God doesn’t have a plan for your life

…at least, not the way you think.

Often, when someone experiences a personal setback, the “encouragement” given to them by well-meaning Christians is: “Don’t worry, God has a plan for your life,” or, “It’s all part of God’s special plan for you.”

God certainly has a deep desire for you to be reconciled to him, but usually when people talk about “God’s plan for my life” they mean that there are very specific, very human milestones that God has laid out for them to reach and achieve during their time on this Earth. And I don’t think that idea is Biblically grounded.

This is not God's plan for your life. Continue reading

The Maverick Philosopher on human wretchedness

Over at the Maverick Philosopher‘s blog, there’s a great new post inspired by Blaise Pascal. It’s short, so I’ve reproduced it in its entireity, go here for the original.

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Blaise Pascal (1623-1662):

“Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals is wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.” (Pensées, Penguin, p. 59, #117, tr. Krailsheimer)

“What is nature in animals is wretchedness in man.”  That is a profound insight brilliantly expressed, although I don’t think anyone lacking a religious sensibility could receive it as such.  The very notion of wretchedness is religious.  If it resonates within you, you have a religious nature.  If, and only if.

Man’s wretchedness is ‘structural’: man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as healthy and well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in Pascalian divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. Pascal writes that we “must have fallen from some better state.”  That is not obvious.  But the fact remains that we are in a dire state from which we need salvation, a salvation we are incapable of achieving by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.

How do we know that?  From thousands of years of collective experience.

Music for the soul

Music, and indeed any art form, involves striving to express that which is recognised but cannot be fully put into words, that which is unknowable and yet known more deeply than anything else. It is this striving for expression that produces great art, it is the acknowledgement – without complete understanding – of the intangible Other that drives creative work.

This is not unique to Christian cultures, it is a universal feature of art. We do not express artistically what we could simply describe succinctly and fully, in a sentence. The intangible natures of love, of the soul, of our deeply felt and yet deeply fractured relationship with God, these are the things which give flight to the mad impulses of the artist.

Continue reading

A theoretical faith

The title of this post contains a pair of words that can be difficult to nail down. Let’s take them one at a time:

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Theory

In common parlance the word “theory” is used to denote something purely conceptual, usually in contrast to something which has been implemented in the real world. This causes difficulty when referring to scientific theories, because in science, the word carries somewhat different implications. Scientific explanations for observed phenomena start as hypotheses, which are basically conjecture. After more testing and data collection, if the hypothesis appears to be useful in explaining the data and predicting results, confidence in the explanation increases. Once there is a strong weight of supporting evidence, we start to refer to the explanation as a “theory”.

The American National Academy of Sciences describes the distinction in usage thus:

“In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by [data] gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena…”

So it is understandable that scientists become frustrated with the dismissal of a scientific theory with phrases like, “oh, it’s just a theory”. This sort of language shows a grave misunderstanding of the subject.

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Faith

Likewise, in common parlance, “faith” is often understood to mean “a belief without evidence”. But in the Christian context, faith carries very different connotations. Theologian Tyron Inbody (in The faith of the Christian church: an introduction to theology) notes three uses of “faith” within Christianity:

  • Assent: we believe that God has revealed Himself to us and can be known personally. This aspect of faith is largely intellectual: we are presented with God’s assertions about Himself (in the Bible, for instance), we decide that they are trustworthy and assert that they are true.
  • Trust: we believe that God will honour His promises, and that He is reliable.
  • Loyalty: we strive to ‘live out our faith’. In this context: “To have faith is… to obey Jesus; it is to be loyal in life and death to the God whom we meet in Jesus Christ.”

Although these three aspects of Christian faith are distinguishable, they are also inseparable. Christian faith is inextricably entwined with understanding: we have knowledge and understanding of God from personal experience, Scripture and the community of believers, and this forms the basis of our trust in God. Inbody writes:

“Faith in the New Testament means belief, specifically belief in God’s Word in Scripture. To have faith is to assent or to give credence; it is to believe. Faith refers to our acceptance of the message of the gospel… Faith means ‘belief in and acceptance of His revelation as true… an act of intellect assenting to revealed truth.”

