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 →
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 →
The scale of the universe is truly mind-boggling, and it’s worth dwelling on. But it’s important to keep looking in other directions. Every day your body produces millions of new cells without you even thinking about it. Each of your cells contains the same set of DNA instructions*. Your cellular DNA quota (genome) is an incredibly thin chemical chain with about 6 billion links called nucleotides, and is approximately 2 metres long** (don’t test this at home!) Each time a new cell is produced, that DNA has to be copied to an extremely high level of accuracy. It was the same for all 50 trillion cells in your body – it all started with DNA replication.
When a cell is about to divide, a number of proteins recognise and bind to the DNA at specific points. Geneticist John Bryant has said that it’s harder to begin DNA replication than it is to start a nuclear war – the process is that tightly controlled. At least forty different proteins have to be in position before replication can begin.
Once initiated, DNA replication happens relatively quickly. The clue to how this works is in the iconic DNA double helix image that is represented in art and architecture the world over. DNA consists of two complementary strands twined together: one is a mirror image of the other. This helix is unwound, and each chain is used as a template to build a new complementary strand of DNA.
When you were conceived, you received a copy of each of your parents’ DNA. Making DNA is like writing: without proper editing mistakes will undoubtedly slip in. For DNA replication, multiple layers of proofreading ensure a high level of accuracy. So out of your 6 billion inherited DNA chain-links, only 30-70 of the links are wrongly copied. That’s a maximum of one mistake in every 100,000,000***. If I could do anything that accurately I’d be very happy! And this is all happening at great speed: 6 billion chemical reactions often in less than 24 hours.
I remember writing about DNA replication in great detail during an exam at university. At the end of my essay I waxed lyrical about how this process was happening incredibly fast, at such a high level of accuracy, and without any conscious effort on our part. I’m not sure what the person marking my exam thought about my reverie, but I was impressed!
I often find that looking in detail at the universe – even just standing outside on a dark night – gives me a feeling of smallness. Staring at the stars, or studying cosmology in depth, has given some people an awareness that there might be a God out there after all. What does looking at the very small and complex make people think? Tiny packages like cells or atoms can contain surprisingly complex systems, and immense power. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Perhaps as biology proceeds over the next few decades we’ll hit up against similar philosophical questions to those raised by the older sciences of physics and astronomy.
The early scientists described in ‘The Faith of Scientists’, are all remarkable characters, but it was in the company of Blaise Pascal that I felt most at home. He had his eccentricities, and I certainly don’t agree with everything he said, but in the extended extracts of his writing presented in Frankenberry’s book I recognised many of my own thoughts and beliefs.
Pascal was fascinated by the immensity of the universe.
When I consider the brief span of my life, absorbed into the eternity before and after, the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me? … The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.
Humility in scholarship was also important to him – the recognition that there’s much we don’t know. There is even one part of the Pensees that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so true, where Pascal describes how as our experience and influence increase our friends are less likely to tell us the truth about ourselves, so we end up doing more and more stupid things.
There is much discussion on faith and reason in Pascal’s writing. He discusses the personalities of different people – those who come to believe in God through faith (or perhaps what could be described as more intuitive means) alone, those some for whom reasoned argument is more important. His discussion of the famous wager shows that he gave rational arguments for God a good deal of thought, though he came to the conclusion that ‘reason is to faith as moral effort is to salvation – necessary, but not sufficient without God’s grace’ (Frankenberry)
So Pascal was not at all against rationalism, but saw a place for faith in the grand scheme of things.
Faith certainly tells us what the senses do not, but not the contrary of what they see; it is above, not against them.
I could take that statement further. If faith is in something real, then even if that reality includes something beyond what we can detect with our senses, our faith should at least help to make sense of what we can see and touch.
This week’s post is from an interview with Cale Weatherly, a PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’ve chosen extracts that focus on the practical process of doing science and the scientist’s enjoyment of that process. My hope is that for non-scientists it will open a window on a different world, while for scientists it may provoke some thought (and comments) about their own experiences in the lab.
