Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?: Interview with MIT Professor Ian Hutchinson
Professor Ian H. Hutchinson of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently published the book, Can A Scientist Believe In Miracles?: An MIT Professor Answers Questions on God and Science. Staff writer Allen Lai sat down with Professor Hutchinson to talk about miracles and the relationship between science and faith.
Allen: Thank you so much for your time. Today, I want to ask you a bit about your book, as well as more general questions about how science and faith should inform each other … I was wondering if you could elaborate more on some of the things you mentioned about cosmology and fine-tuning and how you think that that points to a God. Given the critiques of the idea of intelligent design, could you comment on how strong you think that this is as an argument?
Prof. Hutchinson: I talked quite a bit on what I think is essentially the argument by design. The design argument in its classical form in Christianity is that we see around us lots of evidence that the world is designed, and if so, then there is a creator God who designed it. To clarify, this argument for design originally had nothing to do with the ID [Intelligent Design] movement, a movement that got going in the 1980s that has been trying to recapture that argument as an argument for the truth of Christianity or theism. The argument for design was traditionally for hundreds of years based on the biological complexity of the universe and particularly our planet. And the argument for design became something that the Church depended heavily on for its intellectual rationale in the 19th century. That’s one of the reasons why Darwin’s publication of his theory of evolution became such a shock, because it offered in a certain sense a perfectly natural explanation for the appearance of design in the biological world, namely that the biological species are subject to natural selection, whereby there’s a natural process through which species become well adapted to their environment and therefore seemed to have been designed for it.
And yet evolution as envisaged by Darwin was, from a natural point of view, simply a random process: it was natural selection acting on random variations of what we would today call the genome. So what happened towards the end of the 19th century was that the classical argument from design looked much weaker, because of the scientific development of an understanding of the natural mechanisms by which this enormous biological diversity and complexity can be developed. And I think that the Church had made a mistake in founding so much of its intellectual rationale of things on the biological argument for design, which proved to be much weaker than the Church thought it was in the prior century.
I think the Church and Christians in general should be more cautious today than the Church was in the 19th century in putting forward [the argument for design] as an argument for theism or Christianity. But nonetheless I think there are some interesting facts about the cosmology of the universe that gives us some reason to believe to believe that there are intellectual questions which are well answered by belief in a Creator God. One of them is that the Universe appears, on the basis of modern physics, to have greater freedom in what the laws of nature could be. I would say that there’s quite widespread agreement among scientists, whether theists or not, that the universe has this incredible property that if the constants were different, it would be unable to support life. In fact, it would not have been possible to form life, let alone the conscious and intelligent life that we value so highly.
I think that what people conclude from that is very different depending on their fundamental beliefs. I think for a Christian, it is not at all surprising that the universe would be like this, because we believe that God has designed it and has certain purposes for the universe. That doesn’t discourage their trying to find natural explanations for why certain constants are the way they are, and so it’s actually not a science-stopper, as some atheist and secularists often argue. But it’s actually not the case, and it doesn’t stop us from continuing to investigate. In fact, I think if you’re an atheist and you find that the universe is fine-tuned, there is some dissonance.
So at that kind of level, I would say that there are reasons to support supposing that modern cosmology thus points to a Creator. But I think it’s very important for us Christians to be more modest and more balanced about our claims in this respect. And in particular, I think it’s very important to avoid an attitude which is sort of a “god of the gaps”: that anytime there’s something in science we can’t explain, that the answer must be God. That’s a terrible mistake, and it was a mistake that was adopted by the church when they emphasized the argument for design in its classical form. I don’t think that we should seek to see the actions of God in only things that science can’t explain, we Christians believe that God created the whole universe and that we see God at work in the laws of nature, as well as things which are perhaps not explainable by our current understanding of these laws. So taking the attitude that we only see God acting in things that we can’t explain by science is of course a terrible theological stance to take, and we should avoid it at all costs. And so I think that the argument for design needs to be put forward in a more modest way, and the way that I would put it is ultimately what I’ve said: that the Universe does appear to be unique, and it could have been different, and there’s a pretty good question about why it is the way it is, which is to a large degree answered if there’s a Creator God.
Allen: I was particularly thinking about something that you said earlier when it came to the concept of the church holding onto a particular view of its science, which we understand to be not as strong today. So I have a general question for you: how do you think our faith should inform our approach to science (which I think is what the church ended up doing in the past), and how should science inform our faith, especially our interpretation of the Scriptures?
