Book Preview: Is There Purpose in Biology? The cost of existence and the God of love

t-lymphocyte-killing-cancer-cell-wellcome-images-odra-noel.jpg
‘St George and the dragon’, an artistic interpretation of a T lymphocyte killing a cancer cell, Wellcome images, © Odra Noel

Reactions to the question “Is There Purpose in Biology?” are likely to vary greatly. One reaction will be “of course not”: watch your favourite natural history programme and it’s obvious that chance rules. Some animals get lucky and do well, others get eaten young, and there’s no overall rhyme nor reason to it. Others responding to the same question, most likely coming from a religious worldview, will respond “of course”: God has an overall purpose for everything, including biology. Others, perhaps the majority, are more likely to say: “Well it all depends on what you mean by purpose…” Continue reading

Tremendous Trifles

© Cavell L. Blood, freeimages.com

The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.

– GK Chesterton

A colleague helpfully sent me this quote a couple of weeks ago. When I followed up its source I discovered a fabulous piece of writing that is of great relevance to my work, and the work of any scientist.

In Chesterton’s essay Tremendous Trifles, two boys are playing in a tiny suburban garden that consists of ‘four strips of gravel, a square of turf with some mysterious pieces of cork standing up in the middle and one flower bed with a row of red daisies’. A fairy happens to pass by in the guise of a milkman and offers the boys, who are called Paul and Peter, each a wish. Paul chooses to be a giant, roams the world in a few strides, and finds that the world is not as exciting as he had hoped. 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.

The compatibility of science and faith

I’m starting with a very short article that I wrote for the Everything Conference  website, because it sums up so much of what I think about this area: awe and wonder at the world that science reveals to us, and the Creator who made it all. To get the full impact you really need to read the last 15 pages of Dawkins’ book.

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If you have been paying attention to the press in recent years you will no doubt have been bombarded by the message that science and faith are in conflict with each other. Some would say that science and faith are incompatible because science is about reason, while faith is about believing in things that don’t exist. But I am a scientist and a Christian, and for me Christianity is the worldview that makes the most sense in the light of everything I know and experience in the world – including the historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection.

Let me share an insight with you. As I finished reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’, I was inspired by his last section entitled ‘The mother of all burkas’. If you ignore the obvious anti-religious allusion (you could think of being in a gigantic post-box instead) and focus on Dawkins’ wonderful description of how science opens our eyes to how incredible the world is, this piece of writing can actually be a powerful call to worship the creator who made everything revealed to us by science.

“Our eyes see the world through a narrow slit in the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light is a chink of brightness in the vast dark spectrum, from radio waves at the long end to gamma rays at the short end. Quite how narrow is hard to appreciate and a challenge to convey. Imagine a gigantic black burka, with a vision slit of approximately the standard width, say about one inch … The one-inch window of visible light is derisorily tiny compared with the miles and miles of black cloth representing the invisible part of the spectrum, from radio waves at the hem of the skirt to gamma rays at the top of the head. What science does for us is widen the window.  It opens up so wide that the imprisoning black garment drops away almost completely, exposing our senses to airy and exhilarating freedom”.[1]

Dawkins then goes on to show how science turns our everyday perception of things upside down. Science opens a window on an invisible world more fantastic than we could ever have imagined. This is the world that I believe God made.

I immediately turned to my daily Bible reading in Luke’s gospel about Jesus’ healing of a dead girl. With my imagination still in the invisible world of science, I saw Jesus as the one who knows that invisible world inside out and – more importantly – spoke it into being. How does Jesus’ awesome power relate to his ability to raise people from the dead? Obviously we won’t be able to understand how that works in scientific terms. We can’t routinely study dead people coming back to life in a lab. A miracle is a one-off event, usually in response to prayer, when God shows us how incredible he is and how much he loves us. But this healing and others like it show me that God is the creator of the universe and has the power to transcend everything, including the knowledge we’ve gained using the tools of science.

The view of the world that I have outlined here is a huge incentive for Christians to do science. We need to understand the world God has made and learn to use all the rich resources that are available to us through science and technology in the most appropriate, fair and sustainable way. And what better way to provoke a sense of awe and worship than to share scientific discoveries about the universe? Lastly, the knowledge that God is sovereign and can transcend everything we know is deeply humbling, and a reminder that he is our ultimate teacher. From where I’m standing, good science and genuine faith are definitely compatible.