‘from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’
…the origins of all species, including our own, are found in natural processes that can be observed and studied scientifically. In other words, evolution demonstrates that our own existence is woven into the very fabric of the natural world. Seen in this light, the human presence is not a mistake of nature or a random accident, but a direct consequence of the characteristics of the universe. What evolution tells us is that we are part of the grand, dynamic and ever-changing fabric of life that covers our planet. To a person of faith, an understanding of the evolutionary process only deepens our appreciation of the scope and wisdom of the Creator’s work.
For Christians today, the scientific successes of evolutionary theory present Continue reading →
Everyone needs help when thinking through complicated questions. I arrived at Oxford University to study chemistry in October 1971. My wrestling with the complexities of quantum theory in my first term at Oxford was supplemented by a perhaps greater struggle. How could I reconcile my discovery of the intellectual vibrancy of the Christian faith with my love for the natural sciences? Would I have to compartmentalize my mind, holding them apart as strangers and possibly even enemies? I knew I could not tolerate such a dichotomization of my life of the mind. But what if it were the only option? What would I do then? Continue reading →
When the physicist Russell Cowburn reached the end of his PhD studies, he had a choice to make. Having become a Christian at the age of eighteen, he thought deciding between a job in science or the church was choosing between the spiritual and the material. Several decades into his career as a scientist, he isn’t quite so sure difference between the two options was as stark as he thought at the time. Continue reading →
Professor Tom McLeish is an unusual physicist because his academic output at Durham University includes both history and theology as well as lab-based and theoretical physics research. He has been involved in setting up teams of scientists and medieval scholars to look at scientific thinking in 12-14th century texts, and his latest book, Faith and Wisdom in Science, is on the theology of science.
McLeish gave a seminar at the Faraday Institute last week in which he laid out a manifesto for science from his own perspective as a Christian. What he said is relevant for anyone in our society today, regardless of their beliefs. His starting point – a survey of medieval texts – is unusual, but a story demonstrates why the work of these ancient scholars is important.
Anyone who has learned first aid will be familiar with the scenarios that are part of the exam. You walk into a room full of people who are injured in some way, and you have to prioritise who to treat first. The noisy people will probably be alright for a while, but the silent ones – those who for some reason have no voice – need to be given urgent attention. Continue reading →
Yesterday I attended a seminar by Nidhal Guessoum, an astrophysicist based in the Emirates and guest contributor on the popular Islam and science blog Irtiqa. As one would expect, there was much to identify with from a Christian perspective. I was particularly struck by his conclusions and would be interested to hear your own comments on them.
In Arabic the word for science, ‘ilm’, is similar to the German word wissenschaft in that it means either science or knowledge (and actually the English word ‘science’ also used to be commonly used in this way). Science flourished in the Muslim world for many centuries. Astronomy was particularly important for defining times of prayer, the direction of Mecca, and the times of festivals. The timing and causes of the decline of science in the Muslim world are much debated, but the trend has been reversed in recent years by a concerted effort to provide funding for science and increased enrollment in science courses, particularly among women.
In the last few decades, engagement with science among Muslim scholars has largely consisted of criticism and withdrawal to ‘Islamic science’ – such as in the work of Hossein Nasr or Ziauddin Sarder – or denial that the practice of science is affected by culture or religion – like Nobel Prizewinner Abdus Salam. But now a new generation of scholars is encouraging a more proactive engagement.
Guessoum put forward his own method for relating science and Islam.
Adopt modern science and its methodologies.
Add an optional theistic interpretative mantle. This is not essential to the practice of science, but can be used to interpret the findings of science.
Universally impose stringent ethical standards on the practice of science, like (and this is only a suggestion) those of Islam.
Accept the Quran’s guidance and philosophy of knowledge, while practicing good hermeneutics – this is particularly relevant in discussion of whether science is mentioned in the Quran.
I have to say that I agree – of course substituting the Bible for the Quran, and hoping that broadly Christian ethics (which would share many similarities to Islamic ones) would be adopted. I have tried to think of other principles I would apply in relating science and Christianity but I think that a version of the above would work quite nicely. And I think that, much of the time, this is already happening – though there is always room for improvement!
Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences. It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defense.
But usually, when the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism, with the new psychology. So, I cannot help expecting, it will be with the discovery of ‘life on other planets’ if that discovery is ever made.
from the essay ‘Religion and Rocketry’ by CS Lewis, 1958
Religion and Rocketry is a fabulous and faintly sarcastic essay, where we see CS Lewis wrestling with the issues raised by the existence of intelligent life on other planets, while keeping in mind the massive conjectures needed to even address the question. (The final paragraph, which I will leave you to read for yourself in this transcript, is a very important one for those involved in the intellectual defence of Christianity.)
The above quote was used by NASA Astronomer Jennifer Wiseman in the conclusion of her lecture ‘Exoplanets, Life and Human Significance‘ in Cambridge this week, in which she explained the science behind the search for life on other planets, and explored the theological implications of any positive findings.
Wiseman’s lecture was particularly timely because a team of astronomers working on the Kepler space telescope recently identified a solar system something like ours. In their Nature paper they report ‘… observations of a single Sun-like star, which we call Kepler-11, that reveal six transiting planets, five with orbital periods between 10 and 47 days and a sixth planet with a longer period. The five inner planets are among the smallest for which mass and size have both been measured, and these measurements imply substantial envelopes of light gases.’
The Kepler observations are not evidence for the existence of life on other planets, but they are a step in the right direction if there is any such evidence to be found. The question of life on other planets is very important for those engaged in origins of life research, who are always extremely excited about even the smallest glimmerings of evidence for life. It seems to me that the discovery of good evidence for microorganisms on other planets may reasonably be expected to be discovered in the next few decades, and may well turn the whole field of origins of life research on its head. (If I am proved wrong and anyone holds onto this blog post for that long, I’ll be flattered.)
The discovery of intelligent life is still the stuff of science fiction. But what would be the implications of such a discovery be for the religious community, and Christians in particular? Theologian Ted Peters conducted a survey of more than 1,300 people from seven different religious traditions. The majority responded that contact with another intelligent life form would not cause the collapse of their faith.
So where does that leave us? With our human urge to explore very much intact. You could debate the wisdom of spending millions on space exploration but, with a move towards space telescopes and perhaps commercial space flight rather than multimillion dollar space shuttles, space exploration is – I think – something that we should not ignore. As Wiseman said in the Test of Faith documentary,
…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.