Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The complexities of the trial of Galileo

A popular narrative about Galileo and the Catholic church is it was a simply case of science versus religion, freedom of thought versus censorship and persecution, truth versus superstition, reason and evidence versus blind faith, ....

However, the reality is much more complex. This is nicely described by Lawrence Principe in his lecture course on Science and Religion. A few random points.

The greatest problem for Galileo was caused by his Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems, which considered heliocentrism [Copernicanism] versus geocentrism [Ptolemaic]. However, mostly the booked was concerned with his theory of the tides, which was wrong. He claimed the tides were caused by water sloshing around on the earth caused by its motion, rather than by the motion of the moon [as advocated by Kepler].

Pope Urban was no imbecile and had a philosophically nuanced view of science. He was an instrumentalist, whereas Galileo was a realist. i.e. Urban considered that scientific theories could not reveal how things really are but only produce formulas for describing observations, e.g. the positions of planets.

Galileo was not tactful in his relations, particularly with Pope Urban, who was originally his friend. He was particularly prone to sarcasm. He put some of the Popes views in the words of a character Simplicio [simpleton].

The role of Vatican "censors" was not unlike modern journal editors who send articles out for review.

Galileo never went to jail. Rather, he was under "house arrest" living in a mansion, and still working.

Monday, December 29, 2014

One of my favourite places in Australia.

A week ago I spent a special week hiking in the Kosciuszko National Park [snowy mountains]. This brought back many fond memories from my university [undergraduate] days. Then I did many wonderful hiking and cross country ski trips, ranging from one to six days.

Snowy River near Charlottes Pass
Blue Lake
The Main Range from near Mount Kosciusko
View of The Pilot and Victoria from Dead Horse Track near Thredbo

Wild Brumby near Dead Horse Gap
Mount Jagungal from the North
For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!
Amos 4:13 (ESV)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Something I wish non-scientists knew about scientists

Scientists have diverse philosophical, political, and religious views.
Just like any human community (e.g., Indians, lawyers, Canadians, football fans, ...)

Sometimes people ask me things like: are all scientists (except you) atheists?
Are all scientists political liberals?
Do all scientists believe that ...?

But, when it comes to well established scientific knowledge (Einstein's relativity, genetics, thermodynamics, evolution, climate change, the age of the earth, chemistry, ....) we are united and have the same view. The evidence is overwhelming.

How to interpret that knowledge philosophically is another matter.
Views are diverse. Science is not philosophy. Different interpretations are possible.

A recent book  by sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund looked at the diverse religious views of a group of scientists.

For a related issue see
10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Deconstructing the face of evil

I really enjoyed the movie Hannah Arendt. It is based on the true story of the philosopher-political theorist who wrote a controversial account and analysis of the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Rather than simply condemn him as a monster, Arendt considered his "mediocrity" and complete lack of humanity with his notions of "loyalty", "just following orders" and bureaucratic procedures. He had lost the ability to actually think and make moral judgements, a defining essence of humanity. This led to her coining the phrase "the banality of evil". Eichmann was "simply doing his job."

The impressive climax of the movie is the speech that Arendt gives to a group of her students, and some of her critical faculty colleagues, where she defends her perspective.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A problem with presuppositional apologetics

Presuppositional apologetics, as advocated by Cornelius Van Til is popular in some circles. Although there are certain sentiments behind it that I have sympathy with, it can be quite problematic, particularly in practical application, and its attitude to secular scholarship.

The latest issue of Science and Christian Belief has a review of a recent book What the Heavens Declare: Science in the Light of Creation by Lydia Jaeger.
The reviewer, William Simpson, has the following valuable insight.
Unfortunately the presuppositional school persistently confuses the ‘order of knowing’ with the ‘order of being’: from the insistence that God is ‘the foundation of everything that exists’, it simply does not follow that we must begin with God’s existence in order to explain anything. 
For example: in the order of being, the university town of St Andrews precedes any road sign that points to it; the one, presumably, would not be present without the other. In the order of knowing, however, the road signs may precede the town for a traveller trying to find his way to it. The theological twist behind the epistemic slip is more serious: in Calvin’s nomenclature, it involves an unbiblical refusal to seek common ground, grounded in common grace, with non-Christians.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Christian physicist on rationality

Andrew Steane is a Professor of Physics at Oxford. He has recently published a book Faithful to Science: The role of religion in Science. I am looking forward to reading it.

On the Oxford University Press site he has an interesting blogpost Questioning the question: religion and rationality. It gives the flavour of his thinking and writing. His blog also explores these issues.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A cogent case for Christian Platonism

The next book for the monthly theology reading and discussion group is Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for our times by Paul Tyson. One thing that is a little different is that the author is a member of the discussion group!
Christian Platonism holds that the unseen God really is the present source and ongoing ground of all created reality. Further, Christian Platonism holds that the qualities of beauty, goodness, and truth, wherever they are in some measure discovered, are divine revelations of real meanings that give the world in which we live its value and purpose.
page 3.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

From revolution to disillusion

Adam Michnik, a historian who helped to overthrow the Soviets in Poland, once said: 
“Revolutions have two phases: first comes a struggle for freedom, then a struggle for power. The first makes the human spirit soar and brings out the best in people. The second unleashes the worst: envy, intrigue, greed, suspicion and the urge for revenge.”
This is in fascinating article about Iran,  The revolution is over, in a recent issue of The Economist.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Comparing leading newspapers in India

Like on my last trip to India I took the newspaper daily. It costs 4 rupees (about 8 cents!). Following my thoughts from last time, I got The Hindu, rather than The Times of India. I was glad I did. I thought the coverage and analysis was much better, and thankfully there wasn't the pages of Bollywood gossip, that the Times reports.

