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.

Continue reading

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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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Science and religion: Clash of worldviews?

I recently spent an excellent week in the Faraday Institute at Cambridge, lecturing at their summer course (July 2016). They filmed my talks, and here’s the first one – “Science and Religion: Clash of Worldviews?”

http://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/2281046

Here’s a potted summary –
  • Many people in our world today believe that science and religion are at war. In this talk I argue that it’s not a foregone conclusion that science and religion should be in conflict with each other. Neither do I believe that they represent incompatible worldviews. There are many other ways of looking at this problem, and I suggest that the view that science and religion have to be clashing worldviews is, in fact, a worldview of its very own. Along the way, I look at the main models of interaction that have been suggested for relating science to religion. I suggest that, while these models all contain elements of the truth, they are also limited in their own ways. The point is that the relationship between science and religion is much more subtle than it’s given credit for. This is the starting point for a much richer investigation of how the two areas relate, something which the Summer Course did in depth.

 

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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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Science and Religion through Poetry

It is hoped by some within the Science and Religion field that literature–both verse and prose–can enrich the dialogue between science and religion. Literature (and poetry, more specifically) allows for an intermingling of thought and affect. It is this affect component of the Science and Religion dialogue that is easily minimized. When engaging this field in academic circles it is easy to forget the practitioners of sciences and religions–people who may be less concerned with specific nuances and more concerned with the question: How then shall I live?

My research is within this literature sub-field of Science and Religion. I am interested in the ways literature can provide a more neutral medium of interaction for scientific and religious ideas, how literature utilizes (and perhaps alters) the language of sciences and religions, and how literature brings science and religion topics to a popular audience. Along with studying the writings of others, I am attempting to add my own voice to the field; the following poem, “Hermeneutics,” is one of my own.

The Science and Religion field is less about learning the right answers and more about asking the right questions. Or perhaps, taking a step back, it is about giving oneself permission to ask questions–especially questions of perceived authority, whether that be deities, religious leaders/writings, governments, scientists, philosophers, etc. To question authority can be disorienting, unsettling, isolating, and even dangerous. The speaker in this poem is asking questions about creation from the Judeo-Christian perspective. The speaker acknowledges the many voices of biblical scholarship, cosmology, quantum physics, theology, and practical religion. Three main questions drive the speaker: What happened? To whom do I listen? and What is important? It is this final question (found within the last stanza of the poem) that correlates to the question “How then shall I live?” A question that will hopefully remain at the core of the Science and Religion field.

“Hermeneutics”

בראשית
In the beginning.
ראשית
noun, feminine; beginning; also, chief.
From ראש
noun, masculine; head.
Common Semitic word; see also:
Arabic, Sabean, Ethiopic,
Amharic, Assyrian, Aramaic,
Palmyrene, Phoenician, Punic.

In the beginning
before there was time
before the big bang
before creatio ex nihilo

There was a singularity—
or perhaps there wasn’t—
we need a quantum theory of gravity;
Higgs boson wasn’t enough.

In the beginning—
at less than Planck time—
general relativity cannot be guaranteed.
Instead of singularity—infinite curvature?

In the beginning
our universe began
or was infinite
or was merely one oscillation of
big bang then big crunch
or was the birth of our tiny little corner
of the multi-dimensional
or variable multiverse.

In the beginning
God created the heavens and the earth.
Or did he merely create order
from his dark materials:
infinite night and chaos?

In the beginning,
who knows what God(s) did?
Did Moses or the Elohist,
the Hebrews or the Jews?
Did Peter, James, John, or Paul?
Did Jerome, Augustine, or Luther,
or the 47 scholars of King Henry VIII?

Do I listen to
Claus Westermann
Steven Hawking
Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Leonard Susskind
Walter Breuggemann
Jonathan Henry Sacks
the priest at the cathedral
the Anglican vicar down the road
the Baptist preacher Sunday morning
or the still small voice
that some say is the witness
of יהוה, Himself?

In the beginning—
What is the Good News?

