God is not a god.

John Dickson from CPX recently posted a diagram illustrating, as he put it, why it’s dumb to say that religions are ‘atheists’ about each other, and that Atheists “just deny one god more” (as has been said repeatedly by Hitchens, Dawkins, Krauss, FitzSimons, et al., and many online warriors since).


I was involved in the ensuing conversation, and it seems the point needs more elaboration for some.

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George Ellis on physics and free will


George Ellis

Over at Scientific American, there’s an excellent interview with physicist-mathematician-cosmologist George Ellis.

Ellis is a world-renowned authority on cosmology, particularly the large-scale structure of the universe and the Big Bang. The interview deals particularly with some recent over-reaching claims by physicists such as Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, but also touches on the philosophy, free will, and the nature of scientific inquiry. The interview is conducted by John Horgan.

A few highlights:

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Thomas Nagel: a heretic amongst heretics?

There’s a fantastic article at The Weekly Standard about Thomas Nagel. Nagel may not be as much of a household name as Dawkins, but he is probably America’s most prominent philosopher and a serious intellectual heavyweight. But his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, was roundly attacked by the self-proclaimed “brights” of atheism. In short, Nagel thinks that the worldview of philosophical materialism is wrong, despite being a very useful presupposition of science. For voicing these thoughts, Nagel has been branded a heretic by his fellow atheists.

The most interesting aspect of this drama is that Nagel is actually just voicing what every one of those critics believes. Or at least, he’s voicing the line of thought that is revealed by their actions. Because nobody actually lives as if materialism were true (unless they are certifiably insane). As the article puts it:

As a philosophy of everything [materialism] is an undeniable drag. As a way of life it would be even worse. Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.

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Intelligent Design: dodgy science, worse theology

Electron micrograph of bacterium H. pylori, with flagella clearly visible. Image by Yutaka Tsutsumi.

Electron micrograph of H. pylori bacterium, with flagella clearly visible. Image by Yutaka Tsutsumi.


First, some clarification. We’ll start with what Intelligent Design is not:

Christian doctrine teaches that the universe, life, and human beings are created by God. That is, Creation was a deliberate act. Also, God is omniscient and omnipotent, and chose to exercise creation in a particular way. This is not the definition of Intelligent Design.

The teleological argument refers to a philosophical argument for the existence of God based on apparent design and purpose in the world around us. The universe and our place in it appear to be purposeful, and a purposeful creation suggests a purposeful Creator. Variations on this line of thinking can be traced back to before Plato, and it also features in the work of St Thomas Aquinas as one of his rational arguments for God’s existence. This is also not the definition of Intelligent Design.

So what is it?

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Grainge Clarke on the assumptions of science

There’s an excellent article by W. Grainge Clarke on the philosophy of science and how it relates to the Christian worldview.

On the topic of the underlying assumptions of the scientific method, he writes:

“These presuppositions are, by their nature unprovable, and some philosophers would consider them unacceptable. Behind the acceptance of these presuppositions lies the fact that modern science developed when the dominant worldview in Europe was Christian. If the Christian worldview is accepted they all make reasonable sense. However, on the atheistic worldview, that all is the product of matter-energy, time and chance, then none of these presuppositions are justifiable. To consider just one case: ‘The human mind is capable of rational thought’. If the human mind has been developed solely by non rational forces then there is no reason to believe that it can be rational and certainly it is not to be relied upon. Consider two computers one of which was designed and assembled by the IT staff at the local university and the other by the local kindergarten. Which is most likely to function well? Yet the kindergarten children have much more intelligence than blind chance.”

You can find the whole article here:

“Wrong fight, wrong concepts, wrong everything” by Grainge Clarke



Related posts:

Hypothetically speaking

Maths, science and abstractions

Where God meets physics


The Heathen Manifesto – a quick review

Over in the Guardian‘s website, prominent atheist Julian Baggini has written a Heathen Manifesto in which he calls for atheists everywhere to stop insisting on a polarised society and try to listen a little more to what he calls the “moderate middle”, those who lack religious belief but are also turned off by the froth and vitriol of Dawkins et al.

