What is Natural Theology?

In the recent issue of ‘Theology & Science’ there’s an interesting article by Russell Re Manning on Natural Theology – reasoning about God from the information we find in nature. I agree with it until he argues at the end that the future lies with an approach based on Paul Tillich’s alternative to “theological positivism”, and I think mischaracterises the prioritisation by Alister McGrath and Sarah Coakley of revealed theology.
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14746700.2017.1335064?redirect=1

Most thought provoking perhaps is his emphasis that there oughtn’t be a sharp divide between revealed and natural theology. This could be developed a lot more.

My favourite quote, about why Natural Theology declined in the 19th Century was this:
“What brought this strand of natural theology to its apparent end, then, was not, I suggest, its inappropriate mimicking of the epistemic authority of the emergent natural philosophy, but rather an alternative loss of nerve. Rather than holding fast to the plural and multi-disciplinary vision of natural theology as the inherently unstable enterprise of seeing more in nature than nature alone, panicked by the apparent threat of atheism (the rumours of which were greatly exaggerated in the early modern period—as they always tend to be), the theologians looked instead for certainty and the single-minded security of an essentialist approach to theology that identified theology with systematic reflection on religion and/or revelation.” 

Natural theology is messy, open-ended, and inherently inter-disciplinary. It is much broader than the works of William Paley (though I think he has much to offer), and can be approached from a range of philosophical positions.

I have  a lot more thinking to do on these things

God and Physical Reality

Science tells us about how the world actually is, and the more science we do the more we find out that God is irrelevant to the real world – or so we generally hear from those widely promoted as being in the know.

Because the conjunction of these two things together is wrong, people who believe in God are often inclined to deny both parts, but this is I think dangerous. We can and should hold that science does in fact tell us some important truths about the world, without believing that more science means less of God. Here are some thoughts on how physics and Christian faith might hold together like protons and neutrons in the centre of an atom, in light of some recent books.

The first was on the fine tuning of the laws and initial conditions of the universe which allows life to exist. If these laws or initial conditions were just a little different the universe would’ve collapsed in on itself or matter would’ve been dispersed so widely that particles would not interact enough to have complex molecules, let alone life. This book, ‘A Fortunate Universe’ by Aussie cosmologists Barnes and Lewis was particularly excellent in defining fine tuning clearly, and explaining the difficult probabilistic issues involved, then moving on to explore the implications for the debate between theism and naturalism. Co-written by an atheist and theist, it was fair, and the case is no less powerful for being, if anything, understated. For a fuller investigation, keep an eye on the Biologos website for my forthcoming blog post review. Or pick up the book!

The second was on how science depends on a particular metaphysical view of the world. This short book, ‘Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics‘ by leading British philosopher Prof Roger Trigg though less entertaining and perhaps less cutting-edge was also excellent, and also a straightforward read, clearly summarising a large amount of important information. The chapters on the intelligibility, unity, and success of science, for instance, will probably influence me in helpful ways whenever I think, write, and speak on this topic in future. Roger Trigg is one of the unrecognised gems of British Christian philosophy, with significant standing amongst philosophers as a whole, and his work defending a realist view of truth across a wide range of fields, grounded in Christian theism in a nuanced way in each case, should be paid more attention by Christian thinkers.

The last, which I had eagerly anticipated for a while was a bit disappointing. ‘How to be an Atheist’ is by Mitch Stokes, a former researcher in mechanical engineering turned philosopher of religion, trained under both Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. The book argues that skeptics should be more skeptical than they usually are about both science and ethics. These are both important points (I haven’t read the ethics part yet, but it looks like I’ll agree with it more), but in the case of science the theistic alternative wasn’t spelled out clearly enough, and it seems to me we’re left in a pessimistic skepticism. I learned a bit more about physics and particularly about non-realist philosophies of physics in the book (arguing that physics gives models that work practically, but can’t be claimed to be true), but I think a real opportunity was missed to spell out the positive connections between the assumed metaphysics of science and Christian influences on science, for instance through the doctrine of creation.

I was particularly intrigued to see Stephen Hawking seems to accept an instrumentalist account of physics. While offering a lot of helpful information and an introduction to some important work, overall I think the approach provides an inadequate apologetic for the scientifically minded. I think ‘why do you trust physics, and what is the basis of physics anyway?’ are much more helpful to ask/say than ‘you should be skeptical of scientific claims because they’ve often failed before’. The book focussed primarily on fundamental physics, and gestured towards other areas such as evolutionary biology without ever properly broaching such subjects. Antirealism gains far more traction in quantum mechanics than other sciences. The case against antirealism wasn’t given fair attention despite being the mainstream view amongst philosophers of science. I particularly would’ve liked to see some discussion of whether past theories that have been superceded (e.g. Newtonian physics) were really fully wrong, or just partial truth – I tend to think the latter. I recommend this science section of the book for serious consideration by apologists, but not for the non-academically minded Christians or skeptics that it is apparently aimed at, as it is not easy going and presents a controversial and I think unhelpful approach to science. I’m hoping to get a more in-depth review published elsewhere, watch this space.

So, in summary, there’s a lot of good work going on developing a new natural theology in physics, arguing that God can legitimately be appealed to in explaining aspects of physical reality and the metaphysical framework that allows us to explore it. We also have reason to take a careful approach to metaphysics, not going too far beyond what the data apparently establishes. The data can (I think) really establish some things, and the whole project of science involves walking a tightrope between rationalism (thinking grand universal theories without data) and empiricism (collecting facts without accepting the superiority of some theoretical contexts over others). The Christian doctrine of creation and Christian reality about human cognitive limitations I think provide an excellent basis for this balancing act, and in fact the whole project of explaining the universe – future writing on this topic is in the works, to be developed over the next few years!

