Study for the sake of what?

Study for the sake of God.

http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/phds-build-character-more-than-careers

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.

Politics

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.
http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/08/how-krugman-dehumanizes/

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.
http://mcdonaldcentre.org.uk/2015/08/27/should-the-labour-party-apologise-for-the-iraq-war/

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. https://xkcd.com/54/

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

[4] http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/book-reviews-fellowship-literary-lives-inklings-tolkien-lewis-barfield-williams-zaleski

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.

cambridge

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.

Why?

I leave on 10th June, for 7 weeks…
to attend conferences in my fields of interest/research, to speak at these conferences, to learn from key academics and leaders who I particularly respect, to mix it up a bit because I have the opportunity, to meet others in a similar position to myself (e.g. in Cambridge), to see Europe, to speak on ‘Unbelievable’, to consider what is the same and different, and as with anything to hopefully be better equipped to live for Jesus in the particular contexts I may be called to.

No, it’s not just a holiday or an excuse to travel – though I hope it will be both restful and challenging, in parts.
EuropeI remember a few months ago avidly listening to talks from a conference similar to the one in Oxford, thinking how cool it would be to sit in the audience and interact with the greats – now I’m lined up to be one of the speakers, bizarrely.
I remember also, many times eagerly beginning to listen to a new episode of ‘Unbelievable’, so grateful for this show and the people taking part, seldom considering them to be mere mortals like I.
I remember, finally, where I have come from, and who has bought me at such a price.

To God be the glory – great things He has done! So loved He the world that He gave us His son.

Wanderings in Europe

Here’s my planned schedule for my trip to Europe, thus far – all going well. I’ve been overwhelmed by the opportunities that these conferences represent, and hope that I can make the most of them if it all works out. I’m hoping I can take some of July off from my thesis to explore, relax, and prep, but not much time is now left between conferences. Each of the talks (apart from the ICETAR potential) is a side-project spin-off of some of my PhD-thinking and vaguely related thoughts. A couple will hopefully turn into papers and thus chapters or an appendix for my thesis.

If you have suggestions on how I should spend my time, in a productive way for Jesus’ sake, let me know. I’m interested to meet people if I can find the time, to visit some museums, and could possibly speak on one or two occasions (e.g. for a CU) if useful.

It is likely to be funded by a combination of my PhD research fund, perhaps a small conference bursary, money from my supervisor (now based in the UK) for me to go and visit his new lab, and money I’ve saved from tutoring. I would probably accept offers of minor financial assistance for the apologetics-related events, as I am convinced that the training received at Cambride & Oxford will develop my ministry in this area, but will see how things pan out.

16-20th June: Jena, Germany – International Conference on Code Biology. 
Presenting a paper on the putative optimality of the genetic code and its relationship to theories of code origin (based on work from my PGDipSci).

24-26th June: Amsterdam, the Netherlands. ICETAR (International Conference on the Evolution and Transfer of Antibiotic Resistance).
(Likely) presenting a poster on evolutionary trade-offs as they relate to antibiotic resistance – TBC. Anyone who applies can present a poster (I think), so this isn’t too special unless they accept my talk abstract – will see.

2-3 July: British Society for the Philosophy of Science annual conference. University of Manchester.
I’ll be speaking on how different concepts of biological function relate to evolutionary theory. Based on work I prepared late last year. Was rather surprised to be accepted for this talk, since I’m not a philosopher, and I’m not convinced my own thesis is defensible, at least with the arguments suggested at in the abstract. I am concerned/intrigued/confused by my ability to convince experts that I am one of them, in a short piece of text.

7-13th July: Cambridge Scholars Network
Attending a seminar series for evangelical Christian PhD students, with Christian scholars, at the University of Cambridge. To learn, network and be mentored. This is a remarkable opportunity – thank you internet for the discovery, and thank you God.

22-25th July. University of Oxford, Ian Ramsey Centre for Science & Religion. ‘Human Difference’ conference.
I’m speaking on the human genome – particularly the ENCODE project, and other molecular measures of complexity over the animal kingdom, arguing that new evidence supports the claim that biological complexity can be objectively measured and plausibly peaks in humans. I was very surprised that this talk abstract was accepted, and this one scares the crap out of me. The plenary speaker is Alister McGrath, who is possibly my favourite academic in the world. This invitation to speak is undeserved.

Oxford-University-Circlet.svg

While this is exciting, challenging, & scary, the most important things are still found in the ordinary everyday, in God’s extraordinary world, so I hope I can remember that.

Antibiotic resistance *is* evolution

A neurosurgeon who supports intelligent design has written a dumb esssay about antibiotic resistance. It’s an area very close to what I research, so I briefly comment.

Michael Egnor boldly claims that antibiotic resistance has “nothing to do with evolution”, arguing that it is an instance of artificial selection and so, intelligent design rather than the undirected processes of Darwinism. This is vaguely interesting, but quite wrong.

Artificial selection involves intentional manipulation of populations in order to achieve a desired result. Antibiotic treatment might fall into this loose category, but antibiotic resistance – as currently experienced – almost never does. Egnor’s claim is that because intelligent agency is involved in designing and manipulating antibiotics, then bacterial populations’ responses to treatment are not undirected. Sheer semantic sophistry.

Take another example of natural selection – microbial populations’ increased ability to survive in toxic environments (e.g. around mining sites). Is this “intelligent design” because the mining was done by humans? Absurd.

To add to the embarrassment, while we don’t fully understand the origin of all mutations responsible for antibiotic resistance, we do know that many of them are present in natural bacterial populations (so at least some resistance is due to long-standing ‘standing variation’ rather than de novo mutation) – which makes sense, given that most antibiotics are based on compounds naturally produced by fungi and other microbes. The interaction between bacteria and antibiotics is not purely a result of human activity.

