Science Book Review: Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?

MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson thinks so. (Cover by InterVarsity Press)

Yes! But you probably want more details. In that case, I recommend reading Ian Hutchinson’s new book by that title, Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? He answers that and over 220 other questions, all of which were posed to him during his years speaking to university audiences on science and theology topics through the Veritas Forum. The result is a wide-ranging exploration of issues both specific to the present science-faith conversation and perennially of interest to skeptics and curious seekers, like how a good & loving omnipotent God can be reconciled with suffering. Hutchinson offers his personal answers, rather than attempting to survey the entire history of each topic–many of which could fill multiple volumes all on their own. This provides the opportunity to see an example of how one can assemble a coherent understanding across so many of life’s biggest questions.

Something I appreciated about this readable book is the authenticity of the questions. Dialogue and Socratic interrogation are classic writing tools, even for solo projects. When one is really just talking to oneself, there is the risk of answering questions no one else has actually bothered to ask. Using questions from these Q&A sessions avoids that risk, keeping the discussion relevant. It also keeps the questions relatable; there’s a good chance you’ve asked some of these yourself or know someone who is currently wrestling with them. And so the book has the potential to be a handy reference to address specific questions when they arise. Hutchinson’s answers may not always be satisfying as a last word–the breadth of topics trades off covering any single one in depth–but they can be a good place to start.

Having just read J. P. Moreland’s Scientism and Secularism, I find it hard not to compare the two books where they overlap. Hutchinson is also interested in scientism, devoting a chapter to it, and similarly rejects the idea that all truth is discernible by scientific investigation. He has similar ideas about what is outside of science, such as art and history and human relationships. He arrives at those conclusions by some different routes, however. For example, Moreland largely declined to specify what distinguishes a scientific question, but Hutchinson does offer a definition (even if he also acknowledges the fuzziness of the border) based on repeatability. This allows Hutchinson to place certain questions, like the specifics of historical events, outside of science because they are not repeatable. Those with a more scientific bent might find his approach more satisfying; at the same time, perhaps some philosophers might prefer more engagement with the philosophical issues.

Hutchinson also addresses the question of whether anyone actually embraces scientism as a personal philosophy. Based on the unscientific sample of attendees at his talks who have spoken to him about scientism, some people do personally identify with scientism, while at the same time others deny that anyone does and others fill in the spectrum in between. This is consistent with my own personal experience with a smaller sample. I am reluctant to use the label scientism because I see so many people reject it categorically; at the same time, I do see a lot of confidence in science as a primary if not exclusive source of truth.

But the boundaries of science and the nature of other kinds of truth are just part of what Hutchinson covers. He obviously addresses miracles, as well as creation, how to understand the Bible’s relationship to scientific topics, and broader issues of Biblical interpretation. He tackles questions about God’s hiddenness and why he personally is a Christian as opposed to a Buddhist or atheist. On all of these issues, Hutchinson is frank and straightforward, leaning towards pragmatic answers rather than abstractions. He acknowledges other points of view and the limits of his own certainty, while clearly and at times firmly stating his own perspective. Even when you might disagree, I think you will appreciate Hutchinson’s style.

The other book I was reminded of is Jesus, Beginnings, and Science by David and Kate Vosburg. By design, that book is more of a discussion group resource than a book to sit down and read front-to-back; Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? is more friendly to a solo reader. Still, there is overlap in the questions explored. The Vosburgs suggest an extensive set of books and other materials as a way to survey different approaches to answering those questions. For groups working through that discussion guide, Hutchinson’s book may be a handy complement as a single source answering all of the questions, albeit via one man’s considered perspective rather than definitively.

I was provided a copy of the book by the publisher without any stipulations.

This week wraps up the first half of the Faith across the Multiverse book club at the Peaceful Science forum. The discussion thread for Chapter 6 can be found here. Feel free to join the conversation. And stop by the Facebook Live video stream this Saturday, 11/17 at 7:30pm EST for live chat. After that, the book club will take a hiatus ’til next year, but all of the discussion threads will remain open for anyone who wants to discuss on a different time table.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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