Showing posts with label science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science. Show all posts

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Doctrines qua Data

Whilst I knew that this happened in general, in recent times I have personally been asked and challenged variously to defend the idea of doctrines. Are they not good insofar as they are practical? Are they not vestiges of past authoritarianism, that should now be dispensed with as progress is made? Is it not narrow-minded to see doctrines as true when something new could appear which discounts them? Can you really affirm a doctrine to be true without some other experience of its veracity?

These questions have been timely as I think about what it would mean to have a theology that expresses itself in language and conceptual structures of today (cf. Theology in the Language of Today). I would like to propose tentatively that doctrines could be viewed as the theological analogue of data in the natural sciences. In particular, I will use physics, since it is the sort of data I am most familiar with.

First, what does it mean for something to be data in the natural sciences? Data is the collection of facts that have been observed or measured in a system. In the very simple kinematics problems that are done in high school physics, the data set might be the stopping distance of some cart. The job of the scientist is to take that data, which could be called the "given", and explain why it occurs. A theory in physics is not the concoction of pure thought, but an explanation of empirical data, the starting point of all good science.

Data is hence not opinion. Data is the starting point for science. From the observation that the cart with bigger wheels is going slower when it gets to the bottom of the ramp, one begins to devise a theory that explains it. But the data itself is not science,  even though it is a necessary condition for science. This is why data or evidence is sometimes called the "given", precisely because it must be given to do science.

Data does not only start science, it constrains science. Does a particular scientific theory explain the observable phenomena? If yes, then it might be correct. If not, then it is to be rejected. Furthermore, data modifies or even re-invents theories: the hugely successful theory behind classical mechanics, for instance, was shown to be the limit of the more general theory of quantum mechanics when phenomena started to be observed that did not fit the classical picture. In all of this, however, the data is only added to. Nothing that was genuine data before is now considered non-data.

One moment where data looks like it is rejected is in the case of outliers or systematic error (for instance, faulty apparatus). Outliers are rejected because they are seen as not truly being part of the genuine data set. Similarly, when systematic error is found in an experimental method, setup or execution, the data collected is rejected because it is not real data. Here, by data I mean the actual evidence, what is really empirical, and I will set aside the issue of faulty data.[1]

My proposal is that doctrines are the analogues of data for theology. Let me set aside the epistemic barrier that separates empirical data from theological data (or doctrines), a very important issue. Suppose, also, we do have a clear idea of what doctrines are and are not infallibly defined. If we can assume to have a set of doctrines that have been infallibly taught (an instance might be the doctrine of the Trinity), then the parallel with data is relatively clear: we can talk about a doctrine set (viz a viz data set), about doctrines as the starting point for theology, or doctrines as constraining, modifying and reinventing theology.

For the Catholic, notwithstanding some rough edges, there is a doctrine set which has been infallibly taught. Some doctrines are papal, others conciliar, still others are known to be true without being explicitly defined, but however they are arrived at, the Catholic theologian should consider them to be true. The doctrines of the Church are the starting point, constraints and modifiers of Catholic theology. This view helps explain exactly what the job of the theologian is: just like the scientist with empirical data, the theologian is to start from doctrines and bring them together in a unified way. This could be done in just one field (say, moral theology or Christology) or in a more comprehensive way (like the brilliant work of St Thomas Aquinas).

This view also explains two other phenomena of Catholic life, ones which produce considerable tension: namely, the role of the Magisterium (and in particular, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) as well as the so-called "development of doctrine."

The "Thuggish" Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

If doctrines are essentially theological data, as empirical data is for the natural sciences, then for a Catholic theologian to go against the truth of doctrines, that is, to be heretical, is essentially the same as for a scientist to produce a theory in contradiction of data. Pseudo-science and pseudo-theology are related by their denial of what the relevant data (empirical or theological) is.  It is no use to deny genuine doctrines in theology in the same way it is pointless to deny genuine data in physics. In this manner, the actions of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which every so often issues a "Notification" relating to the erroneous propositions asserted by someone alleging to be presenting true Catholic thought, is just as reasonable as the scientific community condemning pseudo-science, like one of the science associations (for example, the American Physical Society) denying that young earth creationism can be thought of as science (not that I know of any time the APS has actually done this).

It is not "thuggish" to do so, as people have at times described the CDFs Notifications; the CDF is simply saying "no, whilst you may have taught this in good will, that particular stance is at variance with the facts; it cannot be taken as actually true." The stakes are much higher in theology than in science, however, as theology is at the heart of the lives of billions of people, and assuming that the Church is right for a moment, her theology has an impact on every human person. If scientific truths were of the significance of theological ones, it would be a moral obligation for the scientific community to issue every so often a condemnation of a particular stance as contrary to the facts of reality. If, as some people have claimed, teaching anti-evolutionism is child abuse, then it must be condemned as erroneous and actively opposed. To do anything less would be to cooperate with evil.

The problem some people have with the CDF is that they think doctrines are about "that which would be nice if true", whereas in fact, doctrines are more like "that which happens to be true." I do not regard all of the Church's doctrines are pleasant, but I do not believe them because they are pleasing to me, but because I consider them to be true. In this way, when some reformer tries, perhaps with the best of intentions, to change the Church by changing her doctrines, the reformer exclaims the scientific equivalent of "oh, but would it not be far better if classical mechanics were true, and not this complicated quantum mechanics!" Perhaps, perhaps not. But we must make do with the world we live in. Indeed, the further argument that claims to know better the mind of God is directly analogous to Einstein's famous statement relating to quantum mechanics that "God does not play dice." The facts of nature and God are both of the sort that regard our whims are largely irrelevant.

The Development of Doctrine

It also explains something else which has begun to be a topic of great interest in the last hundred and fifty years, particularly since Bl. John Henry Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: theology seems to change. No Christian theologian actually seems to believe exactly what the Christians in the first and second centuries believed. For instance, whilst I do not deny that the very earliest Christian communities believed in the divinity of Christ, it was not until a few hundred years later that the idea really took force. The Trinity is an even clearer example of development of theology.

