Science and faith are often seen as battling each other for dominance. Is it possible for them to coexist?
Professor Tom McLeish, B.A., Ph.D., is Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics and works at the Center for Medieval Studies and the Humanities Research Centre at The University of York.
Scott Douglas Jacobson: Where do you stand on the perceived conflict between science and faith?
Professor Tom McLeish, B.A., Ph.D.: I stand on the extreme non-conflict end of the spectrum. I am off-spectrum because I don’t recognize the question of conflict as a real one, in this sense. I am a scientist. I am a theoretical physicist. I am a Christian. Occasionally, I preach at my local church – but all these things are of one life, not two in conflict.
I have some theological training as well. When I am asked, “How do you reconcile your science with your effects?” it sounds to me like the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” There is no good answer to this.
The question presumes a whole mindset. I am not there. The question of conflict doesn’t even mean anything.
Jacobsen: So, we shift that conversation to where those questions become meaningless. It is like people trying to resolve some paradox in philosophy between being and non-being. It shifts the question.
McLeish: How do you resolve a conflict between your religious faith and your gardening? You grow tomatoes. Then you believe this extraordinary stuff about God creating the tomatoes and the gardener and you. Do these conflict? Well, no, they don’t.
Because your story, if I am talking to someone who is a Christian or a Jew, is not a made-up story. It is a real story. It is a true story. It has a beginning and a middle and an end. You are reading it somewhere. You are in it, with lots of other people.
Also, you believe you are here for a purpose. You might think, “Tomatoes are purposeless. Nonetheless, here you are doing your gardening. The reason there is no conflict is that your gardening rests within your largest story.”
Science is from God. So, I see science not as a threat to faith, if you like, or a threat to belief in God. I see science as a gift from God. God is a rather particular, rather advanced, way in which we know the universe in which we find ourselves.
Jacobsen: When it comes to formal argumentation for a god, in particular, a Christian God, what arguments do you find more appealing or convincing?
McLeish: So, I haven’t always been a Christian any more than I haven’t always believed in quantum mechanics either. So, if science is evidence-based, based on reason and experience, then to a large extent, faith must be as well.
Faith is supposed to be believing in ten impossible things before breakfast. Or maybe six. Of course, it isn’t like that to me. It doesn’t feel like that to me. The sense of religious commitment feels like being in the middle of a scientific project.
This is how it works: you have a strong hypothesis that looks very possible, but the only way to test it is to get inside it and start experimenting. So, if that is not a direct answer to your question, it puts it in context. Living the life and thought of a Christian is a bit like doing a large experiment.
On the other hand, you want the truth. Let’s look at four or five categories of things that make me suspicious that theism should be taken seriously. So, the fundamental issue is ontology. Why should there be things? Why should anything exist?
In an atheist’s worldview, that is a non-question. You will never know why things exist. They exist, live with it. But it is entirely legitimate to ask about the reason that things exist. The ground of all being, if you like.
The second, we find mind and structure in the universe wherever we look. It is rather extraordinary, the deeper we look in the atom, the furthest out to the furthest galaxies. Or into the structures of life, we see structures, anticipate structures that can be grasped by our own minds yet are not simply echoes of our own minds.
We’re finding ourselves stretched. Quantum mechanics, whatever it is. Even Feynman says no one understands it! It is a feature of the physical world that we did not expect to find, but we have the mental equipment to begin to approach it. That is miraculous in the old sense of the world. It makes me wonder absolutely.
The third reason is an odd one; not many people quote reasons for believing in God as this, as normally it is a problem for them. But for me, the existence of evil is a strong pointer towards God rather than away.
To the objection that there cannot be a great God out there, in the face of terrible, evil things, I say, “What did you say? How do you know that evil? How is it that one of our human observations is wanting to point to things that are irreducibly bad, horrors that we want to be unrepeatable? Particularly after the 20th century?”
That is almost like observing the Big Bang. Looking at worldviews that are honest about evil was one of the reasons that attracted me to Christianity in particular. Because it made a realistic account of the existence of non-relative evil.
Another reason I was attracted to Christianity when I began to understand it, was that it is an anti-religion in an important sense. Its whole dynamic is completely inverted to all that is ‘religious’ – rather than humans attempting enlightenment and perfection across a huge divide, God makes the move in the opposite direction. I was rather attracted to that.
Then you have the witness of history. You do have things, documents, individuals through history, the extraordinary creative power of this revolution. The unbelievably humble and never recorded little thousands of miracles a day of people who tell you that they’re doing this in obedience to this person.
This person they might call Jesus or might call God.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor McLeish.