Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why atheists should respect Christian theology

This saturday at the Volfians we will discuss one of Terry Eagleton's critical reviews of Richard Dawkins The God Delusion. It is particularly interesting because Eagleton is an atheist and a world reknown literary critic.

Below is a key paragraph in the review. After extensively discussing the nuances of key Christian doctrines [from a somewhat liberal humanist point of view] and contrasting them to Dawkins' simplistic misrepresentations Eagleton states:
Now it may well be that all this is no more plausible than the tooth fairy. Most reasoning people these days will see excellent grounds to reject it. But critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook. The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism. Even moderate religious views, he insists, are to be ferociously contested, since they can always lead to fanaticism.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

John Piper plays Chinese whispers with Einstein

John Piper's book Think has an Appendix: "The Earth is the Lord's: The Supremacy of Christ in Christian Learning, Biblical Foundations for Bethlehem College and Seminary". In it he states:

Albert Einstein's indictment of preachers illustrates what I am trying to say. Charles Misner, a scientific specialist in general relativity theory, was quoted this way: 
     "I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious   question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business . . . It’s very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing. My guess is that he simply felt that religions he’d run across did not have proper respect . . . for the author of the universe."
Scientists know that light travels at the speed of 5.87 trillion miles a year. They also know the galaxy of which our solar system is a part is about 100,000 light-years in diameter-about 587 thousand trillion miles. It is one of about a million such galaxies in the optical range of our most powerful telescopes. In our galaxy there are about one hundred billion stars. The sun is one of them, a modest star burning at about 6,000 degrees centigrade on the surface and traveling in an orbit at 155 miles per second, which means it will take about two hundred million years to complete a revolution around the galaxy. 
Scientists know these things. Einstein was awed by them. He felt something like this: “If there is a personal God, as the Christians say, who spoke this universe into being, then there is a certain respect and reverence and wonder and dread that would have to come through when we talk about him. And certainly we would be talking about him all the time since he is the most important reality.”

Note that in the last paragraph Piper directly constructs what he thinks Einstein's views were.

I found it interesting to trace the lineage of these views attributed to Einstein. The Desiring God website shows three previous talks, going back to 1993, where Piper has used the Misner quote. A Google search on "Piper Einstein Misner" shows a lot of people  have picked up on Piper's argument.

For the Misner quote Piper references an editorial in First Things by Richard John Neuhaus.

That references an article by Daniel Kevles in the NewYork Review of Books.

Did Charles Misner discuss these matters with Einstein? Perhaps. Misner was a graduate student at Princeton beginning in 1952. Einstein died in Princeton in 1955.

Misner's thesis advisor was John Archibald Wheeler, who did have extensive interactions with Einstein over the years. Misner's views may have been shaped by Wheeler's view of Einstein's view.

But what did Einstein actually think, as opposed to what people think he thought or wished that he thought?
He did write about religion and his views have been analysed in detail in a book by Max Jammer. An earlier post Einstein on Religion contains an extensive quote from Einstein. It shows that his real problem was not the quality or passion of the preaching he heard but the concept of a personal God.

It is disappointing to me that Piper did not use primary sources to establish Einstein's actual views.

But, I have a larger problem with invoking Einstein in such discussions. It is really an argument from authority. Einstein is certainly an authority on theoretical physics.
But the problem is that Einstein is not an authority on preaching, theology, or ethics. So why should his view carry any more weight than other "wise" or "foolish" person.

Afterword: I really do still like the book Think. I am just practicing what it advocates: think and ask questions about what you read!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Science and religion in India

Today I watched a  talk that David Gosling gave at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge. It is based on his book When Einstein met Tagore: Science and the Indian Tradition
A few things that stood out to me are below.
Elements of any religion include
  • doctrine 
  • ethics
  • social
  • ritual
  • experience 
Western religions and consequently Western discussions of any religion will tend to focus on the first two. However, in Eastern (and particularly Indian) religion the last three are central. 

Hinduism celebrates unity in diversity. It is hard to find any specific doctrine which is considered essential to Hinduism. Even beliefs such as caste and reincarnation are denied by some strands of Hinduism.

A key event forcing the interaction of science and religion in India was the 1835 fiat by Lord MacCauley that all higher education in India would be performed in English. 

The value of unity inherent in Hinduism led to Indian scientists enthusiastic about cross-disciplinary ventures such as searching for pain in plants (Bose).

Darwinism was welcomed and embraced as an apologetic tool for Hinduism.

