Monday, October 31, 2011

Postmodernism can't kill sin (or self righteousness)

Last week there was a good column in The Times (London) by their Chief Sports Writer Simon Barnes about racism in sport. The column was prompted by a fixation of the press with recent allegations against John Terry, the England football captain.
A footballer can do all kinds of terrible things. He can dive in the penalty area. He can kick an opponent just for the fun of it and although he will be punished, as Wayne Rooney was, it won't affect his place in the England team or his value to commercial firms as a seller of goods.A footballer can lie, cheat and dissemble, he can be petulant and he can be violent, and all that he does will be accepted as part of the rough-and-tumble of football. He can indulge in grotesque displays of simultaneous fickleness and loyalty to squeeze the last $10 million out of the latest deal and still, as with Rooney and Terry, be a national hero....
A player can get up to all kinds of things off the field, including spectacular sexual irregularities, with piquant details.
It's only racism that shocks...
 But I am fascinated by the way that, in the moral free-for-all of modern professional football, there is a need to identify something that is obviously and unquestionably immoral. It seems that football, and perhaps every other walk of life, has a need for an Unforgivable Sin. There are two reasons for this. The first is that there is a basic need for a moral structure; even the lawless need a code that they can live by. ....The second is the Unforgivable Sin can provide great comfort. If you are not committing it, you must be basically all right, mustn't you? .....
The notion of the Unforgivable Sin can be found in other sports: .... It can be found in other walks of life....
We need this line in the sand. We need the feeling that there are crimes in which there are no grey areas, no question of tolerance....  
So - and let me say it again, because I do not wish to be considered an unforgivable sinner - I am not advocating easing up on anti-racism. But the promotion of racism as the One Great Sin means that plenty of other sins, many of them equally odious, get an easy ride. Racism in sport and outside sport is something that needs to be constantly addressed. And is. There am may other things, in sport and outside sport, that need to be constantly addressed. And aren't.
I guess this also shows that in reality we do not really live in a post-modern age where morals are just a matter of personal preference. Humans have an innate sense of right and wrong and desperately want to be righteous.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Should banks be bailed out by the general public?

No. To me one of the great disappointments of the past few years is watching political leaders (of all persuasions) being beholden to Wall Street.

There is a good NY Times column The Path Not Taken by Paul Krugman. It puts the recent decisions of European political leaders in a broader context, suggesting it amounts to:
the abject failure of an economic doctrine — a doctrine that has inflicted huge damage both in Europe and in the United States. 
The doctrine in question amounts to the assertion that, in the aftermath of a financial crisis, banks must be bailed out but the general public must pay the price. So a crisis brought on by deregulation becomes a reason to move even further to the right; a time of mass unemployment, instead of spurring public efforts to create jobs, becomes an era of austerity, in which government spending and social programs are slashed...
Krugman, then points out that there is an alternative.
... Iceland was supposed to be the ultimate economic disaster story: its runaway bankers saddled the country with huge debts and seemed to leave the nation in a hopeless position.
But a funny thing happened on the way to economic Armageddon: Iceland’s very desperation made conventional behavior impossible, freeing the nation to break the rules. Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net. Where everyone else was fixated on trying to placate international investors, Iceland imposed temporary controls on the movement of capital to give itself room to maneuver.
So how’s it going? Iceland hasn’t avoided major economic damage or a significant drop in living standards. But it has managed to limit both the rise in unemployment and the suffering of the most vulnerable; the social safety net has survived intact, as has the basic decency of its society. “Things could have been a lot worse” may not be the most stirring of slogans, but when everyone expected utter disaster, it amounts to a policy triumph.
Christians should have something to say about this. We should be concerned with both individual responsibility and accountability [bankers and investors] and protecting the poor and needy.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The wisdom of the unstable text

At church we are going through a sermon series on the book of Ecclesiastes. It was pointed out that this is an intrinsically "slippery" and unstable text. Just when the reader may think that they "understand" what the book is saying they are confronted with some new "contradictory" idea.

