Saturday, 17 November 2012

How does God act on us - and it he arbitary?

I'm doing A level philosophy at the moment, and currently we are studying your arguments about miracle being an act of God in the world. I've noticed that you say that God only acts through people, however I do not understand how God is meant to 'act' or influence us if he is a transcendent being, is it through our conscience? And does this not interrupt the supposedly free will of humans?

As well as this, I was curious as to whether this makes God arbitrary? I say this because he only seems to act on individuals and sometimes (arguably) people who do not deserve it, or who deserve it less than others.

Response: I don’t know that John holds that God works only through people – though He seems to work mainly through people.

The idea of free will is not that nothing influences human decisions (which would be absurd) but that our decisions are not completely determined (which is an empirical fact) and that they are in some real sense ours (which is clear but hard to pin down philosophically). There is no reason I can see why God should not influence a person’s free decisions – it is not a problem to say that a parent influences a child’s decisions.

Arbitrary is also a rather slippery word. All free choices are in a certain sense “arbitrary” and God is certainly free. To be arbitrary is not necessarily to be unfair: if I have (say) two necklaces of equal value that each of my daughters would like it will be “arbitrary” which I give to which daughter but not “unfair”.  We are of course in no position to judge who is, or is not, worthy of God’s interaction since we cannot possibly have the necessary knowledge.  What looks odd to us can well be the actions of a wise and loving father.  And if we believe that we have a Loving Ultimate Creator then it is very reasonable for us to suppose that things that seem odd to us probably don’t to God.

Multiverse, Predators and Earthquakes

I recently saw an interview with The Reformer that the Reverend Polkinghorne made and I was wondering if he could clarify some points.

He commented on the Multiverse, did he mean that a multiverse would necessarily lead to a more naturalistic interpretation of Science since now it is more by necessity our Universe is so tuned?

When he discussed the example of why there need to be things like predators and earthquakes instead of a Universe designed so that beauty comes about without such things, he said that it is needed in order to get the sort of Universe we have, but doesn't that limit God's power saying it is impossible for God to make a Universe that has the sort of world we have without having things like predators and earthquakes?

When commenting on the brain, he argued emotions aren't reducable to the brain and that these are simply corolations, but isn't that an assumption since there isn't evidence that things corolate as opposed to being reducable to? 

  1. One major reason why many scientists like the idea of the multiverse is that it appears to reduce, without eliminating, the fine-tuning problem.  But it has big problems of its own. Of course it is quite possible that God chose to create a multiverse, but it seems to me (and I think John) pretty implausible. And if atheists  have to posit 10^200 other un-knowable universes to avoid seeing God behind this one, their situation is pretty desperate.
  2. It looks as though an evolutionary universe is essential to give creatures enough freedom to be truly free to choose to love (God and neighbour).  Predators, earthquakes and disease are clearly unfortunate but they are of incomparably less value than love.  In the end Christianity seems to me (from an intellectual PoV) to be a belief that the most fundamental and important fact about the universe is a Loving Ultimate Creator.  That God has chosen to make the universe in this way is not a limitation on his power, but an expression of his love as a true Father who wants his children to develop and think for themselves, and not be wrapped up in cotton wool.
  3. This depends on where you think the “burden of proof” lies. But if “A is reducible to B” means, as I think it does, something like “Every aspect of A can be wholly and completely explained in terms of B” then this is a very strong claim and much stronger than “whenever events of type A occur then we seem to observe events of type B. The claim “all propositions are reducible to material events” seems clearly false (a material event can’t have a truth-values) from which it follows that “all thoughts are reducible…” is false and it’s hard to see what “all emotions are reducible…” should then be true.

John Adds:
  1. Even an infinite multiverse would not of itself guarantee that one of its universes would have the properties necessary for carbon-based life. After all, there are an infinite number of even integers, but none has the property of oddness. It is not for us to restrict God’s creative generosity. God might create other worlds but I do not think God would create worlds that had no intrinsic fertility. The Creator does not need to experiment to find out what works!
  2. Nothing restricts God from the outside, but God is internally constrained by the divine nature. The God of love will only create a world in which creatures are graciously given the freedom to be and to make themselves.
  3. I think that there is an enormous gap between talk about neurons firing (important though that is in its own way), and our simplest conscious experiences such as seeing red and feeling pain. No one currently knows how that gap is bridged, but it is certainly there.

Relationship between Old Testament and Christian faith

My question for you and the Rvd. Polkinghorne concerns the relationship between the Old Testament and Christian faith.  Specifically, in light of historical scholarship that casts doubt on the historicity of much of the Old Testament, how are we, as Christians, to deal with situations in which Jesus refers to figures such as Moses and Abraham who may not have existed in a real, historical sense. 

