Has Science Made God Redundant?

The belief that science and religion are in fundamental conflict runs pretty deep. The young Sheldon Cooper, in his spinoff from the phenomenally successful American sitcom The Big Bang Theory, states with characteristic bluntness what for many seems an inevitable choice: ‘Science is fact. Religion is faith. I prefer facts.’

Scientists might cringe a little at Sheldon’s rather simplistic take on science ‘as fact’ – but most of us would recognise the sentiment. We try to ground our beliefs about the world on observation, experiment and logical deductions and teach our students to explore natural phenomena by seeking measurable physical mechanisms. Isn’t this scientific approach to understanding in deep opposition to that of religion and faith? The eminent James Watson, co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, was once asked whether he knew many religious scientists and he replied: Occasionally I meet them, and I’m a bit embarrassed [laughs] because, you know, I can’t believe that anyone accepts truth by revelation.’[1]

Now as someone who is both an enthusiastic (rather than eminent) work-a-day scientist and a convinced Christian, this comment touches a nerve. What if I am, in fact, being intellectually dishonest – living with double standards and requiring one level of evidence in my professional life and quite another in my life as a Christian? Perhaps you too are interested in the Christian claims about God and yet are worried about having to sacrifice your intellectual integrity. As someone who loves science and the pursuit of knowledge, I think this is a legitimate concern. If the conflict is real, then a choice must be made. If the choice really is between sure facts and blind faith, I know which way I’d want to go.

Perhaps it is possible to be deeply committed to science, and yet find oneself intellectually compelled towards faith in the Christian God

But perhaps the choice is not quite as clear-cut as we first supposed. For example, take the case of James Watson’s successor as head of the Human Genome Project. This international research project was launched in 1990 with the aim of mapping the entire human genetic code. Watson’s successor was Francis Collins, a physicist turned medic­ turned geneticist, who in 2003 (two years ahead of schedule) saw the project through to its completion. In his book The Language of God, Collins tells this story and the story of his own scientific career, but he also describes his journey towards becoming a Christian. He writes: ‘I had started this journey of intellectual exploration to confirm my atheism. That now lay in ruins as [I was] forced … to admit the plausibility of the god hypothesis.’[2]

If nothing else, this should give us pause. Perhaps it is indeed possible to be someone deeply committed to science, and yet find oneself intellectually compelled towards faith in the Christian God. If so, this would complicate somewhat the choice often presented between the sure facts of science and the blind faith of religion. It is this idea we will set out to explore here.

A history of conflict?

Those of us who’ve enjoyed a staple diet of popular science writing will be very familiar with the story of conflict – how great scientists in the past have fought to overcome the superstitions and prejudices of religion to bring about an age of enlightenment and reason.

However, a bit of digging into the actual history of science exposes a rather different picture.[3] Far from revealing a long history of conflict and struggle between science-types and religious-types we discover that many of the great scientific revolutionaries through history – Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Boyle, Clerk-Maxwell, Faraday, Newton (to name just a few) were not only believers in God but were explicitly motivated in their scientific endeavours by their religious beliefs. A stroll through the Nobel Prize hall of fame would give James Watson plenty of cause for embarrassment, with upwards of 60% of laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine over the past century identifying as Christian.[4] In fact, the ‘conflict thesis’ of science and religion is roundly rejected as pure myth by historians of science today. Peter Harrison, for instance, in his article ‘Christianity and the rise of Western Science’ sums up:

Those who argue for the incompatibility of science and religion will draw little comfort from history … the myth of a perennial conflict between science and religion is one to which no historian of science would subscribe.[5]

Consigned to history

But that’s history. Science is characterised by progress. Paradigms change and old theories are constantly being discarded and replaced by deeper and fuller conceptions of reality. Perhaps as science has progressed, belief in God has become increasingly redundant.

