Boyle Lecture 2018 – ‘Apocalypses Now’

The Boyle Lectures have been running (with some hiatuses) since 1692, when they were founded in honour of Robert Boyle, the pioneering chemist. I was invited to give the 2018 Boyle Lecture in London, which I delivered on 7 February 2018. It was a fantastic occasion, delivered to the packed-out church of St Mary-le-bow, and with Prof John Hedley Brooke providing a thought-provoking response. My lecture captured the last 10 years or so of my thought on the troublesome relationship between scientists and biblical scholars on big miracles texts such as the Plagues of Egypt. The text follows here: –

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New textbook – ‘Philosophy, Science and Religion for Everyone’

Routledge has just published Philosophy, Science and Religion for Everyone, the new textbook for our MOOC in Philosophy, Science, and Religion, edited by myself and Duncan Pritchard, and authored by many of the course tutors and lecturers. It’s available from the Routledge website, or from Amazon, but as a taster, here’s the text of the Introduction: –

Introduction (Mark Harris and Duncan Pritchard)

The science-and-religion discourse is so significant that it’s hardly possible to live in the Western world and not hold an opinion on it. The discourse is, however, almost universally construed in terms of a ‘debate’, and a debate that’s characterised by ‘conflict’ above all. The fact that the discourse underlies some highly-volatile social and political disagreements adds fuel to the fire (and these disagreements are especially live in North America, especially concerning climate change, the place of ‘evolution versus creation’ in high school education, and in bioethics concerning ‘pro-life versus pro-choice’). Arguably, there’s too much heat, and little light in these disagreements. Adding philosophy to the mix (‘Philosophy, Science, and Religion’), this book takes the view that the science-and-religion debate can move beyond hostility, to become a major force behind a new kind of intellectual enlightenment in modern culture. Continue reading

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

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.”

(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.

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

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?”

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.


Brexit and Evolution


Here is a troubling thought. The average mammal species lasts for about a million years. Humans have been around for 200,000 years, and human culture, it’s thought, may have been around for about 50,000 years. If human beings are around for as long as the average mammal we are only about 6% of the way into our cultural evolution. The trouble begins when we start reflecting – as the philosopher John Schellenberg has done – on what the epistemological consequences of this might be. What becomes clear when we take up this deep time perspective, says Schellenberg, is that for all we know, we are in a state of intellectual immaturity; our biological and cultural evolution has only come so far and may have a long way yet to go.

Now think about how much our understanding of just about everything has changed over what will (hopefully) be a tiny fraction of total human development. Around 2400 years ago Aristotle held that some people were “natural” slaves – a view that most of us would consider an abomination today – and this was Aristotle: a towering intellect. Modern democracy too is, from the deep time perspective, a very recent cultural achievement. Even some progressive Enlightenment figures like Voltaire still envisaged the perfect society as being a dictatorship. Examples like these aren’t hard to come by.

This is what taking a deep time perspective does. Despite our tendency to think we’re almost there, reflecting on how much our understanding has transformed in the past should prompt us to reflect on how much it may yet transform in the future, particularly when we realise we have much further to go (temporally speaking) than we have yet come.

Schellenberg uses thoughts like these to probe our thinking about religion. Might there be a whole gamut of religious possibilities as yet unexplored? Do we have any reason to think that the religious commitments of future generations will bear much of a resemblance to the religious commitments of humanity in 2016? These are interesting thoughts, but they’re not what I want to pursue here because, when you think about it, the deep time perspective doesn’t just apply to religion, and it doesn’t just apply to cultural evolution.

