Morality: the best policy?


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.

Raiders of the Lost Arc

Environmental crisis, refugee crisis, financial crisis, ISIS crisis, crisis of meaning, housing crisis, quarter life crisis, crisis of faith. What is in common between all of these things? What kind of person would say they had authority to speak about all of them? Perhaps a first year student in a competitive entry program like pre-law or biomed – they say lots of conceited stuff. But is there any person who actually has authority to speak on them all? Last week on campus at UoA a series of events were run by Christian groups, claiming that Jesus has something important to say across the board. This is a follow-up. The opposition to this claim is often loud and confident, but I think massively over-rated. Let’s see why.

Our social world is arguably tormented, demented, and firmly cemented in its various follies and fantasies. It’s also, and this is more on point, fragmented. The internet it seems allows subcultures of various kinds to develop with a special kind of intensity and separation from the rest of the world. Previously isolated weirdos can now join together on If that silly sentence offended you, it’s okay – there’s probably a website or Facebook group for just your type. Society, likewise, is atomised, and plurality is the keyword of the day. The university, too, is atomised. Judging by campus cultures, you might think that someone stuck the UoA prospectus into a Magic Bullet then pasted it back together with the chewing gum under the desks in CT039 just in time for Stu to give it the tick. Some have spoken of the ‘two cultures’ of the sciences and the humanities, but perhaps in this university we should speak of the 50,000 cultures of the different students and staff here. Anyone claiming to be able to bring unity out of this tertiary-level diversity is saying something a bit more substantial than your typical between-class banter. It’s almost like they’d be claiming to be God.

Life is stormy, normally, for many people. We’re looking for something or someone who can calm the storm and end the crises. If that’s what you’re seeking, you won’t find it in the standard options on offer at our campus. Comprehensive Peace is not on sale at Munchy Mart. A Martian visiting UoA might find the situation pretty interesting. It seems we’re looking for something like a prophet’s authoritative speech, but we’ve denied the concept of inspiration. There’s no reason to hope for a ‘word from outside’ our current milieu, because the outside, the transcendent, has been ruled out as mythical or inaccessible. All we can hope for is some insight from some human culture or other; and who’s to say that it will have any more answers than our own? Perhaps we’ve forgotten or never really perceived the power of an authoritative word coming from a love undergirding the universe? Speaking peace amidst the roiling waves of world politics, moral confusion, loss of meaning, and the endless frenetic chasing after material gain requires a particular kind of vantage point and confidence. Whether such a point can really be reached is a crucial question for our culture. Statements such as “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” (Martin Luther King) can no longer be intoned with integrity. They’re too appealing and too solemn for most of us to laugh at as we laugh at caricatures of religion, but they’re ultimately in the same sunken boat if we buy the materialist story. But do they have to be? Perhaps it is time that we launch an expedition, to be raiders of the lost arc.

The secular university has lost its unity, perhaps not uncorrelated with its loss of theology. There is an unarticulated hope that Science will replace her, but Science when interrogated is of course really just the sciences; and anyone who thinks that, say, mathematics or biology will bring final coherence to the whole human intellectual project is living in a bizarre fairy world indeed. Without God there is no longer an over-arching principle holding this place with all its diversity together. Of course, while there are risks in diversity, there are risks in unanimity too. The unrestrained dominion of the One over the Many is recipe for political disaster and the crushing of many. An old relic from Christian theology might provide hope for an alternative model to both fractured pluralism and a contrived monism – the much maligned doctrine of the Trinity. I won’t try to defend it here, though I think it’s not too difficult for those who take the biblical texts seriously – instead I’ll reflect a little on why we might care about the strange idea of divine unity being eternally expressed as diversity-in-relationship. On such a view, at the heart of the universe there is a place for love. There is a place for community, and there is room made for justice. That probably all sounds rather twee until you look at these values as fleshed out in Jesus, and communicated by him. I think that whenever people speak, they take a little risk in revealing something of themselves. Our speech reflects who we are. The Christian groups’ focus on the words of Jesus is nailed firmly to a view of the person of Jesus – that he is the ultimate revelation of the God who spoke the world into existence.

