Take me to your Messiah – Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (David Wilkinson)

A review of David WIlkinson’s excellent new book from OUP – David Wilkinson, Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, (Oxford University Press, 2013), £25, pp 1 – 227, ISBN:978-0-19-968020-7

Until the 1920s, only one galaxy was known of, our own Milky Way. Nowadays, it is commonplace in cosmological research to affirm not only the existence of countless galaxies, but also countless universes. In parallel with this vast expansion of our cosmic horizons has come the realisation that there are countless other planets beyond those in our own solar system, many of which could be potentially life-bearing. Just a few weeks before writing (4th November 2013) another 833 new planets were added to the list by astronomers working with the Kepler Space Telescope, and ten of those planets could be suitable for life. As the scientific work continues apace, theological questions – some old and some new – are raised with increasing rapidity. If life is discovered on another planet, especially if it is intelligent life, what will be the impact on our world religions, and especially on Christianity, which relies on the unique incarnation of Christ. Continue reading

Ghost stories, science and religion, and time travel

The University has just released a new podcast for Halloween on its website, which explores ghost stories told in Scotland in previous centuries, and discusses their relevance for modern-day issues in science and religion (including time travel). This is what the webpage says:

“Why do stories of ghosts and time travel persist in an age of reason and logic? These uncanny subjects come under the spotlight in the latest, Halloween-themed, Big Idea podcast.

The academics on this month’s show include

  • Martha McGill from the School of History, Classics and Archaeology, who has organised Ghost Stories of the Scottish Enlightenment, to be held in the spooky surroundings of the Anatomy Lecture Theatre on Halloween evening.
  • Dr Mark Harris, lecturer in Science and Religion in the School of Divinity. A trained physicist and ordained church minister, Mark regularly blogs about science and belief on the University’s website.
  • Dr Alasdair Richmond, from the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, who teaches, among other subjects, the philosophy of time travel.”

New book on the Bible and science

1844657256My new book has appeared – The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science. Although there have been many attempts in modern times to compare and contrast the Bible’s stories of creation with ideas from science, this has almost invariably been carried out in a non-critical way. It’s assumed that the text can be read at face value with scant regard for its historical genesis, almost as though it were a scientific report of the world’s origins. And it’s by no means just young-earth creationists who are guilty of this approach, but many who write on the Bible, especially from an interest in modern science.

What my book tries to do is to build bridges between critical biblical scholarship – which has developed far more sophisticated and historically-sensitive ways of reading the text – and modern science, using theology as the go-between. Remarkably, this has never been done before, or at least not across the whole Bible. This is significant, because there’s far more creation material in the Bible than just Genesis. In this way, I try to argue that there is scope for a whole new way of reading the Bible and science together.

Click here to see the book on the publisher’s web page (Acumen). Amazon uk is also selling the book at a very good price.

If you’re signed up to Academia.edu, you can also see my page, where you can download the Introduction.

Debating Darwin’s Doubt – he’s still doubting

new blog post by the Intelligent Design author Stephen C. Meyer, where he defends his book Debating Darwin’s Doubt against the accusation that it’s a sophisticated form of the God of the gaps approach.

Meyer’s argument is that the so-called “Cambrian explosion” of new life forms in the geological record – which gave us everyone’s favourite marine fossil, the trilobite, as well as the bizzare Burgess Shale – cannot be explained solely in terms of naturalistic science, but requires crucial input from a designing intelligence. This is what Meyer says in the post: Continue reading

Better no God than a God of the gaps

Bakerloo_line_-_Waterloo_-_Mind_the_gapI didn’t realise until last week that I felt so strongly about this, but I abhor the God of the gaps. We’ve been covering it in our MSc in Science and Religion, and I was challenged as to why I feel so strongly about it. After all, it forms the basis for some important attempts to build bridges between science and religion, not least Intelligent Design (ID). I feel no reluctance in saying that I would rather renounce belief in a creator God altogether, than stake my faith in a God who only works in the gaps in our scientific understanding. To my mind, the God of the gaps idea is subtly pervasive, and it miscontrues both Christian theology, and science, all in one. Clearly, not everyone feels as strongly as me, and some are quite open to the God of the gaps idea. But for the record, this is my where the strength of my response arises…

Continue reading

Is “science and religion” one thing, two things or many? And when is a Jumbo jet not a Jumbo jet?