The Two Big Monotheisms – This ‘Minor’ Difference Will Shock You!

Islam and Christianity are both sometimes referred to as Abrahamic religions.

There are important similarities, of course. Monotheism, some [limited, and largely superficial] similarity in Scriptures, prophets, an afterlife, concern for the poor, and other precepts. Similarly backwards and superstitious, according to the new atheists of internet fame.

There was a fair amount of controversy in Christian circles a while ago over whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In the debate there was a tendency, as I read it, for philosophers to give a nuanced ‘yes’ response, and evangelical theologians to usually give a quite strong ‘no’. Generally the two seemed to be talking past each other.  My own take is that Muslims and Christians and other theists in general do recognise the same creator God. I take this to be the teaching of Psalm 19, and Romans 1, for instance. Similarly, all humans have shared access to a moral intuition, as seen in Romans 2. These twin shared pillars in our understanding of the world can be a basis for respectful discussion, I believe.

But, different religions don’t worship the same God, because different religions pack in many other attributes regarding what they worship.

Let’s say I have a next-door-neighbour, Bob. Bob is recognised as an interesting figure in the neighbourhood, and everyone knows his address, next to me. But other details are disagreed upon. Some say he’s a retired musician, others that he’s a spy for the Russian government, others that he works from home as a programmer. If Bob has come and chatted with Zoe and given her evidence of who he is and what he’s like, Zoe is in a privileged position regarding who Bob is. The others, including me, still know Bob exists, but are mistaken about who he really is. Perhaps one day we all find reason to praise Bob in the local newspaper, referring to our own conflicting beliefs about Bob’s awesome history. I take it that we are all in a sense referencing the same Bob [as picked out by a character such as ‘Zach’s next door neighbour’, but not praising the same Bob. I think this is analogous to the situation world religions are in regarding God. The challenge is, as Jesus puts it, to worship God in spirit and in truth – i.e. to worship the God revealed by God’s spirit, and worship God for who God really, truly, is. But, this was an aside – on to the substance!

There’s much more to say of course. Two diverse divergences that I am interested in and may write about later are different stories concerning Abraham (in the Old Testament, Abraham and Isaac point towards salvation through faith in a final completed substitutionary sacrifice, while in Islamic teaching, Abraham and Ishmael are used, it seems, to point towards merit earned by works) and different dominant concepts of natural law.

But, for now, a difference that may seem quite minor that I stumbled across today: In Islamic law, adoption, in the full sense we are familiar with in the West, is not permissible. In Christianity, adoption, in the full sense, gets to the very heart of the gospel.

adopt

In Islam, the care of orphans is encouraged, and the care of other children not one’s own is permitted, but full adoption is not permitted. I have kept to what I believe to be orthodox Sunni Islamic sources online in briefly preparing this – I welcome any corrections.

According to the Islamic faith:
Inheritance to adopted children is limited under divine law (to a maximum of 1/3 of the total inheritance):
“Those related by blood are more entitled to (inherit from) each other in the Book of Allah.” (Qur’an: 8:75)

Taking of the adoptive father’s name is forbidden:
“Nor has He (Allâh) made your adopted sons your sons. Such is (only) your (manner of) speech by your mouths. But God tells the truth, and He shows the way. Call them by (the names of) their fathers, that is better in the sight of God”. (Qur’an 33:5)

One of the main reasons for this ruling seems to have been laws around marriage by the adoptive father to an adopted son’s wife, that became part of the Qur’an thanks to a situation involving Muhammed and the wife of an adopted son of his. (Qur’an 33:37). My focus here is not on Muhammed however, so investigate this if you wish.

The accepted wisdom also seems to be that ‘adopted’ children in Muslim families should be asked to leave or somehow separated out from the rest of the family at the age of puberty, but this is a bit less clear than the rules on names and inheritance.

See: https://www.al-islam.org/articles/adoption-islam-sayyid-muhammad-rizvi https://islamqa.info/en/5201

According to the Christian faith:
God has adopted people who trust in Jesus, by something like a legal decree (interestingly, this language of a legal decree is exactly what I saw decried regarding ‘Western’ adoption in Islamic sources). We are made full children of God, with full inheritance, and God’s full love.

 “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”” (Romans 8:15)

In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:5)

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12)

As summarised by JI Packer, “Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption… If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all.”  (in Knowing God)

A short video from JI Packer:

Of course, adoption is a difficult and sensitive issue, not without sensitivity on my part too, but I find the essential truth of having been adopted as a child of God as a fellow heir with Jesus to be a remarkable encouragement.

Evolution as a Christian

I believe both that life has developed over millions of years, and that there is a transcendent, personal source of the universe, revealed perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. How can this be? This note focusses on what I believe about biological evolution, with some comments on how this relates to what I believe about God. It may be of interest to Christians, agnostics, seekers and sceptics. It is already longer than intended, but remains a summary!

I think I have something to say on this as my academic background is in biology and philosophy. I’ve just finished my PhD in evolutionary genetics, I have a number of articles on evolutionary theory in preparation and one published as a book chapter, and I have presented research regarding evolutionary matters at various academic conferences, including conferences on antibiotic resistance, experimental evolution, the genetic code, and what makes humans different as a species. I believe when nature consistently gives the same message when approached from different angles then we should all listen – whether that is that the Earth is old and life has evolved, or that the universe bears marks of rational ordering – or, as I think, both!

This article conveys my current opinions. Not those of anyone with whom I am associated. If you disagree with me and want to critique this post’s contents, I would appreciate you discussing it with me directly. A number of Christians have sadly attempted to discredit people or groups I am associated with as a result of me speaking about these things, but no one has ever tried to contact me directly with a critique. I would like to note that sceptics have often  treated me with more courtesy and respect.

