many of us in the Christian movement have begun to suspect that the mud thrown at us is deserved. We have begun to suspect that there is something sub-standard about us. Something intellectually sub-standard. And we are sinners, aren’t we? So we can’t object.
But I want to say that we can object. Being honest about your failings does not mean accepting insults as truthful. What we try to do with insults is not return them, but we are by no means required to take them in and believe them.
In how many lectures this week in this university has the lecturer mentioned or implied that faith in the Well-Spring we call God might be a good thing? I guess the answer is, outside the training of ordinands, zero. But, and this is more telling, what would result if someone did try to be positive about the Well-Spring we call God?
They would be rapidly silenced.
The students would assume it was something called “religion” showing its head, and “religion” must not be mentioned. It is private thing. Private and divisive. It is not part of education. It is not even part of the language of adults. It is the perverse make-believe of some intellectual underclass; a species of second-rate human called “believer”.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that you should be anything but wise and sensible about the way you speak in public, but what I am trying to do here is give you some breathing-space. I want to say that the modern taboo about faith in God is utterly unjust.
It holds everyone except an atheist under a presumption of guilt in the area of intellectual integrity, and that is deeply unjust. It is the modern equivalent to the rumours in the Roman world that the Christians were practising cannibalism and incest. I make the comparison in order to emphasize how objectionable and unjust I feel this to be. I object strongly to the modern presumption of intellectual guilt because I hold intellectual integrity to be very important.
Our ancestors struggled hard for the principle called the presumption of innocence—the idea that, in criminal law, one will be presumed innocent until proven guilty. When modern people serve us up with a presumption of guilt in the area of rationality, they are going against this hard-won principle, and it is no light matter.
I do not require you to fight back vocally. Indeed I would say you must mostly bear it graciously without reacting, but I invite you not to take it in to your heart. If your faith has been carefully thought through, as I fully expect it has, then give yourself a break. Enjoy. The badge of intellectual integrity can be yours.
And especially, you do not need to be ashamed of your willingness to look to God and learn and respond. Because the bedrock reality, the one that you and I really live in, once all the delusions are swept away, will cherish and affirm this tendency in you.
And part of the way you learn, and part of the way you respond, is to do science.
And so my talk today is about the place of science in the life of faith.
I could shorten that phrase.
My talk will be about the place of science in life.
Because life is a life of faith. It cannot avoid being so. You cannot live without living, and you cannot explore without exploring, and you cannot go somewhere new without setting out for unknown territory. And that is what faith is all about. It takes place in a situation of not knowing for sure, but having a sense of value, a sense of wishing to learn and grow, and to come to know.
Let me add immediately that I extend this to faith in full. I extend it to the felt experience, and perfectly reasonable opinion, that our universe is, and our lives are, the outworking of a wonderful, creative, supportive and rich reality that meets us on every level of our being.
However, see what you make of the following. It is a letter that I found in New Scientist magazine:
“I was intrigued by your claim that science is not a belief system (4 April, p.5). Surely what it is not is a faith system. Science is belief based on evidence: faith, on the other hand, is belief irrespective of evidence.
“Science gives rise to beliefs that fit the existing evidence, allowing for them to change should new evidence make that sensible.
“Faith takes beliefs and puts them on an untouchable pedestal where they remain, no matter what contradictory evidence there is.
“Most of us frequently employ a fairly scientific belief system. Take the simple example of the day of the week. When I woke up this morning, I believed it to be Thursday, based on the evidence of my memory. Had I then looked at my computer, my phone and a newspaper and seen that day given as Friday, I would have changed my belief, trusting the evidence of the computer, phone and newspaper over my memory. However, if I applied a faith-based belief system, I would have refused to take note of the contrary evidence and insisted that the day was Thursday, no matter what.
“It is lack of faith, not lack of belief, that makes science so special and so wonderful.”
Kate Szell, London, UK
Now I know that this letter is utterly confused, but what I want to point out is as follows. This is a letter to New Scientist magazine, published a month or so ago, and it was not just any letter that week. It was the editor’s pick letter. The editor’s pick, no less. The best letter. The editor of New Scientist apparently thinks that this is what faith means.
What “faith” means, according to this, is, basically, a sort of bizarre behaviour involving superstition, rejecting the evidence of your senses, and a degree of delusion verging on insanity. Now I think all of us here feel strongly that what we mean by the word “faith” is not like that at all. But I included this letter in order to help you see the problem. Our very language is being redefined. Some of our favourite words have been taken and distorted out of all recognition in large communities, represented by main-stream magazines, such as New Scientist.