It was interesting to be reading the reports of the G20 Summit in Brisbane from an Indian perspective. It was also embarrassing and frustrating to read reports about the Australian government's policies and actions on Ebola, refugees, and climate change.

This advert nicely captures the difference between the Hindu and The Times.

A similar one is here.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Science and the Bible in Hyderabad

Last week I gave a talk "Science and the Bible" to the Naga Christian Fellowship at Hyderabad Central University. Here are the slides. The majority of the audience were Ph.D candidates in social sciences and humanities. After the talk there was an extended question and answer session which I thought was stimulating and helpful.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The mystery of the providence of God

I don't know.

A week ago at the SAIACS morning chapel service I gave a talk, "The mystery of the providence of God", based on Job 38. I began by showing this video.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Do ancient religious texts contain modern scientific knowledge?

Sometimes Christians tell me that the Bible contains scientific knowledge. I disagree.
I am currently in India and the Prime Minister recently gave a speech when he was opening a new hospital. He said that ancient Hindu texts contained knowledge of genetic science and plastic surgery. 
Some Muslim evangelists claim that the Qur'an contains modern science on diverse subjects such as embryology, cosmology, geophysics, special relativity, water, and astronomy. 
A popular website about that is here.
The Wikipedia page about this issue is worth reading. A detailed rebuttal of Islamic claims is here, including a detailed technical critique of the claim that the Qur'an contains the actual value speed of light. A related useful critique of Bucailleism is here, including a discussion of how it is rejected by many Muslim scholars.

I believe that most of the arguments, regardless of the religion involved, more or less follow a similar pattern that I describe below, step by step, in symbolic form.
I then discuss why I think each step of the argument is problematic.

Consider religion R which has an ancient sacred text T.
Here R=Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, …  
and T= Bible, Qu’ran, Mahabharata, …

1. Text T contains a passage P which uses certain words W.
2. W can be equated with a modern scientific concept C [e.g. genetics, big bang, …]
3. Therefore T contains modern scientific knowledge.
4. Scientific expert Dr. S agrees with claim 3.
5. T was written thousands of years ago before anyone knew about C.
6. It follows from 3. and 5. that God must have told the authors C.
7. Therefore, all of text T is “the word of God” and religion R is true.
8. Text T should be taught in school science classes.
9. You, the hearer or reader, should convert to religion R.

I now explain in some detail how most of the steps in this argument are problematic.
Some steps involve logical fallacies.

2. The word W in text T can be equated with a modern scientific concept C.

This usually requires a debatable translation and extrapolation of the specific word.
Examples include  Christian young earth creationists claiming that “leviathan” in the book of Job is a dinosaur or Muslims claiming that “nutfah” [sperm-drop] is an embyro containing chromosomes.

3. Therefore T contains modern scientific knowledge.

Scientific knowledge is highly specific, detailed, technical, and often mathematical. It goes beyond a few words. That is why there are whole textbooks on highly specialised subjects. For example, the “big bang theory” is not just a vague idea about an explosion at the the beginning of the universe.
It is a set a detailed mathematical equations that make quantitative predictions that can be [and have been] tested by detailed astronomical observations.
Even if one were to accept 2., this is far from the text T containing useful and detailed scientific knowledge.

4. Scientific expert Dr. S agrees with claim 3.

A. Sometimes the expert is quoted out of context.
An example, is Professor Joe Leigh Simpson. In a 2002 Wall Street Journal article, he explicitly states he has been mis-quoted. Nevertheless, Muslim apologists, web sites, and literature continue to mis-quote him.

B. Sometimes the credentials of these “experts” are inflated or irrelevant.
In some cases I have checked them out and found they were not tenured faculty at the stated institution, but appear to have had some minor part-time teaching, research or technical or support role in the past. Furthermore, they do not have publications in relevant reputable international
peer-reviewed scientific journals.
If someone did a Ph.D in nuclear physics thirty years ago, and has since worked as an engineer, I fail to see how they are qualified to write authoritatively about biology.

C. Finally, this raises the problem of argument by appeal to authority.
Even brilliant experts can be wrong. Linus Pauling won two Nobel Prizes [Chemistry, Peace] but he was wrong about the structure of DNA, quasicrystals, and the therapeutic value of massive doses of vitamin C. On controversial issues, you can usually find equally qualified experts with opposite opinions. The only case where I think appeal to authority has some value is when there is an
overwhelming consensus among experts. For example, 97 per cent of climate scientists accept the evidence for human induced global warming.
Another example, is the fact that New Atheists cannot produce a single academic historian in a major university who believes that Jesus was not a historical figure.

5. The text T was written thousands of years ago before anyone knew about the scientific concept C.

Usually the information that the text contains is similar to common knowledge from the time it was written and the author presumably had access to. For example, the information about sperm and foetus development [allegedly embryology  and chromosones] in the Qu'ran actually reflects ancient Greek understanding.

6. It follows from 3. and 5. that God must have told the authors C.

This conclusion does not follow because the claims 3. and 5. are not valid.

7. Therefore, all of text T is “the word of God” and religion R is true.

It is not valid to argue from the specific to the general.
Just because every swan I see is white does not mean there are no black swans in the world. When I read The Hindu newspaper I find that their reports of cricket scores are completely accurate. However, that does not mean I always believe their reporting  of political events. Furthermore, the validity of the cricket scores certainly does not give the horoscopes credibility.
Suppose you ask for me to help you solve a mathematical problem and I do. That does not mean you should trust me for financial or relationship advice.

8. Text T should be taught in school science classes.

Because point 3 is not valid [i.e. T does not contain modern scientific knowledge] this does not follow.