As a Christian university student who attempts to be faithful, but is plagued with doubts, I worry that such a situation would destroy the very foundation of Jesus's ministry.  And the issues raised here say nothing of other parts of the Old Testament that seem downright immoral (e.g. 2 Kings 2:23-25). 

Response:  I don’t think there is much reason to think that Abraham and Moses never existed. The fact that there is no reference to Moses in extant Egyptian writing simply proves that monarchies don’t preserve stories where the monarch comes out in a very bad light.  Almost everyone who No doubt the details of the stories about them have been modified in the telling to make the necessary theological points: the Bible is neither science nor what moderns would consider history (a category that was unknown in the ancient world) but an inspired set of writings that tell truths about the relationship between God and humanity.

However suppose for the sake of argument that a story that Jesus quotes from the Old Testament is legendary (say Moses and the Burning Bush).  Let’s also suppose for the sake of argument that Jesus knew it was legendary*. He is trying to get the Saducees to understand the reality of the resurrection.  He knows that they accept that this story tells fundamental truths about God. So he uses the fundamental truths that they do accept to get them to understand a fundamental truth that the don’t accept.

After all, there is absolutely no reason to think that the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son refer to specific historical figures.  But this doesn’t make what Jesus says, based on their stories, any less valuable.

As for the “immoral” bits of the OT – we need to remember that all scripture must be read in the light of Christ. My favourite example of this is St Benedict interpreting the (apparent) blessing on bashing babies brains out in Psalm 137 as an injunction to nip sins in the bud.  We discuss all this in Questions of Truth which I hope you’ll find helpful.

* This is not self-evident: it’s clear (at least to me) that Jesus limited his omniscience as well as his omnipotence and omnipresence when he became incarnate.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The distinction between Eternal and Everlasting Life

I was very interested in your recent article in the Franciscan magazine and am confused as to the distinction between eternal life, as an attribute of the deity, and everlasting life, as referring to human beings. I can't help feeling that most Christians without a theological training, would not make such a distinction.

Response (from Nicholas): I haven’t read John’s article, but it seems to me that one clear distinction is that God’s eternal life has no beginning and no end and is an inherent attribute of God, whereas our everlasting life still begins at our birth and is something granted to us by God rather than something which we inherently possess.

John adds: In addition to what Nicholas has said about beginnings, I would like to add that all creaturely experience of time is characterised by change (as Augustine emphasised). Everlasting life will have this character, as through unending salvific process we enter ever more fully into exploration of the riches of the divine nature progressively revealed to us. The life of God, though it involves in some respects a changing relationship with creatures as they change, has also an eternal timeless dimension, for example the steadfast love of the Creator for creatures, from everlasting to everlasting.

Consciousness and Quantum Mechanics

The classical/quantum divide seems to mirror an aspect of our consciousness. We can experience things internally (e.g. a pain) or externally (e.g. a chair) as being in one place, or another, and at a certain time (ie in a classical way), but it is also possible to experience moments of deep insight that at least seem to have timelessness and holistic unity (ie quantum-like). I think of some mystical experiences as being a good example of the latter, but perhaps also any profound insight - mathematical, scientific, poetic, musical, political...

Given the various arguments, and evidence for quantum mechanics being relevant to understanding the relation between consciousness and the physical, do you think this is likely to be a true observation of a deep connection between thought and the quantum/classical divide, or do you think these similarities have little to do with each other?

I certainly believe that there is a deep connection here, and it seems also that d'Espagnat does (On Physics and Philosophy). I have reached my own conclusion by some knowledge of quantum mechanics, some specialist knowledge of philosophy of mind, some personal religious experience, and a lot of armchair thinking, but I am not a specialist in this area.

Response: My view, and I think John’s is that there is a deep connection here but it is probably not at any mechanistic level.

In other words, it is unlikely (though one must never say impossible) that there will be some kind of direct scientific linkage between the two phenomena, but that they each provide a deep metaphor for each other – a resonance in God’s creation if you like.

Books to reduce confusion?

I am just so confused right now.There is so much stuff out there and it is hard to distinguish what is true or not.God always came first to me and my whole life so far has been based on Gods words through scripture and Jesus.Now, I have been having doubts and read some books,that I know I should not have. It has had a negative impact on me.

My faith which I thought was stronger then anyone I knew,is now weak.I have based my whole life around him and have talked til I was blue in the face to non believers about him.I have read a few books that I thought would straighten me out and it seems it lasts only for a few days.Then I am back to believing more like a atheist.Sorry to bother you with my problems.I am just trying to get back to where I was.

Response: Don’t worry. God is still there and still loves you!  Humility is a good thing.