The Christian faith is not divorced from reason: it is inseparable from reason. But as Thomas Aquinas explained, it is not just an intellectual exercise: it is also an act of will. I decide that certain things are true, and I choose to act on that belief.

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A theoretical faith

Now, why have I put these two difficult words together?

Well, my personal exploration and acceptance of the Christian faith was similar in many ways to the development of a scientific theory. From the tentative hypothesis that Christianity is true, I sought more data with which to test this conjecture. The central elements of Christianity are the claims about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I found the evidence of his death and resurrection convincing enough to explore further.

A scientific theory is a framework which helps to explain observed phenomena. What about Jesus’ life and teachings? Do they make sense of the world I experience?  The framework of Christianity explains the world that I see around me more coherently than any other.

Of course, we should seek to challenge any theory to test its robustness, so I do this with my faith. The “problem of evil” is often considered the biggest counter to Christianity: Given that we observe evil in the world, how can we believe in the existence of a God who is both loving and all-powerful? I explore this question, and I come to a remarkable conclusion: Firstly, I find in Christianity a compelling and convincing framework to explain the coexistence of evil in this world and the Christian understanding of God. Secondly, if I try to remove God from the picture, I don’t even know what the word “evil” means. It turns out that the “challenge” becomes still further support for my beliefs. And so my faith grows. The more that I test it, the more compelling it becomes.

Christianity also claims that we can experience God personally. Here we must move to the “belief in”. I move from a position of intellectual assent and step out: I seek to meet with God through prayer and personal experience. He meets me. The God I encounter personally resonates completely with the God of my intellectual assent. My faith grows.

From my experience, my belief in God, comes my loyalty to God. I have found that if I seek to live my life in accordance with His will and listening to Him, my life is a much better place. He has shown Himself to be faithful and good.

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I do not think that my personal experiences are unusual: in fact, I would say that the process I have described is analogous to the faith of most any Christian. The details will be a bit different, of course. St Paul had a rather more dramatic starting point for his faith, but he still based it on beliefs about God: specifically, beliefs that Jesus was God and that he was resurrected from the dead. Paul’s belief in and loyalty to God were a response to this.

Christian faith intrinsically contains a rational and evidentiary basis. N. T. Wright, the bishop of Durham, writes:

“I cannot… imagine a Christianity in which the would-be Christian has no sense, and never has had any sense, of the presence and love of God, or the reality of prayer, of their everyday, this-worldly life being somehow addressed, interpenetrated, confronted, embraced by a personal being understood as the God we know through Jesus.”

For a final description of faith in a Christian context, I close – as is often the case – with C. S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:

“Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”

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Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Believing and understanding

Chesterton on Miracles

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Forgive us our sins

Following on from the post about daily bread, I want to look at another line in the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6:12 says this (all passages from the NLT):

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and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.

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In Matthew 6: 14-15, following immediately from the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus warns us:

“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

This is not saying that God’s forgiveness is contingent on our forgiveness of others: rather to accept His forgiveness we must first acknowledge our own need for it, and that we hold that need for forgiveness in common with all people. God does not forgive us because we forgive others: He offers forgiveness to all of us. But accepting His forgiveness requires that acknowledgement. In the Gospel of Mark we see this message reinforced (Mark 11:25):

“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”

God’s forgiveness of us is not the reward for our forgiveness of each other, but to accept His forgiveness our hearts must be open to it.

Paul takes up this theme of “forgive because you were first forgiven” in his letter to the Ephesians, where he writes (Eph 4:32):

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.

The emphasis is on the forgiveness that we should extend to others as a response to what Christ has already extended to us. Similarly, writing to the church in Colossae, Paul says (Col 3:13):

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.

Note how these passages turns our human perspective of justice on its head. We are not told to forgive others so that God will forgive us, we are rather told that God has already forgiven us. We have done nothing and can do nothing to deserve God’s forgiveness, but he offers it before we can even ask. Our response must be to forgive others – not because they deserve it, but because God has shown us greater mercy and forgiveness.

This is intensely humbling. In the midst of our feelings of anger and indignation at wrongs done to us, we are reminded that we have all equally fallen short of God’s standards. We are reminded of how far He was willing to go to forgive us and seek reconciliation, even though it meant sending His only son to his death.