The famed dialogue between Einstein and Tagore is difficult to understand and analyse, particularly as they seem to have been talking across purposes.

Helpful reviews of Gosling's book are by
Ursula King in the journal Religions of South Asia
Michael Pye in the Marburg Journal of Religion
David Atkinson in Times Higher Education

Beyond scientism: a broader vision of reality

Does science have all the answers?
What are the philosophical implications of the stunning success of science?
The New Atheists would answer "Yes" and "Atheism".

There is an interesting review in First Things of the Lawrence Krauss' book A Universe from Nothing. The review is by a philosopher, Edward Feser. Here is an extract that is particularly relevant to the above questions.
Critics have exposed [the New Atheists] errors and fallacies again and again. Yet these writers keep repeating them anyway, for the most part simply ignoring the critics. What accounts for this? To paraphrase a famous remark of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s, I would suggest that a picture holds these thinkers captive, a picture of the quantitative methods of modern science that have made possible breathtaking predictive and technological successes. 
What follows from that success is that the methods in question capture those aspects of reality susceptible of mathematical modeling, prediction, and control. It does not follow that there are no other aspects of reality. 
But as E. A. Burtt noted over half a century ago in his classic book The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, the thinker who claims to eschew philosophy in favor of science is constantly tempted “to make a metaphysics out of his method,” trying to define reality as what his preferred techniques can measure rather than letting reality dictate what techniques are appropriate for studying it. He is like the drunk who thinks his car keys must be under the lamppost because that is the only place there is light to look for them—and who refuses to listen to those who have already found them elsewhere.
Just because science is very good at answering some specific questions [e.g., how old is the universe? what is the molecular basis of genetics?] does not mean that it is good (or even able) to answer other questions.

Furthermore, a "scientific" attitude to reality means that the object under study determines the relevant questions, methods, and concepts to be used. In the context of emergence have discussed such a perspective in detail earlier. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Truth and love are inseparable

While looking for something else I stumbled across a 1991 editorial  by Richard John Neuhaus in First Things which contained the following fascinating paragraph:
In the last twenty years a number of small Catholic colleges have been established to provide a “traditionalist” alternative to mainstream Catholic higher education. Gregory Wolfe taught in one of these schools for three years and is greatly disillusioned. Writing in Crisis (“Killing the Spirit?” September), Wolfe deplores the infighting among faculty and students who are out to demonstrate that they are more orthodox than thou. He continues: “Perhaps the most significant tension within the alternative college is over the nature of education itself. Though publicly these schools tend to laud [John Henry Cardinal] Newman's ‘philosophical habit of mind,' in practice they are closer to Dickens' Gradgrind (‘Just the facts, ma'am'). In other words, students get the impression that they are going to spend four years stocking up on the Truth, which consists of a body of doctrines and propositions (or even ‘great books'). The emphasis is on acquiring correct opinions, not on learning how to think more clearly and imagine more deeply. A substantial percentage of these young men and women think of the alternative college as a munitions depot: when they emerge, they will be laden with ‘smart bombs' that they can fire at the heretics and pagans. All too often, they start by shooting them at each other.”
Neuhaus points out these problems may also be present in Protestant colleges!
He suggests the problem is not too much "orthodoxy" but too little, emphasising that in true orthodoxy truth cannot be separated from love:
Smelly, sectarian, little orthodoxies can only be effectively combatted by a greater orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a grand, capacious, multi-splendored thing, as G. K. Chesterton argued so grandly. When truth is turned into “smart bombs” it is no longer truth. It bas become a weapon, an instrument of intimidation. It coercively violates the human freedom without which the truth cannot be apprehended. It is Christian truth itself that requires the rejection of narrow, stagnant, stifling pseudo-orthodoxies that produce nothing but toeing the line and browbeating those who deviate from the line. ..... 
The appeal for love can sometimes obscure the truth. But the absence of love always destroys the truth. Those who are capable of loving only the truth understand neither love nor truth. They are anything but orthodox.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Faith and reason: historical perspectives

Does reason precede faith or the reverse? Or do they have nothing to do with each other. Over history there have been a range of historical perspectives.
Below is a brief summary of the views of some key theologians through the ages. This follows the notes written by Andrew Reid for the Apologetics unit of the Moore College Correspondence Course.