Of course, many reading this will find the whole thing ludicrous. If that’s you, thank you for reading this far! If you continue to explore these things you may yet perceive your own ‘crisis of doubt’ (the title of an excellent book on 19th Century skeptic leaders who converted to Christianity). You see, as I see it – after a few years studying economics, philosophy, and molecular biology – western secular worldviews face some pretty big internal challenges. We’re told that science is the ultimate and even the only real way of knowing, even though the universe is ultimately a-rational and its development unguided and our comprehension of it is something of a fluke. We’re told that there are no miracles because of the laws of nature, but the laws of nature appear fine tuned to a degree that makes most miracles look quite boring. We’re told that there is no direction to history, but we’re also sure we’re on the “right side” of it when our values triumph politically. We know that there is no immaterial self or soul and free choice may well be a delusion, but the imaginary individual rational agent still holds sway over our ideals and policy decisions. We’re told that human rights create an urgent need for political action, but that there is probably no such thing as a human nature or purpose. We’re told that the environment is incredibly important for more than just the survival or pleasure of the inconsequential human species but that in the end everything is inconsequential beyond our own fleeting desires and invented goals. Perhaps much of this boils down to the fairly obvious unsustainability of relativism, the difficulty of finding meaning with no fixed reference. A wise man spoke about that once – something about building your house on the sand.

According to a 2013 book published by Cambridge Uni Press, by computer scientist Steven Skiena and Google engineer Charles Ward, Jesus was the most influential person in human history. As a thinking person at NZ’s top university, at some point you should probably work out what you think about the claims of Jesus (at least those claims made about him by his earliest followers), whether you’re a confident skeptic who sleeps with the God Delusion under his/her pillow, a flower-worshipping hippy, Ned Flanders, or just an ordinary person trying to make it in a messed-up world. Bring out those questions you’ve been hoarding away since RE class in high school or bible-in-schools back in the 90s, and ask a Christian near you. Check out an event run by, say, the Evangelical Union, Student Life, or Unichurch. It’s not like Christians haven’t heard most of the objections before anyway, and if it’s possible that Jesus is the Truth, he might have something important to say.

Zachary Ardern

Study for the sake of what?

Study for the sake of God.

Study has value in a few ways, and I’m fortunate to have had what for most people at most points in time has been a luxury reserved for the elite and/or brilliant (less so the case now).
Whether the study is in theology or not, it comes with risks (chiefly pride) and potential value. To love God with one’s mind is part (just a part) of the Christian calling, and it can mean more than just thinking about theology.

A church full of people with PhDs in theology living in a world uninterested in theology would be a bad church. We should know about the world. A church full of people with PhDs in biology would be a weird church. The diversity of the body of Christ is a remarkable thing.


Two fascinating posts on politics; make what you will of them

The first from the US, on the desire for recognition of moral goodness across the political spectrum. The Left, in today’s public discourse, are too often quite nastily condescending towards and/or dismissive of those on the Right. I speak as someone with decidedly  centrist political tendencies – inclinations towards democratic socialist fiscal policies and socially conservative policies regarding human dignity and sexual ethics. I am no libertarian, but the recognition that people can have differing life projects, and many of these are legitimate and valuable within a flourishing pluralist society is a useful one.

The second on why the Iraq War was justified, from Prof Nigel Biggar in the UK. A powerful response to widespread assumptions to the contrary. As is frequently the case, the real contours of the moral situation are murky, and I have no firm convictions here.

Tripartite World Stories

Here I begin to explore two accounts in which the history of the world comes in three parts.
The first story is the story I see told and retold around me. It goes:
Evolution -> Science -> Equality.

The second story is offered by the Bible. It goes:
Eden -> Sacrifice -> Eschaton.

The second story is less familiar, perhaps because we all bathe in the first story daily and perhaps also because I chose unfamiliar words to make it sound exotic and to fit the pattern. But I think it is much closer to the truth of things; both are of course hugely simplified, but the second tells us who we are much more truly than the first story does.

The first claims the authority of science; to be based purely on the cold hard facts, while the second has the rarefied air of myth, and is commonly thought to thereby be false. But in the end I am convinced it is the ‘myth’, in Tolkien’s sense, that will surely win. Not by mere violent destruction of the first, for there is a lot to learn from the first story (I don’t have a problem with the elements of the first story, but I do have a problem with them becoming our culture’s sacred narrative in this way). Instead, the second has the power to swallow up the first and incorporate its insights, while the first is wholly unable to deal with the claims of the second.

Each story has three parts. Firstly where we came from, secondly what our cultural world is properly centred on or grounded in, and thirdly where we are going.

On the first story, we human beings and the rest of the biosphere came into being through an unguided Evolutionary process. To really understand ourselves we might find it really helpful to reflect on this process – hence evolutionary psychology, and the associated conditions (diseases) of darwinitis and neuromania[1]. Both our foibles and our potentialities are rooted in this background. Debate rages between adherents of the story over whether we should prioritise the altruistic or competitive aspects of these events in our telling of the primordial proto-historical story, but whichever is to be prioritised is said to be fixed by the scientific facts on the ground.

