Date: July 6, 2009
Title: Science and Religion
Podcaster: Gurbir Singh
Organization: AstroTalk UK http://astrotalkuk.org/ A not for profit amateur astronomy podcast by an amateur astronomer based in the UK.
Description: Gurbir Singh talks with Dr. Allan Chapman, who is not a scientist but better still, a historian of science and a practising Christian with a particular interest in the history of astronomy.
Bio: Gurbir Singh is neither a professional scientist nor a trained broadcaster but an enthusiastic amateur with a deep desire to understand. Former chairman of Salford Astronomical Society, he has been involved in amateur Astronomy for over 30 years. He is based just outside Manchester and works as an IT security specialists for a large IT company.
Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Clockwork.
Hello and welcome to today’s episode of 365 days of Astronomy. My name is Gurbir Singh. I am an amateur astronomer and host a not for profit astronomy podcast called astrotalkuk based in the UK. For more see www.astrotalkuk.org.
My primary attraction for astronomy has been its rational approach to answering the profoundest of all the questions – Where did life come from? How old is the Earth? What is the shape, size and nature of the universe? Today as throughout human history, the majority of the population of the planet is equally content with different answers to the same fundamental questions as revealed by religion. Many of those individuals are also practicing scientists.
So, how do men and women, scientifically disciplined and intellectually accomplished, reconcile this apparent contradiction of living a life aligned with a faith whilst accepting the veracity of the scientific method?
Today’s episode is a conversation I recorded with someone who is ideally placed to comment:
Dr Allan Chapman, who is not a scientist but better still, a historian of science and a practising Christian with a particular interest in the history of astronomy.
It should be a familiar voice. In the14th episode of 365 days of astronomy (January 14th 2009), Dr Allan Chapman explained that Thomas Harriot beat Galileo by about four months in making the first ever astronomical observation using a telescope.
During our conversation I asked him about how science may have owed its beginnings in medieval Europe to the church.
AC: One thing which I find remarkable, I think the Reformation has a part to play in this. Medieval Europe of course had an immensely rich scientific tradition. They talked about cosmological fastness, about infinity, the nature of time, even could there be other beings living on other worlds, working on the basic assumption that if god is infinitely powerful, he could have made pretty well what the heck he liked.
GS: Was the development of science impeded by the church at that time?
AC: I think there are two things, two points there. The first one is that the church itself was actually not suppressing science and was not itself threatened by it. What it was threatened with, undoubtedly, was the theology of northern Reformation Europe. Everywhere Luther and Calvin, that’s where its real threat was coming from. Scientific discovery was a mere inconsequential sideshow to what Martin Luther and what Calvin were coming up with.
GS: Science in many ways has answered where we came from: the Big Bang, the accumulation of biological material in the hot interior of stars, and how life got started here on Earth. That’s what faith was originally set up to do, answer those difficult questions. Because science does that now, do we need both science and faith?
AC: Science doesn’t do that. Science tells us the mechanism by which it happened. Faith tells us how it happened, why it happened, and the wider purpose of it. So the Big Bang might tell you that lets say 15 billion years ago something happened and the present universe came out of that. What it doesn’t tell you, first of all, is why that occurred. Why it occurred 15 billion years ago. What happened before the Big Bang? And why the matter coming out of the Big Bang formed such a spectacularly orderly system.
GS: And eventually, the development of science, could it provide an explanation for why we need faith?
AC: I don’t think so at all. I think we are dealing with chalk and cheese. I don’t mean that they are opposed, but we are dealing with fundamentally different ways of understanding things. I think even if we explained every single neuron and every function that goes on within the human brain, as we are doing increasingly with brain scans that still wouldn’t answer the big questions: Why do we want to know? Why are we afraid? Why are we delighted? Why do we want to make choices? It is true we may be able to say we can find the neuron that triggers every time we think of that, but that isn’t answering the big why-question. Why is it happening? I mean that is where the religious dimension lies.
GS: Could it be the other way round? Maybe religion, when we understand that bit better, will explain why we bother with science.
AC: But I don’t quite see how one could think of that, because religion itself is not a science. Religion is a thing you access through nonmeasurables, such as through prayer, through experience, through a whole variety of connections in that way. Religion’s never been capable of a QED.
GS: What describes best the physical world that we live in: science, or religion, or do we need both?
