Ian Hutchinson’s Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?: An MIT Professor Answers Questions on God and Science is a compilation of his answers to audience questions at Veritas forums—student-organized forums for religious, spiritual, and ethical dialogue—over the past twenty-five years. While the book is centered on the religion and science conversation, the questions and answers touch on a broad spectrum of topics ranging from philosophy of science and physics to Biblical studies and the nature of good and evil. Hutchinson presents the questions and answers verbatim, with minimal editing to correct grammar, and omits only a few questions which he deemed incomprehensible.
An introductory chapter provides background on Hutchinson’s personal and professional history, and insights into his theological location. Raised in a non-religious home, he developed an early interest in physics and mathematics along with a general intellectual curiosity. His college conversion to Christianity is less a dramatic change of lifestyle and more a shifting of foci from self-interests to ones which include others outside of his immediate circle of friends and family. His position represents a moderate evangelicalism (C.S. Lewis is the primary theologian cited in Hutchinson’s book) that seeks a personal relationship with Christ and views the Bible as historically accurate but rejects fundamentalism and Biblical inerrancy.
This theological viewpoint becomes the pole around which the rest of Hutchinson’s thought is oriented. In his view, science and Christian belief are fully compatible as the two are largely separate from one another. This is not the complete separation of religious and scientific knowledge advanced by Stephen Jay Gould, but a compatibilist approach comparable to that of other Christian scientists such as Kenneth Miller and Howard Van Till. Hutchinson argues that science is designed to provide descriptions of the physical nature of the universe, including its physical and biological history. Religion is not meant to supply this kind of knowledge, so attempts by Christian creationists to interpret the stories found in the book of Genesis literally are not acceptable. Scientism—the view that only scientific knowledge is valid—represents an overreach in his estimation. Since science is intended to address questions about the physical universe, it is not equipped to make metaphysical judgments. Metaphysics is the territory of religion and philosophy, not science. Therefore, atheists who reject religious belief on scientific grounds are no more qualified to do so than creationists who reject evolutionary theory as contradictory to Christian scripture.
However, Hutchinson claims that reason has a role to play in both religious truth and scientific knowledge. Religious faith is not blind faith, nor is scientific knowledge based solely on observations of physical reality. Scientific knowledge is only comprehensible because scientists believe that the universe can be understood scientifically. Without that assumption, science would only be a collection of disassociated facts. Similarly, religious truth is based on the claim that underlying meaning can be found in our existence. For Hutchinson, the truths of Christianity lie in its claims about the nature of God and human existence. The facts behind these truths are historical rather than scientific. The true center of Christianity lies in the gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus rather than specific interpretations of creation accounts. While Hutchinson indicates his knowledge of the issues raised by literary and historical criticism, he finds it reasonable to accept the gospels as straight-forward accounts of historical events rather than literary constructs that may more closely reflect later developments in the early Christian community. Hutchinson answers his titular question in the affirmative, provided one defines a miracle as an event interpreted as an act of God, regardless of whether or not it can be explained scientifically.
The book itself serves as an introduction to the religion and science conversation as well as a general overview of an intellectual approach to Christian faith. Hutchinson presents fair, although generalized, descriptions of the positions of literal-minded Christians as well as those of dogmatic atheists alongside more detailed discussions of his own positions. In discussing cosmology and evolutionary theory, he relates complex science in everyday language which is accessible to the layperson while still conveying scientific accuracy. The distinctions he makes between scientific and religious knowledge are likely to be helpful to those new to the conversation. Hutchinson’s organization of the book into topical chapters combined with the question-and-answer format make it easy for a casual reader to begin at a point of particular interest as well as allowing course instructors to assign relevant sections of the text without requiring students to read the entire work.
Despite these strengths, the book has two significant weaknesses. As mentioned above, Hutchinson presents both fundamentalist literalism and atheistic scientism as counterpoints to his own Christian views. In doing so, he may lead readers new to this territory to assume that his own position is the only possible form of Christian compatibilism. Such readers will remain unaware of the work of theologians—such as Keith Ward—who have explored the theological complexity of treating science seriously, as well as that of Wolfhart Pannenberg and Catherine Keller which drawson scientific knowledge in developing new theological understandings of traditional doctrines. Second, while the question-and-answer format provides easy access to each topic, it does become repetitive to a reader who wishes to complete the entire work. In particular, Hutchinson’s definition of science and his understanding of religious knowledge are restated in multiple locations throughout the book. Although he occasionally employs a footnote to point to a more complete statement of a position in a different chapter, tighter editing of his original answers might have allowed for less repetition. Overall, the work is an impressive addition to the Christianity and science conversation and will encourage readers to explore other approaches to religion and science beyond those included in this book.
Jim Sharp is Adjunct Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Colorado State University, Pueblo.
Date Of Review:
March 12, 2019
Ian Hutchinson is a plasma physicist and Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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