Opened in 1973, the present Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge, which houses its physics department, is a concrete building devoid of any architectural merit. In a mahogany entablature above the entrance is a quotation from Psalm 111: “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.” The text and its placing were suggested by a young student who went on, via a theology degree, to hold a chair in quantum information processing at the University of Oxford. That student was Andrew Briggs, who is co-author, with the religious painter Roger Wagner, of this book, which makes the case that religion and metaphysics address ultimate questions but science only penultimate ones. It further suggests that science slipstreams behind religion. To me, an atheist who loves the Anglican liturgical tradition, Wagner and Briggs’ first premise is wrong, their second confusing. But let me tell you first why their book is well worth reading.
Religious belief has always been a powerful force in the world, one that the authors argue dates from the earliest record of humanity displayed in cave paintings. Science came later, but now vies with religion in its importance. How the irresistible force of science has over time interacted with the immovable object of religion is an important story and one that Wagner and Briggs tell with authority and facility. Philosophy, particularly that of the early Greeks and Arabs, also has its place. Aristotle argued that the Earth has always existed, Moses in Genesis that God created it. Science, via the Big Bang, appears to have scored this Moses One, Aristotle Nil.
Many authors have sought to make a convincing synthesis of science and religion. Refreshingly, Wagner and Briggs do not aim for that. They are content to tell the story of the beliefs that many of the greatest scientists have professed and how they have related to the religious milieu of their day. Their sweep is from the earliest human record up to research published just two years ago. Along the way, they introduce interesting characters such as John Philoponus (c.490-570), who might not feature in conventional histories of science. Surprisingly, they say relatively little about the impact of quantum theory. Nevertheless, their narrative is fascinating and this is a beautiful volume, produced to a very high standard and enriched with many appropriate illustrations.
To move in a slipstream is to gain help from whatever is ahead – just as, in one of the book’s examples, a Tour de France cyclist in the peloton saves effort by tucking in behind the leader. Wagner and Briggs support their thesis that science slipstreams behind religion by citing scientists such as James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday, who stated that their work took inspiration from their religious faith. They also provide, but appear to discount, many examples where the forces of religion conspired to stifle scientific or philosophical enquiry. (I should add that I found the slipstreaming idea fanciful and unpersuasive.)
The proposition that science does not now ask ultimate questions seems to me plain silly. Cosmology asks what can be known about our physical universe and its history. Fundamental physics is engaged in the quest for, although it is yet short of, the theory of everything. Molecular biology and genetics are asking basic questions about life and posing new moral dilemmas almost daily. Neuroscience could be our best chance to understand the nature of mind. The human and social sciences investigate how to organise life and society for the best.
This book opens in and was written in Oxford, Matthew Arnold’s “home of lost causes”. The quest for meaningful answers to what Wagner and Briggs regard as the ultimate questions about God may be long and unrewarding.
Richard Joyner is emeritus professor of chemistry, Nottingham Trent University.
The Penultimate Curiosity: How Science Swims in the Slipstream of Ultimate Questions
By Roger Wagner and Andrew Briggs
Oxford University Press, 496pp, £25.00
Published 25 February 2016