Friday, 29 February 2008

Insight from a volcano

Recently I've watched a couple of BBC series on large scale natural and geological phenomenon: 'Earth: the power of the planet' and 'Ten things you didn't know about...(tsunamis, earthquakes, avalanches). I love learning about the natural world and science; I'm a sucker for 'Life in Cold Blood', occasionally 'Horizon', and another excellent recent one, 'Atom'. And not surprisingly in the context of recent blog discussion, I find myself constantly reflecting on how religious faith, including my own, meshes with the captivating fields of knowledge these kinds of programmes open up.

It was a scene from the volcano episode of 'Power of the planet' the other day that crystallised an insight that had been simmering for some time. The presenter, Dr Iain Stuart - a congenial Scotsman - was discussing the volcanic activity that sustained and gave birth to Iceland. A scene of him contentedly soaking with locals in a warm geyser pool gave way to a computer-generated model of the extraordinary structure which lies beneath the island. Shooting up from the earth's core is a colossal funnel of lava, like a giant molten tree trunk; and it is of course the point where this plume hits the surface of the ocean that has produced - well, Iceland.

Now this is of course basic geology which anyone with a background in the subject would probably be quite familiar with. But for someone without such prior learning, the image was spell-binding - as indeed have been many images, facts and figures in the whole series. I've always had a hunger for knowledge about the natural world, and contrary to one popular stereotype, have never found my religious faith instilling any kind of fear or reluctance to glean more. In fact, the growing inner freedom of spirit faith nurtures seems if anything to sharpen this hunger. While it is pleasant enough to view pretty pictures of Iceland's landscape, I am intrigued by the bigger picture, the inner workings, what lies under the surface.

And I try to bring the same exploratory approach to faith. I'm struck by the parallels between religious and scientific knowledge. In both cases, full-blooded appreciation is only gained through a questing spirit that is prepared to 'get under the skin' of what is apparent, to dig deep for understanding. No great progress in science would have been possible without this drive to think outside the box, push past preconceptions and conceive physical reality in fresh ways. And no progress can be made in grasping and savouring spiritual realities without a similar attitude and approach. And it seems that one of the starting points, as Rob pointed out, is being prepared to take seriously the fact that there are different ways of gleaning knowledge, of which the scientific method is only one. A grade one class in epistemology would I reckon tell you that. 'Oranges are not the only fruit' as Jeanettte Winterson observed in a very different context. To quote from the opening of Chapter 6 of 'Science and its limits', (The Limitations of Science: What Can It Not Tell Us): '... if knowledge is restricted to scientific knowledge, we will thus be sheltering ourselves and our beliefs from the relevant portions of reality' p97. Sobering stuff - and I can't deny being curious to know what my atheist friends make of it.

Finally: it's been one heck of a weather day. Scotland's been through the washing machine. 'Heather the weather' must have been waxing lyrical.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Making airwaves

Last Wednesday I was interviewed and accepted for a radio producer post with Whistling Frog Productions in Bradford, a UK-based ministry of HCJB Global, which has media and healthcare ministries around the world. Exciting news, so I look forward to moving to Bradford (yes, I know that sounds odd to some!), hopefully in a few weeks' time.
Meanwhile, I need to start building up a prayer and financial support base - in common with a number of Christian ministries, the post itself is not salaried - as well as start investigating part-time work opportunities down there, and in other practical ways get ready to go.
More soon...

Monday, 11 February 2008

The atheists' take on science: a problem

There's nothing like a good book to expand knowledge, awareness and ways of looking at things. I've started reading 'Philosophy of Science', the original 1986 title of the book 'Science and its limits' by Del Ratzch. I'd recommended it to Jonathan on the Musings blog, see top right, and he posted a rather different take on it. It's an overview, 165pp long, and one of a series called 'Contours of Christian Philosophy'. That might turn off some readers before even opening it, which would be a shame, because core sections present a clear informative account of ways of understanding the nature, role and scope of science as they have developed over the centuries.
Chapter 1, Science: What is it?, outlines its basic aspects and presuppositions. The italicised words give a flavour: natural science, discipline, theoretical, natural explanations, empirical, objectivity, rational...
Chapter 2, The Traditional Conception of Science, outlines first the 'Baconian conception'. Next, rationality, sub-divided into prediction, covering-law model of explanation, hypothetico-deductive testing (in which concepts including proof, experiment, hypotheses, deduction and logic are summarised). Then the empirical element, and objectivity, where the role of the scientific community is briefly addressed. Followed by some initial implications.

It proceeds to examine 'Positivism: a Major School in the Traditional View', and its position on the empirical, rationality and objectivity. This is where, in light of the current debate with atheists, things start to get interesting. On the empirical, DR notes that British philosopher John Locke, was so impressed by the accomplishments of Newton, which he perceived as:

'having banned the nonempirical from science... that he thought that if restricting science to the purely empirical had proved to be the ultimate key to scientific knowledge (and who could doubt that?) then that restriction must be the key to other knowledge as well... the genesis of modern empiricism, the doctrine (note) that all concepts, ideas and substantive knowledge available to human beings must ultimately rest solely on experience - in particular, on sensory experience and observation. The implication of that doctrine (forcefully advocated by David Hume) was that any alleged idea or belief which did not have that empirical grounding was really empty and quite literally meaningless', p33.

