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Research project - The Science of Human Flourishing

Principle Investigator: Prof. Bob White FRS, Director Faraday Institute and Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge

'The Science of Human Flourishing' is a bold and ambitious three-year project that brings together leaders in the fields of science, technology and theology to examine some of the key elements that contribute to human flourishing. Funded by a generous grant from Templeton World Charity Foundation, the project deliberately spans a number of disciplines and comprises six research sub-projects and a programme of dissemination and public outreach.

The research sub-projects each seek to examine one or more of aspect of human flourishing across a whole range of sciences (in the broad sense of the term). Details of each sub-project are given below. The academic research is combined with plans for dissemination of the research results to a wide audience, including courses and lectures, print material and social media. The whole project will thus form an integrated and comprehensive examination of science and human flourishing.

Sub-projects:

1. Life in the pressure-cooker - a pathway to developing beautiful minds?
(leader: Prof. Bob White FRS)

The overall aim of this research sub-project is to examine the ways in which faith groups contribute to constructive thinking, generosity and thanksgiving out of the maelstrom of disaster. The need exists for a project of this kind due to the lack of understanding and knowledge on the role that localized religious beliefs and faith communities play within the context of disaster recovery and disaster risk reduction. Faith and religious communities have often been ignored in disaster studies, and religious responses have often been considered 'backwards' and lacking in 'modernity'. Furthermore, studies that have incorporated religion have often adopted a generic understanding of religion, which lacks consideration for the contextualized and experienced paradigms of religion.

The proposed research will focus on achieving three main objectives:

  1. using mixed method approaches to examine the impact of contextually specific religious beliefs on disaster response, recovery and risk reduction initiatives over a longitudinal period;
  2. explore how Christian beliefs and practices contribute to, or hamper, the capacity of disaster-impacted populations to respond, recover and adapt; and
  3. investigate how Christian beliefs and practices contribute to and/or hinder character development and post-traumatic growth after disasters, particularly over time.

2. Transcending the dimensions
(leader: Prof. Russell Cowburn, FRS)

In recent years there has been much excitement within condensed matter physics of the possibility of exploring new dimensionalities. Far from the wormholes and such like of science fiction required to transport us into other Universes, worlds of different dimensionalities can now be created in the physics lab using modern nanotechnology fabrication methods. For example, films that are only a single atom thick - and hence are intrinsically 2-dimensional - can be fabricated using advanced laboratory equipment.

Low dimensionality materials should be studied because they are a new and largely unexplored part of the Universe where the laws of physics manifest themselves very differently to those we know in our 3-dimensional world. It is not just that a 2-dimensional material is a very thin version of a 3-dimensional material. The underlying behaviour of the electrons in a 2-dimensional material is completely altered because of the reduced dimensionality. This proposal seeks to investigate experimentally one such reduced dimension system based on magnetic materials.

The aim of the sub-project is to understand further how dimensionality modifies the perceived laws of physics. Project results will benefit the academic scientific community by an improved understanding of the nature of reality in reduced dimensions coming from an experimentally-led perspective. The wider public will benefit from an improved ability to appreciate the nature of our 3-dimensional existence and an appreciation of the existence of new aspects of the created Universe. By integrating the scientific results of the sub-project with a discussion on Edwin Abbott's famous 1884 novel 'Flatland: a Romance of Many Dimensions', an improved conversation between literary, theological and scientific descriptions of reality will be held with the wider public.

3. Science and Scripture in Christianity and Islam
(leader: Dr Hilary Marlow)

This interdisciplinary project will examine the extent to which the relationship between science and religion is affected by the hermeneutical strategies adopted for reading Scripture and investigate how the narratives of science and those of religious texts can be brought into dialogue. The project will focus on Christianity and Islam, the two largest world religions, both of which attach great importance to their written Scriptures and historical traditions.

