Saturday, September 04, 2010

An Immaculate Misconception

So where once the eponymous Professor Hawking suggested that one day we might know "the mind of God" (once Physics had produced a grand unified theory), now he thinks that the universe at its initiation no longer requires God to get it started. Many have asserted in reporting his views (including the Times in its frontpage headline on the 2nd Sept) that this is a claim that God doesn't exist. The reaction soon arrived by means of various media, and was fairly predictable. But at the heart of many of the views expressed appears to be a misconception. Once we have a "scientific" explanation for a phenomenon, it squeezes out all other explanations. And not just theological ones, but philosophical explanations too. For having killed God, apparently Physics now has its hands around the throat of philosophy.

The misconception is this: science explains everything. In case this smacks just a bit too much of intellectual hubris, let me amend it for the sake of humbler colleagues: science explains everything, or at least in principle can explain everything and in practice probably will explain everything once we know enough. There are a number of fundamental problems with even the amended version.

As far as I'm aware science has never attempted to explain "everything". And even the eventual "grand unified theory" that some physicists claim they will one day construct, doesn’t explain everything. Science has produced some fantastically successful explanations of certain phenomena which share a number of characteristics. Among these is the characteristic that a given phenomenon (or its effects) can be prodded, poked, measured, observed or recorded. And usually the prodding etc has to be done more than once - it has to be repeatable. In other words, in science we carve off certain aspects of the universe, study them, and produce explanations for them. But we all know that there are other things that don't fall neatly into the repeatable-prodable category.

Unique, one off events, for example. These can have remarkable consequences. Many of them happened in the past, some in the remote past. They may still have reverberations in the present day. I don’t mean the big bang, although it certainly was a unique event (at least from our perspective). Consider great thoughts, great speeches, great art from the past. We don't study these primarily with science. They are the province of a different discipline with its own rigorous and accepted methods - history. Are historical explanations now to be displaced as inadequate?

And it's not just the scope of science that is being misconceived. There are also the twin issues of depth and level. Consider the Mona Lisa for a moment. Chemistry is able to explain the composition of the pigments used, and why and how they have changed over the centuries. The science of optics can explain the formation of a sharp image of the painting on the back of your eye. It will explain quite adequately why, for instance the image is upside down. The neurosciences can explain how the image at the back of the eye is decomposed into lots of electrical signals in the retina, which are then transmitted to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. We can explain how different features in the image cause distinct parts of the visual system to activate. We can explain why the inverted image is not perceived as being inverted. Personally I reckon this is all still far short of explaining how all this adds up to you “seeing” the Mona Lisa, and appreciating it. But even if we agree we have an explanation for all of the processes involved in seeing, would we feel that we had said all there was to say about the Mona Lisa? We haven't yet said anything about its purpose and meaning, all we have talked about is mechanism. And this leaves a lot out of the account.

But suppose we explained the Mona Lisa in terms of its meaning and purpose. Would that negate all the stuff above about chemistry and optics and neuroscience? Of course not. These explanations are not competing, they are complementary. And here's where we come back to the misconception. God is not a competing explanation that is being increasingly made redundant by the advance of science. He is not a phenomenon but a person whose power underpins and sustains all the processes studied by science. That's why science can neither prove not disprove Him. He's not that kind of repeatable-prodable thing, along with money, football scores, and Tony Blair's grin.

Of course my statement above about who God is and what He does is not a scientific one. You'll notice that it's no less understandable or rational for that. You may disagree with it, but that simply makes it, in your view, wrong. Not mad. And I have my reasons for making such a statement and evidence upon which I base it.

