Fritz Kahn was a remarkable man – a scientist, gynaecologist, artist, polymath – and eventually a Jewish refugee to the USA from Nazi Germany. He produced a series of extraordinary images in which he portrayed the human body as a machine.
This is his most celebrated picture, Man as an Industrial Palace (from 1927). Its details are stunning in their intricacy and accuracy. This is a work of true genius. I just love it.
But I’m provoked by it too. For it illustrates, whether intentionally or not (and I don’t know enough about Kahn to say which), a prevailing modernist view that we are skinfulls of chemicals, preprogrammed to perform certain biological functions as the consequence of some overarching but closed evolutionary process. This fits with an enlightenment agenda which Os Guinness brilliantly summed up:
The goal of modernity is ‘to know everything in order to predict everything in order to control everything.’
But the reality is that there are so many things about us that don’t make sense or that don’t fit into our categories. Now, please note. This is not an anti-science rant. Science is a noble quest – seeking to understand and explain. At its best, it is able to perform wonders of healing, and restoration. But is it really simply a matter of time before we understand everything about ourselves? Or are there aspects of our humanity that just don’t fall into scientific categories? Is there not a ghost in the machine?
I suspect that this was something of what Churchill was getting at in a House of Commons speech in 1950:
Man in this moment of his history has emerged in greater supremacy over the forces of nature than has ever been dreamed of before. He has it in his power to solve quite easily the problems of natural power to solve quite easily the problems of natural existence. He has conquered the wild beasts, and he has conquered the insects and the microbes. There lies before him, if he wishes, a golden age of peace and progress. All is in his hand. He has only to conquer his last and worst enemy – himself.
Or as controversial but influential philosopher Martin Heidegger put it:
No age knows so much and so many things about man as does ours and yet no age knows less than ours of what man is.
Enter not the ‘God of the gaps’ but the God of the cosmos – the one ultimate cause and sustainer of every aspect of the universe. As Martin Luther King put it when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:
I refuse to believe the notion that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life… unable to respond to the eternal oughtness that forever confronts him.
This is what underpinned Luther King’s political philosophy – and in fact, being made in God’s image was the backbone of his conviction that we have equal value as human beings, regardless of race, social standing or any other division (as Tim Keller explores in his recent, excellent Generous Justice pp86ff).
But it’s pretty difficult to draw that. It’s also impossible to categorise that in a laboratory-friendly pigeon-hole.
Well, so much for these ramblings. They’re all an excuse to post this phenomenal, recent animation of Kahn’s image. It manages to bring the picture to life brilliantly and faithfully, with some fab sound effects. Enjoy!
Richard Holmes’ magisterial Age of Wonder has worked its magic on me. Having worked my way through it over several weeks before Christmas, many of its scenes and images have jostled unforgettably in my mind. This is not simply the account of a great period in the Royal Society’s history (although it is that); nor is it a cultural history of the Georgian era in Britain (although that would have been completely fine by me, since that’s easily one of my favourite periods).
It is instead a window into the relationship between the sciences, the arts and the popular imagination at a very important moment for the culture of the modern world. Combined with Holmes’ easy and fluent writing style and gentle humour, this makes it constantly compelling, regularly provocative and always insightful. I simply couldn’t put it down, eagerly anticipating the next ‘aha’ moment! One myth that Holmes seeks to dispel (and does so expertly) is the common notion that the Romantic era was anti-science. Of course it was more complex than that. Holmes is a renowned biographer of the Romantic poets and so clearly qualified constantly to weave his tale of scientific endeavour in and out of their’s.
Giants of the Royal Society
The book opens in 1769 with a very young Joseph Banks intrepidly setting his sights on Tahiti (and thus pioneering the world of cultural anthropology), and ends in the 1830s with the next generation of scientists like Faraday and Babbage.
Various names from the British scientific pantheon take turns in Holmes’ spotlight (like the William Herschel and his equally gifted sister Caroline, Mungo Park, Sir Humphry Davy), and we see what drove them and inspired their science, as well as their impact on the likes of Coleridge, Percy & Mary Shelley (there’s a brilliant chapter on her pioneering novel Frankenstein), Keats and Byron etc. But if there is one constant thread, it is the guidance and patronage of Banks, in his capacity as President of the Royal Society.
There are so many things one could pick out from the book as it is so densely wide-ranging. But while I learned a lot about so many things of which I was previously woefully ignorant, I was especially keen to understand more of the worldview questions, and especially the theological debates which anticipated those of the Darwinian era only a few years later. (In fact, the narrative closes around the time Darwin was setting off on his fateful voyage to the Galapagos). And therefore this story is of huge importance. As Holmes says on the very penultimate page:
It seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the nature of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic generation. (p468)
That’s absolutely right – and this book is a brilliant way to do all of that.
