Enriching our Vision of Reality:Theology and the Natural Sciences in Dialogue
Alister McGrath, SPCK, 2016
Molecular-quantum-theorist turned- theologian Alister McGrath is a prolific writer with 42 major works to his name in the Wikipedia article under his name (which is current only to 2015). He has written several books since that date including this one. The relationship between Christian faith and science is a major pre-occupation of McGrath’s and this book is one of the best of many which he has written in my view. It is more personal than many of his previous works and it describes something of the progression of McGrath’s understanding of Christianity throughout his eventful career so far. The book is in three distinct parts: first, an opening essay on The Christian Vision of Reality. Second, a comparison of the work on science and religion produced by three major influences on McGrath’s life and thinking, namely chemist and physicist Charles Coulson, Thomas Torrance (a Scottish theologian with a scientific bent), and Oxford professor of mathematics (and later Oxford professor of theoretical physics) John Polkinghorne, who also turned to Christian theology later in life. The final part of McGrath’s book is a series of ‘parallel conversations’ between theology and science including topics such as ways of seeing reality, the legitimacy of faith, models and mystery, religious and scientific faith and natural theology as well as an interesting study of Darwin’s religious thought. The book has detailed explanatory references and notes, a core reading guide and a more specialist reading guide.
In brief the book’s target is Scientism — an Enlightenment-based understanding of reality and meaning which takes account only of phenomena which can be understood by certain current scientific rubrics. McGrath is a staunch defender and explicator of science but is critical of current metaphysical interpretations of science (p.177). This is a passion he shares with English philosopher of the mind Michael Scruton. McGrath notes that neither science nor theology can ever hope to attain or establish a ‘logically coercive proof of the kind that only a fool could deny’ (p. 65). Ways towards knowledge in these circumstances include the notions of ‘warranted’ or ‘justified’ belief (A. Plantinga) and also ‘personal knowledge’ (M. Polanyi).
McGrath further notes that ‘both science and theology deal with beliefs that are sufficiently well motivated for us to commit to them, knowing that they may be false but nevertheless believing that they may be the best explanation presently available to us’ (p.66). Supporters of radical empiricism ‘limit reality to what can be observed’ (p. 81). In the quantum age this sort of approach becomes meaningless. McGrath further notes that ‘both science and faith are prone to exaggerate their capabilities. Religion cannot tell us the distance to the nearest star, just as science cannot tell us the meaning of life. But each is part of a bigger picture, and we impoverish our vision of life and the quality of our lives as human beings if we exclude either or both’ (p. 161). McGrath explains that ‘in science, the criticism of a justified or motivated belief is not whether it conforms to rational preconceptions of what things ought to be but whether this is what the evidence requires.’ (p.97) His implication is that the same principle applies to theological beliefs such as belief in the resurrection of Jesus. McGrath further notes that ‘the first great enemy of science is not religion but dogmatic rationalism which limits the reality to what reason determines is acceptable’. Quantum physics, of course, ‘is counter-intuitive and bears little relation to what reality ought to be like.’ The question becomes, ‘who decides when there is enough evidence to justify a belief?’ (p. 98). The most popular method today is called ‘inference to the best explanation’ (p. 101).
Another characteristic of McGrath’s writing is his determined distinction between theology and religious studies: ‘Theology is distinct and cannot be collapsed into some generic concept of religious studies’ (p. 58). McGrath takes particular aim at the term ‘secular humanism’: ‘Any form of humanism ultimately rests on an understanding of what human nature is, including what longings, desires, and aspirations are naturally human. A Christian humanist declares that humanity finds its true goal in discovering God. A secular humanist declares that humanity finds its true goal in rejecting God. But to pretend that “humanism” is necessarily “secular humanism” is indefensible’ (p. 161).
Two recent psychological explorations in this area include first, Justin Barrett’s work on the cognitive science of religion investigating ‘the natural tendency of the human mind to desire or be inclined towards God’ (p.168); and secondly the work begun by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Heidt on the psychology of awe. (p. 179).
A strength of McGrath’s writing is his vast research and reading. He digs up quotations and arguments from many quarters including psychology, sociology, the history of science, philosophy and theological writers ancient and modern. Some examples include Einstein, never short of a quote: ‘the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible’ (p. 64) Or, American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman: ‘the scientific imagination finds itself stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend the things which are there’ (p. 81). Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was critical of ‘one-eyed reason, deficient in its vision of depth’ (p. 82). Noble laureate, biologist Peter Medawar, was a powerful critic of over-confident science in his book The Limits of Science. McGrath quotes him as follows: ‘Scientific reasoning is therefore at all levels an interaction between two episodes of thought—a dialogue between two voices, the one imaginative and the other critical’ (p. 82f). McGrath also notes Augustine: si comprehendis non est Deus (‘if you can understand it, it’s not God’ (p. 130).
In the area of biological evolutionary theory McGrath stresses that ‘we are right to be suspicious of reductionist accounts of human beings’ (p. 156). For a start is the fact that ‘humans can (and regularly do) affect their own evolutionary development’ (p. 150). He is scathing about writers who overplay the fact that homo sapiens and pan troglodytes (chimpanzees) share 98 per cent of their DNA, pointing out that homo sapiens and pan troglodytes ‘last shared a common ancestor somewhere between five and seven million years ago’ (p. 155).
All in all this is a highly entertaining and challenging book which mounts a powerful case for the legitimacy of Christian theology and Christian experience as an authentic and truth-seeking experience and a valid mode of human expression. At the same time as it challenges the claim of some scientists that the only valid form of knowledge is that which emanates from a scientific view of the world. 5 stars.
Richard Prideaux, Vic.