Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine January-February 2010

Science and Religion News

McGRATH EDGES TOWARDS TRANSCENDENT MIND

In the Christian Evidence Society's 'Drawbridge Lecture' in November, hosted at King's College, London, Professor Alister McGrath delivered a forthright argument entitled The Rationality of Faith,' in the face of recent years' attacks by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, amongst others, the advocates of the so-called 'New Atheism.' Prof. McGrath was indeed one of the first off the block to publish a response in the wake of Dawkins's The God Delusion in 2007, and this recent lecture was part of his sustained defence of the reasonableness of faith, specifically the Christian faith. In the last main section of his lecture, he showed how the Christian faith is good at 'making sense of the natural sciences.' The following three paragraphs are a quotation from the latter partof his lecture.

We ... consider how the natural sciences fit within the geography of faith. My own time as a scientist impressed upon me the privilege of being able to investigate a universe that is both rationally transparent and rationally beautiful, capable of being represented in elegant mathematical forms. One of the most significant parallels between the natural sciences and Christian theology is a fundamental conviction that the world is characterised by regularity and intelligibility. As one modern cosmologist has noted, "the God of the physicists is cosmic order" (Heinz Pagels, The Cosmic Code). There is something special about the world - and the nature of the human mind - which allows patterns within nature to be discerned and represented.

This perception of ordering and intelligibility is of immense significance, both at the scientific and religious levels. As Paul Davies points out, "in Renaissance Europe, the justification for what we today call the scientific approach to inquiry was the belief in a rational God whose created order could be discerned from a careful study of nature" (Paul Davies, The Mind of God).

Yet how are we to account for the regularity of nature? And for the human ability to represent it so well? Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from? Why is nature actually intelligible to us? The human capacity for understanding our world seems to be far in excess of anything that could reasonably be considered to be simply an evolutionary necessity, or a fortuitous by-product of the evolutionary process.

The British theoretical physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne is an example of a writer who sees this as pointing to a Christian schema. There is, he argues, a "congruence between our minds and the universe, between the rationality experienced within and the rationality observed without" (John Polkinghorne, Science and Creation) A naturalistic metaphysics is unable to cast light on the deep intelligibility of the universe, in effect being forced to treat it as a fortunate accident. However, a theistic metaphysics argues that there is a common origin to both the rationality that we find within our minds and the rational structure of the physical world that we observe in the rationality of God. In other words, Christianity offers a framework which makes sense of what isotherwise a happy coincidence. This is the conclusion reached by the "Test of Faith" DVD which we reviewed in this column last September.

One of Prof. McGrath's latest books, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology, was reviewed favourably in the previous issue of Faith magazine.

HELLER EDGES TOWARDS TRANSCENDENT MIND

On the 12th November Professor Michael Heller, the Polish priest winner of the 2008 Templeton prize (see this column in the July/August 2008 issue) delivered a lecture entitled 'The Creation of the Universe.' He divided his presentation into two sections: 'Science' and 'Philosophy.' The first part gave a clear overview of how Einstein's mathematical equations (a key one of which was explained in some detail) related to overall theories of the universe. In the second part he posed the question 'Where do these physical laws come from?' In this he emphasised the Greco-biblical concept of 'Logos' as that "foundational wisdom of the universe." He also brought out Thomas Aquinas's insistence that based upon reason alone the universe could be eternal and that the heart of the rational doctrineof creation was the "creature's continual dependence upon the creativity of the Creator." Professor Heller's main point here was that, as per Einstein, to exist was equivalent to being comprehensible: that which is intrinsically contradictory cannot exist.

His unspoken implication seemed to be that the first half of his lecture had shown how cosmological science thoroughly supported this insight. He then humbly, if somewhat abruptly, left a final slide upon the screen with a big satellite disc looking into the night sky at a big question mark. He ended the question time by recounting a discussion he had had with Richard Dawkins many years ago. In response to a question about the difference between the two of the them Professor Heller had suggested it was just one letter: he "believed in Reason with a capital 'R', whereas Dawkins believed in reason with a small 'r'. Dawkins thought for a while and then said 'I think he's right.'"

FOSSIL EVIDENCE

One of the arguments often put about for a disbelief in Darwinian evolution is the absence in the fossil record of species 'intermediate' between others. Yet this argument is on very thin ice, since the fossil record is of its nature a very poor record of the life-forms that have ever flourished on the face of the planet. Scarcely any of the billions of living individuals have ever left their trace in an existing fossil, since the deposit of such a preserved fossil relies on very specific climatic/geological conditions to have occurred at the time of the organism's death. However, from time to time such startling 'intermediate' forms do show up in palaeontologists' digs. The classic such find was only 2 years after Darwin's publishing On the Origin of Species: the first fossil ofthe species we know as Archaeopteryx was unearthed in southern Germany in 1861, and provided outstanding confirmation of Darwin's new ideas on evolution. We mentioned in Cutting Edge in the May/ June 2008 issue that a fossil of a giraffe with a neck length perfectly intermediate between short-necked species and long-necked species had just been discovered by geologist Donald Prothero. And recently there has been another great fossil found by Chinese palaeontologists, namely another type of feathered dinosaur, obvious precursors of modern birds. The animal, known to science as Anchiornis huxleyi (named in honour of Thomas Huxley, an early advocate of Darwin's ideas) is an older species than Archaeopteryx by some 10 million years, being dated to the lateJurassic period, c. 151-161 millions years ago. It resembled a two-legged dinosaur, and yet had wings and lots of feathers on all four limbs. The fossil's find has been described in Nature, vol. 461, p. 640, and the authors consider the find a crucial specimen in resolving the so-called 'temporal paradox': whereas the most bird-like dinosaur fossils have been found from the Cretaceous (post-Jurassic) period when already there is evidence of a diversity of bird life, fossils like Ms Anchiornis show that bird-like dinosaurs did already exist before the evolution of birds, strengthening the evidence of that evolutionary link.

POPE BLESSES NEW VATICAN OBSERVATORY

On the 16th September His Holiness Pope Benedict visited the new location of the Vatican Observatory headquarters. From 1935 and until recently the Vatican Observatory had been housed within the palazzo of the Pope's summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. It has not moved far away: only to the other, Albano, end of the Pope's Castel Gandolfo gardens within a former Basilian monastery. This move out of the actual papal palace will allow greater flexibility for the observatory headquarters to stage its regular events and summer schools, and to welcome visitors more easily. On the occasion of his recent visit, the Pope blessed the new observatory premises, and visited the observatory's collection of astronomical equipment and artefacts, including (to the delight of Br Guy Consolmagno, whorecounted it the next day at a talk in London) the Vatican's collection of meteorites. 2009 is the International 'Year of Astronomy,' being 400 years since 1609 when Galileo first made astronomical observations through his telescope. Even at the start of the year, the Pope made reference to the Year of Astronomy during an Angelus message, citing the interest that Popes down the centuries have taken in astronomy. Br. Guy Consolmagno took the opportunity then of expanding on the Pope's citations in an online article available here: http://vaticanobservatory.org/ News\_PB\_IYA.html. It is always instructive to reflect on Pope Leo Xlll's intention when he re-founded the Vatican Observatory in 1891: "...that everyone might seeclearly that the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible devotion."


Faith Magazine

January - February 2010