9. You, the hearer or reader, should convert to religion R.

Because the preceding argument is not valid the conclusion does not follow.
One needs to find alternative arguments to justify belief in a specific religion. Elsewhere, I have written why I believe the Gospel of Jesus is true.

On the other hand, some atheists point out the failure of these arguments and claim that justifies atheism. That is also a fallacy. If I present a faulty argument for Pythagorus theorem in geometry that does not establish that the theorem is false, just that my argument is wrong.

I thank some of my Indian friends for bringing this issue to my attention and asking for my response. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Videos on Genesis and Science

Today we watched and discussed several excellent videos that deal with the issue of how science is related to Genesis.

Science and Genesis, featuring John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, and others

Enuma Elish. This Babylonian creation myth contrasts with the Genesis text.

Test of Faith. The videos are not online. You have to buy them. But snippets are available on Youtube

We also discussed "The World as Creation," chapter 3 in Gods that Fail by Vinoth Ramachandra.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Awe and wonder at science

Today I discussed how as a scientist I respond to the awe and wonder of the universe. Here are my slides.

To illustrate the immense scales of the known universe I showed the wonderful movie Powers of Ten.

Creation, Genesis, and the Big Bang

Tomorrow I will give a lecture on Creation and the Big Bang. Here are the slides.

With regard to the scientific evidence for the Big bang and the age of the universe the Wikipedia page has a good description.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Historical interactions between science and theology

On tuesday we will start to look at important historical events. The lecture will be based partly on these slides prepared by Denis Alexander from the Faraday Institute in Cambridge.

In preparation students read the paper, "The Bible and the Emergence of Modern Science," by Peter Harrison. The paper discusses the significance of images such as those of the pelican below.

Introductory lectures on science and theology

Here are the slides for material I will present to the SAIACS apologetics class.

There are three important ideas

1. God's two books
2. Four different models for relating science and religion: conflict, independence, fusion, and complementarity.
  [Here the Faraday paper by Denis Alexander is helpful].
3. Science and philosophy are not the same thing.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Student essays on science and theology

This coming week I am on leave from work. I am back in Bangalore at SAIACS teaching in the apologetics course about the relationship between science and theology. Students will write an essay on one of the following three topics.

a.  Respond to the two statements, “Science and the Bible contradict one another. Christians must believe the Bible and reject science.” You should include a discussion of the idea of “God’s two books”.

b. What is the “Big bang theory”? Review the scientific evidence for it. How is this scientific theory relevant to discussions of the relationship between science and theology?

c. Briefly review one of the historical events (the trial of Galileo, Darwin’s publication of The Origin of the Species, the Scopes trial in the USA) that are sometimes claimed to be evidence of the conflict between science and the Bible. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the actions of Christians in the event.

Here are some tips on writing essays.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Awe and wonder talk

Today I am giving a talk,  "Awe and wonder: science and worship" at the Credo Academy in Stockholm. Here are the slides. It is based on an earlier post.
This is the first time I have given this particular talk and so will be interested to see how it goes.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Weekend in Stockholm

This week I am attending a scientific workshop on Water: the most anomalous liquid at NORDITA in Stockholm.

On saturday afternoon I attending an event With Heart and Mind, organised by Credo, a Swedish student Christian group affiliated with the International Felllowship of Evangelical Students. Since it was in Swedish I was thankful for the english translation. It was encouraging to see students being challenged about integrating their academic studies with their Christian beliefs.

On Sunday I went to Immanuel church, which has Swedish, Korean, and International (English) congregations.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Why should we love learning?

I was honoured that I was asked to write an endorsement for the book
Wouldn't you love to know: Trinitarian epistemology and pedagogy
by Ian Payne, Principal of SAIACS
Ian Payne makes a compelling case that Karl Barth's theology speaks to the philosophy of education; teaching should be driven by love for the student and the subject under God. The learner is transformed for the service of others. The book is a timely antidote to the increasingly utilitarian focus of educational institutions on careers, rankings, and money. Payne’s book is enhanced by his substantial teaching experience, in both the Western and Majority Worlds.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Experiential and dialogical apologetics

Tomorrow we discuss Soren Kierkegaard, experiential apologetics, and a reading from Varughese John's book.
Here are the slides.

Then we look at dialogical apologetics with a reading from the book by David Clark, including taking some points from Alister McGrath's Mere Apologetics.
Here are the slides.

A week from now we will begin to look at the relationship between science and theology. An excellent place to start reading is the introductory book by Michael Poole.
Here is the current version of the slides for the first lecture.

Lectures on reformed epistemology and presuppositionalist apologetics

Tomorrow I discuss reformed epistemology and presuppositionalist apologetics.
The slides are below.

Reformed epistemology argues that belief in God is properly basic [i.e. rational but does not need to be justified by evidence or reason].

Presuppositionalism  emphasises the corruption of reason by sin.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Introductory lectures on apologetics

For the next three days I will be giving some lectures in an MA course Introduction to Apologetics at SAIACS in Bangalore. My co-lecturer is Varughese John, author of a nice book
Truth and Subjectivity, Faith and History: Kierkegaard's Insights for Christian Faith,

Here is the current version of the slides for the first two lectures:

Introduction: 4 types of Western apologetics

Classical apologetics, including classic arguments for the existence of God [ontological, cosmological, teleological, moral].

Saturday, October 4, 2014

You should be skeptical about Scientific American

The cover story of this months Scientific American is "How Big Bang Gravitational Waves could revolutionise Physics," by Lawrence Krauss

It begins:
If the recent discovery of gravitational waves emanating from the early universe holds up under scrutiny, it will illuminate a connection between gravity and quantum mechanics and perhaps, in the process, verify the existence of other universes
Unfortunately, for the magazine, this "discovery" was discredited a few weeks ago. You can read about it here, on Peter Woit's excellent blog, that consistently critiques string theory and the multiverse.

