Before I embark on this blog post, a few words for regular readers. I have to apologise for the blog falling dormant for a month. This was because I have been working intensely on a book (a physics textbook), and also because I have been mulling over what to write. Also, I put up quite a lot of content just before the dormant period so I hope there was enough to be going on with (see under resources/talks). Finally, regarding comments: thanks for all constructive comments. They are all much appreciated and encouraging. However it is hard to keep up with moderating them because I have had over 7000 comments in total, almost all of them spam. I hope some day to get some help with the filtering process, but until I do that the situation will continue to be slow.
The post you are reading now was prompted in part by a recent talk at the physics department here in Oxford. The talk was the 2015 Wetton Lecture, delivered by Professor Carlo Frenk, Director, Institute for Computational Cosmology, University of Durham, and it had the title
“Everything from nothing, or how our universe was made”
Image by Miroslav Duchacek, Wikimedia Commons, File:Giraffe_standing.jpg.
The recurrent laryngeal nerve
You sleek, fit, timorous, towering beast,
Enormous swan, or mis-shaped horse,
I saw your stately, tall progress
And thought, a triffid, or Queen Bess.
Puzzled, or puzzling, as you munch
You seem absorbed, not on your lunch
But on some hint, some alien hunch
That your slim brain-power cannot crunch.
This blog has a “science and religion” theme because it is helpful for a blog to be focused: you can’t take on every issue at once. Of course science and religion do touch on pretty much every issue, but when they are mentioned together this tends to focus on interest in rationality and the questioning of religion.
There are three types of issue that tend to come up in this area.
For my Christmas blog, here are a few assorted jokes. They are mostly but not all science- or maths-related. My favourites are the ones that hint at existential angst. (For any that look a bit blurred, click for a sharper image.)
Once upon a time there was a race of bipedal creatures. They ran around all over the place, meeting, exploring, finding food, going hungry, hurting themselves and each other, taking care of themselves and each other, and gazing at the stars.
These creatures had an unusual sort of anatomical feature: their two legs needed different types of food. Many foods could nourish their whole body, including both legs, but some types of food were only good for the left leg, some for the right. So, as a result of this, most of the creatures had one leg longer than the other and they walked about in a sort of lurching way. They did their best to find foods for both legs.
It is quite disgraceful and disastrous, something to be on one’s guard against at all costs, that [non-Christians] should ever hear Christians spouting what they claim our Christian scripture has to say on these topics [astronomy, biology and so on], and talking such nonsense that they can scarcely contain their laughter when they see them to be toto caelo, as the saying goes, wide of the mark. And what is so vexing is not that misguided people should be laughed at, as that [biblical] authors should be assumed by outsiders to have held such views and, to the great detriment of those about whose salvation we are so concerned, should be written off and consigned to the waste paper basket as so many ignoramuses!
I am indebted to my friend Stan Rosenburg for bringing the above quotation to my attention. This passionate statement could have been made at any time in the last hundred years, or the last ten years, or yesterday, especially in large parts of America, but also in plenty of other places, wherever we have to face the embarrassment and the tiresome vexation of Christians spouting ridiculous nonsense which they claim to find in the Bible. But what is striking about the quotation is that it does not date from yesterday or last year. It is from good old Augustine of Hippo, born in the year 354! It is from his de Genesi ad litteram (Detailed Commentary on Genesis) 1.19. Yes, back in the fourth and fifth centuries, well-informed study of the natural world was already going on, and ridiculous misapplication of the Bible was alive and well too. Continue reading
Gregor (Johann) Mendel
There seems to be a bit of a tussle going on over who can lay claim to the work of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk who pioneered the quantitative study of inheritance and thus genetics. Was he a religious man doing good scientific work, an example of the fact that the two not only go together, but the former can promote the latter? Or was he a deist, perhaps a closet atheist, making a pragmatic choice to go along with some irksome religious constraints in order to gain the leisure to practice science without any genuine recognition of the role of prayer, or of the leadership shown by Jesus of Nazareth? For example, in his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins (writing a brief statement on this) chose to say
Well, it is the evolutionary story, of course. The story of simple beginnings, and gradual development; the story of characteristics inherited through genes, with slight adjustments that accumulate over the generations. The story of finite lifespan in an environment offering limited resources, with the consequent filtering process known as natural selection. All this can be discovered by scientific research, and it has been so discovered by all the people who joined in with the mainstream scientific community.
But what is the story of this story? What kind of a narrative do we have here? Is it tragedy? Or a comedy of errors? Or a heroic epic? Or farce? Or is it a tale of boundless exploration? Or a triumph of the aggressive? Or a triumph of the adaptable? Is it the story of brute force? Or is it the story of courage in spite of brute force? A story of increasing depth of experience? Is it a good story? Is it a story of good? Is it good?
The blog is intended to give people a way in, in a briefer format than is typical for a book. I have already given some book-length thoughts, and I intend to discuss some issues at greater length eventually in another book, but here I will offer an introductory comment on the two activities called science and religion. Continue reading