Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cracking under pressure

Worldly success does not remove the vulnerability to mental health problems. Indeed, the successful are often more prone for two reasons. First, the same mental make up (singlemindedness, creativity, sensitivity,..) that can contribute to success can also make one more vulnerable. Second, success usually leads to pressure for more and greater success.

Sports stars are particularly vunerable. There is a good article Ignorance to mental illness not bliss about mental health issues amongst professional footballers. I thank my son for bringing it to my attention.

Desperately seeking redemption

My family and I enjoyed watching the movie Seven Pounds. It generated lots of good discussion within the family. I found it rather intense and struggled to follow the plot, particularly at the beginning. But, it was worth the effort. It has a strong theme of redemption through sacrifice. But, it is very non-Christian with regard to several implicit beliefs. First, it has the implicit belief that this is only life there is. Second, there are "good" people and "bad" people. The former deserve to be blessed, particularly when life deals them "unfair" cards. Third, it raises questions about whether suicide might actually be ethical (and admirable) in certain circumstances.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Apologetics in the non-Western world

Understanding the relationship between science and the Bible is a key issue in Western apologetics. But how is this issue relevant in non-Western countries such as India?
[An earlier post briefly discussed this issue].

Western apologetics seems to be shaped by Enlightenment values and has an emphasis on
  • the law of non-contradiction and unique truth claims
  • logical, systematic and linear arguments
  • conceptual and methodological foundations
  • reductionism rather than holism
  • universality rather than particularity
  • objectivity rather than subjectivity
  • time is linear
This approach downplays
  • ambiguity
  • feelings, emotion, and personal experience
  • beauty and aesthetics
In India there is a diversity of cultures, religions, gods, and points
of view...  This diversity is not just present but celebrated.

Science clearly shows that truth does matter. Not all views, beliefs, and theories are equally valid. Two contradictory ideas cannot both be true. However, there are often paradoxes (particularly in quantum theory) where two apparently contradictory claims can be both true.

Science does show that (in some sense) time is linear. But how can this be related to Biblical and non-western views of time and history?

In writing this post I found helpful an entry by Atul Aghamkar“Christian Apologetics in the Non-Western World: A South Asian Perspective”, in the New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics. (I thank my dear wife for finding this article).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Limited human autonomy

I am reading through the book of Daniel and it is striking how the theme of limited human autonomy (especially of the powerful) occurs. A key phrase is repeated several times (e.g., Daniel 4:25):
"know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will"
Indeed, both King Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar are severely humbled because they do not acknowledge their limited autonomy.
It is also striking that Daniel and his friends were promising young scholars (Daniel 1:17):
As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.
This is all in the context of visions of the Son of Man to whom God gives all glory and honour and power and dominion (Daniel 7:14).

Monday, September 26, 2011

Quantum physics and eastern mysticism

I will soon be in India for a couple of weeks. Some of the time I will be involved in courses on science and religion (such as this) and so I am reading literature relevant to the subject.
Sometimes it is claimed, at least in certain Western circles, that "quantum physics is consistent with Eastern religion". This idea was particularly promoted by the popular book The Tao of Physics: an exploration of the parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism by Fritjof Capra. It was first published in 1975 and has now been published in 43 editions in 23 languages. The Wikipedia page mentions two serious criticisms of the book by physicists. 

First, the books argument is largely based on superficial similarities of the language and terminology used in certain contexts in both modern physics and eastern religions. [Aside: this highlights that Inter-disciplinary studies require great discipline].

Second, part of the book is based on the "Bootstrap model" of strong interactions in physics which was popular just before the first edition was published. However, this model is no longer considered valid and has been replaced by the Standard model. Nevertheless, more recent editions have ignored this problem.

A more thorough exploration is in an article by Peter Bussey in Science and Christian Belief.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Who decides what happens here?

My son and I enjoyed watching the movie, Green Zone, which concerns an American solider in Iraq searching vainly for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) after the invasion. He realises that the existence of WMD's was based on dubious intelligence which was concocted by the US government to justify the invasion. Although a "fictional" Hollywood account it does make a strong political statement and resonate with some real events.
For example, the journalist Lawrie Dayne in the movie seems to correspond to Judith Miller who wrote front page stories for the New York Times claiming there were WMD's. However, it later became clear her stories were based on dubious sources which she did not properly check.
The movie highlights the issue of de-Ba'athification of the Iraqi government [i.e., not including in the government anyone who had an official association with the Baath party of Saadam Hussein]. Many Western analysts now consider this was a significant mistake which should not be made again in Libya.
Wikipedia notes the most important line in the script:
James Denselow, writing for The Guardian, praises the film's portrayal of the conflict, saying "ultimately what gives the film its credibility is that it avoids any simplistic idea that Iraq could have simply been 'got right'. Indeed Miller's [the American soldier] vision of exposing the WMD conspiracy and the CIA's plan to keep the Iraqi army is undermined by the film's wildcard – a nationalist Shia war veteran who turns the plot on its head before delivering the killer line to the Americans when he tells them: 'It is not for you to decide what happens here [in this country].'"[41]

Do you see both the forest and the trees?

