By James L. Amos (National Geographic Society), via Wikimedia Commons
Did you explore science and religion when as a child? Lizzie Coyle encourages just that with her travelling bag of fossils. Lizzie is an evolutionary biologist and the youth and schools outreach officer for the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. She is the Institute’s go-to girl for all things fossilized.
At her blog Science and Belief, Dr, Ruth Bancewicz reports on the Faraday Summer Lecture on Human Origins with Mark Harris, Senior Lecturer in Science and Religion at Edinburgh University. He started by showing a picture of his two favourite workplaces. At the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire he focused in on nature in its finest details, and at the Edinburgh Divinity School he’s now involved in looking up to the heavens and asking very broad questions. Harris spoke about the relationship between science and religion, asking whether there is a clash of worldviews between the two.
Science may have changed the way we read the opening chapters of Genesis, but we still need to respect the historical integrity of the text. This was Mark Harris’s reflection as he opened his lecture on The Bible and Human Origins at the Faraday summer course last month. When it comes to questions of human identity and where we came from, the focus for most Christians is on the first three chapters of Genesis. Harris spent his talk looking at different interpretations of this text – especially the story of the fall – and the questions those interpretations raise for both science and faith.
Harris started out by saying that both science and religion are almost impossible to define in general terms. Dictionary definitions of religion never seem to capture the experiences of ‘the other’, of community, or dealing with the hard facts of life that are so important for him in Christianity. Definitions of science are also slippery because there are so many different methodologies to include that it becomes difficult to summarise them in a meaningful way. This is reflected in his own view of science and faith, which he gave at the end of the lecture.
The most common models for the relationship between science and religion are conflict, independence, dialogue and integration. These were the four categories used by Ian Barbour, who was one of the founders of the field of science and religion. Conflict tends to be promoted by those who shout the loudest – the people whose agenda is to diminish the importance of the other side – whether it is science against religion, or religion against science. Independence was promoted by the late palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who wanted a clear separation between science and religion. Is this what is being embraced by some Christians when they say that science and religion are different sides of reality, or ask different types of question? Perhaps not, but this is one place where we need to be careful about the words and definitions we use.
Dialogue suggests that science and religion can learn from each other, as they did in the past when an education in natural philosophy (as science was called back then) was a step on the way to a career in theology. We still assume that there are laws in nature and that the world can be understood in a logical way, even though the theological arguments behind those things have been forgotten. So can dialogue still happen, building on this heritage?
The idea of integration probably sounds wacky to most natural scientists, but there are other ways of viewing science and religion besides these four. Perhaps a more helpful way of seeing the two might be complexity, which is based on the work of the historian John Hedley Brooke. In his book, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, he pointed out that science and religion are “social activities involving different expressions of human concern, the same individuals often participating in both”.
One of Harris’s favourite models for relating science and religion is what he has calledprophetic conflict, based on the work of the philosopher Willem B. Drees. In Religion and Science in Context, Drees writes that the academic field of science and religion is a product of secularisation, and is driven by conflict – but conflict can sometimes be a good thing. He says that religion should have a ‘prophetic’ dimension, pointing to a better world and offering a critical perspective. If religion holds science to account in a healthy way, conflict is inevitable from time to time.
For Harris, science and religion cannot be neatly pigeonholed into a single model. Our views may change many times over the course of our lives (Darwin’s certainly did!), and different aspects of science and religion may also relate in different ways. He started his lecture by talking about worldview, or a personal philosophy of life. For him, the doctrine of creation makes sense of both science and religion. If the world had a beginning, if it was made from nothing, and if it relies on God for its continued existence, then all the sciences have the same starting point. So although our views about the relationship between science and religion may be constantly changing as we go through life, this may be a way of bringing them all together and making sense of them.
I have blogged a number of times on imagination, but what do working scientists think about this subject? Dr Jennifer Siggers is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London, where she works on medical applications of fluid dynamics. Having met her at a Christians in Scienceconference a couple of years before, I wanted to find out how imagination is relevant to her own life in the lab.
Imagination is highly valued in Western culture but not always recognised as an essential part of science. So Jennifer initially protested that she wasn’t sure she had anything to say about imagination, but eventually was able to speak with me at some length about how important it is in her work. Mental pictures, analogies and thought experiments are all important for a scientist. For a Christian, learning to use imagination can also enhance their faith, helping them to make sense of their experience both in and out of the lab.
She said that “science is very creative and you need to have good ideas … The more you can think out of the box, the better”. She gave an example of some modelling she and some of her PhD students had been doing on heart beat regulation.
