Guest Post, Part 2: The Arch, the Stone and the Structure of Science

Virtualization of Knowledge
Virtualization of knowledge 0005 by agsandrew. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Science is not about discovering a low-level “theory of everything” that captures everything that can be said about what happens in the physical world. The structure of the natural world is not like that. To illustrate this, I began with a simple parable, which has an obvious application to the structure of scientific explanation. Continue reading

Curiosity: The search for life on other planets

© Carter Roberts, NASA
© Carter Roberts, NASA

Being chosen to pick the name for a major piece of space exploration must be one of the coolest things that could ever happen to a kid. This is what happened to Continue reading

The Creativity of God

Carpentry 1164432_72116930
© Luis Brito, http://www.sxc.hu

My theologically trained colleagues tell me that the Hebrew Scriptures are very concrete in their use of language. It’s not surprising, then, that a rather abstract concept like creativity never appears in the Bible. The creativity of God, however, is a strong theme running behind the whole text. There are images of God creating like an artist or craftsman, and one of the most famous is a beautifully poetic passage in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom is such an important part of God’s character that it is personified in Proverbs, and in Proverbs 8 wisdom is said to have been like a master craftsman (or workman) at God’s side as he created the universe.

Jesus is the Son of God and reflects God’s character perfectly, so we should expect to see creativity in his life. He was a carpenter’s son, and in those days a boy learned his father’s trade so there’s no reason to doubt that he learned to make things out of wood. Jesus began his ministry as a travelling teacher when he was around thirty, so he must have been a fairly proficient craftsman by then. We don’t read in the Bible, ‘Jesus fixed the table, and then they all sat down to the Passover meal’, but it may have happened! 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

Taking Rational Trouble

Photo by R Bancewicz

There is a vast literature on wonder in science, but what about wonder in theology? When we encounter beauty and complexity in the world we often respond in one of two ways. We might wonder about the mechanisms that produced such a sight and want to find out more – wonder can lead us to science. Or we might start asking deep questions about the meaning of things: Why am I here? Do I have any significance in this vast place? Why is the world so beautiful and so terrible? Wonder can also lead us to theology. I would argue that while these two responses are different, they are not mutually exclusive.

To take this further, Alister McGrath has identified three different sorts of wonder at the natural world. Continue reading

Wonder

Aurora borealis, Joshua Strang, public domain.

When I ask scientists about the positive interaction between science and faith, awe and wonder nearly always play a large part in the conversation.

Awe is the mixture of overwhelmment, wonder and fear that we often feel when we encounter something larger, more beautiful, powerful or complex than anything we see in our everyday lives. Sometimes even reverence, or respect come into it. The night sky, vast landscapes and the mighty forces of wind and sea are accessible to most people on this planet, and frequently leave us speechless.

Wonder, on the other hand, is a more active and hopeful emotion. When we’re confronted by something new, unexpected, or especially beautiful, we often want to examine and understand it. We might doubt what knowledge we thought we had about it, and enjoy the process of asking questions and beginning to untangle its mystery. Continue reading