As Baggini puts it in his introduction:

“This manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.”

I rather like Baggini. More than many other atheist writers he is willing to conduct a reasoned dialogue rather than simply engaging in posturing and rhetoric. And I was very interested in his manifesto, so let’s go through it briefly. I’ve kept his headings to give this some sort of structure, and inserted my own comments at various junctures. Baggini’s manifesto is in italics, my own insertions are in normal typeface. Some sections have been trimmed for brevity.

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Scaling the Mountain of Truth

One of the many areas of overlap between science and Christianity is that they are both seeking the Truth.

The attainment of truth is often likened to climbing a mountain, and any hiker or climber can immediately understand why. Not only is it hard to do, but once you’re at the top you can suddenly see everything. What was previously obscured is now laid out clearly; what you saw in part from the plains you see in full from the heights. It’s a powerful metaphor, so let’s extend it a bit.


Mount Everest aerial view by Kerem Barut

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It’s not the “what”, it’s the “why”

I’m currently reading “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon. The book is set in New York during the late 1930s and ’40s – the Golden Age of comic books – and the titular heroes of the novel are budding comic book creators.

In an early scene they are discussing a potential hero for their own story: Should he fly? Should he be super-strong? Should he be invisible? (A little hard to draw that one, perhaps, but anyway…) Various combinations of superpowers are discussed, until Clay, the writer, has a sudden moment of revelation:

It’s not the what, it’s the why.

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The power of narrative

I’ve been reading Richard Swinburne’s Revelation, and it is a remarkable book. The first couple of chapters deal in great depth with analysing what the “meaning” of a sentence actually is, how (and if) it can be falsifiable, and how to discern exactly when such devices as metaphor, analogy and so on are being employed. (And yes, this really does need multiple chapters. Fortunately, Swinburne is an eminently readable philosopher and communicates so well that even this dry subject matter becomes fascinating in his hands).

Reading the book has gotten me thinking a lot about different literary genres: not just the reality of their existence, but rather the reasons that an author might choose to employ them.

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Elephants and blind men

The well-known story of the six blind men trying to describe an elephant is often portrayed as an allegory of religious diversity: the descriptions of the elephant are different for each person, based on the particular aspect with which he came into contact:

The first touches its leg and says that an elephant is like a tree, another touches its side and says that an elephant is like a rough wall. Another feels its tail and says that an elephant is like a piece of rope. Each comes into contact with a different part of the elephant and is convinced that their own explanation is correct and that the others are wrong. None of them realises that they are all experiencing just one part of the same elephant and that none of their explanations are complete.

The suggestion is that diverse religions are likewise each only seeing part of the fuller and more complete truth. The problem with this explanation is that it takes the perspective of a sighted person who can actually see the whole elephant: without this perspective the story makes no sense. To make the claim that “all religions are just seeing a different part of the same truth” is to claim knowledge of that truth, and to claim to stand in a similar relation to the truth as the sighted observer in the elephant story.

Over at bethinking.org, Chris Knight offers an alternative version of the story which provides significantly more illumination on the question of religious diversity. Read it here:

The Blind Men and the Elephant at the Zoo


Hypothetically speaking

It’s a common atheist article of faith  – at least amongst members of the more vocal denominations – that science is the only reliable path to knowledge. There are a few problems with this belief, mostly to do with the fundamental limitations of the framework in which scientific inquiry operates, which usually leads to flawed claims about what science can demonstrate.

The problem becomes even bigger when we move away from the proper domain of science but still try and sound all “sciencey” – generally to try and give a weak argument a veneer of authority. Thus we see such unfortunate mixed metaphors as “mind virus”, “meme” and “cultural evolution”, all of which take concepts from their proper scientific domain of biology and arbitrarily apply them to psychology and sociology, in which fields they are hopelessly inappropriate.

What exactly is the memetic equivalent for DNA? Has it been identified?

How exactly is a “mind virus” distinct from “a popular idea that I personally don’t like”?