AC: We need them both. One tells us the bricks and mortar, the other tells us the architect’s plan. There’s the difference between the bricklayer and the architect. [both laugh]
GS: But in science, I think it was Carl Sagan who said “The only sacred truth in science is that there aren’t any sacred truths”. And isn’t that a way that we can investigate the world, unencumbered by any external misconceptions?
AC: I have no fear at all of scientific research. I think if it’s there, God made it. And we may have to perhaps change some of our previous theories, but if it’s there, God made it. ‘Cause what’s utterly central to me, is not only the creative power of god, in the production of everything, but the fact that God is also related intimately to man, and he is our saviour. And so we are unique in so far as we have this connection. And that is not a thing that I can see science ever disproving, because we are dealing with a different kind of experience.
GS: Visualise god. What do you see?
AC: I don’t see an old man with a white beard. It’s hard to say what we see. It’s a total, loving, caring presence. Out of time, very very much aware of the needs of mankind. And also the great designer.
GS: Who made God?
AC: No idea.
CS: Is it possible that the god has a designer himself?
AC: He may have, — he never told me [laughs]
GS: And as you, as the scientist in you, do you ever wonder if there was a designer for the designer?
AC: Hmm, could do. But the chief thing is, the scientist in me nonetheless tells me that some things are ultimately unknowable. That being profoundly pragmatic by nature I don’t tend to chase after things which I know are by definition chimaeras right from the word “go”. So god’s “father” — I would work under the assumption that he is not knowable.
GS: When you see round the world, in any time period, particularly now, there is just so much suffering. God’s in charge of that, isn’t he?
AC: Yes. And that’s why he sent Jesus to heal us. I’ve never seen the Christian faith as an insurance policy against adversity. The very nature of Christ as saviour who himself came to the earth, was crucified, suffered and died, and went on to Heaven ahead of us to show the way, that I see as a simple part of the faith.
GS: What about natural disasters: the tsunami years ago, earthquakes, that’s natural…
AC: I see the world in which we live far far far from a perfect one. I see it as essentially fallen.
GS: It’s a loving God…
GS: It’s a loving God…
AC: It’s a loving God that nonetheless has given us a way out, and that’s through Christ, and through making the world a better place in Christ, not by rejecting that greater love, and at the same time sinking into what I, I mean, not for disasters to occur, yes. One hopes, I hope this doesn’t sound facile, but I hope that people who did die in something like the tsunami are with god and have won that grace. But I fully accept these are horrendous things, and there is no simple answer and go nobody be claiming that (?).
GS: Isn’t inherently unfair for a newborn to come into this world, being in the red?
AC: Well it is, but the thing is we can try to get out of it. Like I say, I think this is where a religious life actually helps.
GS: But why should you when you are born be guilty of something already?
AC: I don’t know that, but it makes sense insofar that why do things go wrong so spectacularly? And it does seem to be that there is something happening there which somehow or other has a … (?) moral dimension.
GS: Everything we see can be explained in the absence of god. Whether he exists or not I can’t prove, as we have already established…
AC: One of the beauties (?) of science is that it contains its inner logic. There is no doubt about that. I fully accept that. And I won’t deny I can see where some of the atheists are coming from, or not atheists as such, people who are just not religious, are coming from, but to me, like I say, it is the difference between seeing the film in scratchy black and white and seeing it in glorious technicolour. Somehow when you add god to that knowledge, the picture is much richer and grander and more beautiful.
GS: Is the soul susceptible to examination by science?
AC: I don’t think it is, because I don’t see it as a material thing. Science is fundamentally about weighing and measuring nature with increasing sophistication. But it is hard to say what a soul is. Let’s put it this way, I think it is the kind of thing where you more are likely to know it when it’s not there than when it is. By its very nature it’s a, whatever, it’s a tenuous thing, it is not the same as brain activity. It’s not the same as some kind of working within the central nervous system. But it’s the thing which gives us our basic core humanity.
GS: Is there any objective mechanism by which you can detect the soul?
AC: There’s been various attempts over the years, including trying to weigh a person at point of death. To see if they lose a bit of weight, but of course none of this works at all, because ultimately you are dealing with incompatibles. It’s rather like trying to see light with a violin, two incompatible experiences.
GS: But you got the violin, and you can see that, measure it, do experiments on violins, and you can do likewise with light. But what can you do to at least identify or establish the existence of a soul. Is there anything?
AC: I think it’s entirely within the mental life of a person, like I say, that’s not the neurological life, it’s within that whole collection of things which makes you you.
