Archive for the ‘science’ Category

In his chapter ‘Refashioning the Clay’ Samuel Wells acknowledges the huge contribution the Big Bang and evolutionary theory have made to science, but cautions against turning them into theology, for “you get a single word answer: survival. The whole dynamic of history mutates into survival; and adaptation that enables survival is called progress. Conflict is at the heart of every encounter, and survival is the reward for those who win the battle.

“But Christianity has a very different answer.

“Christians believe the logic – the logos, or word – at the heart of the universe is not about survival. It’s about death and resurrection. The ultimate future doesn’t belong to those who have fought and prevailed, it belongs to those who have laid down their lives for others.

Samuel Wells, in Learning to Dream Again

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Schrodinger's Cat
I came across the wonderful The story of Schroedinger’s cat (an epic poem) in the
Straight Dope archive – brilliant!

An excerpt…

The effect of this notion? I very much fear

‘Twill make doubtful all things that were formerly clear.

Till soon the cat doctors will say in reports,

“We’ve just flipped a coin and we’ve learned he’s a corpse.”‘

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I’ve recently been listening to Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything‘ on audiobook. Superb. It’s simultaneously an overview of the various scientific disciplines and a entertaining history of science, with its many colourful personalities.

I love science and finding out about the world, uncovering mysteries which lead to deeper mysteries. There are so many wonders out there – from the glories of space to the complexity of cells and the magic of quantum particles. As a Christian I love having my brain and imagination stretched, to celebrate and be thankful. There are so many bits of this book where I just went ‘wow’ – and others where I couldn’t wait to ask God what he was up to there!

What comes across in the book most distinctively is Bryson’s wonder – at the universe, our planet and most of all, at life. He seems almost overwhelmed at times by the sheer quantity and adaptability of life, it’s fruitfulness and diversity. Life is everywhere – at least on planet Earth! One of his repeating themes is the fragility of life and the unlikelihood of us being here.  He explains the anthropic principle early in the book (which states that the (or our) universe is necessarily ‘fine-tuned’ to us, else we wouldn’t be here to observe it were so) and he clearly wants to be convinced, but I was surprised how often he emphasises what an amazing number of remarkable coincidences have led to our existence here and now. Again and again he keeps coming across reasons why we shouldn’t be here!

The last chapter of the book is all about the extinctions that mankind has caused and he concludes like this:

I mention all this to make the point that if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn’t choose human beings for the job.

But here’s an extremely salient point: we have been chosen, by fate or providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It’s an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe’s supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.

…If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here – and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life at all in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course. We enjoy not only the privilege of existence, but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a trick we have only just begun to grasp.

We have arrived at this position of eminence in a stunningly short time. Behaviourally modern humans have been around for no more than about 0.0001 per cent of Earth’s history – almost nothing, really – but even existing for that little while has required a nearly endless string of good fortune.

We really are at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a lot more than lucky breaks.

Bill Bryson in ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’.

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Everyone’s talking about whether Richard Dawkins is still an atheist (read Spectator article)!

At a debate with John Lennox at Oxford’s Natural History Museum on Tuesday evening (watch video), Dawkins made the following surprising comment: “A serious case could be made for a deistic God”.

Another fascinating comment from the Spectator article by Melanie Phillips:

Even more jaw-droppingly, Dawkins told me that, rather than believing in God, he was more receptive to the theory that life on earth had indeed been created by a governing intelligence – but one which had resided on another planet. Leave aside the question of where that extra-terrestrial intelligence had itself come from, is it not remarkable that the arch-apostle of reason finds the concept of God more unlikely as an explanation of the universe than the existence and plenipotentiary power of extra-terrestrial little green men?

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Physicist John Polkinghorne is on the same page as Boyd when it comes to openness (or pretty close!), but he has a fairly different theodicy (a way of explaining evil and suffering):

The world is not only rich and beautiful and fruitful, but it’s also messy. It is full, for example, of blind alleys. The biological history of life is full of extinctions and catastrophes of one sort or another. We live in a world that is not only fruitful, but it is also full of suffering and there is a connection between the two.

