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Denis Alexander | God’s Good Created Order

Denis Alexander tells of his scientific career and his faith upbringing, which brings to light some differences in the relationship between science and religion in the United Kingdom and the United States.

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Denis Alexander tells of his scientific career and his faith upbringing, which brings to light some differences in the relationship between science and religion in the United Kingdom and the United States.

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A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on August 18, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Denis Alexander has been writing about science and religion for over 40 years. That work eventually led him to found the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, based in Cambridge, United Kingdom. He tells of his scientific career and his faith upbringing, which brings to light some differences in the relationship between science and religion in the United Kingdom and the United States. He also discusses the topic of scientific determinism which has been the focus of some of his more recent work and ends with some advice to young Christians pursuing a career in the sciences.


Transcript

Alexander:

I do know there are some people who avoid going into the neurosciences because they are somehow worried that we will find something in the brain that will, you know, somehow put us off our faith or something like that. And I always say to people with that kind of worry, I say  look, if you believe in God as Creator, which I do, and if creation means everything that exists is part of God’s good created order—and I certainly believe that—then any science you do is simply uncovering and seeking to understand through science and its methods, what God has put into place in the created order. So how could that possibly be worrying? 

My name is Denis Alexander, and I’m the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge.

Stump:

Jim: Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump

Hoogerwerf:

And I’m Colin Hoogerwerf

Stump: 

We’re back with a new episode today and you can already tell from hearing him introduce himself that he’s not from our neck of the woods.

Hoogerwerf:

No. We had Simon Conway Morris, another Brit, on the podcast last month. And it’s not the last British voice you’ll be hearing either. 

Stump: 

That’s because we’ll be in the United Kingdom, in the flesh, recording a conversation in front of a live audience in Cambridge with some of our friends from the Faraday Institute. That conversation will air on the podcast at the end of September. But we’re going to be talking to a bunch of other interesting people while we’re there. And those conversations will find their way into this feed in the fall months along with some other stuff we’re putting together.

Hoogerwerf:

The other thing to note is that when I come home from the UK you won’t be coming home. Want to say anything about what you’ll be doing?

Stump: 

I have this thing called a sabbatical that starts then and goes for the rest of the year. I’ll be spending some more time in Europe visiting some interesting sights related to the development of homo sapiens, and doing some research and writing, and some hiking. So I leave the podcast in your very capable hands for few a months.

Hoogerwerf:

Sounds fun. Any way for people to keep up with your adventures?

Stump: 

I hear that the BioLogos Instagram channel is going to do their best to keep track of me, and I think I’m going write something called Stump’s Travel Log on my Substack newsletter (no subscription fees!)

Hoogerwerf:

We’ll link to that in the shownotes. And listeners will still hear your voice from interviews we record before your out galavanting, writing, and taking some much needed rest, but they might also be hearing a bit more of me and maybe some other new voices as well. But you are here for now, so tell us what we should know about Denis Alexander before we get to the interview. 

Stump: 

He has been an important voice in the science and religion dialogues for the last generation — particularly from his involvement with the Faraday Institute at Cambridge. We talk some about that, and how and why it got started. We also talk about his earlier scientific career, and then the kinds of things he’s still thinking and writing about, which are related to biology and purpose — which of course gets into interesting philosophical issues. I’ll also say that I’ve found him over the years to be a really kind and generous person, and those are always fun to talk to.

Hoogerwerf:

Well, let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump:

Denis Alexander, welcome to the podcast. I’m glad to be talking to you.

Alexander:

Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Stump:

You’ve been around the science and religion world for quite some time, and I’m really interested in hearing some of your thoughts about that. But first, as we usually do on these podcasts, we want our listeners to get to know something about you personally, first. So if we could, let’s start by taking a quick tour through the science side of your life and go back as far as you can. When did you first think you wanted to be a scientist?

Alexander:

I suppose I got interested in science at quite an early age, partly through—my mother actually was a scientist. She was one of the very early women to study physiology at Oxford University. And we’re talking about the early 1930s. So it’s a long time ago. But after she’d raised us, the family, she went back into physiology, and she taught physiology in a school for the whole of her life, really. And so she was giving me chemicals and things to experiment with. And of course, like many kids, when they’re young, fortunately, we had a pretty big back garden, or yard as you call it there, and so I made bombs and let them off. That kind of thing. And so experimenting was always part of my life from an early age. Although actually, I got really interested in history, and nearly ended up making history my academic career, because I had an uncle who was quite a well known historian at that time, he used to do television lectures on history, and I thought that was pretty cool. But then I remember my mother one day saying, well, you know, because I had this sort of big struggle, should I do history or should I do science, because in the British educational system, we have to choose pretty early on at the age of 14 or 15, we have to choose that, make that big choice. But I always remember my mother saying, well, she said, if you do history, then later on in life, you won’t be able to understand all those scientific books, because they’re full of technical words, but if you do science, then you can enjoy history the rest of your life, because you don’t need technical words to understand history. And so that really tipped me in the direction of science.

Stump:

Interesting. So you’re a 15 year old thinking you’re gonna go towards science, what drew you toward genetics in particular? Or did that come later?

