International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Pascal's Fire: Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding

by Keith Ward

Introductory Essay by Colin A. Russell

After the death in 1662 of the French mathematician and scientist Blaise Pascal, a document was discovered sewn into the lining of one of his clothes.   It spoke of a nocturnal vision of Fire given by the Biblical God and not by the deity assumed by men of science. This distinction and its implications form the theme of Pascal’s Fire: Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding. The well-known author, Keith Ward, is a philosopher turned theologian, and has produced a book rich in ideas from both disciplines. Naturally, it avoids any impression of direct laboratory experience or of detailed historical analysis, but it is well informed by extensive reading and discussion. The book, based on lectures given at Gresham College, London, embodies familiar material and draws considerably on the author’s previous books and papers.

This book is in three parts. The first part is devoted to the Scientific Revolution, with its obvious understanding of creation in purely naturalistic terms. It also presents the lesser-known conclusion by figures such as Newton that the universe came into being through the workings of a super-intelligent mind. Some account is given of the impacts of Copernicus and Galileo (but not Rheticus) and a rather detailed discussion is given of evolutionary philosophy, which can be interpreted as an expression of divine creativity (though evolution has other naturalistic mechanisms than DNA modification). The materialistic doctrine of “the selfish gene” in trenchantly demolished.

From “the veiled world” of quantum physics Ward comes to a consideration of the possibilities of a truly open future, conventionally regarded as incompatible with a scientific belief in the iron laws of nature. From this realm of physics he deduces the primacy of consciousness and the principle of indeterminacy which together open up the possibility that beyond what we see is a deeper spiritual reality of profound beauty and wisdom.

The second part of the book discusses - and discards - the claim that science is an “explanation of everything”. This leads to the third part, The God of religion, which considers such matters as God’s foreknowledge, where Ward (contentiously) limits such foreknowledge to things that have not happened in the universe after events which he has not determined. That is to say that, if there are free actors other than God, He must be somehow temporal if the universe is not to be entirely pre-determined.

Ward offers some sensitive thoughts about prayer. He views miracles not as Humean impossibilities, but as (rare) suspensions of the laws of nature. The hope of immortality is restored, not negated, by the God of Pascal’s Fire. All this is presented in the light of science, rather than revelation and, as such, is incidentally a convincing refutation of Dawkins’ strident atheism and a much more striking contribution to the philosophy of religion in an age of science. 

This book may lead some not only away from the conflict view of science and religion but to a great equation of the God of religious philosophy with the God who created the natural world and wishes well for the creatures in it.