…if we look open-eyed at the universe we see this curious combination. We see a problem of evil in the world, and we see a problem of good in the world. And where do they both come from, and how they are reconciled with each other?

The world is not just a swirling cauldron of chaos, and it is the interplay between chance and necessity, between contingency and regularity, between happenstance and reliability that actually produces the fruitful process of the world.

Scientists like to say that novelty emerges in those regimes which are characterised as being at “the edge of chaos.” That is to say regimes where both order and disorder, chance and necessity, if you like, interlace with each other. If you are too far on the regular side of that divide, things are too rigid for anything really new to happen. …it is that it is very delicate, creative balance between chance and necessity at the edge of chaos that produces the fruitful process of the world. And that means that there is this interplay, and that means that there is a world that is fruitful, a world that theologically we can interpret as a world in which creatures are given by the God of love the gift of freedom, the gift of freedom to be themselves and to make themselves.

…There’s an inescapable shadow side to the fruitfulness of creation that is part of the open unfolding process of the world. … [my emphasis]

I’ll let you read the rest! John Polkinghorne on the Promise of Open Theology.

I don’t think I’d disagree with any of the points he raises, in fact I really like the way he talks about the creative balance at ‘the edge of chaos’, but I don’t think they tell the whole story. Like Boyd and NT Wright, I hold to a theodicy that takes into account the existence of Evil with a capital E [see ‘God at War’/’Satan and the Problem of Evil’ (Boyd) and ‘Evil and the Justice of God’ (Wright)].

Last year I corresponded with Polkinghorne through Nicolas Beale (via the website), who replied with the following in response to my question about ‘warfare theodicy’:

John (and I) tend to emphasise the “Free Process Defense” that a universe fruitful enough for intelligent life to evolve must have processes that can lead to harm, rather than to see the harm in terms of conscious agents. Insofar as the “powers of evil” have personal existence they seem to me to be “sub-personal” rather than in any sense “super-personal” – if they were personal we’d have to love them. It is possible therefore to imagine them as complex configurations of matter and energy (and who knows what else) which have some sort of quasi-consciousness. But such speculations are just that: speculations.

There are grave theological difficulties with the idea that evil, as opposed to the potential for evil, existed in creation before the Fall. And Genesis explicitly does not say this. But there is certainly a long tradition which takes the other view.

Needless to say, I didn’t agree!

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The title of this post comes from a recent design exhibition – with a difference. As the exhibition website explains,

Of the world’s total population of 6.5 billion, 5.8 billion people, or 90%, have little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted; in fact, nearly half do not have regular access to food, clean water, or shelter. Design for the Other 90% explores a growing movement among designers to design low-cost solutions for this ‘other 90%.’ Through partnerships both local and global, individuals and organizations are finding unique ways to address the basic challenges of survival and progress faced by the world’s poor and marginalized.

There are some fantastic ideas being showcased here, both ingenious and simple. Other websites celebrating designs for the developing world include the INDEX award, the Project H Design site, and the blog TreeHugger, among others.

I’ve long been fascinated by the development of the One Laptop Per Child project, its ‘first principles’ approach and the way in which OLPC have turned every assumption about building laptops on its head. There’s an excellent video of the designer Mary Lou Jepsen at the Greener Gadgets show explaining the many innovations that have gone into the XO laptop and why it’s not only low-cost and fit-for-purpose, but also amazingly ‘green’ as well. In fact, as she explains, it could not have been otherwise: the design had to be low energy and ‘green’ in order to survive in an environment where energy is at a premium. There’s a great section about innovative charging methods including (my favourite) the cow-charger! I completely get her excitement – so many elements of this design are worth raving about!

Of the many design solutions being profiled on these websites, some of my other favourites include the LifeStraw, a personal water-filtration and purification device, the weird but ingeneous Stenop Low-Cost Correcting Glasses, and the simple but effective Hippo Roller!

Classic ideas also seeing a new lease of life include the Solar Oven, the WaterCone, a solar-powered water desalinator, and the Portable Light Project, which makes use of the new high-brightness LEDs.