I think the blame for this lies partly with the Christian church, partly with other religious groups, and partly with the atheist community. Every time some Christian speaker has spoken nonsense and then attached the word “faith” to the nonsense, they have diminished the word. And every time some non-religious person has said that “faith” is about belief without evidence, they have insulted the intelligence of millions of reasonable people, including everyone present in this room. So we have a decision to make. Should we keep the word “faith” and insist on its original meaning (which is close to trust, humility and creative adventure), or should we try some other combination of words, and translate the Bible afresh? Should we ask our linguists please to give us a translation of the Bible that does not use a word that many people now take to mean “ill-considered guesswork and superstition”?
I have thought hard about this. I have thought about 1 Corinthians 13, and that lovely triple-jewel of faith, hope and love. I have thought about the gospels. My own conclusion is that we should keep the word “faith”, but show and explain what it means.
Now I would like to share with you a poem. The poem is called Hope.
Here is my lovely sign of hope.
It will sound impossible, but bear with me.
It is everywhere, but you will not find it
by looking at any particular place.
It is far from you but also close,
as close as you are to yourself.
It is not on the map, and you will
not find it by digging, nor by sending
up balloons to assay the sky.
It is nowhere but everywhere, yet
in each place you can find the whole of it.
All this, because it is not a location
but a direction. It is not a place you
can claim but a way to look.
You must not hide your shadow behind you
but throw it down before. Then,
stay still, focus on infinity,
and look in a particular direction.
And suddenly there it is,
layer on layer in all its colours
as luminous as if it were refreshed
just that instant, replenished
again with fullness of arching light
breaking out of the water.
In certain dry seasons you will see nothing.
But by faith and reason working together,
you can reconstruct the possibility,
which will be real enough,
if once you have seen it before.
If there are any physicists present, I hope you might have noticed the correct use of technical language here. “Focussing on infinity” is a precise technical term in optics, and it is what you have to do in order to see a rainbow. Also, the rainbow optical phenomenon is all about light travelling in a given direction rather than from a given place. This makes it an apt illustration of the concept of “omnipresence”. It is nowhere but everywhere, yet in each place you can find the whole of it.
What the poem is mostly trying to do is to show that something that sounds at first like a sheer impossibility might in fact be perfectly possible, once you have realised that it is a different sort of thing than you first thought. In the rainbow example, it turns out that we are not talking about a shiny physical object located at one place. We are talking about the spread of colour as a function of direction of travel. Similarly, when we meet on a Sunday morning, or kneel in a quiet spot at home, we are not talking about a super-powerful super-natural super-being, the chief entity in the class of all entities. We are talking about that which breaks out of the whole category of entities. We are talking about the truth of the reality from whom our lives flow and to whom they return.
Of course, by saying “from whom” and “to whom”, not “from which” and “to which,” I have taken a decisive step into a certain way of looking at things. I think this is truthful; I think this is a sound step, a truth-seeking and reality-finding step, but I admit it remains a profoundly mysterious step. I think none of us quite knows what we really mean by God. Our words run out. Language itself runs out.
Speaking for myself, I would say that what I mean, by the word “God”, is whatever Jesus of Nazareth meant by the phrase “Patera nmwn tou en toiz ouranoiz”. That is a phrase from the Greek, the language in which it was written down, and of course he probably originally spoke in Aramaic. It is the phrase commonly translated “Your heavenly Father,” or, more literally, “Father of you who is in the heavens.” But we need to make an effort to work out what he himself meant by this—and it is not what modern-day people often assume he meant. That word “heavens” or “heavenly” has become thoroughly distorted. It has come to mean some sort of airy-fairy never-never-land; an imaginary, non-existent place. But that is nothing like the sense of the original phrase spoken by Jesus in the context of first century Jewish culture. What Jesus was getting at by this phrase was the sense of an utterly dependable and unavoidable bedrock reality. He was talking about that which is absolute. That which can be relied upon with the sort of reliability that a mathematical truth has—“heavenly” in the sense of “not contingent”. But of course he was addressing not the area of mathematical analysis, but the area of human hearts. He was naming that from which and to which our life really flows and returns in the present moment.
