Loading Events

About the Event

On the 31st August, 2016 over 50 delegates from the UK and around the globe gathered in the Woodbrooke Quaker study centre in Birmingham to begin an intense three days of presentation and discussions around the central topic: Are there limits to science? The key note addresses were given by leading specialists including the philosopher Fiona Ellis, theologian Neil Messer and religion and science lecturer Donovan Schaefer, and in the short paper sessions delegates got a chance to engage in topics including the historical limits of science, the place of naturalism in debates and how the topic is tackled in school education. There was also plenty of time for socialising and networking during coffee and at the conference dinner. Delegates commented that the rich programme and friendly atmosphere combined to make the conference time enormously valuable and enriching. Each delegate probably has their own reflections on whether the conference answered the question in the title, but there is no doubt that he conversations will continue until we meet again for the SRF 2017 conference in Lincoln.

Keynote Papers

The Limits of Science: A Poet’s Perspective
by Christopher Southgate

For many, poetry and the natural sciences will seem strange bedfellows. The lecture will explore what types of relationship they can have – from similarity of technique to complementarity of observation. Poetry can also be playful against the seriousness of science; it can reveal hidden human stories behind scientific breakthroughs; it can act prophetically to warn of the technological implications of scientific advance. The lens of poetry is therefore one that can begin to disclose something of the Conference theme of the limits of science., in ways that are profoundly charged theologically. The lecture will include readings from poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins. Miroslav Holub and R.S. Thomas, as well as from the lecturer’s own work.

View Speaker Bio
God, naturalism, and the limits of science
by Fiona Ellis

My target will be an approach which suggests that science is unlimited in its scope in the sense that it is ‘the measure of all things’. This is scientific naturalism, it is supposedly the main programmatic orientation of Anglo-American philosophy, and it is deeply problematic. Having set out the relevant difficulties, I shall consider a more expansive form of naturalism which, I argue, can be extended in a theistic direction. Expansive naturalism has important implications for how we think about the limits of science and its bearing upon the science versus religion debate. I spell out some of these implications and conclude that we should be expansive naturalists.

View Speaker Bio
The Many Faces of Naturalism – reflecting on the current status of philosophical naturalism in the dialogue between theology and science
by Mikael Leidenhag

Naturalism has traditionally been construed as the antithesis of a religious conception of reality. It has been argued that naturalism in viewing science as the sole mediator of knowledge invites reductionism, and so excludes morality, values, free-will and any ultimate purpose to nature. Today, however, we see a multitude of ways that scholars are attempting to move naturalism beyond this reductionist story. Non-reductive versions of naturalism have been proposed which emphasize the limits of science, the emergent order of nature, and the layered character of physical reality. Because these new forms of naturalism reject a scientific monopoly on knowledge, they seem to create space for a theological understanding of the workings of nature and enable a more harmonious relationship between theology and science. This presentation will critically evaluate some attempts at bridging naturalism and theology, focusing on Nancey Murphy, Philip Clayton, and Fiona Ellis. It will be seen that all three thinkers seek to naturalize the domain of theology in different ways and in so doing encounter both theological and philosophical problems. In the end, I suggest that the notion of “naturalism” in this discussion is unclear, and I further argue that the intellectual climate might be heading towards a post-naturalistic era. This post-naturalistic framework is highly desirable and provides new possibilities for theological reflection.

View Speaker Bio
What should Christian theology (not) learn from science? The case of the human brain
by Neil Messer

This paper will use the neuroscience of religion and morality as a test case of the limits of science in its encounters with theology and ethics. Recent scientific developments, particularly in functional brain imaging, seem to promise new insights into many aspects of human nature, including religion and morality. Neuroscientific studies of religion, alongside evolutionary and cognitive science accounts, are often deployed to support religious scepticism – but conversely, sometimes used apologetically by religious believers. Functional neuroimaging studies of moral judgement suggest that our moral decisions are far less the products of reasoned deliberation than we sometimes imagine, and some authors have tried to build normative proposals about ethical reasoning on the back of these empirical studies. Such research may appear to have far-reaching implications and raise troubling questions for Christian theology and ethics. Yet some of the bold claims made for it rest on confusion about the kinds of intellectual work science is capable of doing. Accordingly, this field offers a valuable test case of the contributions science can and cannot make to the understanding of theology and ethics – and therefore also the opportunities and pitfalls for Christian theologians who attempt to engage with science. The paper will develop this test case in three stages. First, evolutionary, cognitive and neuroscientific studies of religion, and the questions they raise for Christian theology, will be briefly surveyed. Next, various types of theological engagement with science will be sketched out, and their merits and problems evaluated with reference to these scientific accounts of religion. Some methodological conclusions will be drawn from this evaluation, and in the final part of the paper they will be illustrated by a theological reflection on neuroscientific studies of morality.

