Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Advancing my political career

Should you vote for a politician who publicly rejects the overwhelming consensus of the worlds scientists on one of the most important issues facing humanity today?
Paul Krugman has a good Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Republicans against Science. Similar concerns are also relevant to the leader of the Opposition [prospectively the next Prime Minister] in Australia.
Several concerns: ignoring expert opinion, thinking that I can understand complex issues in terms of hearsay and "common sense", and promoting views that may get me elected rather than facing painful realities that require unpopular and difficult decisions.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Methodological vs metaphysical naturalism

Science is an empirical and limited enterprise that is theistically agnostic, concerned only with the how mechanisms of nature as pointed out in chapter two. It is methodologically naturalistic; however, it is not metaphysically naturalistic. And the difference between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism is immense. Science is metaphysically neutral.
Science, Creation and the Bible, Carlson and Longman, page 132

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Christian scientist looks at the challenge of global climate change

On monday night Professor Bob White is giving a public lecture at Emmanuel College
Why care for the environment? The Challenge of Global Climate Change”

The above video features a brief interview with him on the subject. It is interesting that floods are one of the biggest killers in the world and that a one metre increase in sea level will have a devastating effect on Bangladesh, one of the poorest nations on earth.

Bob White is also co-author of the book Christianity, Climate Change, and Sustainable living.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The order of things

To what extent is the natural world ordered? Does the Bible affirm this?
 A previous post discussed how Jeremiah 31 and the surrounding chapters highlight how the order in creation reflects the faithfulness of its Creator. Jeremiah 31 says:

35Thus says the LORD,who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the LORD of hosts is his name:
36 "If this fixed order departs
from before me, declares the LORD,
then shall the offspring of Israel cease
from being a nation before me forever."
This passage is mostly about God's covenant relationship with Israel. We should be careful about deducing too much about science from this passage. But, it certainly affirms there is a God given order in the world. Indeed, this idea motivated some of the first scientists. Yet the passage hardly affirms the level of order we actually do find in the world. It is amazing to me that science works and works so well. It is not just planetary motion but there is an amazing and incredible order in DNA, cells, quarks, transistors, superconductivity, physiology, cosmology .... There are regular "laws" and principles that we can discover, understand, and use. To me, this goes far beyond what we might expect from this passage.

The post title is actually also the title of books by Michel Foucault and by Alister McGrath.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The love of money

The Inside Job is now out on DVD. Last night I watched it with my wife (Robin) and son (Luke). This is a very disturbing (and fascinating) documentary which chronicles the background to the Global Financial Crisis. I highly recommend it. My emotional response is a mixture of disgust, anger, laughter (at the folly of man), frustration, and fear. Of particular concern were
  • the ridiculous salaries of investment bankers that are completely uncorrelated with performance
  • the alleged wide-spread use of prostitutes and cocaine amongst investment bankers including upper management
  • the revolving door between Wall Street and government 
  • the undeclared conflicts of interest of several academic economists who supported financial deregulation
  • the failure of CEOs, lobbyists, and academic economists to even see that they may have had conflicts of interest
  • the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have ALL failed to show any leadership in addressing the issues but have been completely captive to the whims of Wall Street
Intellectually the movie underscores to me
  • just how sinful man is (illustrated by greed, self-delusion, self-justification, ...)
  • the God given role of government is restrain and punish evil (Romans 13)
  • once large sums of money become involved in any enterprise truth and justice are quickly endangered
  • the importance of personal integrity
  • the importance of good governance and accountability in any organisation
  • we should not be surprised when something similar happens again
But what about me? It is easy to degenerate into self-righteous anger at the injustice, incompetence, and stupidity of the perpetrators. However, perhaps we should all look at our own greed and capacity for self delusion. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jesus liberates the oppressed

I have started dipping into a book Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. Each chapter is a stand alone biography of an influential Christian.
There is a fascinating and moving chapter about Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922). It contains some of the following quote from [I also found it in this book].

After my visit to the Homes at Fulham, where I saw this work of mercy carried on, I began to think that there was a real difference between Hinduism and Christianity. I asked the Sister who instructed me to tell me what it was that made the Christians care for and reclaim the "fallen" women. She read the story of Christ meeting the Samaritan woman, and His wonderful discourse on the nature of true worship, and explained it to me. She spoke of the infinite love of Christ for sinners . He did not despise them, but came to save them. I had never read or heard anything like this in the religious books of the Hindus. I realised, after reading the fourth chapter of John's Gospel, that Christ was truly the Divine Saviour He claimed to be, and no one but He could transform and uplift the downtrodden womanhood of India and of every land.

Forthcoming talks in Brisbane

Tomorrow night I am going to hear Nancy Murphey speak on Did my neurons make me do it? There will be a response to the lecture from Peter Harrison.