Through some process, particularly for those emphasising either (or both) the ugly competitive aspects of evolution or a reductionistic gene-centred view, we have transcended our merely material beginnings and have become moral cultured beings. The event, the phenomenon, that really got us going as a species must be spoken of with a reverent tone. Science.[2] It is I think fairly obvious how important science is to our culture – if you happen to be in an argument and can claim Science for your team, you will have won, so long as the other team doesn’t try the same tactic. Even those seen as (whether by their own choice or the wider culture) against science, such as creationists, anti-fluoride or anti-vax campaigners, generally feel the need to frame their material (pseudo)scientifically. Alternative movements such as postmodernism[3] remind me of the “interesting in itself” part of this quote by Terry Pratchett “Tolkien has become a sort of mountain, appearing in all subsequent fantasy in the way that Mt. Fuji appears so often in Japanese prints. Sometimes it’s big and up close. Sometimes it’s a shape on the horizon. Sometimes it’s not there at all, which means that the artist either has made a deliberate decision against the mountain, which is interesting in itself, or is in fact standing on Mt. Fuji.”[4]

Where are we going, what’s the point of this whole shtick? The answer differs amongst believers in the secular story, but perhaps the one ring to rule them all is the ring engraved Equality. Somehow, the material realities of science are sufficient to ground an immaterial ideal of ever-expanding equality. The ultimate aim it seems is peace and harmony between all persons and between persons and their environment. The awesome ones – the enlightenment men and women – ushering in this final kingdom ride horses named Science, Technology, State, and Choice. The competing alternative story that ends not in Equality but in Economics, and the unfortunate wars between these horses on both accounts, are exciting tales for another day.

So, enough for story one, how about the radical alternative? I will just sketch it. The first chapter is Eden. Here relationship – both horizontal (with humans) and vertical (with God) – is key. The relationship is formed and soon breaks horribly, and we live out the consequences daily. Debate rages between adherents of the story over whether we should prioritise the goodness-of-creation or badness-of-our-fall aspects of these events in our telling of the primordial proto-historical story, but the tension, to me, says something profound about human being. The alternative of story one is inherently amoral, where the absence of vertical relationship means ethics is necessarily reduced to behaviours, and the story therefore pales in comparison.

The second pivotal chapter, following from many other events in the interim, is Sacrifice. A radical message breaks into the brokenness of this world, marred in chapter one. The first principle has become personally involved and taken on the sickness such that the world might be made whole. He has taken on the enmity and become the target of the proper white hot anger against rebellion, such that the rebels might be passed over and become friends. The whole cultural force of the autonomous world raged against its creator; the political, religious, monetary, and military powers condemned the innocent incarnation of the originator, the author and sustainer of life, to death. And in this death, in the death of Jesus the Christ, because of Who He Is and through his resurrection from the dead, those who choose to die with him are offered life better than Eden.

The final chapter now comes. That which was created in Eden and redeemed in Sacrifice is shown to be glorious in Eschaton. The remaining brokenness is made right, the sick are made whole, and justice is instantiated across the world. As in the other two chapters, this realm is not earned but given, and we are not kings but stewards. Our life now as ambassadors of the kingdom is shaped by this picture of how things are meant to be under the rule of the King.

There is a lot to say about the conflict and compatibilities between the two stories. A picture of creative development, of the value of science and the goal of equality are all compatible with the second story, but the high points of the tale are different. The second story is superior for recognizing our reality as personal, moral, social, and religious beings in need of redemption rather than merely cogs in the cosmic machine.

In the first story, the world is an accident. I know that for some this claim, reduced to its bare reality is jarring and offensive, but that’s simply how it is. In the second story, the world is a gift.

In the first story, the primary way of knowing is science, grounded in personal experience and a Cartesianesque method of doubt. In the second, the core way of knowing what is most important is through testimony. The second claim is truer to our reality as human persons. In the first story, knowledge is seen; in the second, faith comes through hearing.

In the first story, the primary way of ‘becoming’ or progressing is through personal striving. Value is earned. In the second story, salvation is given and must be received, and new possibilities follow, but the possibilities, which include ethical progress, only exist within the context of the double-giftedness of creation and new creation.

The first story is a sickly imitation of the first, an invented shadow of the deeper reality grounded in real history. The second story is far better, but it is also far truer.

Thanks for reading. I’d like to turn this thought into a little book, let me know if you’d like to read it 🙂
[1] See the humanist polymath Raymond Tallis’s brilliant books on this.

[2] It works, b*tches.

[3] Sorry for the looseness of this catch-all term


writing assignments

Early in July I’ll (all going well) spend a week in Cambridge with other Christian PhD students, mostly drawn from around Europe. Just how exciting and well suited this is for me I’ve refused to let hit me, that can come later.