I am focussing on the science here because it is I think of broad interest and it is what I am trained in, not because I do not value the theological questions. If you want to pay for me to get a theological education, do be in touch. In the meantime, the scientific evidence remains to be dealt with.

On the culture war: Christians should not buy into the wholesale dichotomising of the sacred and the secular. Buying into it may look particularly pious but undermines the message of the gospel. It is urgent that Christians learn to engage the wider world on terms that the world can understand. Not all Christians must be academic researchers, but all should try to be able to be understood.

th22ed6pal

Key points:
– There is abundant astronomical and geological evidence of an old universe and old Earth
– Life does not fit into a young earth model
– The nested hierarchies seen in life – both genomics and paleontology – fit an evolutionary model
– Arguments against evolution with confident conclusions opposing a gradual development of biodiversity are typically insufficiently informed by biology
– The mechanism of evolution remains an active area of research, within which Christians are free to follow the evidence
– For Christians this is not a ‘meh’ issue.

The Age of the Earth
The three most persuasive challenges to a young Earth model, in my view (in addition to the challenge of the evidence for evolution) are how we can see distant stars in a young universe, why the different measures of geological time coincide to such a large degree, and how all the biodiversity of land animals and birds could have arisen from a small breeding stock within the space of, effectively, a couple of thousand years. These are major problems, and the evidence clearly points to an old Earth in each case.

Life’s Diversity
Earth’s biosphere contains a superabundance of life forms. The claim that the majority of the land-dwelling species were collected and transported on an ark 5000 years ago is not plausible in light of the knowledge of the world that is now available. If we reduce the super-abundance of life down to a few select ‘kinds’ (at, say, the family level of the biological hierarchy) and work hard at it so as to only take baby T-rexs and such, perhaps they could all fit. As I see it, the big question is then how to get the super-abundance we see today within the space of a few thousand years. Perhaps ironically a process of rather rapid evolution would be required. This is rather difficult to distinguish from the kind that creationists decry as impossible for evolution to achieve. One quick example, possible due to the rapid expansion of genome datasets in recent years. Sequencing of the tiger genome shows it to be approximately 95.6% similar to that of the domestic cat. Compare this with 94.8% similarity between human and gorilla, and a higher proportion in common between human and chimpanzee genomes. These numbers are important because the cat family is a classic example of what is typically taken to be a biblical ‘kind’ by those who hold to a literal-historical interpretation of the Genesis flood narrative, and similarity between humans and great apes is of course taken to be outside the bounds of the possible for evolution.

t_rex_baby_wall_decal__44569-1389801387-1280-1280

Nested Hierarchies
Putative evolutionary relationships between lifeforms [outside of prokaryotes subject to rampant gene-swapping (‘horizontal gene transfer’)] generally fits a tree-like structure. Differences between gene trees and species trees and other issues are of high technical interest but frequently make sense as we come to understand evolutionary processes better and do very little to undermine the overall pattern that is apparent. The expansion of genomic data available has allowed the building of large trees of species, and when a step back is taken to see the big picture it is clear that the data fits the pattern expected. The initial strong evidence for evolution came from the fossils. While there are many extinctions along the way there is a general increase in biological diversity over time. We start with bacteria and eventually get more complex multicellular systems such as dolphins and human beings, and every major group of organisms subsequent to the Cambrian has a likely predecessor evident in the fossil record. The branching tree pattern evident in the fossils is replicated in striking patterns of genetic similarity. The level of similarity observed at the molecular level is extreme and goes beyond what would be expected from a de novo design perspective for common participation in the biosphere.

Arguments Against Evolution Need More Biology
The probability of obtaining complex proteins appears prohibitive for an evolutionary process. This probability argument or something similar has been most famously made by atheist physicist Fred Hoyle, and also by plant physiologist (and creationist) Frank Salisbury in the journal Nature in 1969. The argument makes two key assumptions in order to be convincing (i.e. in order to obtain the vastly improbable numbers that appear in basic calculations of the problem) – firstly, proteins are highly specified (only one possible structure will suffice), and secondly there is no way to get from one structure to another. Both of these assumptions are shown false by careful studies of relationships amongst proteins in different species, including closely related species which everyone agrees share an evolutionary history.    It may be that there is still a probabilistic difficulty for neo-Darwinian evolution from the origin of new proteins – but the case is harder to make biologically convincing than many people have assumed.
proteine

The Mechanism of Evolution Remains an Active Area of Research
I think it is important to distinguish between the pattern and the process of evolution. The pattern is the grand tree of life famously sketched by Darwin in an early notebook. The process includes both whatever gave rise to the novelty observed with new branches in the tree and the evolution we see today, as in the development of antibiotic resistance. There is significant evidence for the pattern of evolution. The processes of evolution occurring today, which explains the rise of phenomena such as antibiotic resistance, are also reasonably well understood. Random mutation plus natural selection appears to be adequate to explain a range of events that we know occur around us.

However, scientistic triumphalism is not warranted. The historical processes giving rise to the wide diversity of life however are less well understood. It’s hard to test what happened many million years ago in systems different to what we observe today. If we grant that what is chiefly required in evolution is changes in DNA sequence, then the same processes of mutation plus natural selection that we observe today in the lab in microbial systems (for example) could conceivably give rise to the entire diversity of life, given enough time. Whether other mechanisms beyond random mutation and natural selection were in fact involved in the development of life is an active area of research. Evolution is not limited to the neo-Darwinian synthesis, with other mechanisms such as horizontal gene transfer, symbiosis, and the inheritance of epigenetic changes potentially playing a role.