Any individual has variations in their pulse rate over the course of a day. These differences might be caused by activity levels, emotions, or simply the action of breathing. There is also a daily cycle of changes in heart rate, with heart attacks being more common just before a person wakes up. A couple of students had been comparing heart rate data from healthy individuals and people who have heart disease, to see if there were any differences in their daily cycles. They thought up some hypothetical scenarios, and then tested those ideas on computer models to see if they could replicate the differences in heart rate and begin to understand where they might come from.
Most of the previous research had assumed the heart cycles are regular, but the students needed to come up with something better if they were to make any more progress. They realised that they could use an analysis method called ‘empirical mode decomposition’, that lets the signal choose its own frequency. Their guess proved to be a good one, and they found a 24-hour repeated cycle that looks like a signal from the CLOCK gene.
Sometimes what’s needed are ideas that are “a bit wacky”, and staring at a blank piece of paper is not always conducive to that sort of thinking. When I asked Jennifer what stimulated her imagination she said, “When I was doing my PhD I used to get these sorts of ideas in places like the shower. Now I tend to get them when I’m going to bed or I’m quite relaxed … having thought about the problem deeply and then stopping thinking about it, going home and doing something different, or even on the way home: that can be the time when inspiration strikes.”
For scientists like Jennifer, this process of hypothesising and testing – both in and out of the lab – leads them to God. She explained, “science makes much more sense if there is, at some deep level, a truth that we’re pursuing”.
Jennifer believes that mathematics has its origin in God. Through her work she is “discovering what he’s already put there, and it’s absolutely beautiful.” When she uses her imagination to tackle a problem in bioengineering, she expects to discover something. “The fact that I believe in a God makes me confident that there’s an answer to any scientific question we’re asking. Whether we’ll find it, I don’t know, but there is an answer.”
Could a Biblical understanding of our relationship with nature be the key to effective and purposeful conservation? As part of this current series of guest posts, Steph Bryant, coordinator of the God and the Big Bang project, writes about the relationship between human beings and the planet. She considers the damage we have done, and whether there is any place for hope as we explore ways to remedy the situation and better care for the world around us.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been enthralled by animals. This fascination has steadily grown into a love for scientific knowledge, which helps me to understand the natural world. It was of very little surprise to anyone who knew me that I found myself studying Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, specialising in zoology and focussing my final year studies on ecology and conservation science. For me, an appreciation of the natural world leads naturally to concern over its destruction and how we might remedy the situation. But how does that fit with being a person of faith? As a Christian, where do I see purpose in conservation science or ecology? Where do I see hope in a discipline often tinged with despair?
Conservation science is, for me, an act of seeking to obey God’s commands. Genesis 1says that God created man to ‘rule over’ creation. If, as Psalm 24 states, ‘the Earth is the Lord’s’, why would we allow our ‘rule’ to be characterised by irresponsible, destructive and exploitative practices? Surely, instead we should try to reflect God’s great and awesome love for all of creation through work that is characterised by love and responsibility.
A responsible rule would be one which benefits the natural world. But it is also an effective way to care for other humans: to seek to ‘love your neighbour’ (Matthew 22:34-40). As much as we pride ourselves on our technological advancements and the distance we have put between ourselves and our ‘caveman’ roots, we still depend almost entirely upon healthy, functioning ecosystems for our survival. We need wetlands to buffer our cities from storms and floods; animals, namely insects, to act as pollinators or pest control for many of our food crops; forests to protect areas from erosion and catastrophic landslides; healthy oceans to provide us with much of the fish we eat… The list is endless. It is particularly important for us to acknowledge this if we are to love and help not only the world around us but also the most vulnerable, struggling and impoverished of nations: people who often directly rely on these so-called ‘ecosystem services’ for their livelihoods.
One of the biggest obstacles to conservation is outlined by Andrew Balmford, a Professor of conservation biology at the University of Cambridge, in his excellent book Wild Hope[i]. He asserts that the recent rapid urbanisation of human society (over half of us now spend our time living and working in towns and cities, indoors, online or travelling by car or train) is contributing to an ever increasing disconnect between humans and creation. Where does the water in my tap come from? What watershed area do I live in? What are the bird species I am most likely to see at this time of year? What phase is the moon in? Most of our answers to questions like these would indicate that we have, indeed, lost a great deal of our awareness of the natural world. This is a problem: how can we effectively help a world that we do not currently understand?
So a key purpose for conservation scientists is to study the natural world, ‘the works of the Lord’ and to help others understand them – to grow, and encourage others to grow, in knowledge and understanding and therefore in appreciation and love for creation. Last year I spent 9 months living in Canada. I was working with A Rocha, an international Christian organisation which – inspired by God’s love – engages in scientific research, environmental education and community based conservation projects. It is a pleasure to see the way that projects like this can cultivate understanding and kindle a desire to care for God’s world, inspiring us to use our power, creativity and intellect for the good of all who share this remarkable and awe-inspiring planet.
