Archbishop's Holy Week Lecture: Faith & Science
Monday 17th March 2008A lecture given by The Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Abbey during Holy Week 2008 - the first in a series entitled 'A Question on Faith'
Click downloads on the right to listen to the lecture [41Mb], and the question & answer session that followed the lecture [24Mb].
Read the transcript of the lecture below, followed by the questions & answers - or click here to go directly to the Q & A transcript.
Transcript of the lecture:
Faith & Science
I have given this series the title 'A Question of Faith'. The faith about which I shall mostly be speaking is my own, which is Christianity. But I hope that there will be in the discussion some matters which are no less relevant to other faiths and their relationship to the twenty-first century, its culture and its problems.
A number of scientists and a quite large number of non-scientists regard science itself as an agent of wholesale secularization. That is to say they see science as de-mystifying the world, opening up the world to rational questioning whose conclusions are not decided by authorities like Archbishops. It is part of what some have called the dis-enchanting of the world. It is a process which makes the world more amenable to our control – more amenable to what we as human beings decide we would like to see happen. And because of that rather wide-spread view of science, there are two opposite, passionate attitudes towards it. It's regarded as both Messiah and anti-Christ. If science really is something which promises to give us a heightened degree of control over our environment, surely it is something which promises us liberty such as we've never known before? And if that's what it promises, it's not surprising that some people do see it in Messianic terms.
At the same time the uncontrollable forces that seem to be unleashed by scientific research and the unmanageable questions that arise make it something of which many people are profoundly afraid. At the extreme, they will regard it as a toxic element in our human composition at the moment: dangerous to ourselves and our environment; dangerous to stable, assured faith. And that's perhaps why, in our society we see those attitudes represented in an undue reverence towards science and the scientist, and at the same time a high level of anti-intellectualism, deeply suspicious of scientific research: the Frankenstein image lives on.
In what I want to say tonight I hope to challenge both of those attitudes and do something to restore the idea that science is, after all, simply one of the things that human beings do. One of the things that human beings do: a set of practices which may exhibit values and morality but doesn't generate them: a set of practices which finds its weight and its meaning in relationship to many other human practices. It was said by a famous scholar of cultural history that, eros sexual love ceases to be a demon when you cease to regard it as a god. Something of the same nature, I shall suggest, might be said about science, that it ceases to be a demon when we cease to regard it as a god.
But of course the conflict between faith and science is a story deeply embedded in our corporate consciousness. We have, most of us, been brought up on the idea that science fights its way out of the intellectual clutches of religion to independence, non-accountability to religious doctrine. And we've also, most of us been brought up on the story that in the nineteenth century in particular, that long-standing tension became harder than ever to bear and exploded particularly in relation to Darwin. In fact, the whole story is a good deal more nuanced than that. A number of historians of science have pointed out, with a great deal of supporting material, that most of the significant scientific advance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came from ordained clergy of one Church or another. And looking at the way in which the Darwinian controversy actually played out, you will have a much less clear black and white sense of an opposition between science and a religious establishment than you might at first suppose. I shall say a word about that again later, but I do want at this stage to give notice that the picture is not as simple as many textbooks might lead you to believe.
However, at the moment we are facing certainly a resurgence of a sense of conflict between faith and science. Brilliant popularisers like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have put the question on the agenda of most of us – and on the bookstalls of the nation. What is the heart of the conflict as writers like these see it? Where is the tension felt to be most acute today? In tonight's reflections I want to touch on two areas in which that conflict is assumed to be acute, and suggest some of the ways in which the religious believer might want to respond and take the conversation forward.
First of all there is the extension of Darwinian theory beyond straightforward biology and genetics. [Note: This extension of the theory is sometimes loosely called 'Neo-Darwinism'; but this is potentially confusing, as this term is more strictly applied to the fusion of Darwin's original theory with Mendelian genetics. I did not avoid this confusion in the original version of this lecture.] The heart of the conflict between faith and science as it's frequently presented these days is no longer a simple stand-off between what people might regard as two rival accounts of how the world came to be. In spite of all the fuss about creation science versus evolution, that's actually not where the intellectual energy of the debate lies. The real issue is in this extension of Darwinian principle and theory into an entire theory of culture and intellectual life. This is a vision fairly regularly reiterated by Professors Dawkins and Dennett and it deserves a moment's explication.