It is true that, on the view I have just proposed of doctrines qua data, it makes no sense to talk about doctrines developing, but this seems to be a semantic difference. What Newman meant by the development of doctrine was that doctrines become more detailed and explicit over time - if you like, this is analogous to data being of improved quality as technology advances. In this sense, data allows itself to be "developed", but the underlying idea in Newman's thought is that theology develops.

Theology can develop as more doctrines are discovered. For instance, the Council of Nicea or the Council of Chalcedon, far from hindering the development of Christology, enhanced it. Doctrines produce creativity, they do not deny it, because creativity is about working with the given. Theology without doctrines would be like painting without colours or poetry without words - it would not be fruitful. I am reminded of a lecture given by the musicologist Jeremy Begbie in which he explained that the structure of music allows for freedom, a point echoed in another talk by Con Campbell, where he showed that the structure of jazz music was exactly what allowed for freedom in jazz bands. In this, they both apply that famous line of Jesus, that "the truth will set you free."

Of course, theology is not entirely about creativity, since in an artistic sense, creativity is about producing whatever is imagined, whereas theology is about discovering things that are true. Still, for development in theology to happen, creativity is to be possible, and for creativity to be possible, doctrines are important. The view of doctrines as data facilitates the connection between what is true and what could be true, by showing that doctrines are not stoppers to theology but the beginning of it.

Concluding Note

The idea of doctrines as (theological) data could be the starting point for a fruitful theology, though I doubt it is incredibly new. I am not aware of anyone else who has proposed it, although Bernard Lonergan may have, since from what I know about his epistemology, this view fits quite nicely. Alister McGrath may also have proposed it in his trilogy A Scientific Theology, but I have not read that yet. It is unlikely to be a very old idea, because "doctrines qua data" seems to be a framework that arises most naturally out of a post-scientific revolution culture. We now live in a culture, at least in the West, where the highest authority is science. For precisely this reason, the more scientific approach of viewing doctrines as analogous to how empirical data functions in the natural sciences may well be a fruitful manner of presenting the teaching of the Church to a scientific culture.


[1] If you are convinced that bad data ruins the parallel, or shows that the idea of doctrine is defective, then I would say this: bad data is like bad doctrine. In the Christian tradition, outliers would correspond to wacky Christian thinkers of ages past, or just their abnormal thought in one area. Origen, for instance, could be thought of as an outlier to be rejected on some issues. Systematic error arises out of getting doctrines in the wrong way - for instance, one might think of some heretical "council" as a good source of doctrine, where in actual fact, that council lacks the proper apostolic authority.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Theology in the Language of Today

It is imperative for the Church in all times and places to be in dialogue without the culture of the world, and therefore for the Church to be able to couch her theology in the language of the world. Christians have done this to varying degrees of success over the ages. Part of the problem is that each society has a multi-layered culture which incorporates a different lexicon, and so the "vernacular" changes depending on who one is speaking to.

Why is contemporary language important? Many reasons spring to mind: one cannot truly believe what one does not understand, one will not learn what one cannot understand, mental barriers emerge when somebody uses language that is foreign. In this sense, relatable language is evangelical.

Another important reason is that language furnishes our conceptual framework. According to some people (in particular, adherents to linguistic determinism), the grammar and vocabulary of a language structures and could even limit and determine human knowledge and thought. Even if a theory of strong linguistic determinism is false, it remains clearly true that language provides clarity to concepts which would be too vague to communicate otherwise. Since language defines concepts for communication, it follows that understandable language is crucial for communication of the Gospel.

The fact that concepts appear in linguistic form is part of the reason why Christians have been hesitant to translate their conceptual frameworks into the vernacular of an age: precision arises when one uses a particular language, and dead languages have the bonus of remaining static and precise. Ecclesiastical Latin is an instance of a language the Church has declared "sacred", simply for the reason that theology most precise in Latin, in part because much theology was developed in Latin, in part because it is now dead and immutable.

This hesitation is not without due reason, as the East-West schism shows: according to the 1995 document "The Greek and Latin Traditions Regarding the Procession of the Holy Spirit" from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the famous filioque clause which separates the Western and Eastern Church doctrinally may not be a doctrinal difference at all, but a linguistic issue. "Procedere" has been used to translate "ἐκπορεύεσθαι" and "προϊέναι", whereas only the latter translation would reflect the doctrine affirmed by the Catholic Church, the former indeed being heretical. Whilst the East-West schism is more complicated historically than one simple doctrinal difference, the filioque controversy does indeed highlight the problems that can result when doctrines readily understood in one language are transferred to another. Less fundamental issues may well lie at the heart of other doctrines, such as papal infallibility, as John Ford points out in a recent article.[1]

Whilst theological orthodoxy is important, it is no substitute for the essence of the Church's apostolate, which is its missionary commission. So the Church must, despite risks, translate her theology into language which can be understood by the receivers of her missionary impulse. Who are these people? The Church's "preferential option for the poor", as well as her Master's anointing "to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:17, quoting Isaiah) makes clear that those who live in poverty are the first port of call for the missionary Church. So language appropriate to that context is required, and a rhetoric which is intelligible to the poor necessary.

Without minimizing the important duty towards the poor, the missionary comission is to preach the Gospel to all the nations, which includes those that are not marked distinctly by poverty (understood at least in part in material terms). This means that other groups need the Gospel translated into language fitting for their context - including my own, the analytic tradition in philosophy and the natural sciences. What does it mean to couch Christian theological concepts in the language and vocabulary of these groups?

I will not here embark on such a monumental project, although any Christian who lives in a particular cultural context must address the issue of formulating the core tenets of Christianity at some point, lest they deny their core vocation as Christians as missionaries. What I will do is make a few comments about past re-formulations of Christian theology, and ones underway at present.

