by John MacDonald Smith
from Signs of the Times No. 25 - Apr 2007
[See also John Quenby: Science and religion - avoiding the conflict, in Signs of the Times No. 26 - July 2007]

I do not think Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006) fully understands what he is really doing when he does the science which he teaches with such elegance.

For this reason it is worth going more deeply into the underlying nature of scientific activity than is allowed simply by noting that a good theory has strong experimental justification and is elegant. Start with this idea: while there is no logical reason why there may not be uncaused events, suppose that every event does have a cause and that if you understand the cause you can explain the event. That is the foundational idea at the basis of science, and it is a fundamental apprehension about the nature of the universe we inhabit. We have a bad feeling about the idea of uncaused events.

To say that every event has a cause is to say that at all times and in all places things will interact, in the same way, according to their natures. This is a large claim and a lot of people do not realise what it involves, because they take it for granted and do not think it through. It means that we expect the very small number of occurrences of a given phenomenon which we have observed in our small corner of the universe to be typical of all the occurrences of that phenomenon throughout time and space.


Now of course we have no right to assume this, and you only have to look at what I have just written to see that when Hume pointed this out two centuries ago he was right. To be quite sure, you would have to examine every occurrence of the phenomenon, and that is plainly impossible.

Is that the end for science? Clearly not. But it implies a new beginning for an understanding of what science really is. Karl Popper offered a way forward here with the idea that, far from wanting ideas verified, progress in science depends on their falsification in order to make way for better ones. Verifiability is clearly a necessary attribute of doctrines within the contemporary paradigm, but, according to Popper, ground-breaking new theories arise because somebody thinks hard enough about the science he already knows to be inspired (the word is deliberate) by a better way of understanding it. Old assumptions are questioned and the way is opened to carry out new experiments to test the implications of the new theory. Science is looking for empirically falsifiable statements about physical reality to fit into a developing understanding about the way causality operates in the universe. That is a never-ending process and the last word will never be said.

If Hume and Popper are right, universal causality cannot be assumed. It is not an absolute truth, though it is taken for granted in science and often treated as it were a 'given'. It is an apprehension, almost a 'what if' a posit. Causality is therefore a universal, falsifiable, cosmological theory, which so far has had very strong empirical support and may indeed, almost, be taken for granted. Therefore, what scientists are doing when less adequate theories are transformed by falsification into more inclusive ones is to explore the nature of the causality which they have apprehended as operating at all levels in the cosmos. That understanding has changed greatly, from Newton to Einstein and from classical mechanics to particle physics.

Thus no scientist has any business using phrases like 'accident' or 'chance' of an event unless he is careful to explain that there is a conceptual framework within which the 'chance-ness' can be understood. This can be done in quantum mechanics but our understanding of causality is altered. Dawkins provides an understanding of genetics within which the 'chance' arrival of you and me in the world can be made sense of, but other scientists have not been so careful. Professor Atkins of Oxford has said that the Big Bang origin of the cosmos is a matter of 'pure chance'. It would be better if he said he does not yet know, for the next task is to offer a conceptual framework within which the 'chance-ness' of the Big Bang makes sense as science. This is what it means to explore the nature of physical causality.

In his genetically-justified attack on theology, it looks as if Dawkins has done something very like this: he has moved out of science into another area entirely. On Popper's analysis, falsifiability is a criterion of demarcation and not of meaning or truth: philosophy and theology are true knowledge, free to carry out their activities according to their own methods of procedure. Dawkins does not appear fully to understand the terms of reference of his own discipline; he may properly be invited to get back to it, because the last word has not yet been said there. We shall return to this, because some theologians are at fault in a similar way.

Creative purposiveness

There is a parallel apprehension to that of physical causality and it is the apprehension of that which is not a thing among things, or a fact about the universe. In the Christian tradition it is often referred to as metaphysical causality, which is apprehended as the creative purposiveness of God. A great doctrinal, speculative framework has been built up round the apprehension of the presence of God in the world. But the many writings and ideas which have been part of this exploration over the centuries are all dependent upon and are the consequences of key, privileged, foundational documents: the Bible, the Old Testament, the Q'ran and so on.

An overriding conviction of a sense of purposiveness in things has been intuited from key events which, while arguable as historical have been regarded as historic or significant for an understanding of the present. Interpreting the present in the light of privileged documentary interpretations of the historic keeps the promise of future hope alive and gives meaning to the apprehension of creative purposiveness. Metaphors of Exodus, Incarnation, Resurrection, Promised Land and Return occur in the Christian scriptures; techniques like Midrash and typology have been developed as aids to interpretation, while notions like anamnesis and shaliach express a transcendence of time and space so as to bring historic events into the present. Through the foundational documents interpreted within the tradition, religion becomes public knowledge.

There are two separate apprehensions: physical causality is about the universe; metaphysical causality is about God. To confuse them is to get your science or your theology wrong.

Verbum visibilium (word made visible)

Some theology has forgotten this warning. It has been rather slapdash in trying to take advantage of what seemed like gaps in the scientific account, to insert God into what turned out to be a lack of scientific, rather than a gain in theological understanding.

One glaring occasion of this sin concerns the Big Bang, seized upon by some theologians as (at last!) the moment of divine creation. Well, they tried it when the question of fossil-dating arose; and they tried it over Darwinism. Will they never learn! The Big Bang could be seen as an analogy for divine creation but that is not the same thing.

Another opportunity to get theology wrong concerns the fundamental constants of nature. If these varied only slightly from their present values (assuming these to have remained unchanged) the evolution of sentient life would have been impossible. Some theologians think that this is evidence of purposiveness. It is actually nothing of the sort; it is evidence of what can happen when the constants of nature have the values they have. This fact does not prove that we are meant to be here, though it can be seen as verbum visibilium of creative divine purpose; but analogy is not identity.

Theology will offer to Christian faith analogies and reflection drawn from nature which will be helpful, the exploration of purposiveness. Again, Dawkins' enthusiasm for the beauty of the world and his awe at the wonder of nature is a reminder of Wordsworth's nature-mysticism. This was built on by the Anglican tradition - which already accepted the truth of Christianity - into a renewed understanding of incarnation. Dawkins' wonder at the glories of nature is a very appropriate verbum visibilium of the Christian wonder at the presence of God.

If the world of the mind was a self-contained, independent observer of reality then it might be possible to formulate mental statements in one-to-one correspondence with facts and thus attain to absolute truth. This was done - to a first approximation - as seventeenth century scientists and theologians created a mechanistic cosmos and a detailed propositional theology. But things weren't that simple and we have been forced to move on: closer examination of causality demands radical revision of the way we understand the world, along with recognition and trust in our own fallibility and the fact that we are part of the cosmos we seek to understand. To trust our proneness to error means in science a continuous willingness to allow the empirical to correct the a priori, and in theology a readiness to allow experience to broaden our understanding of the way the foundation documents interpret to us the apprehension of creative purpose and future hope.

As Cardinal Gasquet once remarked to Pope Pius X1, we are none of us infallible; paradoxically, our proneness to error is our best hope of reaching truth. Dawkins might think about this.

John MacDonald Smith was a retired Anglican priest. He died in November 2011.