Sunday, September 30, 2012

A missed opportunity

I enjoyed watching The Iron Lady, a depiction of aspects of the life of Margaret Thatcher. She has the distinction of being the only female Prime Minister  of the U.K. and the longest serving one in the 20th century. She is also arguably one of the most controversial and divisive Western political leaders of the second half of the 20th century.

I have three concerns about the movie, listed in increasing order of importance. First, it jumps around an awful lot, making extensive use of "flashbacks". For people who don't know some of the history and the events depicted this is probably very confusing and superficial. Second, I think it is quite disrespectful and heartless to centre a movie around the possible dementia of a living person. Third, it is a missed opportunity to reconsider and evaluate the performance and legacy of such an influential and important political figure. One just hopes that the movie motivates audiences, particularly younger British ones, to learn a little about Thatcher and her policies. I found reading the Wikipedia page helpful. There are somethings to admire and appreciate and some things to be horrified at.

Why is the Higgs boson called "the God particle"?

Not for important scientific, philosophical, or theological reasons.

The term arose with a book entitled, The God Particle, published in 1993 by Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist and science writer Dick Teresi. Wikipedia states:
Lederman said he gave the Higgs boson the nickname "The God Particle" because the particle is "so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive,"[5][6][7]but added that a second reason was because "the publisher wouldn't let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing."[5][8]
I would say Lederman, being an elementary particle physicist, overstated the importance of the Higgs boson. I would restate his claim as the Higgs boson is "central to the state of  elementary particle physics [just one sub-field of physics]  and some aspects of cosmology today, so crucial to our current understanding of elementary particles, yet so elusive."

Whether or not the Higgs boson exists is irrelevant to nuclear physics, atomic physics, solid state physics, biophysics, optics, thermodynamics, statistical physics, chaos, fluid dynamics, chemistry, .....

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Secularists oppose a truly secular state

Recent riots involving parts of the Muslim community in Australia have stimulated significant debate. I thought this Opinion piece by Paul Kelly, Editor at Large of The Australian newspaper was quite insightful and appropriate, reflecting on what it means for Australia to be a secular state. Here is an extract:

It is equally important, however, to acknowledge the secular state is under assault not just from religious crusaders but from secularists. In Australia today racist language is a taboo, yet attacks on religious belief are frequent and almost fashionable. 
The sanction extended to media displays of contempt for people with religious belief, notably Christianity, seems to reflect a new prejudice by people many of whom aspire to drive religion from the public square into the exclusively private realm. 
Perhaps they do not comprehend, but this is a direct assault upon the secular state and the terms of peaceful co-existence between the state and religion. In this concept, the state became neutral between believers and non-believers and neutral among different types of believers. 
Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.

It is important to acknowledge that even the term "secular" was coined by Christians and used in a positive light by Augustine and Luther. That was something I learnt recently in a fascinating history seminar.

Science vs. Religion: Does anything change?

In his 1933 biography of Thomas Aquinas, G. K. Chesterton wrote words he intended as a retrospective but which are just as descriptive of the 1990s as of the 1860s. They could serve as a summation for Ronald Numbers' extraordinarily helpful book:  
"Private theories about what the Bible ought to mean, and premature theories about what the world ought to mean, have met in loud and widely advertised controversy, especially in the Victorian time; and this clumsy collision of two very impatient forms of ignorance was known as the quarrel of Science and Religion."
Mark Noll, in a  Review (published in First Things in 1992) The Creationists by Ronald Numbers,
The review is really worth reading, particularly as it provides such a nice summary of the book [which has since been updated and republished].

Monday, September 24, 2012

Justice and truth matter

The dramatic images below are taken from the start of last weekends English Premier League football game between Liverpool and Manchester United

They mark the recent release of a long overdue UK Government report into the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans died.

Regardless of what postmodernists say truth does matter and we are wired with a yearning and passion for truth and justice. Where does this come from? Perhaps, from being made in the image of the God of truth and justice.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Worrying about the Bomb

I enjoyed watching The Crimson Tide, which depicts (fictional) events in a US nuclear submarine at the brink of a nuclear holocaust caused by Russian nationalist extremists seizing control of nuclear weapons in the 1990s. The movie is built around the clash of personalities and the struggle for power between an aging battle hardy coarse white captain [Gene Hackman] and his younger well-educated and diplomatic black deputy [Denzel Washington] who has no combat experience.