It will involve the collaboration of research scientists, theologians and textual critics in both faiths to investigate the ways that Christian and Muslim scientists from different contexts relate their Scriptures and traditions to the scientific worlds in which they operate. It will examine the challenges that individuals and groups face in trying to do this and evaluate the strategies that are adopted to minimise potential conflict between science and Scripture. Furthermore it will enable people in the Christian and Islamic traditions, scientists and non-scientists alike, to explore creative ways in which their Scriptures can be related to some of the big questions in science. The project will examine the following key questions by means of a literature review, extensive fieldwork surveying Christian and Muslim scientists, and the development and testing of models and resources:

  • In what ways are perceptions of the relationship between science and religion shaped by the hermeneutical strategies that different faith communities adopt for understanding their Scriptures and traditions?
  • What theoretical models and practical resources will enable believing scientists to integrate new scientific knowledge with their ancient traditions and Scriptures in such a way that they flourish spiritually and morally as well as intellectually.

For more information, see the project website at: http://sciencescripture.org

4. Human identity in an age of nearly-human machines - the impact of advances in robotics and AI technology on human identity and self-understanding
(leaders: Prof. John Wyatt, and Prof. Peter Robinson)

The goal of this research sub-project is to explore the theological, social and philosophical implications of recent developments in robotics and AI technology for secular and religious understandings of human nature and identity. Of particular interest and concern is the development of humanoid robots whose appearance, motor behaviour and responsiveness are becoming virtually indistinguishable from human beings. In addition, new technical developments provide increasingly realistic simulation by AIs of human compassion, empathy and emotional intelligence. These developments raise urgent and profound questions and challenges for human self-understanding.

To date there has been very little genuinely multidisciplinary and informed debate about these issues. The current sub-project aims to address the implications of these developments using an academically rigorous and structured approach. In particular we will investigate whether there is a genuine convergence and blurring of human/machine abilities and behaviour and if so whether this is likely to lead to fundamental changes in common social and religious understandings of what it means to be human.

5. Mystical seizures and salience in temporal lobe epilepsy
(leader: Prof. Alasdair Coles)

This research project addresses the questions: what are the neurological bases of mystical experience and the accompanying sense of personal significance and meaning? We will use the classical neurological approach of deducing normal function from studying neurological disease, in this case people with 'mystical' epileptic seizures, frequently cited in popular literature on science and religion, and most famously described by Dostoyevsky in 'The Idiot'. People with such seizures provide the 'natural experiment' of seeing to what extent frequent mystical experiences contribute to human flourishing. This sub-project is needed because, surprisingly, such seizures are poorly studied; the largest series is of only 11 cases. From the few case descriptions, we note firstly that most people with such seizures have a religious background, suggesting their interpretation depends on prior experience; and, secondly, that many gain long-lasting personal meaning ('salience') from their experiences.

The research team, consisting of ordained and lay neurologists and a theologian/psychologist, will identify 30 people with mystical seizures, mainly from an epilepsy surgery program and therefore already with sophisticated MRI and EEG data. We will investigate the brain region(s) responsible for mystical seizures; how their experience is influenced by religious upbringing; how frequently they are accompanied by a feeling of personal significance, and the effects of epilepsy treatment. Dissemination will be in the neurological literature, but also to people affected by epilepsy and general audiences. The impacts will be to encourage the neuroscientific study of mystical experience and raise awareness of spirituality and meaning in the care of people with neurological disease.

6. Wonders of the living world: biology and belief
(leader: Dr Ruth Bancewicz)

We are a product of evolution, and the living world is beautiful, intricate and highly ordered. Science is constantly revealing more about the incredible organisms on this planet, which thrive and reproduce in even the most hostile environments. Non-scientists can enjoy finding out about these discoveries through the burgeoning science communication industry, and people of faith can say with even more confidence than before, 'All creation declares the glory of God!'

What is not widely known among Christians or the general public is that scientists such as the palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris are asking some fascinating and quite specific questions about the deeper structure of the living world, questioning the assumption that evolution is unkind and unpredictable. This deeper study has revealed that in reality, biological evolution is highly organised and constrained, involving cooperation and an increase in complexity.