It is important to note that this has been done before, in the hands of one of the greatest theological minds in the Western tradition, St Thomas Aquinas. In his day, Greek philosophy was the prevailing intellectual norm, and his Christianizing of Aristsotelian philosophy has profoundly marked the Western Church. St Thomas therefore presents us with the paradigmatic case of theology in dialogue with philosophy, even the philosophy of pagans like the ancient Greeks. It is true that some elements of Aristotelianism had to be condemned, but it equally true that the insights of Aristotle were important for theology, and if nothing else, allowed greater intellectual rigor in Christian theology.

Unfortunately, a large portion of Catholic philosophy has attempted to emulate St Thomas' Aristotelianism in a time in which it is untenable, instead of taking the dialogue insight and Christianizing the new "pagan philosophy." Just like in St Thomas' time, there will be many sceptics that such a venture is possible - a quick look at the Condemnations at the University of Paris will suffice to show that they abounded - and yet he managed to pull of an incredible feat. We must now turn to modern philosophy to see how current language can be used to express Christian truths, and so give renewed intellectual rigor to Christianity. The work of saints like St Edith Stein and St John Paul II are good places to start in the continental tradition's sub-area of phenomenology (I am unaware of any analytic philosophers in phenomenology), and perhaps John Joseph Haldane and Richard Swinburne, not to mention the Protestants Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, can form some sort of beginning of the analytic tradition's side of things.

The natural sciences must also be addressed with the eye's of a theologian, and I can think of no better starting place than the Anglican theologian Alister McGrath's trilogy A Scientific Theology, which I have the treat of delving into his first volume later on this year. Just like Greek philosophy might have been considered out of bounds for theology because it was pagan, so now the naturalism that prevails in scientific circles should not deter Christians from entering into it with the firm convictions of Christ.

I do not know what form a scientific theology would take, and yet it is undoubtedly necessary for a fruitful dialogue between religion and science, which is probably considered the most important intellectual authority in the West today. I do not know what an analytical philosophical theology would look like, and yet for intellectual dialogue between Christianity and what probably should be considered the highest intellectual authority, philosophy, it is crucial.

I find myself in the strange position of being in the middle of the three: a Christian, and therefore a theologian, a philosopher, and a scientist. Whilst this characterization is certainly unfair, some might consider my area of science the very pinnacle - physics - if only because of the reductionism that is virally present in society. Misconceptions notwithstanding, if it is the case that I continue to learn about these fields of study upon which I am embarked, I should in principle be particularly capable of the task at hand. It is not a nice idea; it is a necessary one.

[1] Ford, John, "Infallibility - terminology, textual analysis and theological interpretation - a response to Mark Powell", Theological Studies, 74 (2013).

Friday, 17 January 2014

Polkinghorne's Perspective on Science and Religion - Reflection on "Quarks, Chaos and Christianity" by John Polkinghorne

I read this book earlier than I had planned to (January as opposed to July) because I have gone through my January reading list, and also because the title intrigued me: I have long retorted to the claim that I believe in some invisible being (God) and that such a belief was ridiculous by pointing out that, as I study physics, I seem to believe in all sorts of things that are invisible. Worse, although I claim that God could be seen when he was incarnate in Christ, quarks (said to be some of the most fundamental "stuff" that make up matter - protons and neutrons, for instance, are made up of three quarks each) are intrinsically invisible; our current scientific understanding is that we will most likely never be able to directly observe (and probably never even separate) quarks. And yet, we believe they exist. So it must not be too ridiculous to think that invisible things exist, after all.

But Polkinghorne's book, Quarks, Chaos and Christianity, is not a response to believing in invisible things, even though he does mention the connection in the very last pages. This book is not a detailed statement on his harmonizing of science and religion, or of a deep discussion of the connections and divergences between the two: this book, as he says, is basically an outline of such theses born out of the sort of questions he gets asked when he speaks on these issues.

Before I proceed to go into my thoughts on the book, a note on who John Polkinghorne is: the man was, for a very long time, an eminent physicist and professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge, and when he decided that he had done his part in the field after many years, he became a clergyman in the Church of England. In fact, the chap is Sir John, because he got knighted in 1997, and like many eminent religious scientists, he has also received the Templeton Prize. He knows his physics - which means that he does not suffer from the same level of accusations of misusing science, as some philosophers and theologians do, sometimes baselessly, sometimes not - and he knows his theology. Which means, as various people have noted, that he is an ideal candidate to speak on these issues.

The book has eight short chapters, each dealing with some of the themes that arise in science-religion discussions. I will comment on some of them, since the others seem to present mostly "well-travelled" points of view:

1. Fact or Opinion?
2. Is There Anyone There?
3. What's Been Going On?
4. Who Are We?
5. Can a Scientist Pray?
6. What About Miracles?
7. How Will it End?
8. Can a Scientist Believe?

1. The three most compelling aspects of science is how useful it is, how effective it is in answering questions about the world we live in, and importantly, how much agreement it commands. Religion, by contrast, is said to either be universally false, or at best, a matter where opinions are higher than facts. Science is about facts, religion about opinions, and so obviously science must win. Generally, my response is that religion, somewhat like philosophy, may not give answers that command universal respect, but is nonetheless a crucial part to knowing what is true; it has more scope, asks and answers different questions, and answers them in different ways. Supposing some religious account could be true, the diversity of religious views is no testament to their universal falsity.

But interestingly, Polkinghorne takes the opposite stance, and his point is important to heed: science isn't really about facts anyway, it's about interpretations of facts. One could hardly publish a scientific paper that was just data (or "facts") - one gives discussions, organizes the data, speaks of its significance. In short, the aim of science is the theory, not the facts. Insofar as fact and theory are mixed, then, the distinction between the evidence and opinion is not quite as clear cut as some would like to believe it is. Certainly, there are reasons for the opinon, but they are indispensable. He also points out the need of opinion to judiciously consider one's data set - sometimes one must eliminate some data because it is background noise, but that can also lead to problems.

He does go on to speak about the religious side, but the terrain is quite well gone over, and I will not dawdle on all his views, just the ones that seem to bring a new perspective.

2. The second chapter gives a brief overview of his reasons for thinking that there is "Someone out there." He provides two basic arguments, one from fine-tuning, and one from the applicability of science.