Expanding on this theme, Jesus told a parable which is recorded a few chapters later in Matthew 18:21-35:

Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”

“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened.  Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

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Related posts:

Daily bread

Serious, not fanatical

Why the suffering?

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Maths, science and abstractions

I attended a forum last week entitled “Is there certainty beyond science?”. As one of the speakers pointed out, perhaps a useful starting question would be, “Is there certainty within science?”, but the title did raise some interesting questions about what we mean by the words “certainty” and “science”.

Certainly (see what I did there?) there seems to be a common assumption that science at least aims to find certainty in the midst of confusion. The general perception is that science rigorously follows a trail of evidence to reach conclusions which can be claimed with a high degree of confidence. And there are even mechanisms to try and assess the degree of uncertainty in a given scientific theorem (although the willingness of adherents to acknowledge that uncertainty may be somewhat hit-and-miss).

What is often missing from the conversation is the impact of methodological assumptions on the usefulness of the conclusions which result from a particular methodology. Let’s look at mathematics as an extreme example.

Maths operates within the ultimate abstraction. It is a realm of pure ideas. This has advantages: because the system is entirely conceptual, the laws can be rigorously defined. This allows us to “prove” mathematical theorems by conclusively demonstrating a logical consistency. But to apply a mathematical concept to anything real, we must project from the abstraction back to the real world, where we cannot rigorously define the laws. Some of the projections are useful: arithmetic operations are easily projected onto everyday objects (so “3 bananas + 4 bananas” can easily be understood as seven actual bananas). Some projections are less straightforward: the relationship between a second-order differential equation and the acceleration of a car under constant force is not quite as intuitive.

Science also operates within an abstraction. The realm of science is limited by its methodological assumptions, such as philosophical naturalism and the regularity of nature. These assumptions are useful in that they allow us to limit the potential interactions that we investigate to those which are amenable to the tools of science. In other words, we limit what we will accept as an explanation of phenomena, and this allows us to define our area of investigation. But in making these assumptions, we have created an abstraction of the real world, and it is this abstraction that we investigate rather than the real world itself. As in the case of mathematics, the conclusions may or may not be readily suited to being projected back into our understanding of the real world.

It is worth noting that any of our abstractions are only definable from outside the system. We say that mathematics operates within a logically consistent and rigorously defined framework, but its logical consistency cannot be proven mathematically. (This isn’t a case of “It hasn’t been done yet”, this is a case of “It’s impossible even in principle”). We make a working assumption of methodological naturalism when we engage in scientific research, but we cannot scientifically demonstrate the validity of such an assumption.

Perhaps more interestingly, this also implies that we cannot fully define the operational parameters of the real world from within the system.

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Related posts:

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

Believing and understanding

Chesterton on Miracles

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Daily bread

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Recently I attended a session where we looked into the Lord’s Prayer in greater depth. We broke into groups and each looked at only one or two lines, reflected on those lines, and then shared our reflections with the others. We looked at the fifth line, quoted here from Matthew 6:11 :-

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Give us today our daily bread

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It’s a straightforward enough line, but it carries extraordinary depth. Firstly, it is an acknowledgment that our provisions and sustenance comes from God: we don’t actually make our own bread. We don’t even make the money to buy bread by ourselves. As the line from the traditional order of service puts it, “All things come from Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee.” Every breath and every talent we have are gifts from God.

There were two other verses which were suggested in connection with this one. The first is from Proverbs 30:8-9 :-

Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD ?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

I love the emphasis on sufficiency here. Provide for my needs, but not for all my earthly desires. Give me the right amount so that I can remain focussed on you – neither too much, that I become enslaved to prosperity, nor too little, that I am too concerned with my own hunger and material provisions. In either extreme, our hearts will be drawn away from God and into improper living. Yes, God is aware of our material needs as inhabitants of this physical realm, but the wisdom of the writer is in asking that he not be distracted by the physical realm so much that he ignores the spiritual.

The second passage then shifts our perspective again. This one is from John 6:32-35 :-

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.

