Worshipping God with science – The Test of FAITH US tour

I wrote this post for the BioLogos blog about our US tour that starts this week. If you live near Boston, Chicago, Washington, Minneapolis, San Diego or Los Angeles I hope you’re coming!

This summer I gave a series of talks at several youth festivals on the subject of ‘Why a Christian should be a scientist’. As someone who spends every day interacting with Christians working in science, I have no shortage of material to present on the topic, and it’s exciting to see the reaction of these young people when they are encouraged that science is a great career for a Christian.

The primary reason why a Christian should consider science as a career is because it offers unique opportunities to worship God. Exploring God’s creation, uncovering its secrets and marvelling at the vastness and intricacy of the universe is never a waste of time, and from the Psalms onwards, scientific information has informed the writers of worship songs. If worship is the chief end of man, then the further we explore using the tools of science the better.

The Test of FAITH documentary and study materials were developed at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion to meet a demand from church leaders, student ministries and scientists for resources to help people understand and explore the relationship between science and faith. They profile a number of senior scientists who are also Christians. The names will be familiar – they include Francis Collins, Ard Louis, Deborah Haarsma, Rosalind Picard, John Polkinghorne, Jennifer Wiseman, Bill Newsome, Denis Alexander, Simon Conway Morris, John Houghton, and Alister McGrath.

Among the topics covered by these study materials are astronomy, the big bang, the creation of life on earth, the environment, bioethics and the brain. They were developed with an ethos that, where controversial issues are concerned, people should have the opportunity to consider different sides of the debate, explore the Bible, and make up their own minds.

At the deepest level the debate between science and religion is really a debate about how do I obtain reliable knowledge about the world? How do I know that something is true, or how do I know that something is false, or how do I know that something is reliable, something is unreliable, and that’s a terribly important question.

Dr Ard Louis, Oxford University, in Test of FAITH

Test of FAITH demonstrates that being a Christian and a scientist need not result in endless personal conflict. Of course there are difficult issues at times, but worshipping God through science, living a Christian life in the lab, and playing a part in developing new technologies are all satisfying ways of serving God.

I think it’s exciting as Christians to go exploring, because we’re never going to find anything that’s outside of God’s realm. Everything is part of this majestic creation, and the more you discover the more amazed you get by thinking about God, and so I think exploration is a divinely Christian activity and people should be excited about it.

Dr Jennifer Wiseman, Astronomer & Author, in Test of FAITH

Dr Alasdair Coles is a neurologist at Cambridge University. He was drawn to neurology as a teenager when he saw the potential to help patients understand their disease by simply talking to them and making a series of clinical deductions. He is now involved in developing drugs to treat multiple sclerosis. Interestingly, Coles has recently been ordained in the Church of England, and has gained unique insights from being part of both of these worlds.

For me theology and science, and neuroscience are going to achieve little unless they start talking to each other. There are fresh insights that theology has for science, and vice versa. And the great theological truths that humans are unique, that we are in some way god-like, that we are the only beasts that are moral, these are things that scientists have to somehow conjure with and study.

Revd Dr Alasdair Coles, Cambridge University, in Test of FAITH

Rosalind Picard is Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, and has pioneered the field of emotive computing – developing computers that interpret and respond to human emotion. She has used her expertise to develop technology that helps autistic people to interact socially. Her explanations of how she, as an analytical scientific person, approaches faith are extremely helpful for those who are trying to figure out how science and faith relate.

As I’ve learned more, my scientific method has informed my faith because I’m very analytical, and I question things constantly. You have to be careful as a scientist, however, that you don’t fall into the trap that a lot of atheists fall into. They just assume that God must be provable or disprovable by science. In fact some of them assume that the only things that are true are things science shows. Ironically what they are doing is claiming (dogmatically) that they have the only way to truth: science. But science, within itself, cannot prove the correctness of its own methods. It cannot prove its claim to be the only way to know truth. Science cannot prove most events of history but does that mean they did not happen? To believe that God is explainable by science is to completely mischaracterise God.

Dr Rosalind Picard, MIT, in Test of Faith: Spiritual Journeys with Scientists

Test of FAITH will be presented at a series of events across the US this Fall. A film showing will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A. Locations include Cambridge, MA; Wheaton, IL; Fairfax, VA; St Paul, MN; and Point Loma, CA. Details can be found here. Our aim is to equip people to start the conversation, and help them to grow in their relationship with God.

There are ways of finding truth. You can read the book of the Bible, you can read the book of nature and you can find truth in both ways. You need to be careful of course about what kind of question you’re asking, and which tools are appropriate for that question, but to be able to be a fully formed human being, it seems to me, to put either of those kinds of investigations off to the side and say, ‘That’s inappropriate,’ or, ‘That’s dangerous,’ is to be impoverished, to miss out on the experience of what one can do on this brief glimpse of time while we’re living here on this amazing planet, having the chance to search in all kinds of directions for the truth.

