It Keeps Me Seeking, by Andrew Briggs, Hans Halvorson, and Andrew Steane

by
11 January 2019

John Saxbee considers the arguments set forth by three thinkers

WE HAVE Richard Dawkins to thank for some of the most stimulating contemporary contributions to assessing the relationship between science and religion. Before The God Delusion, the field was rather limited, but Dawkins’s shameless propaganda has stimulated others, and here we have a fine example of the case in point.

Andrew Briggs holds the Chair in Nanomaterials in the University of Oxford, where Andrew Steane is a Professor of Physics. Hans Halvorson is a philosophy professor at Princeton. Between them, these three demonstrate an enormous breadth of knowledge and expertise which, as science, they credit with intellectual integrity, but which they believe can (must?) always profit from projection on to a religious canvas of ultimate meaning and purpose.

The authors are sometimes in conversation with one another, reproduced verbatim. Alternatively, each contributes according to his particular expertise, or to recount personal experiences. This could cause confusion, but in fact the overall effect is of a corporate effort, and the whole is very much greater than the sum of the parts.

It is likely that theologians will benefit most from the science-focused chapters, and scientists from the theological reflections, while everyone will appreciate the constructive synergy between them.

For example, quantum physics is explained with estimable clarity, and results in welcome reassurance that God-talk, soul-talk, and metaphysical discourse remain valid and intellectually coherent. Here a god-of-the-gaps threatens to fill the explanatory space created by quantum-level uncertainty, but the authors are careful to counsel against scientific uncertainties’ being too readily translated into religious dogma. Rather, they make the case that scientific reductionism cannot claim bragging rights in relation to religious conviction.

Key to the project is the uncontentious assertion that the question of God’s existence is in a category different from questions addressed by scientific inquiry. Rather more contentious is the claim that “belief in God is . . . fundamental to the practice of science”. Science operates with certain presuppositions about the intelligibility of nature, and this is effectively to presuppose that it proceeds “as if nature were the result of an intelligent act”. Hume’s scepticism has been turned on its head by Kant’s defence of induction, so that persistent experience of intelligibility vindicates belief in an originating intelligence, and enables us to do science.

Note that this is not a reformulation of the argument from design, or for Intelligent Design. In fact, the longest chapter concentrates on challenging such arguments as logically unpersuasive. If some evolutionary scientists have embraced Darwin as the high priest of atheism, others have appealed to “irreducible complexity” as the knock-down case for theism, and these authors are determined in their rejection of both parties.

An important chapter focuses on apparently pointless suffering in the natural world. While admitting to not knowing the answer, the authors want to counter pathological negativity in favour of more positive values evident in judgements made in the face of such suffering, and belief that it will not have the last word. In any event, they are adamant that “the only honourable response to the pain of others is not to exploit it for one’s own ends [i.e. either for or against theism] but to share it and to seek to overcome it.”

Two chapters are devoted to belief in miracles, and the priorities of philosophical theology and philosophy of science are carefully expounded and evaluated. They conclude that “such events are not a breakdown of a given law, but a breaking in of a higher law.”

A chapter headed “Learning from the Bible” is far too brief to add much to the overall argument beyond the completely incontrovertible advice “to try to discern what type of literature we are dealing with”.

In an autobiographical interlude, Halvorson describes how, as a Christian, he came to focus on the philosophy of physics. He testifies to the influence of Alvin Plantinga. This is significant, because the fingerprints of Reformed epistemology are all over the book, and this best describes its theological provenance.

This book is remarkably good value at the price. As the subtitle suggests, it is an invitation from three professors of science and philosophy to engage gracefully with often hotly contested issues, and will indeed encourage any open-minded reader to keep on seeking after God.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

It Keeps Me Seeking: The invitation from science, philosophy and religion
Andrew Briggs, Hans Halvorson and Andrew Steane
OUP £19.99
(978-0-19-880828-2)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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