The Uniformity of Nature – conference on 30th May 2015

Together with PhysPhil (the Physics and Philosophy Society at St Andrews University), we are organising another day conference, to be held in the School of Divinity, on laws of nature, the philosophy of science, and the question of divine action. There is an excellent line-up of speakers, and the event is free to attend. See below.

The School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh

You are warmly invited to the forthcoming conference, ‘The Uniformity of Nature: Natural Laws, Natural Powers or Divine Action’


This one-day conference will bring together philosophers, philosopher-scientists and theologians to explore a variety of topics, including the laws of nature, divine agency, and the existence of powers and capacities in the natural world, with a view to (re)conceptualising the fundamental origins of order in our universe.


A number of speakers will be offering neo-Aristotelian perspectives on these topics, among other perspectives, applying ancient and contemporary philosophy to modern conceptual problems in the physical sciences and theology.


We are anticipating a stimulating interdisciplinary conference with plenty of time for discussion.


We look forward to seeing you there!

Confirmed speakers :  


  • Prof Michael Dodds, Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology
  • Prof Peter Simons, Trinity College Dublin
  • Prof Raymond Tallis, University of Manchester
  • Dr Nicholas Saunders, University of Cambridge
  • Dr John Pemberton, LSE
  • Dr Tuomas Tahko, Helsinki University
  • Dr Nicholas Teh, University of Cambridge
  • Dr Ignacio Silva, University of Oxford
  • Dr Janice Breidenbach-Chik, Ave Maria University

Registration is FREE and includes a light lunch.

Conference Date:

May 30th 2015

9:00 am – 5:30

(Registration 8:35am)


New College

University Of Edinburgh

Mound Place
Edinburgh EH1 2LX


Sander Klaasse

Email Sander

This conference is jointly organised by the School of Divinity at The University of Edinburgh and the PhysPhil Society at the University of St Andrews and is funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

The University of Edinburgh is a charitable body, registered in Scotland, with registration number SC005336.

Unless explicitly stated otherwise, all material is copyright © The University of Edinburgh 2015.



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

John Hedley Brooke lectures available (Galileo, Darwin, Einstein: Science, Religion, and the Changing Conceptions of Nature)

The superb series of lectures given in the School of Divinity by Prof John Hedley Brooke at the end of January (entitled ‘Galileo, Darwin, Einstein: Science, Religion, and the Changing Conceptions of Nature’) are now all available on YouTube here –

Alternatively, just click on the below…


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 –


New science and religion page

Prof Wilson Poon, one of the teaching team on our MSc in Science and Religion, and a leading experimental physicist in soft condensed matter, has just constructed a new webpage describing his stance on science and religion, together with related thoughts, articles, sermons, etc.

You can see the page here –

Wilson is also involved in Scientists in Congregations, a Templeton-funded project that is making significant headway in introducing science-religion interests into the Scottish churches at the grass roots level.

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?

Science, Religion and the Changing Conceptions of Nature – John Hedley Brooke lectures

Very soon we will be hosting Prof John Hedley Brooke, the renowned historian of science, to give three ground-breaking lectures on how science and religion have led to changing conceptions of nature throughout history. These are the dates:

26 Jan, 5pm – Nature as Creation

27 Jan, 5pm – Nature as Historical Process

29 Jan, 5pm – Nature Recreated

To register, go to

This is Prof Brooke’s synopsis of the series –


Science, Religion and Changing Conceptions of Nature

Recent developments in science have recast our relationship to “nature” in exciting new forms and in new light. The question “what does it mean to be human?” is now frequently answered in language drawn from biology and the neurosciences: we are defined by our DNA, the workings of our mind reduced to brain function.  If, as some would claim, this amounts to a dehumanisation of the human subject, it does so paradoxically because the methods, intellectual capacity and creativity of the scientists at work could equally be said to elevate, not objectify, what it means to be human.  New sciences, such as synthetic biology, confer powers on the scientist (eg to “create life”) that were once reserved for a transcendent Creator.  Nature, once understood as a work of Creation, has become susceptible not merely to transformation through human impact, but also to re-creation through human ingenuity.