What is it like to be a person of faith and a scientist? In a video interview the theologian and former biophysicist Alister McGrath commented that we need Christian scientists who are “prepared to enter into the public arena in debate, in comment, and in the writing of books showing how faith enriches their science.”
This blog has been one such attempt to show the positive effect of science on faith, and judging by the comments over the years, it has encouraged a number of people in that direction. On the 15th of this month, Monarch will publish my book God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith, which draws together these themes into a more coherent whole.
God in the Lab comes out of my enjoyment of science, my interest in hearing other scientists’ stories, and my desire to share the experience of working in a lab. It shows how creativity and imagination are vital to the practice of both science and Christianity. It looks at the ways in which beauty, wonder and awe can raise deeper questions about the world, and it gives six working scientists a voice in the science-faith arena.
When I interviewed Harvey McMahon, Ruth Hogg, Jennifer Siggers, Jeff Hardin, Rhoda Hawkins and Bob Sluka, I asked them about their work and beliefs, how the two fit together, and how science enhances their faith. Alongside these conversations, I explored the literature on each topic, in both science and theology. Thankfully, when I married the two sets of material together and showed it to the scientists, they were happy with my portrayal of their life and the way in which I had woven together their comments with my gleanings from the library.
My aim in this project – the blog and book, my talks and other activities over the last three and a half years – was to start some new discussions. I wanted to bring to the fore some areas of human experience that we can all identify with, whatever our religious or educational background. I wanted to show that Christianity is not just complementary to science, but it can also be enhanced by our exploration of the world.
When I started working for Christians in Science back in 2004, I was encouraged by something that Oliver Barclay, former General Secretary of the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship, wrote to one of our committee members after a request for help in dealing with certain science-faith issues. He suggested that one of the things we focus on is the wonder of the world that science reveals.
Regardless of our views on Genesis, or even the existence of a God, we can all identify with the sense of awe that hits us when we see something vast, beautiful or complex. The night sky, an ancient forest, microscopic organisms, or an equation – these all affect different people in different ways, but most of us will find something in nature or our exploration of it that is arresting and inspiring.
I deliberately finished God in the Lab with a chapter on awe because it leads most directly to questions of God for some, and worship for others. This is the part of the discussion on science and faith that often affects people most deeply. Some find a bleak world that we must find our way in, enjoying awe and wonder when we can. Others experience spirituality, and many encounter a personal God. My hope is that this book will start discussions that help us to hear each other, find points of common interest, and learn to appreciate the life of a scientist-believer.
What happens when two aspects of a person’s life seem miles apart? In this series of extracts from God in the Lab, Dr Ruth Hogg tells how she learned to reconcile her beliefs about God and her scientific work.
Ruth has always been interested in exploring the connection between science and faith. In Cambridge she was a founding member of the local Veritas Forum, running events to help students and faculty members to discuss – as the Veritas Forum website says – “life’s hardest questions and the modern relevance of Jesus Christ”.
While scientific evidence is important for some, many scientists actually find God outside of the lab: at home, at university, or later in life. Ruth is one of those who discovered God early on, though it was only as an adult that she realised faith and science can fit together.
Growing up in rural Northern Ireland, it was easy for Ruth to accept what she learned about God. “Faith was always part of the way my parents looked at life. Even at school, in my area where the majority of people still went to church, having God as part of your life was very common.” With this example, Ruth decided to become a Christian.
Later on, at high school and then university, Ruth came across people who didn’t believe in God. She heard arguments against Christianity that challenged her faith, but in a positive way. As she worked out answers to those questions and objections, her understanding grew. “Having made a commitment quite young, I did then gradually come to ‘own’ that decision more myself.”
One question remained, however. “I did have a very uneasy feeling about science and Christianity. It was like a Pandora’s Box that I was afraid to open, but I knew I had to.” This sense of uneasiness remained with Ruth until she spent time as a postdoc in Australia. “That was a time when my faith was probably tested the most, because I realised I was somewhere I could easily leave the whole thing behind if I wanted to. Various personal circumstances had also left me feeling a bit jaded about the goodness of God.”
Everything changed when Ruth joined a church in Melbourne. “I had the shock of being in a very evangelical Anglican congregation in Melbourne where I met a lot of people who were really passionate about their faith, yet science just wasn’t an issue for them.” Ruth was encouraged to read The Language of God by Francis Collins, the former Director of the Human Genome Project, who is also a Christian.