“Memes” and other non-scientific ravings

This unfortunate tendency is displayed by professional scientists as well as dilettantes. Let’s look, for example, at an early instance of Richard Dawkins stepping off the edge of the scientific map but clinging desperately to the jargon. The passage below is from The Selfish Gene, in which Dawkins first introduced his odious “meme”:

The laws of physics are supposed to be true all over the accessible universe.  Are there any principles of biology that are likely to have similar universal validity? … I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet… Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

…And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.

…Consider the idea of God.  We do not know how it arose in the meme pool.  Probably it originated many times by independent `mutation’.

Here’s the recipe that Dawkins seems to be following to create his theory:

1. Take a tiny pinch of physics.

2. Misappropriate a dab of biology.

3. Mix in a whole lot of crazy guesswork and random analogies.

4. Top it off with a broad covering of atheism.

Let me unpack that in a bit more detail:

His opening statement about physics is misleading. He refers to the universal applicability of the laws of physics, but this is in itself an assumption. The laws of physics that we know about operate only within limits: we hope that there are even more fundamental (as yet unknown) laws that are universal, but it’s still a work in progress. The Dark Matter questions illustrate these problems.

From a wobbly starting assumption about physics, Dawkins leaps straight to a wholly unfounded assumption about biology – that it must operate the same way that physics (maybe) operates. From there he moves confidently to claiming to have identified a universal principle of biology (the existence of mutating replicators), and identifying (how, exactly?) a new example of the type (memes).

Then he dives headfirst into the jargon soup: meme-pools, memetic propogation, etc, freely borrowing from biological terminology with no explanation of how such analogues are justifiable.

This would be misleading enough if he were merely employing a bad metaphor, but he freely claims that “this isn’t just a way of talking” – his meme is an identifiable feature of the universe!

Wow, those are some big claims.

What’s his evidence for memes, by the way? Oh, that’s right: there isn’t any.

Well, as Dawkins famously said:

“…next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.”

How, in all this, is his use of “meme” more useful to the conversation than just saying “idea”? What it his justification for the new term?

Simple: it sounds more sciencey.


“God hypothesis” is not a scientific term

There is another misleading expression much beloved of Dawkins and his ilk, and that is “the God hypothesis”. Like “meme”, this terminology is pseudo-scientific claptrap masquerading as rationality.

The word “hypothesis” has a specific meaning in science: it’s a tentative explanation for something which can be further tested. But the expression “God hypothesis” is ridiculous, particularly when the discussion concerns Christianity (in which context it is most often employed). God supercedes the natural world, and is impervious to experimentation.

More importantly, the impression conveyed by the phrase “God hypothesis” is that “well, we don’t know how this thing works, so let’s invoke some supernatural creator of the universe and claim that he did it”. But this is also ridiculous and misleading.

Let’s take the origin of the universe as an example, since that’s where the phrase is most often used.

Scientific consensus is that time and space were created about 15 billion years ago, and also that observation is impossible of events “before” t=0. Thus scientific consensus also declares that scientific inquiry is limited to the period after the Big Bang, and cannot investigate a causal agent.

So the short version is, science can’t help us with the question of whether God created the universe.

At this point, big and fancy words like “parsimony” tend to get thrown into the conversation. The argument is that “God” is a complex idea, and introducing “God” just to explain the Big Bang is philosophical overkill. (Philosophical, note, not scientific – remember that we are off the scientific map).

However, the Christian view does not suggest God as an arbitrary causal agent: knowledge of God exists independently of Origin questions, and views of God creating everything (including time) from outside of creation predate the Big Bang model by nearly three millenia. Augustine, writing 1500 years before the genesis of the Big Bang theory, described God outside of Time and God as a Prime Cause – this in an age when an eternal universe was the norm for non-Christian thought. Similarly, when Thomas Aquinas developed his argument of a “necessary God”  in Summa Theologica, this line of reasoning was independent of the Prime Cause issue.

The point is, God already exists in the Christian worldview. We already have knowledge of God from personal and historical revelation, from rational inquiry into the Universe, and so on. If anything, it actually simplifies the picture for God to also be the prime cause – He is not invoked to fill a gap, He is already in the worldview.



Related posts:

Believing and understanding

Seeing the gardener

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…


The timidity of New Atheists

I’m disappointed by New Atheist writers.

