“The authors describe a number of disquieting discoveries made in the 19th century—ones we’re still struggling to reconcile with Christianity. There were, for example, findings that resulted in Darwin’s theory of evolution, as well as geological discoveries that suggested the earth to be far older than the Bible seemed to imply.”
Roger Wagner and Andrew Briggs—an artist and scientist, respectively—begin The Penultimate Curiosity: How Science Swims in the Slipstream of Ultimate Questions with a question: Why do two of the world’s most emblematic buildings dedicated to science have religious inscriptions over their entrances?
The Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge greets visitors with the words of Psalm 111: “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.” The main entrance to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History displays an angel holding an open book in one hand and three living cells in the other. Coincidentally (or not, it turns out), both structures are products of the 19th century, one that saw watershed scientific discoveries and seemed to exemplify the animosity between science and religion. So the authors initially wondered:
Were these invocations (as contemporary thought might suggest anticipate) merely pious gestures? Had they been intended perhaps to soothe the religious sensibilities of the universities at a moment when advances of science were beginning to suggest that the biblical creation narratives belonged to the same category as every other kind of mythology? (xvii)
The book is an answer to this question as it highlights humanity’s search to “see beyond the rim of the physical world.”
Wagner and Briggs found an unexpected yet inherent “entanglement” of science and religion they say may have begun at the “Garden of Eden moment,” a stage in human evolution when the desire to objectively ground an innate moral sensibility forced a kind of cognitive advance. This “larger cognitive struggle,” the authors suggest, employed “every sense and capacity in the attempt to create an integrated picture of reality.” This “need to make sense of the world as a whole” is what they call “ultimate curiosity”—and is what we might call an innate religious sense.
This ultimate curiosity has led, in turn, to a “penultimate curiosity,” a drive to understand the physical cosmos. The Penultimate Curiosity presents fascinating evidence for the authors’ thesis that the “scientific” endeavor stems from a “religious” one, that physical curiosity is grounded in metaphysical curiosity.
Throughout the book, the authors take for granted mainstream science, and clearly present it to non-specialists, including parts of science some Christians would see as contrary to Scripture. Regardless of your views on topics such as the evolution of humans and the age of the earth, it’s interesting that, in a book supporting the compatibility of science and religion (and biblical religion in particular), Wagner and Briggs take for granted various teachings of science that many Christians believe contradict Scripture.
None of this should bother the generic theist, the person who believes simply in a vanilla-flavored designer/creator of the cosmos. And The Penultimate Curiosity offers a strong case that theism makes the best sense of science’s metaphysical foundations. Of course, the atheist will contend that any theistic notions associated with these foundations are mere scaffolding and can be removed once the cathedral of science has been constructed. I think this objection can be readily countered, though the authors understandably don’t spend time doing so—the book is far more historical than philosophical. (This isn’t a complaint; sufficient unto the day are the troubles thereof.)