“The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.”
—Dr. Paul Polak, International Development Enterprises (link)

Another design site I’ve enjoyed recently is the Houses of the Future project – check out the cardboard house!

What ‘Other 90%’ or ‘Green’ design ideas have caught your eye recently?

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I attended a fascinating series of lectures today, hosted by the Theology Department and the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) here at Durham, on science and theology, specifically looking at the impact of Darwin on theology – and on the reading of Genesis in particular. This is part of an ongoing series of interdisciplinary lectures put on by the IAS, which this year is looking at The Legacy of Charles Darwin.

I made it to four out of the five lectures today, all of which were extremely stimulating and covered a range of topics from Paley to Dawkins and Augustine to Koko the Chimp.

I’ve left with a range of responses to the different ideas presented, and plenty of questions. I’m left pondering the nature and status of evil, the pervasiveness of the ‘God of the Gaps’ and Deism, the significance of rationality and language in apes, the place of humans in the natural world…

Here’s a selection of the some of the ideas presented today (some I agree with more than others!):

o Does the idea that creation must have been instantaneous have more to do with a Deist God who creates the universe and then “goes off to have a cup of tea” than with the God of the Bible? (DW)

o Perhaps drawing the line between humans and animals on the basis of rationality, language or other qualitative differences is a ‘God of the Gaps’ approach. Are all of these elements, including moral choices, just a matter of degree? (DC, JA)

DC discussed one particularly fascinating example, Koko the Gorilla. I also recently came across the story of N’kisi, an African Grey Parrot with a vocabulary of 950 words and the ability to form sentences and even to use humour.

o In the early church and beyond, the understanding of the incarnation has moved from ‘God became a Jew’ through ‘God became a man’ to ‘God became a human’. Can this be taken further, to ‘God became a Creature’*? (DC) [*I have some issues with this from a Biblical perspective..]

o The question of evil, in terms of suffering and death, is more complicated than we at first imagine when we look at nature. “Competition, struggle, suffering, death and extinction” appear to be completely entangled in the way that nature functions – in reproduction, predation, life cycles, adaptation, evolution and so on.. Intended or permitted? (JA)

o The universe is so complex that it makes little real difference on a practical level to distinguish between which models of deism / theistic evolution / God of the gaps you employ to explain the Creator’s relationship with the Creation. The universe is just as complicated whether you believe that God is constantly acting at the level of quantum uncertainty or you think he created the laws which govern it ‘at the beginning’. The point at which the question becomes important is the difference in what you expect from God. (JA)

One of the ideas which I thought was most interesting, was Prof. Jeff Astley’s observation (borrowed from Holmes Rolston III), that evolution makes a necessity of waste and suffering. That every part of nature has a ‘cruciform’ shape, a passion play in which the innocent die so that many may live. As Rolston puts it, in this ‘slaughter of the innocents’ we have perhaps,

vignettes hinting of the innocent lamb slain from the foundation of the world. They share the labor of the divinity. In their lives, beautiful, tragic and perpetually incomplete, they speak for God; they prophesy as they participate in the divine pathos. All have ‘borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’.” (Science and Religion: A Critical Survey, 1987, p.145)

This is Karl Barth on a similar theme:
The suffering, by which the whole created world of men and things is controlled, is His, His action, His question, and His answer.” (The Epistle to the Romans, ET 1933, p.309)

JA argued that ‘errors’ in DNA copying are a ‘happy fault’ when seen from a species-wide or planet-wide perspective. It’s hard to argue with the sense that the “imperfections of the world are a driving force for its perfections”. (JA)

I also liked Astley’s description of the way in which the way we look at nature can be likened to a religious experience. He talked about the way that in viewing nature we are both attracted and repelled for it is both lovely and terrible. The proper response is a ‘shudder of otherness’, akin to our experience of God, to have both awe and fear.

Lots to ponder here I think!

[DW – Dr David Wilkinson, DC – Dr David Clough, JA – Prof Jeff Astley]

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