Prof. Hutchinson: There’s often a myth put forward that in the past, historically, the church’s influence on science has been almost all negative, that the church has held back science for centuries and so forth. And I think that this is a complete misreading or misrepresentation of history. In fact, a good case can be made that Christian theology, or Judeo-Christian understanding of creation coming from the Bible, was the very fertile philosophical and theological environment in which science found its birth. I think that that shows that theology has in fact been vastly helpful for the development of science, and that in fact our modern experimental science could not have taken place without the understanding the world as a creation of an intelligent God, as contingent, as worthy of study, as requiring detailed examination to discover and understand. And I think that there is in fact in history a very constructive relationship between the church and science quite apart from the fact that all the universities in the West from the earliest days started in Christian foundations. I think that there are many ways in which Christianity has been integral in helping science to grow. But there are other aspects of our relationship with science today which have been, at least temporarily, charged with tension, in which science has perhaps been held back in some respects by the church’s teachings, or the church has offered resistance. People will cite for example the Galileo incident, in which the Catholic church found itself for various theological reasons opposing the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, rather than the sun orbiting the Earth. But today for example, no one in Christendom has any problem realizing that interpreting the Psalm in which it says the earth is firmly founded and cannot be moved as a scientific statement about whether the Earth orbits the Sun or vice versa is just silliness, and it was silliness in Galileo’s day, and the church shouldn’t have done that. But we don’t have any problem realizing that the church made a mistake about that.
But there are other areas today about which certain parts of the Christian church have great unease or are insistent upon certain interpretations of the Bible, which are inconsistent with modern science. I think that that is generally a mistake. In my book, I talked quite a bit about how we should proceed as Christians to understand to understand both science and our Scriptures. To make a long story short, it’s important to realize that the Bible was written long before there existed anything that remotely resembled science as we know it. And therefore to go to the Bible and to say that the Bible contains scientific descriptions of the world in the way that today we interpret science is simply a silly mistake. And we ought to attempt to approach the Bible in a way that tries to understand it from the perspective of the writers and of the hearers and try to apply those in our modern setting. Anyway, I think it’s very important for us today to approach the Bible recognizing that it is not science. The Bible contains many types of literature, but it does not have any books in the genre of scientific literature as we understand it today. And that has very important consequences for the way we interpret the Scriptures.
Allen: Thank you. I had a particular question about our current understanding of evolution and natural selection and how it is compatible with the greater meta-narrative in Scripture that death is caused through sin. I was wondering how we can read Genesis 3 and what it says in Romans that death came through the sin of humans, given what we know about evolution?
Prof. Hutchinson: So God said to Adam, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree, and the day you eat of it you shall surely die”. That’s what the Book of Genesis tells us. There has been a traditional interpretation of the Bible that prior to Adam’s eating of the tree in the garden, there was no such thing as death. This interpretation, which is in some ways is a scientific interpretation, is not in my view a very sensible interpretation of the Bible. And you need not just take my opinion, it was also the opinion of vast numbers of Christians down over the centuries. I don’t mean to say that there weren’t people over the centuries who took a literalistic interpretation of Genesis, but there were also people like Origen, Augustine, and other church fathers, who argued vehemently based on the Scriptures themselves that we should interpret that metaphorically. But one argument that was put forward based on this very passage on which I just remarked, is that it also says in Genesis that Adam lived for nine hundred and something years. But God had told him, “the day on which you eat of it you will die”. So clearly that statement must be taken metaphorically. And so that was an argument that was put forward by many of the early church fathers, the bishops and other leaders who were responsible for the development of the faith in the early centuries, to convey that there are part of the Bible, especially those parts of the Bible which we struggle over most, which are the first eleven chapters of Genesis, which should be taken metaphorically.
So how do I interpret this question of death before the Fall? Here is approximately my interpretation. And I don’t mean to say at this is the right interpretation, and In fact I don’t think that there is one right interpretation of Genesis. Genesis was written for our instruction, and was inspired by God that we might understand better. I think that the first two chapters of Genesis were largely written for the purposes of getting clear in the mind of the Hebrews that their God, Yahweh, was not just some kind of tribal deity like the deities of the people around them, but was in fact the creator of everything. The most important message of the first two chapters of Genesis is not how God created the world but that he created it. That may seem obvious today, because we have two millennia worth of monotheism, but it was not at all obvious in those ancient times.
And so is my interpretation of Genesis 3 and the question of the Fall, is that when in Genesis 2 it says that God created Adam out of the dust of the earth and then he breathed into him life, that word breathed (ruach) is used throughout the Bible as referring to spirit. And so the natural Biblical interpretation of that statement in Genesis 2 is that God breathed spiritual life into Adam, who had been formed from the physical world, from the dust of the earth. So basically I see that this as a two-stage thing. Humans were formed first in a physical way, and then at some stage God breathed spiritual life into them and they became spiritual beings. And therefore I interpret the Fall as a falling away from that spiritual life, and that when God said to Adam, “you will surely die”, he wasn’t referring to physical death, but he referred to spiritual death. And by the way, this interpretation is completely in line with Paul’s interpretation of this question of death that is very important to Christian theology as it appears in Romans and so forth. And so when Paul is talking about death and life, and “you were dead in your sins but you have come alive in Christ”, he was talking about spiritual life. He wasn’t talking about physical life. I think that there having been death, specifically animal death and even human death before the Fall, is not in any respect actually inconsistent with the sensible interpretation of Christian doctrine and of the Scriptures.