It is tempting to see in such scientific and technological advances a desacralisation of the natural world.  What we call “nature” has surely been manipulated, exploited and despoiled by human societies in ways that leave any sense of pristine “nature” in a parlous state?  On one level the answer is an obvious “yes”, with Christian theology often implicated in a dangerously anthropocentric view of natural resources.  In all such reflections there is, however, a deeper question, which concerns the meanings of the words “nature” and “natural” and how they have changed over time.  In my three lectures, I propose to examine this deeper question, showing how advances in the sciences have been accompanied by changing images and conceptions of “nature” and how these, in turn, have been reflected in theological discourse and in new theologies of nature.  Although the sciences have facilitated secular interpretations of both physical and human nature, I shall argue that to place them essentially and exclusively in narratives of secularisation amounts to one of the many myths surrounding the historical relations between science and religion.


Lecture 1: Nature as Creation

An ordered “creation” as presupposition of early modern science. The scientist as one who, in studying the book of nature, thinks God’s thoughts after him.

The scientific movement of the 17th century was accompanied by a secularisation of theology – in the sense that lay scientists theologised about nature and reinterpreted theological doctrine in the process.  Accordingly, images and meanings of nature were transformed in 17th-century Europe by figures such as Galileo, Boyle and Newton who were laymen in the study of theology and natural philosophy. Each of the transformations of “nature” was inextricably linked to theological discourse as new ways were found for accommodating both scientific enquiry and belief in divine Providence:

Galileo: nature subverted: With the heliocentric system of Copernicus and Galileo, the universe was enlarged, and humanity diminished?  Tempting but false conclusions about the loss of human significance – the mythology (and in retrospect the paradox), that humanity was actually elevated by the new astronomy.  The need for demythologising extends to Galileo’s trial, still iconic for conflict models of the relations between science and religion. This transformed nature is still a Creation, as in Kepler’s Trinitarian and harmonious universe. With Galileo nature is also atomised, with dangerous connotations and possible implications for the Eucharist?  The book of God’s works is written in a different language (mathematics) from the book of God’s words, but one of the uses of science is to illuminate the meaning of Scripture.

Boyle: Nature still so much a Creation for Boyle that we have nature eliminated, or at least an attempt to eliminate the word.  Nature mechanized in a way that made science possible without sabotaging Creation. Strasbourg clock analogy mediating between experimental science & theology.  (Nature de-deified, Hooykaas). The rules followed by nature are determined by Providence, not by chance. The scientist as priest in the temple of nature. Final causes not to be excluded from the study of nature (pace Descartes); and a natural theology is revitalised (pace Hobbes).

Newton: Nature unified, Nature legalised, Nature mathematized.  Newton’s rich theology of nature, his invisible realm. Fusion of theology and science, as in Newton’s conception of absolute space. Unity, universal laws and divine omnipresence. Controversy with Leibniz and Nature as defective? This controversy shows how theology via philosophy still played a role in shaping acceptable science. Newton’s God according to Leibniz is a second-rate clockmaker. Lecture 1 can end with ref. to the myth of a separation of science from theology as a consequence of the scientific revolution. In natural history, the wisdom of God was still manifest in the works of Creation (John Ray); in Newton’s natural philosophy, the brilliance of a divine mathematician was demonstrable.  Nature was still a creation and a book to be read by the scientist.

Lecture 2: Nature as Historical Process

From nature as designed to nature historicised to nature naturalised, with special ref. to Paley, Darwin and T. H. Huxley.

Paley: nature designed, the theme of unity of nature and natural theology links Paley to Newton as discussed at end of lecture 1. How Paley went beyond caricatures of Paley : eg Paley in Darwin’s earliest models for evolution – as a way of preserving adaptation – and via his two Beings creating space for what Darwin filled with natural selection. Yet in Paley, nature was theologically overburdened and still essentially static.