Dr Francis Collins, Former Director of the Human Genome Project. In Test of FAITH

Affective Computing

It’s not a typo, it definitely is ‘affective‘ computing. Rosalind Picard runs a research group at the MIT Media Lab (very cool intro video) that looks into ways in which computers can interpret and respond to human emotions. She visited the Faraday Institute this week to give a lecture on ‘Playing God? Towards machines that deny their maker’ (which will be online soon). Besides describing some fun and no doubt very useful new technology, such as a sociable robot called Kismet, there was plenty of food for thought.

What I find exciting about Rosalind Picard’s work is that, on top of as her natural fascination at what can be done at an engineering level, she has really thought about the most positive uses of this technology.

One of the main applications of Rosalind Picard’s work in affective computing is for people on the autism spectrum. She has worked directly with people diagnosed with autism to develop systems that help them to interpret and respond to emotion.  For example, they have developed some incredibly sophisticated technology that reads facial expressions and tells the user what they mean. This is an very complicated skill that most people develop intuitively. Think about how many different meanings a smile can have: I like you, I’m pleased to meet you, I’m surprised, I’m shy, I’m embarrassed, and so on. Ros discovered that the easiest way to teach the computers to analyse facial expressions was to ask the individuals with autism themselves – as they have learned this skill the the hard, non-intuitive way.

In her interview for the Test of Faith book Ros also described how they tried to anticipate how this technology could be used against people and to build in features that stop that. For example, if someone is wearing a sensor that indicates their stress levels, they should have control over it so that people cannot manipulate them in any way.

You could look at the output of places like MIT and focus on scifi-like scenarios of robots taking over the world, but this really isn’t the reality…

Mr Darwin’s Tree

Last Friday the play Mr Darwin’s Tree was performed in Cambridge (one of two performances sponsored by the Faraday Institute as part of Cambridge University‘s Festival of Ideas). It’s  a one-man show written by Murray Watts and performed by Andrew Harrison, and was commissioned by the think-tank Theos, as part of their ‘Rescuing Darwin‘ Project in 2009. It lasts 70 minutes, and I was a bit worried that – it being Friday night – I would be likely to fall asleep. But Andrew Harrison was superb as Darwin (at various ages), Darwin’s father, Darwin’s wife Emma, his Daughter Alice, the captain of the Beagle, and a number of other characters. The young Darwin’s list of pro’s and cons of getting married is hilarious!

It was almost completely historically accurate, though I’m sure interpretations of events and Darwin’s papers will vary. Watts, I think, has picked out the essentials of Darwin’s life, and retold them in a very immediate way. There is much to empathise with, and the use of some of Darwin’s letters adds another layer of immediacy. The play focuses in on Darwin’s development of evolutionary theory (without delving into the scientific details) and parallel loss of faith, as well as the responses to his new theory from a number of different people. It brings out the tension between science and evolutionary theory that people felt at the time, but also shows the nuances in the various responses. Watts clearly wants to challenge the standard simplistic ‘science at war with faith’ myth.  In the end, the play has a positive message from both a faith and a scientific perspective. Very entertaining, very thought provoking, it will probably make you cry – and they’re open to booking more performances around the country…

The Faraday Institute summer course

The Faraday Institute summer course was held last week. There was a pretty stellar cast of speakers, and I went to a good number of the lectures. (New faces to look out for when the mp3s & videos come online – Alasdair Coles on brain imaging and religion, Stephen Williams on Science, Faith and Reason, and James Hannam’s apologetic for Medieval science.)

Neanderthal reconstruction
What neanderthals looked like?

I was fascinated by the very detailed presentation of human (Homo sapiens) and neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) evolution by Cara Wall-Scheffler (Seattle Pacific University).  Neanderthals used tools, buried their dead, and took care of their sick and elderly. They had similar physical features to humans, may have had the capacity for language, made jewellery (a little), and there’s at least some preliminary evidence now that human and neanderthal populations interbred. For some these might be the ‘Nephilim’ of the Bible.  I missed the discussion panel after the talk but I’m told that Simon Conway Morris (author of ‘Life’s Solution’ – about convergence in evolution) said that if humans died out, neanderthals would have taken our place (or something along those lines). That seems fairly uncontroversial reasoning scientifically, although I’m sure anthropologists would have some big debates about how exactly that might have played out. The question for people of faith is – are our anatomical features, and the abilities and skills that those anatomical features allow us to develop, in making us capable of being people ‘made in God’s image’? Would neanderthals have served God’s purpose equally well and, in the absence of humans, evolved the features necessary for intelligent life – or did the course of history have to go the way that it did?