When physicist Professor Ian Barbour passed away last month, his obituaries, quite rightly, focused on the influence of his Christian faith on his life and work. But many did so in a way with which Professor Barbour would have likely taken issue.
They saw Barbour’s devout Christian faith as an intriguing contrast to his scientific expertise, whereas he himself saw the two as wholly and inextricably intertwined. To call the intersection of Ian Barbour’s religious and scientific interests the “faith/science debate” is to ignore the fact that he did not consider it a debate at all, but a dialogue.
Born in 1923 to missionary parents in China, Ian Barbour earned his doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago before working as a teaching assistant to Enrico Fermi, one of the developers of the atomic bomb.
But the nuclear age posed ethical challenges to Barbour, a conscientious objector in World War II, which his work in the research lab could not answer. A degree in divinity at Yale led to positions teaching physics and religion at Carleton College and several books, including Issues in Science and Religion in 1966.
The news of his death brought praise of his work from scientists and religious scholars alike; Dr Robert Russell of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences has described him as “the pioneer scholar” of the field of science and religion, while evolutionary biologist Francisco J. Ayala claimed he “probably did more for the creation of the field than anyone else.”
Barbour’s career was a witness to the idea that scientific endeavour requires moral seriousness, and that progress in the empirical sciences must not be treated as an end in itself but instead as a means of meeting our ethical obligations to our fellow human beings and to the natural world.
“The Gospel message,” he said on receiving the Templeton Prize in 1999, “can empower us to seek environmental preservation, human dignity, and social justice in the deployment of the exciting scientific advances of the new Millennium.”
Barbour’s conception of religion as something which aids and guides scientific enquiry, rather than stymieing it, is one far more historically mainstream than his sceptical obituary-writers might think. After all, the presupposition that the natural world is governed by observable laws intelligible to human reason is one that the scientific method has always shared with orthodox Christianity.
In fact, as historians of science such as Fr. Stanley L. Jaki have argued, the belief in an intelligible and divinely ordered world spurred the development of the scientific method, providing a far sounder basis for empirical inquiry than competing metaphysical systems.
Modern science’s debt to Christian philosophers
More recently, James Hannam has made the case, in his book, God’s Philosophers, that the development of the modern scientific method owes far more to the “natural philosophy” of the Mediaeval period than popular historical assumptions acknowledge. “The most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages,” he writes, “was to make modern science even conceivable.”
Common objections to the basic compatibility of faith and science often turn out to be misconceptions, the most common of which is probably that Christianity requires a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Even if a consistent, literal reading of Genesis were possible, the Church Fathers did not hold it: one of the earliest, prominent explorations of the allegorical meaning of Genesis can be found in St Augustine’s City of God, written in the early fifth century.
In the modern age, Fr Georges Lemaitre, the Catholic priest who helped develop the Big Bang theory, distinguished between natural truth, “which is proportional to the capacities of our intelligent nature,” and supernatural truth of the kind contained in Scripture, which “never could have been reached by ourselves.”
The Bible is a product of revelation, not a handbook for human enquiry. Christianity puts faith in humans, as the image and likeness of a God who is the Logos (word), to seek knowledge of the natural world as a virtuous good.
As Professor Stephen Barr of the University of Delaware has written in his book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith: “When examined carefully, scientific accounts of natural processes are never really about order emerging from mere chaos, or form emerging from mere formlessness. On the contrary, they are always about the unfolding of an order that was already implicit in the nature of things, although often in a secret or hidden way.” Christian metaphysics not only posits such an order, but empowers humanity to explore and understand it.
But faith does not only aid scientific enquiry. It can also guide the use and application of the advances which result from that enquiry, whether it the field of physics, technology or biomedicine.
Science also needs ethics
During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II spoke often of the need for the pursuit of knowledge to be joined to conscience. “Promoting the ethical dimension of scientific and technical progress,” he said in a 1994 address, “means helping it to become genuinely human, in order to build a society which is on a human scale.”
The Pope, like Professor Barbour, knew better than many that the scientific and technological advances of the twentieth century confronted humanity with profound ethical quandaries which could not be resolved through a mere hollow appeal to progress.
Then, as now, the ethics of warfare, the dignity and value of the human person, and humanity’s place in the natural world were not questions with empirically deducible answers — and the twenty-first century has shown no let-up in its demands on our consciences or moral reasoning.
In fact, what is often presented as belief in science by self-described sceptics and rationalists is in fact belief in scientism, a blindly presumptuous and self-defeating philosophy reminiscent of the perfect but narrow circles of Chesterton’s madman.
It’s notable that New Atheist definitions of scientific progress tend towards the simplistic and ethically flimsy: Sam Harris, for instance, is happy to assert that scientific knowledge enables us to make moral decisions, while not feeling the need to define the term “morality” beyond a shallow utilitarianism that breaks down in ethically complex situations.
Richard Dawkins, meanwhile, is so keen to prove (in The God Delusion )that scientific advancement goes hand-in-hand with moral improvement that he is forced to treat the twentieth century (with its “local and contemporary setbacks”) as a roadbump on the unstoppable path of moral evolution.
The argument that what is progressive is more or less the same as what is possible is hard to maintain in the early twenty-first century, if indeed it ever was. The issues of drone warfare and destructive embryo experimentation, to use two examples, suggest that scientific and technological advances do not in themselves reveal to us principles about the dignity of the human person, human rights or the pursuit of justice, but instead must be closely guided by them at every step.
Scientists of faith are not a fringe group
Religious faith can provide these much-needed principles – but first, the misconception that scientists of faith are a niche or fringe group must be urgently tackled. While some religious traditions do stand in genuine conflict with scientific fact — creationists are a conspicuous example — most faith traditions do not, with the basic metaphysical claims of theism being universally intelligible and understandable.
Unfortunately, our modern tendency to reduce religion to the purely personal, a source of subjective comfort rather than a springboard to enquiry, sets up a persistent false dichotomy between belief in a divinely ordered and purposeful universe and belief in the scientific method. In the process, this reduces scientists of faith to a mere oddity.
But Ian Barbour, with his lasting contribution to the field of physics, his principled stance against atomic weaponry and his conscientious objection to World War II, was certainly not an oddity: he was a man who believed in a world ordered and sustained by self-giving love, something intrinsically deserving of respect, protection and understanding, and acted accordingly.
As the means of technological and scientific advancement have grown in number and capability, so has our obligation to work out just exactly what ends humanity wishes to, or is required to work towards. Far from holding back scientific progress, faith can provide this often unwieldy concept with an aim, a vision and an objective meaning that enables it to serve humanity as a whole.
The passing of Ian Barbour should spur us to fill the gap that he has left, and continue to break down the misconceptions surrounding the fruitful and complementary relationship between science and faith.
Megan Hodder writes from London. Her blog can be found at Whistling Sentinel.