Meta-questions

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Enriching our Vision of Reality (SPCK) is the second book on science and religion in so many months from Alister McGrath (above), who pours forth works of this nature in a torrent. He is partial to and has already written extensively on natural theology (amongst others, in his less prominent but tantalisingly drawn-out three-volume A Scientific Theology published in 2001). Here he continues on the topic of how we can understand reality, which brings science and religion into conversation and sometimes conflict.

McGrath advocates for the harmony of science and religion as multiple perspectives, especially on metaphysical questions of origins. In the second part of the book he emphasises his own journey from atheism to Christianity (also covered elsewhere), and the influence of other scientists who themselves held faith, in order to show that theology and science are not merely abstract pursuits but affect the life lived, and that asking scientific and religious questions concurrently makes a certain amount of sense.

So we read about Thomas Torrance, who suggested that both science and theology respond in different but appropriate language to the reality around us. Picking up on the thought of William Whewell, McGrath argues that there is no ‘natural’ way to interpret the world, only various theoretical approaches. It is good to remember Karl Popper’s suggestion that we observe the world with a particular theory in mind, and perhaps Heisenberg’s suggestion that as inquiry progresses we need to reinvent the language to deal with what we find. (Michael Frayn also has an intriguing book about how our world is ‘created’ by the way we think about it.) So-called natural theology is not a starting point for examining the world, but an appropriate way to address ‘meta-questions’ thrown up by science, and is, says McGrath, ‘sympathetic’ to science.

McGrath also writes on Charles Coulson, who popularised the ‘god of the gaps’ saying. Significantly, Coulson was a believer who understood that theology wasn’t just for plugging gaps in current knowledge, but for integrating aspects of knowledge and explaining why the universe is discoverable and able to be described coherently in the first place.

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