This is certainly the view of Peter Atkins, who was Professor of Physical Chemistry at Oxford:

Science, the system of belief founded securely on publicly shared reproducible knowledge, emerged from religion. As science discarded its chrysalis to become its present butterfly, it took over the heath.[6]

For Atkins, while religion had a role to play in our intellectual history as human beings, that role has now been thoroughly superseded by science. The power of science and the knowledge it brings has allowed us humans to spread our wings and leave the restrictive chrysalis of religion behind. Atkins goes on:

There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence. Only the religious – among whom I include not only the prejudiced, but the uninformed – hope there is a dark corner of the physical universe or of the universe of experience that science can never hope to illuminate.[7]

Atkins is making two very important claims here that we need to consider as we think about the question of whether science has made God redundant.

First, Atkins is making a very strong claim for the sufficiency of science. Science, according to Atkins, can sufficiently account for every aspect of our lived human experience, offering a comprehensive, fully orbed understanding of our universe that leaves no room or necessity for the God hypothesis. Secondly, Atkins here and elsewhere makes a claim for the exclusivity of science. He’s saying that science, as a ‘system of belief founded securely on publicly shared, reproducible knowledge’ provides a uniquely reliable source of knowledge about the world that is unrivalled by religion or any other method of discovering truth. He’s saying that Science is the best and only way of making sense of the world – we need and have no other light to illuminate our human experience.

These are significant claims with widespread support in our culture, so we need to think about these ideas in some depth.

The power of science

There is no denying the power of science. I work in the exciting area of regenerative medicine, where we are trying to use stem cells to regenerate tissues and organs lost or damaged through injury or disease. One of the big breakthroughs in my field was the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells by the Nobel prize winner Shinya Yamanaka from Kyoto University in Japan. ‘Pluripotent’ refers to the potential our cells have right at the beginning of our development as an embryo to specialise into all of the different tissues and cells that make up our body. Our adult cells lack this potential, being ‘committed’ to the different functional cell types that form our tissues and organs (e.g. bone cells, brain cells, blood cells). This means that the potential for replacing old cells with new ones to regenerate tissue is rather limited.

Science has astonishing power and therefore has huge credibility as a way of discovering truth

Shinya Yamanaka made the astonishing discovery that it is possible to take fully-matured cells, such as skin cells, and reprogram (or ‘induce’) them back into pluripotent stem cells again. Old adult cells can recover the potential they had right at the beginning of their development. For researchers like me, working in regenerative medicine, this is massive – it means that scientists may (one day) be able to take a few of your cells from a swab, turn them into stem cells, and then direct them to become neurones to cure your Parkinson’s Disease, or pancreatic cells to treat your diabetes, or various other cells to treat a host of other illnesses and injuries.

It’s an extraordinary discovery, but how did Yamanaka prove what he had done? To prove you have a stem cell you need to prove it can do everything a stem cell can do – that it is actually pluripotent. To do this, Yamanaka injected stem cells generated from some skin cells of an adult mouse into a three-day-old mouse embryo. If they were normal cells, they would die and not do anything, but because Yamanaka’s cells were indeed stem cells they went on to fuse with the embryo and contributed to the development of every tissue in the mouse’s body. This healthy mouse was a chimera with half of its cells formed from those that were, only months earlier, growing in a flask in Yamanaka’s lab.

It was a powerful demonstration of an extraordinary discovery. And it is exactly this kind of thing that gives science such credibility in our world. As Richard Dawkins notes: ‘Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when’.[8]

Science has astonishing power and therefore has huge credibility as a way of discovering truth. This realisation has led many people to say that, since science is so effective at giving us reliable knowledge of our world, we should in fact seek to explain the world only through what is permitted by the scientific method. Philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his book Consciousness Explained, describes his working methodology: ‘There is only one sort of stuff, namely matter – the physical stuff of physics, chemistry and physiology … we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws and raw materials.’[9]

Dennett’s method is shaped by the belief that science alone gives us reliable knowledge of the world, and it is therefore the only real tool we have for understanding ourselves, the universe and everything. The task before us therefore is to seek to account for everything about ourselves only in terms of biology, chemistry, and physics.