If you have been unsettled by silly people like Dawkins and Harris then don’t worry at all – their arguments are completely bogus.  We deal with some of them in Questions of Truth.

But it’s not just a question of argument and reason – it would be good to hang out with some fellow-believers who understood your concerns.  (and if you haven’t already done so, you might want to read/re-read The Screwtape Letters.

Objective beauty

I have written to you before on the subject of the relationship between personal experiences and brain activity (i.e. the question of whether love simply amounts to an increase in dopamine or oxytocin).  I was hoping I might ask both you and Dr. Polkinghorne to elaborate on said relationship, given a different scenario.

Both of you have advocated for the idea that there exists objective beauty in the world, though our experiences of said beauty will not repeat themselves. However, how does one interpret euphoric reactions to drugs?  Many purport to experience 'highs' of a sort in response to various drugs, ranging from illegal substances like cocaine to something as innocuous as an anti-depressant.  Some even claim that drugs are the main instigators of religious experiences!!  Given this reality, how can the existence of objective beauty be defended?  I am not simply asking whether the experience is more complex than a simple drug reaction, but how beauty can exist outside of us if many so-called beautific experiences can be instigated by a simple pill.

There is also my concern with beauty in light of research on mirror-neurons.  I've recently read studies, including one mentioned here, suggesting that many experiences of beauty (especially in music) are due to mirror neurons.  They imply that, just as mirror neurons produce what we think are a person's genuine emotions when they are actually our subconscious reactions to their facial expressions, what we mistake for the 'meaning' in a piece of music is really just the 'feeling' of singing or playing the song ourselves.  Does this finding threaten the idea of beauty as an immaterial aspect of reality?

Response: Certainly anything that we perceive or think has some implication in our brains. But the fact that a whole load of neurons are involved doesn’t mean that the underlying phenomena are not objective.  It is not reasonable to (seriously) doubt the existence of the things we see, even though undoubtedly we perceive things with the optic nerve, the visual cortex (and numerous other systems). Similarly the fact that mirror neurons are involved in our perceptions of beauty (and many other things besides) doesn't imply at all that beauty doesn't exist.

Similarly the fact that we can sometimes be misled by our brains, or that our perceptions can be distorted by injury, chemicals or other interference with the 'proper function' of our nervous system doesn't mean that what we perceive is unreal.

The emerging understanding of mirror neurons is certainly fascinating (I very much enjoy VS Ramachandran's writing on this subject) but it's worth remembering that this field is still in its infancy and there is LOTS LOTS more to learn. In no way do they show that anything is "really just" anything.

What is pretty clear is that if you want to follow the "New Atheists" down their path then you have to abandon, not only God, but beauty, free will, love, meaning and much else besides. Including, of course, the idea that our brains are capable of finding truth - Plantinga's famous Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. It is a "path that leads to destruction" in more ways than one.

Limits to the human brain, and how much science has been discovered?

Firstly, what is the confinements of the human brain, imagination. ie: is it possible to think of something that does not exist or is not related to something that exists? ie: if man creates something there are limitation to the creation.

If there are limitations to our imagination and we cannot think of something that does not “exist”, then the formulation of anything we imagine has to have a bases of existence and of realism.

Secondly, what percentage of “science” has man discovered, and how much is there still to be discovered? 5%, 10% of the whole understanding of science?

Response: Human brains are finite so there are clear limits to our thought.  But we can certainly think of things that do not exist – and indeed could not exist.

I don’t think we can say what percentage of science is to be discovered: the more we know the more questions we can ask and, as we wrote in Questions of Truth  science has a fractal character.  What we have discovered is finite and what remains to be discovered is infinite so strictly speaking 0% of science has been discovered so far.  But that’s not really very meaningful, and clearly some the things that remain to be discovered are less important than others.  So to give a rough picture we might say something like “about 4.64% of science has been discovered” and hope people would get the mathematical joke about the cube root of 100.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The second coming as a dateable event?

Can we conceive of the ‘second coming’ also as a datable historical event?  If not why not?... We cannot take for granted that humankind is the only kind of life that needs to be ‘judged’.  And this must have major implications for any understanding of the ‘second coming’.

... given that [the Universe] has already existed for at least fifteen billion years or thereabouts, we have no good reason to suppose it will not continue for another fifteen billion years or more.  In psychological if not logical effect, the cosmos may continue for ever, certainly long after humankind has begun and ended on this planet.  What then does the ‘second coming’ mean?  What does our resurrection from the dead mean if it is postponed for billions of years?

