Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Alister McGrath, Surprised by Meaning

Alister McGrath is a compelling writer on science and theology. While pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry, he initially set out to bolster his atheism, but in the process, became a Christian instead. He then received a doctorate in theology and is now a major voice in that field and in the theology-science dialogue. His Surprised By Meaning, though a slim, unpretensious book, surprised me with its insights. Below are a few from chapters 4, 5, and 10. 

Science, McGrath asserts, seeks to make sense of nature in three significant ways:

  1. Casual explanation: If A causes B, then A explains B.
  2. The Best Explanation: How can these phenomena best be explained?
  3. Explanatory Unification: Powerful theories bring together ideas once thought to be unrelated.
Nevertheless, ultimately, human beings seek a deeper order, a deeper level of intelligibility. McGrath writes that science cannot satisfy this deeper search; it is a search that only belief in God satisfies.

When McGrath pursued a Ph.D. in chemistry, he wanted to support his atheism with the insights of natural science (something like the contemporary "New Atheists" do). Instead he discovered that his atheism was not well established intellectually. In that process, McGrath came to make a distinction between "scientism" as a totalizing worldview (my words) and legitimate scientific theory. That seems accurate by my lights. For example, what Richard Dawkins proposes as the conclusions of scientific study are actually metaphysical conclusions dressed up with scientific decoration. 

McGrath also concludes that, contrary to Jacque Monod and Richard Dawkins, some notion of teleology emerges from study of evolutionary processes itself. I agree with McGrath’s point—that nature, even with its random events, ultimately points toward a goal, a telos. The claws of a crab point toward the goal of grabbing prey. Nonetheless, in my experience with scientists, the word “teleology” brings significant resistance, probably because of the way previous philosophies employed the term. Still that resistance has intrigued me because science, and even evolution, does move in certain directions. "Such teleology," McGrath writes, "is empirical, grounded in a posteriori discernment, not a priori imposition."

These are all good points, which merit discussion. So I'll just leave you with some questions from these chapters...
  • Stepping back to the bigger issues of science and theology, how do the two fields come together in McGrath’s view?
  • What is the relation between the ways science and religion “make sense of things”?
  • How do you evaluate McGrath’s assertion that the case for atheism rests on “rather shaky foundations”?
  • Is the “warfare” thesis, as a way of understanding the relation of science and religion, increasingly discredited?
  • How do you evaluate McGrath’s statement, “Within a Reformed theological framework, for example, ‘random’ can be translated as ‘non-predictable,’ and thus contextualized within a generalized doctrine of divine providence”?
  • Does teleology naturally arise from the study of biological systems?

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