At a different forum, Thursday night is John Piper on Don't waste your life!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Another redeeming movie

My wife and I enjoyed watching the movie Tara Road. Like many good movies redemption is a major theme. One couple face incredible pain, alienation, and the dissolution of their marriage after losing their only son in a stupid motorcycle accident. Yet eventually they find healing and reconciliation. The marriage of a second couple ends because of an ambitious and philandering husband. (The movie brutally shows how self-centred, insensitive, and clueless men can be when controlled by their sexual desires). Offended and wounded women and children eventually get a voice.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Can science set us free?

University logos and mottos are a fascinating topic. The current version of the Caltech logo is above. It is interesting that when it was introduced in 1991, they dropped the motto, "The truth shall make you free" which appeared in the earlier version shown below. 
I previously posted about a Caltech commencement address by the Nobel Laureate Max Delbruck where he considered the origin of the motto in the sayings of Jesus. He stated
he [Jesus] has made it apparent that by "truth" he means faith in him, Jesus as the Son of God. He does not mean "scientific truth" or "rational truth" in the Greek sense of the word. Not that at all. Comparing this meaning with that of Millikan's interpretation of the motto you will note that an extraordinary perversion of the original meaning has taken place. 
[Aside: Robert Millikan was president of Caltech from 1921-1945].

The relevant text from John 8 is:
31So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." 33They answered him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free'?"
 34Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
How does Jesus set us free? He saves us from slavery to sin [both its penalty and its power over us in both life and death]. We are set free from fear and from guilt. We are free to be and to live as God created us to be.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A criminal response to Jesus

In a chapter, We Were There in his book, Loving God, Charles Colson has a helpful discussion of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus. Here is the account in Luke 23:39-43:
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" 40But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." 42And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.43And he said to him,"Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Colson points out how the two criminals are representative of the typical response of humanity to Jesus. We either curse God and die or we acknowledge our guilt and desperately receive Jesus offer of the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Running away from authentic justice

The Runaway Jury is one of my favourite John Grisham novels. My son and I watched the movie version recently and really enjoyed it. Given an unexpected twist I think whichever you encounter first (movie or book) will be the one you will enjoy the most. It is interesting that the court case involves the liability of a cigarette company in the book, and this has been changed to a gun manufacturer in the movie.
Both raise important questions about the ethics and social responsibility of large corporations which produce and sell harmful products for large profit. To what extent will they tamper with the justice system to preserve their corporate profits?
On the other hand, the heroes of the plot are a young couple who also manipulate the justice system in order to bring about "justice". Does the end justify the means?
But, it is a great story...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Same and not the same II

Genesis 1 and 2 present two different Creation accounts. Carlson and Longman  (p. 118-121) point out six significant differences between the two accounts.

1. Relationship to the surrounding Biblical narratives.
Genesis 1 is more of a stand alone account, whereas Genesis 2 is part of the larger narrative of the first generations of Israel.

2. Timelines.
Creation takes place over six days and one day, in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, respectively.

3. Order of events.

4. The name and plurality of God.
In Genesis 1 God is Elohim, and both the singular and plural are used.
God is YHWH in Genesis 2, and the singular is always used.

5. God's action in creation.
The Hebrew word bara is only used in Genesis 1. It is only used for divine creation, and refers to creating something completely new.
The words asa and yasar are also used in Genesis 2, and have a broader scope than bara, and can mean "to fashion" or "to make" something from existing materials.

6. Motivation for the creation events and the first humans.
Genesis 1, uses the plural, "let us make" and creation occurs due to divine consultation. In contrast, in Genesis 2, creation is motivated by existing circumstances, e.g., that man is alone.

So, what is the significance of these differences? They make it hard to argue that Genesis 1 should be read as a historical/scientific account. Furthermore, the different accounts are meant to bring out different facets of the nature of creation, God, and humanity.

Separation of the earth and water, by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Adjusting our expectations

Last night my son and I watched The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Overall I found the movie weird, flat, and disappointing. It is interesting that some religious writers have suggested that the movie provides an exploration of free will vs. determinism and pre-destination. It does raise the question, but it is so weird and superficial I found it hard to engage with.

[Aside: I think I recall that at the White House Correspondents dinner President Obama made a joke about how bad the movie was].

The movie also continues the Hollywood pre-occupation with and idolatry of "relationships". The belief is that there really is that ONE special person out there who you are going to "fall heads over heals in love" with, based on a five minute encounter. If that hasn't happen keep searching. And if it did happen years ago, don't let go of it. Dream the dream. Only that person can make you whole. You have to sacrifice everything (and everyone else) to find them and be with them. Furthermore, "fate" or the universe or God is geared to making this happen.