Christians: Don’t Respond with ‘Meh’
Christians reading this may already believe that evolution is compatible with a robust Christian faith. This is good, but please be careful. The claims of modern science about an ancient Earth and evolutionary history to humankind do require reinterpretation of biblical texts, and careful thought concerning Christian doctrine. This is not something to be taken lightly. I am not advocating an uncritical acceptance of everything that secular science claims to say about topics such as the history of the human race, I’m advocating attempting to integrate as much data as we can to make sense of the world, trusting that ultimately this is God’s universe.

I believe the work of the likes of Henri Blocher and Lydia Jaeger on the doctrine of the fall of mankind is important in this area, and I hope to delve into it much more.

On Christian Faith and Evolution:

I have a number of articles and eventually books planned on this topic, if I am granted the time and energy to complete them. I believe God, the God revealed in the Bible, is responsible for why the universe exists (was created and continues to exist), why there are moral facts which are binding on our lives, and the facts of history concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Touching on science beyond the universe’s ‘mere’ existence, I believe God is responsible for and explanatory of why it obeys orderly laws, why the laws are comprehensible to us, why the laws are mathematically elegant, why the universe is fine-tuned for life, why the relationships between chemicals facilitate complex biochemistry so marvellously, as well as why life arose, contains diverse extreme optimalities as found in the genetic code, and diversified in the way that it has including the remarkable adaptive features of human beings. I will discuss these topics with sceptics until I have no more breath left.

I do not believe that the early chapters of Genesis are required to be read as a straightforward historical account of the events of creation and early human history. The structuring of chapter 1 and numerous symbolic motifs throughout the early chapters are suggestive of a less literal intended meaning. For some discussion of the text I recommend this essay.

Even the neo-Darwinian mechanism (which I believe is certainly insufficient as a comprehensive explanation of life) is compatible with the sovereignty of God. Apparent randomness at the physical level merely indicates that we lack the ability to predict the outcome of an event, not that someone outside the system cannot know what will happen. Take for example the rolling of a die – the biblical understanding of God is that he is in charge of even this ‘random’ event. [Proverbs 16:33]

dice-istock_000008473164medium

Evolution can be read as a history of suffering and death, but this needn’t be seen as the dominant theme of the narrative. Excellent work by Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley and Harvard evolutionary dynamics expert Martin Novak has shown the importance of co-operation in evolution. Other themes can also be picked out.

Some other Objections:

“Yeah but there are other scientists who disagree so it’s just your opinion Zach. You’ve sold out.”
– I am happy to discuss this, particularly the genetics, in detail with any scientists you point in my direction. I have personal connections to two of Europe’s formerly leading proponents of a young Earth view who no longer hold this position, and can cite other examples. As far as I can tell the young earth view is increasingly restricted to those who have been raised in educational contexts where belief in evolution is not a serious option. I think you will increasingly struggle to find serious young earth creationist scientists who were not educated at the undergraduate level at a Christian university with YEC part of the belief system required of faculty.
Intelligent Design is more complex because more amorphous. I have discussed various of these points with most of the leading proponents of ID that might be named. Some of the arguments are very interesting, but they are not rigorous enough to persuade most scientists and the usual set-up of the debate as ‘evolution versus design’ is extremely unhelpful and unfruitful in my opinion.

“Science has shown that this God talk is redundant. Give it up, Zach.”
– Science has shown no such thing. Science presumes the essential coherency and intelligibility of the natural universe, a coherency and intelligibility I accept with great tenacity because I accept the historical events concerning Jesus Christ, and the authority I believe that these events indicate he has. See also the list I gave earlier including various features of the laws of nature, and the previous post on this blog.

“Evolution undermines belief in God, as just another evolved trait, (due to mechanism ‘M’) which is not necessarily truth-apt”
This is a difficult argument to run for at least three reasons.
-Firstly, if evolution undermines belief in God, then similar arguments suggest it may undermine moral beliefs, mathematical beliefs, and metaphysical beliefs such as ontological naturalism.
-Secondly, if God exists, the God can and does often use natural processes to achieve desired ends. If God does exist, then natural mechanism ‘M’ may contribute to true belief in God. If God does not exist then belief in God due to ‘M’ is false. Whether M is reliable or not is difficult to assess without a separate belief concerning whether God actually exists or not. If ‘M’ is only convincing as undermining of God-belief for naturalists it does not offer much in the conversation.
-Thirdly, belief in the Christian God is primarily concerned with particular claims concerning the nature of God that have nothing to do with any generic God-belief mechanism, instead being reliant on historical claims. Many people may have a tendency to believe in God due to ‘M’, but this does nothing to undermine the claim that God can be personally known because of Jesus.

“The kind of God you are talking about is not the biblical God. It may as well be the God of Islam, Deism, or some other belief system”
I emphatically disagree. A God particularly interested in human beings and the faithfulness of God being expressed in natural law are particular kinds of belief about God that stand in tension with other belief systems such as Deism, and I think Islam. As I understand it on both of these belief systems God is less constrained than on the biblical view and hence there is less reason to expect any particular outcome given their concept of God.

If you’d like to discuss these things with me,  or would like ideas of what to read on this to learn more, or have things you think I should read, do let me know. Truth is worth looking for!

God Exists

A fairly brief but detailed account of some reasons to believe that God exists, with links for further reading.

Cosmos – why the universe exists
Order – why the universe is ordered by natural law
Design – why the universe is fine-tuned, allowing life
Ethics – why there are things such as duties and rights.

Cosmos
There is a universe (or a multiverse), and it is contingent; it has properties that are not necessary.
God could explain why the universe (the conjunction of all physical facts) exists. Naturalism cannot.
Here is one technical cosmological argument. Alexander Pruss has written quite a bit on related issues.
I take it that the most apposite question is not ‘why is there something when there should have been nothing’, but ‘why are there any contingent facts, when there didn’t have to be?’ [see the excellent paper by the late Philip L Quinn ‘Cosmological Contingency and Theistic Explanation’ for more on this.]

