‘Science cannot provide all the answers’
Colin Humphreys is a dyed-in-the-wool materialist. That is, he is professor of materials science at Cambridge. He believes in the power of science to explain the nature of matter. He believes that humans – like all other living things – evolved through the action of natural selection upon random mutation. He is also a Baptist. He believes in the story of Moses, as recounted in the biblical book of Exodus. He believes in it enough to have explored Egypt and the Holy Land in search of natural or scientific explanations for the story of the burning bush, the 10 plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and the manna that fell in the wilderness -and then written a book about it.
“I believe that the scientific world view can explain almost anything,” he says. “But I just think there is another world view as well.”
Tom McLeish is professor of polymer physics at Leeds. Supermarket plastic bags are polymers, but so are spider’s silk, sheep’s wool, sinew and flesh and bone. His is the intricate world of what is, and how it works, down to the molecular level. He delights in the clarity and power of science, precisely because it is questioning rather than dogmatic. “But the questions that arise, and the methods we use to ask them, can be traced back to the religious tradition in which I find myself. Doing science is part of what it means in that tradition to be human. Because we find ourselves in this puzzling, extraordinary universe of pain and beauty, we will also find ourselves able to explore it, by adopting the very successful methods of science,” he says.
Russell Stannard is now emeritus professor of physics at the Open University. He is one of the atom-smashers, picking apart the properties of matter, energy, space and time, and the author of a delightful series of children’s books about tough concepts such as relativity theory. He believes in the power of science. He not only believes in God, he believes in the nd. He, like Tom McLeish, is a lay reader. He has contributed Thoughts for the Day to Radio 4, those morning homilies on the mysteries of existence. Does it worry him that science – his science – could be about to explain the whole story of space, time matter and energy without any need for a Creator? “No, because a starting point you can have is: why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there a world? Now I cannot see how science could ever provide an answer,” he says.
Stannard will be one of a small group of scientists and theologians, having a go at the question next week in Birmingham. The Science and Religion Forum, founded by a group of scientists 25 years ago, meets on Monday to discuss questions such as the place of humans in the universe. They are not likely to actually come up with an answer, but they will certainly give the question a bashing. The forum embraces what one of its begetters, Arthur Peacocke, pioneer of DNA research in Britain, called “wistful agnostics” and sceptics, as well as Christians and people from other faiths. “It’s about how we can worship a creator God who is creating now, and still hold on to the scientific world view as we understand it,” says Phil Edwards, who trained in physics but is now a chaplain to the Bolton Institute.
The subject – the place of humans in the universe – is a challenge. To the scientific way of thinking, humans no more have a “place” in the scheme of things than hamsters or harp seals. The universe itself may be an incomprehensible event, and life a so far unexplained one, but scientists see no ladder of creation with humans at the pinnacle. They can see no “purpose” in being. We are here because we are here, a lucky accident – lucky for us – but there was nothing inevitable about the evolution of humanity, or its survival. God is not part of the explanation.
That is how scientists have grown to think, whether they come from a religious background or not. But modern science did not emerge 400 years ago to challenge religion, the orthodoxy of the past 2,000 years. Generations of thinkers and experimenters and observers – often themselves churchmen – wanted to explain how God worked his wonders. Modern physics began with a desire to explain the clockwork of God’s creation. Modern geology grew at least partly out of searches for evidence of Noah’s flood. Modern biology owes much to the urge to marvel at the intricacy of Divine providence.
But the scientists – a word coined only in 1833 – who hoped to find God somehow painted Him out of the picture. By the late 20th century, physicists were confident of the history of the universe back to the first thousandth of a second, and geneticists and biochemists were certain that all living things could be traced back to some last universal common ancestor that lived perhaps 3.5bn years ago. A few things – what actually happened in the Big Bang; how living, replicating things emerged from a muddle of organic compounds – remain riddles. But few now consider these riddles to be incapable of solutions. So although the debate did not start out as science versus religion, that is how many people now see it.
Paradoxically, this is not how many scientists see it. In the US, according to a survey published in Nature in 1997, four out of 10 scientists believe in God. Just over 45% said they did not believe, and 14.5% described themselves as doubters or agnostics. This ratio of believers to non-believers had not changed in 80 years. Should anybody be surprised?
