Science, Theology, and the Quest for Meaning

In 2009 Professor Alister McGrath delivered six Gifford lectures at the University of Aberdeen on the scientific evidence for a fine-tuned universe and the pursuit of meaning. While the content of those talks have been available in book form for some time (A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology, Westminster John Knox 2009), the transcripts of the lectures are also freely available as pdfs on the Aberdeen University website. The project of natural theology has had many critics (both atheists and theists) but in these lectures, McGrath, the Chair of Theology, Ministry and Education in the Department of Education and Professional Studies at King’s College, London, explores what implications the latest research in biochemistry and evolutionary biology might have for the success of natural theology and therefore the current debate about God.

Here are the introductions and links to each lecture transcript:

Lecture 1 – Introduction: Yearning to make sense of things – pdf

Why is it that we long to make sense of things? What, if anything, does this point to? In this opening lecture, McGrath considers the idea of “clues to the meaning of the universe”, and how we might go about exploring them. Many of those “clues” come from developments in the natural sciences, especially the growing realization that nature appears to be “fine tuned” for the emergence of life. Is this a trivial observation? Or does it point to something much deeper?

Lecture 2 – Why we still need natural theology – pdf

Traditionally, “natural theology” has been understood as an attempt to find God through an engagement with the natural world. Yet this has come under sustained scientific, philosophical and theological critique in the twentieth century. This lecture aims to show why natural theology is both intellectually legitimate and spiritually interesting, especially when engaging with questions raised – but not answered – by the natural sciences.

Lecture 3 – The mystery of the constants of nature – pdf

The fundamental constants of nature seem fine tuned for carbon-based life. Is this a significant observation? There has been much interest in the so-called “anthropic principle” recently. This lecture sets out the basic observations that lie behind this idea, and considers its possible implications for our understanding of our place in the universe, and for natural theology.

Lecture 4 – The enigmas of evolutionary biology – pdf

In 1802, William Paley argued that the biological world was an indication of the existence of a creator God. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is widely regarded as having put an end to this line of argument. Yet recent developments in our understanding of the evolutionary process had led some to suggest that Paley may have more to offer a new natural theology than is widely thought. This lecture focuses on some issues in bioinorganic chemistry and evolutionary biology of potential importance to natural theology.

Lecture 5 – Natural theology and the quest for meaning – pdf

McGrath returns to the question of the “best explanation” of what is observed within the natural world, including the phenomenon of fine tuning. How do we go about determining how these are best to be explained? What criteria should be used to evaluate scientific theories and metaphysical worldviews? This lecture argues that the Christian faith offers a “big picture” approach to the natural world, which is contrasted with the “God of the gaps” approach of older apologists.

Lecture 6 – Conclusion: Clues to the meaning of the universe? – pdf

In this final lecture, McGrath considers how a worldview aims to knit together and interpret what we know of the world, focussing particularly on Christianity. Iris Murdoch (1919-99), a former Gifford Lecturer, spoke of “the calming, whole-making tendencies of human thought”. How does a “big picture” approach to nature help us make sense of things? What does it have to say about the meaning of human existence? Can we be certain about these answers? And if not, how can we live with the tension of even a modest degree of uncertainty and doubt?

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