I do not think fine tuning arguments are very good, for two reasons: first, they are inherently probabalistic, and yet, it seems difficult to see how one would know about what other values the fundamental constants could take on purely scientific grounds, so it's not so clear to me that we do know the unlikelihood of this universe. Second, design type explanations to these sorts of problems seem to me to override the general rule of thumb in science to prefer metaphysically economic explanations: yes, it could be that angels pull the Earth around the sun and make all the effects of gravity look like what they do, and yet it is so much simpler, or in other words, metaphysically economical, that it be the result of attraction between masses.

The applicability of science is a far more interesting argument, one which produces peer-reviewed philosophy papers in eminent journals every so often - so it is not a ridiculous argument, although I grant that Polkinghorne's presentation of it seems quite weak. What is more interesting, and is something he could have developed more, is the idea that the a priori knowledge of mathematics is so unusually applicable to the real world, which is usually only knowable a posteriori. Nonetheless, I am still uncomfortable of drawing theistic conclusions at this point.

3. This chapter deals with two underlying questions that pop up frequently, and those are "what's God up to now?" and "what about suffering?" The problem of evil is basically given a free will defence, interestingly, even extending a certain sort of freedom to the natural world, and so attempting to solve both the moral and natural evil problems. The curious thing about his "free-processes defence" is that it involves a sort of necessity clause - the fecundity of evolution requires the capacity for both positive and negative mutations, for instance, and so a free world necessarily has things like cancer. It's not clear to me that the free-processes defence works, but it's also not clear that it fails - I simply do not know the possibilities and necessities involved in the creation of the world.

His point on what God is doing now can be summed up in one, very important, line:

"God is not a God of edges, with a vested interest in beginnings. God is the God of the whole show."

By this he means that God does not simply create and then move on to more interesting things, but that creation is a continuous act of unfolding and sustaining. Evolutionary biology is not atheistic unless one understands God's place to be that of setting things in motion purely or zapping things into existence. More generally, events that look like chance and events that look necessary are, in a sense, no problem for the theist, only insofar as the theist understands God not to be just the Alpha and the Omega, but all the letters in between also. This much seems sort of obvious to me, but it is interesting how often it is neglected, even though it is foundational for Christian theology: I am being "made new in Christ", for instance, and this is not just a once of zapping thing, but an inward transformation that happens over time.

5. This was perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book. His answer is yes, obviously, and yet he does not give the response that has grown to be a sort of common cop-out: that prayer is basically a form of self-help with a spiritual dimension. His proposal is what might be considered a "classical physics" version of QDA (Quantum Divine Action) based on chaos theory. On this view, God basically works in small, non-perceptible ways, which have great influences on other events because of the butterfly effect. I don't know how powerful that makes God's action in the world, but I suppose that could work for small things, like answering prayers.

That might work, and it would certainly explain why prayers are not usually answered in such a way that precludes natural explanations. It's not a falsifiable view, but as long as God could be acting in that way, it does not rule the possibility out. What makes Polkinghorne's view in this chapter difficult is that he, because of free choices and so forth, "even God does not yet know the unformed future." It is hard to accept such a conclusion. In fact, one does not have to, since I think the concept of "middle knowledge" effectively deals with the issue of knowledge about free agents without determinism. For the record, when applied to soteriology, this view is often referred to as Molinism.

8. For Polkinghorne, the reason that science and religion can go well together is that they are looking at different questions. The essence of his harmonization project is summed up in his last paragraph's opening sentence:

"Religion is our encounter with divine reality, just as science is our encounter with physical reality."


Whilst I find Polkinghorne an interesting intellectual interlocutor, I must admit to preferring other Anglican clergymen's comments on science and religion, such as the less eminent as a scientist, but far more prolific as a theologian, Rev. Alister McGrath. Polkinghorne's chaos theory approach to divine action is one I would like to pursue further, and I can look with renewed excitement towards the chaos mathematics course I was going to take in 2015. His "continual creation" point is important, but it can simply be said to be biblical, and so "unoriginal." His views on science would probably be helpful for many, but I am largely convinced by scientific anti-realism (which is a view mostly rejected by scientists, I would say because scientific realism is nicer) and his only response to that view is a basic no miracles argument.

So whilst this short book was worth the read, I concur with a certain Masters student who was defending her thesis in a seminar room which I chanced to walk into: Polkinghorne answers questions very well, because he asks the easier questions.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Reflection: "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins

Disclaimer: this reflection will sometimes be very one-sided, since I decided to omit quoting Dawkins extensively. Many sections will make little sense without having read the book, for instance, the part on Gasking's parallel argument refutation of the ontological argument, where I say I reject all premises except perhaps the first, makes no sense unless one is familiar with his argument.

I got given "The God Delusion" in 2012 by a family member for Christmas, and I finally got round to reading it at the beginning of 2014.

For the strange person who is unfamiliar with Richard Dawkins or the movement of which he is part, some of which take this book as a manifesto, Dawkins is one of the so-called "New Atheists", which seems to be a 21st century popularization of atheism by Christopher Hitchens (now deceased), Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and, of course, Richard Dawkins. Some have added, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Stephen Hawking to the list (which I would reject) and Lawrence Krauss (who seems apt for the role), Victor Stegner, Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne... Exactly who is a new atheist and who is just a "plain atheist" is quite irrelevant to my thoughts on this particular book.

I would preface my comments by saying I enjoyed reading the book, for the most part. Its rhetoric is engaging, and even when he seems to claim to be on track, he is largely riding his pet steed Tangent (p. 198), so I feel quite comfortable with my theism, moreover, my Catholic Christianity, even whilst reading most of the book. His anecdotes were interesting, the fan and hate mail he has received and now recounts is insightful, and his forays into evolutionary biology are certainly to be read, because at the end of the day, Dawkins is a scientist, and an award-winning evolutionary biology popularizing one at that. So I can agree with the large number of endorsements (largely, it seems, from newspaper reviews) that describe "The God Delusion" as readable, spirited, passionate, clever. Even, with due qualification, "intelligence and truth-telling" (from Claire Tomalin) at some points in the book. The idea that the new atheist literature is moronic certainly needs to be either rejected or nuanced for it to be taken seriously.

