Understanding is a wonderful thing! I hope you’ve had many light-bulb moments in your past education, and that you continue to have moments of stunning insight in your current work. I don’t have such moments as much as I’d like, and my scientific research has never yielded a significant breakthrough. But surely we all have times when what seemed complicated suddenly becomes simple, or what was a mess takes form in our mind and makes sense? It’s also happened to me while preparing to teach, seeking a way to make a dense concept or method clear to students. Sometimes something as mundane as a picture or diagram can make the penny drop!

I recently enjoyed a discussion day where a dozen philosophically-minded scientists shared updates on their thinking, writing and research [1]. The overall theme was diverse intelligences, and I expected the contributions to be diverse and intelligent without much overarching coherence. The talks were certainly intellectually stimulating, but as I reflected on the day afterwards, I found a theme resonating throughout, about the intelligibility of creation. And so I hope that the following reflections from that day will be thought-provoking and perhaps even prompt some new insights for you.

The opening presentation considered the role of aesthetic perception for scientists. Molecular biologist Robert Gilbert spoke about his long fascination with the forms of biological molecules and their mutual fit – as when an enzyme holds a substrate like a lock accepting a key. As this had drawn him into his scientific specialism, so he reflected on how scientists find an allure in the systems and entities that they study, to gain insight by patient inspection and the game of hypothesis and experiment. More than that, we may find a seductive beauty in the objects of our study that is “like being addressed” – as if one part of creation opens itself up to another. If there’s too much masculine domination in that idea, biochemist Pauline Rudd related her own work in molecular biology in terms of a scientist’s involvement and “dialogue with” subjects of study. She also spoke, later, of the mutual intelligibility she found between humans and wildlife during a Covid lockdown experience in a mountainous part of Ireland. Creation, we might say, seems struck through with intelligibility. In similar vein, Will Beharrell inspired us with accounts of holistic healing in a project in Wales, under the concept of ‘green prescribing’ – for doctors as well as for patients!

Next came yours truly, arguing for a philosophical view of objectivity as a form of representation. An objective view isn’t a view from nowhere, nor a guarantee of repeatability, nor even necessarily correct (indeed, it should be open to correction [2]). Rather, it’s the projection of a situation (yielding data), or a law-governed system (yielding a model), into a simpler aspect of understanding, such as a number or an image. I have written about this here before so won’t elaborate, but the value of objectivity as projection depends on nature being struck through with created lawfulness. It also hints at why aesthetic appeal can sometimes be a clue to biotic, physical or mathematical form and function. Layers of intelligibility, again! [3]

The topic of artificial intelligence surfaced several times during the day but especially in a fascinating critical tour of philosophical computer science. If every computer science student studied some relevant philosophy, our networked future would be in safer hands! Yorick Wilks’ talk previewed a forthcoming book with the ambitious title “AI and God”, which will surely make my computer screen a little less ugly next time I Google that phrase. What stood out for me was that consciousness is an experience of focus. The claim that God is conscious of everything at once might therefore be meaningless, or at least transcend any concept we can handle. A respondent also pointed out that humans have enormous capacities for processing information so long as we don’t “put it through the bottleneck of consciousness”. I was left pondering why some AI enthusiasts are so excited about the idea of computer consciousness. Perhaps it’s connected to the quasi-religious ideal of transhumanism, which we also touched on.

The theme of consciousness came again in Rupert Sheldrake‘s intriguing talk about the nature of memory. Apparently, scientific efforts to localise memories within human brains have so far failed. While mainstream neuroscience requires memories to have some physical trace, our contributor proposed that they are simply not localised – not even to a brain. Rather, they might exist as non-spatial “morphic fields” that our brains create (with experience) and then resonate with (in remembering). Before dismissing this as a far-fetched hypothesis, consider the question of how we will recover our memories at the resurrection. Might it be that, once resurrected, our bodies will ‘tune in’ to our memories just as they do now?

I close with some thoughts about ‘spiritual intelligence’, from Fraser Watts‘ presentation. This was not about an extra kind of intelligence for “spiritual” people, but rather the way in which humans open themselves to the unexpected, participating holistically in their flowing conscious experience, with empathy, resulting in wisdom. I would like to see the concept objectified a little more (!), but as I see it, such intelligence seems indispensable to scientific discovery as much as to encounter with the Holy Spirit. And I was pleased that God’s Spirit was considered in our (broadly Christian but somewhat agnostic) conversation, since the word “spiritual” is always used normatively in the New Testament, and usually positively (“godly”). We make scientific progress by the grace of God, as also do we come to repentance and faith – and wisdom is surely the biblical concept common to both these gifts. Indeed, can we not say that creation’s intelligibility is of a Spiritual kind?

Anselm said “I believe that I may understand”. May we all grow in understanding as our beliefs are gradually fitted around the contours of this marvellous created order!


[1] You can read about the background to the Epiphany Philosophers at http://epiphanyphilosophers.org/

[2] Rowan Williams responded to all the presentations, and he urged us to maintain “corrigibility” as a criterion of objectivity.

[3] Two members of the group have since discussed this concept of objectivity on YouTube.

Richard Gunton
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Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]