Showing posts with label creation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label creation. Show all posts

15 April 2013

What if ... creation was a myth?

April's Synchroblog asks how we'd be affected if part (or all) of the Bible was myth. I chose to consider the creation accounts in Genesis. Whether these are myth or true history does matter, but perhaps it doesn't matter as much as the division it sometimes causes in the church.

Created or evolved?
This month's Synchroblog invites us to speculate. (Other contributions to this month's Synchroblog are listed at the bottom of this post.)

Here's an extract from the instructions...

Try to imagine that some or all of the Bible narrative is not necessarily true history, but is myth of one sort or another. What sort of effect would that knowledge have on your faith? What effect might it have on the larger church? How would it change you? Would it change you and how you view the world?

Of course, a great deal depends on what part of the Bible I select. Assuming that the visit of the magi to Jesus' birthplace is a myth would make relatively little difference, but assuming that the birth of Jesus is a myth would change things rather dramatically.

I'm going to choose the creation accounts in Genesis. Let's suppose these are myths. How would it change things? I'll follow through with the questions from the Synchroblog. But first, let's have bit of a think about the idea of a myth. What do we mean by 'myth'?

Myths - Perhaps we think of anything mythical or mythological as false. A myth is an invention, imagined creatures in an imagined land - isn't that myth?

Well, no, not necessarily. Imagined creatures in an imagined land are fiction, like 'The Lord of the Rings' or 'The Narnia Chronicles'. Bear in mind that those stories contain a great deal of truth even though they are not true. But myth is more than fiction. To be precise, traditional fiction with a meaning is not a myth but a fable.

We'd do better to think of the Greek legends, the Norse sagas, or the Irish ballads. These are truly mythical. Rather than fiction they are meaningful and explanatory stories based (probably) on real events far back in time before anyone could remember and passed from generation to generation. They have, no doubt, grown considerably in the telling.

So now to the creation accounts in Genesis.

What would be the effect on my faith? - Zero, nada, zilch. There are a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the major one is that I do regard the creation story to be myth. But I'm confident it's myth with a clear purpose. I was trained in biology and for many years worked as a professional biologist. I'm no more inclined to accept the creation stories as history than I am to accept that the Moon is made of cheese.

Let me distinguish between creation and the Biblical accounts of creation. I accept that the Almighty created the universe. It's really hard to think that the universe just is, that it sprang out of nothing all by itself. I am sure that it was somehow caused. It's here because it was intended and spoken into existence.

On the other hand the biblical accounts of how that happened and in what order make little sense to me. What I mean is that they make little sense as history, as an account of the process that took place. As myth, as allegory, as a description of truth, they make perfect sense. The truth is that the Almighty is the ultimate cause of the universe, he is holy, pure and powerful, his original purpose for us is that we would be in community with him, but we are weak, willful and sinful and threw away that opportunity for community.

My opinion that the creation stories are myths doesn't affect my faith in any way. I believe in the Creator, that the universe came into existence because Yahweh spoke, Jesus acted, and the Spirit hovered. The power of the Presence of the three-in-one was enough, a baby universe was born and has flourished ever since. I know that I have a sinful nature, I know that the Son came and by his death paid the price and opened the way for freedom. I know there is a place waiting for me in his kingdom, that my name is written in the Lamb's book of life and on the palm of Papa's hand.

What effect does it have on the wider church? - Now things get more serious. Part of the church thinks it makes little difference whether the creation accounts are factual or mythical. Part of it cares enough to fight a civil war over the issue. And this is a serious problem.

You see, the church that Jesus commanded, 'Love one another as I have loved you', should never, ever be at war with itself. The problem is not that I or anyone else has this or that opinion about the creation stories in Genesis, the problem is that we cannot bear for there to be more than one such opinion.

Some say 'Myth with a message' and others say 'Historical record of real events' and we think that endless argument and dispute is a suitable way to resolve it. Or rather, that our need to be proved 'right' is sometimes stronger than our urge to follow Jesus' command to accept and love.

