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Science and faith: a new dialogue

15 February 2013

The exchange of ideas is entering a fruitful phase, suggests Mark Vernon


HISTORICAL research suggests that, before the mid-19th century, the most innovative natural philosophers, as scientists were then known, were typically not just Christian by default, because "everyone was back then." Almost two-thirds of the key figures - people such as Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday - were exceptionally devout.

It was not until the 1870s that this changed. A need to professionalise grew, in part to do away with the image of the country parson who was busier netting butterflies than leading matins. The word "scientist" was coined, and it took on anti-clerical connotations. At about the same time, T. H. Huxley, the man also referred to as "Darwin's bulldog", wrote: "Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science."

It is an ideological fiction, although one that has subsequently powerfully affected reality. But the situation might now be changing. The taboo on religious ideas' shaping scientific investigations seems to be lifting.

WHAT I have in mind is not the broad-brush way in which, say, the grand narratives of contemporary cosmology are told in order to evoke a sense of wonder. A taste for the aesthetic, even the spiritual, is positively required to appreciate the meaning of watching Professor Brian Cox on top of a mountain, gazing into the vastness of space, accompanied by stirring music.

Neither am I thinking about the valiant efforts of theologians to reconcile the bleaker readings of evolution, as meaningless and bloody, with faith in a compassionate God.

Those activities will continue. But, alongside them, there is a growing sense in the community of scholars who work on science and religion that a new phase is emerging.

"The most exciting work in the future looks likely to be interdisciplinary," explains Michael Welker, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Heidelberg, and one of the principal players in the field.

Moreover, in place of considering general questions about how science and religion might relate to one another - whether they should be in conflict, or operate as "non-overlapping magisteria", each looking at the world in different ways - focusing on specific problems seems likely to bring experts in different fields into fruitful dialogue.

ONE example has been explored by the well-known scientist and theologian, Canon John Polkinghorne. It concerns the difficulty of accounting for the experience we have of being the same person yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

The challenge arises because, in strictly material terms, we are not the same collection of atoms over time. Our bodies are replaced, cell by cell, over remarkably short time-frames. And yet, for all the biological changes, life feels as if it is continuous. Everyone, from your mother to a sentencing judge, will treat you as the same person now as you were months or years ago. Being human seems to involve an odd mixture of continuity and discontinuity.

Theology comes in because continuity and discontinuity has been grappled with for centuries, in the effort to understand bodily resurrection. The discontinuity is the fact that we die. And yet the resurrection holds out the hope of continuity, too, in a new life as recognisably the same person.

Some of Aristotle's speculations about the nature of the human person, explored by Thomas Aquinas, too, might be of use here. He argued that the soul is the "form of the body". It is a kind of dynamic pattern or animating basis to which the biological flesh conforms.

Compare this with the understanding that is emerging in modern biology. "What links us together is not matter itself but the continuously developing, almost infinitely complex, 'information-bearing pattern' carried at any one time by the matter that then makes up my body," Canon Polkinghorne writes in Science and Religion in Quest of Truth (SPCK, 2011).

"I believe that it is this information-bearing pattern that is the human soul."

The ancient notion looks not unlike the modern one - hence the possibility of fruitful exchange.

IF A new mood of collaboration does unfold, many contemporary philosophical assumptions might dissolve, Professor Welker says. He is referring to issues such as the reductionist accounts of what it is to be human, as if we were gene-driven robots, for example; and also dualist accounts, as if humans were ethereal minds hovering within warm bodies.

Professor Welker believes that the anthropological asides of St Paul might prove particularly useful. The apostle did not have a systematic approach to the "big questions" that engage us today. But he does seem to have followed the Jewish intuition that a multi-dimensional conception of personhood is required if we are to speak fully about the diversity of human experience.

Hence he drew on a variety of notions, such as flesh, body, soul, and spirit. "With them, we are better able to speak of the rich though not chaotic texture of human personhood," Professor Welker proposes. "Contemporary anthropological research and biblical studies alike show reductionism and dualism to be far too simplistic."

In terms of the relationship between science and religion, this is a big change. No longer would theology be "catching up" with scientific innovation. Instead, when faced with focused questions such as what it is to be human, the two would be on a level playing-field.

Both could contribute to the conversation, and both would have to recognise the inherent limitations of their insights. Such epistemological modesty neutralises the fight over which discipline is the best arbiter of truth - and all in the interests of thorough and open-minded debate.

Mark Vernon is the author of Love: All that matters (Hodder Education), which is published this month.

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