Alexander:

Well, that did come a bit later, actually. I went to Oxford to do biochemistry, back in the mid 1960s, a few years ago now, and there wasn’t much biochemistry of the brain going on at that time. And I had an older brother, 10 years older than me, who suffered from bipolar disorder, as it’s now called. In those days, it was called manic depressive psychosis. But as a boy, age 10, I suppose, you know, I was, I knew all about my brother going through this experience of his own mental challenges and so forth. So I think it’s probably because of that, I ended up with a great interest in neuro chemistry. So I went off to the Institute of Psychiatry, in London to do my PhD in neuro chemistry. And the genetics came later, actually.

Stump:

So you had a couple of research posts and laboratories, even in other parts of the world for a while, right?

Alexander:

That’s right. So having done my PhD, I headed off overseas to the Middle East, in fact, Turkey, because I sensed a clear call from God to use my science and my faith overseas, especially in countries, which at that time, were very much developing their science. And this was now 1971. We went off to Turkey, and I did lecturing and set up research labs in a couple of universities there in Ankara, the capital city, in Turkey. And then after being there for nine years, we went off after that to go to Beirut. The problem with neurochemistry, it’s not highly relevant to some of the medical needs and challenges for countries that are in the phase of development. So there in Beirut, I got more into human genetics and ended up helping to set up the national unit of Human Genetics, as it was then called in the American University Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon. So I was on the medical faculty there from 1981 to 86. And doing research on the genetic diseases of the Lebanon. Because there, as in so many countries of the world today, there’s still a tradition of many people marrying their first cousin. Which is not a great idea if you want to avoid genetic diseases. So from that point of view, there was a lot of work to do.

Stump:

What are some of the achievements of your laboratories throughout that time that you’re most proud of? Things that you figured out?

Alexander:

Well, I think I mean, it was a challenge, really, in Turkey, especially just to get a lab going, actually, because in those days, doing research, there’s very little funding for research, we were helped a bit by my lab at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, who used to send out some chemicals for us. And simply setting up a lab which then could get going and get some results and get some papers eventually, I think in itself was a major challenge. And funnily enough of course, the aim of the lab was to train up a new generation of Turkish scientists who then serve the needs of their own scientific community there in Turkey. And of course, that did happen to some degree, although, as so often happens, some of the really best students went off to other countries. I think my first master’s student, in Ankara, in Turkey, was a very bright lady and she went off and did a PhD in my old lab at the Institute of Psychiatry, and then ended up after that doing a postdoc position at the NIH in Washington, DC. And that’s where she still is.

Stump:

Oh, wow.

Alexander:

I don’t blame her, you know, the facilities there of course are so much better, certainly in those days anyway. Although I know she has still a deep love for Turkey, but I won’t say anymore in case she’s listening. But anyway, and Beirut, I suppose, that was amazing, really, because, again, because of first cousin marriage, we were seeing rare genetic diseases that you would only see at Guy’s Hospital—I did some work at Guy’s hospital before going out there to get retrained in the field of biochemical genetics—and the things that we would see in London maybe every few years, we would see there in Beirut every few months. And funnily enough, I mean, I’d only been running the lab for a couple of weeks, when my newly trained technician came up with some really strange results by measuring the levels of what we call lysosomal enzymes in the blood of a small baby that came in for some checkups and so forth. Anyway, it was a long story. But to cut along story short, it turned out to be that was a novel human mutation that hadn’t ever been described before. So we were only going for a few weeks when we discovered a completely new human mutation that is now in this McKusick, the bible, we call it the Bible of Human Genetics, the genetic diseases of the world. It’s labeled in there as a Lebanese syndrome, and so forth. So those were exciting days really for doing the science and also exciting days from the point of view of the security situation. But that’s another story.

Stump:

So the field of genetics itself has undergone quite the revolution during your lifetime during the professional career that you have devoted to it. Are there advances in genetics that looking back now you say we never thought we were going to figure this out? And this was really surprising that we did. And maybe on the other side, some things that you thought you might know about genetics by now that remains an open question?

Alexander:

Well, I should probably add to what I’ve just been saying is that we had to leave Beirut in a hurry in 1986. We actually were evacuated three times in the Lebanon because of the whole situation. In 1986, we knew the writing was on the wall. And for various reasons we knew this was going to be goodbye to Beirut, we had to leave within 48 hours, essentially after hearing about the evacuations. So I left my experiments on the bench literally, and got out. So that’s how I ended up actually in molecular immunology—quite another field, for the past 20 years of my research life here in the UK. My career has been a little bit unusual in that respect, simply because of what happened to us in life and so forth and the circumstances. So actually, I haven’t been in active human genetics for a long time. I’ve been in molecular immunology. But from the perspective of keeping up a bit with the literature, I certainly try and do that. Although I’m retired now. I closed my lab down back in 2008, or rather passed my lab on to others who are doing a great job at The Babraham Institute, here in Cambridge, a research institute, just down the road from where I’m speaking. So genetics. Yeah, I love keeping up a little bit with the genetics. But thinking back to what we were doing then, of course, DNA testing was hardly on the horizon. It was just coming in really, in the early 1980s And I went off for a course In England to get retrained in DNA technology. I was a protein biochemist, so that meant learning a lot of new techniques. And we were just beginning to apply those really, when the whole country and the whole national unit of Human Genetics fell apart because of the war and Civil War came back big time and so forth. But I have to say that one of the great advances I find in terms of its medical application is what we now call preimplantation diagnosis, and the ability to diagnose genetic diseases in families in which there is a certain history of medical genetics leading to some really severe problems. And we now have this ability to take a single cell out of a small blastocyst, you know, that’s a fertilized egg which has just been dividing a few times. And then you can take one cell, and you can do a diagnosis in that cell in the laboratory in the context of in vitro fertilization, just to find out which of the embryos are carriers of that deadly disease, and which are the ones that don’t have that deadly disease, which are the ones you can now implant. And I just find that kind of technology truly amazing. And it’s something we’d never thought about there in Beirut in the early 1980s.