All you need is… lobes

Given the effectiveness of science, the intellectual discipline of limiting ourselves to these types of explanations may seem sensible, but it can lead to some rather counter-intuitive conclusions. To give one among many possible examples, consider this exchange Richard Dawkins had with a Christian interviewer on the topic of love:

Interviewer: Jesus said that love is the purpose of life. Does that sound nonsense to you?

Dawkins: It sounds like something grafted on, a superfluous excrescence on life, which I feel I understand better. But it doesn’t surprise me that brains, being what they are, have a capacity to invent spurious purposes of the universe.

Interviewer: What does ‘love’ mean?

Dawkins: We’ve been into that before. It’s an emotion which is a manifestation of brain stuff.[10]

For Dawkins love is nothing more than an emotion, ‘a manifestation of brain stuff’. That is all it is. And any attempt to give love a more central significance, to think that love has any relation to what makes our lives meaningful, is to impose something superfluous onto reality that is not true or real. We might like to think that it is love that lies at the core of who we are and what we value as human beings, to think that our relationships with those we love give our lives significance – but this is to indulge in make believe, to invent a ‘spurious purpose’.

On the face of it, it doesn’t seem that physiology alone can sufficiently account for key aspects of our lived experience

Now this is a very stark perspective on the purpose of life and love, but it arises as a necessity out of the strong prior commitment Dawkins shares with Dennett. It is the commitment to a methodology that seeks to explain all human experience (and everything else) only using the types of explanation available to the natural sciences – to physics, chemistry and physiology.

I think many of us would say this type of explanation of love seems rather inadequate. Clearly love is an emotion rooted in the physiology of our brains, but surely we would want to say something more about it than that. At least on the face of it, it doesn’t seem that physiology alone can sufficiently account for this core aspect of our lived experience.

Now this is admittedly a rather soft argument; we are essentially saying that this doesn’t feel right. But there is also a harder philosophical problem with Dawkins’ account of the human experience. This comes out when he says: ‘It doesn’t surprise me that brains, being what they are, have the capacity to invent spurious purposes of the universe.’ He is talking about our brains, what they are and what they are for.

Boiling down our brains

Patricia Churchland, another philosopher of science very committed to the project of reducing human experience down to biology, says this about our brains:

Boiled down to essentials … the principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive … a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism's way of life and enhances the organism's chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.[11]

So according to Churchland, the reason you and I think and try to make sense of things (what Churchland calls ‘representing’) is not ultimately to discover what is true. That is not why we are here, it is not what the world is about and therefore it is not what our brains are ultimately for. Our thoughts and beliefs are simply survival mechanisms. Their function therefore needs to be understood purely in terms of survival benefit and nothing more – any truth-finding function (if there is such a thing) is a secondary by-product.

Trying to squeeze the conception of ourselves into the very limited type of explanation that science can give us ultimately fails

Now, of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that what we think with our brains is not sometimes true. True beliefs (like ‘this lion wants to eat me’) can help us to survive. But there is no reason to assume that this is normally the case. A good example here is religion. For Churchland and others, the reason religious belief is so widespread is certainly not because of its truth benefit (far from it!) Religion could only exist because it offers survival benefits; it helps social cohesion or offers some other advantage. Because, after all, the brains with which we think and reason and believe are not in our heads to help us discover what is true or false, they are there to help us survive and that is all.

But there’s a problem here, isn’t there? Because, it is not just religious beliefs that are knocked out in this way as delusional survival mechanisms; this would apply to any or all of my sense-making beliefs, including my beliefs in science itself. Ultimately, as I try to make sense of the world and my place in it, I cannot trust what my brain tells me any more than I can trust my heart beat to keep track of time – that is simply not what it is for. This leads to all kinds of problems because if I cannot trust my brain, I cannot trust my brain even when my brain tells me I cannot trust my brain! It is what philosophers call self-refuting; a conclusion that undermines itself. Raymond Tallis, a secular philosopher of science who nevertheless recognises this problem, draws out the same implication:

The biologistic image of humans effectively denies the centrality, even the possibility, of precisely those unique capacities that have made humans able to theorise about evolution or to develop neuroscience. If On the Origin of the Species really were the last word on humanity, it could not have been written.[12]

Tallis’s point is that the attempt to try and explain ourselves only in terms of biology ends up undermining science itself. Trying to squeeze the conception of ourselves into the very limited type of explanation that science can give us ultimately fails. Censoring out anything in our human story that is not validated by a scientific experiment means the story no longer makes sense. It becomes incoherent. Biology, chemistry and physics describe aspects of our humanity but on their own are not sufficient to account for who or what we are.