As a scientist, I find the level of hype and speculation masquerading as science that is found in popular science magazines, particularly New Scientist, disturbing. It is quite unrepresentative of what the majority of scientists actually do, believe, and actually know.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The meaning and significance of the secular

In the theology reading group this month we discussed
How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K.A. Smith
The 140 page book is a synopsis of the 900 page tome  A Secular Age, by  Charles Taylor. It makes that work more accessible, particularly through the glossary at the end of the book.
Previously, I discussed the three senses of the secular. Other important terms include the following.

Immanent frame.
A constructed social space what frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order. It is the circumscribed space of the modern social imaginary that precludes transcendence.
The influence of this term is indicated by the existence of a multi-author academic blog with this title.

Modern Moral Order.

"A new understanding of morality that focuses on the organisation of society  for mutual benefit rather than an obligation to "higher" or eternal norms.  The "moral" is bound up with (and perhaps reduced to) the "economic.""
Although, not explicitly named neoliberalism seems the extreme and problematic embodiment of this.

A construal of life within the immanent frame that does not recognise itself as a construal and thus has no room to grant plausibility to the alternative.

A construal of life within the immanent frame that is open to appreciating the viability of other takes. Can be wither "closed" (immanentist) or "open" (to transcendence).

It refreshing and encouraging to see such a towering intellect highlight how many views that masquerade as "truth" or "well established" or "conventional wisdom" are just a "take" or "spin".

Some say that Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans was like a hand grenade lobbed into the world of academic theology. Perhaps Taylor's tome is like a hand grenade lobbed into the secular academy, particular the humanities and social sciences. 

To me the book is highly original, stimulating, and challenging.
It helps understand how we got so secular. Furthermore, the church is secular. 
Some church and mission organisation statements, strategies, and practices may appear to be not that different from Walmart: a focus on money, marketing, growth, efficiency, and numbers...
But it is more than that. It is not just "worldliness" but a whole epistemology and approach to life.

Unfortunately, the rise of secularism was an unintended consequence of the Reformation. For example, if you think of the sacrament in purely material terms or the work of the butcher and the candlestick maker as similar to the priest or monk this does have flow on effects. This led to the disenchantment of nature [a key to the development of science] and life. "the Reformers rejection of sacramentalism is the beginning of naturalism, or at least opens the door to its possibility." (page 39).

Many apologetic strategies, particularly in response to the New Atheism, are conducted on the ground rules layed down by secularists: evidence, logic, rationality, science, .....
imagination, art, story, history, transcendence, emotion, .... don't get a look in.
" ...the responses to this diminishment of transcendence accede to it in important ways... God is reduced to a Creator and religion to morality ... the particularities of a specific Christian belief are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity - as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice..." (page 51).
I do have a few reservations about the book. Taylor appears to have little engagement with the Tri-une God or little substantial theology. Although deism is decried, most of the discussion is in terms of deism. There is no acknowledge or engagement with the non-Western world. Perhaps because Taylor appears to be a liberal Catholic, there is little discussion of the Lordship of Christ, the prophetic voice to society, and a call for repentance.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A rich diversity of apologetic approaches

In his excellent book, Mere Apologetics, Alister McGrath considers a diversity of approaches for engaging with those who are skeptical or curious about the Christian faith.

Chapter 7, Gateways for apologetics: Opening the door to faith, considers four different approaches.

1. Explanation
2. Argument
3. Stories
4. Images

Most traditional apologetics focusses on the first two approaches.

Stories is not just concerned with the Biblical narrative but engaging with influential secular literature such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci code. 

Images is not just art but using and engaging with powerful mental images and concepts such as Plato's cave or the theological notion of adoption.

C.S. Lewis was all the more impressive as an apologist because he was a master at all four approaches, from Mere Christianity to Narnia.

Which approach to use should be determined by the background and interests of the audience.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Forgiveness and liberation

My wife and I enjoyed watching Mandela: Long walk to freedom
Here are a few impressions.

It is tragic to see the inhumanity of humanity. In order to stoke racism, prejudice, and maintain power and privilege, the powerful will intimidate and humiliate their opponents: from draconian laws to random house searches to solitary confinement to taunting by prison guards. These silly psychological games are not just games and thuggishness but sometimes well thought out strategies to squelch dissent.

The double standard of violence. When governments and police use it against their own citizens to "maintain law and order" it is claimed to be justified, legitimate, and moral. When others use violence in a desperate response to oppression it is deemed to be unjustified, illegitimate, and immoral.

Ultimately pragmatic economic considerations [the potential collapse of the South African stock market] forced the government into negotiations with Mandela. To me this highlights the positive influence of the divestment movement on university campuses in the USA and the value of the Sullivan principles.

The "impossible" does happen. Only 30 years ago, the end of the Soviet Union and apartheid seemed inconceivable. But the end did come.

But most striking was Mandela's ability and willingness to forgive, extend grace, and move on, working for the good of the country.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A great course on science and religion

The Great Courses [also known as The Teaching Company] select the best university courses from the USA and make (and sell) videos/CDs of the lectures.

I just bought the course Science and Religion given by Lawrence Principe, a Professor of History of Science, Medicine and Technology and a Professor of Chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University. It is currently on special, at a much reduced price.

I highly recommend it. The 12 lectures focus mostly on the historical interactions of science with theology, but makes connections to issues of the present day.

Some of the points made in the first lecture include:

to early scientists such as Kepler, the distinction between science and religion was not clear

both science and religion involve faith

the conflict thesis is not supported by historians and should be replaced with a complexity thesis

rather than reading into the past our current notions and prejudices we should look to the past for fresh ideas about how we face issues today.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How hard is to walk across the street and meet a stranger?