What claims does he make? The very well ordered book seems to have ten points to make, about one per chapter: 

1. He is not concerned with Einstein's God, or the religion based on the scientific awe of nature - he aims to debunk religions with personal gods, in particular the Abrahamic ones. These are undeserving of the pedestal of respect allegedly given to them.
2. The existence of God is a scientific question, which, whether difficult to answer or not, can only be addressed by scientific or empirical means.
3. All arguments advanced for the existence of God fail, most of them quite miserably.
4. God almost certainly does not exist - he advances a standard "who designed the designer?" objection.
5. Religion is a natural phenomena that can be explained by reference to our evolutionary past.
6. We are not good because we obey precepts, models or commands given in any form of holy book, our goodness has evolutionary roots and explanation, and there are secular theories of ethics.
7. We would not follow any holy books nowadays anyway without being very selective, presumably referring to some extra-textual standard of morality, which just goes to show that morality was not derived from the books anyway. Our morality changes, mostly for the better, as society advances.
8. Religion is not only irrational, it is not benign, either. It is anti-rational, particularly unscientific, lends itself to wrongful opposition to homosexuality and abortion, and even moderate forms of religion are the basis for fanaticism. 
9. Religion is abusive to children, it leads to physical and mental abuse (particularly the latter), to backward thinking - although, holy books have cultural impacts, and so their literary merit is to be conserved.
10. Religion may fill gaps in the human psyche, but it does not make it more true, and a rational scientific perspective may even be grander and more emancipated.

Allow me to briefly take his theses in turn by merely expressing my thoughts and reactions to some of the major points:

1. Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan saying that religions do not expand their wonder with the amazing discoveries of the universe, instead "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." Since this is the god that Dawkins is concerned with rebutting, it seems clear that he is talking about the wrong god, not a god recognizable to Christian theology, at least none of the stuff I have been reading. To think, as some people seem to suggest to me occasionally (and Dawkins seeks to imply) that the God of Christianity, said to be omnipotent and omniscient, is somehow threatened by the magnitude of the universe, is an odd claim indeed.

The first chapter of Dawkin's book is more to explain that Einstein's God is not being talked about here - not the mathematician God of Paul Davies, either, as he would say to John Lennox in a related debate. Somehow, Dawkins has let it slip under his capable mind's radar that, when I profess belief in "one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; of all things visible and invisible" (the opening of the Nicene creed), I happen to mean what I say, and now that we know that the universe is billions of years old, that the universe is mindbogglingly big, I am not led to question that belief.

His other point in this chapter, that religions are accorded a strange amount of respect, seems accurate. There is a tentativeness to talking about religion, as if political beliefs could be shouted at, but religious ones had to be politely nodded at. Living in the generation that I do, in the social circles in which I am, at a secular university studying both science and philosophy, I am rarely ever accorded that politeness (other than to avoid the issue completely) - but I do acknowledge its persistence in wider culture, and agree with its strangeness from a truth-concerned point of view, in part because one religion can be correct, at best.

2. It is actually a doctrine of the Church that the existence of God can be known from natural reason, so since Dawkins often conflates science and reason more generally, I might agree with him. His argument for it seems plausible at first: a universe with God would be different to a universe without God. Except, that arguments falls flat if one is a theist: if God exists, then it is so by necessity, and therefore there is no such thing as a universe without God - it is incoherent. On the other hand, taking the atheist point of view, if God does not exist, it is necessarily so, and therefore testing the hypothesis against the God-universe hypothesis is to test it against something else which is, at some level, incoherent.

That illustrates the first major issue I have with the idea of God as a scientific hypothesis: that science deals with contingencies, and whether God exists or not, it is not contingent. The second problem I have, is that hypotheses make predictions - but what sort of predictions does the God hypothesis make? It seems to me that the core God of theism is a hard hypothesis to extract predictions from in the first place. How would such universes be different, even in principle? One would think, following Stephen Law's article in the journal Religious Studies ("The evil-god challenge", 2010), that the God hypothesis (presumably, the good God hypothesis) could be tested by reference to the evidential problem of evil. Instead, Dawkins tries to venture down the "prayer does not work" line by reference to the widely-disowned (before and after the experiment) study by the Templeton Foundation. Swinburne's response seems perfectly acceptable to me, and Dawkins fails to respond to the critique levelled Swinburne other than to caricature his response to what he should have raised in the first place, the problem of evil.

This chapter also involves a rejection of Gould's NOMA theory ("Non-Overlapping Magisteria", the idea that science and religion talk about different things), and an attempt to explain away why it seems favoured among many atheist scientists. I lean towards agreeing with the rejection of NOMA, and replacing it with some principle of “somewhat, but not very, overlapping magisteria” – I can see why SBNVOM has not taken off yet, however.

3. His discussion of first mover and cosmological arguments is so bad, I hardly feel I can mention it, since it occupies a scant two and a half pages of a 420 page long book. Dawkins must surely have straw in his eyes, from such an enormous, yet vacuous, strawman that he erects in place of the rather long and serious discussion given to just the cosmological argument by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Even though I disagree with some of the ideas inherent in ontological arguments,[1] his rejection of St Anselm's without reference to the history and development of the argument, let alone his inability to understand it, is laughable. He does make hand waving reference to refutations (Kant's is suitable for rejecting Anselm's, as well as the clearer adaptation by Descartes), but Douglas Gasking's parallel argument is an absurd rebuttal, not least because of the implausibility of all the premises (except perhaps premise 2, even though I reject it regardless, but even then, there is a false equivocation that appears in premise 3 - merit and impressiveness are hardly the same quality).