Perhaps the second coming is an ‘event’ applicable only to us on earth, and does not have cosmic implications at all.  Perhaps it is simply a judgement on humanity only in so far as humanity exists...May we not be resurrected long before the solar system blows up in our face?*

Response:John was one of the co-authors of a Doctrine Commission report on this and co-edited a book with Michael Welker on this topic called The End of the World and the Ends of God and has written a book called The God of Hope and the End of the World.

What I suspect happens is that when we die we “fall asleep” and the next moment of which we are conscious is the End of the present Universe. It makes no difference in principle if this is in a few years or a few billion years – compare ideas of John Penrose where he “identifies” the totally flat heat death of the universe with a singularity in a big bang. We then find the “second coming” in terms of a new heaven and a new earth.   At the End of the universe of course all creatures that are capable of being redeemed, whether human or non-human, are equally present.

Now it’s almost certain that Earth will have perished long before the end of the Universe (unless we get very smart about moving it out of the way of an exploding Sun etc…) and all too possible that there will be some catastrophe which wipes out humanity before then. In which case from a human point of view the Second Coming will occur to a lot of living people at once.  This certainly makes sense of a lot of biblical language but we have to remember that apocalyptic language is not intended to be read “literally” in any case.

One thing that science has certainly taught us is that our view of time is far too petty and parochial by the standards of the universe.  Which of course is a truth often repeated in the Bible.

* The questioner in fact submitted a 4-page essay of which this is the extracted gist. Please do not submit questions as attachments I probably won't have time to respond and I certainly can't send attachments to John

Human personhood at 14 days?

If human life begins at conception and personhood at day 14 is there a moral difference between having an abortion before day 14 and having one after?

I take it that John feels there is a moral (ethical) difference, but I do not understand what that means. 

Furthermore, is taking the "morning after pill" an act of murder in your estimation?  Or is it a morally acceptable way to end further growth of a human life, for, say, a couple who fears the consequences of a husband's broken condom; or a woman who has been raped?

Response: Jesus’ injunction “judge not” needs to be borne in mind when we are considering such issues, since we really don’t understand what leads to and constitutes our personhood.

John doesn’t think that personhood begins at 14 days, rather he is confident that personhood doesn’t begin before 14 days, and thus is willing to back experiments on human embryos before 14 days.  On this view therefore anything that terminated a (potential) human life before 14 days doesn’t require special moral justification.  After that, the situation becomes more complex.

Other Christians of course take different views.

Is quantum leap somehow a reflection of God's plan for us?

Is quantum leap somehow a reflection of God's plan for us?

Because I am only 13 years old and have a very limited working knowledge of quantum physics, please excuse (or point out) any gaps in my reasoning. I'm certainly no expert, but to my understanding, quantum leap means that a particle has no definite position at a given time, and only occurs with atomic or subatomic particles but not with larger, macroscopic objects.

While thinking deeply about why this is, I've come to the possible conclusion that just maybe macroscopic objects have definite positions because God's plan requires it to be in that place at that time, and that God's plan doesn't give a definite position to subatomic particles because they don't greatly impact our lives and therefore do not play a role in God's plan for us. Could this be possible? I don't know enough of physics to know of any laws against this

I know that the problem of quantum leap not happening with larger objects has been answered before by a theory involving parallel universes, but this seems to me to be inaccurate and in no agreement to the bible.

Response: The relation between the quantum and classical worlds is subtle, complex and not well understood or even agreed upon at a philosophical level.  What’s clear is that at sub-atomic scales “objects” don’t behave at all in the way that our intuition would suggest based on our experience of objects that are roughly our size (to within a factor of a billion or so).

Mathematically very small objects should probably be thought of, for many purposes, as “wave functions” or aspects of a wave function rather than as discrete entities.  But when you get lots of these together they behave like a macroscopic object.  John wrote a nice book called  “Quantum Mechanics: A Very Short Introduction” which you might want to read.

I think God really only has plans for Persons (human and any non-human persons who quite possibly exist as well) rather than for inanimate objects.  The most important things I think we learn from studying physics are:
  1. The universe is a very interesting place where the truth, as far as we can discern it, is often fascinatingly different from what common sense suggests.  Most of reality is not directly visible to our senses – like God.
  2. Nevertheless there is a deep sense of a mind at the root of it all. The universe is underpinned by rationality and seems to be exquisitely “fine-tuned” to allow rational beings to emerge.