The theory as it now appears runs something like this: the most basic fact about the world of which we can be certain, in scientific terms, is that the way things are is the result of a process of natural selection: the almost unimaginably protracted weeding out of organisms that do not have a capacity to survive in a competitive environment. But if that is the most basic thing we know about the world we're in, surely that story ought to carry over into the story of our mental life and our culture. Culture itself is a set of strategies for survival. Ideas are about survival and they compete in a 'marketplace' not unlike that in which genetic selection occurs. This theory was given a particular form partly by Richard Dawkins, partly by some of his followers such as Susan Blackmore, between fifteen and twenty years ago: the theory of what's come to be called memetics, on the analogy of genetics. A gene is the carrier of genetic information, enabling the replication of its structures and survival. A meme is a similar carrier of cultural information, securing replication from generation to generation. Just as you have – so to speak – nuggets of genetic information being passed on, so you have nuggets of cultural information being passed on. And so if you want to understand the survival or the prevalence of cultural patterns and intellectual systems, you need to look at how they work as survival strategies. This can lead to recognition that, for example, just as in the genetic world you may have viruses that may produce odd and unviable strains for several generations, so you may have intellectual 'viruses' as well, that persuade you to believe odd or irrational things: religion being the prime example of such a virus in the system. Thus natural selection comes to be the key which opens every lock in the human world. It becomes what Daniel Dennett has called a universal acid: it eats away facile confidence in systems that claim to be truthful; and it makes it, incidentally but not accidentally, impossible to maintain that religious belief could have any objective value in world where ideas are survival strategies.
This, I think, is where the most interesting conflict now takes place. And these are issues that have been discussed by a number of writers and thinkers within the religious fold as well as outside. Questions have been raised from within the scientific establishment about this, as well as those identified by theologians and philosophers. Selecting just four points from an increasingly unmanageable literature on this subject, these seem to be some of the unanswered questions about a system like the one I've just described. The first is actually itself a problem in terms of scientific self-understanding: the problem usually designated by the word reductionism, which is the problem of how you decide what's the most basic form of explanation and whether you think that the most basic form of explanation is the only real form of explanation. At what level do your questions work? And if you find there is another level at which you have to raise a different kind of question, does that mean that the questions you began with are unreal or insignificant? To put it concretely, what is the relationship between the question a biologist might ask: the questions a chemist might ask: and the questions a physicist might ask? There are questions in biology for which sooner or later you're going to have to turn to chemistry: there are questions in chemistry for which sooner or later you're going to have to turn to physics: but does that mean that only physics asks real questions? So the process of reducing what seem to be real questions to a more basic level is again, not as straightforward as it might seem. If you move to another level or 'register' as you might say, of asking questions does that mean that where you started is not real? That a complete account could be given of, let's say, biological issues in strictly physical terms? So there's a first question from within science itself. The system outlined by Dawkins, Dennett and others is one which assumes, fairly blithely, that you can indeed reach a fundamental form of explanation which is natural selection applied across the board. But that is in fact to be committed to assumptions which many scientists themselves would regard as at least problematic.
Then there's a second and very obvious question, related to that first one: how exactly do you move a successful explanatory model in genetics across into theories of culture? As the science or pseudo- science of memetics has developed over the last couple of decades there's been a great deal of confusion and indeed contradiction about what you might say by way of defining a meme, a unit of cultural information and reproduction. Are we talking about actual ideas? Or are we talking about structures in the brain that carry and receive those ideas? What precise processes of reproduction are we talking about? Are they physically measurable? Are we not in danger of falling into what many philosophers of science call the fallacy of misplaced concreteness? That is, the assumption that when you've got a name for something, you've got a thing that wears that name round its neck. Even where genetics itself is concerned, the precise definition of a gene remains something that takes quite a lot of working out and we must not suppose that a gene is a small object.