I cannot see how this is not natural selection shifting allele frequencies in a population (i.e. evolution). Egnor is responding to ultra-atheist PZ Meyers. Meyers is often way out of his depth when he wades in to discuss religion, but this kind of ‘response’ will only further convince him and his fanboys of his unassailable scientific superiority.

It’s this kind of amateur pontificating that helps give intelligent design a bad name. Stop it, Discovery Institute.

2014

It’s been a stretching year. Two major highlights: seeing Unichurch start, and the many people I’ve met.  One example: Cory worked at a backpackers’ that I stayed at in Montreal. Chats included, while on the way to a fireworks show, discussing whether aliens were involved in human origins.

I’ve made brilliant friends from around the world and around Auckland. I’ve had some excellent and non-excellent moments. I’ve spoken on stage as the least experienced member of a line-up of experimental evolutionary biologists in Washington DC, visited Harvard University, have been sleepless in Seattle (from sheer elation), and irrationally depressed away from home alone in New York. I’ve met some of my heroes in the faith and in science, and been treated as a peer. I’ve considered others to be far less important than myself and run away from hard conversations. I’ve moved out of home, just because I could. I possibly persuaded an ultra-Orthodox Jew, David, in a crappy hostel in DC to consider the claims of Jesus seriously for the first time. I’ve been told “Hmm, you make a good point” quite a few times, and should have said it to God many more. I’ve seen ostentatious wealth and rampant homelessness within metres of each other. I’ve enjoyed tutoring biology and philosophy. I’ve helped to start a church in a bar, and seen men and women become Christians, and new Christians point others to Jesus. I’ve been part of the church leadership. I’ve given various talks, and participated in public debates and discussions. I’ve been out of my depth answering questions from high-school kids. I’ve felt uncomfortably poor. I’ve realised I’m probably addicted to sugar. I’ve submitted two scientific papers and had both rejected. I’ve been warmly encouraged to continue my PhD and I still hope to finish it early. I don’t know what comes next, though it probably involves science, philosophy, and/or theology in some form. I’ve been overwhelmed, stressed, and stretched well beyond what I feel I can cope with; and I’ve realised that Jesus calls all people to an upside-down kind of life.

From the beginning and from before

From the beginning and from before
This universe was not self-contained
To this world there has always been more
Rational order ain’t merely ingrained.

We can live in a structured cosmos
And I am a moral thinking thing
Only ‘cause the right laws were imposed;
Given through the will of a good King.

The existence and nature of all this stuff
Points to His personal reality
But, these hints aren’t really enough
To experience His nature fully.

Yet, the eternal, personal, theological
True God, to us stooped down
And became flimsily biological
In order that He might be known.

He sought those in severest need
His enemies, Jesus did pursue
Yes, for us was willing to suffer and bleed
Our willful brokenness he can renew

The ‘mystery’ of Christmas
Is reachable, can be believed;
It’s no longer mysterious
Once the Gift is received.

Living the Low Life

This week I’m trying out ‘live below the line’ – with one of my flatmates I’m living on less than $2.25 worth of food per day. I spend too much on food when I have spare money, so I’m doing this to force me to be more careful in future. It’s not too tricky actually, as we bought stuff as a group of four. We have lots of oats, apples, rice, lentils and veges, some eggs, bread and peanut butter, and even a treat food that may be revealed later, and we’re a little bit under budget. The main thing we will miss I think is milk. Here is the flatmate doing his duty in disposing of our leftover luxury drink before the week started. Yes, I’m allowed to post this, and it’s funnier in the context of our flat, okay? We are actually hilarious, trust me.

the drink of kings

We of course have the advantage of being able to pay for accommodation and non-food conveniences as normal, while well over a billion people around the world need to pay for everything with less than $2.25/day. It is difficult to imagine living in far less comfort than we currently enjoy and take for granted. Speaking for myself, I’m so bound up in my own sense of entitlement that I frequently don’t even bother to enjoy it, when so many others would consider my everyday life as an impossible luxury.

We’re supporting World Vision with whatever money we raise. If you’d like to assist this awesome organisation, please do throw $5 or $10 in the pot. The pot is here.

More importantly, perhaps spend 5 or 10 minutes thinking about what you spend money on, and what it shows about your priorities. I recently saw a quote from someone (someone on the internet – that narrows it down, right?) to the effect that what we spend money on most effortlessly is what we most treasure. In my case, this target of effortless spending is not actually food (working out what it is was a bit of a revelation), but food for myself is still fairly high up that list, suggesting that my comfort is fairly important to me! Welcome to living in the comfortable Western world.

In closing, I apologise for the self-promotion inherent in this kind of event – but even noting that I recognise it might come across as a kind of fake humility, and the infinite loop of cringeworthiness has now been started, so I’ll just stop. Hopefully reading this helps you consider how what you really value, what you spend, and what you eat fits in with how the other inherently conscious, rational, relational, and religious* beings on this precious little blue dot in the Milky Way live.

A final comment, given the popularity of social justice-type endeavours amongst many of our generation: I don’t believe that occasionally living ‘better’ (or cheaper) is enough for moral justification or a clean conscience. This may sound extreme and may need some context, but I think it amounts to something like adding a drop of muddy water to a bucket of contaminated blood and then celebrating how pure we’ve made everything. As a matter of moral necessity, at the bare minimum we need a new bucket. Having been given a precious vase instead, it would be a bit rude to keep vomiting or bleeding into the vessel if we can avoid it. If you feel the analogy is flawed or offensive, I’d be fascinated to know. If you like it, that’s cool, but try not to feed my ego, I’m trying to cut back.

Don__t_feed_the_Troll[image courtesy of http://salagir.deviantart.com/art/Don-t-feed-the-Troll-6696998]

*we all worship something.