I guess that is the whole point. God's wisdom and truth are destabilising for us. It defies both our simple and our sophisticated codifications. Ecclesiastes is the counter to books such as Romans which may tempt one into believing that we can come up with some "framework" and "logical" structure to codify and subdue the living and active Word of God.

Indeed, Ecclesiastes also shows us that life itself is not particularly logical or easy to understand.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Christianity is not an explanation

The latest issue of Science and Christian Belief has a nice review by Denis Alexander of Terry Eagleton's book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution. The book is a robust critique of the 'New Atheists' Ditchkins [Dawkins+Hitchens] by another atheist, one of the world's leading literary critics [see my earlier post]. I particularly liked this quote from the book that the review mentions:
[Dawkins] also has an old-fashioned scientific notion of what constitutes evidence. Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of these places, Christopher Hitchens makes much the same crass error, claiming in God Is Not Great that “thanks to the telescope and the microscope, (religion) no longer offers an explanation of anything important.” But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.

Confronted by parenthood

My wife and I enjoyed watching the movie, The Waiting City. It chronicles the spiritual and relational development of an Australian couple who travel to India to await the adoption of a child. It highlights the significant cultural differences which expose the fragility of the couples marriage. I think it is a great movie for married couples to watch.
Some Christians might be critical of the movie because of the ambiguity of the "spiritual" and religious awakening of the couple. On the other hand, the movie makes strong positive statements about marriage, children, religion, care for the needy by the church, the folly of careers, and seeing the value of other cultures. It also flagged how an abortion can have devastating consequences for a couple; something one does not normally expect in a "Hollywood" movie.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Kerala lectures

Two weeks ago in Kerala, India I gave three lectures at The International Lecture Course on Science and Religion sponsored jointly by the Mar Thoma Higher Education Commission and the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (Cambridge). Here are the relevant materials.

Significant issues in the dialogue between religion and natural science.

Critical realism in science and theology.
This talk is based on an article published in the journal Science and Christian belief.

The end of created time: a comparison of Biblical and Scientific eschatology. 
Some of the ideas are in a short article, Can Science see the end?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The total redemption of the fallen creation

I am enjoying reading Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters, and the associated fortnightly discussion group.
So what is the relationship between the following?
  • creation [God's perfect created order]
  • sin and the Fall [which made the creation imperfect]
  • redemption of the created order by Christ's death and resurrection
  • the Kingdom of God [past, present, and future]
  • our acts of obedience to help "redeem" some aspects of the created order
  • the final re-creation of a new heaven and a new earth?
Wolters offers an analogy (described below) which I thought was helpful, particularly for understanding his "integrated" point of view which has a more positive view of both the progress of history and the content of civilisation than many Christians [particularly some evangelicals] would have. He also strongly advocates Christian engagement [redemption] with all spheres of life; not just church and family, but politics, business, art, technology...

Consider a baby which is born with some degenerative disease which gets worse as the baby grows to become a teenager. The baby is beautiful and "good" [like the original creation] and there is much about her growth that is positive, desirable, and as planned. However, built into the growth there is this terrible debilitating disease [sin] which prevents the teenager from functioning as she might and reaching her full potential. Nevertheless, ongoing medical treatment [redemption] can go some of the way to reversing the damaging effects of the disease.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Don't get involved

The recent case of a video showing bystanders in China walking by as two-year girl was twice run over by vans is creating considerable angst in both China and the West.
This reminded me of a famous case Murder of Kitty Genovese which occurred in New York in 1964. However, that case involves more ambiguity (and controversy) because there is (thankfully) no video of it and the neighbours alleged lack of response.
It is a good time for us all to read the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

An acid test for big bang denialists

As a physicist and Christian occasionally I get asked about books such as this one, which claims to show that the earth is only a few thousand years old, whereas we observe light from distant galaxies billions of years old. The reason that such books have no scientific credibility is that they are largely a collection of assertions and speculations. There is no actual quantitative analysis of real experimental data. For an alternative theory to big bang cosmology (which sets the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years) to be credible it MUST give a quantitative description of all of the existing experimental data (Hubble expansion, cosmic microwave background, relative abundance of the elements, ...).