Two memorable lines:
We are about saving democracy, not practising it. 
There is no nuclear war, only nuclear holocaust.
The movie ends with the claim:
As of January 1996, primary authority and ability to fire nuclear missiles will no longer rest with U.S. submarine commanders... Principal control will reside with the President of the United States.
Besides being good entertainment the movie had two striking messages.

First, the importance of personal relationships for a meaningful life. Hackman's character is tragic/pathetic because his coarse and authoritarian life means he is left with only one meaningful relationship: with his comfort dog, a cute little terrier.

Second, the scenario for the outbreak of nuclear war is quite believable. I think the end of the Cold War has increased rather than decreased the chances of nuclear war. This seems contrary to public perceptions and priority. The issue of nuclear weapons seems to get less political attention than during the Cold War. Why am I so concerned?
The very large nuclear arsenal [about 20,000 weapons] in the former Soviet Union is not particularly well maintained or secure and so is prone to theft, accident, or seizure by extremist political or terrorist groups. The Wikipedia page on Nuclear Terrorism gives good reason to be concerned.

1983 demonstration in Sydney, Australia

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Should theologians talk about science?

As a scientist it can be "interesting" at times to see what some theologians write about science, both in general or specific aspects of science. Sometimes they seem to struggle to distinguish between what is mainstream science, what is idle speculation, and what is plain wrong. This is understandable.

I am reading through the chapters on the environment in Jurgen Moltmann's Ethics of Hope. I was disappointed to see that he begins his discussion with the Gaia Theory of the Earth, due to James Lovelock, as if this is some well established part of scientific knowledge. Just reading the abstract of this 2003 scientific paper The Gaia Hypothesis: Conjectures and Refutations one can see that there are significant problems with Gaia.

There are many reasons why Christians should be concerned about the environment. Indeed, Moltmann has some nice discussion about some of the relevant Biblical texts. However, invoking contentious "scientific" speculations does not help the case.

There is a simple antidote to the problem with theologians and pastors mis-speaking about science. It is to check first with a range of scientists that what one has written or plans to say is actually accurate or appropriate.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Is the Higgs boson the Atheist particle?

Lawrence Krauss has a breathless piece How the Higgs Boson Posits a New Story of Our Creation on the Daily Beast. Here argues that the existence of the Higgs boson validates the inflationary model of the early universe, leading to the following final paragraph:
If these bold, some would say arrogant, notions derive support from the remarkable results at the Large Hadron Collider, they may reinforce two potentially uncomfortable possibilities: first, that many features of our universe, including our existence, may be accidental consequences of conditions associated with the universe’s birth; and second, that creating “stuff” from “no stuff” seems to be no problem at all—everything we see could have emerged as a purposeless quantum burp in space or perhaps a quantum burp of space itself. Humans, with their remarkable tools and their remarkable brains, may have just taken a giant step toward replacing metaphysical speculation with empirically verifiable knowledge. The Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than God.
I find this a rather weak argument. I don't think the existence of the Higgs field is really of any greater philosophical significance than any other important scientific discovery. Just because we can explain something does not mean that God is not involved. This was the age old issue discussed by Laplace and Napoleon.
Increasing scientific knowledge is only a problem if you subscribe to the problematic notion of "the God of the Gaps" and/or you believe that science and theology are competing for the same intellectual territory.

A Biblical view of Creation is that God [YHWH in the Old Testament, and the Father of Jesus Christ] upholds and sustains the universe and governs the laws that scientists discover. Because we are made in the image of this Creator God we have the amazing ability to actually discover what these laws are.
Just because we can understand something in natural terms does not prove that God is not involved. Furthermore, we are still always left with the questions:
Why are the laws what they are?
What is the significance of the fact that they lead to our existence?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Historical origins of the science-religion "conflict thesis"

Last night I attended a really nice public lecture by Professor Peter Harrison  "Has science made religion obsolete?"  This was part of Research Week at the University of Queensland where I work.

I will just mention a few highlights. 