Two views of nature historicised: Hugh Miller and Charles Darwin. In Miller, nature has a history but is still a work of (progressive) creation. In the young Darwin Paley’s natural theology is not yet extinguished, as evolution is nature’s way of preserving adaptation. But in Darwin’s mature theory, nature becomes usurper of at least one role of the Creator (in the origination of species). With Darwin Nature is also personified and indicted (for its horribly cruel and wasteful works). The possibilities for theodicy and for Nature as art (Tyrrell). Darwin’s dog and the origins of religion (Pleins etc.).  Nature as redefined by Darwin still leaves space for theology, with its reference to ordained laws (R. Richards). The absurdity for Darwin of suggesting that a man cannot be both evolutionist and theist.

Huxley: nature naturalised, as with Tyndall too (a process not complete with Darwin).  Another paradox: the concept of laws of nature, embedded in theism, becomes a primary vehicle, a Trojan horse, for naturalism. Theology’s role as critic: the myth of naturalism’s triumph (Lightman). Even Huxley himself complains that the “much vaunted antagonism between science and religion” is a fabrication.  Examples of theological critiques; eg  HenrySidgwick and Alfred Russel Wallace.  This lecture could end with the caricature involved in presenting naturalistic explanation as incompatible with and excluding theistic interpretation, given the historic range of models for their complementarity.(See Ron Numbers in When Science and Christianity Meet on naturalism as an offspring of Christianity).  How the modern opposition between nature and supernature, such that the latter is swallowed by the former, is more a product of than a cause of secularisation. Nature as all that is?

Lecture 3: Nature Recreated?

In this final lecture, I shall return to the paradox indicated at the outset – that in the reduction of humans to their DNA and their brains, there is a relegation, an objectification, of humankind, even as the scientific endeavour to understand, control and transform nature demonstrates an elevation of human powers that frequently elicits critical, certainly cautionary, references to the scientists “playing God”.  From Francis Bacon to the present, the applied sciences have been seen as a way of improving the human lot, even of improving nature. In the contemporary context of synthetic biology, the presumption to create novel forms of life arguably carries this to a new extreme in which Bacon’s vision of “effecting all things possible” extends the range of the possible into uncharted territory. This simultaneous diminution and elevation of humankind has a certain resonance with the Psalmist’s cry of astonishment that his God could take an interest in so insignificant a creature as man, and yet endow him with a significance only a little lower than the angels. During the preceding two lectures, we will have encountered the different gods of scientists who have theologised about nature. Have the scientists of our own day replaced those former gods with themselves?

I shall begin by identifying various respects in which, through the scientific innovations of the 20th and 21st centuries our relationship to what we still call nature has become more intimate. We insinuate our objectives into nature much as the gods of former ages were supposed to actively influence the course of events.  The evolutionary naturalism of the late-19th century makes it impossible to detach ourselves since there is at least a basic level on which we are nature’s products. One benign aspect of this intimacy is our propensity to find nature intelligible and beautiful, as Einstein did – the beauty discernible at both phenomenological and theoretical levels, even appropriated as a criterion in theory evaluation.  The “first question” Einstein said that he asked of any scientific theory was whether, had he been God, he would have made the world that way. The mystery of nature’s comprehensibility was one of the bases of Einstein’s “cosmic religion”, which, for all its denial of a personal God, spoke of a complementarity between science and religion, which he placed in opposition to atheism.

