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.