My wife and I really enjoyed watching the movie The One Hundred Foot Journey. It thoughtfully and  creatively deals with issues of multiculturalism, families, redemption, reconciliation, grief, and the joy of cooking and eating!

The only sad thing thing for me is seeing how people can let their whole identity and life purpose be defined by external measures such as Michelin stars.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

All bloggers act like Baptists!

At the Immanent Frame a group of writers discussed The new landscape of the religion blogosphere. I thought the following comments from Joe Carter, Web editor at First Things, are quite insightful and amusing.
Despite their importance, there is no council, diocese, presbytery, or synod that oversees and sanctions these religious blogs. But should these bloggers be able to teach large audiences without oversight from a higher-level polity? If a professor and ordained minister at a Presbyterian college writes regularly on issues about religion and theology, should her writing be exempt from denominational authority? Or what if a Lutheran layman and a Catholic priest hold a regular open debate? Should they not be held to account as if they were writing in a denominational magazine or journal?  
 I suspect that most religion bloggers will argue that their blogging should not be overseen or scrutinized by their college, local church, or other ecclesiastical body. They would claim that since their blogs are neither churches nor parachurch ministries, they should be free from congregational supervision—even when they are writing about issues concerning their denomination’s view of doctrine. If this view is widely held—and my own experience convinces me it is—it marks a peculiar shift in the decentralization of ecclesiastical authority. Whether they are Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, when it comes to religious discussions online, all bloggers act like Baptists.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Three senses of the secular

What does it mean to be secular?
Secular means different things to different people.

In his book, How (not) to be secular, James K.A. Smith gives three distinct definitions of "secular".

"the earthly plane of domestic life"
This is the "classical" or "historical" definition, and distinguishes the secular from the sacred, i.e. the domain of priests. "butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers carry out "secular" work. To early reformers such as Luther this was positive. There was to be no distinction between the sacred and the secular.

"the areligious - neutral, unbiased, objective"
This is a "modern" definition. It is particularly used in claims that the "public square", i.e. politics and public debate should be "free" from discussions about religion or religious values and perspectives.

This is the notion of Charles Taylor, who in A Secular Age, says it
 “consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed unproblematic to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace”.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A critical review of John Lennox's God's Undertaker

Recently I was asked to review John Lennox's book, God's Undertaker: Has Science buried God?
I chose not to because there is already a helpful detailed review by Denis Alexander, former director of the Faraday Institute, published in Science and Christian Belief. He is much better qualified than I to discuss biology. I reproduce the review below.

I agree with the criticisms. I would not recommend the book, particularly because there are much better books available. Some I recommend at the bottom.
 I wish I could give an equally warm recommendation for God’s Undertaker by John Lennox, but this is unfortunately more problematic. This is very much a book in two halves. In the first 75 pages, the author gives a generally good overview of the limitations of science and the fact that science itself is unable to address the really big questions of life, such as why something exists rather than nothing, and why science itself is possible. Lennox points out that science itself was nurtured within a Christian world-view and there is nothing intrinsically ‘naturalistic’ about science, suggesting that the term ‘methodological naturalism’ is unhelpful as a way of describing the scientific enterprise, for all scientific descriptions for the theist are, by definition, descriptions of what God has done and continues to do. The author’s critique of reductionism, presentation of the inherent intelligibility of the universe and discussion of the anthropic principle are well presented, amply illustrated with useful quotes, and contribute to a strong first half of the book. 
It is once the author moves from the physical to the biological sciences in the second half (58% to be precise) of the book that things start to go seriously downhill. Lennox begins to build up a picture of ‘atheistic evolution’ as a purely ‘naturalistic process’ and it soon becomes apparent that it is Darwinism which is the main target. The term ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID) is introduced without definition, so it is only as the chapters progress that it becomes clear that the author is using the language of ID in the same way as its US proponents, such as Dembski and Behe. As with these writers, Lennox exaggerates the alignment of the biological theory of evolution with naturalistic philosophy (two very different things), in order to highlight Darwinism as a target for religious attack. The author’s own advice given earlier in the book, to see the whole created order as reflecting God’s design, is somehow lost in this second section, where the possibility that God might choose to bring about biological diversity through the process of evolution, as maintained by those holding to both mainstream science and theology, is oddly ignored. 
Many of the traditional creationist and ID red herrings litter this second section. ‘It can be highly dangerous to think outside the evolutionary box’ (97). Really? I can think of no better guarantee for someone’s future career in the biological sciences than to publish a solid peer- reviewed paper that challenges a cur- rently held theory: it is every scientist’s dream scenario. But to publicise one’s doubts about a well-established theory in any branch of science without the solid backing of good papers in reputable journals is of course dangerous for one’s career, and rightly so, for criticism without evidence or justification is always a risky path to pursue in academia. 
Unfortunately Chapter 7, ‘The nature and scope of evolution’, presents a smorgasbord of misrepresentations and straightforward errors, too long to list here. The peppered moth story has been up-dated by Michael Majerus (2007) and its evolution remains a good exemplar of natural selection in action. The idea of natural selection is not a ‘tautology’, nor is it in the same class as ‘Freudian psychology and astrology’ (102); it is a theory with real explanatory power. Natural selection is not about the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ (103), but about reproductive fitness, which is not the same. The terms ‘microevolution’ and ‘macroevolution’ are not being ‘increasingly used’ (106); if anything the reverse is the case as the advent of genomics is leading to their decline with the realisation that some species are virtually indistinguishable morphologically but are genetically very distinct (like the worms C. elegans and C. briggsae, which have 800 unique protein- encoding genes each out of their complement of 20,000, and last shared a common ancestor about 100m years ago). Yet the author cites in support of his points on micro/macroevolution rather ancient literature, one (long discredited) citation even dating back to 1942. (107). The fossil data are misrepresented and the ‘model sequences’ of speciation found in the fossil record are far more impressive than the author seems aware: in particular, the evolution of the tetrapods from fish, the evolution of mammals, the evolution of the whale (a mammal that returned to the sea from land via Pakicetus, Ambulocetus and the fossil whale Basilosaurus which retains a complete mammalian hind limb), the evolution of elephants and horses, the evolution of turtles and many other examples besides. Nor in this volume do we hear of speciation in plants by polyploidy; the chromosomal inversions that have led to speciation in insects such as mosquitoes; ring speciation events (as in the Herring Gull and Californian salamanders); nor anything of the remarkable cichlid speciation of the African great lakes. The author even questions common descent, when the inheritance of ‘fossil’ genetic sequences in our genomes in the form of pseudogenes, retroviral insertions and transposons, together demonstrate our own common ancestry with the apes beyond any reasonable doubt. 
The last few chapters of God’s Undertaker are devoted to a discussion of the origin of life and of information. The author is only too aware of the dangers of the ‘god-of-the-gaps’ type of argument, but believes the origin of information to be a ‘gap in principle’ in contrast to a ‘gap in knowledge’. It is not clear why this should be the case. The mathematical arguments presented here in an attempt to demonstrate that the origin of biochemical information is ‘impossible in principle’ are deeply flawed because they are based, like so many of Dembski’s arguments, on the premise that proteins or long stretches of DNA self-assemble by a purely chance process. But no one believes that, so the arguments represent tilting at windmills, the assumption being that the stages leading to living matter occurred incrementally; it is pre- cisely how those incremental changes were preserved and reproduced that rep- resents one of the fascinating research challenges of the origin of life field. Indeed, there have been some remark- able advances in the field over the past decade, though there is no doubt at all there is a huge current gap in our scien- tific knowledge at this juncture. Does that matter theologically? It would seem odd if some theological conclusion hinged upon our current scientific ignorance about something. The author suggests that ‘design’ is the answer, but the answer seems vacuous in explaining any- thing or in generating a research pro- gramme. Perhaps this century, perhaps the next, the knowledge gap will slowly close, and surely Christians should see that ‘closing’ as part of our glad worship to the God who is the author of the whole created order, not as a threat to a poorly founded argument for God’s existence. 
The antipathy to Darwinism that is still displayed by some Christians, even by some academics like the present author, whose book appears to present some form of episodic creationism, is truly puzzling. For as Francisco Ayala points out, there is a great irony in the observation that supporters of ID and creationism agree with writers such as Richard Dawkins that evolution equates with atheistic materialism. It would surely be much more fruitful for people of faith to baptise the evolutionary account of origins into the biblical doctrine of creation, which is, after all, what Christians have been doing since 1859.
A critical review of Lennox's more recent book, Seven Days that Divide the World is here.

