Six Books That Shaped My Research


 

Tom Uytterhoeven

One of the benefits of working at my faculty is that my office is located in – yes, as in physically part of – one of the largest theological libraries in the world. Reading has become a true adventure, leading to ever more new findings (sometimes it is not so much the actual content of books that surprises you, but rather what former owners or readers scribbled in them).

But in fact, there is a pile of books that actually shaped my research even before I first entered the library, in terms of the questions, even problems, they raised when I read them. Together, these books are what you could call the 'intellectual starting point' of my research. Here, I limit myself to six books, leaving out a few others. I could also have listed those here, but since they actually had a more personal than strictly academic effect on me, I will list them in another post.

First is “Wereldbeeld & teologie”, which has an English edition also. The book gives an historical overview of the relation between science and religion. As such, it is partly outdated and it certainly underestimates the difficulties of integrating religion and science into one worldview. But the suggestion that both fields need not be in conflict was certainly revealing for the young student I still was when I first read this book.

The second book challenged that suggestion. The Selfish Gene probably does not need a long introduction. This, together with The Extended Phenotype, was my introduction to evolutionary science. And evolutionary science was for me the primary gateway to a better understanding of 'the human'. What kind of species are we, why are humans as they are, how has history shaped us? Still influenced by Wildiers's book, I did not see a real conflict between evolution and religion.

From 1993 until 2012 I was a teacher in different schools. So when I discovered a paperback edition of Consciousness Explained, written by a philosopher I had never heard of, I thought I'd give it a try. Maybe this book could help me understand how my pupils (and maybe even my wife) thought? It failed in that regard, but it convinced me of the power of evolutionary theory. Yes, I went on to read Darwin's Dangerous Idea. And I wrote my Master's thesis on that philosopher, what's his name again…

Writing that thesis made me fully aware of the possible tensions between religion and science. But it also made me aware of Dawkins and Dennett having offered a biased description of evolutionary theory. The fourth book helped me to recognise how metaphysical presuppositions shaped D&D's respective understanding of evolution. Leo Apostel was an atheist philosopher, but with the open mind for other opinions that New Atheists lack so much. His book “Oorsprong” (Origins) is part of his larger project to build a scientific metaphysics. That book convinced me of the importance of a real, constructive dialogue between religion and science, because it showed science in itself can not provide definitive answers on all questions.

The fifth book strengthened my conviction. In Niche Construction the relation between environment and biological life is portrayed as a complex of feed-back relations. Building on Dennet's memetic perspective on culture, which he uses to problematise e.g. religion's grip on human free will, I proposed in my Master's thesis that culture indeed, as Dennett describes, is our environment. As such, it is to be expected that we have a feed-back relation with it. And that offers interesting perspectives on how traditions are transmitted, on how to understand the concept of “revelation” and on how traditions are continuously being renewed, all topics which are part of my advisor's own research project.

That brings me to the last book on this list. In The Human Factor I hope to find the bridges between religion and science I have been looking for, but also clues on how to deal in a constructive way with the unbridgeable differences. The journey is far from over, and many more piles of books will mark it, but isn't travelling (more than) half the fun?

 

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