Implications of the Higgs Boson

I recently came across your site after researching the works of John Polkinghorne. It is a great site and I was even more thrilled to find out that we could contact both you and John to ask questions.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the Higgs Boson in the news. As a layman when it comes to science, I was wondering what both you and John thought about the recent Higgs Boson discoveries, what it means for the science/faith interface and what implications, if any, it might have for the Christian faith? For example, I saw a news clip featuring the physicist Michio Kaku who said something along the lines of "now we're going to be able to see before Genesis chapter 1" in light of the recent discoveries (I found it online here). I'm not sure what point he was trying to make by this, but he seemed to be overall sympathetic to many multiverse theories and attacking the notion of God, faith, etc. Is this just a matter of people, such as Kaku, interpreting the data the way they want to or does the discovery actually point at all to a multiverse?

Thanks for all the work you do in Christ,

Response: The Higgs Boson doesn’t require the multiverse at all – just as well since Higgs predicted it long before multiverse ideas were fashionable.

The only “theological” implication is that if the Standard Model is correct then there is an awful lot of fine tuning. This is why most physicists hope it isn’t.

We shall see…

Common origin of life

I have heard Christian philosopher William Lane Craig suggest that the idea that all life came from one source was being questioned in the scientific community. I realize that no explanation for the beginning of life has been accepted. But was not sure how much dispute there was in science about all life beginning with a first cell. As a layman I would be interested in how you think the data stands on this issue at present. I appreciate your, Dr. Collins as well as Dr. Craig's defense of the Christian faith with the book of reason, nature as well as Revelation.

Response: The apparent ubiquity of the genetic code is pretty convincing evidence for a common origin of all life.  My collaborator Martin Nowak has made some progress with “pre-life” ideas about how (at a physical/mathematical level) evolutionary processes might have got started, and there is a pretty respectable hypothesis called RNA World.  However as you say there is no generally accepted theory of how this all happened and many surprises in store.

The idea that life in some form might have originated outside earth and arrived by way of meteorites, which was once seen as almost completely bonkers, is now considered less implausible than before since there is more evidence for complex molecules in space and we realise that some forms of  life can survive in massively extreme environments.  We also realise that there are almost certainly many billions of planets in our galaxy alone.

On the other hand it’s also becoming clear that the characteristics of Earth that allow it to sustain complex intelligent life are very special. Not only do we need to be about the right distance in a stable orbit from the right kind of star, in a stable solar system that has enough big planets to prevent too many meteorites, but we also need a large moon to reduce meteorite impacts still further, a strong enough magnetic field to keep solar radiation at bay, enough surface water that is not boiled off into space etc.. It seems almost certain that these characteristics arose when the earth in its present form was formed by the collision of two planets. Getting such a collision “right” so that the result is a stable earth and moon rather than two more wandering and unstable planets is obviously not straightforward.  There is also the way in which the atmosphere was prepared for intelligent life by microorganisms making atmospheric oxygen – something that seems far from inevitable.

Hope this helps somewhat.  All of this illuminates the “how” of God creating life and humanity on Earth. It of course does nothing at all to undermine the fact of God’s Creation.

Big bang and Existence of God

I have taken the position among colleagues and friends that the "big bang" theory, if accurate, clearly demonstrates the existence of God.  I would be interested in the good doctor's thoughts on the subject and rational comments from anyone who might have pondered the issue.

Response: The Big Bang theory was developed by a catholic priest (Lemaitre)  but he was clear that it has no direct religious applications. God could certainly have created a “steady state” universe and equally it is conceivable that one of the various secular stories about the Big Bang (eternal inflation, quantum vacuum etc…) might be true.

Having said that, it is certainly a problem for atheists to explain why a “big bang” with the very special characteristics we require for life actually occurred – see Questions of Truth for a discussion of this.  And Big Bang is similar enough to Genesis to give pause for thought at least!

Who created God?

I just recently became aware of John’s writing and I’ve been thrilled to find that my university library has a great deal of his books. 

The root of my question has to deal with what seems to always come up me when I talk with non-believing friends. More often than not, I seem to find myself attempting to fight the Dawkins’ “Who created God (because it’s more complex)?” argument or something similar.

I’ve been reading and viewing a great amount in regards to this question, and obviously, I don’t believe in a created God. But, when one digs deeper on this issue, you’re forced to ask a variety of other questions.

For example, do you view God as timeless sans creation? And if so, how do you address the timeless functionality of the mind of God? It trips me up because I constantly apply the finite terms of our existence and imagine God counting down “3,2,1” before the moment of creation. 

Or do you view God as existing in one or more dimensions of time? The further questions I would then have is how do you respond to arguments like “Why did God not created the world sooner?” and “how does he then have no beginning?” 

I would greatly appreciate some guidance in best answering these questions. In the end, I suppose I’ll never be able to fully understand God’s transcendence, but I hope for quick responses to basic questions like these.

Response: We address this “Who created God” nonsense in Questions of Truth

From a philosophical PoV God is “The Ultimate Creator”. By definition no-one/nothing created the Ultimate Creator.  From a philosophical PoV asking “Who created God” is a nonsense.