The third issue is perhaps the most tricky and corrosive here. It's the problem of self-refutation. If everything is a strategy for survival in the intellectual world, so is this thesis itself. And if any intellectual system may be regarded as a virus within the system of replication, so may any scientific account of the world. There are in fact no criteria for establishing a Darwinian view of the world as an ultimate or impregnable system which cannot be touched by the universal acid, as Dennett calls it, of this theory. What are the results of that for actual scientific practice and confidence in the scientific process? I quote here briefly from Conor Cunningham, a philosopher at Nottingham University who writes: if we do not resist the idea of Darwinism as a universal principle, biology literally eats itself as it becomes like a racing driver who, to avoid friction, chooses tyres that are so smooth they offer no resistance. In other words, a limitless extrapolation from genetics to a system for understanding all reality leaves scientific method itself stranded and without any grip on the real.
And the fourth general consideration here, which would take rather longer than I have to spell out in adequate detail, is to do with some of the philosophical confusions that can arise from such a theory as a result of supposing that when you have a basic, mechanistic model, its terms and components have an obvious, self-evident identity - labels round the necks once again – quite independent of the processes of scientific language and culture and transmission. The theory pre-supposes a view of knowledge as simply putting labels on a set of already clearly distinct bundles of objective stuff, a view which most philosophers would now regard as sadly incoherent.
That perhaps is enough just to give notice of the fact that Darwinianism of the Dawkins and Dennett variety carries with it a rather substantial agenda of philosophical and conceptual difficulty. There may be versions of it which avoid one or more of those four very serious intellectual problems. But the point I want to make at this juncture is, very simply, that this kind of Darwinism is as vulnerable as any Christian theology is to the reproach of leaving behind the empirical method of looking for some sort of coherence with observable fact. The truth is that both Darwinism and Christian theology are telling stories. They both work as narratives. Narratives assume drama, agency, and personality. But the paradox is that one of these stories knows what it's doing and confesses it is working in the categories of drama and agency and personality and the other apparently doesn't. What's more, the Darwinian grand narrative about natural selection as extended by Dawkins and others subverts its own claims and denies its own character. And so one point I should want to make at this stage, is that if we are to have an intelligent dialogue between faith and science, it should be on a basis of equal self-awareness. We can't have a sensible or constructive dialogue if one party is – so to speak – smuggling into the argument premises that are uncomfortably like those of the other, without acknowledging them.
When I'm in mischievous mood I'm tempted to think that the extended Darwinism of current authors and creationist science deserve each other. Creationist science is a particular variety of questionable science pretending to defend theology. And I would be tempted to say that some current varieties of Darwinism are a questionable theology pretending to be science. Both mistake the real category in which they work. But when faith and actual scientific practice meet, it should be clear (though alas it often isn't), that we're not dealing with a stand-off between two rival explanations of the world at the same level. It's not that religious faith offers an explanation which substitute for the work of science. Scientific research seeks to identify the causes of particular phenomena and clusters of phenomena, including of course that remarkable cluster of phenomena which is the observable universe as we now know it. Faith states, not as a matter of explanation but as matter of trust, that any form of energy whatsoever, at any stage of the history of the universe, depends upon the free initiative of God. You may or may not accept that as a belief, but the one thing it isn't is an attempt to supply local, limited explanations for this or that. And religious traditions at least pose the question of how, within the simplicities of the world of Professors Dawkins or Dennett, it comes to be that some part of this system of selection issues in a self-aware, self-questioning, language-using being such as we are. To ask the question is emphatically not to say 'you can only explain that by invoking God', that's not how religious language works. But, if natural selection of the Dawkins/Dennett variety cannot manage the idea of a self-aware, self-questioning being emerging with any coherence, clearly science has more work to do than is simply covered by the simplicities of these theories. Survival strategies have apparently produced organisms and phenomena which require for their life and their sustenance a stance beyond survival, beyond mere 'strategy'. Science itself arises out of asking questions that are not strictly necessary: just as art and faith arise. The very concern with exploring the coherence of the universe over and above the mere needs of technology and manipulation, suggests that a narrowly Darwinian structure will not do to account for this. There is more to us than we know, and science is a means of not simply arriving at closure and certainty, but also of generating further upsetting and disturbing questions. Science is gloriously and rightly unstable. We may think of it as providing final answers, but the facts of the life of scientific communities suggests that the real energy in science is the constant generating of new problems.