Tomorrow I am attending a workshop where a small group of Christian academics are going to talk about a possible Christian perspectives on their respective disciplines. I started to work on my talk and realised I have more or less prepared it before! I realised that most of what I wanted to say was in the short paper I Emergence: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I wrote this for Test of Faith (an initiative of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A new spin on women's rights

I saw my wife reading an excellent article A comfort bill of rights for women by Froma Harrop. It points out that in the Western world women do not feel they have
  • The right to walk (i.e. wear sensible and comfortable shoes)
  • The right to eat
  • The right to be covered
  • The right to be warm.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Father of a president

On the way back from Europe (20 hours flying time!) last week I watched several episodes of the TV mini-series The Kennedys which focuses mostly on the US presidency of JFK.

There is controversy about how historically accurate the series is. However, one thing that is reasonably accurate appears to be the large role that Joseph Kennedy Sr. played. He not only played a significant role (both legitimate and dubious) in getting JFK elected,  but also in "advising" his sons while in government. I was also unaware of the dubious role that Kennedy Sr. played while US Ambassador to the UK, during 1938-1940. In particular, he had a non-interventionist attitude to the Nazis, which was inconsistent with that of President Roosevelt.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Toiling amongst the weeds in the garden of science

Much has been written on the implications of the doctrine of creation for the philosophy and practice of science.
Genesis says (repeatedly) that God said the creation is good. Furthermore, there is a divine mandate to humanity to care for an develop the creation. Some would take this mandate to include the ordering of scientific knowledge.

A key idea is that science is possible because
* the creation is ordered
* the human creature has the ability to understand this order

But what are the implications of the fall of humanity for the philosophy and practice of science? After the fall, Adam is told (Genesis 3)

cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
   and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19By the sweat of your face
   you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,

One might even wonder if science is possible. But, experience shows it is.
From experience, I believe that there are at least two important implications of the fall for the practice of science.

First, due to our sin nature we are prone to self delusion. Our own egos and self interest can lead to a tendency to believe what we want to believe [particularly that our own "pet" theories are correct and that experimental data conforms to them] rather than exercising the healthy skepticism needed.

[Aside: this should not be taken as an endorsement of the views of non-scientists and "skeptics" who seem to think that certain fields of mainstream science are flawed. I would rather characterise their views as "denialism".]

It is not widely enough appreciated that doing meaningful science is hard work.
This goes far beyond the fact that experimental apparatus breaks down, sometimes gives
erroneous results, software may contain bugs, mathematical equations are hard to solve,
and mathematical theories are hard to understand. Most such problems can usually be overcome with the appropriate skill, due diligence and adequate resources [just like cars can be repaired and infections stopped with medicines]. The bigger issue is that actually producing significant scientific knowledge is incredibly difficult (and rare).

It is relatively easy [for intelligent and well trained people] to through the motions of  scientific activities [e.g. doing experiments or solving equations on the computer and publishing the results]. But, actually getting results and developing concepts that are valid and important involves a totally different challenge. I refer to two posts on my work-related blog.

The importance of being stupid discusses how intinsically hard it is do important research.
i.e., lead to a real understanding of complex phenomena.
Alternatives to struggling to do significant research discusses how scientists can avoid the real challenges and resort to focussing on publishing papers which involve picking "low lying fruit" and/or activities of  self promotion.

Peter Harrison takes a complementary perspective in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science where he argues that theological debates about the corruption of man's reason by sin helped promote the development of empirical methods to counter this fallibility.

Friday, September 16, 2011

What can science liberate us from?

I benefitted a lot from discussions associated with my talk last night. There are two points that need to be clarified and sharpened.

First, we do need science to free us from religious superstitions and prejudices which hinder our understanding of the material world. The latter is not controlled by capricious gods or spirits. People are not epileptic because they have demons. The earth is not the centre of the universe. The motions of the planets do not control our romantic lives...
We are able, by a combination of reason and experiment, to obtain an excellent understanding of many aspects of the material world.

On the other hand, too much is sometimes claimed for science (especially by the likes of Jacques Monod). The intellectual autonomy (and success) embodied in science does not extend to moral autonomy and freedom. Contrary to the bold claims of modernism, we do not have complete autonomy to decide what is morally right. Furthermore, we do not the complete freedom to choose that moral course of action. Even when we (individually or collectively) know what is right we fail to do it. Jesus is quite clear: we are slaves to sin. We may not claim we are free because we are sons of Abraham. We claim we are free because we are children of modernism. We are not free. Only Jesus can set us free.