In this book Collins told of his personal journey from atheism to Christianity. The writing conveyed a fervent faith in Christ as well as a passion for science, which Ruth could identify with. It also included a helpful contrast between the three basic options for a Christian trying to make sense of the human origins issue, namely Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design and Theistic Evolution. Ruth had previously read the Intelligent Design literature and felt underwhelmed by its scientific rigor, but this was the first time she had encountered an argument for Theistic Evolution. She read more and more, and eventually became comfortable with the position.
“It was so revolutionary to see that I could happily combine my passion for science with a renewed passion for my faith. It was just a huge relief that I didn’t have to live in denial.” Now, as the leader of a lab, Ruth has more confidence to be open about her faith. She is also able to fully enjoy the “Wow moments, when things fall into place and it’s hard not to get a feeling that you’re somehow seeing into the mind of God.”
2% of biologists in the UK are female, with an average age of 37, and 47% are not from the UK. Not many labs keep a stock of funky pink lab coats, but the cartoon here is a reminder that the iconic picture of a Caucasian male (preferably with a mop of white fuzzy hair) is no longer representative of the average lab worker.
On the other hand, when sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and her collaborators surveyed the population of British biologists, they found that gender, age, rank and institution seem to have no effect on whether a person is likely to feel a sense of religious belonging.* Some of the preliminary findings of this survey were presented at the Faraday Institute’s Uses and Abuses of Biology workshop in September, and it’s worth reading the full paper, co-authored with Christopher Scheilte.
Ecklund’s earlier study on religion among scientists in the US showed that there are a significant number of scientists who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (see earlier blogs). In the UK this group does not seem to exist. Perhaps, suggested Ecklund, the Church of England is so widely accepted as a cultural institution that people do not feel the need to distance themselves from religion.**
When he came to Faraday in October 2012, Meric Srokosz brought Biblical scholar Dr Rebecca Watson on board, and together they have been looking at ‘the sea in Scripture’. Their aim is to study the Biblical material on the oceans in order to develop a theology of the sea, and think about how Christians should treat the ocean, the creatures living in it and the resources it contains.
One of the things Rebecca has looked at in this study is the great fear and vulnerability that the Old Testament writers felt in relation to the sea. Here were forces over which they had no control, and they relied on God to protect them. There was also a sense that trying to completely master the sea is an act of pride against God – that we are most at home on land, and can’t fully ‘own’ the sea.
More positively, there was a feeling of wonder and awe in some passages, and an appreciation that the great dangerous beasts in the sea could be a source of pride and enjoyment to God, even though they seemed to offer nothing useful to humankind. Job and the Psalms are great examples of this, with ‘Leviathan’ frolicking in the waves. Finally, some of the biblical writers saw the fish in the sea as a finite resource that needs protection.
Having lived in ships for months as a time, Meric can identify with the Biblical writers’ sense of vulnerability and awe. “You realise how big the world is and how puny human beings are… Scientifically we know a lot more, but it’s [still] beyond our control… When you’re stuck in a force eleven storm in a rather small research ship in the middle of the North Atlantic and there’s not much help around, you get an impression of the majesty of creation, the scariness of some of it, the force of the waves and the winds … and then you see a pod of pilot whales swimming around, and they appear to be enjoying themselves, body surfing down the front of breaking waves!”
When atoms and molecules come together, the new structures or systems they form can have unexpected properties. This principle is called emergence, and some have claimed that it shows there is more to the universe than material things. Last month at the Faraday Institute summer course, the German physicist Barbara Drossel explained why she thinks emergence is a real phenomena, and why it is so important in discussions about science and faith.
Science uses reductionism to study a system. If you break it down and do what you can to understand the parts, you should understand the behaviour of the whole a bit better. According to Drossel, the reverse is also true. As complex systems come together, new and beautiful properties emerge that are every bit as fundamental as the forces that hold together the atom.
When you put a collection of molecules together, they start to do things that they couldn’t do alone. For example air exerts pressure on the sides of a box; when a fluid is heated from below it forms convection cells; and if you mix certain chemicals together they react in a way that produces beautiful patterns.
The more different the parts that are added together, the more complex the resulting system. Biological organisms are the most complex systems that exist, because they consist of multiple systems made of very different parts, all interacting together.
A closed system like an insulated box of gas has no interaction with the outside world, but an open system – like the human brain, operates in an environment that both feeds into its behaviour and receives its output.
Studying these higher levels of organisation can bring new insights into the properties of matter. This happens, said Drossel, because it is often impossible to derive the behaviour of large collections of molecules from the microscopic physical theories. Scientific laws and theories are only approximately correct, and a system is always open to outside influences.