This all has little to do with blue touch paper the instant before the big bang. Here's the really breathtaking thing. God was not merely active in the remote past. That’s the God of the deist, not the God of the Bible. He's been involved with this particular universe ever since. He's involved with it right now. But you can't measure His involvement with the methods and techniques of science. This does not make Him spooky, or mysterious and unknowable. He has, in fact, made Himself knowable. You can't get much more knowable than Jesus Christ, who was born, breathed, lived and died on this particular planet. Who lived one of the best attested and evidenced lives ever lived. And, I and others claim, both died a unique death, and returned from the dead to prove it. Never mind Professor Hawking’s new book. I don't think even he would claim that reading it would transform your life now and your eternal destiny. Try Luke's book in the New Testament if you are of a scientific frame of mind, or John's book if you're more arty!


Saturday, September 13, 2008

The extremes are winning

We've had the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool this week. There was a session on science and religion last Sunday, which was a clear exercise in Kuhnian incommensurability. The philosopher Thomas Kuhn suggested that the supporters of contradictory, competing theories often just don't get what the other side is on about. They can't even agree the basic facts that constitute the evidence, never mind agree on the interpretation of the results. Consequently, even as one theory begins to win the struggle, there are die hard supporters of the old theory that never jump ship. Basically they go to the grave believing that they are right, and the other lot are wrong. Note that Kuhn's examples were all from science. So it will hardly come as a surprise that in a lecture from a physicist (and atheist) about science, he didn't really get what some of his audience were saying, and rather caricatured both science and belief. Equally, there were probably some believers (of various types) in the audience, who weren't really ready to accept that some of the physics being discussed was actually very impressive. Rather they saw it as arrogant, dangerous and confusing.

What struck me about all of this, and some further press coverage of the issue of the teaching of "scientific" young earth creationism in school science lessons, is that the extremes seem to be sweeping all before them. From the science side of things, there's the extreme of those who claim that science is a rigorous process for obtaining infallible knowledge about anything. At no point does it involve such flaky notions as belief or faith. It, itself, is both to be trusted though, and the knowledge it provides is authoritative. Once it has "explained" something, that explanation is the best available, and any other type of explanation is inferior. From the belief side of things comes the view that science is a sort of conspiracy to confuse, baffle and enslave. Much, if not all, of what it produces is to be mistrusted if not feared. It's usually bound up with government or big business, and is aimed at undermining spirituality (of whatever sort). In specifically Christian terms, it is something approaching a satanic conspiracy to undermine belief in God.

The mere fact that I, and many others, manage to operate as a competent (I hope) scientist and a faithful (I hope) Christian, rather suggests this conflict is neither necessary or helpful. Both stem from fundamental, and occasionally willful, misunderstandings of both what science is and how it works, and what (at least) the Christian faith is and how it works.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Lots of debates.....

Lennox vs Hitchins in the Usher Hall this summer. Dawkins vs Lennox last year. And various others. The web and blog response to such events (it's a while since I actually attended any of them) is interesting. The believers on both sides line up behind their favourite, contrasting his (it usually is a he) calm disposal of all the opposing arguments. Frequently there are claims that the format, or the chair, is biased. That the structure is against their man etc. Lots of frustration on both sides. I suppose debates will keep happening because of the perceived entertainment value/the importance of the issues/passion of the protagonists. On one level it is healthy, I suppose. Arguments are aired (though no one ever appears to hear anything new). There is perhaps occasionally some engagement. I'm not sure anyone is ever persuaded on the basis of the debate (though votes are often taken). Maybe just turning up is useful as showing there is an argument to be had.

The problem is that a debate is about winning an argument. Debate can be a way at getting at the truth of a proposition. But truth is often lost in the fog of war. And in the heat of battle perhaps the majority on either side of the issue are incapable of hearing what is said, even if they are listening. Even within science (and these debates are fundamentally not about science at all), Kuhn argued that two rival camps, proposing different scientific hypotheses as explanations of the same phenomena, can't even agree often on what the evidence is. They just don't "see" things (including the evidence for experiments) the same way. This issue of "incommensurability", although a bit postmodern for my taste, and not the whole story, is certainly an interesting one. And if it applies in science, bastion of intellectual rigour, logic and rationality, what must it mean for other areas of intellectual effort? Including debates on the existence of God?

