Science and Faith

Welcome to my webpage exploring issues in science and faith. A series of 25 presentations is being developed, and I will post links to these when they appear, probably in January 2021.

In the meantime, here are some reflections that will give you a sense of where I am coming from. Like many young people in the late 1960s, I regarded the idea of God as outdated nonsense. This was a time of intellectual and cultural change, in which the traditional “certainties” of the past became increasingly precarious and unsettled. By the age of 16, I was convinced that the natural sciences alone could satisfy our intellectual longings and answer our deepest questions. If science could not answer a question, it was not a real question in the first place. I took it as a self-evident truth that science entailed atheism. Where some revolted against the metaphysical austerity of a godless world, I took my cues from Nietzsche, seeing atheism as a bold assertion of meaninglessness, a distinguishing mark of intellectual bravery and integrity.

My future, it seemed to me then, lay in the study of science, which I confidently expected to lead to an interesting career on the one hand, and the intellectual confirmation and consolidation of my atheism on the other. To my delight, I learned that I had won a scholarship to Oxford University to study chemistry with effect from October 1971. In the meantime, I decided that I would use my remaining time at college to extend my reading in aspects of science.

After a month or so of intensive reading in the school science library, I came across a collection of dust-shrouded books in a battered bookcase labelled “The History and Philosophy of Science.” I was suspicious back then of both history and philosophy, tending to see them as uninformed criticism of the certainties and simplicities of the natural sciences by those who felt threatened by them. Philosophy, in my view, was just pointless speculation about issues that any proper scientist could solve easily through a few well-designed experiments. What was the point? Yet in the end, I decided to work my way through these volumes. If I was right, what had I to lose by doing so, apart from some time?

By the time I had finished reading those books, I realized that I needed to do some very serious rethinking. Far from being half-witted obscurantism that placed unnecessary obstacles in the relentless place of scientific advance, the history and philosophy of science asked all the right questions about the reliability and limits of scientific knowledge – questions that I had not faced thus far. I was forced to confront the awkward realities of the under-determination of theory by data, the phenomenon of radical theory change in the history of science, the difficulties in devising a “crucial experiment,” and the enormously complex issues associated with devising what was the “best explanation” of a given set of observations. I was overwhelmed by an intellectual tidal wave, battering my settled way of thinking, muddying what I had taken to be the clear, still, and above all simple waters of scientific truth.

Things thus turned out to be rather more complicated than I had realized. Those books opened my eyes, and I knew there was – and could be – no going back to the simplistic take on the natural sciences I had once known. I had enjoyed the beauty and innocence of a childlike attitude to the sciences, and secretly wished to remain in that secure place. But there could be no going back. I could not escape the new world I now began to inhabit. I had lost my epistemic innocence, and had to find my way through the irrefractable and irreduceable landscape of a grown-up world. Once I had breezily dismissed Bertrand Russell’s suggestion that philosophy tries to teach us “how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation.” I could now see his point, which cut the ground from under my simplistic certainties, demanding a more nuanced and cautious engagement with reality.

I found that I could no longer hold on to what I now realize was a somewhat naïve scientific positivism. It became clear to me that a whole series of questions that I had dismissed as meaningless or pointless had to be examined again – including the God-question. I did not turn from atheism to Christianity as a result of reading those books. Rather, they forced me to realize that atheism was a faith, a belief that could not be proved to be true. Science was considerably more intellectually malleable than I had realised. It did not entail atheism, or indeed any religious or anti-religious ideology. It was just science, and had to be respected as such. It’s not really very surprising why Richard Dawkins steers clear of the history and philosophy of science, which so clearly subverts his rather naive scientific positivism!

For a reasonably accessible introduction to my mature position on this fascinating question, you might enjoy watching the video of my inaugural lecture as Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University in October 2014, delivered in Oxford’s historical Examination Schools.

My basic approach to the relation of science and faith is set out more accessibly in this later video of a lecture I gave at Regent College Vancouver in September 2018, entitled “Science and Faith: Conflicting or Enriching?”

For a much more rigorous defense of this position, you might enjoy my academic monograph The Territories of Human Reason (Oxford University Press, 2019). This systematically dismantles the outdated idea of the alleged methodological incompatibility of science and religion, which is basically an invention of the late nineteenth century, uncritically repeated by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, despite its obvious failings.

One of the most interesting and significant writers in this field is the Australian intellectual historian Peter Harrison, whose historical research on the meaning of the terms “science” and “religion” over the centuries calls into question the cultural simplicities of the New Atheism. The basic features of Harrison’s revisionist analysis of the relation of science and faith has been widely accepted within academic circles, and needs to find its way into more popular discussion of the issues, which are about a generation behind the best scholarship. You will find this video of a 2017 Oxford lecture by Harrison, followed by a conversation between the two of us, illuminating in opening up these issues.