This principle of unpredictable properties is known as ‘weak emergence’, and is quite controversial in physics. The debate is hot and interesting, but it’s really only a debate about the description of matter. What happens if you throw in a bit of philosophy?
Strong emergence is the idea that the higher properties that emerge from complex systems are not just difficult to predict, but they are actually completely new properties. The lower levels of organisation are important, but the final outcome is not determined simply by the behaviour of atoms and molecules alone.
If strong emergence actually happens, that means complex systems are not simply determined by the interaction of their components. Higher-order principles such as symmetries might determine the important properties of these systems, and there might be ‘top-down’ influences at work, not just the ‘bottom-up’ forces exerted by the parts of the system. According to the physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, the unpredictabilities present in the microscopic world permit this openness to other causes.
So why might a scientist believe in strong emergence? Drossel gave several arguments in its favour. First, the parts have never existed without the whole. Since its inception, the universe has always had forces and symmetries, size and temperature, all of which affect the particles in it, so it’s almost impossible to speak of the properties of particles alone. Second, some of the details about the lower-level behaviour of atoms are not actually important in determining the behaviour of the whole system. There are issues with the predictability of forces and the movements of particles, but emergent properties are insensitive to these details.
The final piece of evidence for strong emergence is the fact that non-material things can have an influence over complex systems. Taking humans as an example, principles such as the rules of logic or moral values often affect our behaviour. If these principles are real (i.e. if they exist whether humans exist or not), then they cannot be determined by atoms and molecules. So the complex system that is a human being is not completely determined by the atoms and molecules of their body, or the physical properties of his or her environment.
Barbara was quick to point out that physics deals only with what happens within the physical matter of the universe. If God exists, he is an ultimate reality and exists outside of the world as well as within it. He could have created any kind of world he liked, so it’s impossible to argue for the existence of God from science. What we can say, however, is that there is good evidence from physics that we have freedom to act in the world.
What makes you laugh uncontrollably? Sick humour? Children saying funny things? Your own attempts to master a dance move? Some of the most memorable chuckles for me have been caused by typos in emails (either my own or other people’s) that resulted in somewhat inappropriate – but thankfully very obviously wrong – meanings.
A number of clinical studies have been carried out on humour and physical wellbeing, and like research on religion and health, the results of these studies vary widely. For religion, the overall trend is towards better health among people who have religious beliefs and practices, but the same is not true for humour. So while people who are sick tend to feel better when they laugh, their symptoms may not be affected.
There are of course many different types of humour, and they all have different effects. The appropriate sort of humour can be a coping mechanism to help in difficult situations. Bad jokes can break friendships, but laughing to build bonds among colleagues or friends is healthy – building self esteem and protecting against depression. Humour that keeps your friends laughing and you feeling good about yourself can be very healthy, but it can also be a way of ignoring problems. Some people manage to use self-deprecating humour in a positive way, but others are self-defeating.
In the past, humour was seen as a vice, possibly because it can often be subversive, but now it is generally seen as a character strength. Humour helps us to handle incongruous situations and make sense of things, recognise our own stupidity without condemning ourselves, or let off steam. Humour can, on the other hand, be used to devalue things or people, or exert superiority. Wit is generally thought to be the most clever sort of humour, but can also be the most damaging. For example, in Jane Austen’s novel Emma the heroine has to learn to control her wit and not hurt people with it.
Surprisingly (to me), laughter is more often mentioned negatively than positively in the Bible. Cynical humour is connected to ignoring, disbelieving or disobeying God. But does the fact that Jesus and others are not mentioned laughing mean they didn’t enjoy a joke? The Bible only records those events that were most important for the reader to learn from (so it doesn’t mention dinosaurs at all, and there are very few mentions of breakfast, toilets and shoes). My experiences of the Middle East have been full of smiles and laughter, and I expect the disciples’ gatherings were the same.
Humour involves a lack of inhibition, which can be a very good thing if our inhibitions are stopping us receiving from God. Prophets often have a subversive message, which can be particularly important at the renewal phase of religions. If humour helps us to disengage from unhelpful dogma and be open to a new realisation of what is most true and important, we should welcome that. Finally, absurdity can get a point home – and Jesus did use this sort of illustration in his teaching (e.g. The camel and the needle).
So we laugh because we realise things are true. We laugh in surprise when people challenge received wisdom. We laugh because the supposedly serious is made absurd. We laugh because if we didn’t we’d cry – when we are coping with adversity. And most important of all we laugh in delight, enjoying the present moment. I didn’t expect to laugh so much in a seminar, but it seems that humour is an important part of both faith and academia.