Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Is it reasonable to believe in evolution and God?"

To my mind, there is more to this question than the one which framed the previous post - "Can evolutionists believe in God?" In thinking about this question, I am assuming by "God" that we are talking about the God of the Bible, who (if you accept what the Bible says about itself) makes himself known as creator, sovereign and redeemer of this universe.

In a sense, it is reasonable to say that "only a fool doesn't believe in evolution". Evolution happens all around us - organisms adapting to their environment through darwinian processes.

However, the fact that evolution takes place doesn't mean that it is reasonable to claim that darwinian evolution (random mutation, natural selection) has achieved what its proponents claim it achieved. Humans have known about selection, and "directed" evolution for millenia - we call it breeding. The finches on the Galapagos Islands that Darwin studied do develop over time, as changes in climate cause changes in the abundance of different foods for them. In actual fact, if they weren't able to adapt to a changing environment, they would not be well designed - they would likely not have survived as long as they have! But this doesn't prove that finches share a common ancestor with turtles. This observation may simply demonstrate that they were designed to adapt to changing environments. After all, a good human designer will allow their designs to adapt to such changes.

What has happened when evolution is considered is that a presupposition has come into play - the presupposition that there is no designer. The logic is something like this:

Premise: Variation takes place through darwinian processes (observation)
Premise: There is no designer (presupposition)
Conclusion: All life developed through darwinian processes

Note again that the second premise is not a matter of observation. Before the conclusion can be assumed to be true, the second premise has to be justified. Let us say that at least it continues to be a matter for debate.

And in that context, the evidence has fairly consistently proved to fail to support the presupposition. For example, it was assumed by materialists that the universe had always existed - and then it was discovered that the universe did have a "start point". (The name "Big Bang" was given derisively by Hoyle, who disliked the idea intensely from a philosophical point of view). It was assumed that life in its simplest forms would be ... well, simple. And then it was discovered that in actual fact, the simplest forms of life are still incredibly complex. It was assumed that the earth was a fairly insignificant, typical planet. And then it was discovered that the earth is incredibly finely adapted to the presence of complex, intelligent life ("Rare Earth", Ward/Brownlee). I could go on....

None of these facts invalidate a materialist perspective on the evolution of life. However, they do demonstrate that there is no good track record of collecting evidence to support the presumption that there is no designer.

Let's assume, for the moment, that the history of the universe is pretty much as the scientists have concluded - it is around 13.5 thousand million years old; the solar system is around 4.5 thousand million years old; life first appeared around 3.2 thousand million years ago; complex body plans appeared around 530 million years ago. In the context of the appearance of life, there are certain facts about the process which at least at the moment remain unexplained.

- biogenesis - the initial appearance of life - materialists often specifically exclude this issue from consideration when they talk about evolution. Ward and Brownlee ("Rare Earth") argue that it may be common - but the truth is nobody really knows how it happened, or how feasible it is;

- the organisation of eukaryotic cells - animal and plant cells are much larger, more complex and more diverse than bacterial cells, and again, there are only suggestions as to how this crucial evolutionary step took place;

- the organisation of cells into multicellular organisms - this requires differentiation, structure and genetic switching, none of which has the same level of significance in single-celled organisms;

- the Cambrian explosion - the sudden (in geological terms) appearance of almost all modern phyla about 530 million years ago, with little in the way of apparent antecedents;

- the development of complex biochemical systems - whilst the concept of "irreducible complexity" may be disputed, it is certainly the case that systems like flagella, blood clotting, vision and so on are highly intricate, and would tax the ingenuity of human designers. I am sceptical that a "blind watchmaker" would be capable of producing such systems;

- evolutionary transitions between phyla - bear in mind that for the most part even changing the number of chromosomes in an animal can have a drastic effect on its ability to survive: this has to happen over and over again as biodiversity increases;

- the radically different nature of humans, and the consequent achievements of their sapience.

It would be a logical mistake to argue from this that there must be a designer, I think. That would kind of represent a "God of the Gaps" type argument - as the gaps are whittled away by naturalistic explanations regardless of how improbable they are, the materialist would then argue that he or she has done away with the need for God. It would also be a mistake to assume that we might be able to identify a kind of "miracle" taking place at each of these stages - or, for that matter, that if we can identify a possible naturalistic explanation, that "proves" that there is no God.

