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.