Am I being too harsh or just rambling?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Same and not the same

What is the relationship between the Genesis creation account and Babylonian creation myths? I found the following discussion in the book by Carlson and Longman insightful:
...correspondences exist for individual events, symbols, conceptions and even technical terminology. Even though these similarities exist, the overall teaching differs radically. The biblical author draws from the same circle of topics in order to speak against the worldview presented in the other ancient Near Eastern literature. For example these pagan writings present a world view steeped in polytheism. The Mesopotamian gods personify natural forces and know no moral principles. Humankind plays no special role as the highest created earthly being, made in God's image. Instead humans, the lowly servants of the divine overlord, relieve the gods of the drudgery of work and provide them with food and offerings. The biblical accounts proclaim the one true, holy God as the Creator, independent of the world. In the Mesopotamian accounts, creation results from conflict and struggle as the gods war against each other. In contrast, in Genesis creation occurs in a harmonious way and results from God's careful plan as he simply speaks creation into being.
Carlson and Longman, Science, Creation, and the Bible, p. 113.

An earlier post considers Karl Barth's view on the differences between the two accounts.

This post title is stolen from a wonderful book about chemistry by Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Is this unreal?

Does the world really exist? Previously I posted about how Karl Barth considered that the existence of the world was a contestable hypothesis. He went further stating
the supreme problem of theology is not the existence of God, as natural theology supposes, but the independent existence of creaturely reality.
Barth is not alone in his concern that the existence of the world is a contestable hypothesis. Immanuel Kant considered that
‘it always remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason that the existence of things outside us ... should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a satisfactory proof’. 
The response of Martin Heidegger was even more interesting:
The 'scandal of philosophy' is not that this proof has yet to be given, but that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

How value laden is science?

A common view of science is that it is completely objective and free from the personal values of scientists.

Kirsten Birkett has a nice section in her book Unnatural Enemies: An Introduction to Science and Christianity which discusses how values do enter science and it is never completely ojbective. Most of the discussion is in terms of how values enter decisions about which research gets done because it gets funding.

However, I think there is an additional major area, theory acceptance, where the personal values of scientists enter science. Consider, the question: What kind of evidence is required to convince an individual scientist that a particular theory is valid, i.e. gives a satisfactory description of experimental data?

Here are some issues that come into play.
-role of curve fitting
-role of computations and modelling
-independent confirmation from other research groups
-status and track record of the authors
-whether ones skepticism is weighed by a possible conflict of interest of the authors [e.g. are they confirming or refuting their own theory].
-the weight given to the "simplicity" or "beauty" of the proposed explanation.
-the weight given to other possible alternative explanations.

My experience from almost 30 years of scientific research is that these values vary significantly between individual scientists. I suspect my "standards" are sometimes higher than those of some of my colleagues.
I would like to think this is partly driven by a theological conviction about "the total depravity of man" which results in an impressive ability to deceive ourselves.
But I do not have a monopoly of this view. Richard Feynman, one of the most famous theoretical physicists of the 20th century, was an agnostic but often said "the easiest person to fool is yourself."

I should stress that this post is not at all claiming that most scientific knowledge is just "wishful thinking" of scientists. Most of what is in text books is on very solid ground. It is just the latest results, and particularly some of what makes headlines in the popular press.
Eventually, theories accumulate enough evidence to convince the majority of the scientific community, are refuted, pass away for lack of evidence, or are superseded.

The point is that personal values do enter how science is done in practice. There are no universally agreed criteria for widespread acceptance of a theory. Individual scientists make this decision based on their own personal criteria.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Common misconceptions about science and Christianity

In giving talks to diverse audiences about the relationship between science and Christianity here are few of the more common misconceptions I encounter about the associated issues.

  • Science involves reason, objectivity, and facts. In contrast, being Christian involves faith which is irrational.
  • When it comes to the Bible non-Christians are more objective.
  • Given there are so many religions, there is no apparent reason why I should start my investigations with Christianity.
  • The Bible says the earth is 6,000 years old. To be a Christian you have to believe this.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Man or beast?

Why is the economy a mess? Is it all Wall Street's fault? Are successful investment bankers good candidates for leadership positions in government and education?

My son recently read Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis  and so I have been dipping in to it. The book describes the author's experience as a bond trader with Salomon Brothers in London the 1980's. It also discusses some of the broader issues associated with the role and influence of Wall Street. This was all written before the Global Financial Crisis.

I have given up reading the book because I just cannot engage with the tedium of some of the characters acting like complete animals. Indeed one of the chapters begins with a brilliant quote from Samuel Johnson, "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."