The rest of the arguments are ones I find relatively un-compelling anyway, even though his peculiar rejection of Lewis' "Liar, Lunatic or Lord" argument (which Tim Keller pointed out should be amended to "Legend, Liar, Lunatic or Lord") on the basis that Jesus may simply have been honestly mistaken about his divinity is yelling to be placed in the "lunatic" category - what sort of sane person is honestly mistaken about actually being God incarnate? The rest of the section might be considered a discussion of the "legend" category, but I find his biblical scholarship very poor.

4. Dawkins labels God the "ultimate Boeing 747", in reference to Fred Hoyle's oft quoted statement that living beings are as improbable as a hurricane passing through a scrapyard and assembling a Boeing 747 aeroplane. In essence, his argument is that God is far too complicated to postulate as a designer, because then one would have to explain who or what designed God.

Dawkins agrees that chance is an absurd explanation of life, but he says that evolution by means of natural selection is a perfectly sensible alternative, and that this "consciousness-raiser" should alert everyone to the possibility of finding similar mechanisms for the explanation of design, or apparent design, in other fields. I think his discussion of cosmology is tainted by an overly-biological perspective, but I cannot claim to be very much of an expert on cosmology regardless, and so I must let that pass. What taints the whole chapter (other than the biology bits, which are very interesting) is his over reliance on natural selection qua consciousness raiser: I am perfectly happy to accept that evolutionary biology has the correct principles for explaining apparent design in life, and I would pursue my research in physics perfectly happy to accept similar principles to refute cosmological fine-tuning arguments - I find them unconvincing anyway. What I find overstated is the idea that, since principles to explain something previously unexplained have been discovered in the past, one is never warranted to consider that other principles will not arise to explain, for instance, cosmic fine tuning. Like I said, I suspect they will be found, but consider for a moment the inverse argument:

"Certainly, science seems to point to atheism at the moment. But just like when it was discovered that the universe had an absolute space-time boundary, a beginning, and people could make more convincing cosmological arguments, I suspect that science will discover other means of proving the existence of God, even if right now it looks like science is atheistic."

See the inversion? The big bang theory could be claimed by the theist, in much the same way as Dawkins claims natural selection can be taken, as a consciousness raiser, something that shows us that the unexplained can be explained. Once again, both lines of thought seem implausible to me - but they also appear rather symmetric.

Chapter 4 contained, as he says (p. 187), his central argument. On the face of it, the argument may appear to be a rejection of the argument from design - which I rejected before I read the book - but in actual fact, the argument is intended to run deeper: by claiming that God is far too complex to be the explanation of the design in the universe, he is also trying to undermine the God hypothesis as a conceivable reality at all, since God is presumably "irreducibly complex." Leaving aside the strange idea that God might have arisen out of natural processes - surely a complete misunderstanding of the God of any of the monotheistic religions - the argument must still be dealt with somehow. Here is my brief response:

Dawkins has not really shown that God is complex at all. Classical theism has always held that God is simple - God is made of one, indivisible substance, after all, and since it makes no sense to speak of "half God", Dawkins is wrong that God must be complex. He asserts it many times, but provides no justification for his mere assertion. Another explanation could be given, generously granting that God is internally complex, but pointing out that God is a necessary being, and so requires no explanation.

The very keen eye will note, as did Lloyd Strickland ("The “who designed the designer?” objection to design arguments", International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, August 2013) that I have "helped myself" to the attributes of God from classical theism. Strickland's critique is only suitable if I were trying to prove the existence of God from design arguments; currently, I am merely defending the possibility of God's existence from the Dawkins argument, which claimed to provide more than a refutation of the design argument (we might agree, for different reasons) but a refutation of the existence of God, or nearly so: he dealt with arguments for the existence of God in chapter 3, this chapter was titled "Why There Almost Certainly is No God." Hence, in a defence of God, I can rely on the attributes of God. 

5. This chapter was by far my favourite: in average popular attacks on religion, explanations are given for religion which make very little evolutionary sense, so I was chuffed to have a defence of "religion as a natural phenomenon" from an evolutionary biologist.[2] If I were to presuppose naturalism, then I would have to explain away religion, and I find Dawkins' account decisively plausible, on face value.

Since I do not assume naturalism, I think I am entitled, as a theist, to remain in my belief that human beings, as definitively religious animals, are manifesting their own awareness of being in the image of God, and an awareness of the divine. But, that interpretation flows from my Catholic theism, and I find it perfectly natural that Dawkins and Dennett disagree with me.

6-7. I combine these chapters because their thesis is similar: that evolution explains our moral sentiments, that real morality is secular, that morality progresses as societies develop, and that it would be horrible for people to follow holy books anyway. I disagree on all three latter points.

I agree that many of our moral sentiments are due to our evolutionary past, and, as Dawkins says, that our more generalized moral feelings are more likely to be mis-firings of natural selection, now that we are not in the same sort of habitat as before. Sure - but that does not justify them, for the same reason that Dawkins was so clear to point out when he spoke of mis-firings of evolution to produce religion, as a by-product of some other evolved tendency, this does not justify our moral sentiments.

I can agree to the possibility of secular morality, and many theories have been proposed: from Kant, to Mill, to Rawls, and so on. At one point in the book, he suggests that Kant may have been right, since it makes Kantian categorical imperatives make sense of our moral feelings in the case of the trolley problem. Later on, (ch. 8) he favours a consequentialist point of view, saying that abortion could not be wrong since the child has no nervous system at first, as opposed to the mother, which certainly does. The contradiction annoyed me - yes, Kant does accord with our moral feelings in the trolley problem, but he would be opposed to abortion, because the pre-born human is not being treated as an end in itself. Yes, consequentialism may well accept the possible rightness of abortion in many cases, but it would disagree with our moral feelings in the case of the trolley problem. Dawkins is free to, if rationally compelled by it, accept a secular theory of ethics. But he cannot accept contradictory ones and expect to be taken seriously.

This illustrates why I do not think that real morality is secular. If by real one means the morality that is generally practiced, then real morality is not secular or religious, it seems to be some form of moral sentimentalism. People may be Kantian when given the trolley problem (or its many corollaries), but they are not Kantian when it comes to other activities. People may be consequentialists in some cases, but they are not universally so. Real morality is, therefore, neither Kantian nor consequentialist - or Rawlsian, or Aristotelian, etc...