Dawkins’ “argument” about complexity is just completely fallacious – it’s even hard to formulate in a way that is not obviously wrong.  It also confuses simplicity of form with simplicity of function (Anthony Kenny uses the illustration of the cut-throat razor vs the electric razor: the former is simpler in form but can perform many more functions than the latter).

It is very hard for us to envisage a mind except in time, and we cannot expect to see things through a God’s eye view. But sometimes even great human “creators” seem to get a complete idea of their creation in more or less a single moment (Mozart is said to have composed a Clarinet Trio while playing billiards for example, and whether or not this particular story is true it is clearly logically possible for a creator do conceive of a work of art in an instant).

IF there is anything corresponding to “time” in God’s experience pre-creation we cannot possibly expect to know about it.  And the idea of “creating the world sooner” makes no sense. God created the world at t=0.

PS  FWIW the one respect in which I suspect that Atheism may be logically incoherent and not simply a big mistake is that I’m far from convinced that it is possible to have a contingent necessary entity.  If it is true that “everything that exists and for which is logically possible to have one or more causes, has one or more causes” then it’s hard to see how the Universe can exist without God.

Black holes and the future of the universe

I once read that from the inside of a black hole the entire future of the universe can be observed.

Dr. Polkinghorne has mentioned that he does not think that God  knows what is going to happen in the future (as God has a dipolar nature and is partially restricted by time). My question is as follows: If from a black hole's point of view the entire future can be seen, is it not also possible that God can see (and hence know) the future?

Response: No-one knows what happens inside a black hole.

And we don’t think “God is restricted by time” but that God chooses what He does and does not know.

To use a simple analogy, it’s as though Superman, with “X-ray vision” superpowers, can see through Lois Lane’s clothes, but (being a super-gentleman) chooses not to.
And indeed one thing the quantum world clearly shows is that observing something isn’t the completely passive action that “common sense” supposes.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Made from ashes of dead stars

Why is it that specific minerals derived from the ground (through plant and animal life and water) are necessary for human existence and we are not cognizant of the fact that what is from the ground keeps that which was derived from the ground {Gen. 2:7}physically alive?

Response: This is quite well understood in serious science and religion – as John often points out it’s a wonderful thing that we are all, physically, made from the ashes of dead stars

What about petitionary prayer?

I have heard clergymen and theologians state that God is unchangeable and immovable and He cannot be persuaded to do anything. But that idea seems to contradict the whole efficacy of persistent petitionary prayer. As you well know, there are passages in the Bible that suggest that persistent prayer will be answered. Therefore what is the point in persisting in prayer to a God who is immovable. To me, the two ideas are totally contradictory. Can you shed some light on this please?

Response: The nature of God does not change. But because God’s nature is Love then of course love responds to the beloved.

The “immovability” of God is to do with the argument about the Prime Mover – we would now say that God has no particular physical location and as the source of all physics (and all location) it makes no sense to speak of God “moving” in a physical sense.

But of course petitionary prayer does not seek to move God physically.

Reply: Thankyou for your prompt reply. Therefore I will conclude from  what you have said that petitionary prayer is worth it and I will persevere in my prayers.

Response: Definitely. Jesus is a much higher authority on this than anyone else is!

One of the great things about petitionary prayer is that we are aligning our wills to God. I think John Polkinghorne (but possibly John Lucas) makes the analogy with laser light – and how coherence greatly adds to the power.  John/John also makes the point that praying to God forces us to articulate what we really want to happen, which isn’t as straightforward as it might appear.

Reply: I have read this before in one of John Polkinhorne's books but I have difficulties with this idea because surely what I pray for comes subjectively out of my mind. My desires are not necessarily the same as God's. A concrete example would be if I prayed to win a large amount of money (which I am sure a lot of us would like), this idea would not necessarily align itself with God's will. I very much doubt if I prayed for this, even with absolute sincerity and faith, that my prayer would be answered.

I think the problem of unanswered prayer is a major stumbling block for a lot of Christians because there are such firm promises in the bible that prayer will be answered but most Christians will have had an experience of praying for something fervently and yet it never happens.

The whole issue of unanswered prayer is a complete mystery to me and maybe that is how God wants it.

Response: Yes but isn’t that the point.  We might think “I want to win a lot of money” but faced with the awesome responsibility of formulating this as a serious request for God we might realise it was inappropriate.

A solid apologetics book for a simple layman?

I recently purchased a copy of Socrates in the City.  This book was my first introduction to Dr. Polkinghorne. I’ve been raised in a covenant church and do my best each day to try and honor God.