In a bleeding, dying world we don't have time to fight a civil war. Not only that, we risk bringing the name of Jesus into disrepute. So love one another, love your neighbour, and love your enemy.

In Egypt, the traditional and non-traditional believers are fervently praying together for revival instead of discussing who is right about their many differences of interpretation. If you are an Egyptian and you believe in Jesus you are a brother or a sister. It's that simple. But don't take my word for it - watch the video.

What is the lesson here for us? The issue need not be the creation accounts, it might be ... (fill in the blank for yourself). The church is divided over many, many issues when love should surely conquer all of them.

How would it change me? - If I'm willing to avoid the divisions outlined above, then would my understanding of the mechanics of creation make any difference to me? I don't think so. Whichever way I view the creation accounts I can believe Jesus and follow him. I have a new and fuller life in him now. I have eternity in his presence. I can love my brothers and sisters fully and freely and allow them to understand creation in whatever way they see fit.

The nature of creation is only an issue if I allow it to become one in my own heart. The universe exists! The Almighty brought it into being and holds it in existence. Without him it would all vanish. What more do I really need to know?

Would it change you and how you view the world? - This is an 'over to you' question, is it not? How do you stand on this matter? And whatever you may believe, are you willing to allow it to separate you from your brothers and sisters in Jesus?

Questions:

  • How do you, personally, deal with conflicts of understanding?
  • Is truth more important than accepting one another? Always? Sometimes? Never?
  • For you, is being right essential or just 'nice to have'?

See also:


Synchroblog links:

11 January 2013

In the beginning

The universe, Part 3
< How does science work?Series index | From the beginning to atoms >

The beginning of the universe is hidden from us although we know it's about 13.75 billion years old. We can theorise about it using mathematical tools, but we can't see it and we can't measure it. Everything began at that point - space, energy, even time itself.

Maths is an essential tool
We can't see the beginning itself. People sometimes talk about the Big Bang and they imagine a huge explosion crashing out into an empty expanse of endless space.

But that's not right. If you see it in that way you are really not seeing it at all!

Nothing existed before the Big Bang. At least no physical thing that we can see or know inside this universe existed.

There was a singularity, though it's difficult to imagine one of those or what it implies.

  • Time began at the beginning, so before the beginning is meaningless.
  • Space began at the beginning, until then there had been no room in which anything could have existed. There was nowhere to explode into.
  • Energy began then too, beforehand there was no energy.
  • And there was no matter because matter is just condensed energy.
  • Even the laws of physics began at the beginning

Time, space, energy and physics all had their origins at the beginning, and we can't investigate that extraordinary phenomenon - the beginning. We can't see it, we can't visit it, we can't measure it, we can't really imagine it. Not only is it far more extraordinary than we think, it is far more extraordinary than we are able to think.

And perhaps the most amazing thing about the beginning is that eventually we came from it; we are here and are able to think about how extraordinary it all is.

Theoretical problems - It's almost as if the universe doesn't want us to understand its origin. Our best models for the earliest moments of the universe are mathematical. OK, really our only models for this are mathematical.

However there's a serious issue, even with that. If at the beginning the universe was infinitely small then some of the numbers in the models become zero, or they become infinite. Not only does the universe seem to explode, so does the maths.

Maths doesn't always handle zeros and infinities especially well, they can be a problem. It makes mathematical models difficult as we try to apply them closer and closer to the beginning. This is driving some mathematicians and cosmologists to think that there may not be a beginning at all, just a certain minimum size and maximum density before which the universe was larger and, perhaps, time ran the other way. Or something.

Is there room for intelligence? - We can only think about it because we are here. There are no other animals on this planet that even know there was a beginning. We are unique on Earth.