As an aside, I mention the whole issue of the extent of human autonomy in theology has been explored before. For example, a book I would like to look at is The Autonomy Theme in the Church Dogmatics: Karl Barth and his critics by John Macken.

An earlier post of relevance is The cross is a scandal for modernism.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

La science nous libère-t-elle de la religion?

This is the title of the talk, "Can science free us from religion?" that I am giving in Strasbourg tonight. The powerpoint slides in French were kindly translated by Solange Keravec. Since I have to work with a translator I wrote out the text of the talk. I have found giving such a talk requires a lot more discipline.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What is a true radical?

I enjoyed and learnt a lot from watching The Baader-Meinhof Complex. It tells the story of the extreme left-wing terrorist group (the RAF= Red Army Faction) that was prominent in German public life in the 1970s. The movie was a captivating way to learn some recent European history and grapple with how terrorist movements arise and sustain themselves through public sympathy. The movie brings out the moral ambiguity of both the terrorists ["the end justifies the means" and a disjuncture between personal and public morality] and of governments which use violence against their own citizens or in unjust wars. I felt the movie creates some emotional empathy and understanding of the radicals without endorsing their violent and criminal acts. I thought the following comment was perceptive:

"When the film opened in Germany last year, some younger viewers came out of theaters crestfallen that the Red Army Faction members, still mythologized, were such dead-enders. Some who were older complained that the film had made the gang look too attractive. But they were dead-enders, and they were attractive. A film about them, or any other popular terrorist movement, has to account for both facts if it seeks to explain not just their crimes but also their existence."

The movie highlighted to me that Jesus' kingdom is the only hope of this broken world. But, it is a kingdom that is truly radical and "not of this world." It is to be advanced in radically counter cultural ways: without anger, without violence, and without self righteousness.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An inescapable judgement

I am reading through the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. One cannot escape the oft repeated phrase "Then they will know that I am the LORD". It occurs in the context of God's judgement on both Israel and her neighbours, for their sin (especially idolatry and injustice).
Thus, theology (which is the knowledge of God) cannot be separated from an appreciation (or experience?) of judgement.

How does this harsh picture relate to the New Testament?
Indeed, it is interesting that Jesus says in John 16 that the Holy Spirit will "guide you into all the truth" (v. 13) and
he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9concerning sin, because they do not believe in me;10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
On the cross, sin is judged and punished once and for all. Knowing this is the key to knowing the "I am" who is YHWH ("I am who I am").

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bringing football to Germany

On the Singapore-Munich flight I watched Der ganz grosse Traum.
I highly recommend the movie. It considers the story of a German school for boys in the 1870's after a new English teacher arrives and introduces the boys to football. The movie is based on the true story of Konrad Koch (who only has a Wikipedia page in German)

Issues of nationalism, the goals of education, parental authority, and social equity are explored. An unsympathetic (and perhaps too one dimensional?) picture is given of German society and education in that period.

I did not know any of the background history. e.g, that football was still banned in schools in Bavaria until 1927.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Only Jesus can liberate us from religion

I have finished a draft of the slides for the talk, Can science free us from religion?, that I will give in Strasbourg next thursday night.
Much of the talk is built around ideas I have posted on this blog. A twist to the talk is that we do need to be freed from religion; indeed, that is part of Jesus mission!
The slides will later be translated into French by members of the GBU. The talk will be in English with a translator.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Science and religion in the non-western world

This post is partly motivated because in October I will be in India co-teaching two courses for the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Details of the course in Kerala are here. It is my second trip to India and I am looking forward to learning more about how the whole science-religion discussion is framed in a non-western context. My wife has started reading the (secular) book, India: a Portrait by Patrick French [There was a helpful review by Aravind Adiga in the Observer (Guardian)].
French claims (p. 368):
Religion and science never went their separate way s in India in the way they did in Europe in the eighteenth century. There was no intellectual division, because Hinduism was too amorphous to be challenged or threatened by any new scientific discovery. If anything, advances in human understanding of the laws of nature might chime with the abstraction of Hindu philosophy, in which time has no beginning and no end.
I wonder whether the last sentence just reflects western liberal sentiment which sometimes  claims harmony between modern physics and eastern religion (e.g. The Tao of Physics), whereas a hard-nosed examination finds conflict (e.g., the universe did have a beginning and time has a definite direction).
That said, I get the impression that non-Westerners are more open to a spiritual dimension and the existence of God (or gods).