Not specifically with their conclusions, although I think their investigative methods to reach said conclusions are remarkable sloppy. No, I’m more disappointed with their timidity. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al. are very happy to make grand and sweeping claims, but they seem to lack the intellectual courage to follow their arguments through. In the midst of their tireless self-promotion as evangelists of the bright atheist future, there is a marked unwillingess to be honest about the details of where exactly their ideals would lead humanity.

Morality is an interesting case in point here. Dawkins is happy to propose secular humanism as an alternative moral compass, despite its unfortunate tendency to promote eugenics and infanticide. This philosophy maintains that ethics and morality can be derived from human rationality (“ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation”, as the humanist articles of faith put it), despite the dearth of evidence for such rationality in human affairs.

The biggest problem with the humanist approach is that it requires staunch adherence to beliefs which are insupportable in the absence of God. “All people are created equal” is a wonderful basis for a just society, but without the Creator it makes no sense. People are not equal. They have unequal distribution of intellect, of athletic ability, of attractiveness. Unless there is independent justification for such a concept, an intellectually honest atheist should scrap it.

So let’s see where this level of honesty might lead. Friedrich Nietzsche – perhaps best known for his statement “God is dead” – believed that human behaviour was ultimately based on individual people’s “will to power”. Nietzsche claimed that the “death of God” would eventually lead to the loss of any universal perspective and any coherent sense of objective truth. Power is the whole of the law. His philosophy is startlingly echoed in Mao Tse-Tung’s description of his own ethics:

“I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s actions has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others. . . . [People like me want to] satisfy our hearts to the full and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me. . . . I have my desire and act on it. I am responsible to no one.”

Writing in The Irrational Atheist, Vox Day comments on this worldview:

“This philosophy is rational, but it is literally psychopathic in the sense described by Dr. Robert Hare, developer of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, a clinical scale used to diagnose psychopathy. He describes psychopaths as predators who use intimidation and violence to satisfy their own selfish needs. ‘Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.’

“While it is not possible to diagnose the mental health of a dead man, the tens of millions of Chinese murdered by the Mao regime tend to indicate that the close correspondence between the words of the twenty-four-year-old philosophy student and Dr. Hare’s description of psychopathy is not entirely coincidental.”

I don’t for a minute claim that this worldview is shared by all atheists, but I question what basis there is for an atheist to hold any different view. Why should the happiness of others be any kind of moral imperative?

Dawkins seems particularly content to close his eyes and ignore implications of his own arguments. Hence we see such foolishness as this:

“I do not believe there is an atheist in the world who would bulldoze Mecca – or Chartres, York Minster or Notre Dame, the Shwe Dagon, the temples of Kyoto or, of course, the Buddhas of Bamiyan.” (The God Delusion)

The well-documented destruction of 41 000 of Russia’s 48 000 churches by Soviet atheists between 1917 and 1969 would seem to be a glaring rebuttal to this belief. And we needn’t limit ourselves to a single example – the atheist regime in North Korea has destroyed 440 of country’s 500 Buddhist temples, and atheists in China have destroyed some 7000 temples and monasteries in Tibet.

The question, though, is why Dawkins would object to such destruction. If religion is abusive and freeing the religious masses from their delusions is his avowed aim, why not bulldoze all the places of worship? Unweave that rainbow, burn those books and start fresh! Show some guts and take your beliefs all the way!

Sam Harris, despite his overwhelming tendency towards illogical idiocy, comes closer to displaying the courage of his convictions. In The End of Faith he states that:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

He seems to be willing to accept that his vision of a global atheist utopia will require a lot of genocide to attain – although he’s not quite honest enough to phrase it that baldly. In his Afterword, he attempts to dispute the connection between atheism and the widespread atrocities which seem to be so characteristic of atheist governments:

“This is one of the most common criticisms I encounter… While some of the most despicable political movements in human history have been explicitly irreligious, they were not especially rational.”

Again – why should it matter? I’d love to hear Harris (or any other public advocate of atheism) say, “The tendency of atheist regimes to slaughter their own citizens is irrelevant – the truth is more important than the lives of other people.”