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Science, Religion, and Changing Conceptions of Nature: An Interview with John Hedley Brooke

Recently, the Science and Religion program here at the School of Divinity hosted a three-day lecture series entitled “Galileo, Darwin, Einstein: Science, Religion and the Changing Conceptions of Nature” and delivered by renowned philosopher of science, Professor John Hedley Brooke. A leading figure in the Science and Religion arena, Professor Brooke brought his considerable knowledge and insight to bear on many of the key issues, controversies, and common misunderstandings in the history of Science and Religion. First focusing on Galileo and the common myths associated with Galileo’s complicated relationship to religion, Professor Brooke demonstrated that Galileo’s work was often constructively incorporated by theologians as they formed a new conception of nature as a mechanism. In discussing Darwin and his theory of natural selection, Professor Brooke highlighted common misunderstandings about Darwin’s scientific work and its relationship to Darwin’s own faith as well as to the wider religious culture. And finally, in celebrating the centennial of Einstein’s discovery of the theory of general relativity, Professor Brooke gave a fascinating and nuanced perspective on Einstein’s approach to metaphysics, religion, and the basic structure of reality. Not only did the lectures probe the many misunderstandings about the oversimplified “conflict” between science and religion, but Professor Brooke was able to demonstrate the complex ways in which religious thinkers and scientists have constructively informed each other’s work.

I had the opportunity to speak further with Professor Brooke about his work, and in particular about his thoughts regarding the wider Science and Religion field. What follows is an extended selection of that interview. Continue reading

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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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What Are We Defending? Territorial Claims Upon the Imago Dei

If you have not read the previous post on this blog, “The Assumptions We Bring to the Table,” perhaps you should pause here and read that first—then come back and read this post, for I am aware that I am bringing, if not assumptions to the table, at least a particular perspective to the table. I am relatively new to the Science and Religion discourse; my own background is in Bible and Christian Ministries, so I will not pretend to be an expert in Science or even in the broader field of Religion.

Yesterday, in class, we discussed humanity and the imago Dei (image of God). The most commonly referenced verse for the imago Dei is Genesis 1:26-27 “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (English Standard Version). This verse, along with a few others (Ps. 8.3-6; Gen. 5.1-2; Gen. 3.22; Rom. 8.29; 2 Cor. 4.4; Col. 1.15), has led to myriad speculations as to just what is the imago Dei that has been passed onto humanity, as well as led to the claim that human beings must be “uniquely unique” among the rest of creation.

However, if one is to espouse Darwinian evolution (as most biological scientists do—including those who claim “theistic evolution” or “intelligent design”), then one must concede that humans are no more naturally unique than any other unique species that has ever existed. Furthermore, any trait or function or relational ability that humans exhibit, would have come from evolutionary processes, rather than being independently conferred upon them by a Creator.

Not long into the class discussion, tensions began to rise. If one were not to look more closely, it would have appeared that those who bring a Christian perspective to the table were eager to maintain humanity’s uniqueness based upon the imago Dei, and that others—who were less eager to defend a particular theological position—found it easier to dispose of, or at least redefine, what it means to be “uniquely” human.

Now, I want to point out that it is not merely Christians who believe human uniqueness; many people live as if they—as humans—are unique even if they don’t state such a stance. As simple examples, notice the difference in support between “human rights” and “animal rights”—the former is punishable by international law while the latter is usually only supported by activist groups, or consider scientific experiments which use non-human animals as test subjects before using human subjects. The idea of human uniqueness is not isolated to Christianity or other religions. However, it does appear the Christians are keen to actively defend such a position based upon the imago Dei passages within the Bible.

My question—especially to Christians—is this: What are we defending? Are we defending God? Or the imago Dei itself? Are we defending the belief that Jesus Christ was both fully God and fully human? Or are we defending the truthfulness of Scripture? Maybe we are defending human culpability for sin and repentance? Or humanity’s dominion? Or perhaps merely our own sense of importance?

Here are some other questions. Is it possible that the Bible seems (and, arguably, is) anthropocentric merely because it is God’s revelation to and for humans? Is it possible that God relates with each creature in its own way—each according to its kind, and such that even the rocks can cry out to Him? Is it possible that God chose to be incarnated within a human being arbitrarily, and that he could have chosen to come to earth in another creature? Is it possible that the imago Dei is in every creation—perhaps a different aspect of the overall image, but an image all the same?

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