Instead, think of what we now know about the development of life. Is it unreasonable to believe that there is no sovereign intelligence that has directed this process? Isn't it more unreasonable to believe that all of this should have happened by chance, in a universe that is in fact completely indifferent to human existence?

So I am strongly convinced that, even if a person believes in evolution, this does not mean that they have grounds for discarding belief in God - that belief is neither foolish nor misguided.

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Can evolutionists believe in God?"

The short answer to this question is yes.

There is a spectrum of beliefs about the origins of life and the universe. The belief that everything was created by God in six 24 hour periods in the last 10000 years (Young Earth Creationism) is possibly the most well-known in our churches, but doesn't necessarily date back terribly far in its current incarnation.

Scientists understand the age of the universe is about 13500 million years (MY) old. The age of the solar system (including Earth) is considered to be about 4500 MY. If you accept these as accurate, you may still have a variety of beliefs about the issue of origins. If you exclude the possibility of the divine (which is a presupposition, not something derived from evidence), then you will believe that the presence of the universe is no more than a quantum phenomenon, and life just happens to be present - after all, if it wasn't present, we wouldn't be discussing it, would we? On the other hand, you may believe that the presence of the universe is a consequence of divine action - this implies some level of theism (belief in God). You may believe that God acted in a kind of "miraculous" way on one or more occasions to bring about what we see today - this would, I suppose, be an "Old Earth Creationist" position. Or you may believe that God used "regular" laws of science and physics to bring about what we see today - perhaps that apparently "random" events were controlled by him in some way. This is something like what could be called "theistic evolution" - and is the most obvious way in which you might say an "evolutionist" (defined as somebody who believes that life came about no more than imperceptibly guided by a divine hand) believes in "God" (defined as the God of the Bible). As with many such questions, definition of terms is very important.

Even if you believe that the universe appeared on its own, and life appeared without the involvement of God, you might still believe in God. However, the god that you believe in, not being involved in the creation, would have little resemblance to the God who reveals himself in the Bible.

Perhaps there is another interesting question, which is also relevant - namely, if I believe in the Christian God, what should I make of evolution? But that is for another post ....

Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

'A New Theory of Biology' was the title of the paper which Mustapha Mond had just finished reading. He sat for some time, meditatively frowning, then picked up his pen and wrote across the title-page. 'The author's mathematical treatment of the conception of purpose is novel and highly ingenious, but heretical and, so far as the present social order is concerned, dangerous and potentially subversive. Not to be published.' He underlined the words. 'The author will be kept under supervision. His transference to the Marine Biological Station of St Helena may become necessary.' A pity, he thought, as he signed his name. It was a masterly piece of work. But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose - well, you didn't know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes - make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstances, admissible. He picked up his pen, and under the words 'Not to be published' drew a second line, thicker and blacker than the first; then sighed. 'What fun it would be,' he thought,' if one didn't have to think about happiness!'

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
I hadn't read this book until now. We read "Nineteen Eighty-Four" in school in 1983 - but not this one. I wonder if the reason that it didn't make reading lists was because it was just too subversive - too undermining of the prevailing culture....

Friday, May 08, 2009

"The Independent" rattles a cage

Now don't get me wrong. I like "The Independent" If I had my choice of daily newspapers in the UK, that would be the one. Yes, it is radically philosophically different from me - it is pretty humanist, and I am a Christian. But for the most part, I value its approach.