Making sense of science

We should note in passing that the Christian belief in a rational creator who made us in his image provides a much more promising basis for science than this purely ‘biologistic’ image of ourselves. As Simon Conway Morris, Cambridge Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology (himself a Christian) argues:

Being a product of evolution gives no warrant at all that what we perceive as rationality … has as its basis anything more than sheer whimsy. If, however, the universe is actually the product of a rational Mind and evolution is simply the search engine that in leading to sentience and consciousness allows us to discover the fundamental architecture of the universe – a point many mathematicians intuitively sense when they speak of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics – then things not only start to make much better sense, but they are also much more interesting. [13]

We have already noted the strong Christian commitment of many of the great pioneers of science. Historians of science recognise that this wasn’t a coincidence. For their painstaking experiments and deep thought to be worthwhile, those early scientists had to believe that deep down, the universe both made sense and that it could make sense to them. As Roger Trigg, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, points out, neither of these beliefs can be taken for granted: ‘As a matter of historical fact, modern science has developed from an understanding of the world as God’s ordered Creation, with its own inherent rationality.’[14]

Going beyond science

To sufficiently understand ourselves as human beings, even to make sense of science itself, it seems we need to look beyond science. But that is the whole problem, isn’t it? What is there outside the scientific method that could possibly give us such reliable knowledge of the world? Even if science is not sufficient, is it not still unique in its ability to get at truth?

The famous philosopher Bertrand Russell certainly thought so and wrote, ‘Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.’[15]

To sufficiently understand ourselves as human beings, even to make sense of science itself, it seems we need to look beyond science

Now we should note briefly that there is a problem with this statement. Russell is clearly claiming to know something here, but we can safely assume that he has not attained this knowledge by scientific methods. He is after all a philosopher and not a scientist. He is therefore claiming to know something that, by his own standards, he cannot know.

But underlying this problem is another perhaps more fundamental one, which the philosopher E.A. Burtt warned of:

A man engaged in any important inquiry ... must have a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics of his method, that is to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful.[16]

Burtt is warning of the danger (apparently only faced by men) of allowing a given method to determine what the universe is like, rather than the other way around. That might sound a bit philosophical and abstract – but it’s actually a very basic mistake. In fact, arguably, it’s a mistake that my daughter had learned to avoid by the time she was only one year old. When my daughter was about nine or ten months old and she saw me with my phone and wanted to play with it, it was enough for me to simply put my phone away in my pocket. She would then happily behave as if it no longer existed and move on to wanting something else she wasn’t allowed to have. Only a few months later, this tactic no longer worked. By then, she had learned something very important about the universe: just because she couldn’t see something didn’t mean it was not available for her to play with. She just needed to use a different method to get access to it. So she would tug my sleeve, put on a cute face, smile at me – and sooner or later she would, sure enough, gain access to the object of her fascination (this latter method has, by the way, stood the test of time).

There is a real danger of allowing a given method to determine what the universe is like, rather than the other way around.

In the same way, scientists learn very early on that nature has to determine method – not the other way around. It is bad science to say ‘I have got this really great assay, it always gives me reliable results, so I’m going to limit my understanding of my subject only to what I can find out using this assay’. An astronomer doesn’t say, ‘Well, my telescope can only see so far, so I will squeeze my understanding of the universe into only what I can see through my telescope’. To do so would be to distort our conception of reality by conforming it to the limits of the method – rather than allowing the characteristics of reality itself to shape our methods and concepts. This, I think, is the mistake that results in the very unsatisfactory ‘biologistic image’ of ourselves that we have seen above. We’ve been squeezed into a mould pre-determined by a limited method.