Order
Physical regularity exists, and this regularity is said to be accounted for by physical laws.

Laws: are metaphysically contingent rules that govern the entire universe throughout space and time, transcend matter and are described by elegant mathematical functions.

– The contingency of laws is explicable in terms of God’s free choice in creation (e.g. writings of Isaac Newton). Difficult to explain this kind of contingency on naturalism – see e.g. Plantinga “Where the Conflict Really Lies” and Foster “The Divine Lawmaker”.
– The governing of laws is only explicable by God. (Nancy Cartwright – see here in response to her non-theistic alternative, and here for another interesting consequence)
– The universality of natural laws “this vast coincidence in the powers and liabilities of objects at all times and in all places” (Swinburne, p. 9) calls out for an explanation and naturalism does not offer one.
– The transcendence of the fundamental laws of physics is inexplicable in physical terms (otherwise they would not be the fundamental laws) but is explicable in personal terms. (Swinburne, pp7-8)
– The elegance of laws is explained better by God than naturalism. This is the case, I think whether elegance is taken to just mean ‘simplicity'(I tentatively think that simple laws are to be expected to a greater extent on theism than on naturalism) and/or something more ‘aesthetic’ as I believe is more appropriate [there’s no reason to expect laws to conform to human concepts of beauty if naturalism is true, but many scientists have proposed aesthetic criteria for good science, and these criteria have repeatedly proved fruitful].
– The applicability of mathematics to laws is explained better by God than naturalism (see e.g. Plantinga “Where the Conflict Really Lies”, and some work by William Lane Craig e.g. here). In addition to the elegant form of the laws already mentioned, there are at least two issues here. First is the question of why mathematics, a set of things that are in some way ‘mental’ should apply at all to the physical universe. Secondly there is the question why the universe at a deep level is comprehensible by humans – the mathematics that works to describe it seems is not beyond our comprehension – it is near our limits and needs work but comprehension seems to be at least largely achievable.

I highly recommend the book by physicist/philosopher/theologian Lydia Jaeger on this topic, dealing with some of the issues around laws: “What the Heavens Declare”. Some articles also available online.

Aside from fundamental physical order, there are arguably higher levels of order in the universe as well, such as the mapping between mental states and physical states. I take it that mental properties are irreducible to physical properties (a fairly mainstream conclusion held by many atheistic philosophers of mind I think) and that therefor a kind of mapping between the two broadly akin to a law is required. I take it also that the mapping observed between mental content and brain states is best explained by the existence of God (for similar reasons to the above concerning physical laws), but that’s an argument for another day.

Design
-Fine-tuning:
The laws of the universe seem unlikely to have the life-permitting form that they do given naturalism.
The values of the fundamental constants seem unlikely to be life-permitting given naturalism.
The initial conditions of the universe seem unlikely to be life-permitting given naturalism.
[All explained here]
++ But what about the multiverse? 5 quick responses
– Inflationary multiverse is speculative and contentious. Other types of multiverse even more so.
– The Boltzmann brain scenario (on the multiverse hypothesis we should expect to be a quantum fluctuation rather than an embodied observer) suggests we are not in a multiverse
– It is likely that a multiverse requires fine-tuning to achieve the desired life-permitting results
– Elegance of the laws in the universe we live in is unexpected given a naturalistic multiverse (laws are not just life-permitting but also elegant).
– Universe appears fine-tuned not just for being life permitting but also for scientific discovery. [See more work by Robin Collins]
I very much look forward to this forthcoming book, a debate between theist and atheist cosmologists.

I believe there are other good teleological arguments from the nature of life which are not weakened by mainstream evolutionary biology, but I will work more on those another day.

Ethics.
– Ethical facts are difficult to ground without God. Why should it be that we are ‘meant’ to perform certain actions in anything other than in the sense of certain things being in conformity with a particular society’s rules of etiquette or person’s conscience? When conscience or social etiquette is in conflict with desire or personal wellbeing, why should the ‘ethical’ option win over the desire or practical rationality of keeping safe/well?
– Ethical knowledge is difficult to justify without God, due to evolutionary scepticism (we could’ve easily evolved to have different moral beliefs regardless of what is true) and the question of the relationship between ethical facts and our coming to know them.
– Ethical motivation is difficult to justify without God – why ethics should be binding in an over-riding way that rationally motivates is a mystery.

—————————

Most of these things are widely taken for granted, but I take it that God is their cause.

“Though some modern philosophers have made ingenious attempts to explain the nature of things corporeal, yet their explications generally suppose the present fabric of the world, and the laws of motion that are settled in it” – Robert Boyle

 

Who is this God? Is God knowable? Does God care? These are important questions, and I believe they are only answered in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Explaining this is something I’m very happy to do.
There are three broad reasons that I think Jesus deserves to be taken particularly seriously:
1) His claims (to the name and attributes of divinity) were uniquely bold in the history of major religions.
2) His ministry, death, and resurrection were all public events and the source documents provide a wealth of historical material.
3) The inter-relationships (perhaps ‘intertextuality’) between the Hebrew Bible and New Testament run deep, including broad themes and innumerable details, and largely based on historical events. e.g. the slaughtered lamb of God is one motif out of many running throughout the Hebrew Bible that finds unexpected fulfilment in Jesus.

Morality: the best policy?

