This is a short post to announce that I have added a further page to the “talks” section of this blog. This is a sermon that I gave two weeks ago at Lady Margaret Hall college, Oxford, at the kind invitation of the chaplain Dr Doig. The sermon is an approximately twenty minute talk which looks at cosmology, and briefly discusses the structure of scientific explanation in general, with a view to showing that these things point towards further layers of meaning in the world, without being able to provide them. It can be found here.
I included in the sermon a brief reaction to something that I know bothers many people, and I decided to display that part here as a “thought for the day” for anyone who does not want to read the sermon. The thought is about whether we matter to God.
Last term I was privileged to be invited to give a sermon in Exeter College chapel here in Oxford. Here I am posting an extract from that sermon, with minor modifications to fit it to the blog format.
I began by talking about the fact that we all find it hard to know how to talk about God. Two ways which don’t work are as follows. First there is a rather obviously muddled way, in which people talk about something that has the appearance of being like other entities, only bigger and more powerful, located somewhere called ‘heaven’. Secondly there is an attempt to be more careful, but which often fails to carry real weight. This is when people speak in a more philosophical way, bringing in terms such as ‘omniscience’ and ‘omnipotence’, but all held at arm’s length, so that it all seems a bit artificial, like a word-game.
(the extract begins here)
This week I decided to write about something I feel strongly about, but I am going to try to keep the tone light. The issue I have in mind is the attempt to forge a marriage between science and atheism, as if the former implied the latter, or as if science was more naturally compatible with atheism than with theism.
The attitude I am promoting in this blog is to admit that what passes for “religion” in the world is a mixed bag, some of it bad, terrible; some of it good, wonderful. It runs to both extremes (and so does atheism). I have also offered other words as a help to get at what “religion” is meant to be about. I have offered the word “reconnection”, for example, which I got from Brian McLaren’s helpful book, “Naked Spirituality”. My own favourite word for it is “recognition”. You can see a longer definition on the Home page of this blog.
In this post I want to comment on the practice of demonizing religion. To “demonize” is to portray as wicked or threatening, and the term is especially appropriate when this is done thoughtlessly or automatically, as if it is an agreed thing.
Last week I posted a thought in which music in major and minor keys is used as an analogy for ways of thinking or of seeing. I did not develop the analogy; just hinted at it. Now I will develop it a little.
The sort of activity that tries to “turn minor chords into major chords” in this analogy is any activity where a naturalistic or scientistic world-view is imposed on the very framework of a discussion, so that a view which does not accept that world-view is prevented from even being expressed in its own terms. Here I am using the word ‘scientistic’ not for science, but for a philosophical position which puts analysis and dissection into low-level physical causes at the centre of all discourse, as if that were the most important thing, or only way of getting at truth.
Having posted and commented on quotations from other people’s books a few times, this week I am posting a short extract from a book of mine. This is from A. Steane, Faithful to Science (pub OUP 2014), p. 60.
In my experience, doing science really well is like imaginatively entering, or taking a fantastic voyage into, another world. This could be the world of thermodynamics, or the world of quantum mechanics, or the world of tiny atoms bouncing up and down on a light field trampoline, or the world of a chemical network, or the world of a living cell, or the world of a community of gorillas, or the world of a cancerous tumour. One needs to learn to think thermodynamically or think chemical graphically or think gorilla. It takes all the mathematical and experimental tools one can muster to do this, but imagination is needed as well. Keen observation is important, but at the outset one does not always know what to look for. Make a wrong assumption and the ship of exploration will develop leaks or veer off course; the experimental alarm bells will start to ring. The ship can be steered to some extent by analytical work, but the really crucial ability is to be good at asking the right questions.
After working at a difficult problem for a long time, attacking it from all sorts of different directions, one begins to form in one’s mind a representation of the crucial components. Then, in a marvellous moment, something falls into place. The experimenter realizes what has been stopping the apparatus from working, the theoretician realizes what mathematical structure will solve the problem. The working out is still to be done, but the crucial idea is already in place, and there is little doubt that it will work.