Ironically then, this mistake of ‘scientism’ – claiming science as the only way to reliable knowledge – is in the end bad science. Scientists (when they are actually doing science rather than trying their hand at philosophy) realise, like my daughter, that there is always more to discover than what our current methods can tell us. In fact, this belief is precisely what drives science beyond its current limits because scientists keep working to find new and better ways of seeing further and deeper.

Scientists are always asking a very important question: ‘What if?’ What if there was more to discover, if only we could see more? What if it worked this way? What if it was like this? This question doesn’t just motivate new research it also helps us design the methods that will allow us to access these hypothetical possibilities. If it was like this – what would we expect? How could we test for it? How could we see it? This is the way scientists attempt to go beyond the current limits of science to find new ways of accessing reality.

What if…?

So let’s put this question to the topic of purpose that’s cropped up a few times already. What if there was more to life and love and nervous systems than mere survival? What if love was, in fact, central to the purpose of life? What if trying to make sense of things was at least part of what our brains were actually for? How would we go about discovering and exploring such a thing as purpose?

The philosopher and theologian Lesslie Newbigin offers a helpful insight here on the limitations of the scientific method for exploring something like purpose:

Cause is something that can be discovered by observation and reason. Purpose is not available for inspection because until the purpose has been realized, it is hidden in the mind of the one whose purpose it is. [17]

Newbigin recognises that while mechanisms of cause and effect tend to be accessible to scientific investigation, there is something different about purpose that means it is hidden from such experimental techniques. Why is that? Newbigin sees that a purpose, or a goal, is something that only a person has or can give. To form a goal or purpose involves visualising future possibilities; it involves forming desires and making plans and taking steps to achieve those plans and fulfil those desires. Purposes are personal, they arise in a person’s mind, and as such are hidden from inspection.

Newbigin gives an analogy of coming across a building site. You see trenches in the ground, some bricks stacked up here and there and some tools lying around. You can probably discern there is some kind of purpose behind the phenomena you observe, but you wouldn’t immediately be able to identify what the purpose was.

Purposes are personal, they arise in a person’s mind, and as such are hidden from inspection

I think this is a bit like the way we encounter life in our world: there’s lots of mess and chaos and loose ends, but there are also all kinds of hints of purpose. The experience of beauty, the belief that our lives are significant and have meaning, the frustration that things are not as they ‘should’ be, the sense of unfulfilled promise. But, if there were such a thing as a purpose to our lives, how would we find out what that purpose is?

In the case of the building site you have two options. You can take the empirical approach of going back later to inspect the building as construction reaches completion. You wait, in other words, until the purpose is realised to discover what the purpose of the building site was. The alternative, if you do not want to wait, is to go and find the architect or the builder, the one whose purpose it is, and ask them to reveal it to you.

But, Newbigin says, when it comes to discovering the purpose of the universe, or even the purpose of our lives, the first option is simply not available to us – waiting around until the end is not an option! If there is a purpose to our lives in this world, the only way we could discover it would be for the one whose purpose it is to make it known to us.

The one whose purpose it is

At the heart of Christianity is the claim that there is a creator God who has made not just his purposes in creation, but his very self, known and knowable to us.

The Gospel of John, a first century eyewitness account of Jesus’ life, opens with these very remarkable words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him’(John 1:1).

The astonishing claim of Christianity is that the ultimate logic behind the universe has made himself known to us by becoming one of us

That word ‘Word’ is the Greek term logos, from which we get our word logic. It is tied to the idea that behind everything there is an inherent rationality, a deep principle or logic that allows us to make sense of this world and our place in it. Discovering this logos, and living life in harmony with it was, for the ancient Greek philosophers, the secret to living a good, fulfilled and worthwhile life.

But John takes this idea of the logos and he does something very interesting. He personalises it. John says of ‘the Word’ that ‘he was in the beginning with God’. The logos, according to John, is not something but someone. But then he goes even further:

‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory. No one has ever seen God, the only God who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known’ (John 1:14).