First, Peter briefly reviewed the wide range of conflicting views about religion held by different scientists including Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Francis Collins, Simon Conway Morris, and Stephen Jay Gould. This shows science has not made religion obsolete.

Key historical interactions between science and Christianity were discussed, including Galileo and Darwin. Contrary to popular perceptions, the conflict between Galileo and the Roman Catholic church was really just about science. Darwin was well received in many Christian circles.

So where did the idea of conflict come from? It was largely promoted in two books from the late 19th century. The first book was by Andrew Dickson White, the first President of Cornell University. Wikipedia states:
History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), whose primary contention was the conflict thesis. Initially less popular than John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), White's book became an extremely influential text on the relationship between religion and science. In this book, White argued that "the great majority of the early fathers of the Church, and especially Lactantius, had sought to crush it beneath the utterances attributed to Isaiah, David, and St. Paul"[33] White's conflict thesis has, however, been discredited by contemporary historians of science.[34][35][36] The warfare depiction nevertheless remains a popular view among the general public.[37]

What led to this approach to history, with its emphasis on "progress", which meant religion being supplanted by "science"?
The birth of social sciences.

Auguste Comte was the founder of sociology. He believed there was a continual progression and advancement or social evolution from the theological to the metaphysical to the scientific.
James George Frazer was the founder of anthropology.
He believed in a progression from magic to religion to science.
In this context White and Draper's books fit neatly into this new world view. The problem is they are don't accurately represent the actual historical interaction between science and Christianity. Rather they distort history to fit the progressive framework required by social scientists.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Jesus week talk

Here is the latest version of the slides for my talk "Jesus and Science" which I will give as part of Jesus Week, organised by several student Christian groups on campus.
It begins with a discussion of God's Two Books, considers the failures of the modernism of Stephen Hawking, the claims of postmodernism, and then looks at Jesus being a source of grace and truth, as described in John 1.
Comments welcome.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Trusting something is really there

Late last year Alister McGrath wrote a short article Higgs boson: the particle of faith for The Telegraph newspaper. It is worth reading carefully and thinking about. Note the article was written before the recent experimental "discovery" of the Higgs boson.
Here is a key part:
The reason why the Higgs boson is taken so seriously in science is not because its existence has been proved, but because it makes so much sense of observations that its existence seems assured. In other words, its power to explain is seen as an indicator of its truth. 
There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic. Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world.
Unfortunately, McGrath's point is subtle and was lost on many of the Telegraph readers who wrote comments on the article. Indeed, at first I did not like the article. However, on reflection I decided it is worthwhile because it raises some important questions.

The point is that the practice of science involves faith, i.e. acting on the belief that certain things are (or may be) true or certain entities exist. This is not identical to the faith I practice as a Christian, but it is still faith. Elementary particle physicists had significant reasons to believe that the Higgs boson existed. This faith motivated spending a lot of government money and their careers designing and conducting experiments to find more direct evidence that the Higgs boson existed. Yet, even before the recent experimental results most believed it existed, even though they had never "seen" it.
But, to the hard core "logical positivist" or "skeptic" surely this faith is "irrational".
In particular, why orient your daily life and professional career around something you have never seen. A valid counter is that these physicists were not assuming that the particle existed, but rather trying to see whether or not it did exist. Not finding it would have been just as worthwhile an outcome.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Modern physics is not a threat to Christianity

Martin Rees, is the UK Astronomer Royal and a former President of the Royal Society. He is an atheist. He has an interesting article in the Telegraph newspaper, Even a theory of everything has limits. It is stimulated by Stephen Hawking's new TV series The Grand Design based on his recent book with Leonid Mlodinow.
Rees points out the limitations of Hawking's reductionist triumphalism.
Nearly all scientists are “reductionists” in so far as they think that everything, however complicated, obeys the basic equations of physics. But even if we had a hypercomputer that could solve those equations for (say) breaking waves, migrating birds or human brains, an atomic-level explanation wouldn’t yield the enlightenment we really seek. The brain is an assemblage of cells, and a painting is an assemblage of chemical pigment. But in both cases, what’s important and interesting is the pattern and structure – the emergent complexity. 
This is why the Grand Design has no relevance to most of the things that humans value. True, if you believe God is some magician who lit the blue touchpaper to set our universe expanding, you need to modify your beliefs. But nothing in modern physics – and here I disagree with Hawking and Mlodinow – need give Rowan Williams (for instance) any intellectual discomfort.
Thus, a very distinguished atheist scientist, acknowledges modern physics does not represent an intellectual threat to Christianity.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

When God is on your side?

