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

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.

What do Christianity and science have in common?

Svilen Milev, www.sxc.hu
Svilen Milev, http://www.sxc.hu

I’ve been getting some useful feedback on these posts, and I would particularly appreciate your input on this one. It’s an illustration that I’ve been using in a number of talks recently.

This is a cartoon of the molecular structure of DNA. Obviously no one has ever seen it – it’s too small even for the most powerful of microscopes. It was discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick (and several others) using x-ray crystallography in crystals of DNA. After their famous Nature paper was published, the science of molecular biology flourished and Watson and Crick’s model for the structure of DNA was tested in many ways. Now we have so much evidence for the double helical structure of DNA that no biologist would doubt it.

The structure of DNA hasn’t been ‘proved’. You can only prove things using maths. Science is about disproving things – narrowing down the options and getting nearer the truth. So in a way we believe that DNA is a double helix by faith – faith that is well founded on the ‘laws’ of physics, and lots and lots and lots of reliable evidence. I’d be fairly confident to stake my life on it (though I can’t imagine why I’d need to…)

What does that have to do with Christianity? This is something that I do stake my life on, so I’d better be sure it’s worth believing. Like science, none of the interesting questions in life – ‘Is that a great painting?’ ‘Does that person love me?’ ‘Is there a God?’ – can be solved mathematically. But I think there’s plenty of evidence to back up the claims of Christianity in history, archaeology, answers to prayer, the study of the Bible, and so the list goes on. For me the most important evidence is the way in which God changes lives. When someone you know well becomes a Christian you have the opportunity to see whether Jesus’ claims are true – first hand. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. That’s the reason why I’m a Christian, and why I think science and Christianity have something in common.