Editor’s Note: The following blog post is provided by Professor Tom McLeish from his 2021 Boyle Lectures. The full version of his lecture was recently published in Zygon together with a response by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, an article by Fraser Watts summarizing the panel discussion, and a second article by Professor McLeish containing his responses to questions from the online audience.
I will never forget a memorable day conference several years back, held at the University of Sheffield in the north of England. Celebrating a major anniversary of a life-science research centre, the day featured several Nobel laureates. Towards the end of one lecture, a famous developmental biologist stopped the flow of his argument, fell silent, and gazed out at the audience of several hundred mostly early-career researchers. “I’m so worried,” he confessed with a shake in his voice, “that we are losing the art of looking. I want you all just to spend hours each day just looking down your microscopes and thinking about what you see. If we stop doing that, we will stop discovering things.”
Perhaps the lecturer was unconsciously recalling T.H. Huxley’s account of salamander embryo development:
It is as if a delicate finger traced out the line to be occupied by the spinal column, and moulded the contour of the body; pinching up the head at one end, the tail at the other, and fashioning flank and limb into due salamandrine proportions, in so artistic a way, that, after watching the process hour by hour, one is almost involuntarily possessed by the notion, that some more subtle aid to vision than an achromatic, would show the hidden artist, with his plan before him, striving with skillful manipulation to perfect his work.1
The memory of these strong and moving secular voices, calling for a re-intensified practice of observational contemplation in science, returned to me recently as I was thinking about historical and theological pathways to the same conclusion.
Robert Boyle, one of the great early developers of the experimental method of the fledgling Royal Society, and a deeply-committed Christian, described a similar vision of a way of doing science that would enrich contemplative practice. But for him, this would reach well beyond the new professional scientific community and into a widespread community practice. His 1665 Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects contributed to an all too brief flowering of a new lay science. The movement of “Occasional Meditation” encouraged the lay practice of observations, reflection, and recording: the colours and forms of flowers, the ripples on a lake, the fall of leaves. It also encouraged a lay interpretation of nature. Historian J. Paul Hunter writes of Boyle’s commitment to “the universal priesthood of all observers and interpreters.”2
The theological resonance of Hunter’s (and if you look, in Huxley’s) comment is well-struck, for the contemplative stance has, of course, a long tradition in religious practice and observance. That contemplation has not enjoyed the same association with science is surely connected with the persevering, though false, narrative of conflict between faith and science. This suggests an exploration of earlier theological-scientific writing – before the early-modern period – to begin building a picture more developed connections between a faith-inspired natural philosophy and contemplative practice.
The great English thirteenth century polymath Robert Grosseteste, before turning exclusively to more pastoral and exegetical writing as Bishop of Lincoln from 1235, wrote a series of highly mathematical and innovative treatises on scientific topics. Comets, rainbows, the production of sound, the motions of the heavens, the formation of mists and dews—all these were suitable objects for his considerable powers of analysis. Grosseteste also commented on the observation-informed act of re-imagining nature – what we call “science.” He puts the practical role of contemplation in natural philosophy this way (following James of Venice’s translation of Aristotle, he calls it ‘sollertia’):
Sollertia , then, is a penetrative power by which the vision of the mind does not rest on the surface of the thing seen, but penetrates it until it reaches a thing naturally linked to itself. In the same way as corporal vision, falling on a coloured object, does not rest there, but penetrates into the internal connectivity and integrity of the coloured object, from which connectivity its colour emerges, and again penetrates this connectivity until it reaches the elementary qualities from which the connectivity proceeds.3
This 800-year-old wisdom reminds us that, along with losing the ancient connection between creation- and covenant faith and science—and that of a shared contemplative stance—we have also been led to forget the vital role that imagination itself must have within science. Explicit accounts of “scientific method” focus on the way in which experiments are designed to test hypotheses—but from where do the hypotheses come from in the first place (or the experiments, for that matter)? Early fantasy novelist, poet and theologian George MacDonald has it just right—his 1867 essay The Imagination, its Function and its Culture (MacDonald 1893) begins with an imagined dialogue with Thomas Sprat, historian of the early Royal Society, who decried the use of imagination in scientific work:
“But the facts of Nature are to be discovered only by observation and experiment.” [Sprat]
“True. But how does the scientist come to think of the experiments? … the heart must open the door to the understanding. It is the far-seeing imagination which beholds what might be a form of things, and says to the intellect: ‘Try whether that may not be the form of these things.” [MacDonald]4
We can now turn to the most ancient source material that points to a faith-based source for a scientific contemplation of nature, for it is precisely this human gift—both poetic and scientific—of mental “sight beyond the surface of the world” that lies at the explosive core of the best poetry in all the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Job is surely Biblical Wisdom literature’s most excruciating and most lovely rhetorical expression of an “enjoying and suffering being” (from Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads) facing the “inhuman otherness of matter” (from George Steiner’s Real Presences). At the peak of Job’s pain, a new Voice takes him, in stunning poetic form, down a mine:
Surely there is a mine for silver; and a place where gold is refined …
The Earth from which food comes forth is underneath changed as if by fireIts rocks are the source of lapis, with its flecks of gold.5
Not even the hawk with her sharp eyes sees what humans see, the poem continues, beneath the surface of the world, by their art, and by their imagination. Job, like modern science, needs a re-orientation in his relationship to an apparently chaotic cosmos more than he needs anything else. So, when the Voice from the Whirlwind finally answers his complaints and demands for vindication, in the highest Hebrew poetry of all, the re-directing questions of the Lord’s answer (Job 38-40) peal out in over 160 registers of the untamed quarters of the natural world. For example:
In the long question-form poem, Yahweh points Job to his co-creating imaginative task to reach behind the surface of the world, into the ice, out to the star-clusters, onward to light itself. It remains a great pity that mainstream scholarship has tended to interpret this most healing and affirmative of texts as a form of petty divine put-down. The Hebrew rhetorical tradition of question is pedagogical, prophetic, affirmative, eliciting “thoughtful engagement, contemplation and possible counter-answers,” but never bullying or diminishing. Yahweh’s long response to Job—a nature-poem in question-form—takes up the theme of how to interpret the “Book of Nature” that pervades the earlier discourses. More than that, it also launches a tradition of imaginative questions that, over millennia, have opened increasingly deeper layers of natural structure to human gaze.9
A re-imagination of this vocational, contemplative, and questioning gaze into the material world as an aspect of human activity, emphasizes the imago Dei, and assists in reversing the damaging exclusiveness behind which science has too often barricaded itself. In doing so it dissolves the myth that science runs counter to a confessional faith, by revealing how it drew its original energy and vision from it.
If you would like to see Prof. McLeish’s Boyle Lecture, you can find it on the ISSR YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/khYs4qJiS-Y
- Sean Carroll, The Making of the Fittest (New York: W W Norton, 2006).
- Paul J. Hunter, “Robert Boyle and the Epistemology of the Novel.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 2, no. 4 (1990), 275-292.
- Richard W. Southern, Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).
- George MacDonald, “The Imagination, Its Function and Its Culture” (1893) in A Dish of Orts (Lexington: Editora Griffo, 2015).
- Job 28:1
- Job 38:19
- Job 38:22
- Job 38:31; Note: Pleiades refers to an open star cluster containing middle-aged, hot B-type stars in the north-west of the constellation Taurus, also known as The Seven Sisters or Messier 45.
- Tom McLeish, Faith and Wisdom of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).