I imagine there must be many other intelligent minds in the universe and it's likely that all of them give some thought to the beginning. Each in their own, unique way no doubt. The fact that there is a beginning is one of the reasons I believe in an even greater intelligence that caused the universe to begin. What is certain is that intelligence is almost inevitable given the properties of the universe, but it couldn't appear until a lot of other things were in place.

But for a moment, let's consider the alternative that the universe has always existed and will always exist with new energy and matter appearing to 'fill the gaps' as it expands. In the 1950s and 60s many cosmologists argued this was the case, it was called the 'Steady State Theory'. But it's since been shown to be incorrect.

But if it was correct I would still feel the need for a first cause, a greater power and intelligence to make it exist. So whether there was a beginning or not, I will still believe in a Creator.

What is the alternative? It's all just causeless?

After the beginning? - But there was a beginning, and we can understand some of the things that happened soon afterwards when the universe, time, space, energy and physics were all very new. And you'll be astounded to learn that we understand some things about it even a tiny fraction of a second after the beginning. A much tinier fraction than you think (unless you're a cosmologist).

It all began roughly 13.75 billion years ago. Our Solar System and this Earth are around 4.5 billion years old or about a third of the age of the universe. The universe was smaller then too.

If you made it this far, congratulations! After this things get easier as the universe grows bigger, older and more familiar. Next time we'll pick up the story at that point where we think we know something, and we'll find out just how awesomely near the beginning that is.


Questions:

  • How comfy are you with the idea of a creative intelligence causing this universe?
  • How comfy are you with the idea of the absence of any such creative intelligence?
  • Does your head hurt yet? Go and get a cup of tea, or coffee, or a glass of wine.

See also:


< How does science work?Series index | From the beginning to atoms >

19 November 2012

Other species in heaven

Is heaven a place to which we go after this life is over? If so, who gets to go, just humans? We take a look at our closest relatives and ponder where to draw the line between human and not human. If drawing a line is impractical, might there be something wrong with our understanding of the nature of heaven?

Reconstructed Neanderthals
Here's an interesting idea, something I haven't seen discussed before. If it has been, I missed it.

(Note: If you are a creationist you may not like what follows. The article is not intended to be provocative but you might prefer not to read the rest.)

Many believers in Jesus would say that heaven is a specific place to which we go after this life is over (assuming we have faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour). And many of those same people would also say that only people go to heaven - in other words there will be no cats, dogs, snakes, pigeons or earwigs in heaven.

There are many reasons for thinking heaven may not be exactly what we imagine it to be. But let's leave that aside for the moment and accept that it's a place for retired saints, and animals are not allowed.

The big question is this... Where do we draw the line between humans and non humans?

I hope we can all agree that the major races of people are indeed all human. Negroid, Asiatic, Caucasian, North American Indian and all the rest. Broad divisions and minor differences, we are all one species, Homo sapiens. If we can't agree that - we are in trouble!

Various species - Modern humans are the only species remaining today, but other types of  hominin (human-like primates) existed in the past.

Modern humans - Fossil evidence suggests that modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been around now for perhaps 200 000 years, and most definitely for at least 50 000 years by which time our ancestors were showing evidence of modern human behaviour.

But other fascinating fossil and sub-fossil discoveries have been made, some of them rather recently.

Red Deer Cave People - These may or may not be a different species from us. They lived until 11 500 years ago in China. Research is continuing but attempts to recover DNA have so far failed and other evidence is not yet conclusive. They are known to have used fire and cooked deer meat.

Flores man - This species (Homo floresiensis) was very small and is only known from the Indonesian island of Flores. The most recent specimens date to only 12 000 years ago. They were also toolmakers like us, stone tools have been found with their remains.

Denisovans were recently discovered (2008). They are known from a few minor bone remains in a Siberian cave. DNA analysis shows clearly that they are related to Neanderthals and interbred to some extent with the people who populated the Pacific islands. They survived until about 41 000 years ago and had a common ancestor with both modern humans and neanderthals around a million years ago.

