In Conversation with Professor Tom McLeish, B.A., Ph.D.

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Professor Tom McLeish, B.A., Ph.D., is a Professsor Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics, and works in the Center for Medieval Studies and the Humanities Research Centre at The University of York. Here we talk abotu science and faith.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You have a book, Faith and Wisdom in Science. What inspired it?

Professor Tom McLeish, B.A., Ph.D.: I think Western society seems to be losing faith in science. The title has multiple valence. It is a multiple pun. I am anguished as a scientist – that science is not in the basket of things that make us human.

If I say, “Science belongs with books, with literature, with plays, with great music, with art, with all of the things that make us feel deepest human,” people look at me with a weird expression. The fact that we have lost that is serious.

I say, “Science has lost its cultural narrative. Science has lost its story. It has pulled up its roots.” There are horrendous political consequences of this. Look at what has happened, science has become optionalized.

It is okay if it agrees with you. But if it disagrees with you on, say, climate change, then you can ignore and optionalize it. As a scientist, I do theoretical physics and physics, but I have been fascinated in looking at some social science and working with social scientists who look at public narratives around science. Some of them have said some very powerful things about how the discourses around nuclear energy, genetic medicine, climate change have developed – those tough science questions.

They have picked up very negative narratives, like “don’t open Pandora’s Box,” “science is the priesthood today, so we will all be marginalized.” Those sorts of things. I have been looking for a new narrative, or perhaps a very old narrative, a healthier narrative for science itself – culturally.

Jacobsen: What is that narrative?

McLeish: I think its source is to be found in the genre of ancient wisdom. So, it may sound very wacky and weird, but I do not think it is. After all, only 200 years ago, physicists or scientists would be called natural philosophers. That is why I am so thrilled that York University – my new employer – has agreed to not call me a professor of physics but a professor of natural philosophy. I love it.

It is the old word for science – natural philosophy. Unpack it, it has to do with the love of wisdom to do with nature. If you do not like science – I have said this to people for whom science is not their thing, I say “Forget science. What if you were invited to ‘love wisdom to do with natural things?’ Would you perhaps like that better?”

But that is all science ever was. In some of the ancient wisdom literature, some of it is preserved in the Old Testament of the Bible. For example, there is a book, which is far less read and thought about than it should be.

But every philosopher who has ever had something to say about philosophy has commented on it. That is the Book of Job. The story of the Book of Job. The Book of Job contains – in fact not just contains but is – a deep, inviting, participatory narrative into human connectivity with nature, with the physical world with its chaos as much as with its order, with its humanness as well as its strangeness.

So, at the heart of Faith and Wisdom in Science, there is a scientists’ commentary on the Book of Job, because it stands equally with Plato and Aristotle as a foundation to modern philosophy. The Book of Job is, I think, a tributary of modern philosophy and modern science.

Jacobsen: Something I have noticed in UK culture  is the split between moral philosophy and natural philosophy. These become separate branches of philosophy. In that context, scientists as natural philosophers become applied philosophers.

It clarifies the context and landscape so much in terms of what scientists are doing. Also, it provides bounds on what is and is not within its purview. So, someone like Professor Sean Caroll at Cal Tech will talk about a “conclusion” – his word – that derives from the findings of science with naturalism.

But it seems lacking in historical context. I noticed Professor Lawrence Krauss has the same notion. It is that, but only in its long-term historical context. It was natural philosophy. So, of course, you are going to derive naturalism if you have forgotten your history.

McLeish: I absolutely agree, 100%, with that. I tell people about Faith and Wisdom in Science, that there is something not to like for everyone in this book. There is science. There is history. There is philosophy. There is theology. So, no one will like all of this book.

But I am trying to pull those three together, as you so beautifully put it. In the UK particularly, moral and analytical philosophy have been divided off from natural philosophy What I want to say is that when we do science, we are doing something intrinsically ethical and moral.