“A lot of people are surprised. I think people have grown up to believe that science and Christianity are at loggerheads, and that is what the average man in the street believes,” says Colin Humphreys. “I think you can explain the universe without invoking God at all. And you can explain humans without invoking God at all, I think. But where I differ from the people who say, OK, the universe started with a big bang – if it did, it’s not too sure but let’s say it did – and everything else was chance event, then I would say that God is the God of chance and He had His plan and purpose, which is working out very subtly, but through these chance events.”
He, like most scientists do in this debate, mentions Richard Dawkins, the Oxford zoologist and professor of the public understanding of science, whose rationalist stance is well known, and vigorously argued.
The real argument here is not about the importance of science, or its value to humanity. “You have to recognise that science is enormously powerful in going for the jugular, reducing complexity to its simple structures,” says Tom McLeish. “But it puts it back together again, and that is important to stress, because, from Keats onwards, we have been accused of unweaving the rainbow, and never weaving it back again. That is not true.”
Doubt, expressed most potently 3,000 years ago in the biblical book of Job, is the greatest scientific tool ever invented, he says. To do good science, you have to doubt everything, including your ideas, your experiments and your conclusions. “People like Richard Dawkins characterise religion as doubtless, tub-thumping, blind certainty. But it isn’t like that; he knows it is not like that. There is Job, on his ash-heap, doubting everything, but wondering where the light comes from, and how the hail forms.”
Russell Stannard says that when he became a reader in the Church of England 40 years ago, he was considered a bit of an oddball. But things have changed. “You get a few scientists like Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins [professor of chemistry at Oxford] who at least talk as though they cannot understand how a scientist could possibly be religious. But I would say that, generally speaking, throughout the scientific community there is considerable acceptance that, OK, although one might not be a religious person oneself, one’s fellow scientist can be.”
Colin Humphreys says that quite a number of his colleagues at Cambridge are also believers. “My impression is – and it is just an impression – that there are many more scientists on the academic staff who are believers than arts people.”
Tom McLeish says something similar. He cheerfully offers several reasons why that might be so, one of which might be called the postmodernist effect. “Our dear friends in the humanities do get themselves awfully confused about whether the world exists, about whether each other exists, about whether words mean anything. Until they have sorted out whether cats and dogs exist or not, or are only figments in the mind of the reader, let alone the writer, then they are going to have problems talking about God.”
Within biology itself, there is an intense argument about evolutionary origins of qualities such as altruism -the sacrifice of self for others – and the enduring belief in God or gods, and an afterlife, with the possibility of some kind of calling to account. Robert Winston, the fertility pioneer, Labour peer and professor at Hammersmith Hospital is Jewish. This represents a huge tradition of values that are important to him. At the age of 30 he went back to the synagogue because, he felt, he needed the discipline of Judaism, although this is not quite the same as believing in God, and he confesses to having been through various phases of observance. In the last chapter of his book The Human Instinct he said he felt it was very likely that spirituality – the feeling of something beyond mortal life – had been important in survival during the Ice Age, and through periods of great deprivation.
“The great question is whether or not that spirituality is God-given, or whether it actually evolved because it was needed,” he says. “I’m still sitting on the fence.”
Stannard has fewer doubts. “I would say that God does take a personal interest in us. If you were allowed one word to describe God by, that word would be love. That does not come from evolution by natural selection, it seems to come from somewhere else, and the whole idea of morals does not naturally arise out of evolution. Biologists will talk about altruism, but they are using it in a very technical sense, which is not the religious idea of altruism. It is more a case of you scratch my back and I will scratch yours.”
Richard Dawkins, however, remains unmoved. Is there a limit to what science can explain? Very possibly. But in that case, what on earth makes anyone think religion can do any better? “I once reached this point when I asked the then professor of astrophysics at Oxford to explain the origin of the universe to me,” he says. “He did so, and I posed my supplementary: ‘Where did the laws of physics come from in the first place?’ He smiled: ‘Ah, now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand over to our good friend the chaplain.’ My immediate thought was, ‘But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?’ If science itself cannot say where the laws of physics ultimately come from, there is no reason to expect that religion will do any better and rather good reasons to think it will do worse.”
The place of humans in the universe – world faith perspectives, at the University of Birmingham Selly Oak campus, September 8-10. www.srforum.org
A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin 2003) ISBN 0618335404
The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories by Colin J Humphreys (Continuum 2003) ISBN 0826469523
The God Experiment: Can Science Prove the Existence of God? by Russell Stannard (Hidden Spring 2000) ISBN 1587680076