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Good ethics are at least as important as good science when making good decisions. What is truly ‘good’ is not a matter that science will help much with. In political discussion, science-based policy seems to be all the rage, but good policy must be aimed in the right direction, as well as technically accurate and efficient in achieving its desired results. Science should inform what we choose to do as individuals and societies, but it cannot be the sole foundation. Before a nation invests in, say, the geological and engineering studies required to build large walls, it should consider whether it wants to be a society defined by walls in the first place.

Science is good at helping to reach pre-defined ends. If you know where you want to go, science can help you get there. Whether that’s flying to the moon or launching nuclear weapons, feeding the world or advancing racist ideology, the amoral assistant of science can certainly help out. Whether it should or not is a pretty crucial question. Science can advance both good ends and bad ends, as well as many ends that are neither obviously good nor bad. The science of psychology can be used in developing more effective torture techniques, the science of toxicology in improving the speed and reducing the incidence of ugly side-effects of euthanasia injections, the science of projectile motion in more swiftly killing rare whales, and so on – none of these activities are made ethical simply by the use of science. ‘Just add science’ is potentially a recipe for disaster on an unprecedented scale rather than societal success. Science is excellent and has enabled many developments in technology and human health, but it has also been misused to enable oppression, war, environmental degradation, and death on a scale impossible to comprehend in its absence.

We need to face the fact that science is bad at choosing the right ends to pursue. In fact, not just bad but utterly incapable. The only way it helps is when we use it in conjunction with implicit assumptions about human flourishing or wellbeing, or values more generally. This I think should be uncontroversial, but let’s look at two possible objections – one from brain sciences, the other from evolutionary biology/psychology. It could be suggested that brain sciences can measure happiness, and that since everyone wants to maximise happiness that scientific study of brain states should be the basis for all of our ethical and policy decisions. The ‘new atheist’ writer Sam Harris has advocated something like this as the basis of ethics. The problem is that it simply assumes that everyone is aiming to maximise happiness (or that they should be), and that brain states are a good way to measure happiness. In reality, what counts as happiness is probably a function of various social and psychological conditions, and more importantly, happiness is not always the best thing to aim at. Someone who lives a life of suffering on behalf of the poor has done better in life than a happy socialite. Secondly, evolutionary biology or psychology may give us accounts of what is or has been adaptive in human history. But again, merely being adaptive is not enough to guarantee that something is ethical, let alone worthy of aiming our society towards. It is likely evolutionarily adaptive to have lots of children with lots of different partners (apparently Genghis Khan did well at passing on his genes), but there are probably better things to aim at in life.

‘But ethics is hopelessly subjective’, I hear you say. The idea that the results of science are more ‘real’ than ethics or other beliefs about the world is common-place, but doesn’t diminish the role that ethics plays in political reasoning. I believe ethics is objective, and related to our real nature as human beings – there is a real thing, ‘human flourishing’, which we should aim at. But even if we are reductionists and deny that there is such a human nature, we can see that there are different preferences amongst humans, and politics will differ depending on preferences. If there is an objective morality (e.g. if we think there is such a thing as ‘progress’, and that praise and/or blame of others can be legitimate as more than just an expression of opinion), then we should be aiming towards it in all that we do. If there’s not, then we can still recognise that people want different outcomes, and that different desires will lead to different policies even if we agree fully on the science. Sometimes we hear that, for instance, social conservatives want to push their morality on other people – but let’s not be confused – the results of political actions always impose some people’s morality on others. Environmentalists impose their views on polluting companies, anti-poverty campaigners impose their views on social Darwinists, and civil rights activists impose their views on racists. Even extreme libertarians subject agents of the state to a moral view, namely that the state shouldn’t impose its moral views.

Further, there’s not a simple comparison of ‘science based’ versus ‘anti-science’ policy, as nearly all policy claims are based on some kind of evidence. What is considered to count as ‘good science’ is unfortunately often politically influenced, particularly when brought up as evidence in political debates. In my experience, people care far more about their ethical beliefs than their positions on scientific issues, and this can distort what they see as ‘evidence’, particularly ‘good evidence’. We should be doing good science and trying to weed out dodgy use of data, but being purely data-driven may lead in dangerous directions, or simply mask a more sophisticated kind of abuse. Cherry-picking which ticks a few more scientific boxes can still be cherry-picking, and doesn’t answer the central questions about what we’re aiming at. Data can and should be used to answer incredibly important questions, and once we agree on important outcomes it can arbitrate between conflicting methods. Better education in statistics and understanding data could be incredibly helpful for our future, but it won’t achieve much unless it’s used to promote what is truly worthwhile.

We need a new ethical conversation, unafraid to call it what it is. I write this as a scientist with a deep interest in promoting investment in science and technology. Despite the huge importance of research, the core question for both government, individuals, and other units in society, is “what are we actually aiming at anyway?” This conversation doesn’t even have to be divisive – often people across the spectrum will agree on key intended outcomes (e.g. reducing poverty) but disagree on methods. Before we debate the methods we should be clear on what we want. Is it equality or equity? If equality, then of opportunity or of outcome? Under which circumstances, and why? If equity, then what’s the appropriate standard? Should we consider systemic injustice? Can we ever treat people differently on the basis of race, gender, or other attributes? What is the basis for seeking human flourishing? Does the environment also deserve protection? What about animals? Is maximising GDP something we should aim at? What is ‘quality of life’? These are the important questions glossed over by a nation-wide focus on STEM subjects and thinking. Longevity, wealth, scientific discovery, entertainment technologies, and other ‘practical’ outcomes are all great, but maximising these while people turn further inwards and neglect love of neighbour will not be a success.

