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Science and Humanity: A humane philosophy of science and religion, by Andrew Steane

09 August 2019

Peter Forster assesses a scientist’s response to scientific atheism

IF, AS Tertullian maintained long ago, persecution tends to strengthen the Church, the new scientific atheism represented by Richard Dawkins can be seen in a similar light. Andrew Steane, Professor of Physics at Oxford, offers the latest creative riposte from within the scientific community.

The book covers a wide scientific and artistic canvas, but seeks to confront two basic errors. The first is that truth is dominated by a particular compartment of knowledge, that of physics and chemistry. Truth has many dimensions, and requires a full range of intellectual perspectives. The second is the view that logical, scientific analysis is the only route to the separation of truth from error.

Early chapters address this from within science itself, setting out various higher-level principles that constrain events at an atomic level. Symmetry in physics provides an example, as do the laws of thermodynamics. The universe is best understood as multi-layered, with both top-down and bottom-up causation.

In the case of evolution, random genetic mutations are constrained by what is possible in the natural world. Evolution is a process of exploration of patterns of possibility, natural, social, and psychological, which are given in our universe. Our genes are not so much “selfish” as “eager”. We are products of “what is or can be”, and our present state of knowledge, especially of the brain, is much more limited than we usually acknowledge.

The second part of the book consolidates these arguments philosophically, and sets out a vision of what is embraced by life in all its fullness. Human life, above all, is presented as a symphony that takes the precious and fragile, and ambiguous, aspects of life, and weaves them into a rich, if somewhat uncertain, tapestry.

The dialogue with the author’s Christian commitment is largely implicit. He refers to God as “that foundational reality whose nature is continually being more fully expressed as the universe develops”. There are echoes here of St Anselm’s approach to our understanding of God, but among modern theologians it is to Dietrich Bonhoeffer that Steane looks most for inspiration. His book could be read as a scientist’s reflection on what Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” might mean.

The danger, for this reviewer, is that of a subtle drift towards pantheism. There is little reflection here on the implications of the universe as created, by a personal Creator who acted and acts in complete divine freedom.

The book is very much a personal statement and exploration. It contains no reference to other distinguished scientists, such as Michael Polanyi, John Eccles, and John Polkinghorne, who have written in similar terms. At least some triangulation with such authors would have been helpful, but this is a stimulating and, at times, brilliant book.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

Science and Humanity: A humane philosophy of science and religion
Andrew Steane
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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