And that takes me on to a remark about scientific practice as such. Scientific practice, what scientists do very often has about it an ethos, literally a morality, a set of assumptions about appropriate behaviour. How do you relate to the phenomena that confront you? With attention, with – and one can't avoid the word – humility. The scientific method has a very marked moral, even spiritual component, and that's one of the things which makes both popular scientism and anti- scientism inadequate. Within scientific practice there is a subtle balance of security and insecurity, discovery and fresh questioning which is in fact remarkably like the way in which human beings behave in their relationships with one another and the world at large. So, far from science being a small privileged area of absolute certainty in a wilderness of doubt and superstition, science in practice, gets to look surprisingly like human activity.
I'll take just one example where this is perhaps specially marked. You'll be aware of the enormous advances in the Human Genome Project, in the last decade or so: the extraordinary, exhilaratingly ambitious project of mapping the genetic components of humanity. This immense exercise has produced a fairly comprehensive map. How precisely that map relates to anything we see in human behaviour, remains obscure. I've been privileged to see in recent weeks a printout of a rather small percentage of the genome map, marked out in different colours – dark pink for the things about which we're certain; lighter pink for the things about which we have a pretty good idea; and green for the things about which we have no idea whatsoever. What is intriguing is to see the relative proportions – that in a printout several yards long, some dozen lines may be marked in dark pink. And that of course is part of where the excitement, the exhilaration of such science comes from. As I've said, it feels remarkably like human thinking in other areas. Some things we know, and some things we don't, some things – to use the phraseology of Donald Rumsfeld – we know we don't know, and some things we don't know we don't know. What's more, we may have a very strong commitment to the mechanisms of cause and effect, and yet recognize that in the real world no one cause produces one effect, and that is as true in the world of genomics as it is in the world of ordinary human observation. The causal process is real, but infinitely layered and interactive. The causal process is a nexus of relationships: not the billiard balls nudging one another, of primitive science and primitive philosophy.
Thus far, what I've been trying to say is to warn against both Messianism around science; science as the solver of all our problems and the bringer of ultimate freedom: and Luddite suspicion and terror of science. What scientists do and what scientists discover is never evil from a religious point of view. The question of meaning and of use is thrown back upon us, the human observers of this particular human practice, who have to make sense out of it, individually and socially. And when the researcher has come up with an ambiguous, uncertain, potentially dangerous discovery, we are left with the task of evaluating, we individually and socially. And if we have a problem about the advance of scientific research - as so many seem to, these days - we need to remember that the problem is not in the search, but in the lack of a shared moral, philosophical or even religious framework within which to make sense of what the scientist delivers. Let me add just one more observation on that. I've said that what the scientist discovers is never evil: the acts by which we make use of what they've discovered can be evil; and so, in certain contexts can the scientific method, when undisciplined by a shared moral framework. Once again, the scientist takes from society a sense of what is and what isn't legitimate in relation to human beings. In the Third Reich - with its deeply anti-human philosophy, its racism, its assumption about the way in which some human communities existed solely for others to dominate them – it made sense for a scientist to assume that living human beings were proper objects for research. And the research that was carried out in the death camps is one of the great blots on the history of the twentieth century. But it's true – to take an even more difficult example – that over the last century our general social attitudes to the level of research that's regarded as permissible with regard to other living organisms have changed. We are more restrictive in our attitudes about animal-based research than we were, and it is much more tightly controlled than it would have been decades back. Which is also to say that some of the very neuralgic issues that are now around about the propriety, let's say, of deliberately creating human embryos for research purposes, are not wholly new questions, nor are they questions that the scientist alone can settle. In all these instances, what the scientist is permitted to do by society, depends on attitudes and practices that science itself has not generated and is not capable of generating.
My point is that the debate is not between religion and science as if we were talking about obscurantism versus intellectual freedom. We're talking about the variegated ways in which the method and the outcome of scientific research relates to other human practices. It relates to how organisms and individuals are seen or valued in other human practices. In a tyrannical and anti-human society, the scientist will be allowed experimentation on human subjects and the issue of that research may be used to enforce tyranny. The point, however, is that the scientist is not the one who has the problem here: it is the social order in which the scientist works. And when those practices of valuing organisms are confused in our wider society, when we lack some elements of clear definition about what counts as human, it's not surprising that the method and issue of scientific research becomes problematic.
