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Better angles to see from

07 October 2016

Richard Harries on a refreshing approach to the science debate

The Penultimate Curiosity: How science swims in the slipstream of ultimate questions
Roger Wagner and Andrew Briggs
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50



THIS is an exceptionally ambitious and wide-ranging book, which approaches the rather stale debate of science and religion with a fresh historical perspective. Beginning with the first cave and rock art some 40,000 years ago, it suggests that ultimate questions about life were entangled from the first with penultimate ones about the way things are.

Developing this thesis in relation to philosophical debates in ancient Greece and Late Antiquity, it argues further that penultimate questions can best be seen and understood in the slipstream of those ultimate questions, so that how we describe the world is affected for good and ill by the truth or falsity of a wider world-view.

From that point of view, neither Plato nor Aristotle got it quite right, and the hero that emerges is John Philoponus, a sixth-century Christian philosopher from Alexandria, who criticised Aristotle’s view that the world is eternal, and who defended scientific hypotheses. He also suggested that instead of angels’ pulling and pushing the sun, moon, and stars, God might have given these bodies a certain kinetic force in the same way as light and heavy things were given their trend to move.

The story then continues with the Muslim scholars Avicenna and Averroes, until Oxford and Cambridge are established in the 12th century to give ancient learning a new start. The authors then describe the great scientific advances of Europe, through to the discovery of the quantum world of our own time. In this story, as the authors tell it, there are some unfamiliar angles and influences.

What emerges from this history is, on the one hand, the importance from the point of view of good science of seeing God as the transcendent creator of the universe, not one factor among others within it. Science depends both on seeing connections between different phenomena in the world and the unfettered ability to test them out by truthful observation of what actually happens.

On the other hand, the vast majority of scientists who are discussed here did believe in a universe: that is, a world that finds its ultimate unity in God, and which is reflected in the elegance and beauty of the maths with which we explore and describe it. So it is that the new Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge has the words over its entrance “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.”

The book also contains a long excursus on 19th-century attempts to translate the ancient cuneiform tablets of Mesopotamia which revealed widespread knowledge of the flood story. The point that the authors draw from this is that we should not use such accounts to prove or disprove what the Bible says, but note the very different theology that the biblical account brings to bear on such shared stories. In short, science, including archaeology, must be allowed to do its own proper work.

Of the authors, Roger Wagner is best known as an artist, but is also a poet and translator, while Andrew Briggs holds the first chair in Nanomaterials at Oxford. Their collaboration, drawing on a wide range of specialist expertise from other scholars, has resulted in a book that is readable and decently printed on good paper, and has nearly 200 attractive illustrations. Readers with some interest in science will find this book particularly interesting.


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