Jumbo jet

The Western Christian/secular view of modern science is not necessarily the norm. When is a Jumbo jet not a Jumbo jet? This was a question that came up in our opening class of the year for our new intake MSc students in Science and Religion, discussing the views of the Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

The theme of the class was the very topic of “Science and Religion” – What is it? Is there a single agreed definition, covering a suitably well-defined set of topics? Looking at some of the scholarly literature on the topic you might be forgiven for thinking that the answer should be “yes” to those questions, but I maintain that the scope of the field is much more complex, and that “no” is a much more honest answer.

Consider this (rather lengthy) quote from Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in his piece entitled “Islam and Science” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2006, pp.73-4):

“Instead of criticizing the implicit value system inherent in modern science from the Islamic point of view, many of the champions of the blind emulation of modern science and technology claim that it is value-free…[M]odern science, like any other science, is based on a particular value system and a specific world-view rooted in specific assumptions concerning the nature of physical reality…Modern science must be studied in its philosophical foundations from the Islamic point of view, in order to reveal for Muslims exactly what the value system is upon which it is based and how this value system opposes, complements, or threatens the Islamic value system, which for Muslims, comes from God…Even a 747 Boeing jet is not global simply because it is now landing in Samoa as well as Tokyo, Beijing as well as Islamabad or Tehran. Rather, it is the result of a technology derived from a particular view of man’s relationship with the forces of nature and the environment, as well as an understanding of man himself, a view which many forces in the modern or even post-modern West are trying to globalize, by eliminating other views of the world of nature and man’s relationship to it, including of course, the Islamic one. Modern science is a direct challenge to other world-views, including the Islamic, which claims knowledge of reality based on not reason alone, but also on revelation and inspiration.”

I have put the most challenging part in bold. In class, this passage caused considerable puzzlement among some of us, while others agreed with its strong criticism of the imperialising tendencies of science. To so many of us brought up in the Western world, modern science is “value-free”; it just is, as the physical world just is. And yet, according to the above quote, science (especially in technological manifestations like the Jumbo jet), is very definitely not “value-free”. A Jumbo jet might work as well in Tokyo as it does in Tehran, but according to Nasr it carries a heavy cultural baggage along the way.

It’s a commonplace in the postmodern view to acknowledge cultural baggage, so let’s explore this a little more by asking: how important is this cultural baggage in science? Should we acknowledge our contexts and presuppositions when we come to science, in the same way we might in the humanities? Is it meaningful, for instance, to speak of a feminist physics or a Catholic chemistry? Would a Buddhist biology be different in any fundamental respect from a Belgian biology? These qualifications and questions sound absurd to some degree, especially to Western ears. But the point Nasr seems to be raising is that there are contexts in which they really matter, particularly when the science is seen to stand against a theistic view of the world.

Islam, like Christianity, teaches that nature is comprehensible by virtue of its origin from the Creator. Science has a divine underpinning in this view; it works not because nature is natural but because it is ‘creation’. If this is correct (and clearly it’s one of the most hotly debated topics around), then ‘science and religion’ as a discipline is not two distinct things (and still less is it two distinct things at war with each other), but it’s one thing – ‘religious science’, or ‘scientific religion’.

Near Death Experiences – science or religion or…?

Schiavonetti_Soul_leaving_body_1808Just returned from the excellent Science and Religion Forum meeting at the University of Chester, where one of the speakers (with a background in medical research) described current thoughts on the enigmatic and poorly-understood phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDE), which might include sensations of utter peace and assurance, often combined with the visual perception of a bright light at the end of a tunnel. Some Near Death Experiences take on the specific form of Out of Body Experiences (OBE), where subjects might report the sensation of leaving their body and perceiving it and its surroundings from above. Much to my surprise, the speaker went on to describe his own NDE after a near-fatal accident, an experience so significant that it had been instrumental in his own calling to become a Christian, and later ordination. My surprise sprang from the fact that the speaker, despite his scientific credentials, was willing to attribute objective spiritual significance to his experience. I have never had such a Near Death Experience myself, but I am aware that they can be intensely powerful to the subject. I am also aware that they are poorly understood scientifically. Nevertheless, it’s widely accepted that there must be a scientific explanation which must lie in human psychology or physiology. Science can’t rule out that NDEs involve spiritual encounters or a glimpse of the afterlife, but it can offer explanations within the context of its own naturalistic framework, seeing them in terms of hallucinations when the body and brain are in the extreme state of near death.