Not only is Jesus reinforcing the message that all blessings and provisioning comes from God, he is also explaining that true fulfillment can never be found in satisfying only the needs of our bodies. Infinitely greater is the fulfillment of a relationship with Jesus, and true satisfaction will only be found there. As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”

We have both body and soul – we are neither angels nor animals. Our bodies need care and nourishment, and so do our souls – but our souls are eternal, and we need to be careful that we give them the bread they need.

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Related posts:

Asked and answered

Why the suffering?

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Introducing Godde

Over at Urban Mystic, Tim has put up a very interesting post about his usage of the term “Godde” and its implications for our image and preconceptions of the Divine.

It’s called “Why use the word Godde?

From the article:

“I think of this as an expansive and empowering term. Its expansive because it asks that we stretch our view of Godde beyond what we’ve had. Because we’ve tamed “God” with our theological definitions and public services we’ve therewith lost a sense of respect, awe and wonder at this elusive, magnificent and wondrous Being.”

Tim goes on to explore the significance of both the masculine and feminine aspects of God.

You should go and read it now.

Chesterton on Miracles

Another excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, this time on the subject of miracles:

But my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up.  Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma.  The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them.  The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder … If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural.  If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things … you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism — the abstract impossibility of miracle.  You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist.  It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence — it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred.  All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle.  If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles … Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.

The sceptic always takes one of the two positions; either an ordinary man need not be believed, or an extraordinary event must not be believed.

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Related posts:

Believing and understanding

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Plus ça change…

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Believing and understanding

Yesterday I wrote about 3000 words on the limitations of the scientific approach as a tool for discerning truth. Today I’d like to focus on just 3 words:

Credo ut Intelligam

“I believe so that I may understand”

As I discussed in the last two posts, scientific inquiry is limited by definition to the material universe. Supernatural influence on the material, or events limited entirely to the supernatural sphere, are in principle inaccessible to science (thanks to its assumption of materialism). But because of what I observe, what I experience, and what my reason tells me, I cannot endorse materialism as a worldview. I accept its usefulness as a scientific premise, but I do not accept its truthfulness.

The Latin motto above was written by Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109), who is regarded as the first scholastic philosopher of Christian theology. He held that belief in God is the only way to make sense of what we observe. Reason can expand on faith, but faith must precede reason.

Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, described the correct perspective of inquiry thus:

“Let us begin from God, and show that our pursuit from its exceeding goodness clearly proceeds from him, the Author of good and Father of light.” (Novum Organum)

As a contrast, let’s see how far materialism can take us. Peter Atkins, Oxford chemist and caustic-tongued atheist, believes that, “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.” Bertrand Russell described a common materialist position when he said:

“Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attainable by scientific methods, and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”

It is worth noting, however, that this extreme scientism is logically incoherent. It is itself not a statement of science but an article of blind faith. Thus by its own assertion we cannot know if it is true. (Note: I use the term “blind faith” because I believe that this statement describes a belief held in spite of evidence).

John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Oxford, observes that scientism even denies the validity of any non-scientific fields such as philosophy, ethics, literature, poetry, art and music. He continues:

“Science can tell you that if you add strychnine to someone’s drink, it will kill her, but it cannot tell you whether it is morally right or wrong to put strychnine in your grandmother’s tea in order to get your hands on her property.” (“Challenges from Science” in Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias)

I would suggest that it is possible to have such knowledge of right and wrong, even though it is beyond the scope of science.

We must also note the difference in confidence which can be attributed to the findings of various scientific disciplines, because the scientific methodology relies on repeatability. Experimental sciences can often confidently deduce what is likely to happen under certain controlled conditions. Sciences which deal with unrepeatable phenomena (such as palaeontology and cosmology) are more deductive, and their conclusions must necessarily be less authoritative.

Even amongst these “historical” sciences, we can only proceed scientifically by simulating repeatability: we compare several independent fossil progressions; we draw analogues to living animals. We study hundreds of galaxies, trying to find common trends. We look at the operation of physics on an experimentable scale and extrapolate the findings to a cosmological scale. The philosophy is the same, although there are greater practical limitations to the experimental possibilities.

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Natural law (and order)

C. S. Lewis, in his essay The Grand Miracle, gives a striking illustration of the conditional status of “laws of Nature”. As Nature is the field studied by science, this also illustrates the impossibility of using scientific inquiry to address the supernatural. In the passage, Lewis is in conversation with a materialist:

“Science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists – anything ‘outside.’ How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?”