So what books would I recommend?
I list some here, in order of increasing level of sophistication.

User's Guide to Science and Belief by Michael Poole

Unnatural enemies: an introduction to science and Christianity by Kirsten Birkett

The Language of God by Francis Collins

Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose? by Denis Alexander

The Science of God by Alister McGrath

Monday, September 1, 2014

Can atheists be certain?

In the theology reading group next month we are looking at How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K.A. Smith. More on that later.

In the introduction Smith engages with the novelist Julian Barnes book, Nothing to be frightened of, that expresses his anxieties about dying and death. It looks like a fascinating book that has received wide praise from readers with a diversity of perspectives.

Here I just give one quote that Smith used:
If I called myself and atheist at twenty, and an agnostic at fifty and sixty, it isn't because I have acquired more knowledge in the meantime: just more awareness of ignorance. How can we be sure that we know enough to know? As twenty-first-century neo-Darwinian materialists, convinced that the meaning and mechanism of life have only been fully clear since the year 1959, we hold ourselves categorically wiser than those credulous knee-benders who, a speck of time away, believed in divine purpose, an ordered world, resurrection and a Last Judgment. But although we are more informed, we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. What convinces us that out knowledge is so final?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

I have no choice

"I have to take the demanding job because I have to keep paying my house mortgage."

"She had no choice but to put her mother in a nursing home."

"Due to the budget deficit the government has no option but to cut education spending".

"We have to stop terrorism. Australia had no choice. We had to join the USA in the Iraq war."

I often hear statements such as these on topics ranging from personal finances to government policies. I find them disappointing and at times irritating. We always have a choice. I certainly acknowledge that most important decisions are complex and made difficult by prior commitments, competing interests, and personal pressures. Yet I think claiming there is "no choice" is problematic for several reasons.

It can be an attempt, sometimes sub-conscious, to avoid responsibility and accountability.

It cuts off discussion and debate, particularly about pre-suppositions.

It undermines our humanity. One of the beautiful things about our creatureliness is that God has given us freedom. Our freedom reflects the freedom of God. Karl Barth writes beautifully about this. We exercise this freedom in our choices.

In the context of war and violence, Rowan Williams has a nice discussion of this issue in his book The Truce of God .

Monday, August 25, 2014

Does science explain anything?

Of course it does, is the quick defensive answer!

But, the distinguished philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made the provocative statement:
At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.
What is this about?
 [Edward Feser has a helpful commentary on this and on friday at UQ John Lennox discussed this].

Examples of the laws of nature are Newton's laws of the motion and the laws of thermodynamics. What are these laws? They are codifications or statements, often in mathematical form, [sometimes approximate] of the regular behaviour that have been observed in numerous scientific experiments. Reproducible exceptions to this behaviour are never observed. One never sees water run uphill or a body accelerate in the absence of an external force or an scrambled egg spontaneously unscramble.