Neanderthals - Quite similar to us, Neanderthals have been known from skeletal remains for many years. They are sometimes regarded as a separate species from us (Homo neanderthalensis) or sometimes as a subspecies (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis). Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia from 600 000 until 30 000 years ago or perhaps even as recently as 25 000 years ago.

Neanderthals seem to have had behaviour strikingly similar to our own. They probably had language, they made tools, wore clothes, hunted large animals (even the giant mammoths), they wore jewellery, cared for invalids, used fire, painted cave walls and observed rituals for the dead.

Genetic evidence shows that there was limited interbreeding between our ancestors and Neanderthals.

Homo erectus - This hominin may have been the ancestor of  Homo sapiens (us), Homo neanderthalensis and the other groups listed above. They lived from 1.8 million until at least 300 000 years ago and may have remained even longer, perhaps overlapping with us and certainly with Neanderthals. Homo erectus lived in Africa, Europe and Asia, made stone tools, and ate meat as part of a mixed diet.

Homo ergaster - Another possible ancestor, perhaps of Homo erectus as well as the other groups, Homo ergaster lived in Africa from 1.8 million years ago. These ancestors, too, had an advanced stone tool culture.

Overlapping species - It seems that several different hominins were living on the Earth at the same time although we are now the only remaining kind. If we assume that sapiens, floresiensis, denisovans, and neanderthalensis are different species (as many scientistists do), then we have at least four species co-existing. We might even add the Red Deer Cave people which would make five. In many cases there was overlap in geographical range as well, and there was a modest amount of interbreeding between modern humans and both Denisovans and Neanderthals.

The question then arises whether all four (or five) will be present in heaven. Of course, it's possible to argue that all these groups are subspecies of Homo sapiens. In that case we might call them all 'human' and the 'heaven problem' might seem less of an issue. But many scientists studying these groups would say that they are different species of human.

The ancestor species, Homo erectus and Homo ergaster, are also usually regarded as human and it's just possible that a population of erectus remained recently enough to have overlapped with us. Will erectus be present in heaven? How about ergaster?

The question, as I mentioned, is where to draw the line. So in case you haven't drawn that line yet, let's continue along our family tree and see what comes before Homo ergaster.

Earlier hominid ancestors - The ancestor of Homo ergaster, Homo habilis, was another tool user living from 2.33 to 1.4 million years ago. With long arms and a brain only half the size of modern humans, we can be certain habilis was a distinct species. This early hominin died out long before our own species developed.

An earlier genus of hominin, Australopithecus gave rise to the early Homo line. They are represented by several species living between 4 and 2 million years ago. They walked upright, their brains were around a third of the size of ours. They used simple tools (as do chimpanzees and gorillas).

Chimpanzee and australopithecine lines separated around 5.4 to 6.3 million years ago (possibly earlier). Sahelanthropus may perhaps represent a late common ancestor. It has a brain size about a quarter of ours, more or less the same as a modern chimp.

The sub-family Homininae includes humans, chimpanzees and gorillas.

The family Hominidae includes the Homininae as well as orangutans which split off from them some 12 million years ago.

Simians include all the Old World monkeys and apes (the Hominidae and gibbons) as well as the New World monkeys.

The order Primates includes the Simians and the Prosimians (lemurs, lorises, bushbabies, and tarsiers). The order developed about 85 million years ago from ancestors that were early tree-dwelling mammals.

The Euarchontoglires superorder includes primates as well as rodents, lagomorphs, treeshrews, and colugos. Yes, rats are our distant cousins.

The Eutheria (placental mammals) include Euarchontoglires and all other mammals apart from non-placental types such as the monotremes and the marsupials. The group has it's origins at least 160 million years ago.

Where do we draw that line? - So now that tricky question again. Where do we draw the line? Which (if any) of these creatures will we find in heaven? It's not so easy, is it? Most believers might say modern humans are in and chimpanzees are out. But what about Neanderthals, what about Australopithecus?