GS: Doesn’t that – wouldn’t you like to know more, in this life, about what happens?
AC: I look forward to joys to come. I think there’ll be judgement of course, when we pass over, because I think we all need a, what should I call it, a “spring clean”, because all will be pretty spiritual and pretty mucky by the time we get to the opposite side.
GS: Why do you think – or do you know that there will be a judgement?
AC: Well, it’s in scripture. And like I say we have to read scripture carefully, but the one central thing that we understand scripture or the New Testament is that we are being scrutinised (?), who will be, as it were, … who will sit at the feet of our creator, and we are required to account for ourselves.
GS: And the scripture was put together by – men?
AC: By men, but nonetheless I think the truth of god runs through scripture. It is true of course, as we said before, with human authorship going through it. But on the other hand, what I think is rather like science. You could say that Ptolemy’s science is right, because it deals with mathematics, proportions and angles, but it is not completely right. So I think any particular writer, or, let’s say, a part of the Bible is inspired by the truth, but nonetheless will inevitably make human editorial mistakes. But the idea of judgement runs through scripture virtually from start to finish, and I find it hard to believe that all the scriptural writers got that one completely wrong.
GS: What about miracles – do you believe in miracles?
AC: Oh yes, definitely. Of different kinds. A miracle is not necessarily a sort of a bolt of lightning coming out of the air and denting (?) and things like that. A miracle is a person changing. It’s not necessarily just someone saying there’s aeroplanes coming out of the sky, “Please god, keep it up!” it’s not that. Miracles can be physical, I think they can be. More likely, I think they are likely to be in terms of personal transformations. In other words; you becoming a different person.
GS: But you can have those transformations, or transformations of that type, profound transformations, in the absence of god.
AC: I wouldn’t be sure of that. I think you may have them in the absence of acknowledging god, and as I say, faith ultimately is the determinent . And I think the faith in the nature of a spiritual power and an active spiritual life is in no way intellectually inferior to a faith in the scientific world.
GS: but the scientific world, what it gives you, through the scientific method, is the ability to observe, measure and predict.
AC: Of course.
GS: It’s a bit like when Mendelejew was putting the new periodic table together, he found some elements, gaps were addressed (?) and predicted the properties.
AC: But I see that as part of exalted metaphor. The fact that god has made this incredibly wonderful creation and has given us three pounds of meat on the top of our spinal column with which to find it out.
GS: One of the unique things coming out of science is this description of how we living beings or human beings have arrived in the universe from the hot infernos of a supernova. You get haemus (?) nuclei which form solar systems, planets, life forms in primordial soups, and then it evolves through Darwinian evolution to something like us now. Are you happy with all of that description?
AC: Oh yes, no problem at all. I see that as the greater plan. A late 19th century theologian called Aubrey Moore took this point up in the 1870es when there was a great debate going on about good and bad landlords, especially in Ireland, where people would own land and would just let the land run brack (?) and let people starve and things like that, and Aubrey Moore came out with a comment in an essay in a book called Lux Mundi, it was 1882, that what Mr Darwin has done is to show that god is not an absentee landlord who made the creation and left it alone, but god is an improving landlord who constantly makes the creation better all the time.
GS: There will be many people who are suffering, for various reasons, who will pray for support from God. And they don’t get that support.
AC: Support comes in funny forms. Like I said, there is no pat answer. But like I say, I think, bearing in mind that Christ did come to suffer, did not come as a great warlord or something like that, he was actually, came as literally the suffering servant, crucified. On the other hand, support comes in other ways. Let’s say a person may be praying to be delivered of cancer or something of this sort. This may not occur, but on the other hand they may learn how to face death peacefully. So in other words, they have actually had a prayer answered in a way. The thing is, god is bigger than us, and I don’t see god as a sort of penny-in-the-slot insurance machine, you know, I’m putting in my money / this prayer here, expecting the insurance (?) issues (?) coming out here. It often comes in very very diverse ways. And I do think god answers prayers, but it’s not always the answers, or the answers are not always to the questions that we are putting.
GS: So he can’t understand what we are saying, or what we want…?
AC: I think he has, as far as I am aware (?), I think he has a purpose of his own, which may not be immediately obvious to us on the Earth.
GS Ah, what do you reckon that is?
AC: I have no idea. [both laugh]
For an extended version of this recording, see www.astrotalkuk.org. If you have a god, may he bless you for listening, if not, a simple thanks from me. Clear Skies.
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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