Does the moral Zeitgeist, the developing morality of societies, provide a better foundation? It is entirely unclear whether that is an objective standard: one thinks current morality is better than previous morality, surely in part because one adopts the current morality, and rejects the previous one. Even beyond that, I object the the deification of personal choice above the common good, which is a firm part of our contemporary morality, and other similar trends - I hardly think current rape culture is superior even to hyper-Puritan values, either. Which way the trend is going is unclear.

Surely, it is better than the myths of holy books, right? I must now speak as a Christian, for I am not familiar with Islamic jurisprudence and developing ethics, or with Jewish Rabbinic texts, both of which would shed light on their original holy books. As a Christian, I hold up Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God. Supposing, as is usually done, that God does not change, and whatever God is, that God is supremely good: it is absurd to say that Jesus is now "outdated", that we should move on. That would be the Christian perspective.

"But he is outdated", Dawkins might reply, and he cites John Hartung to the effect that Jesus was about in-group morality as much as Joshua was. Though it is amusing to find someone who appears to think that apostle Paul is an improvement over Jesus, I find his claim astonishing. If one takes the gospels as simple historical re-tellings of the life of Jesus, then the idea that Jesus was about in-group morality is ridiculous. Be it the Good Samaritan, the Great Comission, the missionary sending at the beginning of Acts and the end of Luke, or the numerous encounters between Jesus and non-Jews, Jesus seems to be firmly about both the in-group and the out-group.

If he means that, after some historical Jesus studies, it turns out that Jesus was actually about the in-group, then I would like to see that analysis. Of the reputable, academic published literature I have come across, the closest  to that I have seen is commenting on the passage in Matthew 15, or perhaps John Meier's A Marginal Jews, which comes close only in the sense that he argues that Jesus was fully hallakhic, and so would be rupturing less from Jewish law than is sometimes said. Even these considerations hardly get one to more extreme claim made be Dawkins and Hartung. Our neighbour is anyone who we encounter in need, as Jesus says to the teacher of the Law, and we are to love them, even at our own expense. This rule has never been outdated.

8. I do not have much to say about chapter 8. Yes, wrongful religion can lead to bad science. It does not have to, but in some cases it does. I can't help but remember the times atheism leads to bad philosophy, but they are few, and there is nothing inherent in atheism that makes it anti-philosophical. The discussion of abortion is not very comprehensive, but he does adopt a consequentialist point of view near the end, so it seems that he rejects any inherent value in human life, other than its capacity to be happy (where happiness is seen basically as a property of the sentient being, again, nothing inherent in the being itself).

Moderation can lead to fanaticism, too. Fanaticism is not always a bad thing - a fanatic philanthropist does a great deal more good than a moderate philanthropist, in general. But many times it is, and that is a problem. Quite clearly, fanaticism can arise out of non-religious beliefs too - nationalism, some political ideology, racial boundaries, class conflict, an ethical theory... What if someone became convinced that the ratio of pain to pleasure in the world was such that, in a utilitarian framework, everything should be destroyed? Maybe that person would be right, but they would be labelled a fanatic. So fanaticism can arise in many contexts, most of which will probably always be present.

9. I find this chapter hard to take too seriously. Yes, he points out some horrible things. But I have met people whose experience is the opposite, who felt abused by feminist language (exactly how, I cannot fathom, but that is what she said), by the pitiless indifference of the world, and so forth. Dawkins would probably claim that, sure, certain naturalist doctrines like the indifference of the universe to human beings could be uncomfortable, but what matters is that they are true. I would only say "ditto." Sure, some people might find it hard to come out as an atheist to their families - but I know people who have found it hard to come out Christian to their atheist parents. Is atheism child abuse? It does not follow.

I agree that the fear of death is odd, and I would echo Mark Twain, as Dawkins does. But some people find the idea horrifying, so is the doctrine of no-afterlife child abuse? Again, it does not follow. Whatever is true is true independent of the psychological value of it. I am reminded of a story William Lane Craig once remarked, where he told about the findings of a survey of why college students were atheists. One girl said she became an atheist at least in part because she could not handle the idea of her abusive father still being alive. So even an afterlife with no hell would be scary for some people. Child abuse, then, to be a universalist? It does not follow.

10. Throughout the book, Dawkins has misunderstood aspects of theology. In response to Terry Eagleton's claim that he should understand a bit more about theology, about Aquinas and Scotus' differences on epistemology, Rahner on grace, etc., Dawkins said he did not need to be an expert in fashion to point out that the emperor was naked. The problem is that Dawkins was not even looking at the emperor. In the last chapter, where he rejects that truth can be affirmed merely because something would be comforting. Agreed. But his poor understanding of Christianity is never more apparent than when he talks about how theology works. The clearest instance is probably in this last chapter, where he misunderstands indulgences, how Christians think about death, purgatory, and in one of his bigger blunders, why Catholics believe in purgatory. He quotes the Catholic Encyclopedia saying that Catholics believe in purgatory because we pray for the dead. That is not a defence of purgatory as a meta-physical place for anyone, it is a defence from Scripture (probably defending against Protestants) in light of Judas Maccabeus, who prays for the dead. 


The day I finished the book I was asked whether the Church would have banned it in times past. I do not know. I have not had even the slightest inclination to change a single of my previously held beliefs in light of this book, but apparently, other people have. So maybe its poor arguments are dangerous, because people will think they are good. I might add that I would not want books banned, now or in the past, even if I do see a certain logic to it: parents should not allow their children hard pornography books or magazines. Mother Church should not allow her children spiritually harmful books. I have learnt things by reading this book, but Dawkins has failed miserably at his aim, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." If only I could say that this fairly large book contained the best offense that atheism could offer, and then the opposite would be true, I would have gone through the worst rational scrutiny possible, and emerged unscathed. Unfortunately, I know there are better atheists out there.

