Big Questions in Science

Harriet Swain (ed.)
(London: Jonathan Cape, 2002)

Peter S. Williams

In this attractively packaged collection of short articles, Harriet Swain, deputy features editor at the Times Higher Educational Supplement, has gathered together a group of distinguished thinkers to ponder the Big Questions through the window of science.  Each question, from 'Does God Exist?' to 'What is Life About?', is introduced by a journalist who provides an overview of contemporary thinking on the issue, followed by a short paper from an expert in the field.

An immediately endearing facet of this book is its frequent intellectual humility and honesty: 'readers will be impressed by the modesty and the tentativeness with which [the specialists write].  Very little, it seems, is cut and dried', writes John Maddox, editor of Nature, in his introduction, 'While our understanding of the world is enormously enlarged since Copernicus, it has still hardly begun.' (p. ix.)

The drawback to such tentativeness is that while this book raises many interesting questions, it provides few clear answers.  Nevertheless, it is both interesting and refreshing to see scientists and science writers outside the Christian worldview making admissions like: 'despite its new-found popularity and apparent confidence, cognitive science is still very long on questions and short on agreed answers' (Anthony Freeman, p. 48.); 'How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like the feeling that 'I' am striding through grass? . . . The intractability of this problem suggests to me that we are making a fundamental mistake in the way we think about consciousness - perhaps right at the very beginning.' (Susan Blackmore, p. 39-40); that 'human language looks puzzling from a Darwinian viewpoint.  Why do we bother to say anything remotely true, interesting or relevant to anybody who is not closely related to us?' (Geoffrey Miller, p. 86-87); that 'why someone falls in love with one person rather than another. . . remains a profound mystery' (David M.; Buss, p. 123.), or that the existence of aliens is not, contra the received naturalistic opinion, a dead cert: 'the Drake equation can be used to generate almost any result you like' (Geoff Watts, p. 202.)

Another refreshing distinctive, in contrast to the majority of secular works of scientific popularisation, is that God doesn't come out of this discussion of the Big Questions at all badly.  Science writer Julia Hinde's introduction to the God question begins with an acknowledgement that 'Over the past few decades, many acclaimed scientists have declared their belief in God and science.' (p. 2.)  Among others, she mentions Francis Collins (the man behind the US human genome programme), Open University physics professor Russell Stannard, and astrophysicist turned minister and fellow in Christian apologetics at St. John's College, Durham University, David Wilkinson.  By contrast, Richard Dawkins comes across as merely petulant: 'Dawkins, Oxford University's professor of the public understanding of science, and a vocal atheist, is quick to dismiss religious belief.  He has called anyone advocating a creator God "scientifically illiterate.", while terming religion "a virus".' (p. 2.)  Yet, notes Hinde, 'a 1996 survey still found 40 percent of US scientists believed in God.' (p. 4.)  She even mentions Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe's advocacy of Intelligent Design theory from the 'irreducibly complex' parts of the cell.

When it comes to the specialist paper on God's existence, we find former particle physicist and president of Queen's College Cambridge turned theologian Sir John Polkinghorne FRS advocating his own modest brand of natural theology; arguing that God's existence is the best explanation of the mathematical intelligibility and beauty of the natural world, the anthropic fine-tuning of the laws of physics, and the existence of moral principles.

Given this start it is ironic that the rest of the collection proceeds on the assumption that God does not exist and that religious answers to the Big Questions are hardly worth considering.  For example, Martin Ince writes that: 'The flaw with all early accounts of the origin of the universe is that they devote the bulk of their attention to the formation of the earth and its living creatures while. . . it has become apparent that the earth is a minute object in a massive universe, of interest only because we live there.' (p. 12.) The argument from the association of size with importance commits an obvious fallacy, and the whole statement depends upon the assumption that God doesn't exist.

Biologist Steven Rose rejects Dawkins' view that the answer to the question 'What is life about?' is that 'the purpose. . . of life is reproduction, the spreading of one's genes' (p. 228), by insisting that 'chickens come before eggs.  Outside the cellular web in which it is embedded, DNA neither replicates nor has functional meaning. . .  It is this dynamic concept of development, of a life-line - a concept which returns the organism, rather than the gene, to the centre stage of life - which provides the basis for my alternative answer to the "about" question.' (p. 229.)  However, one can't help reflecting that his answer is no-less naturalistic than Dawkins' selfish gene theory: 'Life is about being and becoming', says Rose, humans have 'the freedom to choose, to act, and to build towards not just our own future but that of the whole of humanity and the planetary economies in which we are embedded.' (p. 230.)  So the meaning of life is basically to get on with being a highly evolved animal devoted to being richer in the future?!

Rose doesn't explain how his naturalistic worldview, although less devoted to reductionism than Dawkins' hard-line approach, can account for free will, let alone why the earthly short-term future of humanity and its economies is a valuable goal to pursue.  If there are goals genuinely worth pursuing, 'if moral principles are not simply matters of expediency or of our individual choosing, from where do they come and how do they possess their authority?  The theist will see them as intimations of the good and perfect will of God.' (John Polkinghorne, p. 8-9.)  And what of the long-term future?   Polkinghorne writes: 'We know that we are going to die and cosmology tells us that the universe itself will eventually end either in collapse or decay.  So what sense will it all make ultimately?  Is cosmic history, after all, just a tale told by an idiot?  I think that there is a deep intuition in the human heart to the contrary, a trust that in the end all shall be well. . .  the eternal faithfulness of God is the only possible undergirding of such a hope.' (p. 9.)

In sum, while this book raises more questions than it answers, this is a refreshing antidote to the overconfident naturalistic fundamentalism of many contemporary popular science books; and one that actually gives God a fair hearing, albeit a hearing that fails to connect the God question to the other Big Questions in Science.