This Month's Sample

Every month we are posting a new sample from the book.


I. THE FIRST SKIRMISH

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. Albert Einstein

Introduction

Science and religion, particularly science and Christianity, are seen to be in conflict. The perception is not quite correct, but Christianity, as popularly presented makes scientists uneasy. In its simplistic form it is indeed in conflict with much of science. I am involved with the Anglican Church, and my scientific understanding puts me in conflict on many occasions with Church teaching and conversation, particularly as promulgated at the suburban level. I tend to keep my counsel unless something potentially harmful is said, but often I wonder why I am there and actively participating.

Since some of the things I will be saying are directly contrary to the beliefs of many (most?) Christians I had better start on a positive note and say why I can participate and contribute in a Church and yet still be honest to my science.

Why I participate in Church

Here are my reasons:

  1. I believe — or want to believe — that life, especially human life, is precious. At all times I carry with me an awareness of other people and of this fascinating natural universe. This awareness is a precious gift. My own experience of the world is through, and limited by, my senses and mind. I am important to myself, but I know that each person on earth, also perceives the world through their mind. This gives us all status and a deep equality.
  2. Prayer — yes prayer — is useful, not because it fixes things, and gets God to run after me: it focuses me on any claims I may make about myself, versus my desires and actions. If I pray for something, I must be prepared to do something about it.
  3. Ritual, even in its minimalist Kiwi form, puts all that into an aesthetic context.
  4. Occasionally there is enjoyable music.

This is an abstract for an approach working from science towards Christianity, rather than trying to fit conventional Christianity around current scientific knowledge.

A fleck of foam

When I was young I spent much of my time on a North Island west coast beach, often walking along the shore. On one occasion there was a brisk west wind. The surf was high and rough; foam was snatched in the wind and immediately blown to shore to roll and settle on the sand.

As wisps of foam landed at my feet I wondered: "That fleck of foam was carried here by eddies of the wind. Even the smallest eddy is caused in its particular direction and force by other eddies. The eddies in turn are driven by the wind, which is driven by temperature differences over the surface of the sea and other causes that may exist but about which I do not know. The size and shape and the landing point of each fleck of foam has an immediate cause; each immediate cause arises from other causes. There seems to be no reason why the chain of cause and effect should ever break; in fact there is every reason to believe that the chain cannot break. This implies that this piece of foam landing at my feet now was determined in size, shape, place and time of arrival on this beach from the beginning of time. The location and shape of each grain of sand on this beach and the fact I am now walking along it at this moment is similarly also determined".

This was a new thought for me, but it was a line of reasoning well traversed by many scientists and philosophers since the success of the physical theories of Isaac Newton and the scientists around him. It had also been explored by the ancients, but the issue was certainly not so urgent then. Prior to the scientific era (which I am arbitrarily taking to start with the work of Galileo), cause and effect related to specific actions and events were understood. It was part of daily life. However, it was supposed that, in general, events simply occurred, possibly under the will or guidance of God. There were small islands of understandable sequences of cause—and—effect, but they were set in an unfathomable sea of things that "simply happened".

About 300 years before my walk on the beach it had dawned on scientists and philosophers that all events, down to their most minute detail, were under some sort of scientific law governing how and when they occurred. It was known that the human body was made of material substances and through the nineteenth century it became increasingly apparent that those substances operated under relevant scientific laws, particularly physics and chemistry. (The existence of medicine as a knowledge—based practice even before the scientific era bears witness to that common understanding.) The seat of the mind, initially believed to be the heart, was accepted as the brain by the seventeenth century. The brain was physical, and as such, was presumably governed by the same laws that determined how and when events would occur. The terrible possibility was that our very thoughts might be physical, chemical or biological events. Where was the will in all this? The philosophers started to worry about free will — space for humans to operate as humans. Likewise the theologians, threatened seriously now by the patently successful scientific view of life, had to find space for God to act as God.

My wondering about the foam started my closely parallel journeys: one to understand science and the other to wonder about life, its meaning and the need for a spiritual dimension to life, despite this being in apparent contradiction to the way the physical universe works. Sixty odd years on, and I am still working on both projects.