[1] Briefly: I concur with St Thomas Aquinas that there is no reason to think that the limit of God is on that which we can conceive – God is surely even greater than the greatest which can be conceived. Since I do not think anybody can conceive of God, the older versions of the argument fail. Newer versions, particularly modal variants, seem to fail because there is absolutely no reason I can think of why I would believe in possible worlds. I know of one world which is possible, and it is precisely that world in which the existence of God is contested. How am I to know if other possible worlds exist? Unlike other philosophers, I am relatively comfortable with the first premise, that a maximally great being can exist (I would be fine with that even if I was an atheist), it is the modal axioms which I see no good reason to accept, on atheism.

[2] I am aware that this is the subtitle to Daniel Dennett’s book, which is on my shelf though I will not have the time to read it until 2015. Nonetheless, I am somewhat familiar with his account, and I still find it lacks the rigour of an actual evolutionary biologist.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Scientific Argument against the Bible

Much could be said about the Bible's lack of regard for how the world really works, how it really began and how many other things came to be. Some have said that the Bible has simply collected an array of folk legends, while others claim those legends to be true in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Does science give us a tool to point out the backwardness of the Bible?

To answer that question, we shall need to examine exactly what it is which seems so out of sync with reality. We can grab the infamous creation story in Genesis 1 and the story of Noah's flood. There is undeniable evidence that the universe is many billions of years old, that the Earth is a few billions of years old (hence, that neither were created in short periods of hours or a week), as well as there being absolutely no reason to believe, from a scientific perspective, that there was ever a global flood that wiped out all the living creatures on the Earth, with the exception of some in a boat. Needless to say, we now know that the incredible diversity of life did not come about at some exact moment some half a dozen thousand years ago, but over a much longer time via processes described by biology. The argument would then be:

1.  Any person, collection of persons or document(s) that assert the aforementioned falsehoods is wrong and errant. (P implies Q - asserting these things implies the asserter is wrong)
2. The Bible asserts these things. (P: Scripture does indeed document those stories.)
3. Therefore, the Bible is wrong. (Q: therefore, by modus ponens, the Bible is wrong)
 Stripped of rhetoric and word play, this is what the argument is. Evidently, one can embellish the argument by calling the Bible "a collection of Bronze age myths", but really, the point Christopher Hitchens makes with that remark is that the Bible is old, it was written before humankind knew very much about how the world operates and therefore, people should move on from such nonsense.

Actually, even though I reject the second premise entirely, I would not be particularly distressed even if the conclusion was true. So what if we have an errant Bible? So what if it is wrong about cosmology and biology? Indeed, in the next entry when I discuss the historical argument against the Bible, this conclusion may well be inescapable. For this particular version of the argument, it seems to clearly fall down at premise 2.

Am I going to justify that statement? Nope! What I will instead do is cite this survey from the United States which indicates that most of the denominations of Christianity do not declare there to be any reason to believe that there is a conflict between the Scriptures and modern science, including cosmology, geology and evolution.
Some denominations look like "Pac-men", but I think the Roman Catholic Statement has it best:
"It is important to set proper limits to the understanding of Scripture, excluding any unreasonable interpretations which would make it mean something which it is not intended to mean."
And also the Church of England's:
"There is nothing here that contradicts Christian teaching. Jesus himself invited people to observe the world around them and to reason from what they saw to an understanding of the nature of God (Matthew 6:25-33)."
 Whether or not you agree with the Roman Catholic Church's dogmatic stances, they have a very prudent and un-dictatorial view of the Bible and science.

If you would like to know how I myself understand these passages (which are incredibly rich once you stop trying to get them to say something they do not), feel free to shoot me an email.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Truth, The Way, and The Life - a striking claim

As a student of both the natural sciences and philosophy (the latter of which I hope everyone is), I had to figure out what exactly I wanted to find out with my studies. Was it the right arguments to defend my position? Did I want to justify myself? Or did I want to be cool, learn the jargon of physics and philosophy, and impress my friends?

The difficult thing with both of these, is that if done properly, all of these desires are dispelled. One cannot honestly consider issues in science, ethics, epistemology, ontology or indeed theology, and expect to quickly learn how to defend a previously held position. Philosophy, when done right, renews one's mind. Examination of philosophy is the grandest cure for naïvety that the human race has come up with - nothing is left unchallenged. Physics goes even futher. At least it is conceivable that a philosopher remain dogmatic, but the natural world does not care what we think. It simply is. Our notions cannot be left unchallenged.

So what can a truth seeker think when reading the gospel according to St John, the fourteenth chapter? Well, one thing is certain. Such a claim is quite unparalleled in history. Yet it is also rather odd. Scientists vary in exactly how they interpret their work, but one way of thinking of physics is by saying that the equations and concepts developed are our way of understanding what exists.* Here is a man, however, declaring that he himself is the truth. Not something exterior - the fullness of truth in a person. Completely unlike anything I can grasp! The big question of epistemology, "what is true, and what can we, or do we, know?", embodied in a person.

Very well then, if we believe this man (which by now, it should be clear is Jesus of Nazareth), how are we to respond? I can barely grasp what it means for this bloke to be the Truth, but to take a line from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, one cannot deduce an ought from an is. The truth, what exists and is, does not necessarily tell you how things should be, the ought. However, Jesus does not stop there. He claims also to be "the way". The big question of ethics, "how should one live?", answered again by saying that he is the manner one should live. Ridiculous...isn't it?

For some reason, Christians have a tendency to latch on to the last bit - Jesus as a life-giver. This is, of course, crucial, because without this the first two are pointless - but without the first two, the last one is pointless too. Life finds its meaning in truth and the way it ought to be. Jesus says he offers all three.

The Christian response is belief. But everyone has to try and figure out why this man says the things he does. If he is wrong, then who cares? Yet such a striking claim merits consideration. And if he is right, if he speaks the truth, then who could possibly remain unchanged?

* I am an instrumentalist, which essentially means that I think that science discovers the best way of modelling and thinking of phenomena, without necessarily being an objective portrayal of reality as is. Hence, this is not quite my view, but it certainly seems to be the lay-person view and of many of my peers.