Because if you don’t believe that, why do you keep trying to bring about the New Enlightenment?



Related posts:

Secular (in)Humanism

Living a good and/or Christian life

Lumpy atheism


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.



Related posts:

Believing and understanding

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Plus ça change…


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


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


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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?



Related posts:

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

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Believing and understanding


On reading both books

Last night a friend posed an interesting challenge to the question of whether science and religion can be properly reconciled. His issue was not with any particular theory, it was rather a challenge in principle to the notion that the immutable truth of God’s word could ever be fully reconciled with the continual change and adaptation of scientific theory. The Bible doesn’t change, but our understanding of the universe does – how can these be fully compatible? It’s an interesting question and a fresh take on the problem.

Francis Bacon, the founder of the modern Scientific Method, said that to understand the world we needed both books that God has provided: the Bible and the “book of Nature”. I mention this because it seems to me that it is in this duality of revelation that we find our answer.

When we first read a Biblical passage, it may be opaque or it may have immediately obvious meaning. But further study of the surrounding text and the context in which the passage was written will bring a deeper and fuller understanding. It is not dissimilar to science, where study in a particular field advances and builds on previous understanding. The Biblical text does not change, but our understanding of it does. Likewise, the underlying principles and workings of the universe do not (as far as we know) change, but our understanding of them grows with further study.


A multidisciplinary approach

Closely related is the issue of uniform literalism in biblical interpretation, so let’s consider that as well:

The study of the “book of Nature” (or ‘Science’, for short) is not limited to a single discipline. At the most basic level, there are different techniques for experimental science (e.g. chemistry, quantum physics) and for observational / historical sciences (such as palaeontology or cosmology). To even attempt to use the techniques from one discipline in another is often impossible. We understand that there are appropriate ways of assembling and analysing data and of testing hypotheses, and we limit our techniques to those appropriate to our field of study.

Similarly, the Bible is not limited to a single style of writing. But there are clearly sections of history, sections of poetry, and sections of philosophy. Sometimes these overlap: the opening chapters of Genesis in particular are a poetic presentation of some fundamental (and actually very radical) philosophy and theology. They describe the nature of the universe and God’s relation to it, and give a philosophical explanation of the human predicament as an inevitable outworking of free choice. It is not a scientific treatise in itself, but interestingly it does provide a foundation for viewing the world scientifically. It indicates that the universe was created and is ordered by God, who exists outside of the universe but also sustains it. Importantly, it says that the created universe is not divine and is not to be worshipped: instead, it can be studied.

Works like Chronicles, Samuel, etc – and most importantly for Christianity, the Gospels and Acts – are historical. They record literal events in history. Archaeology and literary analysis of various sources (including records of historians ambivalent or hostile towards Christianity) can be applied to the historical statements in these books, and their veracity can be demonstrated. The evidence for these books is relevant to how seriously we take them, and any honest evaluation of the evidence indicates that their historical accuracy is extraordinary.

But to look at a passage in Isaiah such as: “The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands”, and say, “Well, that cannot be literally true and thus the resurrection must also be just a fable,” indicates a gross misunderstanding of the material under study.


An unorthodox view

Reflecting on Galileo’s clashes with the scientific and religious establishments of his day (about which read more here), John Lennox observed the following:

“Ironically, it was Galileo, a believer in scripture, who correctly challenged the reigning scientific paradigm in the name of science. One important lesson is that those of us who take the biblical account seriously should be humble enough to distinguish between what the Bible says and our interpretations of it. The biblical text just might be more sophisticated than we first imagined, and we might therefore be in danger of using it to support ideas that it never intended to teach.” (“Challenges from Science” in Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias)



Related posts:

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

Believing and understanding

Seeing the gardener


Secular (in)Humanism

From Wikipedia: “Secular Humanism is a humanist philosophy that espouses reason, ethics, and justice…”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Here’s the problem:

Secular humanism is an example of what has been called “cut-flower” morality. That is to say that it has grown out of a Western culture rooted in Christian principles and ethics, and it assumes that it can cut off and keep those attractive aspects while discarding all that bothersome baggage of Christianity itself.

