Saturday, May 24, 2014

A highly creative engagement of science and theology

Tom McLeish is a Professor of Physics at Durham University and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Next week, Oxford University Press is publishing his book Faith and Wisdom in Science. It looks like a refreshingly new and constructive approach to exploring the relationship between science and theology. Here is are some of the book highlights from the publisher website.
  • Communicates science from within real stories over a timespan of millennia
  • Argues that science can be a deeply religious activity
  • Takes the most significant Biblical book for science to be Job (rather than e.g. Genesis)
  • Takes the most significant science area for thinking about science and meaning/purpose as Statistical Mechanics (rather than e.g. Quantum Mechanics or Cosmology)
  • Insists that rather than debating "science and theology" we need both "science of theology" and a "theology of science"
  • Readers will be able to use suggestions practically, whether in church, politics or university
McLeish recently gave a seminar, related to the book, at the Faraday Institute. Here is a summary of the talk from Ruth Bancewicz and you can watch it here.
An article in The Conversation puts the book in the context of broader social debates.

I thank Leigh Trevaskis for bringing this to my attention.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How selfish can we get?

I was very disappointed with the latest Australian budget. One of Australia's most prominent economists John Quiggin called it a "moral failure".

My first concern is that the Government deceptively claimed that funding cuts are necessary because economic disaster looms because of continuing budget deficits. Look at Greece! However, this is purely a scare tactic because it is not an appropriate comparison since Australia's deficits and debts are much smaller than European countries that are in trouble. Second, the cuts in areas unpopular with conservatives [welfare, health, education, foreign aid] were accompanied by spending increases in defence, "border protection",  and middle class welfare such as the paid parental leave scheme...
Maybe a coherent case can be made for making some of these cuts but it should be done with integrity and logical consistency.

My second disappointment was not just the cut in foreign aid, but the significant policy shift that foreign aid should not be about alleviating poverty but advancing Australia's commercial and strategic interests. How selfish can we get? This shift is similar to one made recently by the Canadian government and the problems are described here.

On a less serious scale, what was worse than the 3 per cent cut in funding for the Australian Research Council [from whom I get most of my research funding] was the declaration that it was an "efficiency levy"! Politicians don't seem to have the courage to call a spade a spade.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Has science killed God?

Tomorrow evening I am giving a talk "Has science killed God?" at the Toowong Student Residence.
Here are the slides. I am looking forward to some lively discussion with the students.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Facing a painful past

I enjoyed watching Saving Mr. Banks. It was much more emotionally intense than I expected. The movie claims to chronicle Walt Disney persuading author P.L. Travers to agree to the making of the movie, Mary Poppins, which is based on Travers' novel. The movie continually flashes back to scenes of her painful childhood. The movie is quite redemptive as Travers comes to terms with the past, forgiving herself and her father, and moving on. It seems this is not what actually happened historically but it terms of cinema is a great movie, with a strongly redemptive message.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

A scientist testifies to God's grace

Last week I really enjoyed reading Witness to Grace, brief autobiography of John Goodenough. I knew of him for his scientific work in solid state physics and chemistry because some of it overlaps with my research. He is best known for inventing lithium rechargeable batteries. Although aged 91 he is still publishing papers!

The book mixes his spiritual history with his scientific career. He came from a family that had a church background but his parents "outgrew" religion, seeing it as a superstitious and psychological crutch. But experiences while a student at Groton school eventually led to his conversion while doing a Ph.D at University of Chicago. His family was not impressed.

The scientific parts of the book may not be accessible to some readers, without the necessary background! Nevertheless, it is a compelling story and a moreover a moving witness to the grace of God, as revealed in Jesus.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Distinguishing mechanism and agency

A colleague recently pointed out that it is crucial to make a distinction between mechanism and agency in discussions about the relationship between science and theology.
This is related to the issue of levels of explanation.
Science prescribes mechanisms but cannot answer questions about agency.
Theology can answer questions about agency.

Let me give a few concrete examples.

Why is the kettle boiling?
Mechanism: Because the stove heats the water to above the boiling point of 100 degrees centigrade.
Agency: I put the kettle on the stove because I wanted to make a cup of tea for my wife.

Why is the car moving?
Mechanism: The heat of combustion of the fuel drives the pistons in the engine.
Agency: I am driving it to visit my friend.

Why did galaxies form?
Mechanism: Gravitational attraction between clumps of gas and matter.
Possible agency: God wanted to make an amazing universe that would be a testament to His majesty.

Why is the universe expanding?
Mechanism: Einstein's theory of gravity requires the expansion following the Big Bang.
Possible agency: God prescribed laws for His Creation.

Where do different biological species come from?
Mechanism: Macroevolution
Possible agency: God prescribed natural laws that would produce such species.