Actually doing original science thus is not wholly different from other forms of creative human activity, and it is not completely different from, or at odds with, the attempt to live by faith. It is interesting to see the relative roles of logic and imagination in all this. Logic is not the engine of progress in science, it is the tool used to hone one’s vision and to confirm or rule out what has been guessed by intuition. But there are vastly more wrong than right intuitions that one might possibly form; what is it that makes us get the right intuitions?
image from http://wildlifesnaps.com/search_results.php?species_common=Martin,+House
Carnsore Point, Co. Wexford, Ireland. September 20th, 2009.
A poem by R.S. Thomas:
Summer is here.
Once more the house has its
Spray of martins, Proust’s fountain
Of small birds, whose light shadows
Come and go in the sunshine
Of the lawn as thoughts do
In the mind. Watching them fly
Is my business, not as a man vowed
To science, who counts their returns
To the rafters, or sifts their droppings
For facts, recording the wave-length
Of their screaming; my method is so
To have them about myself
Through the hours of this brief
Season and to fill with their
Movement, that it is I they build
In and bring up their young
To return to after the bitter
Migrations, knowing the site
Inviolate through its outward changes.
R.S. Thomas, included in R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems: 1945-1990
Here is a letter that was published in New Scientist magazine about two months ago.
“I was intrigued by your claim that science is not a belief system (4 April, p.5). Surely what it is not is a faith system. Science is belief based on evidence: faith, on the other hand, is belief irrespective of evidence.
“Science gives rise to beliefs that fit the existing evidence, allowing for them to change should new evidence make that sensible.
“Faith takes beliefs and puts them on an untouchable pedestal where they remain, no matter what contradictory evidence there is.
“Most of us frequently employ a fairly scientific belief system. Take the simple example of the day of the week. When I woke up this morning, I believed it to be Thursday, based on the evidence of my memory. Had I then looked at my computer, my phone and a newspaper and seen that day given as Friday, I would have changed my belief, trusting the evidence of the computer, phone and newspaper over my memory. However, if I applied a faith-based belief system, I would have refused to take note of the contrary evidence and insisted that the day was Thursday, no matter what.
“It is lack of faith, not lack of belief, that makes science so special and so wonderful.”
Kate Szell, London, UK
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995)
This widely quoted paragraph is the subject of this essay. I am mostly concerned with the last sentence, but let me first briefly comment on the opening that builds up the dramatic power. When you read the comment on suffering, it seems at first like a valid observation, one that “sees through” the “illusion” of the goodness of the world to all the harshness of “the truth of things”. But think a little. If you had to write a couple of sentences in which you tried to capture a fair portrait of what happens in the natural world during the minute it takes to compose a sentence, would this be the portrait? Of course not. The suffering is not to be set aside, but it is less than half the story of most life, and it is less than half the story of life on Earth. Are all the careful, sympathetic and fulfilling studies presented by naturalists such as Sir David Attenborough just some sort of rose-tinted spectacles and wishful thinking? No. Go and look in your garden, or in the forest, or the jungle, or in the river, or the ocean, or on the African plain. Is it the case that starvation and misery is the “natural state” of affairs? Or are they part of a natural state of affairs which has here been grossly miss-represented?
This week we had another lecture in the area of the physics of the vacuum (see Whoops! A Universe). It was the 11th Dennis Sciama Memorial Lecture, given by Professor Philip Candelas of the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford. Here are the title and abstract:
Simple Calabi-Yau Manifolds and the Landscape of String Vacua
Abstract: It is widely known that there are a great many vacua of string theory. A small subset of these lead to four-dimensional worlds that are somewhat like the world that we observe. The great majority lead to worlds very different from our own. A vacuum is determined by a Calabi-Yau manifold together with certain extra structure. I will discuss the landscape of Calabi-Yau manifolds and a programme to find realistic string vacua based on simple cases.
You don’t need to understand the technical terms in order to follow the point I wish to make. All I want to emphasize here is that this lecture illustrates very well how completely wrong it is to describe the state of the universe in the absence of matter as somehow simple and not in need of explanation. Some of the best mathematical brains on the planet are puzzling over the nature of vacuum, and it is far from obvious or easy. And yet we continue to see utterly misleading headlines like the following (selected randomly from the web):