Creationists will see the entire argument as foolish. Their view is that all extant species were created as they now are and Homo sapiens is distinct and special. But 150 years ago some would have excluded Negroid peoples as somehow 'sub-human'. They were useful as slaves but would have no place in heaven. Mercifully such views have been swept away, but we should not forget that opinions of that kind were taken perfectly seriously not so long ago.

Non-believers will accept the biology but have no place for the idea of heaven. For them, too, there is no problem.

But setting aside non-believers and Creationists, what do those in the middle think (non-Creationist believers)?

Could it be that there is nothing wrong with the biological understanding of species and evolution, but there is instead something wrong with our idea of what heaven is? We'll take a look at that next time.

Questions:

  • People used to talk about 'missing links' in the fossil record. The record for human development is much more complete now. Do you think missing links are still an issue?
  • If humans evolved from earlier ancestors, where would you draw the line between human and pre-human?
  • If life evolved, does that render faith impossible? If so, how?
  • How do you understand the creation passages in Genesis? Is a literal view plausible? Is a literal view necessary?
  • What is heaven?

See also:

02 November 2012

Why is life dangerous?

Why is there so much danger in the world? We examine how random chance is necessary if we are to have a choice and how choice is necessary if we are to be capable of love. The most surprising thing is that there are not many more disasters.

Mount Pinatubo in 1991
What underlies the fact that life is dangerous and the Earth is such a dangerous place? Wherever we look we see danger and catastrophe lying in wait for us. Road accidents, volcanic eruptions, storms (like Hurricane Sandy), diseases of all kinds, violent crime; there's no denying the risks we face daily.

Some of these hazards can blamed on human wrongdoing or failure. Violent crime is an example of wrongdoing and most road accidents result from failures of judgement, design, construction or maintenance. But what of a volcanic eruption? Who is to blame for that?

Let's put dangers into three broad categories - deliberate human action or inaction, unintended human action or inaction, and natural events. Of the three, natural events form the category we want to consider in this article. We need to begin by understanding that the universe has always been open to the effects of chance.

Let's elaborate a little. We don’t know how the universe came into being, all we can say is that we have a pretty good idea how it developed after the first tiny fraction of a second (10-35 s). But we do know that since that first fraction of a second, randomness and chance have been (and remain) fundamental to its development. Sub-atomic particles flashed into existence and then, just as suddenly vanished again. They still do that today, what we regard as a perfect vacuum can be shown to be a sea of churning activity.

Chance is absolutely necessary in a universe where there is to be some freedom of choice. Why? Because we can only choose if we live in a universe where things are not normally determined in advance. My understanding is that Yahweh created a universe in which intelligence would arise and in which any intelligent life forms would be able to know him and choose to love and follow him.

Perhaps we see a glimpse of this in 1 Kings 19:11-13. We'll be exposed to many things during our lives, but Yahweh is not present in the outward tumult and danger; he communicates quietly. We may fail to notice him if we are focussed on the loud and dangerous things.

Let's put it very simply. Love requires a universe in which things are not directed. Volcanoes can erupt, earthquakes can shatter cities and hurricanes can flood coastal plains. The chain of  dependency is that love depends on the ability to choose, and choice depends on the existence of chance. In other words chance makes choice possible and choice makes love possible.

It seems to me that the real wonder is not that bad things sometimes happen, but that they happen so rarely. We certainly shouldn't blame Papa for random disasters, but we should thank him for such an exquisite combination of personal freedom and relative day to day safety. This supreme balancing act is something worthy of great praise, awe and gratitude.

In conclusion we have to take a small amount of rough with the surprisingly large dollop of smooth. Thank you, Father, for doing such a great job of designing this universe! Truly you are worthy of praise.

(This article is based on a comment I left on an article on the Jesus Creed blog.)