The figure is taken from a Physics Today article Supernovae, Dark Energy, and the Accelarating Universe by Saul Perlmutter who this month shared the Nobel Prize in Physics. It shows how different independent measurements put severe constraints on the age of the universe, the mass density, the cosmological constant,...)

Should criminals be put in prison?

In Loving God, Charles Colson argues that restitution to crime victims rather than punishment and incarceration is the appropriate means of dealing with criminals.
He cites Exodus 21 and the example of Zacchaeus in the New Testament as a basis for this.

Colson points out the intriguing history and etymology associated with the introduction of prisons in the USA. Penitentiary is derived from "penitent". Quakers advocated that criminals needed to be punished and incarcerated until they were penitent and repented. This resulted in the opening of the first state prison in the USA in 1790 in Philadelphia.
The Black Hole of Calcutta by Louis Figuier.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Problems with logical positivism

Does Richard Dawkins implicitly assume some particular philosophy of science?

At the beginning of the 20th century logical positivism was one of the dominant views in philosophy.  Logical positivists claimed that real knowledge is only what can be measured and verified. A statement is meaningful only if it can be verified by observation.
But this verification principle cannot be verified. "Meaningful" is not a scientific category which is amenable to testing in the laboratory.
Karl Popper also exposed problems inherent in logical positivism even within philosophy of science. Popper emphasized that scientific theories cannot be verified but only be falsified.

Perhaps, the most visible proponent of logical positivism today is not any professional philosopher, but popular science author Richard Dawkins.
Before Darwin, even educated people who had abandoned "Why" questions for rocks, streams and eclipses still implicitly accepted the legitimacy of the "Why" question where living creatures were concerned. Now only the scientifically illiterate do. But only conceals the unpalatable truth that we are still talking about an absolute majority.
God's utility function, River out of Eden: A Darwinian view of life, 1995

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Questions raised by natural science and anthropology

  • Why is there a universe? [Why is there something rather than nothing?]
  • Why is the universe the way it is? [Why aren't the laws of physics different?]
  • Why is there consciousness?
  • Why is there morality?
  • Why is religion ubiquitous and durable? i.e. Why is religion found in every culture and in every age?
  • Why can we do science?
I would not claim that the Christian doctrine of Creation provides definitive answers to all of these questions. However, it does provide a coherent framework to provide possible answers.

This post and the questions were stimulated by a presentation I heard by Rodney Holder today at the International Lecture Course on Science and Religion in Kerala.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It is all about me!

The Book of Jonah exposes some of our possible motivations, deep underlying prejudices, and self-righteousness. Jonah is called by God to go to the hostile and depraved city of Nineveh to preach a message of judgement and repentance. He runs in the opposite direction. Several divine interventions (including the famous fish) eventually force him to follow God's call. The people of Nineveh do repent. One might expect him to rejoice.
1But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2And he prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."  
This discomfort, or even disgust, with the grace and mercy of God reminds me of two things. First, Javert the self-righteous policeman in Les Miserables who killed himself, rather than live with an act of mercy from his live-long adversary. Second, Karl Barth's point that when we comtemplate the judgement of God, particularly as it is represented in classical art, we tend to focus (or even delight) on how it applies to others rather than ourselves.

So, it is not all about me! It is not for me to judge or to decide who should receive God's mercy. I should be unsettled by just how gracious and merciful God is.
Woodcut by Weigel (1695) of Jonah outside Nineveh

Monday, October 10, 2011

The faith of the founders of quantum theory

A common claim is that there is a dichotomy of faith vs. reason when it comes to the relationship between Christian belief and science. However, I would claim that both involve faith, evidence, and reason. The nature of that faith, evidence, and reason is different in the two cases, but it is there.

With regard to the successful development of quantum theory Paul Dirac wrote that for Erwin Schrodinger and himself

It was a sort of act of faith with us that any questions which describe fundamental laws of nature must have great mathematical beauty in them. It was a very profitable religion to hold and can be considered as the basis of much of our success.
Dirac, P. (1977): In: History of Twentieth Century Physics. Proceedings of the International School of Physics "Enrico Fermi", Course 57, New York: Academic Press, p. 136.