Allen: Thank you. That clears things up a lot. One question I had which I thought particularly interesting is, how do we know in which areas of science we should be steadfast regarding what we should believe? For example, philosophers have taken the science of evolution to say that this points to the character of a God who is arbitrary and has a lot of messiness and imperfections along the way to create in the progress of evolution.
Prof. Hutchinson: I think that it’s a philosophical or theological question. I do address this in my book, and I think that people can get much more carefully expressed answers to a lot of these questions if they read my book. But broadly speaking, if for example we adopt the viewpoint that there was death before the Fall, and that the scientific description of the mechanism of evolution, common descent, is in fact a true description of some scientific aspects of the development of biological diversity, where does that leave us? Some Christians are worried that being willing to take a metaphorical interpretation or a non-literal interpretation of some of the stories of the Old Testament, for example the first two chapters of Genesis, puts us on a slippery slope to say that everything in the Bible is just myth. I do deeply understand that people are nervous about that, and with good reason because there have been critics over the past 300 years or so who have essentially thrown away all the authority of Scripture in matters of faith for Christians by these kinds of arguments.
But I don’t think that slippery slope argument necessarily holds. I think it’s the case that those of us who know Jesus and who take the Bible seriously can and do interpret the Bible metaphorically in lots of areas, and that there is no such thing as a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. When Jesus said, “I am the true vine”, did he mean that he was a creeping plant with green leaves? Of course not! It was a metaphorical statement. There are lots of metaphorical usages of language throughout the Bible that you cannot interpret literally. And so there is a task in front of us to interpret the Bible faithfully but not literally. If we pretend that the Bible is some kind of a literal document in the sense of a scientific document that we can come to with a modern scientific mentality, we are simply misinterpreting the scriptures. So that’s the slippery slope argument.
Your second point is a question about what is usually called theodicy. In other words, is God in fact self-consistent? Or if God is all-knowing all-powerful and all benevolent, why does he permit there being things like suffering in the world? How could that be the case? The universe, as you say, is kind of messy and there are lots of things about it that don’t seem to be well designed, for example. The problem of theodicy is in fact a major issue in theology and has been since the beginning, because it is difficult for us to understand how God is righteous in the things that he does. But I do think that there are theological answers to those questions of the problem of pain and suffering. And I think that these philosophical and theological arguments are in fact rather strong. The presumption that we have we have to get past, which I think is false, is that one can imagine a world which is much better than the one we have. In other words, people think that they can imagine a self-consistent universe in which, for example, there is no suffering. But I think that’s a mistake. I don’t think that atheists or anyone else or, for that matter theists, can imagine a world which is much better than the way it currently is. And so I actually believe that God’s creation of the universe that we live in is in profoundly good, as the first chapter of Genesis said that it was. And it’s good in subtle ways, in the ways that God achieves his purposes. I don’t mean to belittle the problem of suffering. We humans do suffer. There’s no question; and maybe animals also do suffer. But I don’t think there’s a solution for that in imagining that God could have have put all those things right but doesn’t, and therefore God is either evil or doesn’t exist. I don’t think the argument works, because I don’t think we know how to properly imagine a Universe in which there is no such thing as suffering.
Allen: I was wondering if you could tell me about how your work as a scientist, and especially as a professor, what place you have in the kingdom of God and what opportunities you have.
Prof. Hutchinson: So the question is, how does my Christian faith affect my science?
Allen: Specifically as a scientist, I was wondering in what part of the Body [of Christ], or what role you see yourself in with respect to the kingdom of God?
Prof. Hutchinson: I think that is an interesting question to ask a scientist. I think it’s a question that’s also is just as valid for anyone else. Every Christian has to think about what their role in the kingdom is. I personally over my life have tried to integrate my science and my Christian faith in ways that make intellectual sense of both. I think that I have succeeded in doing so to some degree, as many other people have. One of the reasons I participate in things like the Veritas Forum and write books like the one I’ve written is that I’ve thought a lot of these things through, and I find that lots of people are interested in these questions, to which I think I have some answers. So is that important? Yes, I think that’s very important because I think that the Christian faith is a call to all of us as humans to respond to the Creator, to accept the forgiveness that is on offer to us because of what Jesus has done in dying for us on the cross, and that is a route to abundant life. That’s one of the things that I do.
So I also, in my science, have done a great deal of study of plasma, not only because it’s interesting, but because it has potential for material benefit for humans on Earth, and helping us to solve some of the problems that we face in our world today. I don’t take the view that science is necessarily the only way, or even the best solution, to many of the problems that we face, but I do think that science and technology are things that are worthy of Christians. And when God calls us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and so forth, part of that can be part of our mission in science. So I see those things as entirely compatible and parcel of the same call of God.
Allen: Thank you so much, Professor, for your time in this interview!
Allen Lai ’20 is a junior in Quincy House studying Chemistry and Physics.Tags: atheism, church, Darwin, evil, evolution, Ian Hutchinson, intelligent design, literature, metaphor, MIT, science, suffering, theodicy, theology, veritas forum