Geology, naturalism, and the problem of miracles

My blog posts have become rather rare events over the last year, while I work on a book project on the ‘rare event’ in science (especially geology) and its implications for the prevailing view of naturalism in philosophy and theology, and especially for the problem of how to define miracle. In order to work through my argument, I gave a seminar paper on this to our Theology and Ethics seminar at New College in Edinburgh. Here’s the text of my paper (warning: it’s over 6,000 words).

Title: ‘The Stone the Builders Rejected’: Geology, Naturalism, and the Problem of Miracles

I should warn you at the outset that this paper contains very little theology, and even less ethics. I want to explore how the natural sciences can be used to explore the theology of miracle, so starting from the science end of the science-theology conversation. I should emphasise that I’m condensing an ongoing book project into one paper here, hoping to get a sense of whether the argument holds together. It means that I’ll need to apply a very broad brush, and skip over the interesting details and debates. So I’d be interested in your comments afterwards.

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The Catch-22 of Science and Religion

731px-b-25_of_catch-22_fame_making_a_low_pass_at_elmendorf_7674536434Last night I spoke at a debate organised by the British Science Association about science and religion, entitled ‘What do Science and Religion have to offer each other in the 21st Century?’ I’m often asked to speak at events like this, and I’ve increasingly begun to feel that, as well as providing an opportunity to introduce audiences to the richness and complexities of the field, it comes with a certain cost to that same field. In short, there’s a Catch-22. Here’s the text of my talk, where I attempt to explain – Continue reading

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The Bible and Human Origins – 2

The Faraday Institute at Cambridge have finished editing the second lecture I gave at their summer course (July 2016), which Ruth Bancewizc has already blogged about (see previous post). Here is a link to the talk – “The Bible and Human Origins.”

http://upload.sms.csx.cam.ac.uk/media/2319392

(Pleae forgive my slip of the tongue about 12 minutes in, where I say that “the man” (i.e. Adam) created “the woman” (i.e. Eve). Of course, I meant that God created her, but was thinking too far ahead…)

Here’s a potted summary –
  • I focus on two of the most famous texts in the Bible – the creations stories of Genesis in ch.1 (the six days of creation, followed by God’s day of rest), and chaps. 2-3 (Adam and Eve). Both of these stories have achieved a degree of notoriety because of debates around creationism, and the question of whether we should take modern science into account when we read them.
  • I look particulary at the “image of God” phrase in Gen.1, and then the whole complex of scientific and theological debates that surround the idea of “the Fall” in Gen.3.
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Are there limits to science?

“Are there limits to science?” – this was the title of the recent Science and Religion Forum 2016 conference, where diverse subjects around naturalism, and the limitations of science (and religion) were aired by some of the leading experts in the area. As the Conference Secretary, I was asked to deliver some closing reflections. Here is what I said –

I want to say a special thanks to all the speakers – as can happen with these kinds of conferences organised around a central question, sometimes a diversity of answers leads to an emergent consensus, and I think that’s definitely happened here.

“Are there limits to science?” Yes and no. That seems to be the gist of what I’ve gleaned from this conference, with a particular weight falling on the yes, there are limits. Continue reading

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‘How I fell into Science and Religion’ – interview with Mark Harris


I am often asked how I fell into Science and Religion. Sam Ford, who produces Manna, the magazine of the Diocese of Bath and Wells, interviewed me about just this subject. His article, with the interview, follows here. 

LHC

The Large Hadron Collider at the CERN lab in Switzerland (Copyright Image Editor and licensed under Creative Commons, flickr.com)


Mark Harris has just returned from a conference at CERN, the world’s leading particle physics laboratory where the so-called ‘God particle’ has been discovered. He was there talking with physicists, philosophers, theologians and representatives from major world religions, exploring the relevance of the Big Bang theory for religious belief, and vice versa. As the author of a book on what the Bible has to say to science about the world, he stands confidently in the middle of a heated debate that has been characterised at times by fervent, even aggressive, stances on both sides.
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Conflict in Science and Religion

Usually, including the word ‘conflict’ in a headline draws attention. Not so much in the case of science and religion though, because the default relationship between them seems to be one of conflict, at least if the popular media is anything to go by. In other words, it’s hardly news if you announce that there is ‘conflict in science and religion’. This was the rather unsurprising result announced by the latest Pew Research Center survey of US opinions on science and religion. There was one novel discovery here though, and something which many of us in the academic study of science and religion had long suspected but had never seen substantiated (to my knowledge): those most inclined to uphold the idea of conflict are those with no strong religious commitments. Individuals who do have strong faith commitments, on the other hand, are most likely to claim that there is no conflict between their religious beliefs and science.