So, one of the paradoxes that emerges from all this, is, I believe, that religious faith can and ought to support and encourage science: science as a practice, with an impressive morality and spirituality, a commendation of attention and humility, the setting aside of self very frequently in the context of addressing the most painful vulnerabilities of the human world; a practice that trains selfless, even contemplative approaches to the world. The quarrel is not with that, the quarrel is with a culture confused about how it values different kinds of organism, whether you're talking about animal research or embryo research. The problem lies with our lack of clarity in that area, and I don't suggest for a moment that that is a difficulty we shall solve overnight or even that there is any one, compelling religious or moral framework which will answer all those questions straight away. I note simply that those are the issues that religious faith has an obligation to keep in the public sphere. And there may also be a quarrel where science itself is in some sense corrupted, seduced into making exaggerated claims for its problem-solving possibilities. The recent work of John Gray of the LSE has underlined some of the ways in which a new superstition about science can be sometimes colluded with by scientists understandably eager to establish their research profile and resource.
I've been suggesting that we need a great deal of clarification of our terms in understanding the encounter between faith and science. So often this encounter has been a matter of shadow-boxing, and so often in our contemporary setting – even at quite a sophisticated level – it can still be so. The theologian may find him/herself fighting against a covert theology on the part of the scientist. The scientist may mistake what the believer is claiming about creation or providence. And a good deal of patience seems to be required to tease that out. But within all that it seems to me quite important that we should recognize that the extended neo-Darwinism I have touched on, that form of scientific theory most problematic these days for religious belief, is itself deeply vulnerable to intellectual challenge and is so partly because, precisely, it's trying to be a 'theology'. But I've also been arguing that we take seriously science as a practice: something people do: that we look at what people do and in what moral and spiritual register they do it; and that we understand that the toughest problems around scientific research are not generated by scientists, but by the confusion around them. We should not seek to answer those problems by some kind of unimaginable censorship of research, but by better public debate about what human distinctiveness and human dignity might be.
One of the many great men buried in this Abbey is Charles Darwin. If you read the biographies you'll discover that at Darwin's death a number of his friends and associates were getting ready for a battle-royal over where he should be buried. And it was a dog that didn't bark. The ecclesiastical establishment at the Abbey and elsewhere, welcomed Darwin's burial in their midst. Distinguished clergy preached obituary sermons about Darwin, underlining the ethos of the work, the spirit of attention, the spirit of selflessness. The Bishop of Gloucester preached a sermon in which he – somewhat complacently - observed that in no other country in Europe would a distinguished agnostic scientist be buried in a Christian place of worship; and whether or not he was right about that, it's a very significant witness to the fact that the stand-off between faith and science, even between faith and Darwin, was not always what we might imagine it to be. And that attitude to Darwin represented by his burial in this place, is perhaps a good model for seeing the centrality, in our thinking about faith and science, of practice. What do scientists do? They do one of the things that human beings do: the sense, the import and the meaning of what they do is not internally generated, but generated by that complex of thinking, imaging and imagining that is society. That leads towards tomorrow's questions about those other things people do: politics—of which more tomorrow.
© Rowan Williams 2008
Questions and Answers following the lecture:
I'm rather sorry that we don't have a couple of hours for this. I've picked out four clusters of questions and I will try to give the flavour of some of the different sorts of issues that have come up.
Here are some questions which are really about the ethics of science, and one very straight forward one is:
In an overpopulated world, should so much effort be used in IVF procedures?
I think that focuses the very uncomfortable fact that it's not only an overpopulated world, it's a world; in which resources for scientific and specifically for medical research are finite. Having some sympathy with this question in a general way I would also want to say that one of the hardest decisions that faces many scientific communities is whether resources go on what you might call high profile and innovative work, or on the improvement and sophistication of routine work – the small incremental additions to the effectiveness of ordinary medicine. Most of the scientists, and particularly the medical scientists, I meet are quite acutely conscious of that dilemma and I think the answer, in so as there is an answer, is probably rather contextual – that is it depends a good deal where you are. In certain kinds of NHS Institutions you are almost bound to have a moral prejudice towards the improvement of routine service rather than groundbreaking research but I would be very, very reluctant to see a situation where people too readily took the high ground about the inadmissibility of innovation. So, I am as perplexed as anyone about this. I suspect that the relation between overpopulation and IVF is not as simple as it sounds in the question. Those societies where IVF is most common are not on the whole those suffering from overpopulation. That again is a reminder that science operates within a context of lots of different practices, economic and others.
