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Science and Salvation

Interview With Emily Qureshi-Hurst

Courtesy of Emily Qureshi-Hurst

Emily Qureshi-Hurst is a doctorate of Philosophy candidate in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on philosophical questions surrounding the intersection of religion and science.

Emily Qureshi-Hurst is a doctorate of Philosophy candidate in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on philosophical questions surrounding the intersection of religion and science. Emily’s doctoral research consists of an exploration into a B-theory of time. In her recent publication, “Quantum Mechanics and Salvation: A New Meeting Point for Science and Theology,” she argues the implications of a phenomena called “indefinite causal order” on theological systems and justifies the possibility of a friendly and collaborative relationship between science and religion to answer some of humankind’s most unanswerable philosophical questions—a truly radical notion.

S&H: How would you define “spiritual radical”?

Qureshi-Hurst: I guess somebody who goes against the grain and tries to contest views that have been held for a long time, or looks at things in a new way. I think spiritual radicals have been around since spirituality has been around because you have this Orthodox paradigm, which most people accept, and then you've always had these people who are fighting for change or trying to overturn some aspect of the accepted wisdom. So I think spiritual radicals have been around in various forms as long as there's been some sort of spirituality to be radical within.

Have you ever felt like an outsider in your faith and how has that influenced you or how do you navigate that?

Well, yes, I have felt like an outsider because I work in the philosophy of religion and its intersection with the philosophy of physics. This comes under the bracket of science and religion, which is an academic discipline or set of academic conversations, which is dominated by people who are normally committed to a particular religion. But I'm not religious myself. So I work in religion and in the philosophy of religion, but I'm not committed to a particular faith, although I have respect for religion and for spirituality. So in that sense, yes, I have felt like an outsider because my field tends to be dominated by people who are religious, specifically Christian. And so I don't fit into that mold.

What are your thoughts on the polarizing effect that religion can have for some people? And how do you think that could be changed?

Well, it's really difficult to answer that question in a concise way, because religion is such a complex and nebulous entity. So if you define religion in a really, really general sense, then it's difficult to be polarizing about it because on the one hand it could be a set of rituals or practices that group together an indigenous culture, or it can be a set of beliefs that's used to enact political change in a country. Each definition gives a different answer to whether religion is a polarizing force. So, in some ways, it depends on how you define religion.

I would say, it probably appears polarizing because the people who have the loudest voices tend to be the fundamentalists, either fundamentalists who oppose religion or fundamentalist to support religion. And so in that sense, it can seem like a very polarized debate.

But actually there's so much gray area in the middle. It's just that those people don't really feel the need to have their voices heard as much. Perhaps it seems polarizing because those with the most extreme views are those who shout the loudest. I think the way to overcome that is to try and introduce more nuance into conversations about religion. But you know, if that's happening in the media, it's not as appealing. A nuanced conversation about religion doesn't really offer click-baity headlines or anything. So it's a difficult narrative to change.

A lot of people will differentiate between being religious and being spiritual. They may say “I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual.” What is your take on those two distinctions?

Again, it's difficult because notoriously defining religion is really hard, and spirituality is even more difficult to define. I would say probably people who say that they're religious are committed to a set of truth claims and hold a set of beliefs and that kind of fits within an organized structure. So like the church or something of that kind. Whereas spirituality is a recognition that there is something more than what science can describe and what's contained in the physical realm of our experience, but that doesn't necessarily fit into a neat religious box.

Your work combines two things that usually clash quite a lot, which are science and faith. Has the intersection of these two things in your work brought you closer to religion? How would you describe that relationship?

I'm not any closer to having a faith myself, but it's definitely radically reshaped the way that I see religion. When I came to study religion when I was 18, I was very much in the same camp as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and those people who think that religion is this massive force for evil in society. And it's crushing the scientific spirit and all of this kind of stuff. As I was saying earlier, those are the people with the loudest voices. So I was reading popular works on religion, but they're not scholars of religion. And when you actually delve into the academic study of religion and look at its relationship with science, you can see that as long as you don't hold a fundamentalist religious view or a fundamentalist scientific worldview, or you think that science can answer all of the questions that humans could ever ask, then you can see that there's actually no need for there to be conflict between science and religion. There might be certain religious claims that don't fit with science, and there might be certain scientific theories that don't fit with particular interpretations of religion, but science and religion don't need to be in conflict. And so through studying science and religion, I've come to realize that, and therefore I have a deeper respect for faith than I had before.

What launched that interest? One of your works is titled “Quantum Mechanics and Salvation.” How did that concept come about?

