Outsiders’ insights

I’ve in the past waxed enthusiastic about the BBC radio programme In Our Time, in which presenter Melvyn Bragg asks a specially assembled panel of (genuine) experts intelligent questions about some chosen topic, which might range from the Battle of Marathon to Alice in Wonderland, or from Genghiz Khan to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Just before Christmas they did a good one on Michael Faraday.

They said less than I hoped about how his faith informed his science, but the thing that struck me most was the statement that it is unlikely he would have developed his ideas on magnetic fields, and specifically magnetic lines of force, had he not been an autodidact.

The brief background is that he was the son of a tradesman, who died young leaving the family in relative poverty. Still, Michael managed to become an apprentice bookbinder, and began to be interested in science by taking home and reading the books he bound.

Eventually he became Sir Humphrey Davy’s chemical assistant at the Royal Institution, where he began to make his reputation as an experimental scientist after quite a lot of personal struggle because of his ungentlemanly origins.

The statement in question related to his intuitive grasp of the idea of curved lines of force, force being conceived by him as some kind of “rarified substance”. Newton’s scientific legacy was that all force is mechanical and, invariably, travels in straight lines – it’s important to grasp that this was an absolutely fundamental premise of the science of matter in motion in those days.

The BBC panel agreed that Faraday would never have had the insights he did had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge, since the universities were steeped in Newtonian theory, and likewise steeped their students in it. In fact, Faraday had a protracted disagreement with James Clerk Maxwell, educated at Edinburgh and Cambridge, on just these grounds. As one web writer says:

Michael Faraday was internationally famous in chemistry, electricity, and magnetism in the mid-19th century scientific community. Moreover, his experiments, laboratory notes, and published papers make it clear that his evolving concept of fundamental force as a rarified substance refers to both imponderable (weightless) radiant mass like heat and visible light, for example, and to imponderable (weightless) radiant energy like magnetism.

Clerk Maxwell, on the other hand, was unyieldingly limited not only by his belief that all force without exception must be mathematically described as a classical Newtonian force, he was further limited by his professional belief that all energy, including the energy of the electromagnetic field, is mechanical energy. On the latter point Maxwell writes: “In speaking of the Energy of the field, however, I wish to be understood literally. All energy is the same as mechanical energy, whether it exists in the form of motion or in that of elasticity, or in any other form. The energy in electromagnetic phenomena is mechanical energy. The only question is, Where does it reside?”

Indeed, Albert Einstein was in accord with Maxwell’s conclusion that electromagnetic energy is fundamentally and irreducibly mechanical energy. Among the serious unintentional consequences of perpetuating the limited, Newtonian view held by Maxwell and Einstein is the fact that some important aspects of Faraday’s contributions to science have been historically neglected and remain inadequately developed.

We’re accustomed to important past differences in science being glossed over in the myth of constant progress (though we’re often unaware it’s been done), and I find it fascinating to think that even now, Maxwell’s work might not yet have reaped its full rewards because other streams of thought – actually, other intellectual subcultures – would not accept it. But one has to admit that the world of quanta and the array of subatomic entities has made Faraday’s views look closer to the truth than Maxwell’s (or Newton’s) in this particular respect.

The universal lesson of this is wasted unless we’re willing to see that “guilds” of knowledge in any academic field, and not just Newtonian science in nineteenth century universities, are particular and partial – sometimes militantly so.

This is certainly true in theology – it’s really very refreshing to read N T Wright’s supremely well-argued work, and his occasional hints that a good chunk of New Testament studies has gone badly off the rails for a long time because of the false premises it has instilled into generation after generation of students. Certain things become almost impossible to write about, purely because of academic prejudice. It takes a long, long time for the lack of the emperor’s clothes to become obvious to all, and in theology that’s a long way off happening. In fact the Evangelicals recently, particularly in America, have been stripping off en masse to join the royal parade.

To be even-handed I must say that the same is undoubtedly true of my own “guild”, medicine. I always tried to sit somewhat loose to some of the fundamental assumptions of my profession, and in retrospect that began with the sense of liberation from an intellectual straitjacket I felt when I did a course in social psychology in my last year in Cambridge. I’m sure sociology was equally hidebound, but it was governed by a different set of prejudices that enabled me to start thinking for myself about medicine rather than believing all I was told. Even so, it’s only since retiring and experiencing medicine more as a “member of the public” than as a “professional” that I have become aware of some of the residual biases of my belonging to the party guild.

That brings me to the profession of biology, in which to my eyes the prejudice of group-think is better developed than possibly any other field, the equivalent of Newtonian straight lines of mechanical energy being, of course doctrinaire Neo-Darwinism.

Now there appears to be a sea change in the offing, possibly the much-heralded “paradigm shift”. I understand the Royal Society is holding a conference on the new biology in 2016, with many of the “Third Way” scientists like James Shapiro being invited. Whether or not such a shift actually is in progress, it’s historically painfully late in coming. I’ve recently read a critique of modern theistic evolution by biologist Wayne Rossiter (Shadow of Oz), whose experience was rather typical. He went to study biology at university as a Christian in the Autumn, and had by the next spring been persuaded into atheism by evolution and, particularly, the metaphysical milieu in which it was taught. It was a painful road back to faith.

Whilst I don’t agree with every point he makes, I think his take on TE has a lot going for it – in America it often seems to consist of one kind of fundamentalist, the Creationist, finding that belief to be untenable in the milieu of biological education and converting, if they avoid atheism, to a different kind of fundamentalism conditioned by the intellectual presuppositions of the biology guild. The organically curved faith can be squeezed into a shape that, more or less, will fit the Newtonian straight lines.

In my view that’s seen in the continued blanking or rejection of the new biology, Intelligent Design and even classical metaphysical theology in most discussion on BioLogos. One final example may illustrate this. Someone whom I know has visited this site, Upright Biped, has recently launched a couple of websites about biosemiotics – essentially, information theory applied to biological systems. See here to begin with.

His background is not in science (like Faraday he’s not a proper gentleman), but he has read extensively and interacted with many information scientists over an extended period, and has concluded that the issue of semiotic translation involved in the very concept of life is an absolute defeater for any naturalist materialist explanation of it. Having read some information theory myself (one or two texts are in the booklist, especially Hubert Yockey’s work and Bill Dembski’s Being as Communion) I am convinced he’s on to something important. It is, of course, utterly consistent with the fundamental Christian belief in a world given its form by the logos of God, and so you’d expect Christians everywhere to welcome it.

And yet not only unbelieving biologists, but many theistic evolutionists to judge by the put-downs when Upright Biped posted on BioLogos, show by their words that they have no understanding of the information field – and no wish to understand it either. They don’t want there to be anything beyond law-like material processes, even though these are logically incapable of accounting for form and contingent function. I can only put that down to the same intellectual blindness that makes a Victorian physicist insist that forces must act in straight lines, or a New Testament scholar who insists that belief in the Resurrection was invented only after Paul’s death.

What can be done about that situation I’m not sure. But for the individual, I suggest that if you ever find yourself saying, “I was always taught that…”, then it’s time to stop, think, and question what prejudices were at work in the mind of whoever did the teaching.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Outsiders’ insights

  1. Upright BiPed says:

    Thank you, Jon Garvey.

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