What if science can best be described in relational terms? It would certainly open up more opportunities for a dialogue with faith. At a gathering of scientists who are Christians in Cambridge last year, Harvey McMahon gave some reasons why this approach might work. In this final guest post in the God in the Lab series, he explains his thinking.
When atoms and molecules come together, the new structures or systems they form can have unexpected properties. This principle is called emergence, and some have claimed that it shows there is more to the universe than material things. Last month at the Faraday Institute summer course, the German physicist Barbara Drossel explained why she thinks emergence is a real phenomena, and why it is so important in discussions about science and faith.
Science uses reductionism to study a system. If you break it down and do what you can to understand the parts, you should understand the behaviour of the whole a bit better. According to Drossel, the reverse is also true. As complex systems come together, new and beautiful properties emerge that are every bit as fundamental as the forces that hold together the atom.
When you put a collection of molecules together, they start to do things that they couldn’t do alone. For example air exerts pressure on the sides of a box; when a fluid is heated from below it forms convection cells; and if you mix certain chemicals together they react in a way that produces beautiful patterns. Continue reading
I recently discovered that a poet is at least partly responsible for the label ‘scientist’. Before the nineteenth century people who studied the material world called themselves natural philosophers. Samuel Taylor Coleridge objected to this title, and although I’m sure he was not the only one who initiated a change, he was certainly involved in the renaming process. Coleridge’s suggestion was opposed by two famous scientists, and the resulting story is a fascinating insight into the real world of science and religion.
Not content with writing innovative poems like Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge was also a philosopher and literary critic. He was great friends with the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davey and a number of other Continue reading
Some people make it their job to scrutinise the assumptions that scientists make, and check whether what they say matches up with what they do. What are the limits of science? What sorts of questions can it answer successfully, and what are the main features that define science? This sort of philosophy is a valuable source of critical thinking, and essential to any discussion of science and religion.
On exploring the philosophy of science I very quickly discovered that I was not going to get any easy answers. Philosophers love disagreeing with one another, and scientists do not always agree with what philosophers say. I suspect this disconnect happens partly because philosophers don’t always spend time in modern science labs as part of their analysis, and partly because scientists and philosophers speak different languages. Nevertheless, some insights are helpful in thinking about what science is. Continue reading
To follow on from my post about asking questions, I’ve been thinking about how much we don’t know. Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist from Columbia University, has written a book called Ignorance: How it drives science. In Ignorance, Firestein describes how he loved lab science, but found teaching undergraduates a bit of a struggle. The problem was that he spent the whole time teaching what was known, filling the students’ brains with knowledge. He had forgotten that as well as following the textbook, he could highlight the gaps in knowledge or the rival theories, showing where the opportunities are for young researchers to push back the boundaries themselves. Those are the really interesting parts. Continue reading
When I was a PhD student in Edinburgh I went to a church that was located conveniently next to a number of good pubs. A bunch of us used to pile into one of these establishments after the Sunday evening service. The ensuing conversation ranged from ‘Who are you?’ (it was a big church), to discussions of the sermon we had just heard and other more philosophical issues. One evening I sat next to a photography student, and when I introduced myself as a PhD student in genetics she said something along the lines of, ‘All those facts and figures are not for me, I’m an arts student.’ Rather than just moving on, which would have been infinitely easier, I tried to explain why I thought science was interesting. I think I won, but you can judge for yourself.
We started out by talking about textbooks. No matter how well written one of these tomes might be or how lavish its illustrations, it’s unlikely to make it onto anyone’s bedside table unless it’s exam time. I pointed out that textbooks have their place – a student has to get up to speed in their chosen field – but by the very nature of science they’re out of date before they’re printed. Continue reading
If I could travel back in time to ask Isaac Newton about the relationship between science and religion, he would probably be completely nonplussed by the question. In the late seventeenth century, when Newton was teaching maths at Trinity College, Cambridge, the word ‘science’ was used more broadly to refer to a body of organised knowledge. Theology, maths, classics, astronomy and all the other sciences were integrated into the body of ‘natural philosophy’, which was taught by ‘natural philosophers’. William Whewell, another Cambridge academic and Master of Trinity College, coined the word ‘scientist’ in 1834 to describe someone who carried out experiments to discover things about the natural world, and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that British natural philosophers actually began to call themselves scientists.
Denis Alexander used this story to illustrate his lecture on the history of the dialogue between science and religion at a recent retreat led by Faraday staff at Launde Abbey. He described the development of science as a relay race where the baton was passed from ancient Greek philosophers to Islamic scholars, and then on to Christians in Europe, including Newton. Obviously the early stages were important, but a number of ideas stemming from Christian theology were absolutely key to the development of what we now know as science. Continue reading