Stump:

So you say—let’s switch gears here. Now. You say you went to Turkey, as a scientist, though, with something of religious motivations, a scientist missionary of sorts, catch us up here to your life from the religious aspect? Did you grow up in a religious household, in a Christian environment?

Alexander:

Yes, I grew up in a Christian household and a quite conservative Christian household, as it happens. So it was quite a conservative denomination, which yet had a very strong commitment to education, strong commitment to science. Actually, I always remember when I went to Oxford, in the 1960s, in the Department of Biochemistry at that time, and it ended up with all the photographs of the students in physiology from way back when. And I went to look for the one with my mother in there in 1931, you know, when she went up to Oxford, and I found the photo and then she was in a great sea of men, all there in their black suits and black ties. And there were just two women in that photograph. And they were both Christians. One was my mother, and one was her friend. And they both came from the same very conservative Christian denomination, which had a very strong commitment to female education. So I guess I was brought up in that sort of environment where there was a very strong commitment and enthusiasm about education and about science, but also at the same time a strong commitment to the Christian faith. And so the two really will always go hand in hand in my own thinking, my own background and my own experience. And in fact— 

Stump:

Were there any tensions though, between those two coming from a very conservative denomination?

Alexander:

Nothing that I ever experienced to be honest. I just think the whole concept of a conflict idea between science and religion was never something that I experienced at all at home. Certainly. I mean, when I went to school, high school, and later years, there were obviously, there were friends around who thought science had all the answers, and why bother about religion, and all that kind of stuff. Religion is for backward people, etc. You know, you get that sort of narrative there in what is still, you know, an even more secular country now, in Great Britain at the present time. But certainly there was no conflict idea in my Christian background at all. I mean, that was, that would have been a very unusual and novel experience to have, I think, from my own experience, point of view. And by the way, I never met a creationist, I didn’t know about creationism until much later in life, since I had never heard of that sort of thing. The whole time I was at Oxford, where I was a very active Christian in Oxford, I was president of the, what we call the Christian Union there, the InterVarsity group there, and there in the university, which was a very large group at that time, it was the second largest society in the whole university, actually, in the mid 1960s. And I’ve compared notes, actually, with some of my colleagues from that time, and none of us Christians who were active Christians at that time as students, as undergraduate students, I mean, we had never heard of the word ‘creationism’. So you can’t talk about something you don’t have a word for. It was a concept alien to us. And it was only really, in fact it was in Turkey when I met an American Chaplain working in the US base in Ankara, back in the 1970s, that I met my very first creationist, and that was an interesting experience for me because it was a very novel experience. I hadn’t come across it before.

Stump:

One of the American exports to the rest of the world, I’m afraid. Well, so am I remembering correctly that at Oxford you studied under Arthur Peacocke for a time?

Alexander:

Yes, so Arthur Peacocke was my tutor. So in the Oxford tutorial system, all members have a college, an Oxford college, and there you are assigned a tutor who is your tutor during the whole time that you are there. And Arthur Peacocke was my tutor at St. Peter’s College in Oxford, and I’m very grateful to him for all of his tutorials during those four years.

Stump:

Yeah, for our listeners who aren’t familiar, Arthur Peacocke was often known as one of the big three scientist theologians that did so much a generation ago in ushering in a more serious study of science and religion. That must have had some impact on you in the science and religion work that you devoted yourself to over the years?

Alexander:

Yes. So at that time, Arthur Peacocke was just getting into his interest really, in developing his interest in the field of science and religion. He hadn’t actually written any books on the topic up till that time, until I think his first book was probably 1971, actually. I think his first book and my first book, funnily enough, on science and religion came out the same year, as far as I can remember. But he did run a discussion group on Christian doctrine. And I used to go along to that discussion group. And it was based on, let’s see, can I remember the book? Yes, J. S. Whale, Christian Doctrine, very basic Christian doctrine. And we used to read a chapter every week, it was like a book club, and then to discuss the chapter and think about it together. And I found that very helpful as a way of exploring different Christian ideas with colleagues, some of them atheists, some of them from other religions and so on. In that context, I found that a very helpful experience.

Stump:

So people like Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne, who were scientists first, and then later in their career devoted time to exploring theology and the intersection of science and faith. You yourself have had these going on on parallel tracks all through your career, right? You’ve been not doing not just your scientific work and laboratories and such, but you’ve always devoted some time and energy and publishing to this intersection between science and faith, right?