View Speaker Bio
An Elephant in the Room: Divine Action, Naturalism(s), and Why the Causal Joint is Still Worth Talking About
by Sarah Lane Ritchie

The question of divine action has been a perennial focus of the science and religion field: how, exactly, does God interact with the created world? Perspectives on this question are best compared by their respective approaches to the infamous “causal joint,” the theoretical nexus in which divine intent meets material processes. Can science point us to a physical process or sphere where God acts specially? This causal joint problem is increasingly pertinent as the boundaries of scientific explanation are pushed further and further back: the naturalizing trajectory of scientific knowledge poses a real challenge to contemporary theology. A sizable literature has accumulated around the topic of divine action, most notably shaped by the influential Divine Action Project and its attendant responses, critiques, and commentary. However, many conclude that the causal joint not only remains elusive, but may even be an inadequate concept altogether. Moreover, the overall divine action conversation in recent decades may have constrained approaches to the causal joint by implicitly assuming certain metaphysical frameworks in the questions being asked, the categories being assigned, and even the terminology used around God, divine action, and the natural world. Recent years have thus seen alternative metaphysical approaches to divine action: these include, for example, panentheism, pneumatological approaches, participatory ontology, versions of neo-Thomism, and a variety of strong theistic naturalisms. These approaches attempt to reframe the causal joint conversation in different God-world models than those implied in the ‘intervention vs. nonintervention’ dichotomy. In so doing, they shift the conversation to a metaphysical/theological level that limits the scope of scientific knowledge. The task, it is argued, is to ask the right metaphysical questions about the God-world relationship, which are supposedly unanswerable by scientific methodology. But do these metaphysical ‘correctives’ adequately address the causal joint? Is there a better alternative to placing boundaries around what science may and may not tell us about reality? This paper surveys the current landscape around these questions, asking how non-standard approaches to divine action fare and pointing out potential areas for real progress.

View Speaker Bio
The Wild Experiment: Feeling, Secularism, and the Limits of Science
by Donovan Schaefer

‘I am like a gambler, & love a wild experiment’.
– Charles Darwin,
letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, March 26, 1863

Rather than exploring the outer limits of science, this paper considers its inner limit—a limit that is embedded within its method and that shapes all of its products. Following a lineage from David Hume to William James to contemporary affect theory, neuroscience, and feminist science and technology studies, I suggest that science—and all other forms of knowledge production—rather than being an operation of disinterested reason, is an emotionally saturated process.

Knowledge is a way of feeling our way around the world. There are obvious moments—of wonder or frustration—where we can see that knowledge-production is suffused with affect. My argument is that these obvious moments are only the most extreme, most visible manifestations of a much larger global system of affects intertwined with knowledge-production, sustaining science at the micro-level. This need not lead to radical solipsism. Rather, it explains epistemic diversity—when multiple people look at the same data and reach different conclusions—in a new way: what Jakob von Uexküll called the ‘feeling tones’ of objects shape the contours of what seems reasonable to us, leading to divergent interpretations. This goes not only for the natural sciences, but the human and social sciences. All endeavours of knowledge production are constituted by this affective connective tissue.

This model of science has direct implications for public narratives of science, religion, and secularism. The contemporary New Atheism, for instance, precisely by seeing science as unlimited by subjective feelings, believes that all partial, emotional formations of knowledge, such as religion, must eventually be displaced. An exploration of the New Atheist Christopher Hitchens surfaces the affective dimensions embedded within what Talal Asad calls ‘formations of the secular’.