In discussing this later, a vigorous argument ensued. It became clear that I was unusual in being the out-and-out sceptic, completely unwilling to attribute any external significance to Near Death Experiences. Some people were prepared to be open-minded, others to go so far as to believe that these experiences were genuine evidence of the human soul separating from the body and preparing to go into the afterlife. The idea of “impossible knowledge” is often raised in Out of Body Experiences, where the putative disembodied person notices a detail in the scene that they couldn’t possibly have known about otherwise. I remain sceptical, on several grounds.

First, it seems to me that attributing objective significance to such experiences is little to do with religion, but is uncomfortably close to admitting paranormal activity, and I often worry that the science-religion field gets enough bad press from its (usually militant atheist) critics as it is for taking what they might refer to as “fairy tales” or “superstition” seriously. I am content to take the line of conventional science in such matters. (This reminds me of some interesting asides in Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge where he complains of the fact that, despite strong evidence for Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP), science cannot accept it because its framework is inadequate). At the moment the scientific framework is firmly embedded in naturalism, and is simply unable to make sense of such claims that there is a spiritual reality or dimension outside of the natural world. And while science is able to find an explanation for Near Death Experiences in naturalistic terms, however sketchy that explanation might be, it is preferable in my opinion to stick with that explanation than to depart from it into the unknown. In this, I am a clear supporter of David Hume’s empiricism, who, writing of the related issue of miracles, declared that “the knavery and folly of men are such common phaenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.” I happen to believe that Hume was wrong about miracles, but right about the empirical framework in which we judge them. In other words, a Humean such as myself would rather believe someone to be mistaken to attribute external spiritual significance to their Near Death Experience than to discard my whole intellectual framework of naturalism. And I say this with the utmost respect for those who claim such experiences.

Second, and because I am a keen supporter of naturalism, I do not believe in a spiritual detachable soul. As a Christian with relatively traditional beliefs, I am happy to put my hope in God’s salvation of the natural world, with me in it; as the Nicene Creed puts it: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” It may sound inconsistent to voice such traditional religious beliefs alongside a Humean scepticism, but the Christian framework is fully consistent with the empirical naturalism of science: both affirm that we are material beings, embodied in a natural world. It is in such a world that we live, will die, and (I hope, going beyond current science) will live again.

So, I have given you my reasons. I’m aware that this is an intensely controversial subject. But it’s worth opening up the discussion more widely. After all, the science-religion field can little afford to be quiet on the matter.

Sciences and Religions and Politics – A methodology?


The methodology of the science-religion dialogue as an academic subject is endlessly debated and disagreed over. It came up in a very enjoyable lunch yesterday with John Henry and John Evans, the sociologist from the University of California San Diego, who has interests in the science-religion discourse (among others). We had an extensive discussion on creationism and all kinds of Christian fundamentalism, features of Christianity which are very live on the public scene in California, but practically “underground” or invisible in the UK in comparison to the US. We noted that, while science and religion as an academic subject in the UK has tended to focus on theological and philosophical debates – and has been dominated by Richard Dawkins and New Atheism over the last decade – in the US science and religion often turns out to be a more practical subject, dominated by political issues such as education and bioethics (the US anti-abortion lobby being an excellent case in point). Continue reading

Exodus conference lectures on YouTube

I mentioned a few posts ago that I’d been invited to a superb conference on the Exodus at the University of California San Diego (Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination; 31 May – 1 June, 2013). The full talks and lectures are available on YouTube, here –


And my talk (on the legendary volcano Thera and its possible contribution to the Exodus) is this one –


The laws of nature as seen by Immanuel Kant

I’ve just discovered a fascinating project organised by one of our colleagues in philosophy at Edinburgh – Dr Michela Massimi – on the philosophy of the laws of nature, where the idea comes from, and what it means, all according to the seminal Enlightenment philosopher, Kant. Many questions that are of prime relevance to current debates in science and religion crop up here, not least the status of natural ‘law’, and the extent to which it could be a complete description of physical reality. The project, and its ongoing public outreach, are detailed here –


This is how the project is introduced:

‘What is the origin and nature of laws in physics and biology? In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant gave remarkable answers to this question by drawing on the physical and life sciences of his time. Kant argued that the laws of nature, marvellously revealed by the sciences of his time (from Newtonian mechanics to the chemistry of Boerhaave; from the electrical experiments of Hauksbee to the hydrodynamics of Bernoulli; from natural history to the life sciences) were, in part, the result of our mind ‘projecting’, so to speak, an order onto nature.’