Alexander:

That’s right, yes. So I think it really got going—I mean, I was a member of Christians in Science, which is an organization here in the UK, which just caters for any Christians who have a particular interest in science or have a scientific career, or they’re scientists, and still very active and does great work. But I think the thing that really got me into the science religion field was the fact I had another older brother, not the one that I mentioned before, but another older brother, who started up a Christian publishing house in Oxford, called Lion Publishing. And so very early on, of course, when you start up a publishing house, you need books to publish. And so he thought, oh, why don’t I get my brother, that’s me, to write a book on science and religion, you see, so. So he, my brother, David contacted me one day and said, “why don’t you write a book on science and religion?” Well I was doing my PhD at the time at the Institute of Psychiatry, so I said, you know, being naive and young and never having written a book in my life, I said, “well, okay, why not? But just tell me what to write.” Okay. And so, he then sent me a two page summary of the kind of thing he had in mind. Very helpful, older brother, you know. So anyway. By the way, I just came across that the other day, I was digging out some old papers. And there it was. I came across this document, written in, about, I suppose, 1969, 1970. Anyway, I agreed, and I wrote a book and it was called Beyond Science. And it came out in 1971. It was one of the early books that my brother published actually with his new publishing house. And it was really a critique of reductionism, I suppose you could say. I mean, there’s nothing in there about evolution because nobody thought that was a particular issue at the time. But it’s more a critique of what we would now call scientism, a critique of the idea that science has all the answers and there’s no room for other kinds of perspectives on life and so forth. Anyway, I suppose that sort of gave me an interest. And then later on, I didn’t really have time to write any more books. Out in the Middle East life was just too busy with setting up labs and doing research and getting on with things. But then in Beirut, I actually did start writing, what was then to be as it were, the replacement for Beyond Science. And again, I was approached by my brother, by that time—we’re talking about early 1980s—and he said, well, it’s a long time since you wrote a book on science and religion, we need a new one. Okay, so then I wrote a book in longhand, of course, in those days in Beirut, as the bombs went off, and you couldn’t get out on the streets, because of the shellings. So quite a bit of time now to write in the evenings after the kids had gone to bed. And that’s the book that eventually became Rebuilding the Matrix Science and Faith in the 21st century. It was actually original, the original title was Rebuilding the Matrix Science and Faith in the 20th century. But then the century wasn’t long enough, I’m afraid the book got delayed, and so when we got to 1999 we realized we might have to change the title. But anyway, it finally came out in 2001. Yeah, I’ve been writing a few other books at times as well. 

Stump:

Yeah, before getting to know you through BioLogos, I think I first became aware of you because of your 2008 book Creation or Evolution Do We Have to Choose? And just as an aside, when I get a new book, I always write the date that I got it inside the cover, and I pulled this one off the shelf yesterday, as I was getting ready to talk to you. And I saw that that one I got February the 12th of 2009, which turns out to be the exact 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, which I thought to be very pretentious for a book cover with a chimpanzee winking at us. But I remember reading it at the time and thinking, wow, this is the most comprehensive case I’ve seen for the compatibility of evolution and Christian faith. But as you were just saying, this wasn’t ever really an issue in the circles you were running in for a long time. So what was it that led you to write such a book back then?

Alexander:

Well, that’s a very good question actually and certainly had no intention in previous years to write such a book. It really came about because during the last few years—last five or 10 years—I was still running a busy research lab, but at the same time I was getting many more invitations to speak on science and faith, either in universities or societies, or schools, or whatever it might be, or churches sometimes. And I never went out to speak about evolution in particular, but just to speak about general how we understand the relationship between science and religion, and so forth. And then we’d have a Q&A time. And so and then a hand would go up and then the first question was, “what do you think about Adam and Eve?” Okay. And the next one, “What do you think about Genesis one?” And I began to realize that this whole creationism thing was much more of an issue in this country than I had realized in my naivety and partly because of living overseas for 15 years, you know, you just don’t know what’s going on really, when you’re away from your own country. But I realized that creationism and the questions raised by it had come into the church culture, certainly in the UK, to some degree, some churches, of course, more than others. And as I had more and more of these questions, I started looking around for, you know, where are some good books that I can just give out or sell to people who are interested in this arena. And at that time, I’m talking about the early 2000s, I couldn’t really find much, to be honest. There were one or two books in this country by R.J. Berry, the late Sam Berry, which were a little bit out of date. And so I thought, there’s only one solution. I’ve got to write a book on this topic. And that’s really how I got to write Creation or Evolution do we have to choose?

Stump:

And what has been the reception of that book? I know, you’ve also released an updated and expanded edition in 2014. How has the book been received?

Alexander:

It was actually received very well. And I was quite surprised to find it received, you know, by all kinds of communities that I hadn’t imagined would even have a need for such a book. And you know how every author when they’re writing a book, they’re trained to have a potential reader looking at their manuscript over the right or left shoulder. And I have to be honest, I always had a Texan creationist breathing down my neck. But then I discovered, oh, this book has come out and the Anglicans are finding it helpful, and it’s often used in this country, I don’t know if it’s still used, but it certainly was used when it first came out as a training book for ordinands, those training for priesthood in the Church of England. And then I got an invitation to speak actually it was in 2009, the great Darwin anniversary. I got an invitation to speak for the Catholic Church in Rome to the Annual Catholic Bishops Conference. So that was quite an interesting experience. I never imagined that Catholics really had much problem with evolution. But they seem to think the book was useful and helpful for them. So I was happy to help there. But also, the emails, I got a lot of emails after that book came out, actually, especially the 2008 edition, when there weren’t so many books of that kind on the market at that time. And the emails really moved me and still do, sometimes I go back and look at them, where people, Christians, who wrote and said, “you know, I was thinking of giving up the faith, but then I read, because I was forced with this decision as to whether to choose between Christian faith or science, and especially when it came to evolution. And I was about to just give up on my Christian faith and just go with science. And then I read your book, and that really put a different perspective in front of me that it can be both science and faith, and they’re both together. They’re great partners, and so don’t worry about it.” I found those messages really encouraging actually.