The astonishing claim of Christianity is that the reason for everything, the ultimate logic behind the universe, has made himself known to us by becoming one of us. He has made himself accessible to us.

The secret to science’s success

The reason for the great success of science, is not so much the ingenuity of its methods – wonderful and ingenious though they often are. Nor is it simply down to the rigours of its institutions and practices, or the creativity and dedication of scientists themselves – though all of this needs to be credited. The success of science is ultimately due, I think, to the accessibility of its subject matter.

The central claim of Christianity is that we can know and encounter God, because he has made himself accessible to us

The natural sciences deal with the stuff you can get your hands on, things you can pull apart, prod, poke, manipulate and control. It is nature’s accessibility to this experimental method that underlies science’s successes. When science advances, it is usually because new techniques have been developed that allow scientists to access new parts of reality that were before beyond their reach. Even new ideas themselves take hold because they allow us to intellectually ‘grasp’ problems that previously had seemed slippery or intractable. The success of science can ultimately be credited to the accessibility of its subject matter.

The central claim of Christianity is that we can know and encounter God, the one whose purpose it is, for precisely the same reason. In the person of Jesus, God became flesh and blood and entered into human history. He has put himself within our reach; he has made himself accessible to us. What does this mean?

Subject to scrutiny

First of all, this means that the God of Christianity has made himself accessible to our scrutiny. Christianity stands or falls on a historical claim, a claim that can be investigated. You can’t scrutinise a private revelation in a cave, a mystical experience or a lofty philosophy – these have to be taken on faith alone. But the claim that Jesus lived and died and rose again is a claim that we are invited to test and explore. Like a cosmologist today, analysing cosmic radiation from the big bang at the very beginning of the universe, or a palaeontologist studying the impact of an asteroid millennia ago, or a geneticist tracing a vestigial trait back through evolutionary history, so too the astonishing impact on history of a crucified carpenter’s son two thousand years ago is something open to our investigation. The New Testament writers invite us to do just this by examining their testimony and weighing up the evidence they provide for what they claim to have seen, heard and touched: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life’ (1 John 1:1).

Getting personal

But accessing this reality isn’t just a question of testing a historical claim. If Jesus is who he claims, then ultimate reality is not something but someone. Behind everything, the reason for our existence is not an equation or logical principle or force accessible only to the great minds of scientists and philosophers. It is a person. A person, no less, who knows you and loves you and has gone to very great lengths to make himself knowable to you. By becoming one of us and dwelling among us, the God of Jesus invites us not only to believe in his existence, but to know him personally.

Now, I’m a scientist. I completely understand that this sort of talk may leave you feeling a little uncomfortable. As Sheldon Cooper caricatures so wonderfully, scientists are not known for being ‘people people’. We are often more comfortable dissecting the subjects of our investigation, rather than talking to them! But however uncomfortable we may feel about this, the appropriate response to such a claim is not to reject it out of hand as being outside the scope of our preferred methodology, but rather to address the hypothesis and ask again ‘what if?

To reject the Christian claim out of hand by insisting on believing only in things you can do experiments on is to decide the answer even before you begin your investigation

Because, if ultimate reality is not something you can prod, poke, manipulate and control, but is rather someone who addresses you and invites you to get to know them, then the method of approach has to change. As a scientist who is also married I myself have learnt that doing experiments on someone is not a good way of getting to know them!

Getting to know someone means opening yourself up to the possibility that they actually want you to know them. When I first met my wife, she, of course, told me her name. If at that moment, I had scoffed and said: ‘Look, I am a scientist, you can’t expect me to accept truth by revelation, please show me some form of identification.’ I’m almost certain (knowing her as I do now) that she wouldn’t be my wife today. I would never have got to know her. My method would have determined my (rather sad) reality.

The Christian claim is that ultimate reality is someone who has made himself like one of us to make a relationship with you and me a possibility. To reject this claim out of hand by insisting on believing only in things you can do experiments on, is to decide the answer even before you begin your investigation. It is to let your method determine your reality. It is not, in other words, good science. Only by facing the hypothesis as a live option on its own terms, by opening yourself up to it as a real possibility – will there be any hope of discovering the truth of the hypothesis either way.