Anselm (1033-1109)
“I believe so that I may understand”

Aquinas (1225-1274)
Reason leads to faith.
i.      use premises that all rational beings are obliged to accept.
ii.     take logical steps that are obvious (i.e. logical) to all
iii.    demonstrate the existence of God

Luther (1483-1546)
Reason is ‘the devil’s whore’ and Aristotle was `a destroyer of pious doctrine’.
The proper use of reason is to examine the world as God has created it.

Calvin (1509-1564)
Faith and reason are hand in hand.

My views are probably closest to Calvin. I think it is very hard and not necessary to separate the two. God gave us brains to use and ultimately for his glory.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A booming economy may not help the poor

A myth that many would like to believe is that economic booms help everyone, including the poor. There is no doubt that incredible growth in developing economies such as India and China over the past decade is helping many people. But what about the poor?
Nobel laureate in Economics Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have examined this question for the case of India.
There is an illuminating Oxfam blog post summarising their findings. What is particularly disturbing is that in the last 20 years that India's ranking decreased relative to neighbouring South Asian countries (including Bangladesh and Nepal) with regard basic measures such as life expectancy, infant mortality rate, and mean years of schooling.

I learnt about this tonight at an excellent dinner organised by TEAR.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Think about it

My son and I are reading through Think by John Piper.
He considers the perennial question of the role of the intellect in Christian faith and life. He argues that reason, thought, and the intellect have a significant role to play when combined with faith and the emotions. It is not a case of either/or but both/and.

One of his main practical points is that thinking involves reading and asking questions about what one reads, particularly the Bible. This main seem a basic point but it is a valuable one, particularly because this requires discipline and practice. Piper acknowledges his debt to Mortimer Adler's classic, How to Read a Book.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Longing for one colleagues approval

My wife and I went to see the movie Footnote. It chronicles the tensions and competition between a father and son who do research in Talmudic studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The movie is in Hebrew with English subtitles, and received the award for Best Screenplay at the 2011 Cannes film festival.

The movie highlights how important family relationships are, both for better and worse. Even long after children have left home and established their own families the parent-child relationship is still such a great potential source or joy and pain.

The movie also captures some of the silly ways of academia: pedantry, exclusion, ambition, stubborn idealism, ...
I found some of it quite humorous but some of it was a bit too close to the truth to be funny.

Somehow I don't think the movie is going to make much money. It is only being shown in one cinema in Brisbane. We went to the tuesday night showing at the Eldorado, paying $7 each. There was only one other couple there!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Are you beavering away at work?

This week I am in a group that is looking at the chapter, "Making much of Christ from 8 to 5", from John Piper's book, Don't waste your life.

I like the following paragraph. He points out that beavers are diligent, industrious, purposeful, skilful, and "subdue the earth". How are we different?

No beaver or bee or hummingbird or ant consciously relies on God. No beaver ponders the divine pattern of order and beauty and makes a moral choice to pursue excellence because God is excellent. No beaver ever pondered the preciousness and purpose of God and decided for God’s sake to make a dam for another beaver and not for himself. But humans have all these potentials, because we are created in God’s image. We are created to image forth God in these ways. When God commissions us to subdue the earth—to shape it and use it—he doesn’t mean do it like a beaver. He means do it like a human, a morally self-conscious person who is responsible to do his work intentionally for the glory of his Maker.
John Piper, Don't waste your life, page 140.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

How did Christianity shape the development of science?

I really enjoyed the lecture yesterday by Peter Harrison on "Religion and the origins of science". He mentioned six significant ways in which historically Christianity influenced the development of science. These influences (not all necessarily positive) were enumerated by John Hedley Brooke. They were (in my words):

1. Presuppositions.
Notions that the material world was intelligible and that there were "laws of nature" stemmed from a Biblical world view.

2. Sanctions.
The perceived intrinsic value of the world (created by God) and understanding it led to broader and sustained support (both moral and financial) for science in societies with Christian, particularly Protestant, values. It was not just a matter of brilliant individuals (Kepler, Galileo, Newton, ...) making scientific breakthroughs but also the new knowledge being appreciated, disseminated, consolidated, and expanded upon. This idea has been particularly emphasized and developed by Stephen Gaukroger in The Emergence of a Scientific Culture.
[For me, this was a new and helpful idea].

3. Individual motivations.
The majority of the founders of the Royal Society were Puritan, somewhat unrepresentative of the broader society. Their scientific endeavours were driven by their personal Christian convictions.