Stump:

Do you have any particular insight on the relationship of creationism to geography? I joked a little bit ago about it being an American export to the rest of the world. But you’ve spent a fair time here in the States, at least enough to know that a creationist Texan should be your primary reader of such a book. But what is it about America you think where that has been such fertile ground for creationism as opposed to the UK and other parts of the world?

Alexander:

Yes, it’s very good question. And I think a very complicated question in some ways, and I have read quite a bit about it, and meditated on that whole question. I think it’s—one has to sort of go back, I suppose, to the whole reaction against liberal theology that was coming into the theological seminaries, biblical seminaries in the United States, the late 19th century. And then the big reaction against that, which led to the writing of what was called the Fundamentals, this whole series of essays back in the early part of the 20th century that gave rise to the term fundamentalism. But even at that stage, of course, it wasn’t really young earth creationism that emerged as a result, rather old Earth Creationism, the Scopes Trial of the early 1920s. And that whole history, of course, is fascinating. But then I think, in the latter half of the 20th century, it comes to the competition, doesn’t it also, with science with other nations and with the Soviet Union, particularly, being dominant during the Cold War, and during the 1950s, and 1960s. And then the pressure that brought upon the American schools to pressurize schools more to teach science in a clearer way, and also to teach biological evolution was being more enforced, I think, probably in the 1950s than it had been for some time. And that created this reaction, again, where school boards, of course, came up in arms against that, and so forth, especially those school boards located in areas of varying sort of conservative Christian opinion, and so forth. So I think that’s all wrapped up then with, you know, the launch of the Genesis Flood in 1961, wasn’t it, I think the first edition came out, by Whitcomb and Morris and then that really launched the Young Earth Creationism movement, I think, and people saw that I think then, as a sort of, somehow us quasi scientific answer to the challenge that evolution seemed to bring. So I think there’s some very interesting threads there, which are simply absent from the history of the UK. And that helps to explain why the percentage of self identifying creationists in the UK is about 2-3%, is very low. So it’s a tiny percentage of the population, but a much larger percentage of the American population. So it’s a fascinating history. I suppose, part of it also is the way that Darwinism then got ideologically so loaded, you know, with a package of materialism and a package of disbelief in God and so on, which is really not part of evolution at all, in my opinion, but that’s also part of the story, I suppose.

BioLogos:

Hey listeners. I’m just here with a quick plug for the BioLogos forum, a place filled with active discussions about many of the topics covered in this podcast. In fact, each episode of the podcast has a specific thread where you can discuss what you’ve heard. The forum is a place where questions are welcome and where conversation is civil and gracious, even when topics are controversial. Bring your questions or share your story with a community filled with experts and other curious learners from a variety of viewpoints.You can find a link to the forum at the top of any page on the biologos website, biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Well, about the same time as your creation or evolution book came out. You are also founding the Faraday Institute there in Cambridge. Tell us a little bit about that. Why you named it after Michael Faraday, perhaps and what the work has been of the Institute.

Alexander:

Thank you. Yes. Well, The Faraday Institute was really founded by myself and by my colleague, Bob White, Professor Bob White, a professor of Geophysics as he was at the time. He just stepped out of his chair just last year, in fact, very recently, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. We were both members of the same college, both fellows at the same college here in Cambridge, St. Edmund’s College. And I, well I was part of an institute called The Babraham Institute, where I worked for 20 years, just near Cambridge here. And at that time, they had a, believe it or not, they had a policy whereby you had to retire at the age of 60. I know that American eyebrows will raise high, this amazing policy. But anyways, so this was hovering over me for some years, I thought, what on earth am I going to do after 60? You know, there’s still, I think, a few years of life left behind after the age of 60. So I’d been looking around for jobs. So it was partly through that. And partly through the fact that a number of us, including Bob White, and myself, and some others, had a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to run a lecture series on science religion, in Cambridge. So every term—we have terms here not semesters, three terms in an academic year—so each term a wonderful lecturer would come and give us a public lecture on science and religion, then we would have a dinner discussion afterwards to enable a group of invited people to come along and have dinner with the lecturer, and so forth. And this was going really well. And it was all based on this rather small grant we had from Templeton and so forth. So we thought, why don’t we put in a much bigger grant, you know, maybe we could have a grant that would go three years, maybe even five years, you know, and get a few projects going on science and religion, and then this could be my retirement job, as director of this new institute. And so we approached the College and said, would you like to have an institute set up in the college, and the governing body had a meeting and they said, that’s fine, you can do what you want, and so forth. And Cambridge colleges are great for this sort of thing, because they are all interdisciplinary. Everybody on the fellowship and in the student membership, are all from different disciplinary backgrounds. And so it’s a great place to found an interdisciplinary Institute of this kind. So we put in a grant to the Templeton Foundation, which they kindly gave us. And we, as a consequence, set up The Faraday Institute in January 2006. And really, that’s how we got there. And we just wanted to do it for a few years, and then see how things went really, we had no idea that it would still be going after 17 years.

Stump:

So what about the name? And were there any other contenders for the name of the institute besides Michael Faraday?