Now, we should not get confused, I am not saying every consequence of every technological application of science will be moral. We have to think there as well. But we will risk severe wrong turns unless we realize science itself is a moral act.

It is also, by the way, a theological act. So, here is a thing, as part of this cultural insouciance with science, I have noticed the conflict narrative.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

McLeish: More particularly in America, it is the distancing of, perhaps, rather modern versions of what they think to be orthodox Christianity, but which really aren’t, with science. Whereas, historically, within Judeo-Christian faith the nurturing of science has been a no-brainer.

It has been the seed-bed, the nursery, of science, for good reason as well. It goes something like this: the Christian analysis of the human condition is that there really is something wrong. We are in a nest of broken relationships.

We are in a broken relationship with each other. We have go broken relations with God. And, in some sense, we have a broken relationship with the world around us. We are ignorant of it. We are afraid of it. We can exploit it.

It is a deeply broken relationship. And, if in a nutshell, I can, with some St. Paul, summarize Christianity in one breath, as he does, I derive a clue of where science stands theologically. He writes to the Corinthians, “We have the ministry of reconciliation.” I love that.

Because, in perhaps more modern language, St. Paul is saying that Christianity is in the business of healing broken relationships. That could be applied all the way around. The reason we can do this is because the fundamental source of healing broken relationships between God and people has been the resurrection and crucifixion story.

The big healing Christian story, that enables us to go about the work – hence, the garden trowel analogy (science is to nature what garden tools are to a garden) – of healing our relationship with nature. This is, by the way, the genre of people like Nick Walterstorff in the context of art, or Jeremy Begby has done with music in his wonderful musical Theology, Music, and Time.

These are people asking questions like “How do we think theologically about…?” or “What is the theology of art, of music, of politics?” I think it is creative. Whether one is a believer or not, actually, asking the “What is the theology of something?” is helpful for one’s purpose, one’s teleology, one’s ethics.

I asked, “What is the theology of science?” The reason I asked it goes back to my first analysis. That we do not have a healthy cultural narrative for science. I think that the source of a healthy, productive, fruitful cultural narrative for science will be a theological one.

That is my belief. I think it’s source is to be found in the Book of Job and in the wisdom literature in the theological tradition itself. So “What is science for, theologically?” is the question; not, “Can you reconcile science with your faith?” That is a silly question.

“What is science for?” is the real question. “How should we go about it, morally and ethically?” “How should we bring our branches of science and the multiple branches of philosophy together?” I think it is this.

I have come to the conclusion that it is the engaging of the tools we have been given with this healing of this rather damaged or broken relationship of mankind with nature.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor McLeish.

McLeish: [Laughing] Okay! I really enjoyed that. Thanks, Scott.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

2 thoughts on “In Conversation with Professor Tom McLeish, B.A., Ph.D.

  1. Tom McLeish has been a reader (a lay preacher) in the Anglican Church since 1993. He is currently a trustee of the John Templeton Foundation (JTF). (Templeton World Charities Foundation awarded him a grant for his project: Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science.) The JTF is notorious for its generosity toward those academics who will defend Christianity against science and reason.

    • I does come through doesn’t it. It was that idiot John who came up with ‘Islamophobia’.

      I follow those thinkers who divide personalities into the philosophic versus the poetic. Poetry is powerful because it expresses thoughts we want to be true. Poetry doesn’t have to be moral in anyway. Philosophy is the search for unbiased truth. So, the reasoning goes, poetry is truer than philosophy for the majority of humans. Poetry and its soulmate, rhetoric, is how both Mussolini and Churchill inspired their separate nations.

      Poetry, the verses in the Bible, are great corrupters of rationality and morality. It is much more persuasive, for most of mankind, than sober analysis.

      Our job is to persuade the 40% of us, who form the solid conservative base, that morality is properly a branch of humanist studies and their book of poetry is properly a branch of literary arts that can be characterized as applied fantasy rhetoric and poetry.

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