A Bucket of Frogs: Curiosity, Wonder, and the Theology of Science

Tadpole by Evan Murphy. Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When I was three, I knocked a bucket of tadpoles all over on the patio. I remember the incident very clearly, so it must have been a relatively stressful one. It all happened Continue reading

Faith and Wisdom in Science

McLeish book cover

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

Islam and Science

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.

    1. Adopt modern science and its methodologies.
    2. 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.
    3. Universally impose stringent ethical standards on the practice of science, like (and this is only a suggestion) those of Islam.
    4. 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!

The talk will appear on the Faraday Institute website in the next few weeks.

Exploring the universe

The Kepler 11 system compared to our own (Image courtesy of NASA)

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.

Death as preservative

This week at the Faraday Institute I went to a seminar by Andrew Wyllie (the recording is here). This guy is a legend – not many scientists can say that they have over 25,000 citations. He was one of the main people who discovered the process of ‘programmed cell death’ (apoptosis). Apoptosis happens during the normal development of any organism, and is also essential for survival during adulthood – if it’s disrupted in any way it can cause cancer. I worked on apoptosis during my research masters course at Edinburgh, and first met Professor Wylie at a dinner-discussion in Cambridge when I had just begun working for Christians in Science. In his talk this week Wyllie described his work on apoptosis and then linked it to his faith in quite a surprising way.

It took a while for the research community to accept the idea of programmed cell death, but it has now (as you can tell by the 25k citations) been recognised as a vital aspect of cell biology and become the subject of many other people’s research. After describing the discovery of apoptosis Wyllie explained how his Christian faith helped him to recognise and accept the evidence that that death was part of life for us. The Genesis account of the inherent corruption of humans led God to – in a way – protect us from ourselves by giving us finite lives. And for a Christian death is not the end of the story. This idea of death as a type of preservative for human society is similar to the story that Wylie found in cell biology.

Wylie thinks one of the reasons why the scientific establishment took a while to accept apoptosis was the fear of death that’s inherent in modern society. And he thinks that it took someone who wasn’t afraid of death to bring the phenomenon of programmed cell death to light. That’s an interesting perspective on the development of scientific ideas to say the least.

You can listen to the recording here.

What a star is

As the film of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is about to grace our screens perhaps it’s good to point out the science-faith questions raised by this, the fifth book in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. Eustace spends much of his time at sea looking at only the scientific explanation for events, and I’m sure a slightly more thorough study of the book would be interesting from a science-faith point of view. But this quote has been burning a hole in my pocket since I heard it mentioned on a BBC programme about ‘The Narnia Code‘ in 2009.

Here, Eustace is reminded of a great truth by Ramandu, the keeper of Aslan’s Table at the world’s end.

‘I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare at one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star had ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.’

‘Golly,’ said Edmund under his breath. ‘He’s a retired star.’

…’In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’

‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of…’

CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn treader, 1955.

From chapter 14: The beginning of the end of the world

McGrath on awe and wonder

This is a topic that I’m beginning to explore, and I’ve just read a chunk of Alister McGrath‘s book, ‘The Re-Enchantment of Nature’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 2002). McGrath  critiques the idea that faith takes away any appreciation of nature. He explains that a Christian theology of nature  should include a recognition of the intuitive sense of awe that we have when we look at the natural world, and our increased awe when we find out about how things work scientifically (such as the fact that if you took all the DNA out of my cells, stretched it out and lined it up it end to end, apart from being a technically challenging and unfortunately fatal process, my DNA would stretch from Cambridge to the sun and back 4 times, and that’s a very conservative estimate!) Secondly, our relationship with the environment is an integral aspect of our relationship with God. Nature should be:

‘…respected as a means of sustaining human life in the present, and of reminding and reassuring believers of their future destiny in a renewed creation.’