Why should we assume that scientists should operate in a moral vacuum?
Well I don't, far from it. I'm simply saying that science in itself is not a morality generating thing. Many scientists are Christians and therefore will feel, and should, the duty to use their research wisely. Absolutely, and that's part of the embedded-ness of science within those other practices which do generate meaning and ethics.
What are the implications for society when we seem each to have our own definition of what it means to be human; particularly in regard to embryo research?
I think they are not very healthy implications. I wish we had some way of having a more focussed discussion about this, and the construction of a better framework.
Why not suggest a concrete system for a moral framework in which science can work? Are you afraid that you would end up with a vision of a church that is anarchic and post-Anglican?
I don't know why the words anarchic and post-Anglican should go together here - I am bound to say! I would like to see such a framework. I think that in pluralist modern democracy we are very unlikely to see it quickly and as I'll be arguing tomorrow night; the Church's role is persuasion, rather than imposition, in all of this. So it's a long task.
Has not much of scientific research or endeavour become infused with human greed, like the pharmaceutical industry?
Indeed it has. And that's an illustration, I think, of how research which in itself is value neutral, which produces goods which are morally substantive for the alleviation of suffering, can be caught up in those other practices of money making which corrupt what is being done.
Is a chemical or biological weapon evil in itself whether humanity chooses to use it or not?
The chemistry and biology are not evil. I would say the weapon is—whether we use it or not.
And the last in this cluster of ethical issues: In what way do family resemblances emerge in those who turn to religion to control, manipulate and dominate, and those who turn to science in a similar spirit?
Yes indeed, family resemblances do emerge and I think that just as there is scientism which approaches research in that spirit, sadly familiar in some of the 16th/17th century writers on this – a spirit of battering nature into submission - so there is a bad and corrupt kind of religion which does much the same thing. It assumes that nature is there to be wrestled to the ground and I think that both science and religious faith have had to do quite a lot of work in learning a more – well I think I would have to say – grateful or contemplative or appreciative understanding of our embedded-ness within the material world. The fact that we are part of it, not something else, that's a long story which takes us happily and constructively into some very important questions about the environment – religion, science and the environment – but I need I think to look at one or two other issues here. There are some about specific questions concerning theories.
All theories are overturned. Does that mean there is no certainty?
The history of science is not a history of absolute discontinuity. There are moments of, to use the familiar cliché, paradigm shift when the whole way in which scientific questions are conceived suddenly seems to move on. There are moments when practitioners of one kind of science find themselves overtaken by developments in theory and technique. There is a wonderful novel I read many years ago called 'Night thoughts of the Classical Physicist' which is about a classical physicist at the end of the 19th century suddenly seeing the beginning of quantum theory, and its all about the spiritual and mental desolation of someone who's life has been spent in one mode of research. And yet, looking back now on the history of that period and the whole history of physics, its not as if something is simply discarded as wrong. It becomes part of a cumulative and continuous interpretation.
You alluded to the problem science has with the origins of human awareness. Do you see this as a scientific problem or one intrinsically outside the scope of science?
No I don't think there are problems here that are outside the scope of scientific investigation. What I was I think trying to underline was that the most narrowly conceived forms of neo Darwinism that I mentioned really seemed very badly equipped indeed to deal with this; and, happily, lots of scientists take just the same line.
Should the Christian Church be doing more to counter the Big Bang theory advanced by science?
No – I don't think so. I'd say that the notion that the universe as we know it has a definable beginning – a primitive state if you like from which everything else comes – is by no means incompatible with Christian theology, very far from it! In the Middle Ages, St Thomas Aquinas said famously that in principle the doctrine of creation could cope with any number of histories of the universe. It didn't depend on this or that theory about how and when the universe began because the doctrine of creation simply said whatever is at any point, is because God is first - which takes me to a cluster of questions about God and the universe in a nice, simple subject matter for a short answer!
Is God bigger than the universe or is the universe bigger than God?' 'Is God limited by scientific laws?