Is there a better way? I'm all for quiet study! You want to know whether God exists (by God I mean the Living God who, it is claimed, is revealed in the pages of the Bible)? Read a bit (say one of the Gospels), and ask Him to show Himself. To be fair, perhaps you should read one of the anti-God polemics that have inspired some of the recent debates, as well. I'm not sure what you would ask of whom in that case!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The dust settles.....

So onwards and forwards to "saviour siblings", "hybrid" embryos and the rest. The forces of reaction and obscurantism routed and driven from the field. And I bet you're all expecting cures for everything from Alzheimer's to fragile-X syndrome if not next week then a couple of years from now. Don't get me wrong. Preventing or curing Alzheimer's, motor neurone disease, and a whole host of other neurological disorders would be great news indeed. And the research that can now go forward may play a role in such advances. But at a price. That price is that human life becomes just a little bit more like a tool or a commodity. And while many commodity prices are currently soaring, the price of this commodity is gently heading south. We're a little bit less than what we were, or are or should be.

Was there an alternative? Probably. A lot of research resources will now be ploughed into some of the new avenues that will now open up. But there were less costly avenues that might have reaped the same dividends. Work on adult stem cells has quietly been delivering real insights and possible therapeutic clues. Work using cells from cord blood has also shown promise. Both of these may now be hampered because resources will now be directed in new ways.

What the debate illustrated for me was that politicians and others seem peculiarly unwilling to stand up to scientists. As I scientist I can speak with authority on what can be done. I can speculate in an educated way about what it might lead to. I suppose in my own area of expertise it's fair enough to expect that I should be heard with a degree of respect. But when it comes to the trickier question not of what can be done, but what should be done, my opinions should carry no more weight than yours simply because I'm a scientist. "Is" should not lightly be simply turned into "ought" with no further comment. And it seemed to me there's been a lot of that going on over the last week.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What of the real issue....

Today, there has been a reasoned and reasonable debate in Parliament about where to put the legal time limit for performing an abortion in the UK. Currently it's 24 weeks. It may be reduced. But this debate misses what for all of us should be really disturbing statistic: the number of abortions in England and Wales in 2006 was 193,700 (an increase on 2005). That's an average of 3725 per week, 532 per day, 22 per hour, about one every 22 second, of every day, of every month through the year. About 90% were carried out by the 13th week of gestation. Of the 193,700, only 2,000(1%) were under ground E, because there was a risk that the child would be born handicapped. One wonders at the reason for the other 191,700. The numbers are publicly available on the Department of Health website. But the numbers, the facts don't really help, except to alert us to an unfolding disaster that speaks volumes about the kind of society we've become.

No one with any sense would deny that underlying these figures are tens of thousands of individual tragedies for the women involved. While some perhaps undertake this course seeing it as no more than another form of contraception, I'm prepared to believe that many do so after careful thought, deliberation and no doubt for some, for many, anguish. All of this misses the point. We're not talking about the disposal of fridges or dishwashers. Or a choice between a car and a holiday. We're talking about the systematic ending of life (actual or potential) on a massive scale. And, as almost a byproduct the risk of lasting damage to the woman concerned. While for many there is perhaps relief and even escape, how many thousands remain scared and damaged? I ask because I don't know. And as with so many issues around abortion, answers beyond the bare numbers are hard to disentangle from polemic.

There can be no flip answer. Surely the current situation can't simply be ignored. Banning abortion wont end it, just hide it. Simply suddenly restricting it at the point of demand is likely to be as damaging at the current situation. In any case, having opened the box, there can be no neat, instant way of shutting it again. If there is to be a right to choose, perhaps we should begin by enabling a real choice. Proper options for the potential mother, a proper taking of responsibility for the potential children by the rest of us. There's a lot of responsibility being ducked in current circumstances, on all sides. While on the one hand this is an intensly personal situation, given the scale of what is going on it has a public dimension.

