God, science and evolution Part 2 August 1, 2011

God, science and evolution. Part 2.

I continue here the serialisation of my out-of-print 1980 book God, science and evolution which is surprisingly up-to-date in a philosophical sense if not in technical detail. This was the original Chapter 1, a shortened version of my inaugural lecture as the first Professor of Materials Science (as distinct from metallurgy) at London University, UK. The lecture was addressed to a largely non-Christian audience and the apologetics are gentle but, I hope, clear.


Human knowledge is growing so rapidly, especially in the fields of science and technology, that an integrated view or philosophy of life is increasingly difficult to maintain. Fragmentation typifies the current state of thought and outlook — even among those scientists, philo­sophers and theologians who are supposed to be leading us into a deeper understanding of the universe and of our own humanity.In this chapter, which is a shortened version of the author’s 1968 ‘Inaugural Lecture’ as Professor of Materials at Queen Mary College (University of London), a plea is made for a return to a unified view of man and nature. The only satisfactory starting-point for such a world-view is, in the writer’s opinion, the biblical concept of a personal God who created and sustains the universe, and who reveals himself to those that seek. Although light-hearted in style, the lecture is serious in intent and sets the keynote for the weightier arguments that follow in later chapters.

Man, materials and materialism

A few days ago I received the following letter from a friend, who occupies the Chair of Engineering Materials at another university: ‘I regret I shall be unable to attend your inaugural lecture but look forward to reading it. I should like to have chosen your title for my own lecture, but thought I should have run into over-deep waters had I done so. It will be fascinating to see how you tackle it.’

     I am not sure whether, by this token, inaugural addresses should be classified as river, sea or ocean-going lectures respec­tively, according to the depth of the waters they aspire to cross, or whether the dangers of foundering are related in any way to those depths. I trust that I will not founder and that you who have done me the kindness of attending this occasion will, if not fascinated, be interested in what I have to say.

     Some, less generously minded than my correspondent, may observe that by my title I have pre-empted the whole of history, social anthropology, science, technology, philo­sophy and religion, and may feel this to be a trifle ambitious, even for an inaugural lecture. I hasten to put your minds at rest, for my concern is simply to put our subject, the science of materials, in context — the context, that is, of the society to which we belong and of the lives we each live.

     The phrase ‘the two cultures’ has passed into common parlance. I wonder if the phrase is sufficient, serious as its implications are, to describe the fragmentation of knowledge which already exists. Perhaps we already live in an intellectual multiculture. A few weeks ago I met that doyen of polymer chemistry, Arthur Tobolsky, in a San Francisco street. He recounted how he had recently shown a Shakcspearean quotation to a number of staff and students at Princeton University. Predictably enough, only a minority of scientists recognized its source. He then showed it to a similar selection of non-scientists. Their rate of success was hardly better than that of the scientists. He commented, ‘I don’t know about the two-culture society; it’s more of a no-culture society.’

     If the problem of fragmentation resides entirely in the size of the body of knowledge accumulated by mankind, all we can do is to make this knowledge increasingly accessible by such means as the computerization of information retrieval, and hope for the best. But I want to analyse the problem at a rather deeper level, because I think it has a deeper underlying cause — the absence of any substratum or philosophy to which localized areas of knowledge may be related; the absence of a world-view in terms of which our particular field of know­ledge and, indeed, our own personal lives take on significance. It has always seemed to me that the elegance and genius of science lay in its ability to unify apparently unrelated phenomena, and I shall always remember the excitement I felt when, as an undergraduate, I learned how space and time could be treated in a unified manner in, for example, general relativity or electromagnetic theory. The history of science bears record, of course, to the dangers of overgeneralization, the tendency to go beyond what is proven in an attempt to express everything in terms of some simple universal principle, but the dangers implicit in generalization should not discour­age us from seeking a proper ‘world-view’. The pitfalls do, however, suggest that this world-view or philosophy of nature, to which our scientific and other knowledge is to be related, is not to be deduced from the body of scientific knowledge itself, with its changing fashions and notorious fallibility. In the closing part of my talk I want to explain my own views upon this matter.

Man and his materials

Technology is the backcloth of human life on the material plane. This has been true of human society down the centuries, for every tool or device invented for the safety, survival, sub­sistence, comfort or pleasure of man is an expression of tech­nology, however primitive. The ox-cart and mud hut are as much the products of technology as are the jet aircraft and air-conditioned laboratory. It is by technology that man betters his adaptation to the environment and his powers over it; it is, more soberly, by technology that man has at the same time exposed himself to the possibilities of self-destruction on such a scale that, perhaps for the first time in human history, we have real reason to fear the very powers we have unleashed. However, for good or ill, like time itself, technology moves forward, for it is a self-generating activity. We cannot, nor should we desire to, arrest its motion; but its control is a matter of vital concern.