“But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the Laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them … I think the Laws of Nature are really like two and two making four. The idea of their being altered is as absurd as the idea of altering the laws of arithmetic.”

“Half a moment,” said I. “Suppose you put sixpence into a drawer today, and sixpence into the same drawer tomorrow. Do the laws of arithmetic make it certain you’ll find a shilling’s worth there the day after?”

“Of course,” said he, “provided no one’s been tampering with your drawer.”

“Ah, but that’s the whole point,” said I. “The laws of arithmetic can tell you what you’ll find, with absolute certainty, provided that there’s no interference. If a thief has been at the drawer of course you’ll get a different result. But the thief won’t have broken the laws of arithmetic – only the laws of England. Now, aren’t the Laws of Nature much in the same boat? Don’t they all tell you what will happen provided there’s no interference?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, the laws will tell you how a billiard ball will travel on a smooth surface if you hit it in a particular way – but only provided no one interferes. If, after it’s already in motion, someone snatches up a cue and gives it a biff on one side – why, then, you won’t get what the scientist predicted.”

“No, of course not. He can’t allow for monkey tricks like that.”

“Quite, and in the same way, if there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered – then the events which the scientist expected wouldn’t follow. That would be what we call a miracle. In one sense it wouldn’t break the laws of Nature. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes. They can’t tell you whether something is going to interfere. I mean, it’s not the expert at arithmetic who can tell you how likely someone is to interfere with the pennies in my drawer; a detective would be more use. It isn’t the physicist who can tell you how likely I am to catch up a cue and spoil his experiment with the billiard ball; you’d better ask a psychologist. And it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.”

Note that I do not wish to undermine the value of scientific inquiry into Nature: I believe that it has great power to give insight into the natural order. But I think it should be obvious that science has important limitations in what questions it can reasonably address.

Once we head into the realm of the truly unrepeatable, we are studying history. And now we are truly off the scientific map.

Is it possible to have knowledge of historical events? Of course.

There are even ways to assess the relative confidence of historical knowledge, such as the extent and concordance of contemporaneous records, literary criticism of written accounts, archaeological confirmation of records and forensic examination of evidence.

Miraculous events are unique. That’s what marks them as miracles – they defy the natural order. But they do not contradict science, because as we have seen, science deals explicitly with the normal workings of Nature in the absence of super-Natural interference.

Lewis elaborates:

“This point of scientific method merely shows (what no one to my knowledge ever denied) that if miracles did occur, science, as science, could not prove, or disprove, their occurrence. What cannot be trusted to recur is not material for science: that is why history is not one of the sciences. You cannot find out what Napoleon did at the battle of Austerlitz by asking him to come and fight it again in a laboratory with the same combatants, the same terrain, the same weather, and in the same age. You have to go to the records. We have not, in fact, proved that science excludes miracles: we have only proved that the question of miracles, like innumerable other questions, excludes laboratory treatment.” (The Grand Miracle)

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Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Overlap in the Magisterium?

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…

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On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth (Part II)

Update:

This post and Part I have been edited and combined into a single essay. The full version can be found here.

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Part I of this essay was an overview of how models (and scientific inquiry in general) actually work.

Let’s have a quick recap of the key points:

  • Explanations should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.
  • We make sense of complex systems by building models.
  • Models are built for specific objectives and incorporate assumptions.
  • The usefulness of a model depends on the validity of those assumptions.
  • We cannot modify our objectives without re-examining our assumptions.
  • Models can never be verified (shown to be true), only confirmed (shown to be useful).
  • Scientific theories are models.

In this section, I want to explore the role of science in the search for ultimate truth.

We need to recognise the limitations of science as a method of pursuing truth, and with our newly-acquired understanding of models I hope that it will be clearer what those limitations are.

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Methodological naturalism and the limitations of scientific models

Science, as a collection of models (termed theories or hypotheses according to their level of confirmation), is built on a set of assumptions. These are broadly grouped under the philosophy of methodological naturalism, and could be summarised as:

  • The world we observe actually exists and is consistent.
  • We can use our reason and senses to explore it.
  • The material world is all that there is.