I admittedly have only recently begun reading anything to be considered worthy. I’ve tackled Mere Christianity and started on the recommended Universes title. 

I’ve probably re-read the speech at Socrates in the City 10 times trying to absorb from it all that I can.  There are so many people in my life I desire to evangelize to, however I fear I’m not a very clever chap and quickly get hung up on what I think should be easy obstacles to overcome conversationally. I believe in God, fearlessly!  However, turning what I know and feel into logical arguments in defense of Christianity is a challenge for me. 

Can you recommend a solid apologetics book a simple layman like me can sink my teeth into that will help give me more fire power?

Response: We wrote “Questions of Truth” to help equip people who had questions about science and religion.

Tom Wright’s “Simply Christian” is a very good general book – in some ways an update for Mere Christianity.

A theological response to contact with Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life?

I am looking for help with my MTh Dissertation which is investigating a theological response to contact with Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life - particularly in the present climate where many planets are being discovered weekly. For example, what does a Christian Practice of Hospitality look like when communicating with Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life (and the inevitable time delays in that communication)? There seems to be little work available in this area to consult at present but, in the event of such contact happening, it is too late to be working out a response after the event!

I would be very grateful if you could pass this on to JCP. I am an ordained scientist and have benefited enormously from his work over the past 10 years or so.

Response: We have no theological problem with the idea of intelligent life on other planets (indeed a remark in Questions of Truth sparked a paper from Don Page and a testable-in-principle scientific hypothesis from me which I must say is looking more plausible by the month, that the fundamental constants might be such as to maximise the Expected number of Habitable Earth-Like Planets).  John has written elsewhere that if there are “Little Green Men” then God might well have taken Green flesh.

My own guess is that we are probably the first evolved persons in the galaxy and that the mean time between evolution of persons may be of the order of 10^5-10^7 years. On this timescale many things can happen including of course extinctions and colonisations.  The chances of two species of persons meeting when they are at roughly comparable stages of scientific development (say within 10^2 years) seems very remote.

Our most important duty would be to love these other persons in the most appropriate way, respectfully sharing the best of our cultural heritage and most importantly the Good News of Jesus Christ.

But let’s see what John has to add.

John adds: I have nothing to add to Nick’s excellent response except that we should not seek to limit the creative generosity of God who if he wants “little green men” will enable them to exist and care for them appropriately.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Does God sustain the physical laws or matter or both ? And why ?

I would like to ask about the topic of divine action. Does God sustain the physical laws or matter or both ? And why ??

Response: God as creator sustains everything that there is.

Why?  Well God is free to choose what He does but as far as we can see the reason is Love.

God's love calls us into being and sustains the universe so that we can grow and learn to choose to love God and our fellow humans.

What works of yours I can read and reference.

A Christian of the Catholic denomination, I am also a mature aged postgraduate law student where I have undergraduate and post graduate training in engineering.  Lately, I have experienced a growing interest to clarify my understanding of the world of science with that of my faith.

With this in mind, I recently stumbled upon a PODCast hosted by +plus magazine which had a segment on the 'Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality' conference held in September 2010.  Importantly, it introduced me to you.

In my younger years I was drawn to ideas of the absurd as put forward by Albert Camus where I had yet to discover Christ.  In my latter years, I feel that of things we do not clearly perceive or comprehend, we might well dismiss as absurd.  Here, quantum physics and the nature of reality captures my attention.

You have written a large volume of distinguished works.  Given my leanings, might you be able to advise me as to what works of yours I can read and reference.

Response: You might start with Questions of Truth which has advice on further reading in each chapter.

A 21 year old student on a quest to rediscover my faith

I am a 21 year old student on a quest to rediscover my faith in Christianity. I was an atheist but, through the all too human fear of death and the fear of a meaningless life, I decided to once again find belief. However, the problem has always been that I am too scientific to just 'accept' the existence of a god. I have begun talking to a local priest about all this but, though I like him very much and am grateful for the help he has genuinely provided, I am beginning to feel that I am still not much further towards the answer and am restless to acquire it. He gave me copy of your book 'The Way The World Is' and I am finding it very interesting as it tries to answer those big questions in a scientific, logical fashion that the vicar deduced was the direction I wanted to go in. It has been perhaps the greatest stride I have made thus far.

Sadly my quest for faith seems more and more null and void at the moment: my personal heroes are all atheists, there is so little 'evidence' for a God and there is so little 'reason' (I feel) other than fear of death and lack of meaning to believe. This is all rather sad as I would prefer to have faith but I cannot, for the life of me, find it.

Response: But lack of meaning is a HUGE problem.

In the light of Christ so many things make sense, from fundamental physics (anthropic fine-tuning) to relationships to art to our ability to understand the world (to the extent we do) to our deep intuitions that Love is the most important “thing” in the Universe.

