Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine September-October 2009

Science and Religion News


A new resource has become available very recently which seeks to embrace the important matter of 'science and faith'. The 'Test of Faith' project comprises a DVD and associated print materials. The film has won silver in the category Best Documentary in the 2009 IVCA (International Visual Communications Association) Awards.

Utilising interviews with a number of prominent Christians in high-level science, the film addresses in a three-part (totalling 90-minutes) presentation the 'big questions' which lie at the science-faith interface. As the promotional material says: "The claim is that science has pushed God into the margins. But is the truth more complex? Talking to leading scientist-believers, we probe the issues at the heart of this debate. Has science really murdered God? Or is the God question being redefined in new ways by science?" The materials were launched at the Royal Society on 13th July last.

The project is an initiative of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, based at St Edmund's College, Cambridge, and founded in 2006.


At the launch the first part of the DVD, "Beyond Belief", was shown. This well makes quite a number of points that harmonise with the approach of Faith movement. The Rev Dr John Polkinghorne points out that the explanations from the point of view of intelligent decision and from physical secondary causation are not incompatible concerning a boiling kettle, nor need they be concerning the universe. The thought of Deism and Intelligent Design is rejected as is the related "God-of-the-gaps" approach, which is rightly described as dangerous because it makes itself very vulnerable to further scientific discovery closing those gaps. Moreover God as the deistic "lighter of the blue touch paper"

has already been seriously challenged by speculations about how the Big Bang might have begun, by thinkers such as Hawkin. Rather we are well reminded that the Judaeo-Christian God is the immediate sustainer of all, and that to give a scientific explanation is more evidence for the Creator than against him.

The Anthropic Principle is engagingly presented. This takes the widely accepted fact that the strength of basic forces of the universe, as measured by fundamental physical constants, are exactly right, and "fine-tuned", for a development upon the Big Bang which produced planets like ours, fit for the evolution of life. Fred Hoyle is quoted: "the universe is a put up job".


At this point Alistair McGrath proffers a point of divergence from the position presented by this magazine, Catholic Tradition, the First Vatican Council and St Paul to the Romans concerning the "provability" of the Creator from observation of nature. He affirms that whilst the universe is "as one would expect" an "intelligent creator to make it" we don't have the evidence for an incontrovertible proof - as per the title of the latest book of another prominent contributor to the documentary: There Almost Certainly Is A God.

In FrTim Finigan's positive presentation of the evening and the film on his blog he makes the following observation:

"One evangelical questioner quoted Romans 1.20 to which Professor Polkinghorne replied candidly that he disagreed with St Paul since he did not think his atheist friends to be stupid. However, minds can be 'darkened' in various ways, not only through stupidity. Professor Polkinghorne would also consider the 'Intelligent Design' school to be mistaken but would presumably not regard them as stupid. It is possible for intelligent men to be mistaken about the force of evidence. I certainly do not regard

Richard Dawkins as a stupid man and greatly admire his presentation of the evidence for natural selection; but I think he is wrong about the existence of God and I would argue that the evidence shows him to be wrong."

Polkinghorne even suggested that both atheists and theists have an assumed metaphysical "brute fact" behind their basic interpretation of the cosmos: either the material world comes from an absolute intelligence or it is just there, absolute in itself. He preferred the former "worldview" as making more sense of human experience.

Simon Conway-Morris describes the metaphysical realm as uniquely containing beliefs that one must simply take on trust, and cannot be proved. In the second programme he describes the "metaphysical context" of physical science simply as that which adds a dimension of "excitement" to our beliefs.

Polkinghorne explained that "Science tells us how the world works, but religion tells us there is a meaning and purpose, something being fulfilled in the unfolding of the history of the world. So I need both those perspectives if I am truly to understand the really rich and remarkable world in which we live."

As ever we would think that this mefaphysical "worldview" as that which gives a helpful context to physics but is not inherently complementary to and flowing from it is not quite right, nor is it the traditional Christian one. The idea that the sources of scientific and metaphysical knowledge are almost separate is we think too influenced by that pre-scientific ontology which was rightly holistic but only through being quasi-dualistic. When combined with the non-dualistic physical ontology of modern discovery, the holism has been put under threat and the reductionist reaction of much atheism has been fostered (see our May issue). We would argue that the phenomenon of human minds self-consciously observing the physical is the source of science, and with and through thisthe source of metaphysics. The physical always immediately points to the spiritual as its meaningful context (see our editorial).


It is interesting that the film goes straight on to consider atheistic attempts to hypothesise a "multi-verse" in order to undermine the theistic use of the Anthropic Principle. The idea is that each universe has different fundamental constants, and ours is just the "lucky" one. This directly challenges the idea that, given that life would not have emerged if the physical constants had been a little bit different, they must (very likely) have been set by an intelligence.

The film surely rightly points out that this very speculative idea that our universe is just one of a very large number just makes the cosmos bigger, without thereby removing the apparent need for the sustenance of God. But the DVD doesn't really explain why this is so, moving quickly on to affirm that such atheistic use of the multi-verse still leaves unanswered the question "Why something rather than nothing?" This response to the multi-verse challenge seems actually to move a little away from the documentary's earlier stated position that the universe is as you would expect a designed cosmos to be.

We think it more fruitful to emphasise, from the "anthropic" angle indeed, but also from the very nature of matter-energy, the overall physical unity of the cosmos. This affirmation is certainly not affected at all by the proposal that our universe is, somewhat mysteriously, inter-connected with other ones, and argues, a posteriori, for an immediately complimentary, creative mind which founds and sustains its order across space and time. The traditional, intimate development of metaphysics upon physics is the template to which to return. In light of modern science it can revindicate St Paul's insight and Catholic teaching, and help set the foundations anew of a Christian civilization.


When asked about the body-soul distinction, Polkinghorne, argued engagingly for a distance from dualism, while maintaining a certain complimentarity of the physical and the spiritual. The third programme in the series "Is There Anybody There?" argues for a significant distinction of humans from animals, when looking at our creativity, moral reasoning and experience of being free. It proposes that this "spiritual" dimension is an emergent phenomenon from the complexity of the brain, just as nature is shot through with unities having holistic properties. It admits to this leaving a remaining mystery concerning just how low-level mechanism coheres with freedom.

This position, we think, treats the determinism of physical things and the freedom of humans as just one of a list of properties. We would argue for them being defining characteristics respectively of matter and mind. Physical matter is intrinsically determined, and spiritual mind, whether of man or of the Transcendent God in whose image he is made, is intrinsically a free determiner. They are distinct but complementary. Thus we would argue for the classical Christian doctrine of the non-physical human soul, inter-defined with the human body.

We think this is the missing link in the noble and engaging vision of the Test of Faith project.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2009