So we must ask ourselves: how useful is naturalism as an assumption?

The general opinion amongst philosophers of science is that it is a useful simplification. That is not to say that it is true, only that it is useful. Steven Schafersman, a geologist and prominent advocate against Creationism, writes that:

“… science is not metaphysical and does not depend on the ultimate truth of any metaphysics for its success … but methodological naturalism must be adopted as a strategy or working hypothesis for science to succeed. We may therefore be agnostic about the ultimate truth of naturalism, but must nevertheless adopt it and investigate nature as if nature is all that there is.”

Philosopher of science Robert Pennock, also a prominent voice against Creationism (and Intelligent Design), is more explicit. In his 1997 paper for a conference on “Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise”, he states that science “makes use of naturalism only in a heuristic, methodological manner.” He also argues against even the theoretical possibility of using scientific methodology to explore supernatural issues:

“Methodological naturalism itself … follows from reasonable evidential requirements in science, most importantly, that hypotheses be intersubjectively testable by reference to law-governed processes.”

Why does this preclude the supernatural? In the same essay, Pennock writes:

“Experimentation requires observation and control of the variables. We confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the purported independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant and we observe the effect on the dependent variable. But by definition we have no control over supernatural entities or forces.”

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The pursuit of data

Assumption are fundamental to understanding the usefulness of the outputs of a model. But the assumptions underlying the scientific method will also influence the data that we subsequently look for. This limitation has been noted by philosopher Karl Popper and historian of science Thomas Kuhn, who notes that the “route from theory to measurement can almost never be traveled backward”. Theories also tend to build on each other, usually without revisiting the underlying assumptions.

Popper examines this problem of nested assumptions in his critique of naturalism:

“I reject the naturalistic view: It is uncritical. Its upholders fail to notice that whenever they believe to have discovered a fact, they have only proposed a convention. Hence the convention is liable to turn into a dogma. This criticism of the naturalistic view applies not only to its criterion of meaning, but also to its idea of science, and consequently to its idea of empirical method.” (The Logic of Scientific Discovery)

Note again the emphasis (in the second sentence) on the problem of confusing model confirmation with verification. This self-reinforcement of theory dominates most of science. Kuhn writes:

“Once it has been adopted by a profession … no theory is recognized to be testable by any quantitative tests that it has not already passed.” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

Pierre-Simon LaplaceWe will never find what we do not seek and are unwilling to see.

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The usefulness of models

In their correct place, of course, models are very useful. The great French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace used Newton’s model of gravity to calculate the motion of the heavens (as well as for predicting ballistics) in his masterpiece Mécanique céleste. Napoleon asked to see the manuscript, being greatly interested in ballistics. According to the story, after perusing the equations Napoleon turned to Laplace and asked, “Where is God in your book?” To which Laplace famously replied, “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.” (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”).

Laplace was perfectly correct. He was using calculus to predict the motions of celestial bodies and bodies moving through air, and it is not useful to incorporate theological complications into that  prediction. Remember: as simple as possible, but no simpler. Of course, Laplace also didn’t include gravitational attraction from other stars in calculating the orbits of the planets. In the real world, we believe that other stars do exert gravitational attraction, but it is a useful simplification in our model that we ignore them at the scale of our solar system.

Laplace’s model does not correspond perfectly to reality, but it does allow us to make sense of data and make predictions, provided that we stay within the limits of its assumptions. Popper comments on the usefulness of the Darwinian evolutionary synthesis, despite the great limitations of that theory:

“Darwinism  is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program … And yet, the theory is invaluable. I do not see how, without it, our knowledge could have grown as it has done since Darwin …  Although it is metaphysical, it sheds much light upon very concrete and very practical researches … it suggests the existence of a mechanism of adaptation, and it allows us even to study in detail the mechanism at work.”

But let us never confuse useful with true.

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Science and truth

So what can science really tell us, if not truth? Well, within the limitations of its assumptions, it can give us great insight into process and the nature of the material universe. But it cannot, by definition, tell us anything about the immaterial: including the supernatural, philosophical reasoning and morality.