So that particular project, interestingly, was done in collaboration with a physicist. I'm a philosopher technically, writing on religion and its intersection with science, and a colleague of mine introduced me to a Christian physicist. So, we both have interest in science and religion, but she's interested in it insofar as she's a quantum physicist who has religious faith and I'm a philosopher who writes on religion and science. So, we came with very similar interests, but very different background assumptions. She came across this finding from quantum mechanics, called indefinite causal order, which we talk about in that paper, and she thought that this would be really interesting for the philosophy of time (which I work on). She asked this mutual friend of ours if she knew anybody who was working in time and would want to write a science and religion paper, looking at this particular finding and its implications for time, and then what the religious implications of that might be. So we met up and had a few meetings and then this paper was the result of that.

Why do you think spiritual radicalism is necessary—especially in the context of a year like 2020?

In a general sense, I think spiritual radicalism is important because spirituality and religion arises out of, or at least traditions that are associated with spirituality and religion, arise in a particular cultural context. For the major world religions, this was hundreds or if not thousands of years ago. These religious doctrines, religious sentiments and spiritual expressions, can risk being locked in a particular social or cultural context. You need spiritual radicals to update and to transform the core of these truths again for each society.

The theologian I'm writing my PhD on, Paul Tillich, has what he called a theology of culture. He basically says that there's this core of truth in the Christian message, but that culture is always evolving and changing. So in order for theology to remain relevant and for spirituality to remain relevant, you need theologians to look at culture and say, okay, well, what are the pressing questions that arise out of our culture? Be they philosophical or political or whatever it might be. And then, how can theology respond to that in an innovative way, which still retains the core of the truth of the Christian message? That's why I think theology needs to be in a continuous dialogue with culture, otherwise it's going to stagnate and lose relevance for people.

I think when it comes to 2020 it's a difficult question because so much has happened this year. It's been a year of seismic change in lots of areas. In race relations, in terms of climate change, and obviously with the coronavirus. Our lives in both a daily sense and in a more broad sense are radically changing. And so in a culture that's changing so quickly and so drastically, impossibly, irreversibly, you need spiritual radicals who are going to be able to reignite conversations about faith and spirituality and adapt the core of these old truths in law to apply to these new situations.

What would you say your most radical idea is, religious or otherwise?

So the idea that I present in the paper that you mentioned, and I talk about in my thesis, is the idea that salvation only occurs in the human mind. There's a few steps I need to go back through to talk about that. Basically, I start with the philosophy of time and Einstein's special and general theories of relativity in my doctorate, and in the paper you just asked about I start with quantum mechanics. Then I say, okay, well, anything that happens to us in our lives happens within time. So in order to understand something like salvation, we need to understand the temporal context in which it occurs. So I look at science and I argue that it supports a B theory of time.

An A-theory of time is the common-sense understanding of time, so the idea that time flows or passes, the future is not yet real and the past is gone forever. The A-theory also says there is something special about ‘now’, and that this ‘now’ is always changing as the future becomes the present and then the past. This makes intuitive sense – it fits with our experience. The B-theory, on the other hand, says that time is much more similar to space. Now what this means is that all events co-exist and we move through them, as all spatial locations exist and we can move through them. When you’re looking out of the window of a fast-moving train and the landscape seems to be moving quickly past you, you don’t assume that everything you saw previously has ceased to exist. Instead, you assume that you have moved past it, but that it is still out there. The B-theory says time is like this – all previous times (and all future times for that matter!) really exist. Just like how there is nothing special about saying ‘here’, other than that it reflects your individual perspective, so too is there nothing special about saying ‘now’ other than saying that ‘now’ happens to be where you are in time. It's complicated, but I hope that makes it sort of clear.

The issue with the B-theory is that it seems incompatible with genuine change. If all things and events exist, then how can one thing truly change into another? It seems as though you need the objective flow of time to support change. Without it, change is difficult to accommodate. With this in hand, I re-examine the doctrine of salvation. Salvation requires change, but the B-theory seems to forbid change. How do we move past this?

The philosophy of temporal experience has a couple of interesting things to say on this, which I can’t go into here. But the basic point is this – we experience the world as if change is real, so perhaps the same mechanism that causes us to experience change can cause us to experience salvation. Change is ‘mind-dependent’, so maybe salvation is too. In short, salvation occurs in the mind.

So, to summarise, I argue that science teaches us that time does not pass, and that change is therefore difficult to understand. I use concepts from the philosophy of temporal experience to say that we experience time as passing, even though time doesn't actually pass. I then apply that to salvation and say that we experience salvation as an objective change, but actually, it's only a psychological change. I call it mind-dependent salvation.

Read more full interviews with Spiritual Radicals here.