Reading the story of Nature

So, in a previous post I talked about how Nature doesn’t have a voice, and that this makes it difficult to ask it questions. Today I want to talk about an alternative way of interpreting nature.

Francis Bacon talked about reading “both books” in order to gain insight about God. By this he meant that God is revealed in scripture, because the Bible is God’s Word to us, and God is also revealed in nature, because he is the Creator of the universe. It seems to me that asking questions of nature can be very similar to asking questions of Scripture, which in turn is very similar to asking questions of a novel. Let me explain:

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Faith and rationality: a comic and a quote

XKCD-debugger

Science requires faith.

I realise that statement will upset people, but those are the facts. The comic above, from the excellent xkcd, presents the issue particularly well. To do science at all, we must at the very least have faith in our rationality and the ability of our brains to discover truth. Faith in the regularity of the universe helps, too.

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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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Where God meets physics

This article is reproduced from the University of Cambridge – the original can be found here.
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Eminent thinker and commentator Revd Dr John Polkinghorne, Fellow of the Royal Society, will be giving a public talk – titled A Destiny Beyond Death – tomorrow lunchtime at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. It is part of a series organised by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Here he gives an overview of his understanding of the relationship between what are generally considered to be two opposing schools of thought.


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Science and religion are two of the most powerful influences in contemporary society. Some see them as competing alternatives but, as someone who is both a former Cambridge science professor and an Anglican priest, I want to take them with equal seriousness. I am proud that Cambridge was the first university in the UK to endow a post in theology and science: the Starbridge Lectureship is held by Dr Fraser Watts.

The possibility of fruitful interaction between science and religion arises from the fact that both are concerned with the search for truthful understanding, to be attained through motivated beliefs. Of course, this is a philosophically contested claim, but my scientific experience encourages me to adopt the stance of ‘critical realism’ in relation for the insights of both science and religion. The term ‘realism’ signifies the belief that we can gain actual insight into the nature of reality, while the description ‘critical’ signals that this knowledge is never complete or absolutely certain, though sufficiently well supported by evidence to make commitment to it a rational act.

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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.

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Mount Everest aerial view by Kerem Barut

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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

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Religion, sex and truth claims

Truth claims are everywhere.

Sometimes the connections are complicated: our systems of justice are predicated on the assumption of free will, because without the choice to act or not in a particular situation, there can be no question of responsibility for actions. This in turn makes the truth claim that rigid materialism is false (because otherwise our actions are merely the results of random unguided processes – indeed, we are just collections of random unguided processes).

The ones I’m interested in today are a little more straightforward, but still quite subtle. For example:

“Religion should evolve with society.”

Buried in this statement is the claim that religious beliefs do not contain ultimate truth, and that religions are really just support clubs. If the core teaching of a religion should evolve, then it contains no absolute truth, for such truth would transcend social fashions.

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