So as well as increasing our general sense of wonder, the findings of biological science can raise questions about the meaning of what we see. The scientific data do not compel us to believe in God, but neither do they compel us to accept that the universe is meaningless. The resulting message is that the process of evolution is entirely consistent with belief in a divine creator who has a purpose for the Universe.

The Templeton Foundations have funded a significant proportion of the above research, because it matches the Foundation's aim to support research that investigates the fundamental nature of life, particularly issues of meaning and purpose. The output of these academic projects is being effectively disseminated to an academic audience through print publications, websites and conferences. Aspects of this dissemination are reaching a general audience to some extent, but there is very little material on this topic for the Christian community. This is a Public Engagement sub-project which aims to address this significant communication gap.

  • Research will identify relevant areas of scientific discovery, theologians with an interest in this topic, and effective ways of presenting this content.
  • A focussed Faraday course on 'Biology and Belief' will bring together key scientists and theologians for discussion of the topics to be communicated.
  • Material produced as a result of the research will include short videos, an article collection, study guides for adults and young people, and a full-colour illustrated book.
  • The materials produced will be promoted through a website, public speaking, online and print publicity and launch events.
  • Our goal is to help those in the international Christian community find convincing narratives whereby they can celebrate the wonders of the living world.

Other Faraday research projects

Project title: The Sea In Scripture
(leader: Prof. Meric Srokosz)

As the ocean covers approximately 71% of the surface of the Earth it is arguable that we live on a water planet that should be called the Ocean. The ocean is the habitat for an amazing range of living organisms, from microscopic bacteria, phytoplankton (miniscule plants) and zooplankton (miniscule animals) through to the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale. Human beings have used the ocean as a resource for thousands of years. Fishing provides a significant fraction, about 16%, of the total animal protein eaten by humans globally, with this percentage being higher in some nations, often the poorer ones. The oceans are also a crucial part of the climate system with the large-scale ocean circulation (currents) re-distributing vast amounts of heat across the globe. Despite this surprisingly little has been written on the ocean from a biblical perspective. This project is unique in that it addresses this neglected area (the oceans) from a biblical point of view, and because it is an interdisciplinary collaboration between a biblical scholar (Dr Rebecca Watson) and an oceanographer (Prof. Meric Srokosz).

This project has been funded by the Issachar Fund.

Project title: 'Genes, determinism and God'
(Dr Denis Alexander and Ms Nell Whiteway)

Genetic determinism has waxed and waned ever since genetics became established as a scientific discipline in the early part of the 19th century. This project aims to investigate the literature describing the relationship between the inter-individual genomic variation that exists between organisms within a species and the variation that exists in behavioural phenotypes. Using a 'bottom-up' approach, relatively simple organisms will be investigated, then more complex, finally addressing the same inter-individual variation relationship within the human context.

The question will be asked as to whether genetic variation is relevant to human concepts of free-will and moral responsibility, and the role of such variation in the Judaeo-Christian notion of humankind being made in the image of God. Dr. Alexander presented some of the results of this research in his Gifford Lectures that took place at the University of St Andrews on December 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th, 2012. The dedicated website for the project can be found at www.uabgrants.org.

Project title: 'The interactions between science and religious belief in the secondary school context in England'
(Berry Billingsley and Keith Taber)

The aim of this project is to investigate the factors that shape the thinking of secondary-school students (age 11-16) on the relationship(s) between science and religion within the English curriculum context. The research involves quantitative and qualitative survey work amongst pupils in a variety of secondary schools. The ways in which pupils with faith backgrounds view science and the possible pursuit of scientific careers will be addressed.

In addition to the research, specific learning resources for students will be developed that offer approaches to respond to the key issues raised during the research. The resource development strand is both informed by the research strand and designed to feedback into the research by offering opportunities to evaluate student responses to the resources.

The project has an Advisory Board comprising: Marianne Cutler, Executive Director, Professional and Curriculum Innovation, The Association for Science Education; Prof. Mary James, Associate Director of Research, Faculty of Education, Cambridge University; Michael Poole, Visiting Research Fellow in Science and Religion at King's College London; and Prof. Michael Reiss, Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education, London University.