Alexander:

Yes, that’s an interesting question. We had a long discussion about the name. The very first principle we knew very well, if you’re going to name an institute make sure if we name it after a person, make sure that person is dead, right? That is step number one. Step number two, we wanted to find a famous British scientist, after whom an institute was not yet named. That was an important point. And who was a committed Christian. And who also preferably was public in the dissemination of his views about his science and his faith. And looking around—

Stump:

You’ve got a pretty short list now.

Alexander:

Pretty short list, Yeah, we were pretty specific about our lists. And we ended up with two names. One of them, a person that had a strong connection with Cambridge, was James Clark Maxwell, the founder of the famous Cavendish Laboratory here in Cambridge, which has seen many, many Nobel Prize winners. And James Clark Maxwell, of course, his equations are still studied in undergraduate maths to the present day. But he was a committed Christian, a modest Christian, not very public about his faith, but certainly very firm about his faith. And we thought that he would be a great choice. But the only problem was that there was another Maxwell at that time, who was very well known in the media industry, in the media world, who was probably not the Maxwell that we wanted our Institute to be associated with. And so that was influential in our thinking. And then we started thinking about Michael Faraday, and to our surprise, discovered there was no other Faraday Institute yet in the world at that time. And so that’s how we came to the Faraday Institute because Michael Faraday is such an iconic British scientist. He was the first to generate electricity out of his experiment in the lab there at the Royal Institution in London, the 19th century. And out of that, of course, came generators and the reason that we have our lights on and computers functioning today. So a pretty iconic scientist. A wonderful, committed Christian, very deeply, profoundly sincere in his faith. Very interesting background. Came from a very poor background and fascinating story actually how he just worked his way up and gradually became one of the leading scientists of his time in Britain and indeed in the world. So we’re delight ed that the name The Faraday Institute is still used, and that we have an Institute named after him.

Stump:

Well, as you think back over the work that you’ve been involved in, in the field of science and religion, what are some of the changes you’ve noticed? Has there been any evolution, shall we say, of the discipline in terms of topics that were thought to be important, the kinds of questions or arguments that come up over and over again, have these changed over the years? Or just give us a little bit of reflection on the discipline of science and religion as you’ve experienced it?

Alexander:

Yes, I think, in some ways, the topics remain rather similar. If we’re thinking about brain and mind or we’re thinking about divine action. We’re thinking about, yes, ethical issues, genetic engineering, and how far do we go in changing people? Of course, there are some topics which are new kids on the block. You could say AI really has only gotten going more recently, in more recent decades, robotics, human identity in the context of AI. These are very big questions we have before us. So it’s a bit of a mix, I think. I think questions such as purpose and divine design in the evolutionary process weren’t around quite so much in our day. I think Arthur Peacocke, of course, wrote some very helpful books, in the context, on the subject of divine action in the context of evolutionary history. But I think there’s been a sort of recovery of discussion about purpose and design in evolutionary history and so forth. So it’s a bit of a mixture, isn’t it? In some ways, when I hear the questions that people raise, like at our Faraday Summer Course, here in Cambridge, just a couple of weeks ago, you listen to questions and think nothing much has changed, really, since the 1950s, I would say. In some ways, you know, the same old big questions are still there. But then suddenly, out will pop another question, which you would never have come across probably in the 1960s, like, you know, what is the science of being transgender? Okay, what is the science of same sex attraction, you know, what are the biological roots of say, somebody who feels same sex attraction, rather than opposite sex attraction, which is something I’ve written about a bit, and so forth. And then you get the questions, obviously, about AI and about the use of social media and about the social engineering that we see through the huge power of computers to pick up visual images and all the implications that come out of that. So I think, in a sense, the questions that come out now have been driven by advances in technology as well as driven by new discoveries, which shift the discussion in new directions. And I think that’s healthy. And I think it’s great. And I think we should be excited by all the advances that are happening in the way that are stretching our imaginations and our discussions.

Stump:

Well, let’s dig in a little bit deeper to one of the topics that you’ve devoted a fair amount of time and energy to. In 2012, you gave the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews, and then later published that work in your book, Genes, Determinism and God. So maybe let’s start with the big picture here. There’s a view that lots of people have, that science with its unraveling of the human genome has shown that people are really just machines that operate according to a code. And there’s a religious view of people of having freewill and being morally responsible, that stands in considerable tension with that scientific understanding. So at the first level here, what’s wrong with that picture of there being a conflict between our genetically determined existence and our religious understanding of ourselves as persons?

Alexander:

Yeah, that’s a really big question, obviously, and a fascinating one. I think the first place to start out is just with the word complementarity—that we understand that when we’re thinking about brain and mind and freewill and these different levels of understanding of the human being, the human person, we need many, many complimentary levels of insight and explanation and description, to really do justice to this very complex biological organism that we are. And so if we can start at the bottom, of course, you could describe in all its detail, human beings at the level of atoms and molecules and then you can go up to cells and then you can go up to tissues, then you can go up to organs, and then you can go from organs to physiology and how the organs relate to each other. And then you can go up to thinking about complex organs like the brain and the mind and so forth. Of course, then you have to keep going, you have to go to consciousness, and then you have to go up to the language of that person as a person and their own conscious experience of life, and so on. So we can sort of build up, can’t we, this hierarchy of levels. And each level, we really need to be careful to use the right language and the right understanding of that particular level. We can’t really mix them up. Otherwise, the whole conversation ends up in some confusion. And I think the key thing there is to see that those different complementary levels and understandings of the human person are all necessary if we’re really going to understand humanity and understand ourselves. We need them all. And of course, the mistake made by the, what we call in philosophy the ontological reductionist, the person who thinks that their own particular scientific level is the only one that counts, then, of course, that will leave out many other key areas of understanding of the human person. So that’s the sort of starting point, my whole understanding of biology, freewill, genetics, and so forth. That’s where I begin.