Questions:
  • People sometime ask, 'If there's a God, why does he allow suffering?' How do you answer this?
  • Has this blog post provided any unfamiliar arguments about suffering?
  • Do you believe a creator is free to create things without regard to logic?
  • Is a universe possible in which something could be simultaneously true and false?

See also:

16 October 2012

Debating science and faith

Science and faith sometimes appear to be at war. But is that inevitable? A conference in Switzerland is examining these issues and draws together influential scientists, theologians and philosophers.

The Whirlpool Galaxy
A conference is underway as I write, a conference with a difference. The whole affair is very refreshing and encouraging and exciting.

It brings together influential scientists, theologians and philosophers to discuss the nature of science and faith, and focusses on the Big Bang theory and the discovery of the Higgs boson.

The conference is being held in Switzerland and is called 'The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?' The aim is to explore questions around the interface between science and faith and whether a common framework of knowledge might be possible.

You can download the programme as a PDF file (165 kB) or read brief details online from the website of the organisers, Wilton Park in collaboration with CERN in Geneva. There's also a very useful BBC News article about the conference 'Big Bang and religion mixed in Cern debate'.

Here's the introduction from the full programme...

The Big Bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model for explaining the genesis of the universe. To date it has the wide support of the scientific community because if offers the most accurate and comprehensive explanation for a broad range of observations. It leads to a dating of the universe as 13.7 billion years old.

The purpose of this conference is to enable scientists from a range of disciplines to dialogue with philosophers and theologians from the world religions about the nature of the Big Bang Theory. What understandings might scientists and theologians share in common? How are their paradigms shaped and developed? Is it possible to develop a common framework or language?

Why is this conference so exciting? Simply because it's an unusual opportunity to discuss and (perhaps) reconcile views that are often perceived to be irreconcilable. And it's exciting because the conference involves experts who would rarely meet together. When a record of the meeting becomes available it will make very interesting reading and should spark further debate in the wider community.

We might borrow the words of Pontius Pilate and simply describe the topic of this meeting as 'What is truth?' Pilate was caught in a dilemma between religion and politics. The dilemma this meeting is discussing is quite different - it's examining two different kinds of truth.

How do you see the debate? Is it possible for science and faith to agree about anything at all? Are the two views truly irreconcilable or do they actually threaten one another? Is there an unbridgeable gulf between the two?

See also
  • Relationship between religion and science - Wikipedia, undated - Encyclopaedic article on the topic with further references.
  • Science and faith archive - Patheos, undated - A collection of links and book titles on the topic, updated from time to time.
  • Science and faith - again - Journeys of heart and mind, 22nd August 2012 - How do science and faith stack up against one another as ways of knowing the truth? Science provides truth about the physical universe while faith provides truth about spiritual things. Is there any overlap?
  • Science and faithJourneys of heart and mind, 7th January 2012 - Can I have faith and accept science too? Is that an unreasonable position to hold? Recent discussions on Jesus Creed have provoked me to write on this topic again.
  • Science and faith - war or peace? - Journeys of heart and mind, 25th April 2010 - The origin of the universe, the origin of life, evolution - these are some of the topics that seem to be endlessly debated across the science/faith divide. Why does this happen, what are the root causes of the sometimes strongly-worded arguments? Perhaps it's time to take a fresh look.
  • Science and faith: The conflict - The Telegraph, 16th March 2009 - A new film opening at the Cambridge Science Festival this evening attempts to demonstrate that the divide between religion and science is not as great as it has been portrayed.

07 January 2012

Science and faith

Can I have faith and accept science too? Is that an unreasonable position to hold? Recent discussions on Jesus Creed have provoked me to write on this topic again.

Tiffany window, 'Science and Religion'I've posted about this before (Apr 2010, May 2010), but a recent item on Jesus Creed brought the topic back to mind. And then I came across this earlier post where there was a more fundamental discussion and a useful reference to an article by Dr EB Davis, 'Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective'.