If we look a little further into – oh, let’s call them the “articles of faith”, for convenience – of the Council for Secular Humanism, we see that:

“… religious experience … redirects and gives meaning to the lives of human beings. We deny, however, that such experiences have anything to do with the supernatural … We consider the universe to be … most effectively understood by scientific inquiry. We are always open to the discovery of new possibilities and phenomena in nature. However, we find that traditional views of the existence of God … are meaningless”

“Secular humanists may be agnostics, atheists, rationalists, or skeptics, but they find insufficient evidence for the claim that some divine purpose exists for the universe.”

So let’s break that down for what it’s really saying:

  • Religious experience gives meaning to our lives, but is not related to any spiritual reality and is in fact a meaningless illusion.
  • Furthermore, we accept any evidence and are open to any new possibility as long as it has no theological implications, because those are a priori defined as rubbish.

We’ll leave this hit-and-miss adherence to scientific rigour for another discussion. But it’s the morality that I really want to examine in this essay:

“… secularists deny that morality needs to be deduced from religious belief … we believe in the central importance of the value of human happiness here and now. We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation”

So, maximising human happiness is the ultimate goal, and while there is no “absolutist morality”, there are “objective standards”. It has been an ongoing (and notably unsuccessful) pet project of atheist philosophers for centuries to deduce a basis for objective morality apart from a theistic worldview, but let’s look at some specific examples. (Lest I be accused of cherry-picking particularly offensive statements made on an off day, I have included references to the relevant works if you would like to research them further).

Julian Huxley was the founding president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union in 1952, a broad umbrella organisation covering secular humanism, atheism, rationalism and the like. As well as being an extremely prominent secular humanist (and the first president of the British Humanist Association), he was a ground-breaking biologist in the field of evolutionary synthesis and the grandson of T. H. Huxley.

He was also a prominent member of the British Eugenics Society – indeed, was President of that institution from 1959-62. His view was that:

“The lowest strata are reproducing too fast. Therefore … they must not have too easy access to relief or hospital treatment lest the removal of the last check on natural selection should make it too easy for children to be produced or to survive; long unemployment should be a ground for sterilisation.” (Man in the modern world, 1947)

Another prominent voice among the secular humanists is Peter Singer, who is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and has held positions at the University of Melbourne, Monash University and the University of Oxford. In 2004 he was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. As well as supporting bestiality “as long as it’s not abusive to the animal”, Singer believes that early-term abortion is morally acceptable, not because of any usual pro-choice arguments, but because killing a human being is not necessarily wrong:

“[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life.” (Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, 1994)

He extends this line of thought further, arguing that killing an infant which the parents do not want is morally acceptable, as it would result in more happiness overall than allowing the child to live. (For the full discussion, see Practical Ethics, 1993 – it’s too depressing to quote extended passages).

I have chosen these passages for this essay, not because they are morally repulsive and I wish to score an emotional point, but because they are the logical outworkings of a secular humanist worldview when applied consistently to the field of morality by the leaders in the movement.

What I am even more concerned with is why we find these concepts repulsive. It is not our rationality which objects – I suggest rather that it is specifically our humanity that is repulsed by infanticide and eugenics.  And I assert that the logical product of secular “humanism” is a coldly rationalist shell with all traces of humanity removed.

Can the flower of our morality survive without the nourishing root of a Christian worldview? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, perhaps the finest commentator on the great Soviet experiment with institutional atheism in the 20th century, summarised his views thus:

“…if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”



Related posts:

Living a good and/or Christian life

Lumpy atheism


Overlap in the Magisterium?

Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of NOMA (nonoverlapping magisteria), in which science and religion address different issues and have no point of contact, is an interesting position. Despite contentions from leading atheists that Gould was just “trying to throw a bone to the religious camp”, if we read his original essay it is clear that his intent was very different: despite his own position as an agnostic, he was actually addressing concerns from Christian believers who had been told by their co-religionists that to believe in evolution was to deny Genesis.