4. Criteria for theory choice.
Scientists and society did not accept or reject new theories based solely on the quality of agreement with experimental data (which was often ambiguous). Theological criteria sometimes came into play. For example, many scientists rejected Galileo's claims because of their commitment to Thomas Aquinas' anointing of Aristotle.
Aside: Secular scientists today are not any better. For example, initial scientific attitudes to the Big Bang and views on the multiverse were influenced by philosophical commitments of scientists.

5. A constitutive role.
By the eighteenth century biology (natural history) became almost identical with natural theology. The motivation for studying the biological world was to discover evidence for design in nature and thus provide evidence that the world was created.

6. Underpinning specific investigations.
I missed the details of this one...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gearing the message to the audience

Last night was the last unit of the Apologetics course. We looked at Acts 17 to see how the apostle Paul geared his message to his audience. There is quite a contrast to the approach he used with Jews in the synagogue in Thessalonica and the Greeks in the Aeropagus in Athens.

The course notes (by Andrew Reid) suggested some principles for an engaging presentation of the Gospel:
  • Develop an intimate knowledge of the thought world of the hearer
  • Utilise appropriate points of contact
  • Anticipate and speak to possible objections to the Gospel
  • Proclaim what God has done in Christ
  • Challenge the world view of the hearers
  • Explain what is involved in becoming a Christian
For example, in Thessalonica Paul's starting point was the Scriptures and his focus was showing that Jesus was the Messiah of the Old Testament. In contrast, in Athens Paul started with the local religious culture, did not make direct use of the Scriptures, and emphasized that God could be known, there is a Creator, and there is judgement.
It was also interesting to see the different responses to Paul's message, particularly in Thessalonica. Although he tried to reason with people the response of some was jealousy, mis-representation, violence, and legal action! Truth, reason, and dialogue is not everyones over-riding value!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Christianity and the origins of science

This friday I am looking forward to attending a lecture by Peter Harrison on Religion and the Origins of Science. The lecture (and a free lunch beforehand) is being hosted by the new Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society at Emmanuel College at University of Queensland.

Peter Harrison recently returned to UQ from Oxford. Last year he gave the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. They can be watched on YouTube.

He is well known for two particularly important contributions to our understanding of the significant positive influence that Christianity had on the development of modern science. First, the Protestant Reformation resulting in a shift in Biblical hermeneutics away from allegorical to more historical and literal readings of Scripture, paving the way for more "literal" and mathematical "readings" of nature [see this earlier post]. Second, an appreciation of the doctrine of the sinful nature of humanity led to an emphasis on the empirical method in science rather than the "pure reason" favoured by the Greek philosophers. This is discussed in detail in his book, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science.

Clarity before obscurity

I am reading through Leviticus, perhaps one of the stranger books in the Bible. It is a very detailed description of the sacrificial rituals of Israel. This reminds me of what I think is an important principle of Bible reading and hermeneutics.
I should first focus on the parts of the passage I do understand rather than what I do not understand.

I am befuddled by burnt offerings (a sweet aroma to the LORD), wave offerings, cleansing rituals, ...
Yet, there are some important over-riding messages that are very clear. God is holy. We should be holy. God hates sin. Sin bears punishment. There is a need for atonement for sin. This can be achieved by a meaningful sacrifice. Blood is a symbol of life and of sacrificial atonement. Leviticus provides a very concrete picture of these important truths which provide a framework to understand the significance of Jesus death.

Perhaps this principle of focusing on the bigger picture of what we can understand rather than obsessing about smaller details we are confused is applicable to broader areas of life: politics, economics, marriage, and quantum mechanics!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The end of the secular life

Last night my wife and I went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It is very enjoyable and amusing, capturing some of the appeal, frustrations, excitement, and confusion of India to Westerners.

Intermixed with a cornucopia of the senses and the humour of the East-West tension the movie touches on many issues associated with growing old and facing death: bitterness, declining health and energy, negativity, disappointment, facing the past, waning relationships, loneliness, ...

The movie also reminded us somewhat of My House in Umbria. Besides also starring Maggie Smith, a group of strangers are brought together in unusual circumstances in a foreign environment, they bond, and find some identity and purpose.

Perhaps the movie suffers from also touching on too many other issues as well: racism, retirement on limited incomes, homosexuality, call centres in India, ....

I felt several striking dissonances. First, in typical Hollywood fashion the movie affirms the primacy of romantic love and finding that "special one person" who we "deserve". Second, none of the Western couples had positive enduring marriages to the end. Finally, I felt the emptiness of the secular life. What is it all for?