Beauty, Science & Theology, Part 3: Beauty & the Character of God

This series of more extended posts sums up my recent work on beauty in science and theology, and is reproduced (with permission) from the BioLogos blog.

Lungs, from fact sheet © Euro Stem Cell.

What beauty tells us about God[1]

Studying God is a balancing act. At times the theologian has to hold their breath, as it were, and suspend their sense of the sacred in order to understand deep truths, but they should also spend time on their knees – perhaps both mentally and literally – revelling in the presence of God as they study his attributes.[2] I feel the same about natural theology. It’s fascinating to look at examples of fine-tuning in the universe: here, perhaps, is evidence for the existence of God. Logical analysis of physical constants requires a good deal of spiritual breath-holding, but it’s possible – at least for a time – to remain focused on the physics. It’s when I look at what creation[3] reveals of God’s character that I begin to find it difficult to sit still and calmly rational in the library. Continue reading

Transcendence

© Ruth Bancewicz

I am becoming more and more convinced that the vast majority of scientists value what one could call transcendent realities. I’m not talking about ‘religion’, which for some has negative connotations*. By ‘transcendent’ I mean experiences and ideals that are consonant with but go beyond scientific evidence: that feeling of pure joy when you find yourself discovering something for the first time; delight in the beauty of nature or scientific data; the standards we set for ourselves; or the importance we place on certain relationships.

I think nearly everything that’s fun in life has the potential to get a scientist talking like a mystic. For example, a cell biologist wins a new grant to study a tiny protein involved in signalling pathways, and she starts speaking about getting closer to the truth. A neurologist studying a particular sensory experience understands the neural mechanism but not how the individual perceives it, and he becomes interested in the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Or a developmental biologist is expecting her first child, and suddenly embryology takes on a whole new meaning. Continue reading

Best Explanation in Science

Photo from Test of FAITH, © The Faraday Institute

I’ve been reading Alister McGrath’s book ‘Surprised by Meaning’, and I love the picture of the scientific enterprise created by the section entitled ‘The Best Explanation’ (chapter 6, page 26-17).

McGrath begins by explaining that the same data may give rise to multiple competing theories about the way things are. The challenge is to come up with the explanation that makes the most sense in the light of the data. The best explanation may not make sense of every piece of data or be completely confirmed by the evidence available, but it will make as much sense of as much of the data as possible when compared to other theories.

we have to ask how successful a theory is at making sense of the world, while we look over our shoulder at its rivals.

Towards the end of the section he questions the popular assumption that scientists huddle together until they find the most logical explanation for a phenomenon.

the ‘best’ explanation may not be the most reasonable or commonsense explanation. Scientists don’t lay down in advance what is reasonable. Time and time again, they have found the natural world to contradict what common sense might have expected or predicted. Science would fail if it were forced to conform to human ideas of rationality.

McGrath quotes quantum theory as evidence of the sometimes surprising nature of scientific discoveries. He goes on to say that

The instinctive question for the scientist to ask is not ‘is it reasonable?’ as if one knew beforehand the shape that rationality had to take, but ‘What makes you think that might be the case?’ Science is about warranted belief, not about rational belief. The history of science is about the recalibration of notions of ‘rationality’ in the light of what was actually discovered about the deeper structure of nature.

I find this testing of our assumptions appealing because it makes the world and our exploration of it so much more interesting. It takes all sorts to build a good lab, because you need the variety of perspectives that different personalities bring to the table. With a well-rounded research group you can examine the data in a number of ways, explore a variety of different avenues, and come up with great results. (Well that’s the theory anyway!)

In general I’m resistant to inferring the character of God from nature, but I will make an exception here. I do believe that the nature of the created order, in that it repeatedly challenges our assumptions, reflects something of God. We have to go beyond our gut reactions. Jesus is the perfect example: born into a poor family, breaking religious rules, honouring the rejects of society, making people think about their questions rather than giving a straight answer, rescuing us by dying a dishonourable death… The fact that God makes us think so much is the hardest part of being a Christian, but it ensures (at least some of the time) that we don’t slip into legalism or empty religiosity.

What is reality?

© Alex Nikada, istockphoto

I am reading two books side by side at the moment: Alister McGrath’s ‘Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith and how we make sense of things’ (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) and Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true’ (Bantam Press, 2011).

In ‘Surprised by Meaning’, McGrath focuses on the search for meaning. Longing to make sense of everything we see and experience in the world is a basic human experience. It’s like the ultimate detective novel: how to make best sense of the clues? What’s the truth? I love this quote from McGrath, drawing on an image used by William Whewell.

We must find the right thread on which to string the pearls of our observations, so that they disclose their true pattern.

Dawkins on the other hand writes to convey his amazement and joy at the beauty of the world that science uncovers (a sentiment that McGrath has also expressed in his writing).

What I hope to show you in this book is that reality – the facts of the real world as understood through the methods of science – are magical in…the poetic sense, the good-to-be-alive sense.

Dawkins is also looking for answers. Where I part ways with him is his assessment of what constitutes reliable evidence. I wanted to read Dawkins latest book because I knew it would be a beautifully illustrated celebration of science. I always get so much from his imaginative analogies (the pile of photos analogy for human evolution is genius), and his writing style is something I want to learn from. I will try to pick out some quotes for another post in the future. Others have critiqued his understanding of philosophy and world religions. I do like this thought though:

That is the wonder and the joy of science: it goes on and on uncovering things. This doesn’t mean we should believe just anything that anybody might dream up: there are a million things we can imagine but which are highly unlikely to be real – fairies and hobgoblins, leprechauns and hippogriffs. We should always be open minded, but the only good reason to believe that something exists is if there is real evidence that it does.

I fully agree with this statement – great scientists possess the ability to make a courageously open minded assessment of all the evidence, and that should apply to beliefs as well as scientific data.