Book preview: Making Sense of Reality – A scientist’s journey into theology

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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

Guest Podcast: Science and Faith in Dialogue

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As well as being the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, the theologian and biophysicist Alister McGrath is now also the Gresham Professor of Divinity, a role that will involve him giving a series of lunch time lectures on science and religion in 2015-16. Eleanor Puttock, The Faraday Institute’s External Communications Officer, visited Alister in Oxford a few weeks ago and asked him a few questions about his work, faith, and the dialogue between science and faith (transcript below). Continue reading

God in the Lab: New book by Ruth Bancewicz

God in the Lab final cover copy 2What is it like to be a person of faith and a scientist? In a video interview[1] the theologian and former biophysicist Alister McGrath commented that we need Christian scientists who are “prepared to enter into the public arena in debate, in comment, and in the writing of books showing how faith enriches their science.”

This blog has been one such attempt to show the positive effect of science on faith, and judging by the comments over the years, it has encouraged a number of people in that direction. On the 15th of this month, Monarch will publish my book God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith, which Continue reading

Soli Deo Gloria

Michael & Christa Richert, http://www.sxc.hu/
© Michael & Christa Richert, http://www.sxc.hu/

For most Christians working in science, their work helps them to worship. The theologian Alister McGrath has written a number of books about the relationship between science and Christianity, but he also stresses that our response to what we see in science should not simply be intellectual. A Christian view of nature should recognise the intuitive sense of awe and wonder that we have when we look at the natural world, and our increased awe as our scientific understanding grows.[1] Our response to those feelings is rational, emotional and active: worship as well as theology.[2]

How does a scientist worship? In her writing on wonder, the philosopher and cognitive scientist Margaret Boden captures the experience of a Christian scientist when she says that ‘awe is a high degree of wonder, in which fear and respect are prominent. And worship is a deliberate expression of awe’.[3] Continue reading

Panopticon

Presidio Modelo, Cuba. Friman, 2007
Presidio Modelo, Cuba. Friman, 2007. http://commons.wikimedia.org

This is the metaphor that Alister McGrath used for his Science Festival lecture a couple of weeks ago (see part 1 here). It’s a slightly grim word because it refers to institutional building design, and prisons in particular, but it’s useful here. A panopticon is a building in which you can see into all the rooms from one vantage point, and McGrath used this to illustrate how he came to faith. Fairly early on in his studies at Oxford University, he realised that he could make sense of everything he saw from the vantage point of Christianity.

Empirical fit is important for a scientist. McGrath studied molecular biophysics, and he has applied scientific principles to his faith. There’s a principle in science of ‘saving the phenomena‘: your theory has to make sense of what data you have. What worldview makes most sense of what we observe in the world? Some think that science is the only way to make sense of life, but McGrath agrees with CS Lewis, who says that ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

McGrath outlined three types of explanation that Christianity satisfies. Continue reading

If science is the answer, what are the questions?

A Leprechaun counts his gold. Ignacio Leonardi, freeimages.com
A Leprechaun counts his gold. © Ignacio Leonardi, freeimages.com

This was the title of a lecture that Alister McGrath gave last week at Wesley Methodist church, as part of its excellent ‘Science meets Faith’ series, and also the Cambridge Science Festival. McGrath’s talk was a series of rapid-fire arguments for belief in God that sparked off a vigorous discussion afterwards on the subject of proof or evidence for God. I found some of his arguments very helpful, and particularly those that showed how important faith is important in other areas of life besides religion.

The mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford said that ‘it is wrong, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’. But who decides what is sufficient evidence? Some beliefs would widely to be agreed as right even though we can’t prove them, for example that democracy is better than totalitarianism. To come at it from another angle, we don’t believe in Leprechauns because we can’t see, hear, touch or smell them. But we believe in gravity even though we can’t see, hear, touch or smell it. Gravity makes sense of the data, so we believe it is a real force. We have evidence for some things, but not absolute proof. The evidence may also be open to alternative conclusions, and we have to decide what makes the most sense. In other words, we have the ‘absence of totally supporting evidence, not a total absence of supporting evidence’. Continue reading

Awe in Science, Part 2

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Window at St Crispin’s Church, Braunstone. © St Crispin’s

Awe is an important part of the experience of science – one could almost say it’s a universal. When a scientist feels awe it is usually in response to something complex, precise, ordered, powerful or beautiful. There is an element of unexpectedness and delight, maybe even respect, fear or reverence. Awe always involves the need for some sort of mental adjustment or accommodation: we need to make room in our internal map of the world for this new and amazing experience. The physicist Werner Heisenberg vividly described this process of taking on board a startling new concept when he wrote of his discovery of atomic energy levels:

In the first moment I was deeply frightened. I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a deeply lying bottom of remarkable internal beauty. I felt almost giddy at the thought that I had now to probe this wealth of mathematical structures that nature down there had spread before me. Continue reading