If the universe exists because God exists, God isn't an object inside the universe. God isn't a thing amongst other things. So that this Abbey this evening doesn't contain a couple of hundred human persons and three divine ones. God doesn't fit inside the universe if what we say of God is that God's act or energy is the fundamental reality on which every other form of energy depends. I wouldn't say bigger than, because that takes into what are often rather unhelpful kind of metaphors. I used to sing with my Sunday school when I was a curate, 'My God is so big, so strong and so mighty and there is nothing my God cannot do', and that is okay when you are seven but I think you probably need to move on a little bit when you get older.
Is God bound by the laws of nature?
In a very obvious sense no. Richard Hooker, the great Anglican theologian of the seventeenth century, said that God's will was his nature and that the laws of his being were the laws of his freedom and I think that is helpful. God is what God is and nobody tells God what God can be. And the universe is there, Christians believe (and Jews and Muslims and many others too), because God is free and determined that there should be what was not God – that is the universe. And it is that conviction about the freedom of God, that God isn't inside the system, that brings me to:
Do you believe in miracles and if so, in what sense?
If in any situation in the universe there is always present the underlying action of God, then precisely in any one setting that action shows through, and what happens in the world is not going to be utterly and finally predictable – whatever we say about regularities. And so I am prepared to believe, I do believe, that there are circumstances where the act of God – the energy of God – is more perceptible/tangible (however you want to put it) than in others. So yes, I believe in miracles; not in the sense that God suddenly decides to step in and fiddle with the works. But the universe is such that in some circumstances, where Jesus is present in the New Testament, where prayer works in a certain way, it becomes possible for God's action to come through that much more directly. While I haven't got a theory of how that works, I do have a conviction that if God is what we believe God is, then that's a necessary consequence. And that does bear a little bit on attitudes to the Bible and the Creed.
This evening we've recited the Apostles Creed, how much of this creed in its existing form should a scientist be able to say with conviction?
Short answer to that – the lot! I don't see anything in the Creed to which the scientist as a scientist is bound to return a negative verdict. The Creed certainly does make some claims about miracles, specifically about the virgin birth and the resurrection, and if what I have been saying about miracles is correct then that's not something which the scientist can simply settle on general principle. Of course everyone knows, as everyone knew in the 1st century, that Virgins do not normally give birth and that bodies do not normally rise from tombs. Whatever people say about cultural and historical relativism, the people of the first century did observe what was going on in the world around them. Regularity is real and map able/chartable but as I said, if we live within the context of an infinite divine action then I can't rule that out. So I don't think the scientist as a scientist can simply say, 'Inadmissible'.
Which is why this question has a similar answer – Do scientific discoveries that contradict a literal interpretation of the Bible indicate that the Bible is to be interpreted differently in different time periods?' 'How do you approach scientists who point out contradictions in the Bible?
Oddly enough, I would say that the biggest problem for the Bible reader here is not with the scientist as with the literary critic. The literary critic may say, 'This bit of the Bible is this kind of story; its not a newspaper report, its not a scientific report, it's a tradition, it's a saga', or something like that. Or, 'It's a very potent metaphor which because we have lost some skills of reading the text we've forgotten how to read properly and think its literal.' And the absolute biblical literalist I think has more to fear or tangle with the literary critic than the scientist. The person who says, 'You do need to read the biblical text with an eye to what it is meant to say'. Let me just give you an example which might help. If I come in and you ask, 'What is the weather like outside?' and I say, 'It is raining cats and dogs'. And you go outside and are somewhat disappointed to find the sky empty of falling felines, are you going to tell me I am a liar? Probably not! You know how to read these things and it is one of the ways which we express absolutely clearly the material truth. Metaphor frequently works like that. And so it may be that lets take an example that worried some people in the seventeenth century quite a lot; when Joshua called the sun to stand still over the Valley of Ayalon so that he can defeat the Amalachites, are we to say that there is an unprecedented rearrangement of the mechanics of the solar system on that day, or are we to say that this is the equivalent of raining cats and dogs, the day seemed a lot longer – battles often do! Who knows...but that's an illustration of how we might have lost some of the skills to read properly. Back to the general question, I don't feel that it's the scientist who is the person we tussle with there. Its this whole business of reading texts as they are meant to be read. And I would, just for the record, say I think there is quite a difference between an ancient report of the battle of Ayalon in those highly emotive and pictorial terms and the reporting of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus within a couple of decades of the events in question in a literary form which is not that of an epic, or a saga, or metaphor. Some interesting questions here around determinism.
