Tom McLeish and the case for understanding the nature of science (and perhaps technology) through Biblical Revelation


Tom McLeishTom McLeish is a self-confessed ‘faith head’ i.e. a very committed Christian (a Reader in the Anglican Church since 1993) but also a highly successful scientist (Professor of Physics at Durham University and chair of the Royal Society’s education committee); a combination that isn’t as unusual as we might think. I was very impressed with his book Faith and Wisdom in ScienceThis book challenges much of the current ‘science and religion’ debate as operating with the wrong assumptions and in the wrong space. It is critical of the cultural separation of sciences and humanities, suggesting an approach to science, or in its more ancient form natural philosophy – the ‘love of wisdom of natural things’ – that can draw on theological and cultural roots. His writing led me to the work of Deepen Project, which taking nanotechnology as an example, explored why the general public are often suspicious of new and emerging technologies.

The Project identified five narratives underpinning this suspicion. These were:

  1. Be careful what you wish for – the narrative of Desire
  2. Being kept in the dark – the narrative of Alienation
  3. Messing with nature – the narrative of the Sacred
  4. Pandora’s box – the narrative of Evil and Hope
  5. The rich get richer – the narrative of Exploitation.

In teaching young people about the nature of technology I think it might be useful for teachers to keep these suspicions in mind and discuss them openly with their students. See this post which comments on this work.

If I have one criticism of Tom’s writing it is that I think he often conflates science with technology and we know where that gets us in the secondary school curriculum – science ruling at the expense of design & technology. Never the less I was really looking forward to his new book, co-authored with David Hutchings a physics teacher at Pocklington School, Let there be scienceIt’s a terrific read whether you are a Christian or not and I urge all D&T HoDs to get a copy for the department library. Partly because the book has some really interesting things to say about the nature of science plus its relationship the Christian faith but also because Tom (and now David) still to my mind often write about technology as well as science.

The following comments from eminent scientists, cited in the book, indicate that science and faith need not be strangers or incompatible.

Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) responsible for discovering the principles underlying electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis, “I cannot doubt that a glorious discovery in natural knowledge, and the wisdom and power of God in the creation, is awaiting our age, and that we may not only hope to see it, but even be honoured to help in obtaining victory over present ignorance and future knowledge”.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879) Responsible for formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together for the first time electricity, magnetism and light as manifestations of the same phenomenon, “I think men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable”.

Max Planck (1858 –1947) originated the quantum theory, which revolutionized human understanding of atomic and subatomic processes, “Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations … to the former He is the foundation, to the latter the crown”.

And my favourite, from Werner Heisenberg (1901 – 1976) responsible for the creation of quantum mechanics, “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you”.

We know that there are scientists who are atheists; Richard Dawkins is the example that comes to everyone’s mind. But, as a friend of mine who is a committed Christian said, “The God Dawkins doesn’t believe in is the God we all stopped believing in when we were 14”. Tom and David have a very sophisticated and nuanced view of God and Biblical revelation and there is much of value in Let there be science for teachers of design & technology as well as science whether they believe in God or not, or are agnostic.

It’s too difficult to do Let there be science justice in a short blog post and I’ll be writing a more detailed commentary in the working papers section shortly. And of course one of the questions I wish to explore will be the extent to which Tom and David’s writing can be used to consider the possibility of Biblical revelation as to the nature and purpose of technology.

A final word from Albert Einstein, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”.

As always comments welcome.

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