The Boyle Lecture 2018

Lecturer: Dr Mark Harris (University of Edinburgh)
Responder: Professor John Hedley Brooke (University of Oxford)

As a physicist working in a theological environment,
Mark Harris is interested in the complex ways in which
science and religion relate to one other.

Active in physics for many years, he is known as co-discoverer
of ‘spin ice’, currently a major research area in the physics of
magnetism. Midway through his scientific career he discovered
theology, which he describes as ‘a moment of awakening not
unlike that provided by my first chemistry set at the age of ten.’ After ordination as an Anglican priest, and spells in university chaplaincy at Oxford and cathedral ministry in Edinburgh, he now combines his academic interests in physics and theology with running the Science and Religion programme at Edinburgh.

Dr Harris is currently working on a project to create online distance learning programmes in Philosophy, Science, and Religion (funded by the John Templeton Foundation). His research interests include the relationship between the physical sciences and theology, and the impact of science on modern views of the Bible, especially in thinking on miracles and divine action. He is working on a book project on naturalism (the philosophical basis for the natural sciences), and the ways that historical debates on naturalism in geology provide a new way of looking at miracles.

Mark Harris delivered the 2018 Boyle Lecture on the following topic:

‘Apocalypses Now: Modern Science and Biblical Miracles’

‘I explore an intriguing area that has managed to creep under the radar of today’s science-and-theology conversation, namely scientific studies of the big miracle and catastrophe stories of the Bible (e.g. Noah’s flood, or the plagues of Egypt).

On the one hand, this area is nothing new, since notable scientists of the early modern period – even some Boyle lecturers – took an interest in applying their naturalistic wisdom to the mysteries of the Bible. But on the other hand, contemporary studies have brought the much-advanced empirical rigour of today’s sciences (especially earth science) to bear.

What is remarkable is that even the most spectacular and unlikely of the biblical miracles succumbs to this approach: quite simply, it seems there is almost nothing that the modern sciences cannot explain if sufficient ingenuity is brought to bear. This flies in the face of our usual understanding of a miracle as an ‘impossible’ event in natural terms, since these studies show that the seemingly impossible biblical stories are quite ‘possible’ in naturalistic terms, if unlikely.

 

So what is going on? Do these scientific accounts disprove the miraculous nature of the stories? Or do they
affirm it?

A clue to what is at stake here is a surprising disagreement between the relevant experts. While the scientists believe their naturalistic interpretations represent a major advance in understanding the stories, professional biblical scholars show little interest, or are openly disdainful, claiming that these explanations are implausible.

I point out the striking parallels between this disagreement and a long-lasting and foundational controversy in the ‘historical sciences’ (geology and evolutionary biology) known as the ‘catastrophism-uniformitarianism’ debate. Although this debate reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, many of the central questions have resurfaced in contemporary geological debate. Assessing it today (and how modern earth science has reached a resolution) takes us deep into philosophical questions about the meaning and method of science, including naturalism, the unity of science, and the possibility of a science of unique or rare events.

I suggest that it also takes us towards a novel kind of natural theology. Here, the spectacular scientific explanations of the biblical miracles do not deny their miraculous character so much as provide a uniquely modern purchase on the transcendent quality of the narratives. In that sense, the scientific interpretations are “apocalypses now”.’

 The Vote of Thanks to Mark Harris was delivered by John Hedley Brooke,
Andreas Idreos Professor Emeritus of Science & Religion, University of
Oxford, and a long-standing member of the Boyle Lectures Advisory Board.
Professor Brooke also directed the Ian Ramsey Centre at Oxford and was
Gifford Lecturer at the University of Glasgow from 1995–96. After his
retirement in 2007, John Brooke became an Emeritus Fellow of Harris
Manchester College, Oxford, and a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute
of Advanced Study in the University of Durham.

He was editor of the British Journal for the History of Science from
1989-93, served as president of the British Society for the History of
Science from 1996–98, and has been president of the Science and
Religion Forum since 2006. He was also president of the
International Society for Science and Religion from 2008-11.

Download a transcript of the lecture here.

Watch a video recording of this and previous lectures on You Tube here.