When I read that, I thought heavens, this is starting to sound familiar.

I won't be spending much more blog time outlining and quoting another author's thoughts so extensively, but I've done so here in the hope of engaging my atheist readers in a level of reading and discussion we can all take seriously. Hopefully around a book like this, or of similar quality. DR goes on to outline the implications and decline of positivism, delineating the flaws that made it 'increasingly clear that the positivist outlook was bankrupt as a philosophy of science, and ultimately incoherent as well', p36. A brief look at the decline of the traditional view of science closes chapter 2. There are seven more chapters to go.

This isn't half as entertaining as reading in 'The God Delusion' about belief in God being comparable to belief in fairies, unicorns, an orbiting chocolate teapot and an imaginary friend called Binker. But golly, the science looks more serious.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

The charm and the flaw of Richard Dawkins

I've finished 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins. I like to give credit where credit's due: although I stalled at a couple of points (started reading it in September), I readily acknowledge the guy is a clever, lucid and witty writer, so large parts were actually quite enjoyable, and I learned some fascinating science stuff, especially in the last few pp. But in RD's handling of religion, I utterly concur with Alister McGrath in 'The Dawkins Delusion' that:
'Dawkins simply offers the atheist equivalent of slick hellfire preaching, substituting turbocharged rhetoric and highly selective manipulation of facts for careful, evidence-based thinking... surprisingly little scientific analysis... a lot of pseudo-scientific speculation, linked with wider cultural criticisms of religion, mostly borrowed from older atheist writings', p10.
He goes on to note that Prospect magazine, whose reader survey as noted in the TGD fly leaf voted RD one of the world's three top intellectuals in Nov 2005, went on to carry a review of the book. Describing it as 'incurious, dogmatic, rambling and self-contradictory', the review was called 'Dawkins the dogmatist', p11.
A look at some specifics will await another post - the argument about probability in Chapter 4 'Why there almost certainly is no God' - to which AM responds - is the part that intrigued me most and that I'd most want to go back to. A broad brush observation for now: RD is clearly and admirably passionate about science, and ponders the wonders of the world that are in its scope to reveal, with all the goggle-eyed delight of a child in a cathedral. But for some reason, he is unwilling seriously to explore even the possibility of another, dare I say it, yet more marvellous cathedral: the cathedral of the spirit, unlocked with the key of faith, where God in relationship might just be found. Not held at arm's length, ostracised, distorted and pilloried through misrepresentation (particularly of the OT) as a 'monster'; but, even modestly and hesitatingly, approached and explored as the majestic reality He might just be. God is by no means always obvious, I can as a lifelong searcher and explorer myself concur; but the mistreatment of the mystery by one who shows so little evidence of actually having seriously investigated it, in the final analysis feels oddly weightless.
I also recently began reading 'The Miracle of Theism' by late Oxford Fellow and Reader of Philosophy, and atheist, JL Mackie. As a careful, fair and deeply thought through examination of the topic - within confines admittedly more philosophical than scientific - I can regard it seriously and with respect. Unfortunately TGD, for all RD's wit and flair, has not earned the same. I don't suppose my atheist readers will like any of this, but it leaves me wondering what it was that pulled down the blinkers for Mr Dawkins. Or at least prevented him from having a proper look.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Who's deluded about God?

Ok, by popular request - thanks Lee - I'm back with a post. Lately I've been reading Richard Dawkins' 'The God Delusion' and Alister McGrath's much shorter rebuttal, 'The Dawkins Delusion'. One of the first things that's struck me is the contrast in the quality of scientific reviewers the two authors were able to acquire to endorse their books. Harvard experimental psychologist Stephen Pinker looks like the most eminent scientific reviewer for TGD, but he only describes it as 'a characteristically elegant book' - no actual critique of RD's approach to religion at all. Next best is science journalist Matt Ridley, who offers a typical, Dawkins school, ill-informed unconsidered false dichotomy between 'faith, spirit and superstition' and 'truth'. Beyond these two, RD has had to rely for concurring anti-religion praise on three celebrity names who aren't scientists at all: Philip Pullman, a fantasy author; Brian Eno, a musician; and Derren Brown, an illusionist!
Contrast the line-up of McGrath's reviewers, and the specificity of their criticims: Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project: 'dismantles the argument that science should lead to atheism... has abandoned his much-cherished rationality'; Owen Gingerich, Professor of Astronomy at Harvard: 'demonstrates the gaps, inconsistencies and surprising lack of depth in Dawkins' arguments; and Michael Ruse, Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University: 'TGD makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.'
Out of time - much more to say on this - but lastly, one of McGrath's chief points is that the mainstream of the scientific community has long recognised that nature is open to interpretation of varying kinds; atheist Stephen Jay Gould was 'absolutely clear that the natural sciences - including evolutionary theory - were consistent with both atheism and conventional religious belief'.

Monday, 4 February 2008


As Lee commented in my last post, this blog has indeed gone a little quiet. It must be the hibernation instinct (plus a bad cold); hopefully with the lightening days - did you notice? - I'll be emerging from my burrow a bit more. News: I have an interview 13th February, a week Weds, in Bradford for the Whistling Frog radio ministry, part of 'HCJB', a global organisation involved in media, education and healthcare. More in due course...