On one level, Newton's laws of motion and law of gravity can be said to "explain" why planets move in elliptical orbits. But, what is the explanation of Newton's law of gravity? Why is it like it is? Well, we could say it is a particular limit of Einstein's general theory of relativity. But, how do we "explain" Einstein's theory. .... We are not sure... string theory is struggling, but that is another story.... The point is that science does not and cannot provide ultimate explanations. 

We can deal with the "why?" question in two ways.
One way is to rule it out of order.
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.
        Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden 

Alternatively, we can follow the distinguished biochemist, Erwin Chargaff  and acknowledge
"Science is wonderfully equipped to answer the question 'How?' but it gets terribly confused when you ask the question 'Why?'."
Then, we might consider looking outside science for ultimate explanations.

The possibility of miracles is another issue where Wittgenstein's statement is relevant. Miracles do "violate" the laws of nature. But, that does not mean miracles are impossible. By definition, a miracle is something extra-ordinary, i.e. something different from regular behaviour. But, if God determined the laws of nature [i.e. the way things normally happen], He certainly has the power and freedom to make things happen differently at certain times.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A suffering question

Yesterday I heard an excellent talk, "Why suffering?" by Dan Paterson, as part of Jesus Week at UQ.
He began with a moving personal account of a family tragedy that has shaped his own questions and struggles. Christianity does not provide answers that are completely satisfying, either intellectually or emotionally. Yet it is important to compare it to the alternatives. He then considered what different world views [Buddhism, Hinduism, and Atheism] say about suffering. He then asked a crucial question:

How does getting rid of the Christian God made any more sense of suffering, or given any more grounds for hope?

Much of the material in the talk is presented in a series of four blog posts.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jesus and climate change

This week is Jesus Week at University of Queensland. Several student christian groups sponsor a series of talks that aim to stimulate people to ask "Who is Jesus?"

Today I attended an excellent talk by John Cook, "Jesus and Climate Change". A similar talk can be watched here. John is founder of the blog, Skeptical Science. He first described why he cares about climate change. It is not just an environmental issue but a social justice issue. The people who have contributed least to global warming are those who will be affected the most. Furthermore, people in these poor countries have the least resources to adapt to the human induced changes [droughts, rising sea levels, increased flooding, ...].
John then discussed how Biblical passages such as Matthew 25 and Amos 5, challenged him as a Christian to be concerned about justice for the poor.
Cook's Christian commitment surprised one columnist in the Guardian.

Recently John was lead author of a paper

Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature

that concluded that 97 per cent of the 11,000 plus scientific papers published in the past twenty years supported human-induced global warming. This paper was tweeted by President Obama and led to a very funny and effective skit by John Oliver!

Monday, August 18, 2014

The ugly face of globalisation

The New Rulers of the World, a documentary by John Pilger, is worth watching. It considers the impact of globalisation on Indonesia, beginning in the 1960s. The complex mix of corrupt dictators, sweat shops, CIA, multinational corporations, the World Bank, and oppressive debt has created a quagmire of violence, inequality, and injustice.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

An excellent book on apologetics

My son and I are reading through Mere Apologetics by Alister McGrath.
It is an excellent introduction to apologetics. The most impressive thing is the warm and positive tone. McGrath is excited about the gospel of Jesus. It is good news! But, there can be significant cultural and intellectual obstacles to people seeing this. Yet these people are made in the image of God and are to be respected and engaged with in a warm and gracious manner.

It is also refreshing that McGrath does not get bogged down in debates about the relative merits of different form of apologetics: evidentialist vs. presuppositionalist vs. experiential vs. dialogic.

To give you the flavour here is the outline of Chapter 6,  "Pointers to faith: approaches to apologetic engagement" nicely considers the following "clues"

1. Creation - the origins of the universe
Why did the universe and life have a beginning?

2. Fine-tuning - a universe designed for life

3. Order - the structure of the physical world
Why does science work?
Why is mathematics so unreasonably effective at describing the natural world?

4. Morality - a longing for justice
How can morality have a basis without God?

5. Desire - a homing instinct for God
Why do we long for something better?

6. Beauty - the splendour of the natural world

7. Relationality - God as a person
Why is it that we find the most meaning, fulfilment, (and pain) in human relationships?

8. Eternity - the intuition of hope

I don't find any one of these clues in isolation that compelling. However, put together they point to something significant. Furthermore, the Bible does provide coherent answers to these questions.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Mental health talks for scientists

In the past year I have given several talks to group of scientists about mental health issues. The most recent talk is described here on my science blog.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Barth on science and Philistines

 I encountered this choice quote from Karl Barth in a nice paper, "How Nature and Beauty can bring scientists and theologians together,'' by Greg Cootsona.
Theology as a whole, in its parts and in their interconnexion, in its content and method, is, apart from anything else, a peculiarly beautiful science. Indeed, we can confidently say that it is the most beautiful of all the sciences. To find the sciences distasteful is the mark of the Philistine. It is an extreme form of Philistinism to find, or to be able to find, theology distasteful. The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science. May God deliver us from what the Catholic Church reckons one of the seven sins of the monk–taedium–in respect of the great spiritual truths with which theology has to do.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, page 658.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Suffering does not make sense

Why is there evil? Why is there suffering?