Stump:

So some people think the way to escape a kind of scientific determinism is to say that there is some other component of a human, you’ve called it a level but some people would like to say, there’s something we might call the soul that is thoroughly different from anything science can describe. And soul is certainly a good theological term. But what do you make of that as an ontological claim? Is it necessary to preserve human freedom to have something like that?

Alexander:

Well, there are many different understandings of the word soul. And that’s where the theological and philosophical discussion can get quite complicated. I find it interesting that if you look in the King James translation of the Bible, you will find the word my soul, my soul, my soul, mentioned many, many times, hundreds of times throughout the text. But now if you look at a modern translation, and you look for where it says, my soul, you read the word “I”. Okay. That’s kind of curious and interesting. I also find interesting the beginning of the early chapters of Genesis, we find that the soul was not given, the nephesh was not given to humans, as a sort of extra, but we rather read that the early adam became a living soul, it became a living nephesh. We read the animals, of course, became nephesh as well. So there’s an interesting discussion. So I see the soul through a biblical lens, and especially thinking of the Hebrew Scriptures as the real ‘I’, this is the real person, the person who has a capacity given by God to be able to have fellowship with God, and to spend eternity with God. So I don’t myself view or perceive the soul as being like a memory stick that you plug into a computer, you know, and if you take the soul out, you take the memory stick out and put it on the shelf. Or as some of the Greek philosophers, I think, rather thought of the soul as trapped in a cage, you know, and when the person dies, and the soul flies away, like a bird, and so forth. I don’t think those pictures give us really the biblical understanding of what the soul is about. So I see the soul, if you like, as much more integral to human personhood. And of course, out of that comes the whole emphasis, more in the New Testament, on the resurrection of the body. When we read about the immortality of the soul in the New Testament, it’s not often we read about that, but when we do, in one Corinthians 15, it’s in the context of the resurrection of the body. So I think that’s my starting point, I suppose, theologically, in thinking about the soul. So do we need a soul for free will? Yes. In the sense that we need this kind of human personhood, in order for freewill to be manifest. So that’s more the direction I will be coming from, I think.

Stump:

So in your book, I like the analogy you use of a jury in which there’s a kind of collective voice for the “I” that emerges from these various influences. Can you unpack that a little bit further and then maybe even connect it to what you were just talking about there of the hope for immortality and is the “I” that emerges out of this physical existence that I have now the “I” that may continue into an afterlife in some sense?

Alexander:

Well, I think so. Yes. I mean, I like emergentism, I know some philosophers don’t like it and the various types of emergentism but I would see certainly, the mind as being emergent from brain, emergent from not just brain of course but from the whole nervous system. All of us as persons in interaction with the environment so, in the sense the “I,” I don’t see as something emerging out of a brain in a bottle, as it were, to use a phrase that is sometimes used, but the “I” is that emergent property coming from me as a person in interaction with all the inputs and outputs, especially relational inputs and outputs I have with people around me and all the other things going on in life at the present time. So that “I” is certainly a complex entity, a complex sort of thing to look at. But if you poke into a brain, you won’t find the “I”. No, you’ll find lots of gooey sort of stuff, you know, a lot of neurons and a lot of synaptic connections. So I think the key thing here is to keep the discussion at the level of “I” when we’re talking about freewill because it’s the “I” that experiences free will very profoundly. And indeed, I see that as a property of humans, as most of us are thankful to have two arms and two legs. And so we have free will, we have that experience of the “I”, and the “I” experiences free will, and that’s the same for the whole of humanity around the world. So I think the jury then it’s not my analogy, by the way, it comes from somebody else whose name sorry, I can’t remember. But the picture of the jury, I think, is just a useful way of thinking about all those different modules, if you like, where you think of the brain as a modular organ with many, many different messages coming, you know, from different aspects of the brain, from our emotions and our rational thought and from other inputs and outputs and worries and concerns. All the complexity of our brain and the way it serves up this wonderful menu, this smorgasbord, if you like, of wonderful ideas and concepts buzzing through our heads. And out of all of that comes the “I”. So the jury—and I think we don’t know how the brain does this—but the brain somehow collates and synthesizes and puts together all these different ideas and inputs to come up with a unitary decision. The “I” decides to do something. I will go and have lunch. Yeah, right. I will do it now. Okay. So that jury then is a powerful voice in what happens. That’s free will.

Stump:

There’s a debate among Christian theologians about an intermediate state. So you mentioned the resurrection, which is the central hope of the Christian. But does your view on emergentism here push you toward saying there is no intermediate state of existence after death until there is a resurrection of the body for this to be reconstituted? Or is there a possibility of this emergent entity existing in a disembodied state somehow?