The great Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay Nonmoral Nature, commented thus on the limitations of science:

“Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians … indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.”

Indeed, science cannot even comment on the validity of its own assumptions: they must simply be accepted at face value for any science to be done at all. As per Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, they are postulates which cannot be proven by the system itself.

In our search for insight into the supernatural, we’re out of the territory of science. And recall the fundamental principle of modelling: we cannot change our objectives without re-evaluating our assumptions. So we can’t even adapt any current science to deal with these questions: science is simply not equipped for the task.

I do not propose allowing supernatural explanations into science. But I do suggest that it is very misleading to imply that science in any way supports a materialist worldview. This is mere question-begging: scientific theory, by its very assumptions, operates within a materialist worldview.

But we do not live in “science”. We live in reality.

Are we searching for truth, or are we searching for a theory nested in unprovable assumptions?

If the supernatural exists, it is beyond the tools of science. But if we have a supernatural aspect to our existence, it is not beyond our experience. To limit ourselves wholly to a materialist view may deprive us of fully experiencing a part of ourselves.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues strongly for this line of thinking. He wrote:

“If you exclude the supernatural from science, then if the world or some phenomena within it are supernaturally caused – as most of the world’s people believe – you won’t be able to reach that truth scientifically.”

Are you missing out on something important by clinging to rigid materialism, perhaps because of a mistaken belief that such a worldview has scientific justification? Is there anything more to life?

Not to science. To life.

C. S. Lewis, certainly, had no doubt about the importance of our supernatural aspect. In Mere Christianity he described the human condition thus:

“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

What are you missing out on?

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Related posts:

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth (Part I)

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Believing and understanding

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Religious, not spiritual?

Over at Urban Mystic, Tim recently wrote a post about the ambiguous and très trendy phrase “spiritual, but not religious” (SNR). It seems to me that, while it can be used by those who are earnestly seeking to engage with God and their spiritual nature but have not found a home within organised religion, it is also often employed to denote a vague spirituality which avoids any of the more serious theological challenges.

I find this interesting because it seems to be a curious mirror of an attitude which could be called “religious, but not spiritual”. I would use this to label to cover both those who follow an organised religion but adhere only to the ritual, and also materialists who deny the spiritual altogether. It seems in each case that the individual is content with a superficial reading of the world:

  • the materialist looks at the physical world and refuses to explore the spiritual dimension at all
  • the SNR may simply experience a vague spirituality without delving deep enough to discover the nature and person of God

While it’s great to seek the spiritual, I think that there is a danger of stopping our seeking at the first glimpse, instead of plunging ever deeper into the mysteries of God.

We are called to be filled with the Spirit, not just lightly dusted!

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PS: I was amused also to discover today that there had been a recent article over at the satirical news site The Onion along an identical theme. The article describes an individual as follows:

” … while he believed in blindly adhering to the dogma and ceremonies of his faith, he tried not to get too bogged down by actual spirituality. “I’m not so much into having a relationship with God as I am into mechanically conducting various rituals,” [he] said. … [He] emphasized that although he did not personally agree with those who pondered the eternal, he had nothing against them.”

Pure coincidence, I promise!

All in agreement…

Yesterday we were playing drums and generally getting lost in rhythm and worship, and we started using a wooden whistle from the Rio Carnival – the sort that would normally be blown, in the words of one participant, by “a bronzed bikini-clad Brazillian beach babe”. And we were discussing the focus of our developing tribe, finding common ground and starting points of reference – foci on which we agreed and would like to build. In the discussion was a strong emphasis on the openness to inclusion (where appropriate, d’accord) of cultural elements and practices which may not necessarily fall within the accepted pantheon (if you’ll excuse the pun) of Christian traditional activities.

Of course, a Brazillian carnival would not necessarily be the precise cultural exercise that would would try to include. But at its core, it is a celebration and festival involving dance, music and good food and drink, which are surely elements of any culture. Indeed, are these not elements which are central to our humanity?

“That whistle is an instrument of the Devil!” thunders the preacher, pounding his fist on a large bible with a black leather cover. Sweat glistens on his brow, his face is red and contorted with passion. “It is made for a grotesque festival of lust and godlessness, a feast of destruction and sin!” he cries.