My family watched the movie Cromwell, which gives a dramatic and engaging portrayal of  Oliver Cromwell's involvement in the English Civil Wars.
It raises significant issues about monarchies, democracy, and the role of Christians in politics. It again shows how war is hell.

Cromwell is a fascinating, complex, perplexing, and controversial figure. I find him a bit scary. He had all the "right" Reformed theology and seemed to have a sincere desire to build a more just and democratic England. But, it in the end it seemed he was self-righteous and the "end justified the means".

The movie was released in 1970 and stars Richard Burton as Cromwell and Alec Guiness as King Charles I.
I first saw the movie as a boy in the early 1970's and decided about 8 years ago [while on sabbatical in the UK] that I wanted to see it again. However, I failed to find any DVD rental place that actually stocked it. This became a bit of a family joke. For Fathers Day my dear wife arranged for us to watch it from iTunes. It was worth the wait!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

God's two books is a helpful metaphor

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was arguably the founder of modern science because he introduced and systematised the rationale for the use of experiment and induction. He was also a Christian and introduced the notion of God's Two Books as a metaphor/model for understanding the relationship between science and the Bible.

In his book Advancement of Learning Bacon said:
God has, in fact, written two books, not just one.  Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture.  But he has written a second book called creation. 
One book is the Bible: The Book of God's Words.
The other book is Nature: The Book of God's Works.

Although old and imperfect (like all metaphors) I think this is still a helpful starting point for thinking about the relationship of science and Christianity. Why?

It highlights that both books have the same perfect Author.
A book is a representation of a reality, not the reality itself.
Different books can have different genres, purposes, and messages.
Reading and understanding books can be hard work.
Different people can read the same book and interpret it differently.
Fallible readers can misinterpret what the author is trying to say.
If two books by the same perfect author appear to be inconsistent with one another, the problem may be with the interpreter not the author.

A few more things:

In the Preface [or the fly-leaf?] to The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin quoted Bacon:
To conclude therefore, let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or the book of God's works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endevour an endless progress or proficience in both.
Michael Poole's wonderful introductory book User's guide to science and Belief devotes the first chapter to the metaphor. He points out that the two Books metaphor was popular with Galileo and Faraday.

George Murphy has a helpful article Reading God's Two Books that discusses some limitations of and reservations about the metaphor.

John Stott gave a short sermon The Subjects of Our Study and Our Witness which begins with the metaphor.

Update (19 October, 2014): I have been listening to the wonderful lectures on Science and Religion by Lawrence Principe. He says Augustine introduced the idea of God's two books.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Would you attend this talk about the Higgs boson?

Previously I posted about the first two seminars given at the new Centre for Science, Religion, and Society at Emmanuel College at UQ. They were given by Peter Harrison and John Cook.

I have been asked to give the next seminar. I thought I might give it on the Higgs boson since it has attracted so much interest. Otherwise I probably would have talked about emergence and reductionism.
Below is my draft title and abstract.

I welcome feedback, particularly about questions or issues people would like addressed.

The Higgs boson: the scientific reality versus the media hype

The recent announcement that physicists at CERN in Switzerland have observed evidence for the existence of an elementary particle known as the Higgs boson has caused unprecedented interest in both conventional and social media.
Sometimes the Higgs boson is even referred to as the "God particle".
How important is this discovery scientifically?
Does it have any implications for belief in God?
Has the media and CERN acted in a responsible manner in reporting the discovery?

I will attempt to give a balanced perspective on both the scientific and theological significance of this discovery.
I will discuss the scientific background in terms accessible to the layperson.
In particular, how do elementary particles such as electrons and quarks gain their mass?
The dubious origin of the term "God particle" will be described, along with several other misrepresentations of the science associated with the discovery.