The Challenge from the Heavens
Astronomy, more than those later protagonists of botany and biology, was producing the biggest challenge to old theistic ways of thinking – especially after the discoveries and thoughts of the extraordinary William Herschel with his revolutionary 40ft telescope at Slough. This was profoundly affecting people’s sense of place in the universe – the cosmos had always been a place of awe and wonder, but now it was far bigger and far older than anyone had before imagined.
So notice the shift from Coleridge’s more neutral description of star-gazing with his father to that of Shelley’s polemical take:
At all events, Coleridge treasured the memory of (The Reverend John Coleridge) his father’s eager demonstration of the stars and planets overhead, and the possibility of other worlds: ‘I remember that at eight years old I walked with him one evening from a farmer’s house, a mile from Ottery – & he told me the names of the stars – and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world – and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them – & when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round. I heard him with profound delight and admiration; but without the least mixture of Wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii etc etc – my mind had been habituated to the Vast.’ (pp111-2)
I just love that final phrase: habituated to the Vast. Wonderful.
Shelley used Herschel’s vision of an open-ended solar system, and an unimaginably expanded universe, to attack religious belief. His arguments went as follows. The cosmos as revealed by science must contain many thousands of different nebular systems, and therefore millions of habitable planets, so it was impossible to sustain a narrow, religious concept of one Almighty Christian Redeemer. Since there would be so many other ‘fallen’ worlds to redeem, the idea of God being born and crucified on each planet became absurd. As Shelley put it provokingly, ‘His Works have borne witness against Him.’ He wrote a particularly fierce note ‘On the Plurality of Worlds’ in Queen Mab:
The indefinite immensity of the universe, is the most aweful subject of contemplation… It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman… The works of His fingers have borne witness against him… Sirius is supposed to be 54 trillion miles from the Earth… Millions and millions of suns are ranged around us, all attended by innumerable worlds, yet calm, regular, and harmonious, all keeping the paths of immutable Necessity. (p391)
But not everyone shared that view – or saw the direct threats that science would pose to religious belief in the years to come:
For many Romantic scientists, with a robust intellectual belief in the ‘argument by Design,’ there was no immediate contradiction between religion and science: rather the opposite. Science was a gift of God or Providence to mankind, and its purpose was to reveal the wonders of His design. This indeed was the essence of ‘natural’ religion, as promoted for example by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802), with its famous analogy with the divine watchmaker. It was the faith that brought Mungo Park back alive from his first Niger expedition. It was the faith that inspired Michael Faraday to become a Deacon in the Sandemanian Church in July 1832. (p450)
Which is much more nuanced than the vitriol of the anti-religion brigade, let alone the anti-science religious types, would have us believe. They simply ARE compatible – which his why so many cosmologists and ‘hard’ scientists are perfectly comfortable with their theism.
The Wonder of Science
But in many ways, the background to the apologetic debates that we get ourselves tied up is was not the book’s most valuable contribution (helpful thought it undoubtedly is). What most gripped me was the fact that I found myself again and again swept up in the sheer romance of science – the sense of awe at both the cosmic and microscopic, the desire to know, to understand God’s thoughts after him, if you like. I found myself frequently transported to the Oxford’s Christ Church meadow where spectators watching in astonishment at the first balloon flights, or to Herschel’s observatory, or to the audience of Faraday’s Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution.
My appreciation was only deepened, not diminished, when the romantic myths of the noble scientist get dispelled. I was very struck by this point, sadly tucked away in a footnote:
Michael Hoskin has suggested in his essay ‘On Writing the History of Modern Astronomy’ (1980) that most histories of science continue to be ‘uninterrupted chronicles’, which run along ‘handing out medals to those who “got it right”’. They ignore the history of error, so central to the scientific process, and fail to illuminate science as a ‘creative human activity’ which involves the whole personality and has a broad social context – Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (1980). To this one might add that Romanticism introduced three important themes into science biography.
- First the ‘Newton syndrome’, the notion of ‘scientific genius’, in which science is largely advanced by a small number of preternaturally gifted (and usually isolated) individuals.
- Second, the existence of the ‘Eureka moment’, in which great discoveries are made without warning (or much preparation) in a sudden, blazing instant of revelation and synthesis.
- Third, the ‘Frankenstein nightmare’, in which all scientific progress is really a disguised form of destruction. (p94)
Now, there were one or two moments where I did feel that Holmes’ objectivity temporarily deserted him, mainly in his depictions of theistic or Christian worldviews. Too often, Christian morality or theology was implicitly charged as unhelpful or even destructive (e.g. in the interactions between later Christian visitors to Tahiti), or individuals would be described as ‘fundamentalist’, as the painter Benjamin Haydon is on p319 (which was both jarring and anachronistic). But on the whole, I can forgive these as lapses because the narrative is so sweeping in scope and brilliantly told, and they are few and far between.