It's not surprising that the debate continues, there are strongly held opinions on both sides. There is also quite a bit of mutual misunderstanding. Personally, however, I continue to see no conflict between  my acceptance of science as a wonderful tool for better understanding the universe and my acceptance of a spiritual dimension that transcends the universe.

It seems obvious to me that if there is a creator he would necessarily exist outside and beyond everything that he created. How could it be otherwise?

I remain dismayed by the anger and impatience sometimes displayed by both sides, but it's encouraging to see that there is also plenty of well intentioned and good natured debate. I have friends and family on both sides and others who don't recognise any conflict. I get on perfectly well with all these people, we don't get annoyed with one another. For me, being able to differ amicably is by far the most important aspect of the entire debate.

What do you think? Here are some questions to ponder.

  • Can science and faith coexist peacefully or will the debate rage on indefinitely?
  • Is it possible that science could ever formally disprove the existence of a spiritual dimension?
  • Is there a way of explaining what is meant by 'faith' in such a way that all scientists would be able to accept it?
  • Is there anything wrong with my position that science and faith are not incompatible, or is that like trying to have my cake and eat it?
  • How should we respond in cases of strong disagreement?

03 May 2010

Science and faith - a view from Nature

I've just spotted a piece by Philip Ball in the journal 'Nature'. The cosmic microwave background radiationHe makes some very good points and supports my own views about the awesome behaviour of the natural world. He states,
Were I inclined to believe in an omnipotent God, I should be far more impressed by one who had intuited that a world in which natural selection operates autonomously will lead to beings that function as well as humans (for all our flaws) than by one who was constantly having to make adjustments.

Quite! Unlike Philip Ball, perhaps, I do believe in an omnipotent Prime Cause. I have often thought that the power behind the universe would have to be exceptionally clever to design physical laws that would require energy to bundle itself up in tiny packets that would interact in just the right way to form atoms of hydrogen and helium on the tiniest scales which would then coalesce gravitationally on very large scales to produce galaxies and stars.

These same physical laws ensure that stars will create all the elements up to iron and supernova explosions will synthesise the rest. Simple sugars, amino acids, and nucleotides will form in conditions that are not uncommon in the dusty discs around later populations of young stars, planets will form in these discs and life will arise almost inevitably. Once self-replicating systems are present Darwinian evolution is certain to begin its work and more and more complex life forms will appear as the millions and billions of years pass. Intelligence seems to be pretty much inevitable too.

So much from so little - indeed so much from absolutely nothing! This is one of the reasons I find it impossible not to believe in a power behind the universe. And somehow, though he might not agree, I don't think Philip Ball will hold that against me. Our positions are at the same time only slightly different yet fundamentally opposite. I believe in a Creator, he doesn't, yet we both see the same mechanisms operating and bringing about the rich universe we live in.

Truly, faith and science have no reason to argue. It saddens me greatly to see disagreements about the origin of the universe, evolution, palaeontology and the rest. It particularly saddens me as a trained scientist to see that most of the arguments against science are based on misunderstandings or false assumptions. It alarms me that matters like anthropogenic global climate change are dismissed. And it angers me when scientists' motives and morals are questioned. Scientists are not immune to mistakes or even (rarely) deliberate fraud, but the overwhelming majority are seeking for truth - verifiable, testable, truth.

(See also my previous post.)

25 April 2010

Science and faith - war or peace?

The origin of the universe, the origin of life, evolution - these are some of the topics that seem to be endlessly debated across the science/faith divide. Molecules of lifeWhy does this happen, what are the root causes of the sometimes strongly-worded arguments? Perhaps it's time to take a fresh look.

Science is based on such things as reason, deduction, inference, and testing by experiment. At the most fundamental level science is simply a formal way of observing how things are. And it has an excellent track-record. We depend daily on the technologies that science has made possible. We drive our cars, watch TV, depend on medical help when we are sick or injured. All of these things and many more are rooted in generations of observation, hypothesis, and testing.