I recently read Vinoth Ramachandra's excellent book, Gods that fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission. In the chapter about creation he states
Evil itself is left unexplained in the Bible, for perhaps the very good reason that it is  inexplicable. The moment we 'explain' it we have related it to a meaningful framework within which it now 'makes sense'. But the whole point of evil is that it does not make sense. It is insane, an absurd intrusion into God's good creation. To explain it is to explain it away.That is why every attempt o explain evil... only ends up trivialising evil...
A chapter,  "Job and the Silence of God", draws on a commentary by Gustavo Gutierrez. Vinoth concludes
The God of the Bible gives us no theoretical answer to the mysteries of evil and suffering. I suspect that no `answer' is possible, for evil in God's good world is a monstrous absurdity, an insane affront to One who is perfectly holy, true and loving. It is an enemy to be confronted and defeated, not a problem to be solved. Suffering and evil are so deeply embedded in our experience of human life that, in the attempt to turn them into intellectual problems for philosophical analysis, we may well lose a major key to their understanding, namely empathetic involvement in the suffering of others.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The historical origins of global poverty

Why does poverty exist? Why are some nations rich and others poor? What are the historical origins of debt and inequality? Does wealth "trickle down"? Does foreign aid help poor countries?

My wife and I watched this excellent documentary. Although it is called "The end of poverty" I think a more appropriate title would be "This historical origins of global poverty" and does not really discuss how to solve the problems. It is also not to be confused with Jeffrey Sachs book of the same title, which focuses more on practical solutions.
It is quite disturbing.

Monday, August 4, 2014

From Job's suffering to a cartoon Joseph

The sermon at church on sunday was part of a series on suffering and focussed on the whole book of Job. Why does God allow suffering? Job and his friends actually never get an answer. But, human wisdom and understanding is contrasted to the wisdom and power of God manifest in creation.

At the end of the sermon the preacher, Dave Pitt, took things in an unexpected and surprising direction (to me at least), that I thought was quite helpful and challenging. He played the song, "You know better than I" from the DreamWorks animated movie Joseph King of Dreams.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Slaves to debt II

Last night my son and I watched The International. I had actually watched it five years ago and blogged about it. I enjoyed it again. Here is my favourite scene.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

My career is not my life

Tippi Hedren was a successful Hollywood actress who rejected the sexual advances of Alfred Hitchcock. He promised to ruin her career and he did.  In a recent New York Times article she was interviewed about her relationship with Hitchcock.
Of course, you must not have gone to his funeral. I did.
Why? I would assume the only reason you’d want to see his grave is to spit on it. You don’t get it. He ruined my career, but he didn’t ruin my life. That time of my life was over. I still admire the man for who he was.
I recently learned this in a sermon on Generosity and Relationships by Tim Keller.

Monday, July 28, 2014

In praise of humble uncertainty

When faced with puzzling information, one of the most important statements a scientist can make is "I don't know." Similarly, one of the most important statements a theologian can make is "I don't know."
Sir John Houghton,  In the Eye of the Storm, page 85.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Greed begets stupidity

Why do smart people do dumb things?

Long-Term Capital Management was a hedge fund that went bust in dramatic style in 1998, losing $4.6 billion in less than 4 months. One thing that distinguished it was the knowledge and experience of its 16 principals.

Here is what the legendary investor Warren Buffett [who led the company bail out] said about the 16 people involved:
they probably have the highest average IQ of any 16 people working together in one business in the country, .... those 16 have had extensive experience in the field in which they operate. ... probably 350 or 400 years of experience doing exactly what they were doing. ....  most of them had virtually all of their very substantial net worth in the business. They have their own money tied up, hundreds of hundred of millions of dollars of their own money tied up, a super high intellect, they were working in a field they knew, and they went broke. And that to me is absolutely fascinating. If I write a book, it’s going to be called “Why do smart people do dumb things?"  
To make the money they didn’t have and they didn’t need, they risked what they did have and did need–that’s foolish, that’s just plain foolish.
This reminds me of 1 Timothy 6 

 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Concrete interactions of theology with academic disciplines

I went to a very nice conference this past weekend, at Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland. It was jointly sponsored by the Centre for Science, Religion, and Society at Emmanuel and the Simeon Network, affiliated with the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Here are the titles of some of the presentations:
  • Religious freedom as an associational legal right
  • Is all truth God’s truth? Common grace, general revelation and the academic disciplines
  • Lord keep my memory green: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol
  • The kingdom of God to the kingdom of nothingness: Manning Clark and the course of Australian history
  • Lord Shaftesbury and evangelical social engagement
  • Tertiary chemical education: an ideal platform for connecting resources with students and teachers in or from developing countries
The attendees and speakers were academics from Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. They ranged from Ph.D students to Professors. Fields represented included law, chemistry, anthropology, literature, history, physics, molecular biology,....
I was impressed by the quality of the presentations, both in content and clarity. Speakers did well addressing a multi-disciplinary audience. Plenty of time was allowed for discussion after each talk which was often quite lively.

Here are a some things I found particularly interesting in two of the talks.

Nick Aroney, a Professor of Law at University of Queensland, began his talk about the legal basis of religious freedom in Australia by sketching out a diagram that showed the multi-disciplinarity of law as an academic discipline. He showed its connections with history, ethics, logic, hermeneutics, politics, theology... He then reviewed the preamble to the Australian constitution and Section 116 which discusses religious freedom. Most people think it in terms of individual religious freedoms but actually it is relevant to "associations" and "corporations". This is relevant to cases involving anti-discrimination, particularly as it pertains to the freedom for churches and religious organisations to use religious criteria for membership and staffing.

Natalie Swann is a Ph.D student in anthropology at University of Melbourne. She asked, "What would a  Christian ethnography look like?"
This was motivated by the fact that in the past decade significant interest has grown in academic anthropology about the interaction of anthropology with theology.
In 2006, Joel Robbins, [recently appointed to a chair a Cambridge] wrote a paper in the Anthropological Quarterly, Anthropology and Theology: An Awkward Relationship? that highlights some of the issues.
Earlier this year the journal Current Anthropology included an article