This is the third time I’ve attended the Science and Religion Forum conference, and once again I am already finding myself (on day one) challenged and inspired. The theme of the conference this year is ‘are there limits to science?’. The implied answer is ‘yes’, and this first day of the conference has delivered two plenary sessions exploring science’s limitations – one from a philosophical perspective, by Dr Fiona Ellis, and one from a poet’s point-of-view, by Prof Christopher Southgate.
For those of us who embrace a faith, the current trend towards materialistic reductionism in science can be dispiriting and a source of frustration. Not only do we find ourselves wondering why someone would think that everything can be reduced to the most basic physical level (even to the point of reducing consciousness to the level of particle physics), it can also be a difficult position to challenge. If we take science seriously, we can’t deny that those basic things to which the reductionists point us, such as sub-atomic particles, are the building blocks of reality. At the same time, however, knowing about the sub-atomic particles that make up my body, and the electrical impulses that run through my brain really doesn’t tell me anything about what it means to experience being me. This is the philosophical realm that was explored in the first of the conference’s talks: the limits of scientific reductionism, and a philosophy of expansive – or even theistic – naturalism that offers a broader perspective. In short, this is a philosophy that accepts that we don’t need to look beyond the natural world for answers to the questions that science doesn’t seem to address, for example, questions of beauty or morality. Because these things are part of our existence, even though they are non-material, they are also a part of the natural world, and a naturalist philosophy can accommodate them. Because God is intimately bound up with and involved in creation, there is no reason that God must be excluded from a naturalist philosophy either.
The second talk used poetry to explore science’s limitations. Science sometimes lacks the language to convey its beauty and wonder to non-scientists. Poetry, on the other hand, can use and shape language to fire the imagination and inspire. Scientists, too, rely on imagination and inspiration (a key theme of the panel discussion on science, art & spirituality held in May 2016), but sometimes the jargon and the requisite mathematical precision get in the way of communicating that. In the excitement of discovery and, if we’re honest, the pursuit of glory (or the next funding grant), scientists can sometimes fail to see the potential dangers inherent in their work. Poetry offers a means of supplying a prophetic voice, looking towards what might be, and sounding a warning. The similarities between poetry and science were also highlighted in this talk – how both draw on close observation of the world around us and the practitioner’s willingness to look at things others won’t, and the fact that both reveal reality to us. As a (strictly amateur) poet myself, I found the second talk of the day particularly stimulating. Having written a poem to bring together concepts of science and Christian theology, I am aware that poetry is a powerful tool that allows us to use language in ways that can bring together concepts that otherwise seem to be at odds with one another. Poetry allows a level of playfulness that creates space for new ideas.
As day one of the conference comes to a close, I am looking forward to what else is still to come.