You have attacked neo-Darwinism partly for its determinism. Some much better scientists' science currently looks deterministic, such as the chaos theory. If such theories were true whence Christianity, does Christianity have a place to urge scientists to question apparently deterministic science, even when like neo Darwinism it looks good?
I think it probably does, partly because the point I touched on very briefly earlier was a sense that the causal context, or nexus of events, is a great deal more complex than just the one cause, the one effect, and chaos theory in its way rather contributes to that. There is an unpredictability about the relation of cause and event in many contexts. So I think we do have some work to do, not perhaps primarily as theologians, but as philosophers as well, to argue about some thoughts of determinism.
A very searching question about methods for verifying what is real and what is truth. Does religion have a methodology for finding answers or establishing what is real or truth?' 'If you agree that religion has a methodology would you mind sharing your own personal experience of how you find answers or truth?
There is I suppose no such thing as religion in general. People are educated and nourished in traditions of understanding and they, if you like, they receive these as proposed, and test them for truth. They may test them for truth at a number of levels. They may test the truth of historical assertions. I'll be back to that on Wednesday. They may test their adequacy to the human condition in its complexity. You may for example find that you don't want to stick with some kinds of religious belief because frankly they don't correspond with the kind of humanity you sense your humanity to be, and other peoples' humanity to be. People do, don't they, grow out of certain kinds of religion because they feel it is not talking about them; the kind of humanity they understand. So that testing for truth is never simply an objective - here's the language, there's the reality. It's that lengthy process by which, I suppose, we establish the truth or adequacy of certain things about our personal commitments, our loyalties, our love, our imagination; much more at that level than the simply scientific. I am running a little bit short of time alas, here's one point which perhaps is worth noting:
Your characterisation is just another story. A story implies something fictional whereas Darwinian evolutionary theory is based on an empirical observation, in what way can that be termed merely a story, or are you making a distinction between this a neo Darwinism?
Yes, I am. Darwin's theory is a theory; a very plausible, a very credible and resourceful way of making sense of the history of organisms.
Another questioner noted that it was a theory, not accepted universally in its classical form.
Absolutely, but it has lasted well. It has got a lot of resource in it. By all means test it in the ordinary scientific way. My objection was to what I call the neo Darwinist approach which made of Darwinism not simply a theory but a metaphysic. A complete, universally explanatory system which looked after every aspect of human life and I think that's trespassing over the boundaries of what science actually does.
I'm sorry to cut short but here are a few to round off. They are not entirely of light relief but they may be less earnest. You said the interesting debate between science and faith had moved on from genetic evolution to memetics. What was the outcome of the first debate?
Good question but I think because Christian theology has no position on genetics I would say that the result of that first debate was, if you like, a suspension of hostilities so that people can go back and redefine their terms and they found they were getting across to each other. Memetics is slightly different in that it is, I think, something which I said a moment ago trespasses on the territory which doesn't readily fall within the scientific gambit, because it can't define its terms and objects clearly enough.
Would it not be an alternative explanation to attribute Darwin's burial, and acceptance of sermons, to fogginess of thought among the theologians?
Well you never know, but I wouldn't too readily accuse some of those who preached memorial sermons for Darwin of fogginess of thought. I think they were genuinely wrestling with something slightly outside their traditional theological formation. The manifest fact is that a person of real conscience and intensely moral life had spent that life in the scientific labour of a kind which actually Christianity had always approved of – the selfless, scholarly labour – something which was thought to be a good thing. And he had come up with conclusions that were, you know, at least slightly challenging for some Christians and yet he himself had consistently refused – and it is a very marked feature of his biography – consistently refused to make his theory a kind of platform for anti-clerical polemic. He stood back from Huxley's belligerence on that subject and much regretted the way of some of what he said was thus used. And I think if I had been say Canon Liddon at St Paul's at that time, Liddon being a very traditional High Church man; I would have felt obliged to take a bit of a deep breath and say, 'I don't quite know what God was doing in the life of Charles Darwin but I am certainly not going to say it was nothing, and therefore we give him the benefit of the doubt'. I don't think that foggy, I think that is properly charitable which brings me finally to the irresistible question:
Is Richard Dawkins just a liberal Anglican in deep denial?
I look forward to asking him I think is the best way of answering that!
© Rowan Williams 2008