But "right to life" vs "right to choose" has delivered us into, rather than delivered us from, a mess. No answers, just more questions - at least from me.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Dispatch on Dispatches - "In God's Name"

Shock, horror... "Hard-line Christian activists are now mobilising believers in an attempt to make an impact on society nationally." Apart from the "Hard-line" bit, which is a touch pejorative, isn't this a good thing in a democracy? Are Christians (hard-line or any line) not allowed to lobby or protest? Are they not supposed to be media savvy (although not many of those featured were), organised, educated, committed? If the beliefs encountered in the programme are only held by the lunatic fringe, then they are unlikely to achieve any political traction, given all the other views being lobbied for which are media savvy, organised and committed. If they are evidence-based, cogent and in particular if they speak to a deeper truth, then they may succeed. Indeed, ultimately they will be vindicated, even if not in the here and now. It seems to me the confident non-believer has nothing to fear from this. However, there appear to be more than a few non-believers who, never having really worked out what they don't believe and why they don't believe it, react with fear and intolerance, stirred up by caricatures of Biblical Christianity, rather than the real thing. The answer to that is surely to investigate the case the Christians put.

Interestingly the creation/evolution issue was used, in an attempt (I think) to portray directly one particular faith school, and by association all faith schools, as teaching "science" seriously out of step with the mainstream. The claim (and it seemed to be a fair one) was that "creation science" was being taught as scientific fact. Just for the record, I believe in God the creator of the heavens and the earth. I'm hazy on the exact mechanism, because He hasn't explained it in those terms in His Word. I'm not entirely sure that my rather feeble mind is capable of understanding in terms of mechanism how a God who is Spirit, calls a universe which is material into being out of nothing. I do understand that He did it, and that He had a particular purpose in mind in doing it. It is unfortunate if one particular institution teaches as fact that the Earth is only about 6000 years old. That is a possible interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, but not a necessary one. And it conflicts with a lot of sound evidence from the scientific realm. That evidence, just like Scripture, has to be interpreted, but I find it compelling. However, it is not clear to me that the particular school portrayed is typical. And presumably the parents who send their children to that particular school know what is being taught, and along with the rest of what the school does, approve. Are they not to have the right to send their kids to such schools? I wouldn't, but then that's me. Who is to decide? The media? Let's hope not. Atheists? But they are hardly objective? The State? But hang on, the State has legislated to allow these schools to operate. They are State inspected, and have to meet agreed standards - which presumably they do.

That all said, this was a rather sophisticated and subtle hatchet job. A partial presentation from a particular standpoint (broadly a secularist one). How could it be otherwise. The thinking viewer will actually have seen and heard positively provocative stuff, as well as a bit of caricature. If it scares a few atheists, humanists or secularists into political activism, fair enough. But perhaps it might encourage more Chrsitians to take seriously our responsibility to be prayerful, gracious, Biblical, active citizens.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Hot in Malawi

So here I am blogging from downtown Baltyre, Malawi. Hot today, as it has been most days. Although it's more like an absence of weather for the average Brit; just a blue sky with that big shiny thing in it every day. This must be where it went to, as it has put in relatively few appearances in the UK this summer.

Malawi is a place of contrasts, as perhaps is most of Africa. Lots of folk walking long distances along dusty roads, not able to afford the fares on the rather ropey looking minivans that speed along packed to gunnels. And yet more than a few 4x4 shiny gas guzzlers also make stately progress along the same roads. Maternity outpatients (the patch of grass outside the maternity ward) has been as busy as usual this week. The feeding programme doing a brisk trade. Medical care for most, basic if not non-existent unless they can afford private care. Yet the College is expanding its course to provide the next generation with more doctors and nurses and therapists - that is if the country can avoid them being sucked into the health care systems of the rich north in Europe and the USA.