On the other hand faith is not based on observation and experiment but on assertion, often about matters that are untestable and are unknowable in the scientific sense. The existence of a powerful personality outside the universe and this personality's influence within it are not things science can investigate. Science doesn't reject faith (indeed it might investigate faith as a phenomenon) but it does not (and cannot) investigate the claims of faith.

There is therefore no reason for science and faith to do battle with one another, but historically this has happened repeatedly. An example of past 'warfare' concerns whether the earth or the sun is the centre of the solar system, one current skirmish centres on the origin of life and on evolution, another one on theories about the origin of the universe.

The usual pattern is that science draws a conclusion that offends people of faith in some way. Instead of understanding the scientific arguments and accommodating them within the framework of faith, believers often try to find holes in the science. Scientists continually refine our understanding in a formal way, believers sometimes lash out at new ideas they don't like.

How can we take this forward? Here is some advice for scientists and believers who have become embroiled in debates of this sort.

Scientists - Don't become angry, recognise that if the science is sound you have demonstrable facts on your side. State these straightforwardly and point detractors to the evidence calmly. If you are vilified and your integrity is questioned, recognise that these are the actions of desperate people who have not yet understood that facts are a form of truth. The battle will rarely centre on those facts, instead it will usually focus on attempts to discredit the people involved. Don't engage with these attempts.

Believers - Don't interpret statements from scientists as provocation, they are simply sharing factual information. Respect the people even if you don't like their thinking. Christ called you to love so speak in love, not in anger. Look at the scientific claims calmly, facts about the world cannot possibly contradict truth. Look for ways of accepting the science within your framework of faith. Remember the battles about the place of the earth in astronomy, why is that no longer an issue? Understand that if the Almighty exists, scientific and spiritual truth will be able to coexist, because he is the author of both.

Where there appear to be contradictions there is an opportunity for mutual understanding. Science deals with the realm of materials and energy, faith deals with the realm of the spirit. There is no overlap in subject matter and there is no clash of ideas that can't be accommodated.

23 June 2003

Eaton Ford - Reflected in nature

< 4th June 2003 | Index | 15th July 2003 >

This evening we decided, quite spontaneously, to take a walk along the river bank. And although we spent very little time in prayer (after we arrived back from the walk) we saw many things that reminded us of our heavenly Father, and we were encouraged and guided as we thought and talked together along the way. Here are a few of the highlights.

A young frog
Church life seems to go through seasons, just like those of the year. There are times of spring growth when renewed life appears and small, vigorous, green shoots grow towards the light. There are times like summer, when church life is warm and full and blossoms most wonderfully. There are 'autumn' times of fruitfulness and mellowness. And there are wintry times when branches are bare; life is still there but it's not always easy to identify.

We saw white water crashing over the weir in great, glassy curves, then bubbling furiously downstream with dangerous undercurrents to catch the unwary. What power is in the river! It seems to flow slowly, but the weir shows that there's plenty of energy hidden even in the quiet stretches. How like the rivers of living water that flow from the Son through his people! (Jn 4:10, 7:38, Ez 47:9)

We saw terns flying along the river looking for fish, and one dived into the water while we watched. Life is so wonderful, so varied, so graceful, how marvellous is the One who created the universe!

We saw dozens of baby frogs on the footpath, each no larger than a thumbnail. They were wandering about, every one in its own space, not ever seeming to meet although often not far from one another and probably all making similar journeys. Are we like that? Do we also rarely meet, do we each stay in our own space, even though we're on similar journeys?

We felt that it's important for us to see our Father, not in creation (for the maker is not part of what is made), but reflected by it. For we have to use our minds, we must think as well as see if we are to grasp what he is like.

And finally, we remembered again that we're made in his image. He is creative, so are we. He is love, so should we be.

< 4th June 2003 | Index | 15th July 2003 >

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