Book Review: Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles by Ian Hutchinson
The idea that one can be both a scientist and a Christian is often challenged by popular scientists. In his book Can A Scientist Believe in Miracles? Ian Hutchinson responds to many of these challenges. Hutchinson is both a Christian and a plasma physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and as a result, he provides a personal window into his experiences of what it is like for a Christian to be a successful scientist.
Can A Scientist Believe in Miracles? is based on Hutchinson’s responses to audience questions from various Veritas Forum events. In fact, in writing this book, Hutchinson transcribed his responses to over 220 questions from the available recordings of several of these events. For this reason, it would be impossible to summarize the answers to every question within this short review. Nevertheless, this review will contain a brief overview of some of the main themes present throughout the book in the order in which they are structured.
Becoming a Christian while Becoming a Scientist
Hutchinson begins with his personal testimony. He wasn’t raised in a Christian home. Instead, his conversion took place during his undergraduate career at Cambridge University. As an aspiring intellectual, he sought to engage with a wide range of cultural topics. When he attended some lectures on Christianity, he was struck by the historical evidence for the central claims of the faith. Ultimately, however, he was compelled to take Christianity seriously by observing the lives of two of his closest friends, both of whom were Christians.
Of note is that Hutchinson’s story is precisely opposite that spread by many atheists. That is, many atheists claim to have lost their faith upon becoming more learned in the sciences, but Hutchinson views his life as a Christian and his life as a scientist as largely developing alongside one another. As a result, his answers to many questions about the relationship between science and the Christian faith reflect more a sense of kinship between the two rather than conflict.
Questioning the Scientist
Naturally, a scientist who is also a Christian will receive many questions about how he reconciles his science with different aspects of a religious faith. But before he addresses any of these questions, Hutchinson responds to a series of more foundational questions, the answers to which help contextualize how he responds to the specific challenges later on in the book.
Hutchinson’s first series of questions revolve around the limitations of science. Simply put, Hutchinson rejects the notion that science will eventually be able to explain everything. One reason for this is that many aspects of our world – for example, human history – are not susceptible to scientific investigation because they lack certain criteria such as repeatability. Furthermore, the “big questions” of meaning and purpose cannot be given any positive answer if only naturalistic science is allowed.
Next, Hutchinson tackles the topic of faith. He quickly dismantles the idea that faith and reason are at odds with one another, suggesting that any sort of faith that must be held to in spite of the evidence cannot be part of the Christian faith. Rather, the Christian faith is a trust in the teachings of scripture because there are good reasons to do so. Furthermore, since science cannot explain every fact, engaging in both Christianity and science allows one to see a more complete picture of reality. He then addresses how this has played out both in the history of science and in modern practice of science.
The next series of questions pertain whether or not Christian belief is reasonable. Hutchinson’s position is that no full proof exists, but when the full picture of Christianity is considered, the best conclusion is that it is true. Specifically, he grounds this reasoning in the historical reliability of the Bible in general, and specifically the historical truth of Christ’s resurrection.
Hutchinson takes a brief pause to discuss the concept of scientism, the belief that science encompasses all knowledge. He points out that this view fails to live up to its own criteria since the statement itself is not one of science. Since scientism fails, there is no reason to exclude Christianity from being a knowledge discipline.
Now that the groundwork has been laid, Hutchinson turns to the specific questions about science and Christianity. He begins with the topic of creation and cosmology. Whether the question has to do with the age of the universe or the proposal of the multiverse, Hutchinson doesn’t believe the scientific outcome should have much of an impact on the Christian faith. Nevertheless, he does defend the leading cosmological timescale while expressing his doubts about the multiverse theory.
In addressing the question of miracles, Hutchinson draws an important distinction: the biblical definition of miracle does not require a violation of the laws of nature. Rather, miracles are a special act of God. But since they are special acts, there is no guarantee of reproducibility, and therefore the question of miracles is not a question of science. From there, Hutchinson spends time dismantling the objections raised against miracles by David Hume.
Next, Hutchinson addresses questions surrounding the Bible and science. For starters, he explains that the Bible is not meant to be read as a scientific text. Instead it contains a wide range of literary genres, and it is the job of biblical scholars to determine what the text meant to the original authors and audiences. With that in mind, he argues that evolutionary theory is fully compatible with the Bible.
The final three sections of questions cover topics more generally related to Hutchinson’s Christianity than his science. For example, one chapter covers the challenge of other religions. While Hutchinson admits that culture plays a role in how people search for God, he rejects the notion that people’s seeking after God is purely determined by cultural circumstances. In the next chapter, he addresses questions pertaining to why, if God exists, His existence isn’t more obvious. In short, Hutchinson suggests that God desires personal relationships rather than intellectual demonstrations, and therefore there is no reason to expect God to reveal Himself directly to everyone. Finally, he addresses the questions of good and evil, arguing that the Christian has a much easier time trying to explain the grounding of objective good and evil than the atheist does.
Hutchinson ends his book with a plea to his readers: this is not just an intellectual exercise, rather, the Christian message requires a call to action. The Christian life ought to be spent in community, studying the scriptures that God has given, but always being ready to engage with the challenges addressed throughout this book, especially for those who find themselves working in the sciences.
All in all, Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? does an excellent job at what it was intended to do: provide one man’s perspective as a scientist and a Christian. A vast array of topics is covered, and Hutchinson consistently displays a depth of theological, philosophical, and (of course) scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, he does so while remaining concise and accessible to the average reader. It must be noted, however, that the question-and-answer format of the book results in a noticeable amount of repetition. Those who choose to read the book straight through may find this distracting, however, it allows the chapters to function as stand-alone sections, giving the reader the flexibility to jump around as desired. Therefore, this would be a useful resource for any Christion who wants to prepare to answer questions about how their faith fits with science.