The rearrangement of deck-chairs on the Titanic may be facilitated by the best scientific research on the musculoskeletal system or the aesthetics of leisure environments, but where the whole ship is pointed is the key question we as a society should be asking. The age-old question ‘what is the good life?’ is imperative; what better place to ask it than in the universities, considered in New Zealand a ‘critic and conscience of society’? Dare to be an idealist, and dare to question materialist assumptions about wellbeing, for everyone’s sake.

[Published in Craccum this week – this is the unedited form]

Finding art in the sciences and truth in the arts

Published in Craccum this week:

Scientific imperialism has a short-term effect of gutting humanities departments, and this is fairly disastrous for culture. The long-term effects though are even worse, undermining science itself and ending in epistemological relativism, furthering the downwards spiral of doom. The non-scientific distortion of scientism is a scourge on society, but the pursuit of natural science is still a noble and essential task. Scientism claims that only science provides knowledge of the world. To say science is not everything – that there are non-scientific forms of knowledge – is not to say it is nothing. Those bent on reductionism may stick their fingers in their ears and insist I’m anti-science – I’ll let you work out whether the charge sticks. The humanities currently feel pressured to establish their scientific status, because what it really means to know something is to know it scientifically. Or, so we’re told. They cannot win such a battle, set up on the terms of an opponent, but they shouldn’t feel the need. The sciences on the other hand, currently feel little pressure to demonstrate their artistic credentials, but would benefit from thinking about it.

The history, philosophy, sociology, economics, psychology, and other human aspects of science deserve more attention. Perhaps there is even a theology of science? Scientism and related schools of thought and practice can and should be critically studied by humanities researchers, and alternative philosophies need to be explored, for the sake of culture and of science. Limiting truth to the beautiful but limited realm of science undercuts both rationality and metaphysics – both of which are important to science. Scientism undercuts rationality, because reasoning is a human activity which is not straightforwardly reducible down to interactions between atoms. The laws of logic are immaterial, and logical inferences are made by human persons, however this is fleshed out in terms of mind-body relationships. More obviously, scientism undercuts metaphysics, because the claim that there is anything beyond physics is taken to be absurd or irrelevant to real life if what matters is always able to be discovered by physics. But, science depends on controversial metaphysical claims about the real nature of the world: including that causality is real, that natural law or something like it holds true, that the apparently abstract objects of mathematics somehow apply to the physical world, and that simplified conceptual models bear a good relationship to reality.

If that wasn’t enough, scientism is damaging to ethics, aesthetics, and testimony. If only scientific claims are knowable, ethics is destroyed. There is no plausible scientific description of an ethical fact that explains its ethical nature as right or wrong – ethical properties simply are not scientific properties. This however does not stop them being real and apprehensible by us. It is true to say that torturing a child for fun is wrong. Sure, we can give scientific accounts of pain and pleasure, but science doesn’t explain why pain should be bad and pleasure good, let alone why the pain at the dentist is not always bad, the pleasure of a demagogue is not always good, and a life of no global consequence with much suffering can more fully live up to what it means to be a good human than the life of a comfortable New York billionaire no matter how generous. Ethics are a foundation of the scientific project, because not all science is equally worth pursuing. What counts as an ‘important’ discovery often has an ethical edge to it, which scientism unjustifiably discounts. This view of the world also obliterates beauty, making it an incidental property that humans happen to have a preference for, rather than a real and important feature of the world. Of course, whether beauty is real or purely culturally constructed is debated, but aesthetic properties do seem to be important in science itself, as well as a core foundation of music and art. Mathematical physicists are known to prioritise theories that they find elegant or beautiful. Paul Dirac, for instance, who was deeply anti-philosophical early in life gained an increasing appreciation for this, and said “It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.” British mathematician GH Hardy said that “Beauty is the first test; there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics”. A 2014 study in Journal in Frontiers of Neuroscience titled ‘the experience of mathematical beauty and its neural correlates’ found that equations classed as beautiful by mathematicians produced similar neural responses to great art. If beauty really helps us get to true physical theories, this is truly astounding.

Finally, scientism undermines the legitimacy of human testimony. Most of our knowledge of the world is based either on direct experience or on the testimony of other people in some form. Neither is a form of ‘scientific’ knowledge in any direct way. Science itself depends on a vast network of trust; on accurate transmission of information and perhaps more importantly, on sincere motives of those involved. Historical claims, including things of supreme interest in politics, economics, sociology, religious studies, theology, and many branches of science, depend on testimonial evidence. But they’re seldom repeatable or testable. Without these things that I’ve discussed, science falls. Not immediately – for most scientists aren’t aware of how crucial these things are to science, but eventually, entrenched scepticism about these areas would destroy scientific consensus on any conceivable topic. Scientists should be among the first to defend the importance of ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and testimony, as well as rationality – for science’s sake!

Okay – people will tend to agree to the falsehood of scientism after hearing some of these arguments (after all, only one or two need to be okay for it to fall) what’s the big deal? Yet, not so fast. What, after all, is the alternative? Perhaps the pendulum could swing away from scientism and towards romanticism or subjectivism or mysticism – an emphasis on the aesthetic and intuitive over the empirical and analytical and understandable. But this would deny science, which is clearly a successful project in describing the world and making helpful predictions from it, allowing advances in technology, healthcare, and innovation. Perhaps even more importantly, or at least more ironically, subjectivism undermines the integrity of the humanities. To retreat away from science or the objective in face of the claims of scientism is to needlessly cede territory to an ideology based on a brash façade and assumption rather than argument. We don’t need to accept that objectivity is limited to the reducible, repeatable and testable. Interestingly, the foundations of science itself are actually human perceptual experiences, which are at the individual level are fundamentally irreducible, unrepeatable and untestable. History, literature, music, and other real aspects of human lived experience are similarly based on a host of personal encounters, real choice, concepts, and other irreducible events. Though irreducible and mediated through human subjects, there are real empirical components to all human intellectual projects, and shared understanding between people – a presupposition of all communication and art – relies on a shared reality. The purely subjective or mystical may provide entertainment for a hermit, but not the foundations of a culture. While communication is seldom if ever perfect, I want to suggest that there is a shared human nature of some sort, and proper ends for it, the discovery and fulfilment of which together constitute human flourishing.