Taking up the theme of complementarity (perhaps with a brief ref. to quantum physics), I shall then consider two different respects in which theology might contribute to the discussion of biotechnology and its ambitions.  One, very different from an oppositional stance, has been to articulate theologies of nature that accommodate transformative technologies by stressing the incompleteness of creation and by presenting scientific research and its ameliorative applications as a form of collaboration between man and his Maker. (Teilhard de Chardin as an exemplar).  The other has been to support cautionary principles by pointing to the need for wisdom when the drive to effect all things possible is either unrestrained or tendentiously justified by an irresistible promise of unprecedented medical outcomes. There are sensitive scientists aware of the need for a theology of science that places the quest for wisdom above, or at least alongside, the bare quest for technological innovation (McLeish). And there is no shortage of commentators who would echo the fears of the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who declares that “we are on the way to transforming ourselves into gods” and “we don’t know what we want.” [in A Brief History of Humankind (Harvill Secker, 2014). I shall conclude with reflections on this “playing God” motif, which for all the flippancy with which it has been expressed constitutes a literary trope deserving analysis [Sven Wagner, The Scientist as God, Heidelberg 2012].


Lectures from the Faith and Cosmology conference

Now available – the four excellent lectures from our Faith and Cosmology conference (15th November 2014) on YouTube.


Fr Andrew Pinsent – ‘Cosmology and Being’ 

Prof Bernard Carr – ‘Cosmos and creation’

Dr Peter Bussey – ‘Cosmology, how physics and theology meet’

Jamie Boulding – ‘The multiverse and participatory metaphysics’

Christians in Science (CiS) student conference

The CiS student conference will take place at the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity on 21 February 2015, with the title ‘Big Questions, Big Picture’. Submissions for short papers are invited, and there’s an early bird registration fee of £5 before 23 January. For more details, go to

Science and Religion: The Assumptions We Bring to the Table

This past weekend, I was on a hike in the Highlands with a group that included several people from the Science and Religion program here at the University of Edinburgh. Topics of conversation ranged from the philosophical status of zombies to the educational standards of UK primary schools, but eventually the conversation turned to the reactions we get when explaining to people that we work in the field of Science and Religion. Admittedly, the University of Edinburgh is one of a select few academic institutions with a specific Science and Religion postgraduate program, but I am always a bit surprised at the responses I get when telling people what I’m studying. A great many individuals respond with something along the lines of, “Science and Religion? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” Others politely offer a “Hmmm, how interesting,” while some excitedly assume that we’re spending our time defending young-earth Creationism.

Fair enough. Popular culture and media representations have a long history of portraying theology and “hard science” as being at odds with one another. A superficial gloss of Galileo’s conflict with the Church, or well-publicized tirades against the evils of evolution are often the first images to come to mind when the words “science” and “religion” are uttered in the same sentence. Obviously, most people actually working in this field do not assume a necessarily mutually exclusive relationship between the natural, empirical processes of the observable world and some sort of religious reality; if we did, we’d likely find better uses of our time! Much has been written about the exact relationship between science and religion, but what I found particularly striking this past weekend was the profound role that our assumptions play in these discussions. More interesting than the actual content of people’s reactions to Science and Religion as a legitimate field of research and discussion is the way that most of us experience our reactions as self-evident – myself included! For example, when we assume that science and religion are inherently at odds with one another, we are likely operating with an understanding that science deals with “cold, hard facts” and religion deals with untestable spiritual realities. What is even more interesting is that both atheists and those who believe in God often hold the very same assumptions. A theist might be assuming that although science deals with the observable world and religion handles theological realities, they are both part of the same reality, while the atheist might assume that what is not scientifically testable cannot be truly “real.” They both assume that science and religion are incompatible with each other, but for different reasons.

Without getting into a discussion of the various typologies delineating approaches to the relationship between science and religion (Ian Barbour’s work being an obvious example), the salient point is that we all come to the Science and Religion table with assumptions about reality, the boundaries of science, and the interaction between God and natural laws. Rather than immediately jumping into a heated debate about the latest provocative television sound bite, what if we started asking altogether different questions? Any impasse in public discussions regarding science and religion will likely be overcome only by first 1) recognizing that we all have assumptions about reality, science, and religion in the first place, and 2) questioning our reasons for holding those assumptions. It certainly can’t hurt, and might start an entirely new conversation about the “big questions” of life, meaning, and reality – questions that are not only of public interest, but personally relevant and compelling as well. And if nothing else, walks in the Highlands become much more interesting.