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London 2003

God, Science and Freedom

CiS London Conference, 4 October 2003.

2003 CiS Conference Report

The 2003 Conference took the familiar form of recent years: a small number of papers around a unifying theme, with time for discussion both in formal sessions and in the lunch and tea breaks.

The morning was taken up by two complementing presentations by Malcolm Jeeves and Alan Torrance, both from St Andrews. Professor Jeeves reviewed work in neuro-psychology from classical times to the highly sophisticated electrophysiological and scanning techniques in use today, arguing that the links between brain activity and ‘mind’ are becoming ever tighter, leaving no convincing need for a separate ‘soul’. Whilst there is no knock-down argument for the non-existence of a soul, neither is there any firm reason in either the Bible or in science to believe in such an entity. Dualism (i.e. the assumption that the body and the soul or spirit are distinct parts of humanness) is becoming increasingly restricted to New Agers and those convinced of ‘near death’ experiences. Alan Torrance followed this by discussing philosophical approaches to resolving the nature of freedom (or free-will): can modern scientific understanding allow the existence of human freedom and, if so, do we have a liberty of spontaneity or of indifference? (i.e. a sense of non compulsion or simple indeterminancy). He showed that neither naturalism nor the current fashionable model of non-reductive physicalism give us a complete picture, and concluded that the most satisfactory model currently available is that derived from two non-religious philosophers, Rockwell and Cartwright, which recognizes “a world in which emergent causal processes are to be found on a whole variety of different and diverse levels”. In Torrance’s words, this “opens the door to viewing the human person as an emergent reality which is a contributory cause of itself [and thus] upholds human agency and accountability whilst taking seriously the embeddedness of that freedom in brain processes, physical desires, etc”. Interestingly, the advances in scientific knowledge have led to interpretative concepts very similar to those advocated two or three decades ago by two Christian philosopher/scientists, Michael Polanyi and Donald MacKay.

The first afternoon paper was given by Jeff Schloss from Westmont College, Santa Barbara. He examined human nature from the point of view of evolutionary psychology: does the inclusive fitness of W.D. Hamilton, the reciprocal altruism of Robert Trivers and the sociobiology of E.O. Wilson add up to an adequate explanation of human behaviour? Schloss demolished the myth of genetic determinism at the behavioural level and showed how biologists are wrestling to produce an hierarchical model of behavioural determinants – which in many ways reflect longstanding debates between Thomists and Augustinians, and between Calvin and Wesley’s perspectives on grace and freedom.

The final paper was by Colin Humphreys of Cambridge, based on his recent book The Miracles of Exodus. His argument was that knowing the ‘mechanism’ behind a miracle in no ways detracts from God’s providential ordering. He examined in detail the crossing of the Jordan described in Joshua 3: 15,16 This can be ‘explained’ by a Rift Valley earth movement producing a mud-slide; these are common in the area and well-documented in recent times. Many of the Exodus miracles can be regarded more as miracles of timing rather than the suspension of natural processes – but that does not make them any less of a miracle. The problem – which Humphreys declined to dogmatize on – is how God works to effect the timing in question. The issues raised by biblical miracles are no different in principle to those surrounding brain function or evolutionary processes.

The Conference was stimulating and stretching. It contained material relevant for both biologists and physicists, and for engineers and theoreticians. The 100 or so who attended the Conference went away refreshed, albeit intellectually exhausted. Hopefully the papers will appear in due course in Science & Christian Belief, and others will be able to profit from the presentations of Professors Jeeves, Torrance, Schloss and Humphreys. But the Conference was more than a mere intellectual exercise. If we cannot deal with the sort of questions dealt with at the Conference, our witness and credibility as Christians is inevitably impaired. For most people, God is irrelevant rather than intrinsically unbelievable. One of our roles (and of Christians in Science as an organization) is to proclaim Our God as powerful and necessary, as well as merely possible. That was the underlying message of the 2003 Conference – and that is the continuing challenge to us all.