     As technology is fundamental to civilization, so materials are fundamental to technology. Without materials there would be no technology, for materials are the essential link between inventions and ideas and the products of technological effort. They are the media by which ideas are realized, by which the innovator’s dreams become tangible. They stand between the blueprint and the hardware, and, by the same token, set limits upon the achievement of ideas. Materials set the boundary conditions to technology and thus, indirectly, to the material aspects of civilization. It is no accident that the major epochs of human society (as materials scientists are wont to point out) are demarcated by such terms as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age (from 4000 B.C.) and the Iron Age (from 2000 B.C.).

     The role of materials in technology can be classified as follows. An invention or an idea for a new machine, device or process must first be reduced to realistic workable and attain­able form — this is the process of design. Here attention must be given to certain basic principles. The student howler of three mutually intermeshing gear wheels, for example, must be avoided. Wheels must be able to turn, ships to float and bridges to sustain their own weight. Not least, the principles of design involve the choice of materials available for the job. It is no use designing a structure which requires beams to carry loads of a million pounds per square inch, because no material exists capable of bearing such forces. Nor may we build ships of sodium metal, for all its lightness, because it reacts with water; or bridges of glass, for all its potential strength, because of its proneness to brittle failure. Such are trivial examples, but the obvious often goes unremarked and needs to be pointed out from time to time. It is remarkable that so little effort has, until recently, been devoted to train­ing engineering students in this aspect of design.

     Technology can advance only as fast as the available materials will allow. Frequently, in the past, it has advanced more slowly, retarded by factors unrelated to materials, but indications are that now, in some areas, the engineer is waiting on the materials which will enable him to design for greater efficiency, economy and potentiality than is yet possible.

Materials science — the impure art

Our next question must be: ‘What is materials science?’ The pedigree of even the humblest engineering material is impres­sive. The geologist prospects for and discovers mineral deposits from which most of our materials derive; the mining engineer wins the crude mineral from its ancient habitat and the extraction metallurgist or refiner produces from it a more or less pure material. Pure substances, however, seldom make good engineering materials and the process technologist and chemical engineer blend, mix and alloy until the desired combination of properties is achieved. It may appear from this that materials science (the study of the relationship between properties and internal or microstructure) is redun­dant, serving as nothing but a gloss upon the time-honored technology of materials. There is a humbling degree of truth in this, but fortunately for some of us, it is not the whole truth. The justification for materials science, as something more than an intellectual exercise, lies in the statement I made a moment ago — that few pure substances make good engineering materials. Pure metals, for example, are usually far too soft to be of use. Refractory substances are often far too brittle. Some pure materials are far too prone to oxida­tion, and so one could continue. Materials science could, in this light, be described as ‘the impure art’, for its raison d’etre rests largely in the important modifications to properties brought about by the admixture of ‘impurities’ or foreign substances.

     Improvements due to impurities usually involve the modi­fication in some way or other of the physical microstructure of the material, so that it is really more accurate to speak of the effects of heterogeneity rather than impurity, since to be useful the latter must manifest itself by giving rise to non-uniformity of structure on some scale. We all, I think, realize that concrete is stronger than mortar because it has a heterogeneous struc­ture but similar heterogeneity can exist on a much finer scale right down to the atomic level, where foreign or impurity atoms, dispersed in the crystal lattice of a pure substance, can give rise to spectacular increases in hardness. An intermediate example is the incorporation of carbon black powder in syn­thetic rubber, which can transform a cheesy, friable pure material into a tough, resilient tyre-tread.

     Another form of heterogeneity which is vitally important is the occurrence of regions of disorder in an otherwise ordered or crystalline solid. Dislocations are regions in which the order within a crystal is disturbed and the ability of such disorder regions to move through the crystal when forces are applied gives rise to the phenomenon of plastic deformation — a phenomenon which, for the user of materials, has both good and bad points. Grain boundaries, which inhibit plastic deformation at low temperatures but may enhance it at high temperatures, and atomic vacancies are also examples of disorder.

     Disorder is of primary concern in polymers, for these materials are composed of long chainlike molecules which become so tangled that the achievement of perfect order (crystallinity) is seldom possible. The plastics and rubbers so familiar in everyday life are therefore either wholly dis­ordered, like PMMA, polystyrene and PVC, or else semi-crystalline, containing 10% to 80% disordered material, like polyethylene, polyesters, nylon and so on.

     It is the task of materials science to describe the structure of materials, at all levels down to the molecular and atomic scales, and then to say how the structure governs the properties of strength, hardness, elasticity, corrosion resistance, electrical conductivity, or whatever else is of concern to the engineer and designer. In recent years materials science has also been increasingly applied to medicine and surgery, as in the use of artificial bone, joint and tissue replacement materials — and in understanding the properties and pathology of living tissue itself.

