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Faith and Wisdom in ScienceReview - Faith and Wisdom in Science
by Tom McLeish
Oxford University Press, 2014
Review by Ebrahim Azadegan
Apr 28th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 18)

The relation between theology and science as two great cultural and historica lpowers has been a subject of study at least since seventeenth century where modern western empirical science showed its impressive experimental and intellectual developments. Regarding the debate between these two intellectual communities there are three main standpoints, which take their point of view from a disjoint relation of science and theology. The first sees a warfare and serious conflict between science and theology. It advocates a view in which religious faith closes minds by its superstitious and vain dogmas and so is in direct opposition to the open enquiry of science as a unique and true evidence based channel of knowledge. The second route that takes a disjoint starting point for science and theology attempts to circumscribe their separate domains of discipline and realms of authority.  Stephen Gould's 'non-overlapping magesteria', or NOMA, is a well-known attempt to avoid the conflict model by differentiating between the magesteria or realm of science as the empirical realm and the realm of religion which extends over the concerns about ultimate meaning and value of life. The third way of insisting on the differences between science and theology attempts reconciliation by comparative methodologies while keeping the object of inquiry disjoint. Tom McLeish in his recent book Faith and Wisdom in Science attempts to propose a way to change our thinking about a disjoint pair of science and theology in order to replace the 'and' in relation between theology and science with the 'of' in a theology of science which then enables us to see how science belongs within a larger theological narrative about human values and purposes (chapter 7).

The problem with all the three views insisting on the separateness of science and theology which according to McLeish lurks in the most apparently insignificant word of any discussion around 'theology and science' is their unavoidable circumscription by reducing the universal scope of both systems of thought. It is noteworthy that both science and theology claim that the entirety of nature as a fit subject of their narratives. However the advocates of disjoint standpoint and especially new atheists never make reference to the story of human purpose of science, the story that one can find through a journey back to some traditional and theological sources within the ancient literature of 'wisdom' (p.24).  The theology of science "can speak of how that special story, the one we now call 'science', belongs within the larger theological narrative of creation, pain and healing" (p.170). Despite the fact that theology of science is an urgently needed, but it is a missing voice in the clamor of voices that make up the chattering crowd present in the debate around the relation between science and theology (chapter 1). But why?

Part of the problem is the name of science itself which has taken the place of the older expression of 'natural philosophy' (p.25). Instead of a triumphal knowledge-claim implicit in the meaning of the word science, natural philosophy connotes having rather humbler sense that is the search for 'wisdom', a deep, pure and all-embracing knowledge that could reach beneath the surface of natural world and would help humans to understand their role, purpose and value of their life (p.26).A natural philosopher as a true scientist requires faith in science—faith that our explorations are worth making, that the hidden structure of the universe is not forever beyond our grasp (p.40). McLeish gives us some examples of great scientists in the history of UK (from McLeish himself to Robert Brown in 19th century to Grosseteste in 13th century to Venerable Bede a celebrated northern English scholar of 8th century to Macrina and Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century) in whom we can see the desire to peer beneath the surface of phenomena, from the smallest components of matter to the entire cosmos (chapter 2). In Robert Grosseteste (the Bishop of Lincoln in 1235) we see the desire to find a physical account of the origin of the entire cosmos in order to avoid one serious problem in Aristotelian science that was the consequence of his view that the cosmos has no beginning. Grosseteste attempts to apply his theory of local matter to the structure of the universe as a whole (p.45-6). "Beginning with flash of light, the entire universe is filled and expanded by its self-propagation until it has reached huge dimensions" (p.46). McLeish believes that Grosseteste's successful form of medieval big bang theory is the result of his thought that we can conceive the underlying structures of nature through our thinking and explorations. McLeish adds that seeing science as a part of a theological story not only enables the mentioned natural philosophers to set our minds above material phenomena, but also to help them to live with sympathy by and love of natural world. "For Gregory of Nyssa, science, soul and resurrection belonged within the same train of thought. Robert Grosseteste applied the same mindset to urging a deeper biblical theology as he did to a deeper understanding of solid matter. Robert Brown's honesty, and the huge respect in which he was held by the scientific community, was built on a foundation of Scottish Presbyterianism" (pp.53-4).

