A “theology of science” debate with Tom McLeish

Last November I took part in a debate on science and theology at the invitation of the Keele University Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences. My fellow speaker (I don’t want to call him an “opponent”) was Professor Tom McLeish of Durham University, a leading soft-matter physicist.

Tom McLeish portrait

Professor McLeish is a Christian who has written a book, newly out in paperback, Faith and Wisdom in Science. To prepare for the debate I ordered a copy for the library. My first indication that this wasn’t a typical science book was that it got shelved with books on Biblical exegesis, and I thus found myself wandering to a region of the library where I’d never previously been!

Tom McLeish book Faith and Wisdom in Science

I liked the book, one can learn a lot about the nature of science from it. Tom McLeish emphasizes that science is a fundamentally human enterprise with deep roots in our history. Science is not just a modern phenomenon, newly sprung on the world with The Enlightenment, but is a continuation of age-old human attempts to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. It should not be seen as a separate, arcane and primarily theoretical subject (as it is often badly taught in schools), but as human exploration.

As Professor McLeish explains, science does not accept that anything is outside of its purview. And neither does theology. If the claims of the Abrahamic religions are true then theology must infuse every aspect of our existence. Thus the oft-stated and politically-correct claim that science and theology operate in different domains and answer different questions is deeply unsatisfying both to scientists and to theologians.

With a foot in both camps, Professor McLeish sees this clearly. He thus talks, not about theology and science, but about a theology of science. His book sets out that vision.

My role in the debate was to present the alternative way of reconciling two idea-systems that both claim to be all-encompassing — and that is to play the atheistic curmudgeon and simply reject and excise theology entirely.

My talk (I reproduce some of my slides here) emphasized that science has not always been atheistic, quite the contrary. In the early 1800s the cream of British scientists were religious, people who saw God as entwined with the natural world, and who thus saw “natural philosophy” (as science was then called) as pretty much akin to natural theology.

Slide12

Indeed, as explained by Sir John Herschel, they saw the natural world as being maintained by God, with every cause resulting “from his immediate will”:

John Herschel

“The Divine Author of the universe …

“… the constant exercise of his direct power in maintaining the system of nature.

“ … the ultimate emanation of every energy which material agents exert from his immediate will …” (John Herschel, 1830)

[I picked out John Herschel because he was the first Western astronomer to catalogue the skies of the Southern Hemisphere, founding the South African Astronomical Observatory. It is from there that, in my day job, I now seek to catalogue the planets that transit those Southern stars.]

But change was afoot. The succeeding generation started to reject any appeal to divine causation. Prominent in this movement was Thomas Henry “Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science” Huxley, who wrote:

T.H. Huxley

“But what is the history of astronomy . . . but a narration of the steps by which the human mind has been compelled, often sorely against its will, to recognise the operation of secondary causes in events where ignorance beheld an immediate intervention of a higher power?” (Huxley, The Darwinian Hypothesis, 1859)

Newton, in writing the Principia, had arrived at the conclusion that the orbits of planets in the Solar System would not be stable, and so appealed to ongoing divine intervention to maintain order. Laplace later improved the models, such that he had no need of any appeal to divine intervention. The well-known story of his retort to Napoleon is possibly apocryphal, but sums up well the new spirit of science. Models of the world had improved to the extent that nature gods became superfluous.

Slide15

Theologians often say that they deplore and reject a “god of the gaps” approach to theology — appealing to God whenever they spot something they think science can’t explain — but in reality this has always been the mainstay of theology.

As science advances, though, the gaps close. Such a theologian is then forced to one of two avenues. The first is to reject science and cling instead to the certainties of Biblical literalism. The other is to allow theology to lose its actual content, and to resort to an apophatic theology that doesn’t attempt to describe what God is, but only what he is not. Such a God resembles the Cheshire Cat, with only the grin remaining.

Slide16

I then contrasted the “top-down” explanations presented by theology with the “bottom-up” explanations arrived at by science. For example, two different conceptions of political power are:

Slide18

Similarly, when it comes to the things that are most important to us, we can again explain them by the top-down account of theology:

Slide19

Or we can look for a bottom-up account, an account that actually explains their origin, rather than simply starting off with what we’re trying to explain:

Slide20

The central theme of Professor McLeish’s book is an analysis of the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament, and in particular the book of Job. Prompted by this, I went and read Job (for the first time, I admit, since I had stopped going to Sunday School about age 12).

Job is a reflection in poetic form on the “problem of evil”, and on how to reconcile the many bad and unjust happenings in the world with the existence of the Abrahamic God. The plot takes the form of Satan and God conspiring to devastate Job in order to see what happens to his faith. They destroy his wealth, they kill his family, and they destroy his health.

When God finally deigns to explain himself the explanation is only a series of questions:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.

Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?

Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?

God continues:

By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?

Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder;

To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man;

To satisfy the desolate and waste ground; and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth?

Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?

Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?

Is this an answer? Tom McLeish asks where else we might encounter questions in place of answers. And the answer to that is in teaching. We reply with more questions to prompt thought, such that the student thinks their way to the answer.

So we’re supposed to construct our own answer out of the questions in Job. And isn’t that exactly what science has done? We investigate the natural world and interpret it as best we can. And, as science has proceeded, we have found less and less need for gods to explain the world around us. Science has worked better and better as it has become increasingly atheistic.

Isn’t that the message of God’s non-answers to Job? That the problem of evil is resolved because nature is not benevolent, not loving and not just? Instead it is non-personal and non-moral. Aren’t the non-answers of Job 38 and 39 saying that there are no answers because there is no god to answer?

Slide23

I think I might end up by agreeing with Professor McLeish on the wisdom contained in the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament!

The video of the debate is on YouTube.

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3 thoughts on “A “theology of science” debate with Tom McLeish

  1. Liam Uber

    Cogent argument and enjoyable read!

    Since there will ‘always’ be gaps, there will ‘always’ be room for god – for the foreseeable future anyway. The Bible is a wonderful history of ideas, most of them now obsolete.

    Could we be entering a new enlightenment in which science will provide the light and theologians might thereby imagine the truth? The future that atheism imagines has been very uninspiring.

    Reply
  2. Philosopher Eric

    Isn’t that the message of God’s non-answers to Job? That the problem of evil is resolved because nature is not benevolent, not loving and not just? Instead it is non-personal and non-moral. Aren’t the non-answers of Job 38 and 39 saying that there are no answers because there is no god to answer?

    Coel, I find your conclusion here incredibly powerful. Not only might Job turn out to be quite prophetic (yes, in a contrary manner), but here you’ve also stated a point which I don’t believe the academy itself has yet come to terms with, or the non-morality of nature. I claim this given that academia does contain a moral form of ethics (where societies define good/bad — found under “philosophy”), as well as a theological form of ethics (where gods define good/bad — found under “theology”), but it has no form of ethics where nature itself defines good/bad existence. Surely without gods and without societies, existence can independently be good/bad for conscious subjects?

    Yes I do believe in social norms (unlike gods), and thus that philosophy’s moral approach to ethics might bear fruit one day. (If so, then I needn’t tell you that “objective good” should be dealt a tremendous blow!) Furthermore I most certainly accept your assertion above that nature itself remains non-moral. Thus I believe we must develop an ethics which goes beyond gods and social norms. Instead it should directly be based upon nature itself, or the realities of good/bad for any given subject. This form of ethics would presumably be studied under the heading of “science.”

    Coel, I very much hope that you consider our interests to be in alignment in this regard.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Theology of science | Episyllogism

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