One of the preparatory activities is three short writing assignments, on set questions. I’ve posted my answers, blatted out this evening, below – on science, evil, and leisure. Perhaps the most fascinating (as fun as it was to summarise my thoughts on science in 300 wds) was the one on leisure, based partly on the set reading of some chapters from Joseph Pieper’s “Leisure the Basis of Culture”. One day I will read this gem in a more leisurely fashion.


What are the epistemological implications for science and Christianity if facts are not self-interpreting?

In order to relate facts to theories and laws, they must be interpreted. What counts as a ‘natural fit’ or as the ‘best explanation’ will necessarily rely on claims which transcend empirical facts, such as a criterion of simplicity. The potential for differing non-empirical criteria implies a potential for differing interpretations of scientific facts. Two possible implications are ‘skepticism of science’, and ‘possible support for Christianity from meta-science’. I briefly discount the first and argue for the second.
It may be thought that the non-self-interpretability of facts implies complete scepticism about our ability to reason inductively from facts to broader theories. But this is only true if there are not bounds on the possible legitimate interpretations of facts. A Christian worldview provides reason to suspect the existence of consistent deeper metaphysical structures which limit what is physically possible, grounded in the orderly and rational nature of the triune God of Christian faith. Naturalism, by contrast, (as one alternative worldview – though the point likely applies to pantheism, panentheism, and polytheism as well) does not give independent reason to posit these, so it seems the attempt must be made to reason to them inductively from scientific facts – a difficult, and perhaps impossible task.
Following on from this, we can argue that Christianity may derive support from ‘meta-scientific’ claims such as the orderliness of nature (specifically, exhibiting a law-like order – this goes beyond mere observations of past regularities, and adds that the regularities are binding and hence predictive), that nature is mathematically describable, and that nature is intelligible to humans. If we accept that the goal of science is understanding, and that true understanding requires more than arbitrary collections of facts, the door is opened to investigating ‘meta-science’. The aspects of meta-science listed are each a basic requirement of modern science.

Is there some way in which evil is necessary to the plan of God? That is, are there some necessary goods for God’s plan for humanity that require evil?

The central evil in cosmic history is the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth outside Jerusalem in c. 30AD. This central event was planned from before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8), and it constitutes the basis of the new creation that shall last eternally. So, at least one evil was a necessary part of God’s plan for humanity (necessary for God’s chosen end, not necessarily ‘logically necessary’.) It seems unlikely that the good of redemption could have been achieved without some evils – ‘o felix culpa’, as the ancient phrase has it.

If all other evil is in some sense ‘swallowed up’ in that one event, perhaps there are implications for the ‘problem of evil’ viewed from a Christian perspective. Extensive foreknowledge on God’s part regarding the evils of the world that were to be paid for at the cross would fit well with the biblical picture. I think the biblical text underdetermines the question of whether libertarian free will (LFW) exists – the text doesn’t obviously require it. If LFW does not exist, it is possible that all evils have been indirectly chosen by God, while also more directly and culpably chosen by other agents, hence none are gratuitous.
Even if LFW does exist, it may be that God’s foreknowledge is such that the world has features such that gratuitous evil is not instantiated (as the Molinist could hold).
The defender of libertarian free will has the free will defence of Plantinga et al. at her disposal. One sceptical of LFW may have access to a greater good theodicy. Whichever line is taken, an evangelical approach to the topic may be enriched by seeing the cross as both the central evil in human history and the centre of good in God’s plan.

In what way would a correct understanding of leisure affect our view of work?

Everything that we have is a gift of God, including our very human nature. An obsession with work, a kind of ‘workolatry’ is perhaps best avoided with a proper conception of God’s providence, expressed through theologically-aware appreciation of leisure. A proper situating of work within this framework will help work to be aimed towards its proper function, whatever exactly that might be. After all, the man who built his house on the sand may have exerted a lot of effort doing so, but it was all to little avail. I think it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that busyness or activity are inherently good – but some work is better left undone. Working out what this work is, is of course hard work.
For the Christian, the end which is worked for is extremely important, and worth contemplating. Reorienting ourselves towards that end, through various means, is probably a better use of time than much everyday work. Leisure can help one to see the wider dimensions of human life and the world beyond work – whatever work we take part in, it is only a small part of the wider world. It is important to be able to recognise that there is good in the world which is given to us (as a result of God’s work) independently of our own work.
At the same time, leisure too is not the whole of life, and there is work to be done. It is not demeaning of this work however to say that its meaning is derived from outside itself. The meaning of work in this inherently gifted world is perhaps best seen with the aid of leisure.

I’ve been listening to Rend Collective heaps too. I like the words “the infinite is immanent” here.

Soli Deo Gloria.