But here are few random thoughts that the book prompts:
  • we have a great ability to self delusion
  • man can have an insatiable greed for money
  • some people make a lot of money purely by luck [by being at the right place at the right time]. Hence, we should be wary about investing in such people or thinking they have any great economic insight.
  • perhaps rather than being surprised that the world is mess we should be surprised that it is not a bigger mess!
  • good governments constrain evil. we need strict regulation of financial institutions.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Is this a good argument?

In preparing this post I learnt that argument from authority and ad hominem are not the same thing. I used to think they were. An example of the former is "Karl Barth was the greatest theologian of the 20th century. He did not read Genesis 1 in a literalist manner and so we should not either." An example of the latter is "Theologian A was caught cheating on his taxes and so we should ignore all his work." Arguing in the latter manner is almost always a fallacy. (Although this does touch on some earlier posts about Fallen Scholars). However, the argument from authority can sometimes have merit.

The point of this post is modest. Many people immediately dismiss "arguments from authority". I agree that they can be weak and intellectually lazy. However, I think the reality is that on a practical and subconscious level we often do use them. We have limited time and energy.  If there is an issue we wish to form an opinion on we often are content to look at just a few (or sometimes only one) source and accept that as reasonable. I am not convinced this is so bad.

In my scientific research I hold (largely sub-conscious) different views of different authors reliability (based on my view of their track record). The arguments of some I am much more prone to accept than others.  I am not sure this is right. I just think it is reality.
So shoot me down!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Christian Gangster?

This is the title of a fascinating chapter in the book Loving God by Charles Colson. It recounts the flirtations with Christianity of Mickey Cohen a notorious gangster in Los Angeles in the 1950s. He heard Billy Graham speak both in L.A. and in Madison Square Garden (New York). At one time he prayed a penitent prayer. However, his life did not change. When confronted he said, "Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians; why not a Christian gangster?"

The next chapter of the book is "Whatever became of sin?" which emphasizes how repentance is at the heart of the Gospel, regardless of whether we are a gangster or a sunday school teacher. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." 

A significant contrast to Cohen is the story of Jim Vaus. He did occasionally work for Cohen, and went to a Billy Graham crusade but did repent, become a Christian, and live a different life. This was recorded in a movie The Wiretapper and a biography My Father was a Gangster.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Is emergence a miracle?

Ursula Goodenough is a biologist who wrote a bestselling book The Sacred Depths of Nature that generated various TV specials and college courses. A key idea is we should be in awe of nature and connect to the great Epic of Evolution to find our identity and purpose. Here is a quote about emergence:
The religious naturalist is provisioned with tales of natural emergence that are, to my mind, far more magical than traditional miracles. Emergence is inherent in everything that is alive, allowing our yearning for supernatural miracles to be subsumed by our joy in the countless miracles that surround us.
Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature, p. 30

I do not agree with any of this. But, it does show our innate religious nature, particularly our yearning to worship something in response to the wonder that science reveals.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Distinctively Barth

I am working on a paper Karl Barth's Doctrine of Creation: implications for the dialogue between science and theology. (Here are the slides for a talk on the subject).
Some might consider this all problematic, particularly because of Barth's famous objection to natural theology.

It is helpful reading John Webster's summary of the uniqueness of Barth's approach to the Doctrine of Creation in Chapter 5: Creation and Humanity in his book Barth. Here is an extract:
Barth offered resistance to the gradual metamorphosis of the Christian doctrine of creation into an account of the origins of reality which lacked much by way of Christian specificity. The atrophy of the particularities of Christian theological conviction has been an especially striking feature of those theologies of creation which have assumed that the co-ordination of theology and natural sciences requires the suspension of positive dogmatics in favor of more generic concepts - perhaps the most favoured of which is the notion of  `cause'. There is a very long history here: ... the result of over-anxious theologians conceding territory to colonizing natural scientists....   
The doctrine is “not simply an account of origins, the doctrine …. talks of the creator’s identity rather than of some opaque act undertaken by a nameless force.”
Indeed Barth has a distinctly different starting point from most engaged in the dialogue today. They appeared to take as their starting point current scientific knowledge and are concerned with a generic God which may or may not be consistent with science.

Barth's approach reveals just how problematic much of the dialogue may be from a distinctly Christian perspective. But it does not rule out a dialogue in general.

Barth's Doctrine has much to say about questions that are wrestled with: Why are we here? Why does science work? Why is their order in the world?

Indeed, Barth turns things around because he suggests that the most fundamental question is not "Does God exist?" but rather "Does the world exist?".

Compromising the future

Like many I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard yesterday that politicians in the USA seem to have reached an agreement that will prevent the government defaulting on their loans. A previous post Ideological idolatry considered some of the roots of the political impasse. However, my relief may be short lived. An opinion piece The President Surrenders by Paul Krugman paints a bleak picture of what the agreement means for economic and political stability.