On the ‘Sunday’ programme (5 June) there was a brief discussion between three professors of science: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. The topic was the relationship of science and religion – always relevant to this column. They all took constructive views but, not surprisingly, I leant towards the Christian view of Professor MacLeish, a physicist at Durham. He spoke of nature being woven into the human story, and the concept of the resurrection eventually embracing the whole of creation. It may be useful to unpack this concept.
We enjoy two approaches to knowledge: one is material, the other is immaterial. Science is the province of the first, and human perception is the province of the second. Science is necessarily concerned with the empirical. It constructs theories of causality and demonstrates the truth by material evidence. Perhaps ‘truth’ should be followed by a question mark because, in principle at least, any scientific conclusion can be modified by further evidence. Nevertheless, many such conclusions are so definite that it would be pedantic to deny them. Where scientists of a secularist tendency may go wrong is to infer from this that immaterial knowledge does not merit the description. It cannot be demonstrated materially and thus, being subjective, cannot lead to truth.
Immaterial knowledge concerns such phenomena as: need for meaning, reflective consciousness, the ability to recognise moral obligations — stemming from our ability to distinguish right from wrong, our rational capacity and our freedom to choose. It would be philosophically, and indeed scientifically, illiterate to conclude that this is not knowledge on the mere grounds that it is not empirical. Investigating the truth here is not advanced by dismissing our perceptions but by considering what qualities would be needed to provide an adequate cause for them. There is a parallel with the scientific method, for both may start by observing a phenomenon and hypothesising a sufficient cause.
Professor MacLeish’s view of nature being woven into the human story is rich indeed. But we are inclined to impoverish it. We recognise that the soul is the life and the form of the body and we know that the two are integrated, but we do not easily think that way. So we speak of saving our souls instead of ourselves, or of souls in Purgatory or heaven – as if a soul was an entity in its own right, when it only exists in relation to the body of which it is the form. Thankfully, there is literally no time between death and resurrection for time is a human concept. Our mistake lies in needing to identify concepts of which, in this world, we have no experience.
I occasionally come across, otherwise well educated, Catholics who refer to evolution as a theory – using theory in its sense of plausible but unproven. I suspect that their failure to accept manifest evidence is born from a distorted view of creation. God is not the first cause but the perennial cause. The material world down to the smallest sub atomic particle is held in existence by his active will. Existence is a continuous miracle. Given life and a form of reproduction which allows characteristics to be inherited and modified, evolution is a necessary outcome. In itself it is as blind as a mathematical equation, and every bit as useful. It is our vocation, inherited from Adam, to modify its effects when conditions require. In human judgment, we might well see evolution as one of God’s better ideas: one principle producing all species, including one fit for an immortal soul.
As I write I do not know the outcome of the EU referendum but we have all just been through an informative example of the material and immaterial working together so closely that we are hard put to discriminate between the two. Much has turned on forecast outcomes supplied by different authorities, and since we know that forecasts are only probabilities, great weight has had to be put on our value systems. How do we rate sovereignty versus integrated cooperation? What weight do we put on the historical tendencies of both options? Should we focus on the short term effects or on the long term? How dependable are our judgments of the protagonists? What unhealthy prejudices and partisan exaggerations have contaminated the arguments, and may have contaminated us?
Such issues, and many others, contribute to our overall preference for the result which best promotes the human flourishing of our country, and other countries which may be affected. Our different decisions remind us that we are all different people. Different genes, different upbringing and different experience ensure this. Such factors can, at least in principle, be investigated by science. But overall we retain the freedom to decide in the light of our values. It is not through discrete decisions but through the sort of person — body and soul, we have become through grace that the choice is made.