by John Quenby
from Signs of the Times No. 26 - Jul 2007

1 - Different Languages

The Rev. John MacDonald Smith [Signs of the Times, April 2007] gives scientists like myself who aspire to venture comments on philosophical and theological topics a salutary warning about mixing up our languages. Richard Dawkins is criticised for moving from science, which is about explaining events in terms of theories which may be falsified, to an attack on metaphysical causality, which is about God's purposiveness in creation.

Stated in these terms, there is surely no conflict between the disciplines. Science assumes basic laws of physics which are either true of all space and time or at the most vary in ways which will eventually be observable and predictable. Higher level languages of chemistry, biophysics, biochemistry, biology and systems of complex organisms similarly remain predictable in space and time.

These higher level languages depend on the constancy of the basic physics underneath. Laws are either verified by data or the data suggests the need for improvement, giving rise by inductive reasoning to new understandings. There is no conflict with a metaphysical desciption of the universe - or universes - in theological terms as being created by God. To my knowledge, the best that cosmology can do about 'creation' is that universes emerge with a certain, not understood, probability into real time and space from a region where time is 'imaginary' and indistinguishable from space. Cosmology, or evolutionary genetics, does not 'explain' creation of the framework of 'space-time, matter, energy or the subsequent complexity observed in DNA, double helixes and biological evolution. A metaphysics which provides a theological description of a creator God with the attribute of self-emptying love for the universes which arise in general and the complex systems we call humans in particular seems a valid, complementary form of knowledge.

2 - The Miracle Problem

The problem of religion for the scientist is of course situations where a theological description of events involves accounts of nature where the languages of the sciences are assumed to hold universally but the theological account implies that they are suspended by God. Nature miracles, miraculous healings, resurrections and the modification of apparently predictable events by prayer fall into this category. It has been suggested that Hume offers a way forward because scientists can only check the constancy of the laws of Physics in a very tiny sample of space and time. Does this mean the that the scientist must always be prepared for a 'nature miracle' around the next corner? It is the very essence of the pursuit of science that the scientist persists to find a causal explanation of observations in terms of known or new laws which are universally true. Papers are not accepted in peer-reviewed journals which end with statements 'this was a nature miracle'. Hence the basic presupposition behind the pursuit of science, the 'philosophical basis', is contary to a theology which allows 'nature miracles'. It is of course true that many practising scientists believe in 'nature miracles', at least happening in the past. But implicitly, they discount the posibility in any experiment they make. In fact, most people believe implicitly in the constancy of the laws of physics in every action they perform in everyday life. Think of one's reliance on the laws of physics when needing to brake to avoid a car crash.

I am, of course, simply restating a problem which was highlighted in the Edwardian era as atomic and nuclear physics emerged, along with an appreciation of biological evolution to revolutionise our world view.

3 - 'Process' And Other Ways Forward

Fortunately for those who find the conflict between some scientific and theological presuppositions worrying, there are theological or philosophical resolutions of the problem without aban doning science. Does the New Testament demand a belief in the physical resurrection on the third day? Not according to the detailed analysis by Leslie Houlden (Theology, May/June,1966) of all the relevant books. For Paul, 'resurrection' is a metaphor for a new allegiance to a world with Jesus as centre. The evangelists were chiefly concerned with the preaching of Jesus, his mission, reception in the breaking of bread and being moved by His example. Their concerns, as writers, quickly moved away from 'The Resurrection' to other things.

Even when we concentrate on the New Testament writing on 'The Resurrection', the nature of the vision can be debated. Christopher Knight (Theology, March/April, 2007) explains Rahner's categorisation of visions into the corporeal, the imaginative and the purely spiritual. A psychic mechanism could be started simultaneously in a number of people. Rahner's work suggests that a multiple, imaginative experience could provide an authentic vision of the Resurrection without the suspension of the laws of physics.

How then can God act in a causal way in human life? One approach is outlined be John Bowker (Theology, March/April, 2004). He advocates a downward causation as an important constraint in the explanation of events. An example is the little brown bat living now exclusively in the USA. Climate change by 2080 predicts its habitat will then be entirely in Canada. The higher level of climatic constraint will affect the lower level of detailed biological behaviour. A religious system offering hope for those who offer their lives in faith allows spiritual information to enter human lives both from the past and the future, because expectation of what is to come determines present action.

Process philosophy (eg. Cobb and Griffin, Process Theology, 1976), developed by Whitehead, agrees in emphasising organisms as important in determining the direction of evolution. The interconnection of many antecedent events in an ecological system makes possible a further complex event. However the process idea is taken to apply from the microscopic level all the way up to human behaviour. It states that every event is an outcome of three factors: past causes, God's influence and the emerging entity's own action towards the future.

So a Godward tendency is built into a continuing creativity, as opposed to a God who changes 'natural events' at specific times. Stimulus to further develop Whitehead's ideas could be the best outcome of the 'Dawkins debate'.


John Quenby is a Professor of Physics at Imperial College, London, specialising in astrophysics.