Working in science full-time, and before I came to the science and religion field myself, I used to be one of those people who maintained that there’s no conflict between science and religion. I slowly became dissatisfied with that response though, and exposure to the deep level debates in the science and religion field showed me why. Quite clearly, there is conflict between science and religion – quite substantial conflict over some issues (as in previous pages on this blog) – although it’s not of the generic kind of conflict that so many people assume is the case. I think of this generic level of assumed conflict as ‘surface conflict’. Instead, there is ‘deep conflict’ (just as there is also deep agreement) in some areas. There’s no easy way to characterise this deep-level conflict: it changes in intensity and quality depending on which sciences and which religious beliefs we’re talking about. But quite simply, we can’t speak too glibly of the conflict, either to claim that it’s all conflict between science and religion, or that it’s all harmonious. Both responses deliberately avoid engaging with the challenges.

And I suspect that reluctance to engage is at the root of the widespread misunderstanding of the science and religion dialogue: whether we claim it’s all conflict or all harmonious we’re saying it because we don’t want to engage.

The University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Science and Religion is one of the world’s few programmes of advanced study in the area, training students to engage to the utmost with the debate. We’ve just come to the end of the first semester for the current academic year. As with previous years, students express surprise that the issues run so deep, and are all too often painfully intractable either by science or religion. As the students also invariably discover though, along with deep conflict, there are areas of deep agreement between science and religion, not to mention the deep satisfaction that can be gained from wrestling with some of the most difficult questions known to humankind.

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Research Seminar on ‘natural praise’ at the Faraday Institute, Cambridge

I recently had the pleasure of being invited to Cambridge to give a research seminar at the Faraday Institute. Since I have been thinking quite a lot about the topic of ‘natural praise’ recently (ever since giving a talk on the subject at the Knowing Creation conference in St Andrews in August 2014), I decided to re-visit this topic in the Faraday seminar, which means that (due to a lack of imagination on my part), I even ended up using the same title: “The Trees of the Field shall Clap their Hands” (Isaiah 55:12): What Does it Mean to Say that Creation Praises the Creator?

The audience appeared to be as intrigued by the subject as I am, and they gave me a number of useful things to think about to develop this further before I finally commit it to paper. Just as usefully, they also filmed the talk, and have made it available online. You can see it here –

 

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“The trees of the field shall clap their hands”

Scientists in Congregations Scotland have recently posted up a lecture I gave on the controversial biblical theme of what it means to say that creatures (inanimate as well as animate) might be able to praise God. I had a lot of fun preparing and giving this talk, and the audience became very engaged in the discussion at the end. I learned a lot from them.

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Many worlds and quantum mechanics

By an amazing coincidence, our MSc class in Science and Religion has just this afternoon been discussing the merits of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and I came back to my office to find a piece posted on the BBC website describing Brian Cox’s enthusiasm for the same Many-Worlds interpretation –

Brian Cox: ‘Multiverse’ makes sense

It might be a bizarre and extravagant interpretation, but Many Worlds has some definite explanatory strengths over the (more mainstream and more manageable) Copenhagen interpretation. Perhaps more importantly for us here in Edinburgh, while the Copenhagen interpretation has been discussed endlessly in theological and science-religion circles over the past decades, the Many Worlds interpretation is still largely uncharted territory in religious terms. Theologians have been able to respond positively to the Copenhagen interpretation’s suggestion that the physical world is somehow fuzzy and indeterminate at its basis, and that we as observers are inextricably tied into it, and this has provided some fertile models for divine action. But few have thought seriously about a theology of Many Worlds, endlessly branching from each other. If Brian Cox is right to say that physicists are now warming to Many Worlds, then it’s perhaps time for theologians to start warming to it too. If the Many Worlds interpretation isn’t too preposterous for physics, then it can’t be too preposterous for theology either.

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Human uniqueness, and are humans the pinnacle of evolution?

Huxley_-_Mans_Place_in_Nature-2-300x179I have been caught up in many conversations over the summer, at science-religion conferences and meetings with theologians, where the future of human evolution has come up. Almost invariably in these conversations, someone expresses the opinion – as though everyone there takes it for granted – that humans are the end point, the goal, or the pinnacle of evolution. A related viewpoint that I’ve heard said is that we humans have managed to extricate ourselves from the evolutionary struggle: our technological prowess has enabled us to raise ourselves above the survival of the fittest; we are, quite simply, the fittest. And another related viewpoint is that we humans were somehow the inevitable outcome of the evolutionary process. The final related viewpoint (the most explicitly theological) says that God directed evolution so that humans would be the end result. All of this is related to a much-debated idea in theology, of ‘human uniqueness’.

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