One place it applies is metaphysics. Metaphysics is hard. People who spend their working lives trying to understand the fundamental nature of reality push their intellectual abilities to the limit to do so. Chimps, on the other hand, have an IQ of 40. And chimps, we can all agree, are not capable of successful metaphysical theorising. (Yes, studies have shown that chimps can do some basic arithmetic, develop a vocabulary of around 25 words etc., but they’re completely useless at modal logic, grasping the necessary a posteriori, or saying anything sensible about mental causation.) Humans, on the other hand, have an average IQ of 100. Some humans have IQs much higher than this; Terence Tao, a mathematician who won the Fields Medal in 2006 is said to have an estimated IQ of 230 (though the way that most IQ tests are actually scored means that a perfect 100% corresponds to an IQ of 130–160). Now assume that humans are capable of successful metaphysical theorising. If that’s the case then the 60–120 IQ points we have over chimps are what make all the difference. Having an IQ of 100–160 is precisely the cut off point at which creature become capable of successful metaphysical theorising. But, on reflection, it looks like an incredibly fortuitous bit of happenstance that the IQ range we happen to have is exactly the point at which creatures become able to answer metaphysical questions. Another philosopher, Peter van Inwagen, has made exactly this point:

If we believe that we are able to solve the problems of metaphysics, then we must believe that we are just barely able to do this; we must believe that if our intellectual gifts were only slightly less impressive, we should be unable to do it. … And isn’t this a rather implausible thesis? Why should the intellectual abilities that we happen to have be just barely adequate to the task? Why should we expect such a stroke of luck? (Peter van Inwagen (2015), Metaphysics. Westview Press: 288.)

Part of what’s going on here, is that we see ourselves as being at the top of the intellectual pile. (Academics are perhaps particularly prone to this.) But what if we didn’t compare ourselves to chimps, but to aliens or angels with IQs of 250, 500, 10,000, 100,000,000…? Just entertaining the spectre of beings far more intelligent than ourselves makes us aware of how profound our own cognitive limitations are. As the chimp is to the human, so the human is to the alien, and so that alien is to a yet more intelligent alien, and so on. Once we’re cognisant of that, it’s harder to entertain the idea that out of the whole spectrum of possible levels of intelligence, we have been serendipitously placed at just the right point on that spectrum for successfully arriving at deep metaphysical truths. What metaphysical possibilities will tens of thousands of future years of intellectual development unveil? What metaphysical possibilities are simply beyond the powers of comprehension of a bunch of creatures with a measly median IQ of 100?

But what does all this have to do with Brexit? Well, the surprising-to-pundits vote to leave the EU means that we’re currently going through some pretty serious political upheavals. And this has caused us all to think a little harder and more sustainedly about political questions. But here’s the thing: political thought is plausibly in the same boat as metaphysical thought. Chimps are terrible at it (yes, they live in structured societies of sorts, but ask them to theorise about it…). And we take ourselves to be pretty good at it; at least, we do as individuals: one tends to take oneself to have correct political beliefs, even if we think other people are catastrophically wrong. In other words, it’s a subject where we take ourselves to be fortuitously located at the precise point at which creatures become cognitively capable of arriving at the answers. Not only that, political questions are infused with philosophical ones. For one thing, they are not merely straightforwardly descriptive questions about how things are, but normative questions about how things ought to be. Answers to political questions depend on answers to philosophical ones about what we ought to value or hope for, and how to weigh one valuable thing against another. They depend on answers to questions about what sorts of relationships we ought to have with whom; what coöperative bonds and duties we have to one another, and what rights we can claim for ourselves. The political is intertwined with the axiological, and with the normative more broadly. Normative questions, plausibly, are in the same boat as metaphysical ones.

They’re the sort of questions regarding which a deep time perspective will provide pause for thought: maybe we haven’t arrived at intellectual maturity; maybe thousands of years of intellectual progress or thousands of additional IQ points would reveal our beliefs to be immature, in the way that Aristotelian natural slavery or undemocratic governance seem immature to us today. And if normative questions are in this boat, and political questions depend on normative ones, then political questions are stuck in the boat too. And if all that’s the case, it’s a chastening thought, because it means that my efforts to think seriously about politics might be much like chimp’s efforts to think seriously about modal logic.