Although I believe the significance of this discovery has been overblown it does provide a useful starting point for discussion of some important philosophical and theological issues. These include the relative importance of direct versus indirect evidence for justifiable beliefs, the role of faith in science, the limits of reductionism, and the unity of scientific knowledge. At least one cool video will be shown.

Fishing for romance (and meaning) in the desert

My wife and I enjoyed watching the romantic comedy Salmon fishing in the Yemen. There were a few interesting side comments about "science versus faith".

There was an interesting moment when the two main characters arrived in Yemen from England and saw some muslim men praying.

Man: I don't know anyone who goes to church.
Woman: I don't either.
Man: On sundays we go to Tesco [grocery store].

A sad statement of secular Britain.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

"Jesus and science": a talk

In two weeks several groups are sponsoring a "Jesus week" on the University of Queensland campus. There will be talks by a range of speakers with titles such as "Jesus and gender", "Jesus and sex", "Jesus and judgementalism", and "Jesus and science". I have been asked to give the latter. It seems easier than the others!

Here are the slides from a draft my talk, which considers competing claims about truth, including modernist and postmodernist claims, and then looks at John 1.

I welcome feedback on this draft of the talk, particularly ways to make it more engaging and accessible to non-Christians.

The sponsoring groups including Evangelical Students, UniImpact, Queensland Theological College, and Unichurch.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Moltmann on medical ethics

In the theology reading group we recently read and discussed the chapters on medical ethics in Jurgen Moltmann's new book, Ethics of Hope. 
I think we were all a little disappointed. On a wide range of topics from abortion to euthanasia, he simply presented his opinions, without giving much rationale for them. In particular, it was disappointing that it wasn't clear why his specific views were correlated with or followed from the framework of eschatological ethics he advocates. In the introductory chapters he argued (almost contentiously and pedantically) that this framework was the only appropriate ethical framework. Yet, it wasn't clear that the views he holds on medical ethics were really any different from what might be argued from the general principles "always value life and be compassionate and non-judgemental."

There are also two relevant social justice issues that he did not mention and I think deserve more study and debate.

First, in the Western world incredibly large sums of money are spent on briefly extending the life span of terminally ill patients. Yet this money could be spent on actually saving the lives of numerous people in the developing world dying from preventable diseases.

Second, in the Western world very large sums of money get spend on medical research to  try and find cures or treatments for increasingly obscure and rare diseases that afflict small numbers of people. Sometimes these receive considerable attention and funding because they are suffered by a celebrity or one of their family members. Meanwhile, in the non-Western world research is needed into finding low-cost treatments for much less "glamorous" and more common diseases.
This disparity of resources is a major ethical issue.

If I know I am going to die of cancer in say 6 months am I a good steward to spend $100,000s of someone's money (mine, my family's, the government, or an insurance company?) just to undergo an expensive treatment or surgery that may prolong my life for an extra month or so?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Distinguishing science from philosophy

Slowly I have come to realise that this is the key issue in helping most people understand the relationship between science and Christianity. A specific piece of scientific knowledge is not the same thing as a particular philosophical interpretation (or world view) that might be associated with it.
These distinctions are particularly important when it claimed that a specific scientific "fact" or "theory" conflicts (or agrees) with a specific Christian belief.

Scientific knowledge is something that is experimentally testable, open to confirmation, and can be agreed upon by a wide range of parties. Philosophical claims do not have these qualities. They are not testable in a laboratory.

Let me illustrate with some concrete examples.

1. Science: The earth is not the centre of the solar system.
Philosophy A: Humanity is not special.
Philosophy B: Geographic location is no measure of significance.

2. Science: The sun is just one star among 200 billion in the Milky Way galaxy, which is just one galaxy among 170 billion galaxies.
Philosophy A: Humanity is totally insignificant in the universe.
Philosophy B: Human life is just a highly improbable accident.
Philosophy C: Human life is highly significant because it is so unique and improbable.

3. Science: The DNA of humans and chimpanzees is about 97 per cent the same
Philosophy A: Humans are no different from animals.
Philosophy B: Animal life is equally valuable as human life.
Philosophy C: The 3 per cent difference highlights just how unique and special humans are.

Note how different the philosophical claims are for each piece of scientific knowledge.