View Speaker Bio

Short Papers

Are there limits to science? A Bayesian response
by Chris Abbess

This is not a discussion about the existence of categories that are not amenable to scientific analysis but it concerns a practical approach which will attempt to acquire knowledge or wisdom in the first instance and perhaps later decide that the expenditure or effort are not worth the value of the knowledge found. In particular I wish to demonstrate the operation of the Bayesian paradigm in a simple form as having a clear methodology, is open to inspection and been shown to have considerable success in diverse areas. It starts with a phenomenon with categories of explanation termed Hypotheses, distinct and having a degree of truth (probability) assigned to each. Next come likelihoods: these are probabilities too but express the chance of the observed data being discovered in the light of the truth of the hypothesis. By assembling the joint probabilities of hypothesis and likelihoods adding them and rescaling them we get an updated view of the probabilities of the hypotheses that we started with. Moreover as more data arrives the process of updating continues. The general expectation is that the uncertainty remaining will concentrate around those hypotheses that are best in explanatory terms. That in a nutshell is what the Bayesian paradigm is about. To illustrate the working of the procedure I propose to apply it to a hoary old chestnut known as the Monty Hall problem. Details will be given on a separate sheet – there will be the need of a little arithmetic and not much else. What are the benefits of this type of approach? We need to be humble and admit to the possibility of being wrong. W need to be broad minded to include possibilities that are easily discarded. We need to be able to observe the convergence of ideas in a context that we are ready to be driven by the data rather than push our own preferences.

View Speaker Bio
Christianity and The Singularity
by David Ashford

‘The Singularity’, ‘Transhumanism’ and ‘Immortalism’ are terms in increasing use to refer to what might happen if and when the human race finds out enough about the inner workings of the body and mind to be able to re-engineer itself into a more advanced life form. This paper explores how and when this might happen and then how Christianity might react to this transforming development. The main conclusions are that we might come to understand God much better than we do now, and that the life and teachings of Jesus Christ are miraculously relevant to developments that were unimaginable in His day.

View Speaker Bio
Science – the Endless Frontier
by Nathan Aviezer

Whenever we think that science has reached its limits, dramatic new discoveries show how little we actually know. Consider the following examples from physics:
(i) Classical mechanics explained all known data for over 200 years, before being overturned by relativity theory in 1905 and again by quantum theory in 1925.
(ii) Newton’s theory of gravity explained all known data for over 200 years, before being overturned in 1916 by Einstein’s radically new theory of gravity.
(iii) To make Einstein’s theory of gravity compatible with quantum theory, a radically new theory, known as string theory, has been proposed. String theory predicts the existence of multiple dimensions and multiple universes.
(iv) It was recently discovered that 80% of the matter in the universe consists of unknown types of particles, known as dark matter, and that the universe is filled with an unknown type of energy, known as dark energy. The nature of dark matter and dark energy remain a complete mystery.
(v) The current theory of fundamental particles, called the standard model, has been shown to be incomplete and must be replaced by a new model, which will certainly include ideas very different from those currently accepted.

View Speaker Bio
Developing school students’ appreciation of the power and limitations of science: Research based intervention study
by Dr Berry Billingsley

The science curriculum in England states that students in secondary school should develop an appreciation of ‘the power and limitations of science’ (QCA, 2014). Research suggests, however, that this objective is widely neglected (Billingsley, Brock, Taber, & Riga, 2016; Billingsley, Taber, Riga, & Newdick, 2013). As part of the LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion) Project, we have designed three workshops on ‘Robots and Being Human’ which aim to develop students’ scientific literacy, enthusiasm for careers in science and epistemic insight. Building on the success of these biology and AI related workshops we are conducting research to develop further workshops on the power and limitations of physics. In this paper, we present an evaluation of the efficacy of our robotics workshops to raise students’ epistemic insight together with early findings on secondary school students’ reasoning about the power and nature of physics.

Billingsley, B., Brock, R., Taber, K. S., & Riga, F. (2016). How Students View the Boundaries Between Their Science and Religious Education Concerning the Origins of Life and the Universe. Science Education, n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1002/sce.21213
Billingsley, B., Taber, K. S., Riga, F., & Newdick, H. (2013). Secondary school students’ epistemic insight into the relationships between science and religion—a preliminary enquiry. Research in Science Education, 43(4), 1715-1732.
QCA. (2014). Science: Programme of study for key stage 4. London

View Speaker Bio
The Limits of Science – A Barthian Approach
by The Revd Dr Philip I. Chapman

According to the theologian Karl Barth, Natural Science cannot investigate reality. Rather it investigates phenomena. The primary reality is God’s own self. That cannot be known unless God explains God’s self to us in the event we call “revelation”. Scripture witnesses to that event. In contrast Science is essentially empirical. It orders the phenomena arising from the physical aspects of the created secondary reality. It is fallible. The test of Natural Science is not absolute truth but whether it conforms to human knowledge of the physical world. Cracks and anomalies in the order science finds in the world point to further investigation. So Science moves forward. But the general structure of the physical world remains an unsolved puzzle because we never know the extent of what we do not know, that is to say the secondary reality giving rise to the phenomena.