It may be objected that this whole ambitious essay is set up to solve a simple false dichotomy; clearly empirical, analytical, intuitional, and aesthetic aspects are all needed to make sense of the world, and all sensible people take the combination for granted. Perhaps so! But how are we to hold all of these things together? And can we do so while hanging on to the basic presupposition of naturalism (that nature is all that exists) that undergirds modernity? And, if we dare to drop it, what then? Science does really describe the real world, but the real world seems to extend beyond the boundaries of science. Or, more accurately, we should talk of ‘the sciences’ rather than a monolithic Science. As a Christian, I happen to think there is an ultimate harmony between the personal and the physical, as illustrated in all of the key biblical elements of creation, fall, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection. On this account, creation has personal or mental aspects, like mathematical order, beauty, and ethical requirements, because of its personal source. These personal aspects are shaped by the character of this God, revealed as love. And it also has ‘impersonal’ empirical aspects – the kind my research as a PhD candidate in molecular biology are mostly focussed on – because there is real metaphysical distinction between creature and Creator. Perhaps you haven’t thought at all about this, or perhaps you have a different account – I’d be curious to know if you do!

In closing let’s focus in on the key question behind all of this; “what is truth?” It was cynically asked by a provincial Roman prefect in the world’s most famous unjust trial 1983 years ago. Perhaps the answer is still the same – the truth is ultimately personal or at least has personal dimensions, and stands before us – paradoxically awaiting our verdict. To not choose is to choose. To not decide is to decide in favour of the status quo. In our culture, this is probably a form of scientism, which in its vain attempts to swallow up humanity causes much damage. To decide for the personal over the impersonal though, even to be open to exploring it, opens doors to other worlds. If we keep our feet on the ground and remain open to scientific critique while allowing our minds to deeply explore dangerous ideals like truth, beauty, and justice, perhaps our actions in both the sciences and the arts will better promote both human flourishing and understanding.

Zachary Ardern

The Problem of Easter

The Easter story is far crazier and more dangerous than a Donald Trump presidency. One is merely an orange insult to humanity’s common sense that might end in WWIII and nuclear apocalypse; but the other is a morbidly pathetic challenge to the entire socio-political status quo. An affirmative answer to the Easter-themed question ‘Risen?’ is dangerous and absurd, though has far more blockbuster potential and international influence than any reality TV fakelebrity. The claims concerning Jesus are massive, and the stakes are high. Are they the foam on an ebbing sea of faith, or else merely mundane events exaggerated through the centuries? What is the empirical reality behind the stories?

The Easter accounts are dangerous. Crucifixion places the subject at the bottom of the socio-economic long-drop. The humiliation involved is comprehensive – the victim is hung by the state, considered cursed and usually denied a proper burial, stripped naked in public, and mocked. The negative overtones are arguably simultaneously political, religious, sexual, and personal. This is the opposite of the comprehensive wellbeing or Hauora I learned about in health class at Lynfield College. But Christians heap highest praises on a crucified man. Surely it’s the death of a slave- criminal rather than a God-man? Jesus claimed to be God, and was soon proclaimed as having been crucified – the juxtaposition would make Nietzsche proud, if he didn’t despise the ensuing “slave morality”. What kind of leader eschews opportunities for power and dines with the outcasts, the political/religious traitors, and prostitutes? And who would centre their worship – their attention to what they consider most worthy – on a crucified God? Someone with little respect for traditional societal norms of self-preservation, and clearly a loser.

The Easter accounts are absurd, for claiming that a perfect transcendent God would choose to die and thereby somehow answer death with the ultimate comeback. Statistically, dead people stay dead, always. The hope of eternal life is easily understood as pie in the sky, clearly fitting people’s expectations and hopes. Okay, the resurrection did not fit with people’s expectations at the time, but that just makes it more ridiculous. The prior probability of God is assumed to be zero, because science (albeit founded on belief in divinely given natural law) doesn’t refer to God. Jesus said that life to the full is only available through him, a similarly demagogic claim to Trump’s promise to Make America Great Again. We know that both claims are equivalently offensive to rationality, for life is meaningless, morality is a sham, art is an illusion entirely explained by naturalistic evolutionary psychology, human nature is a social construct, Earth is a speck in an uncaring universe, and history is just one damned event after another. Right?

How sure are we? That Jesus was crucified is well established, with multiple early sources. The cold nails that went through this man’s wrists and feet were history’s ultimate irony – purported universal king killed by the vote of a provincial mob. Nek minnit (on the third day) the women disciples found the tomb empty. People in the city believed, after many claimed to have seen him alive. His closest followers, mostly devout Jews up to this point, along with former sceptics such as Saul (Paul) and James went to their deaths proclaiming both the crucifixion and divine authority of Jesus. Religious experts were converted, and the movement grew. Many individual items of evidence add to a strong enough cumulative case to persuade many. Western culture – science, law, morality, art, education, has been profoundly influenced by it. The tale is in part ugly, disruptive, and transformative; but perhaps it shows signs of being true.

He Wins

In a fireworks competition,
God will usually win
We might offer a sparkler
But He paints skies with the sun

We are wowed by our explosions –
He invented nuclear fusion
A glorified party cracker
Doesn’t match the hosts of heaven

Yet no lighting a fuse & running away
The Big Bang merely began this story
And, far more than mere observer
This God, He entered history.