But I would distinguish between “religion” and “theology”, as Gould does not (and nor do most who discuss this topic). Let’s unpack these terms a bit. Although “theology” is often used in common parlance as a synonym for “religious studies”, it’s really something quite different. Augustine of Hippo (aka St Augustine) defined the Latin term “theologia” as “reasoning or discussion concerning God”. Note that it’s not reasoning/study/discussion about religion, it’s study of God. “Religion”, on the other hand, could perhaps be defined as:

A set of beliefs, typically dealing with the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, and thus often (but not always) concerned with the Creator of the universe.

I know that Greek-derived words sound wonderfully academic, but the correct name for the department in most schools and universities would thus be “Religious Studies”, not “Theology”, as they tend to involve the study of belief systems.

Back to NOMA.

Although he specifies that they are non-overlapping, Gould does note that:

“…the two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer—and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.” (Nonoverlapping Magisteria, Natural History, 1997)

I would suggest that the difficulty in sorting the legitimate domains comes from our shift from a fully Theistic worldview to one which, while it is not actually atheistic, holds the question of God’s existence and agency as undetermined.

I believe that the difficulty in disentangling religion and science comes from trying to view the world without an understanding that it is all created by God. I would extend the NOMA concept: I would say rather that both science and religion are sub-sets of Theology.

This will raise difficulties. Unfortunately, “theology” as a word has been watered down to the point where it implies wondering vaguely about whether God exists and what He’s like, rather than “studying God”, without any unnecessary qualifiers. Likewise, “theologian” is basically understood as a synonym for a religious scholar, and I am certainly not saying that a student of scripture is ipso facto qualified to make pronouncement on scientific issues. And as for the reverse, I would again hold with Gould on the applicability of Science to religious questions: “Science simply cannot by its legitimate methods adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.”

The agnostic naturalist T. H. Huxley shared Gould’s view of Science and Religion operating in tandem, writing:

“True science and true religion are twin-sisters, and the separation of either from the other is sure to prove the death of both. Science prospers exactly in proportion as it is religious; and religion flourishes in exact proportion to the scientific depth and firmness of its basis.” (Science and Religion, 1859)

But without confidence in the existence and goodness of God as a starting point, nothing makes any sense, either in the scientific world or in the affairs of the human soul. Or, as C. S. Lewis put it, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”



Related posts:

Seeing the gardener

On reading both books

Two evolutionists walk into a bar…


Sympathy for science

I’ve had a week of philosophising, and I’ve actually been left with a more sympathetic view of the scientific mindset. As a scientist, this may seem curious, but I’ve always struggled with the attitude of strict dogma which typifies a lot of scientific thought. A recent discussion on via positiva and via negativa brought new insight – but I get ahead of myself with the jargon…

So, for a quick and dirty summary of the philosophy:
Via Positiva: attempts to explain something by positive comparison: eg, “God is good, God is powerful.”
Via Negativa: regards this approach as inadequate, because the subject of the comparison (God) is beyond a simple likeness to that which is known, so it rather attempts to explain it by negative comparison: eg, “God is not wicked, God is not weak.”

As far as implementation goes, the major influence in the western evangelical Christian mindset is the via positiva, whereas the Eastern philosophies focus exclusively on the via negativa (the koan, f’rinstance). And as is usually the case where there are two strongly entrenched camps in a debate, the most useful solution is compromise: it is clearly useful to explain something by referencing things with which we are familiar, but at the same time, we must understand that when describing God, He surpasses all comparison. Yes, He resembles “goodness” as we understand it, but His goodness is nonetheless beyond our mortal comprehension.

And so to Science, which since the time of Francis Bacon (or even since Aristotle, if you like), has been adamantly pursuing the notion that we can understand it all. If you have a question about how stuff works, keep looking for the answer, and if you work hard enough and examine it in enough detail, you can fundamentally understand everything.

But for the last 150 years, Science has been increasingly beset by challenges to that notion. From Heisenberg to black holes to electrons, there is stuff that is fundamentally unknowable. And as we delve deeper, we do understand more, but we also discover that there are little pockets which we cannot ever know. It’s not an issue of needing to work harder or investigate in more detail, we absolutely fundamentally cannot know it.