But Satan has no instruments of his own. All things are created by and ordained by God. And all people, of all cutures and nations, are in with God if they want to be. “the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, ‘All nations will be blessed through you’.” (Gal 3:8)

Thus it is not the whistle, or the food, or the person which is inherently wicked and perverse, but the practice and use to which it is put. And so why could we not put the same instruments to a different purpose? If the very body of Mary Magdalene, for instance, which had been entirely dedicated towards ungodly purposes, could be redeemed and made acceptable to God, is it so hard to believe that we could use a carnival whistle in worship? I mean, Christmas is pretty much a pagan festival, but the church certainly tries its hardest to extract something Christian from it…

Of course, there are certain caveats to this, as further mentioned in Galatians, where Paul exhorts us to be pure in our intent. “If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.” (Gal 1:10) But with that in mind, it’s all potentially useful for the sacred. Paul himself was an example of an instrument of wickedness reworked to divine purpose, which he points out later in that letter. Much of his text expresses concern for those who have come to know God, and yet still fall back into ways of ritual and law, where they should be exploring new freedom and joy in their faith, unbounded by petty restrictions of culture and tradition. He goes so far as to call the Galatians “foolish” and “bewitched”, in their habit of returning to routine and legalistic forms of worship, rather than following the spirit of their faith.

Anyway, enough with the heavy stuff. The point is, if you want to do your thang in worship by dancing naked in the desert while banging a drum, you go do that – just don’t try to impress anyone with it. Oh, and take some suncream.

All in agreement?

A Christian Response to Halloween

So, recently we’ve been involved with a process of conscious and deliberate willingness to seek the Divine in every aspect of life, and see God as truly present in all things. This was the starting point for an experiment in a Halloween Liturgy, an exploration of death, ancestors and limnal times from a Christian perspective.

The event was fairly unstructured, and in the true spirit of an exploration, we were all very willing to relax and see where the conversations took us. In fact, even what structure had been planned showed a strong resistance to our original ideas. Nic had taken a large pumpkin and carved it with a cross instead of a traditional jack o-lantern face, intending it as a strong icon of faith. But time, moisture and heat had prevailed over this lofty aim, and by the time we were all gathered the icon had decayed into a soggy and mis-shapen mess, with truly astounding levels of mold and putrescence inside. From a philosophical perspective, it became even more fitting for the evening as a sobering reminder of mortality and the fleeting transience of existence.

Halloween is an intriguing concept. As with most holidays, it is a curious amalgam of various traditions from various cultures, all fairly randomly squashed into an arbitrarily convenient date. But the two guiding principles are remembering the dead, and thanksgiving for the harvest festival.

The festivals of All Souls and All Saints which immediately follow Halloween in the traditional Church calendar are specific remembrances for those who have died, and of our hope of eternal life. These concepts are not terribly far removed from veneration of ancestors, of honouring family and community who have passed on, but who worked to build the society and families that we enjoy. Their labours and lives have benefitted us immeasurably, and it is fitting that we should honour them for this. In a Christian context, we say that God works through us. If we accept that our talents are blessings and gifts from God, then it is His work through others which we honour and praise. We do not honour the apostle Paul for his humanity, we honour the way in which he allowed God to work through his life. We honour a willingness to give himself mightily to the service of God.

It was peculiar in an African context to celebrate a harvest festival in October/November, as it is spring here. But, in keeping with the amalgamated nature of these things, it is a convenient spot on the calendar, so we’ll work with what we’ve got. Our celebration of the harvest took the form of a Eucharist consisting of apple cider and popcorn, which took me on a curious inward reflection on whether we were not in fact making a mockery of the sacrament. My conclusion was that it was in fact no less appropriate to thank God for his bounty and grace with these harvest offerings as it would have been with the more traditional wine and bread. For again, it is not the works of Man which brought forth the fruits of the Earth, but the grace and blessings of God. All things come from Thee, and of Thine own do we give unto Thee – and the body and blood of Jesus is as present in any other aspect of the world as it is in the standard Lord’s Supper fare. Our aim with any Eucharist is to have communion with our fellows and give thanks together for the blessings and grace of God in our lives.

With that in mind, a blessed limnal season to you all.