Now I promised to talk about science today, and I will get there in a minute. First I want to help you a bit more with the idea of faith. If we are going to rescue this beautiful concept, then we need to find our own clarity about what it is.
The next part of my talk will borrow some material form a talk that I gave this year at the Faraday Institute in Cambridge, which you may have seen on the web. Some of the material has been carried over more or less as is, and some has been substantially reworked in order to address the concerns of a different group of people.
[For readers of this essay; if you are already familiar with the previous talk and essay, then you can now skip to section 17 if you wish to save time. I have made some minor additions in sections 7-16, but no substantial change. Sections 17-26 have enough new material to be worth a look, and the final section is new.]
The word “faith” is greatly 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.
We exercise one kind of faith all the time in everyday life. When I finish a conversation with my friend, for example, I do not fear that they will afterwards tell lies about me to other people. When I walk in the street, I do not fear that the people passing by will suddenly gang up on me. And this gives me some chance of getting on with my life in a productive way. Similarly, at a scientific conference, I trust that the speakers have not misrepresented their experimental data.
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 our investigations without knowing at the outset whether they will prove to be fruitful.
Also, it is my experience that publishing your own work requires a bit of courage.
I never know for sure that I have made no mistake. There is a certain degree of risk and trust involved—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
Here is how a lot of people think about faith and science.
[FAITH – SCIENCE picture]
They imagine them as each occupying a space of its own, one on each side, quite different sorts of thing. Perhaps some here sort of half-wonder if this is right.
Well, this 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). The religious people are not all standing at the side, looking at science from the margins and trying to keep up. (But, let’s admit it, that is what a lot of the religious are doing.) No, the religious people (some of them at least) ARE the scientists. Let’s make sure they are among the best scientists. 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.
[FAITH – REASON picture]
Here is another 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.
[Picture showing examples]
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.
All this seems very positive, and hopeful and joyful too. But of course a lot of people do not see it this way. They note that science can in principle address any question whatsoever about the physical world, and infer that that is all that needs to be said.
After all, scientific investigation never involves any appeal to any source of intention or compassionate agency other than the one we encounter in individual human beings and other animals. So doesn’t this mean that science is essentially atheistic?
This question is part of the painful tension I have lived with. And intellectual pain is pain. It is difficult to bear. But it can sometimes be relieved by intellectual methods—that is, by the careful application of reason. Such relief is what I would like to offer today if I can.
First let’s spell out the situation. It 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. And I think many people trying to follow along the Christian way also wonder about this. Is science atheistic really?
I can understand why people might be troubled about this. It has taken me a long time to get to a place where I felt I could make sense of it.
Here, roughly, is what I think the situation is.
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, or, for a younger audience, whether or not you love your siblings or your parents. This does not mean that science is naturally opposed to love for children, or siblings, or parents. 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 signaled, at that moment, by the care you bring to the analytical task that is, for a while, what you are focused 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. Indeed, literacy and good governance have both been massively promoted throughout the world by efforts from wise and self-giving religious groups.
But 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.
And the idea of partnership, of sharing the painful task of reconciliation, bearing pain and confronting the power-brokers of the world.
These are all ideas that spring up from a true vision of our relationship to the absolute bedrock and compassionate inspirer of our lives; the committed Father that Jesus of Nazareth spoke of and copied. These are good ideas; great ones. And science has not diminished or intruded on them one iota. Rather, it has helped us to live by them, and to clear away the superstitious confusions that stood in the way of them.
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 we can all 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, we can add, it is not quite true that there are no sacred truths in science. The point is that science operates within certain agreements or commitments that you have to buy into. There is, for example, the “sacred truth” that ideas should be tested; and that arguments should be reasonable. We don’t reconsider each year whether or not ideas should be tested or arguments should be reasonable. There is also 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.
Now I will pause a moment, to say what I think I have done so far, and what I want still to cover.
So far I have tried to describe what I think faith is. I have then illustrated ways in which science is itself a rather rich sort of activity, which goes well beyond a mere exercise in logic. I have also sometimes given little pointers to how I think we can talk about the wonderful but always beyond-our-grasp true Parent whom Jesus of Nazareth most clearly showed us.
I also want to emphasize that science is very much part of what a child of that true Parent will do, and what joiners of the way of Christ will share in. This is because science is all about uncovering the wonders of a marvelous created world, and also about providing daily bread, relieving debt, healing people, and helping them in their trials—all things that Jesus of Nazareth was keenly concerned about.
So 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.