Alexander:

Well, I remain strictly agnostic about that. I mean, we simply don’t know. But I can tell you which direction I tend to go in. I mean, basically, the two views are, I suppose, let’s call them view A [and view B]. View A is the one where when we die, our souls are taken up into glory into the mind of God who preserves all of our essence, if you like all of our being, until our very beings with all the kind of essences that God wants us to have preserved in the future life are then united with our bodies at the resurrection time. And that, you know, I suppose that could be possible, and who knows, I’m agnostic. But I must say the view that I rather prefer is [view B] that when we die, we zoop out of time. And God is out of time, although he can enter into time by his wealth through His Spirit and through His incarnation, but I would see him as, as basically out of time, and therefore viewing the beginning from the end, the Alpha and Omega. And therefore, one view, which I quite like, is that when we die, and we go out of time, then we are fast forwarded to the resurrection. It’s as if it’s happening now for us, you see, because we are timeless, and therefore, the kind of question about do we have to wait around until you know something happens, doesn’t really have any meaning if there’s no time, so that’s another view. I rather like that view. But as I say, I’m strictly agnostic on the answer.

Stump:

Well, very good. And we’re drawing to a close here. Maybe I could ask you to give some advice, perhaps to young researchers who are really good at science and passionate about their Christian faith. What areas or questions would you suggest they pursue as you look toward the future of the science and religion conversation and areas that may be particularly fruitful?

Alexander:

Well, I would say as very first point is just to get really well grounded in hermeneutics, okay? In other words, how do we understand Scripture, how to understand the Bible, how to understand the different literary texts that there are, there are more than 20 kinds of literature in the Bible. And it’s really important as we seek understanding and guidance from God that we read the Bible in an appropriate kind of way, in the context in which it was written, understanding it for the times in which it was written, and then seeking to apply those principles and understandings, ideas to our own particular time. So I will start out there, I think, as a first point. Secondly, I think to, yeah, not to be worried about going to an area of science that seems somehow threatening or worrying at this time. I do know, there are some people who avoid going into the neurosciences, because they’re somehow worried that we will find something in the brain that will, you know, somehow put us off our faith or something like that. And I always say to people in that, with that kind of worry, I say, look, if you believe in God as Creator, which I do, and if creation means everything that exists is part of God’s good created order—and I certainly believe that—then any science you do is simply uncovering and seeking to understand through science and its methods, what God has put into place in the created order. So what could that, how can that possibly be worrying? Okay, I sort of go in that direction, really, when I’m seeking to help scientists, younger scientists who are Christians thinking about their scientific careers. And because I say, well, pragmatically, if all the Christians stay out of the neurosciences and stay out the brain, you know, that’s bad, because we need to, we need salt and light in every single scientific discipline, and indeed, every single medical discipline. So don’t stay out of it, go into it, because we need you, Christian, to be there to be salt and light. Because if you’re going to do research on the brain in the 21st century, then we’re gonna see some really big ethical questions that will arise from your research. For example, the chimeras between animal and brain and human brain cells that are currently being made in several laboratories around the world. It seems to me that raises some ethical questions, and we need Christians to be around, to know, at least how to communicate what the ethical questions really are to those around them. So that’s certainly another thing that I would want to emphasize, I think.

Stump:

Well, thank you, Denis, this has been a rich and rewarding conversation. Thank you for your work in this field over the decades and for your example of a generous attitude and gracious dialogue and what can be a very contentious field sometimes. And thank you for talking to me today. I appreciate it so much. 

Alexander: 

Well, very nice to talk to you. And thanks for the conversation. 

Stump:

One last question, in closing, I like to ask people, what books have you been reading lately?

Alexander:

Oh, that’s a very good question. Actually. Funnily enough, I have been reading a couple of books about evolution recently. I’ll maybe mentioned those. One of them I’m holding in my hand is called Baby Dinosaurs on the Ark, by Janet Kellogg Ray. 

Stump:

Nice, we know her. 

Alexander:

Which I found a great book and  I see that it has a foreword by somebody called Deborah Haarsma, President of the Biologos. So yeah, I really enjoyed reading this book. It’s written by somebody who comes out of a strong young earth creationist background, who ended up as a science teacher, has realized that really, there’s no way that she can put young earth creationism together with her science and, but it’s a very friendly, nice book, I find. It’s not polemical. It’s just pointing out some obvious things there, which are really written for especially I think, people from her own background, and therefore, I found that a very helpful and useful book. 

The other book is also about evolution, but it’s very different. It’s called Islam and Evolution. It’s written by Schoaib Ahmed Malik, who is an assistant professor in the natural sciences, down in the Gulf area, in Dubai. And it’s a very academic book, actually, and very, very well researched book. And he’s trying to communicate to his fellow Muslim colleagues around the world that there’s nothing to worry about from the whole topic of Islam and the evolution but rather, the various theological ways, particularly through the theological philosophy of Al Ghazali, that you can incorporate evolution into his thinking in a very satisfactory way. And I liked his approach which is very balanced, irenical, well read. And I recommend it to especially to maybe Muslim listeners as a good book about Islam and evolution.

Stump:

Well very good thanks so much Dennis we appreciate it.

Alexander:

Thank you very much for the conversation.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by 

the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guest

Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander is the Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. He has spent the past 40 years in the biological research community. From 1992-2012 he was editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief, and he currently serves as an Executive Committee member of the International Society for Science and Religion. In his book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Alexander presents his belief in both the biblical doctrine of creation and the coherence of evolutionary theory. Alexander’s other books include Rebuilding the Matrix – Science and Faith in the 21st CenturyScience, Faith and Ethics: Grid or Gridlock? (co-authored with Robert White); and The Language of Genetics – an Introduction. Dr Alexander gave the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in December 2012 on the theme ‘Genes, Determinism and God’ to be published by Cambridge University Press 2016/17