I’m coming to the end of my first year as a PhD student in synthetic organic chemistry. This is a branch of chemistry that’s been around for quite a long time, and chemists are pretty good at turning simple carbon-based molecules into more complex ones for pharmaceuticals and other practical applications (see comment below for more detail). There’s an enormous amount of room, however, for making the process more efficient (cheaper, less time consuming and more environmentally friendly). What we’re doing in our lab is not so much making the complex molecules ourselves but expanding the toolbox of chemical transformations that other people can use.
There’s a lot of – I use this word very deliberately – beautiful chemistry involved in turning molecule A into molecule B, and every organic chemist that I know has an aesthetic appreciation for what we do. The practical aspect of our research is important, but that’s not usually what draws people to the field or motivates us on a day-to-day basis. It’s the process that’s exciting.
Everybody brings a different kind of artistry to the process of making a molecule. Often several papers will be published describing different ways to make the same molecule, because everybody employs a unique strategy. What I like about organic chemistry is that there are different ways to approach a problem, and I often think that questions with many possible right answers are more interesting than those with only one.
The atmosphere in the lab where I work is very informal. It’s kind of messy and it’s very much our own space. I can’t imagine it being otherwise. We have to put in a lot of hours, and in the course of that time we get to know each other well. If we were formal all the time I don’t think anybody could survive long enough to accomplish any work! We work long weeks and there are days when I don’t get to do much apart from chemistry and eat. The first time you actually achieve something promising in the lab there’s a tremendous feeling of excitement. I am (if not in every little task, at least in the big picture) happy doing something that I find interesting and that will allow me to do something of service to the world in the future.
A lot of work that’s published in my field is an incremental improvement on what’s been done before, but occasionally you come across work that’s conceptually very different. Someone gets from A to B in a way you would never have anticipated. They take you through the process step by step, where each step can be shown to make good chemical sense. Those papers are always a lot of fun to read.
I think among non-scientists in general, and Christians specifically, there’s a tendency to value product rather than process. It can be difficult to explain my work to friends and family because they often want to know the practical value of what I’m doing. I’m trying to put another tool in the toolbox so that down the line somebody might be able to use it to make something useful. But it’s not the ultimate practical value of what I’m doing that I find interesting – it’s the process of getting there, and what I love about organic chemistry is thinking about the process.
The distinction between process-driven and product-driven points of view is fascinating. Of course goals are important, but anyone who has been a Christian for a while will have begun to realise that God is far more process than product minded – which is why Christian life is described as a journey. (Besides the fact that product-driven people are more likely to be unhappy perfectionists…) This is the last interview from my trip to Madison this summer, so keep your eyes peeled for some new interviews next year.
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.
I was at the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (the fellowship of Christians in Science in the USA) a couple of weeks ago. One of the talks that I heard was by Gregory Bennett, a geologist – and I’d be interested to hear what the theologians and philosophers think of it.
God’s providence – the way in which he acts in the universe – provides a basis for science and technology. The fact that an experiment gives the same result today and tomorrow has to be taken for granted or you couldn’t do science – it just happens, and that’s why we have ‘laws of nature’. But within a Christian worldview that makes perfect sense.
Gregory Bennett put forward a detailed analysis of providence:
God constantly sustains the world so that the properties of things are preserved.
God cooperates with created things, directing their distinctive properties to cause then to act as they do.
God directs all things to accomplish his purposes.
So God is very hands on and ‘does’ everything – even making my pen fall to the ground when I drop it. This is a very active kind of sustaining, and is consistent with the language of God sustaining and providing rain, food and so on that occurs throughout the Bible.
He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. (Psalm 147:8)
He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call. (Psalm 147:9)
Bennett described ordinary providence – working through ‘secondary causes’ that we can understand scientifically in terms of the regular operation of things in the world, and extraordinary providence – where no secondary cause can be seen. Extraordinary providence would be a miracle (in my opinion not the only kind of miracle – I think miracles of timing also happen) – something that draws attention to God and his interaction with us.