In the rest of the talk I will first elaborate on some positives about science, and then talk about the limits of science. Both are important.
First, one of the positives.
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.
When I looked through the history of physics, I was very struck by the high level of the contribution I found from people whose religious commitments were clearly owned by them and not merely some sort of social convention. Here are some examples:
Galileo, Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), and Arthur Eddington. One could add Faraday and Boyle, and many others. Now the point is, the contribution of these people was really remarkable. These are some of the intellectual giants of the subject.
I would be interested to know if the record is equally strong in other disciplines; I am afraid I have not found time to find out. Perhaps someone here present may be able to help us on that.
It is true that people committed to their faith in God are a minority in science, as they are in every other discipline. But their contribution has been great. In the case of the science of physics, it is hard to overstate the net contribution of serious Christian people. The positive contribution of Jewish people to intellectual and cultural life is also out of all proportion to their numbers.
Let’s encourage the gifted in our generation to do what they can to uphold this great tradition, and thus serve both God, the human race, and, hopefully, the whole beautiful but fragile ecosystem of which we are the stewards.
And that brings me to biological evolution. What we have to do here is not be embarrassed by it, but make ourselves the ones who see it most clearly and correctly. We can take a long, careful look, and we do not need to buy into the metaphors of selfishness, aggression and blindness that have been offered by certain vocal commentators. 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.
I have started to promote a phrase that I hope might catch on. It is 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. You can read a more complete presentation of that idea on by blog, as I will explain at the end.
Let’s also think again about randomness in natural processes. Randomness is often portrayed as some sort of defect or problem. But randomness could also be named openness. It is freedom from micro-management. Is there, in fact, any difference between randomness and openness, in cases where there is no conscious agency?
But of course it is far from true that randomness is the dominant principle in evolution. The petals of the rose illustrated here are not random, but show a great deal of structure. This is not primarily because of statistical improbability working on a colossal scale, as Professor Dawkins likes to suggest. In fact, it is mainly because of profound mathematical harmony deep in the nature of the physical world.
Next, let’s enjoy and celebrate the fact that 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.
You see, people have misunderstood the word “design” when it is applied to the natural world. The word “design” can mean both “intention” and “detailed prescription”. There is no need to assume that every minute detail of living things was pre-decided by a divine plan. Of course we have no way of knowing for sure, but the world looks very much as though its originator has allowed it a great deal of freedom to develop in its own way. As far as we can tell, that is the intention. And that seems to be in keeping with the dance-like quality of the Kingdom of God as Jesus described it in so many enigmatic hints and pointers.
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 I will talk about 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?
The answer to this is not that science explains a lot but not everything. No, the answer is that science does not explain anything at all.
I’ll say that again.
It is not that science explains a lot but not everything. Rather: science does not, on its own, explain anything at all. Instead, science is part of a larger explanation.
You can guess where I am going with this. Science requires all sorts of assumptions about the nature of things, including that reason can be applied and mathematics has a role to play, etc. etc. But you might feel that I am just being deliberately bizarre here. Surely science explains things, doesn’t it? It explains things gloriously. That is what it is all about. And we have mobile phones and vaccination and anaesthetics and space probes to prove it.
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. 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. But this really is complete rubbish. I make no apology for using strong language, because it is dangerous rubbish. I’ll say more about that in a moment.
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 it takes its place as 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, “it’s 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.
[In the talk I had to skip the following in order to save time.]
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.
I would like to finish by drawing your attention to a blog that I have been running for a few months now in this area. You can find, for example, my ideas about the eager gene explained at greater length. And I would encourage you to try an essay I posted a week ago about the presence or absence of goodness or concern in the natural world.
In my talk today, I have, among other things, pointed out the dangers of the abuse of science. But I would like to conclude on a positive note. 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. Science is not something sitting alongside a rightly conceived and lived faith. Rather, it is part of the way such faith is exercised.
Previous generations suffered enormous griefs from bubonic plague, from tuberculosis, from surgery without anaesthetics, from infant mortality … the list goes on and on. It is largely through the gift of science that God has shown us how to find liberty from such oppressions. This liberty was there waiting to be discovered all along, if only ordinary people had laid themselves open to the inspiration and the peaceful and just community living that makes science possible.
You can understand why some people see the science itself as the great liberator.
But in fact it is science taking place in an appropriate setting that liberates. Science can also oppress, as it did in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
Ultimately, 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.