The Ordered Universe Project Returns to (one of) its Roots

I received an invitation last year to give a seminar that was impossible to turn down.  Every Wednesday afternoon the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds University holds a proper academic seminar – 3.15 to 5pm, giving plenty of time to expound an idea as well as have it comprehensively discussed.  I had to go – for it was in this setting, regularly taking time of from the Physics department during the years I was professor there, that I first learnt about Robert Grosseteste. During that period, Jim Ginther, Grosseteste scholar and now Dean of Theology at the University of Toronto, was at Leeds.  I recall hearing him describing the extraordinary thought of this 13th century polymath, and determining to read some of his scientific corpus to see what I made of it as a scientist working 800 years later.

It was a delight to be able to describe the return on the academic investment by the centre a decade or more ago by the centre in its hospitality to visiting scientists, by giving a brief survey of the Ordered Universe project so far.  As that first reading turned out to have been of Grosseteste’s De luce (On Light), it seemed fitting to describe our work on its mathematical translation, the interdisciplinary insights into its extraordinary physics and metaphysics, and the way that it illustrates how Grosseteste receives inspiration from theology to do his science, while keeping the actual disciplines apart.

An impression of nested celestial spheres


For Grosseteste’s scientific imagination to conceive of the expanding, spherical early universe, under the forming influence of self-multiplying light, was itself fired by his theological imperative to use Aristotelian physics against Aristotle, who taught that the world had no beginning.  This was not tenable for a Christian.  His move constitutes a remarkable inversion of the avowed atheist motivation for the steady-state cosmology of Bondi, Gold and Hoyle eight centuries later.  For the worldview of these physicists did not welcome a universe with a beginning.

So the title of my seminar, ‘Medieval Lessons for the Science-Religion Debate Today’, built on this and other consequences we have taken from the way that Grosseteste both linked and separated his scientific and theological writing. I have blogged about the content more fully on the Faith and Wisdom in Science site, so will not detail the points here.  But there is a rich source of ideas from Grosseteste that remains very relevant to the much-debated question today.  In brief, a medieval reflection on science can:

  • Explode media-fuelled myths about medieval thought (like the idea that the church suppressed scientific thought)
  • Evidence the human history of science, pre-Enlightenment
  • Resource a cultural narrative for science
  • Inspire a unified vision for our understanding of the material universe
  • Suggest a relational and incarnational metaphysics for what science does theologically

Published by tcbmcleish

I am a very badly behaved academic. I know that physics is my 'core discipline' - it's a good one and I love it - but I trespass into interdisciplinary territory all the time. Brief bio: first degree and PhD ('84) at Cambridge topped off with a short fellowship at Emmanuel College, then lectureship at Sheffield ('89-'92). I started working seriously across the chemistry-physics fence there through polymer science (and visiting the marvellous Biblical Studies group which sparked my love of ancient wisdom literature). As Professor of Physics in Leeds ('93-'08) including 5 years as an EPSRC Fellow, I began to work with biologists as well. Some theological training as part of an amglican lay reader's course in the Diocese of Ripon made me think more about how science and religion both encompass and draw on all of human culture. So it planted the seeds of the new book 'Faith and Wisdom in Science'

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