The Boyle Lecture 2018

‘Apocalypses Now: Modern Science and Biblical Miracles’

7 February 2018 at St Mary-le-Bow, London

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.

The Boyle Lecture 2017

‘Exploring the influence of theology on scientific research programmes: natural theology in reverse’

29 March 2017 at St Mary-le-Bow, London

Lecturer: Professor Robert J. Russell
(Founder and Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science in Residence at the Graduate Theological Union)

Responder:
The Rt Revd and Rt Hon. The Lord Williams of Oystermouth
(Master, Magdalene College, Oxford)

The key claim advanced in this year’s Boyle Lecture is that theological convictions held by research scientists can play a fruitful and creative role both in the construction of new scientific theories and also in choosing between existing theories, particularly when those theories are equally supported by empirical evidence. Such “natural theology in reverse” is not meant to offer support for theology from the success of these scientific theories, but it does show that theology includes cognitive claims about the world as created by God and that those claims can be of value to research scientists who study this world using standard scientific methodologies.

Professor Russell’s lecture reviews key developments in 20th century cosmology and physics to explore this “natural theology in reverse”. It draws on contemporary philosophy of science to provide support for the claim that “extra-scientific” factors play a vital role in constructive science. It further considers the claim with reference to the conflict between Albert Einstein’s Big Bang cosmology and Fred Hoyle’s steady state cosmology, as well as the development of quantum mechanics in the period 1900-1930. The lecture concludes by suggesting ways in which the influence of theology in science might be more actively and explicitly pursued, starting with hints from the writings of Wolfhart Pannenberg and John Polkinghorne, and concluding with Professor Russell’s own use of the term “creative mutual interaction” to model this dynamic two-way interaction.

 

Robert John Russell is Founder and Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS). He is also the Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science in Residence at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU). He has written and edited a great deal on possible scientific mechanisms for the beliefs of Christianity.

Russell is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, a B.S. in physics from Stanford University, an M.S. in physics from UCLA, and an M.A. in Theology and an M. Div. from Pacific School of Religion. He taught physics at  arleton College and science and religion with Ian Barbour for several years before joining the GTU in 1981. His wife, Charlotte, is an associate minister at First Congregational Church,
Berkeley, California.

Download a transcript of the lecture here.

Download a transcript of the response here.

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

The Boyle Lecture 2016

‘Natural Theology in a Changed Key?
Evolution, Cooperation and the God Question’

3 February 2016 at St Mary-le-Bow, London

Lecturer: Professor Sarah Coakley
(Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge)

Responder: Professor Christopher Insole
(Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University)

Sarah Coakley writes: ‘The latter part of the 20th century saw a revulsion against classic forms of “natural theology” which was propelled as much by theological fashion as by secular scientific resistance. This lecture lays out a cautious case for the reconsideration of a new style of “natural theology”. It does so in the light of remarkable new discoveries in mathematicalized accounts of evolutionary “cooperation” which significantly challenge the idea of pervasive randomness in evolutionary processes. The ethical and teleological questions which are raised by these cooperative phenomena, it is argued, demand some sort of meaning-making response and ultimately metaphysical issues cannot be shirked. The question of God is reconsidered in this context, with a surprising final twist to the argument in which the human epistemic subject is itself drawn towards an invited transformation.’

As Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, Sarah Coakley holds the established chair at the University of Cambridge in philosophy of religion. She has previously held positions at the Universities of Lancaster, Oxford, and Harvard, and a visiting professorship at Princeton. She has been awarded honorary degrees by the University of Lund, the University of St Andrew’s and General Theological Seminary, New York. In 2012 she delivered the Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen on the topic Sacrifice Regained: Evolution, Cooperation and God. In 2012 she was also elected a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, and in 2013 the President of the British Society for Philosophy of Religion.

The first volume of Professor Coakley’s four-volume Systematic Theology, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, CUP) appeared in 2013. The second volume was recently given as the Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. Her 2012 Gifford Lectures are due to be published in book form (Oxford, OUP and Grand Rapids, Eerdmans) in 2016/17.

Christopher Insole is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Durham. His work is concerned with the relationship between fundamental metaphysical and doctrinal commitments, and patterns of thought in meta-ethics and practical reasoning. This interest underlies publications on realism and anti-realism, the relationship between theology and political liberalism, the place of natural law language in the work of Edmund Burke, and (most recently) the role of theology within Kant’s metaphysics, epistemology and ethics.

His recent book, Kant and the Creation of Freedom: a Theological Problem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), shows that important features of Kant’s philosophy were forged out of difficulties he had in reconciling his belief in God as creator with the concept of human freedom.

Professor Insole’s current research involves investigating the implications of these difficulties (in relating divine action and human freedom) for Kant’s account of autonomy, and his conception of happiness.

Download a transcript of the lecture here.

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