I thank Denis Alexander for bringing this quotation to my attention.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Two key points about science and religion

Just because we can explain something without God (e.g. the Big bang, evolution of life) does not mean that God is not involved in the process.

Just because science cannot explain something now does not mean that it requires an explanation involving God.

When science knocks on heavens door

This morning there was a meeting "When science knocks on heavens door" at SAIACS intended for the broader Bangalore community. Here are the three presentations

Ross McKenzie, Significant issues in the dialogue between science and religion
Denis Alexander, Christian roots of Modern Science  (notes, slides part 1, slides part 2)
Rodney Holder, Big bang cosmology and fine tuning (notes, slides)

Science and religion in Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh is initiating a new Masters degree in Science and Religion and an associated position as a Lecturer has been advertised in the School of Divinity.
This sounds like a great initiative and opportunity, both for students and for some aspiring young academic.
I thank David Reimer for letting me know about this.

Seeking commonalities between science and faith

Denis Alexander gave a nice talk, "Science and faith: the view both ways," in the SAIACS chapel yesterday (slides). He identified three areas of common concern or "resonance" between science and the Biblical world view

1. A concern for realism
2. A quest for coherence
3. A concern for evidence

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Faraday-SAIACS course lectures - day 4

Rodney Holder, Prayer and the laws of science (notes, slides)

Denis Alexander, Human evolution (notes, slides)

Ross McKenzie, Critical realism in science and theology (slides)
Paper in Science and Christian Belief

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Faraday-SAIACS course lectures - day 3

Rodney Holder, Scientific knowledge versus religious knowledge:
convergences and differences (notes, slides)

Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: must we choose? (notes, slides part 1, slides part 2)

Ross McKenzie, A comparison of scientific and Biblical eschatologies (slides)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Faraday-SAIACS course lectures - day 2

Rodney Holder, Is the universe designed? (slidesnotes)

Denis Alexander, The reception of Darwinism (slides, notes)

Ross McKenzie, "Holistic science and religion: the role of emergence in science and theology"
Article at Test of Faith
Article in Scottish Journal of Theology

Faraday Institute papers give helpful short summaries of some topics discussed in the course.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Faraday-SAIACS course lectures - day 1

Rodney Holder,  God and the Big Bang (notes, slides)

Denis Alexander, The Christian roots of Modern Science, (notes, slides part 1, slides part 2)

Ross McKenzie, Significant issues in the relationship between science and religion.

Awe and wonder

Contemplating the natural world can produce awe and wonder. The greater understanding that comes with scientific knowledge can lead to even greater awe and wonder. How might we respond?
Should we feel insignificant in light of the vastness of the universe? We live in the orbit of one star which is just one of 200-400 billion stars in one galaxy. Yet there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the whole universe.

We should be humbled. Psalm 8 says

3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
   the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
   and the son of man that you care for him?
 5Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
   and crowned him with glory and honor.
6You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under his feet

Aside: Why should we have such strong feelings of awe and wonder?
Does this tell us something about our connection to the material world?

There is something even more striking and awesome than the natural world. It is that the same God who created all these stars actually cares so much about each one of us that he sent his one and only Son Jesus to die for us.

This post was inspired by hearing a sermon this morning along these lines by Rodney Holder. An earlier post which explores some similar issues is How should we respond to scientific success?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Comparing India and Australia

Here is an interesting comparison of some basic statistics about India and Australia. India has approximately sixty times as many people (1.2 billion vs. 23 million) and less than half the land area (3.3 per 7.6 Million square km). Consequently, the population density is more than one hundred times greater in India (336 vs. 3 people per square km). Despite this disparity in population the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the two countries are comparable (US$1.6 trillion vs. 1.2 trillion). The GDP per person in India is about 40 times less than that in Australia (US$1,371 vs. 55,589).

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Significant issues in the relationship between science and the Bible

I have just arrived in Bangalore, India. I will be helping teach a course on science and religion at SAIACS for the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. I am looking forward to exploring with the students and faculty how the issue of science and religion is different in this non-Western context.
Here are the slides for my first lecture, where I look at some basic issues in the relationship between science and the Bible. I welcome comments.