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Freedom from religion

What is true liberty? Can the truth set us free? Do we need to be set free from religion?
The above engraving, entitled "Disenfectation" (L. Isore, 1885), shows a priest fleeing from the Pantheon in Paris, being replaced by Victor Hugo holding a banner "Liberte". The caption is "Ignorance gives way to genius." In 1885, with the funeral of Victor Hugo, the Pantheon was finally converted from a church to a secular "temple" and burial place for leading French citizens. The cartoon title is a play on the words "disenfection" and "desaffectation" (abandonment). I scanned it from a tourist booklet The Pantheon: Temple of the Nation.

I am planning on using the cartoon in a talk I am giving next week to a student group Groupes Bibliques Universitaires (GBU) in Strasbourg. One issue I will explore, using Jesus teaching "The truth will set you free" in John 8, is how God's grace is needed to set us free from religion and the associated self-righteousness. The torment associated with not receiving grace is nicely illustrated by the policeman Javert in the musical version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Another theology of car repair?

Previously I made a few posts about a reading group which worked through Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace.

The same group has now started Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters.

Overall, the main point is that the Gospel is relevant to everything: not just life and godliness, but also philosophy, economics, science, engineering, politics....
This is because is both the Creator and the Redeemer of everything.
Furthermore, he seems to claim that there is actually a correct Biblical perspective on each of these areas of life.
At first, I did not like this or agree with it. I have heard and seen too many (tragic and comical!) cases of people claiming they have THE Biblical perspective on parenting, biology, taxation, car repair, big bang cosmology....
Furthermore, God has given us great freedom on some matters for which there is no clear cut right or wrong: what to eat for lunch or the technical details of biochemistry.

But, the discussion (a week ago) was very helpful in clarifying my concerns. Wolters point may perhaps be stated in the following terms. There IS a unique distinctly Biblical perspective on all such matters. We should strive to find it. But, it will be very hard work. We will not all agree on what it is, how to find it, or if we have found it. However, we should not just throw up our hands in the air and say "it does not matter" or "it is just a matter of personal opinion".

An earlier post, with a slightly different perspective (including Karl Barth's on relating science and theology), is A Theology of car repair?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The origins of hospitality

Today hospitals are run like corporations and there is a "hospitality industry", which focusses on pampering wealthy customers. It is interesting to consider the origins of the relevant words.
According to the book, Cross-Cultural Servanthood by Duane Elmer
Hospitality is rooted in the word hospital, which comes from two Greek words meaning "loving the stranger". It evoved to mean "house for strangers" and later came to be known as a place of healing.
Wikipedia gives the etymology of hospital
During the Middle Ages hospitals served different functions to modern institutions, being almshouses for the poor, hostels for pilgrims, or hospital schools. The word hospital comes from the Latin hospes, signifying a stranger or foreigner, hence a guest. Another noun derived from this, hospitium came to signify hospitality, that is the relation between guest and shelterer, hospitality, friendliness, hospitable reception. .... Hospes is thus the root for the English words host (where the p was dropped for convenience of pronunciation) hospitalityhospicehostel and hotel

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Inadmissible evidence in arguments?

In courts of law there are all sorts of rules (and arguments) about what sort of evidence is admissible. In philosophy and theology, different communities seem to have various expectations about "rules of engagement" for an argument to be valid.

So, here is an issue that I find increasingly troubling in discussions at the interface of science and theology. When and how is it appropriate to invoke technical scientific concepts and language in the course of the argument? 
Specifically, I mean discussing specific topics such as protein folding, the Higgs boson, probability in quantum mechanics, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, climate, neutron stars, genetics, chaos theory, carbon dating, ...

Here is my first pass at an answer. Two key ingredients are necessary for inclusion of technical concepts to be valid and helpful.

1. The speaker or writer must have a knowledge and understanding of the topic at the technical level. e.g., the actual mathematical equations of chaos theory. To me, reading a popular book on the subject is not sufficient.
[Perhaps, this might be softened to that they should have checked their argument with an expert who agrees that they are invoking the scientific concepts in an appropriate manner].

2. Some significant fraction of the audience should have enough relevant knowledge that the scientific concepts actually mean something  to them (rather than just being "buzz words"). Furthermore, do they really have enough expertise to actually evaluate the merits of the argument?

My experience is that these criteria are often not met. No camp seems to have a monopoly on this problem. It occurs, regardless of whether the speaker is a religious conservative attacking science or a liberal theologian trying to use science to promote their perspective. It seems just too easy to "wow" a sympathetic audience with technical "mumbo jumbo".

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Finding wisdom at a funeral

2It is better to go to the house of mourning
   than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
   and the living will lay it to heart.
3Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
4The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
   but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

Ecclesiastes 7:2-4