Arts & Books Books

An academic philosopher takes on the universe

McGrath describes the atheism of Richard Dawkins and his supporters as 'populist' (Getty)

Alister McGrath can help us see the bigger picture, says Michael Duggan

The Territories of Human Reason
By Alister E McGrath
OUP, 304pp, £25/$35

Alister McGrath is someone who has frequently taken on the New Atheists, once charging Richard Dawkins with practising “the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching”.

McGrath’s new book, subtitled Science and Theology in an Age of Multiple Realities, is a different kind of endeavour: a dense academic monograph in which he carefully edges his way across “distinct, yet overlapping and competing, epistemic territories and communities”. His hoped-for destination is “transdisciplinarity” – a way of allowing discourse across and within boundaries, especially the boundaries that mark out and notoriously wedge apart science and religion.

Which is not to say that the New Atheists can relax safe in the thought that McGrath has retreated to a world of enclosed and bloodless scholarly argumentation for the duration of The Territories of Human Reason.

He is, in a certain sense, their worst nightmare: a theologian with a doctorate in molecular biophysics. Early on, McGrath mentions the New Atheists only to give them the label “populist”, which will surely cause Professor Dawkins and his supporters to wince; and, later, he recounts how Christopher Hitchens, having argued that religion was incapable of explaining anything, was then himself incapable of clarifying what he meant by “explain”.

This, Professor McGrath points out, echoes a wider problem within philosophy in general, and the philosophy of science in particular; a problem that dominates large portions of this book. For my own part, I will admit that, when I read headings such as “What does it mean to ‘explain’?”, my blood runs cold. The philosophers’ habit – and, no doubt, duty – of continuously tugging at the linguistic rug under our feet tends to unnerve and irritate me. Equally, I can’t say that the register of academic philosophy is one I always warm to or find particularly efficient or effective.

So reading The Territories meant continuously steeling and re-steeling myself to press ahead – but it’s worth it as there are some notable rewards. I am thinking, for instance, of the unpicking of AC Grayling’s contention that theological reasoning was unacceptable to a rational person because it was undertaken within “the presence and parameters of a system”. McGrath points out “the obvious fact that most human thinking – particularly scientific discourse – is elaborated within ‘the premises and parameters’ of some system or other, including mathematics and logic”. He illustrates this with a recap of efforts to determine the age of the universe that is fascinating and thought-provoking.

Then there is a careful, step-by-step examination of the use in the natural sciences of the processes of induction, deduction and abduction, followed in each case by their uses in theology.

Should you be wondering, “abduction” is the process which starts with the observation of puzzling phenomena A and B; and then imagines C, a hypothesis which, if it were true, would lead to A and B occurring as a matter of course, thus giving reason to suspect that C is, in fact, true.

The chapter on “Complexity and Mystery” is perhaps the best of all, and rich in observations such as the elucidation of the distinction drawn by the French theologian Gabriel Marcel between problem and mystery, which hinges on mystery being something in which I am myself involved. Mystery, McGrath goes on to reflect, can arise “from a profound respect for the singularity of our universe”. It “invites engagement, yet resists closure”.

One of the surprises of this book is how, in clearing the space to make his wider arguments, McGrath doesn’t seem to be simply seeking to correct a huge, destructive, hubris-induced blind spot in the Enlightenment and all the thinking that has flowed from it. Instead, he puts forward what could also function as a case for outright relativism.

This could be a misapprehension on my part. What McGrath is surely after, rather than the full-blown relegation of the European Enlightenment to simply one of many outlooks on the world, is a much greater dose of “epistemic humility” – an end to any blanket insistence on the “exclusive sufficiency” of natural scientific descriptions of the world.

McGrath concludes with his own thoughts on how to build a methodologically pluralist “big picture” of our world, in the course of which, intriguingly, he employs the case study of science and socialism, as a means of illustrating how people are “perfectly capable of weaving together outcomes and insights from multiple disciplines and sources”.

Still, it is striking how, even in the most admired and elevated minds, all of the questions uncovered and alluded to in books such as this can be pulped and replaced with raw assertion. Professor McGrath gives us a noteworthy example of this tendency with a quote from Bertrand Russell, speaking in 1948: “The universe is just there, and that’s all.”