Materials and materialism

I suppose it is the ‘ism’ in my title which has excited most curiosity in anticipation and which to some represents ‘deep waters’ rather than ‘safe ground’. To me, however, its inclusion was no ‘gimmick’ to excite interest, but rather a necessity if I was to express satisfactorily my theme of materials in their context. I spoke earlier of the need for all of us, and particu­larly for us scientists, to have a world-view or philosophical substratum to which to relate our own areas of knowledge and experience. If we have no such philosophy, our science becomes nothing more than the handmaid of materialism, by which I mean a belief in the ultimate importance of things. For all its apparent piety, the sentiment that bigger and better, or shinier or faster, things make the world a better place to live is arrant materialism. Of course, our agricultural and medical colleagues have more cogent arguments, for their service to mankind is obvious. But they are driven, implicitly at least, to appeal to such non-scientific principles as the sanctity of human life and thus directly illustrate my point that a non-scientific (or, better, ascientific) philosophy is required to explain and underwrite the value of the activities in which they engage.

     What is ‘materialism’? I have already given one definition — a belief in the ultimate importance of things. I want to quote a more trenchant definition provided by St. Paul in the first chapter of the Bible’s Letter to the Romans. Speaking of the ancient world he writes that they ‘worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator,’ who is God. The word ‘creature’ can also be trans­lated ‘creation’ and probably bears this primary meaning. Now few of us today would admit to being ‘materialists’, the term being currently out of fashion. Nor would we confess, perhaps, to ‘worshipping’ anything or anyone. But if we take worship in its basic sense of ‘living for’, I think we must allow that many more people are materialists than would appear at first sight. In fact we must admit that we all devote ourselves to something; we either live for (that is, worship or ascribe ultimate value to) our personal pleasure, however subtly disguised, or ambition, which is the same thing by another name, or else find outside of ourselves some object worthy of our self-dedication. Whether we like the term or not, this object is our god, and our world-view (however ill-defined) is our religion.

     It seems to me that we each have but three alternatives: to worship things because they bring us pleasure, which is materialism; to worship mankind itself because we are involved and because we have a corporate desire to see our kind triumph over his limitations and errors, which is humanism; or to worship the Creator because both His nature and ours demand that we do so, which is theism. I have much sympathy for the honest humanist, because I believe his objectives are worthy. I am equally convinced of his error, because he pins his faith in human nature or intellect (both demonstrably imperfect and fallible) and, like the materialist, he cannot see beyond the material creation — though the humanist at least worships life rather than the inanimate!

     To me, however, there must be a ground of reality which lies outside the creation, and in terms of which creation, both in its scientific and general aspects, can be understood; St. Paul again draws a clear distinction for us: ‘We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4:18). Even from a scientific viewpoint, this is a remarkable state­ment, for the unseen world of elementary particles is indeed ‘eternal’ in comparison with the ever-changing and decaying world of visible things. Paul, however, was referring to a world external to the creation on any level, yet a world which co­exists and interacts with the creation as we know it, for (and I bring you one final quotation from the New Testament) it is said of Jesus Christ that  ‘all things were created by him, and for him . . . and by him all things consist’ (Colossians 1: 16-17).

     In these brief words we see the Christian view of nature, of creation, indeed of science in all its aspects. It is not the view that God simply created the universe and left it to itself like some gigantic self-powered timepiece. In biblical terms God is not dead to our world and our experience, as recent theological obituaries seem to suggest. The view is rather that God is immanent in creation (though at the same time tran­scendent, being other than the creation), and that the laws of science and nature are an expression of his immanence. He is not the ‘God of the gaps’, a convenient explanation of what we do not yet understand. If he were a stop-gap God his expulsion from the universe would be just a matter of time and, unlike the Cheshire cat. he would vanish by stages leaving not even the grin behind. On the contrary, He is the ground of all experi­ence, including that branch of experience we call science, ‘for in him we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).

     In these days it may seem strange for a scientist to espouse the cause of Christ. I would therefore remind you of men — more eminent than your present lecturer is ever likely to be — who in the past have held similar views; men like Johann Kepler, who is reported to have exclaimed, on discovering the laws of planetary motion, ‘Oh God, I am thinking thy thoughts after thee,’ or Isaac Newton who stated that his scientific work was directed to those discoveries ‘that would most work with reasoning men to a belief in the Deity’. Michael Faraday, on his deathbed, was asked, ‘Mr. Faraday, what are your speculations now?’ and replied, ‘I have no speculations — I know that my Redeemer liveth’— a quotation, of course, from the book of Job. Clerk Maxwell, the father of electromagnetic theory, would have said ‘amen’.

     If to this we are tempted to reply that these men, great scientists though they may have been, were in this matter simply children of their ‘superstitious’ age, we should remember that we, too, are children of our age — our materialistic age — replete perhaps with unrelated knowledge but, could it be, less well equipped with wisdom, which is a very different thing?