So we have electricity, and we learn about electrons – and our understanding has increased. And then we learn about the electrons orbiting atomic nuclei – and our understanding has increased. And then we learn that they occupy different energy levels and stay in discrete orbits – and our understanding has increased. And then we discover that they don’t actually exist anywhere, they only exist as a probability field in a particular orbit… and we have encountered an immovable obstruction to our complete understanding. And our faith in the fundamental comprehensibility of the world around us is profoundly shaken.

That’s gotta be tough.

Cures for the Healthy

I was recently invited to attend (as a guest, not a speaker) a debate entitled: “Belief: Poison or Cure? – An Atheist and a Christian present their case for or against faith“. As the invitation put it, “The UCT Atheist & Agnostic society and the UCT Student Y present a public debate on the subject of faith. Jordan Pickering (Student Y Staff, BTh) will outline some key reasons why Biblical faith is essential to a satisfying worldview, and Tauriq ‘Easton Ellis’ (AAS, ex-Islamic agitator) will reveal some of the inadequacies of belief.

I declined because I thought that it was unlikely to be an intellectually useful experience. Debates of this nature generally involve blind zealotry on the part of the atheist community – saying things like “religion is the cause of all the death and suffering in the world over the past thousand years!” (which nicely ignores that under the firmly atheist rules of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, et. al., life was just swell and everyone got along great). On the religious side, there is often an ill-advised attempt to reason a justification of faith as a good thing for the human condition, or to employ poorly-presented and questionable science as evidence. I also had a strong suspicion that there would be very little persuasive discussion taking place – more like two groups of fervent ideologists lining up for a polite version of a street brawl.

But I’ve been thinking (as I am sometimes wont to do), and it occurs to me that a debate is perhaps not the best forum for such a discussion. Debates are best confined to contentious issues on which public opinion is moot. There is considerable support (from an ethical, sociological or whatever other perspective) for each point of view, so a debate is a useful way to allow both sides to have a public discussion and respond to each other’s points. But it’s important to realise the limitations of debate – its usefulness as a medium is strictly confined to matters of opinion.

Indulge me in a little tangent. In many ancient cultures, the Earth (or whatever small region of the planet the society was familiar with) was considered to be overwhelmingly the largest and most significant object in the universe. There was a small, very bright object (crazy people called it a ball of burning gasses, but the clever ones knew it was really the chariot of Apollo or whatever local custom held) which gave warmth and light and went across the sky each day. There was another object, about the same size but much less bright and of inconstant shape, which traversed the sky at odd times (though most noticably at night). There were other tiny lights which hung in the night sky, just out of reach. But Earth was the only real heavyweight in this arena.

Then something happened. People started to become aware that their view was flawed – for a start, the whole Sun-Earth rotation thing was the wrong way around. And wait, the moon is actually tiny compared with the sun, but the Sun is unimaginably far away. And as for the stars – not only are most of them actually bigger than the Sun, but we don’t even have units to deal with how far away they are. Better invent some new ones quick. Wow, this is getting out of control. Oh, wait, now you say that our entire galaxy, which is massive beyond mortal comprehension, is in fact an insignificant speck in the vastness of the Universe? I think I need to sit down.

No really, I do need a seat. And a drink – better make it a strong one. I mean, here I was, human society, master of the known world, and now I find that, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, I’m a microscopic dot on a miroscopic dot on a miroscopic dot with a little sign saying “You Are Here”. I feel so small. So insignificant. Do you have any idea what this does to my self-esteem?

I tell you what – maybe we should have a debate about whether or not the universe really is that big, or whether the Earth is big and important and the stars are actually little fairy lights floating just above our heads. I mean, sure there is some indicators pointing one way, but I don’t really understand most of that, and anyway I liked it better the other way.

But, you see, having a debate won’t influence any of that. The Universe is massive beyond comprehension, and the Earth, as dear as it is to all of us, really is miniscule in comparison. It’s not open to discussion. It’s just the way it is.

And whether you consciously accept Him or not, God doesn’t cease to exist because of your opinion. He is, was, will be – you get the drift. It’s not something open to discussion, either.