Professor Alister McGrath is a modern Renaissance man in the true sense that he has long spanned multiple fields of knowledge, especially theology, philosophy and science.
The author of a simply staggering number of powerful, influential books – over fifty at the last count – he notes at the end of our discussion that they have all dropped out of a hat because of his ability to lift his head above the parapet of specialisation and peer over the academic silo walls to see what others are doing.
The day we meet is particularly memorable. 10am on Tuesday 25 October, 2022. Not only is a new Oxonian taking office as Prime Minister at the same time – Rishi Sunak (Lincoln, 1998) – but a partial eclipse of the sun is due to commence at the same time, and it does appear to dim for the first fifteen minutes of our discussion, sitting in a magnificent bay window in the Senior Common Room of Harris Manchester College.
This all seems appropriate. The jacket of his latest work, Natural Philosophy: On Retrieving a Lost Disciplinary Imaginary features one of the original Renaissance men crawling through the outer surface of a curved earth, to poke his head up at the celestial stars.
McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion Emeritus at Oxford, the ‘Emeritus’ tag ‘just three weeks ago!’ he exclaims – adding that it is brilliant to have more thinking and writing time as he technically ‘retires’, not that the term is going to mean much for someone like Professor McGrath.
So what is natural philosophy? It’s easier to start by asking what the problem is that the book seeks to address. In most academic fields it’s well accepted that everyone went down their own subject rabbit hole during the past century and barely anyone seems to have resurfaced.
This sense of remoteness, that some academics became so specialised as to be unintelligible not only to lay people but even to each other, is politically dangerous as the recent few years have shown, with a newly robust aversion to ‘experts’, at least in some circles.
This perceived (and real) fragmentation of knowledge may explain new attempts by some notably heroic individuals to try and encapsulate everything under one exegesis.
Only last month QUAD considered Dr Peter Coffin’s (St Catherine’s, 1966) What Does Humankind Really Know?, an attempt to create a ‘readable encyclopaedia’ and summary of everything.
We said, ‘Here is territory that only a Victorian polymath, an angel or an Oxford alumnus would venture to tread upon.’
In some ways that was loose talk, because by the Victorian era much of the damage was already done, says McGrath, although the process did only reach a broader public by the end of the 1890s.
Part One of McGrath’s book is a brilliant reading of a tradition of thinking – natural philosophy is a broad label for this – that started with Aristotle’s notion of ‘an existing…order within the natural world’, progressing to an early modern notion of nature and its study twinned with theological expectations and suffused with theism. Isaac Newton is a good example.
The trouble was that the ‘natural’ began to pull away from the ‘philosophy’, particularly during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.
Two markers suffice to show it. One was the great Victorian polymath William Whewell’s (1794 –1866) suggestion twice in the 1830s that ‘natural philosopher’ be replaced by the term ‘scientist,’ suggests McGrath.
Then, of course, we have Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), which reduced man to one species among many rather than a fallen angel; but McGrath identifies the public acceptance of the resulting state of affairs with Thomas Huxley (1825-95), sometimes called ‘Darwin’s bulldog.’
By the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, even polite circles of English intellectuals were starting to see modernity as a ‘crisis,’ with all the theistic underpinnings of church and state and private morality cast asunder in a horrible dawn of unbelief. In this sense modernism was cast as a cultural eruption, and a crisis of values.
Meanwhile, science poured forth for good and ill, whether the killing technologies of the Western Front or the extraordinary advances of modern medicine.
An instrumentalist view of nature resulted, which is evidently problematic now, faced as humanity is with mass extinctions and climate change.
For much of the 20th Century, McGrath’s current contention, that we might be able to revive certain aspects of natural philosophy, would have earned him the utmost hostility, especially from scientists.
Indeed, he knows this, asking early on in his book whether his quest is no more than ‘a pointless exercise in intellectual nostalgia.’
But his answer to his own question is that the original insight of natural philosophy was of the interconnectedness of things, and that this remains as valid now as ever before, perhaps more urgently in light of current challenges such as the climate crisis.
Raised in Belfast and thence directly to Wadham College in 1971 to study chemistry, followed by a DPhil in Molecular Biology at Merton, McGrath simultaneously achieved a first class degree in theology, reflecting an extraordinary workload and achievement.
Later ordained in the Church of England, he returned to Oxford from Cambridge in 1983 to be a lecturer in Christian doctrine and ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Oxford University Faculty of Theology.
That was a while ago and it seems improbable that any individual would be able to hold together evangelical tendencies of the Church of England with modern science, in intellectually defensible ways, but this latest book is precisely the sort of result that such an endeavour can result in, in the right hands.
He does say in an aside that it wasn’t always easy holding Sir Isaac Newton in one corner of his brain while tackling still live, if precarious, theological debates in another – a very Oxford combination, one might argue, until we remember what previous generations wilfully forgot, the extent to which Sir Isaac was preoccupied with theology.
McGrath explains that the book derives from public lectures he gave 2015-18 as the 32nd Professor of Divinity at Gresham College, on Science, Faith, and God: The Big Questions in which he sought to present ‘a coherent exploration of how Christian theology can engage with concerns and debates within modern culture, focussing on one of its leading elements – the natural sciences.’
‘By the end,’ he says, ‘I knew I had my next book.'
So what’s his message to the broader reading public, perhaps subsumed right now in a cost of living crisis and an excess of political excitements?
In just over 200 pages, the book whisks you to the top of Mount Everest on a clear day, in Part One through a critical reading of the tradition of natural philosophy from Aristotle to today, and in Part Two with a creative reflection on how we might reconstruct elements today.
There is a rich Oxford component, and for example the ‘first modern chemist’ Robert Boyle came like McGrath from Ireland to Oxford, in 1654.
And there are numerous stimulations to further reading that may appeal to anyone drawn to this book, for example enormously significant thinkers such as the philosopher Mary Midgley (1919-2018), whose reflections on animal rights have a powerful resonance here, but whose thought will not automatically be familiar to many readers whose time at Oxford was in the previous century and bounded by the prevailing set piece names of the PPE, history or theology curricula.
McGrath says ultimately that the marginalization of natural philosophy ‘suppressed certain concerns that were integral to early modern natural philosophy – such as behaving properly towards and within the natural order, and cultivating habits of attentiveness towards its beauty.’
By un-suppressing those concerns, he is not prescribing what people should think but re-staging an ‘imaginary’, or mindset.
He says, ‘here’s a framework…construct your own way of seeing this.’