In chapter 3 McLeish embarks on a survey of natural wisdom in the Old Testament that would certainly have been part of the worldview of the previous mentioned scholars. In Proverbs 8 wisdom takes on a female persona who was brought forth by Lord as the first of His works. 'Wisdom' says: "Then I was a craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind" (Proverbs 8, quoted from p.56). So 'Wisdom' in Proverbs is rejoicing in the whole world, weaving around the components of the physical world in order to avoid produced pitfalls and pains in it(p.57). In Psalm 33 the creation is described as the 'word of the Lord' which brings the idea of principle, law and order in creation. However 'word' comes by 'breath', which carries the notions of 'spirit' and 'wind' as the source of chaos and turmoil. In Jeremiah, wisdom appears again at the central stage of the creation, while the complex dynamic of the world functions between harmony in the cycle of clouds rising and rain falling, and chaos represented by lightening and wind (p.63). This ever-present tension of word and breath or order and chaos that combined in the creation narrative of Psalm, Jeremiah, and Proverbs is showing a picture of apparent heterogeneity, pain, and chaos which requires wisdom entwined in scientific endeavors in order to show its ultimate meaning that is harmony, love and order in the natural world (chapter 3).

In chapter 4 McLeish reminds us that chaos is a source for emergence of a possible order. The scientist ability to predict the exact pressure of a gas with extreme accuracy is possible not in spite of the random motion of molecules but because of it. "The exact pressure of a gas, the emergence of fibrillar structures, the height in the atmosphere at which clouds condense, the temperature at which ice forms, even the formation of the delicate membranes surrounding every living cell in the realm of biology … all this beauty and order becomes both possible and predictable because of the chaotic world underneath them" (p.101).

The story of Job in the Old Testament pushed to the limits of the disorder and evil could be produced by the natural world. It exaggeratedly pictures terrible painfulness, chaos, and evil of nature apparently out of control. However at the end of story Lord teaches Job and all of us that the tension between chaos and order, sin and comfort, pain and love, and justice and suffering assumed by Job's interlocutors as mutually exclusive and in combat with one another, can be subtly resolved by a change of perspective. We are invited to perceive nature in a new way (p.142); a new perspective which enable us to affirm that chaotic forces and supposed disorders "have their own special form of dynamics, in which they are neither predictably directed nor entirely uncontrolled, but rather 'channeled' within a governance of freedom" (p.143).  The essential listen of Job's story is "the idea of guidance rather than control, of a natural order that contains within itself openness, rather than a rigid predictability, and emergent order rather than an imposed one" (p.144). This theme of nature's 'constrained freedom' opens a path in which true explorations of possibilities make sense.  Scientists have the opportunity to seek for natural laws and possible orders which live beneath the surface of the chaotic natural world. The book of Job invites us toward a covenant relationship with creation and ultimately the 'love of wisdom of natural world' (chapter 5).  

In continuity with Old Testament views about pain, evil and suffering produced by natural world that ultimately lead to invitation to love the wisdom of natural world New Testament confirms a similar pattern. McLeish interprets St. Paul's thoughts as saying that "a person pain that encompasses both a flawed physicality and a darkened understanding, marked by a broken relationship with God, points to a journey to a future in which reconciliation with the one brings also the beginnings of healing the other" (p.156). McLeish concludes that pain and suffering have to be seen as a source of future hope unleashed by resurrection by eyes which are treated to sight below the surface of creation (chapter 6).

So we need a theology of science in order to reach such a viewpoint that enables us to know why we are doing science and how science belongs within the larger theological narratives about our history, hopes, values and our ultimate purpose.  Through this way we are led to a deeper perception into the still-unknown fields of chaos and hidden orders of our universe. We can also learn how to heal the troubled relationship with our world which to some extent is the result of the troubled technologies we are accustomed with (chapter 8).

To sum up, McLeish's book is thought provoking and insightful. In this book one can find a famous scientist who examines why he is doing science. However, it seems odd as McLeish himself accepts (p.216), that he has traced the outlines of the mentioned theology of science through just one tradition (Judeo-Christian tradition) and also he has mentioned only some UK scientists as his examples of seekers for wisdom in natural explorations (in chapter 2). Perhaps this focus research field allows him to explore in more details the references which confirms his view, however the book would definitely be enriched if he could have talked about Islamic and other theistic traditions that confirm similar views about reconciliation between human and nature. Nonetheless, I recommend reading this book to every professional scientist and philosophers of science who engage in the relation between science and religion.  


© 2015 Ebrahim Azadegan


Ebrahim Azadegan, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy of Science, Sharif University of Technology, Tehran, Iran


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