Methodology

How do we do this? Well, we start by looking into the claims that the New Testament makes about Jesus. We investigate the testimonies of those who claimed to have heard and seen and touched to see for ourselves if they make sense – if they stand up to scrutiny. An excellent place to start is the Gospel of Luke and then his account of the growth of early Christianity – the first thirty years – in his second ‘book’, the Acts of the Apostles. Luke was a first century Greek physician, who set out explicitly to ‘carefully investigate’ the accounts of the eyewitnesses for himself (Luke 1:1).[18]

But also, given that we may be engaged in getting to know someone who – according to the hypothesis in question – also addresses us, it would seem appropriate to experiment with prayer. If there is no God then presumably the null hypothesis will stand – nothing of any significance will happen. But if God is there, and if he is the God that Jesus claimed to reveal, then talking to him, acknowledging our doubts and suspicions, asking him to reveal the truth to us – beginning, in other words, to try to relate honestly to this relational reality – may in fact be the most ‘scientifically’ appropriate thing we could try and do.

Conclusions and future directions

The Christian claim that God, the logos behind the universe, has made himself accessible to us, is a hypothesis worthy of our investigation

My hope is that this brief article will reopen investigations into the Christian claims about Jesus that may have stalled because of fears of going beyond the limits of science. The scientific method, though wonderful and powerful, is neither sufficient nor exclusive. The attempt to squeeze ourselves, the universe and everything into only what we can find out by doing experiments ends in incoherence – failing to make sense even of science itself. The belief that the scientific method is the only way to explore reality ends up shutting down investigations and limiting the possibility of discovering the richness of the real world – especially one in which purpose and personhood feature so prominently.

I believe the Christian claim that God, the logos behind the universe, has made himself accessible to us, is a hypothesis worthy of our investigation. As I’ve investigated and discovered the person of Jesus for myself, my experience has not only been that questions are answered but also that new questions, indeed a whole new world of discovery, opens up. If it is indeed true, then as Conway Morris said, things not only start to make much more sense – they also become much more interesting.

References

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Black Swan, 2007), pp.125–6

[2] Francis Collins, The Language of God (Free Press, 2006), p.30

[3] Ronald Numbers, ed. Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2009)

[4] See for example – Weijia Zhang and Robert Fuller, ‘Nobel prize winners in physics from 1901 to 1990: Simple statistics for physics teachers’. Physics Education, 33(3) (May 1998), pp. 196–203; Baruch Shalev, 100 Years of Nobel Prizes (Los Angeles, 2005); Harriet Zuckerman, Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States (New York: The Free Press, 1977)

[5] Peter Harrison, ‘Christianity and the rise of western science’, ABC, 8 May 2012 

[6] Peter Atkins, ‘The Limitless Power of Science’ in Nature's Imagination – The Frontiers of Scientific Vision (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p.125

[7] Peter Atkins, ‘The Limitless Power of Science’ in Nature's Imagination – The Frontiers of Scientific Vision (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p.125

[8] Ricard Dawkins, ‘What is True?’ in A Devil's Chaplain (W&N, 2004) p.15

[9] Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Little, Brown and Co, 1991) p.33

[10] Nick Pollard, ‘The simple answer – Richard Dawkins’, Third Way vol. 18, no. 3, April 1995

[11] Patricia Churchland, ‘Epistemology in the Age of Neuroscience’ The Journal of Philosophy vol. 84, no. 10, 1987, pp.544–553

[12] Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind (Acumen Publishing, 2011) p.12

[13] Simon Conway Morris, ‘Darwin was right. Up to a point.’ The Guardian,12 Feb 2009

[14] Roger Trigg, ‘Does Science Need Religion?’ Faraday Papers, no. 2 (April 2007) 

[15] Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p.243

[16] E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science: A Historical and Critical Essay, Volume 3 (Routledge, 1924) p.226

[17] Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (1995), p.15, emphasis added.

[18] For a recent analysis of the Gospels as eyewitness testimony see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd Edition (Eerdmans, 2017)