Not universally, though. This commentary was, in my opinion, a misguided and misinformed contribution to the new-religious/new-atheist "culture wars". There were some things that I agreed with - yes, faith schools do tend to pick up highly motivated children from wealthy families. Yes, I would agree with Hari and Dawkins that there are no "Christian children" or "Muslim children" (though I think that approvingly citing Dawkins in any context in a debate about the rightness or wrongness of religion shows the writer's presuppositions). But deep down, I think Mr Hari needs a hug - he evidently hasn't been able to deal with some things that scarred his childhood.
Irrespective of what the child thinks or believes, they are shepherded into a hall, silenced, and forced to pray - or pretend to.
Well, I have two children at a state comprehensive school in Surrey, one of the most conservative parts of the country. They simply don't have an act of collective worship every day. Where they do have assemblies, they don't generally have a religious dimension. But forget the fact that this doesn't reflect what is happening today - except in the paranoid fantasies of the new atheists who imagine the arrival of a theocracy next week. I finished O-levels in 1984. By the time I left (again, a state comprehensive), we had stopped singing hymns in assemblies, and any prayers were pretty perfunctory. Again, this was not in a radically left-wing part of Inner London, but in a middle class commuter town in Sussex. A fair number of assemblies had no religious content whatsoever, and they certainly didn't take place daily. I find it hard to believe that Christendom has managed to extend its grasp on the education system at all in the intervening years.
scientist Gregory S Paul
Who is Gregory S Paul, and why haven't I heard of him? I did a little googling. Here's some background on him. And here's some more. Here's the executive summary: Paul's research on religion and society has been debunked. Hari should not be quoting it, let alone leaning on it.
Very few people are, as adults, persuaded of the idea that (say) a Messiah was born to a virgin... You can usually only persuade people of this when they are very young.... if you watch children being taught about religion, you will see most of them instinctively laugh and ask perfectly sensible sceptical questions that are swatted away
So, Mr Hari - are children instinctively sceptical, unlike adults? Or are they easy to persuade, unlike adults? How about you make a decision about which way you want to play this before you write the article?

There is a real debate to be had about the role of religion in public life. But poorly informed, badly researched and unbalanced articles like this one don't contribute to it.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

"I caught swine flu on an aeroplane!!!"

No you didn't. Probably.

People's perception, when they sit in aeroplanes, is that it must be unhealthy from an air point of view. But once the engines are running, and particularly once the aeroplane is in the air, you are probably breathing the cleanest air you've breathed outside a clean room. Firstly, all the air in the cabin is replaced every 2-3 minutes. Secondly, the air that is used inflight comes from outside, well above all human pollution. Thirdly, yes, air is recirculated. But the recirculated air is put through a hospital-standard filter, which is effective at removing contaminants even down to the size of viruses. Fourthly, there is little lateral airflow in the cabin - the air normally flows in at the top of the cabin, and is removed at the bottom. So the exhalations from the person behind you aren't sitting in an invisible fug around your head. Incidentally, you may have noticed that the smell from the toilets doesn't spread through the aeroplane. Air from the toilet is often not recirculated, unlike the rest of the air.

"But I caught flu! And I was on the same aeroplane as someone who had it!" Well, the more likely culprit, in my opinion, is the airport you were in beforehand - lots of queueing, sitting in crowded gate areas, probably a much greater diversity of people than were on the aeroplane. That and the fact that travelling is stressful, and stress makes it more likely you will get ill.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Received wisdom...

... is that the growth in sales of bottled water is a bad thing, and shows the ultimate decadence of our society.

It's not that simple, of course - it rarely is.

I drink bottled water at work, now. We are provided with half-litre bottles as required - as much as we can reasonably drink - in addition to tea and coffee. It didn't happen when I started in the job, though we did used to be able to get soft drinks free - orange juice, lemonade, cola. So I now drink bottled water at work instead of soft drinks. I would not be able to take my own tap water into work. Well, not unless it was in a container of less than 100ml. Water is much better for my teeth, and probably cheaper for my employer!

I used to work for an airline which on longhaul flights would provide all passengers with a bottle of water. So the passengers would drink bottled water in preference to more soft drinks and alcohol.

You also see a lot of what I suppose I now ought to call the "younger generation" not drinking tea or coffee, but carrying bottled water around. In restaurants, even fast food places, and at places like Boots where you can get a packed lunch for less than a fiver, bottles of water are one of the options.

So in a lot of cases, it isn't so much the case that people are drinking bottled water instead of tap water. Yes, they could wash up and rebottle their own tap water in some circumstances, it's true, which would be better. However, the fact is that a large proportion of the use of bottled water isn't at the expense of tap water. It's at the expense of soft drinks and beverages which are less healthy than water.