View Speaker Bio
Models of Reality—My search for Meaning
by Ken Freeman

In 1940, during the blackout, I looked at the stars and questioned my existence. Now 84, I look back on a lifelong search for meaning. It began in earnest with the study of Mathematical Physics. Models of quantum theory left me dissatisfied by superficial answers. A 36-year research career concerned in colour television display and satellite broadcasting followed, involving design, description and analysis of valve and semi-conductor circuits using communication theory, mathematics (Laplace transforms!), computer modelling and understanding the nature of colour and its measurement. Subsequently, I now also think about my Christian beliefs and my human physiology, particularly my brain. In all these processes, I have come to realise that human curiosity and search for meaning, which start at birth, lead us, individually and collectively, to create models of reality, which we revise (or should do) as we gain knowledge and understanding.

View Speaker Bio
The Historical Limits of Science
by The Revd Dr Michael Fuller

‘Science’ is a term which is widely used, to cover a variety of approaches and practices in humans’ study of the natural world. ‘Modern science’ is often regarded as arising in the wake of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment; but its roots clearly go back to earlier thinkers. Indeed, it has been alleged that these roots go back to the very earliest thinkers of whom we have historical information, the Greek philosophers of the Ionian school (6th century BCE). So, do these thinkers (insofar as we can reconstruct their ideas) represent an historical limit to science – is science as old as recorded Western European thought itself? And if so, what can be said about the relationship between science and religion at this historical limit? This paper focuses on the earliest of these thinkers, Thales of Miletus, and assesses the ways in which his thought may be considered to be ‘scientific’ in the modern sense, and in what senses it was ‘religious’. It would appear that Thales did not believe there to be any incongruity in holding together what might today be considered to be both religious and scientific understandings of the world.

View Speaker Bio
Expanding the explanatory limits of science in early modern England
by Dr Pete Jordan

At the risk of oversimplifying matters a little, in early modern England explanations for events that took place in the world generally assumed one of two possible forms. On the one hand were providential explanations, in which it was claimed that God had miraculously caused whatever had taken place. On the other were naturalistic explanations—what today we would call scientific explanations—offered by natural philosophers; according to this kind of explanation, whatever took place could be accounted for by appealing solely to immanent processes involving created entities. In this paper I analyse the relations between these two forms of explanation across a handful of historical scenarios, and suggest a reason why, despite the appearance of competition between them, efforts to expand naturalistic forms of explanation did not—as some historians have claimed—lead to the eventual elimination of providence. The reason for this is that the doctrine of providence was also understood to offer an interpretation of the meaning and the broader significance of what takes place, and thus to account for more than causes alone. Because of this, the doctrine could adjust to changes in the explanatory limits of science, with phenomena able to bear divine meaning regardless of the types of causes involved.

View Speaker Bio
Naturalism, the limits of science and the case for non-scientific knowledge
by Dr Emmanuel Nartey

Alex Rosenberg defines naturalism as a philosophical theory that treats “science as our most reliable source of knowledge and the scientific method as our most effective route to knowledge.” The claim that all truths are discoverable by hard science, paradigmatically physics, is predicated on four hundred years of scientific success in prediction, control and technology. Rosenberg argues that since the triumphs of science shows that physics has made a good start, we should be optimistic that “it will do better than any other approach at getting things right.” But are those “things” confined to the questions of physics or all questions?
In what follows, I will focus on the question: what are the limits of scientific inquiry and does it leave any questions for non-scientists to answer? Answering that question will help us better understand the case for an irreducibly non-scientific knowledge and the intrinsic limits of the scientific method and its presuppositions. I conclude by exploring why scientists and non-scientists cannot duck the ultimate questions about meaning, values and purpose.

View Speaker Bio
How Far Can Science Study Human Life?
by The Revd Dr Fraser Watts

There is a set of views about the limitations of science that arises from the idea that there are two domains of human concern, one domain can be approached scientifically, but one (including morality, values and aesthetics etc.) that can’t. The case for this view can be advanced from several different disciplines, for example from the Kantian distinction between pure and practical reason, or in terms of different modes of cognitive processing such as the distinction McGilchrist draws between left and right hemispheres, or in terms of the distinction between referential and expressivist uses of language. In this paper I will reject the strong version of this thesis that there are some domains that can’t and should not be studied scientifically, and which call for alternative approaches. However, I will put the case for a weaker version that is a form of perspectivalism, that science can usefully study domains of human life such as morality, religion and aesthetics, but that the contribution of science needs to be supplemented by what more intuitive and participant approaches can offer, and that there can be fruitful interchange between the two.

View Speaker Bio

Contact Us

Back to Top