I think I’ll stop there for now – there are loads of other gems, which i might post separately and without too much verbiage. But I couldn’t have agreed more with these, the very last words of the book – inarticulately before reading The Age of Wonder, and passionately since:
The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end. (p469)
One of the RSS feeds I follow is from a provocative little site called irReligion.org – and they never fail to come up with the most irritating and wretched examples of religious people doing really stupid things. Occasionally the site unfairly lays into religious people doing pretty sensible and reasonable things – but that doesn’t make much of a story for them, as one can probably imagine. Anyway, the site is reporting from the sharp end of the (mainly) American culture wars.
I wasn’t expecting great things from this little encounter – after all, Bill O’Reilly does have a certain reputation… But look at this and take notes… on how NOT to do it.
On this one, I was with Dawkins all the way… I mean honestly – it has it all: name-calling, preventing rational discussion, interruption, absurd and incoherent arguments… I’m impressed at how Dawkins managed (mostly) to keep his cool.
Far better, if you’re interested is the DVD of The God Delusion Debate between John Lennox and Richard Dawkins, both Oxford professors. Intelligent, respectful and challenging (despite the frustrations of the format). You can get it through the Ravi Zacharias Trust store for only £9.
Alister McGrath is at his best (IMHO) when engaging with debates of science and religion. After all, he’s a scholar of both. And he’s got a really helpful and timely piece in this month’s CT on Augustine’s Origin of the Species. Augustine was of course one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. Full stop. And he was an African. Which endears him to me even more. And in these days of militant scientific materialism and neo-Darwinist thinking, it is refreshing at least to find that someone from the ancient past who as something to contribute to contemporary debates.
Obviously, Augustine won’t help anyone engage with the specifics of Charles Darwin’s arguments per se but as McGrath says in his conclusion, he does open up the possibility of a freedom within the interpretative bounds of handling Genesis well.
So does Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis help us engage with the great questions raised by Darwin? Let’s be clear that Augustine does not answer these questions for us. But he does help us see that the real issue here is not the authority of the Bible, but its right interpretation. In addition, he offers us a classic way of thinking about the Creation that might illuminate some contemporary debates.
On this issue, Augustine is neither liberal nor accommodationist, but deeply biblical, both in substance and intention. While his approach hardly represents the last word, it needs to be on the table.
We need patient, generous, and gracious reflection on these big issues. Augustine of Hippo can help us get started.
What is important is the possibility Augustine gives us in how to handle Genesis 1-2 in particular, without either being enslaved to the scientific worldviews of the day, or ignoring them as inevitably irrelevant. Too many interpreters fall into one or other of these 2 traps. And in McGrath’s words, Augustine was simply concerned ‘to let Scripture speak for itself’. Can’t say fairer than that.
Image: Botticelli’s wonderful take on St Augustine
Well, well, well. Melanie Phillips has written an excellent article in this week’s Spectator (nicely called ‘Is Richard Dawkins Still Evolving?’), having attended the second Dawkins/Lennox debate earlier this week. This was quite a remarkable event in that Dawkins never normally allows himself to get into debates with Christians – but here he is doing it with a fellow Oxford scientist for the second time, not in the Bible belt like last year, but on home turf, in Oxford Town Hall.
I’ve not heard or seen recordings of the debate, and have only so far read Phillips’ reflections. But according to her, there are some startling revelations:
- Dawkins stated (at the start of the Oxford debate with Lennox):
A serious case could be made for a deistic God.
- Well, that’s interesting. I’m not sure that is quite the same thing as atheism (or have I missed something?). Or is that also simply another ‘God delusion’, just like garden fairies or The Flying Spaghetti Monster? This presumably now puts him in the ranks of many of the greats who founded the Royal Society and The United States – which is a very different community to belong to from the one lays claim to. As Phillips points out, this rather undermines his previous assertion that:
…all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection…Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.
- Dawkins ‘vehemently denied’ that he had changed his mind. But Phillips came back to him with a number of challenges, including a telling exchange on creation out of nothing, and some key points about using historical evidence. But as she says:
Even more jaw-droppingly, Dawkins told me that, rather than believing in God, he was more receptive to the theory that life on earth had indeed been created by a governing intelligence – but one which had resided on another planet. Leave aside the question of where that extra-terrestrial intelligence had itself come from, is it not remarkable that the arch-apostle of reason finds the concept of God more unlikely as an explanation of the universe than the existence and plenipotentiary power of extra-terrestrial little green men?