To an atheist almost everything that makes life worth living is an “illusion”- yet it is only an “illusion” if you are determined to see it as such.

But could it not be that humans favour love beyond all else because strong social bonds help our society to expand and progress? Indeed, with our weak forms, isn't a deep affection for each other the only thing that CAN keep us alive? I'm an art student, so I like to view the World as being deeply meaningful and yet everything seems to have a logical basis to do with survival. I'd love to believe in an afterlife, but what is there to make me even consider that I may somehow continue after my body stops? Is it so hard to believe in an end? I mock beliefs in magic and yet isn't the faith I seek that of a sort of hocus-pocus?

I have a true regard and interest in religion but, though I have searched for over a year (even speaking to a vicar about it) I cannot truthfully believe (I have tried to 'trick myself' that i do believe but...well, not a good aproach!). The fact that most the people I know socially and people I admire as role models are atheists acts as a sort of 'nail in the coffin' for me...Although I do understand we must all attempt to be independant thinkers.

Certainly many true beliefs are adaptive but that doesn’t make them false. We believe in gravity in part to avoid falling off cliffs.

If the mainline atheistic worldview were true then, amongst other things:
  1. There is no reason to believe that human reason leads to true beliefs as opposed to beliefs which promote survival value.
  2. There is no compelling reason for people to behave morally or altruistically when it doesn’t suit them to do so.
  3. There is no free will so no possibility of real moral choices or real love
  4. Love is an unimportant epiphenomenon
  5. Life has no meaning
  6. The fine-tuning of the universe is incomprehensible (or a freak accident because there are 10^200 other un-knowable universes)
  7. Aesthetic value is purely a function of our biology.
  8. There is no good reason to continue living and certainly no good reason to devote lots of time and resources to bringing up children. Indeed (in a delicious irony) atheists on average have far fewer children than replacement (eg Dawkins has one child,  Polkinghorne and I each have 3) and therefore the people who claim that the only purpose of life is evolutionary success are in fact evolutionary failures.

Now it could be just tough that these things were so, although if it were true it would be a “true belief which does not promote survival value” and therefore should not be possible for people to hold by (a).  But there is a beautiful, deep and true alternative which does not suffer from any of these problems. We know from Quantum Mechanics that deep reality is usually unseen and a bit counter-intuitive.  The same is true of God.

Further question:  I must admit I don't understand the 'without a God there's no reason to behave morally' arguament. Surely acting morally is in the best interests of a) human survival and b) self-preservation (annoying, angering or endangering other people is, on a primal leval, the easiest way to put yourself in danger or be excluded from the social group.). The fact we seem 'designed' to believe in God also makes evolutionary sense: cultures that are bound together by a faith and fear of a higher order, seem to flourish. Order equals success: The Egyptians, Vikings and, indeed, the entire western World owe their creation to religious faith (even in conquest and empire it has been one of the most powerful motivaters).

The situation for me feels a tad desperate. As I said in a previous email, I've talked to a vicar about this and still feel NO nearer to faith. What should I do now? What is the next constructive step?
All my heroes are atheist and, as I look up to them as superior intelligent beings, it knocks my attempts to believe further when it turns out they are faithless. Yesterday I discovered Steven Moffat (my main inspiration in life (I adore creative writing)) is also an atheist. If these men are so smart, I can't help thinking to myself, then isn't atheism a smart and powerful arguament? Perhaps that is my most childish view within the matter as there are many clever and influencial men/women within religion...But, none the less, it is a thought of mine and it would be to put myself in denile not to detail it as one of my reasons for...this struggle to accept.

I WOULD like to believe but have so many doubts I don't know what to do nor know if I can continue trying to find faith given all the my thoughts on the subject. I'd love (as some have suggested me to do) just to accept, perhaps pray...and then see...but I have tried and I cannot do this.

My family have been very supportive in my search and I am grateful that, whether I can be a theist or will be, in fact, an atheist, so many people (including yourself) have attempted to help me find the answer.

Further response:  Thanks very much  for your email. I think the next constructive step might be to find a local Alpha Course and go on it.  I guess you’ve read our Questions of Truth and this might help with some of the Science issues but questions of faith are much deeper.

To respond to your specific point about morality: I chose my words carefully: There is no compelling reason for people to behave morally or altruistically when it doesn’t suit them to do so.  Of course it’s a good thing if other people act morally but why should we not “defect” (to use the technical language of Evolutionary Game Theory)? Appealing to “do as you would be done by” doesn’t solve the problem – why should an individual accept this?

And I guess you may accept points a and c-h.

I too enjoy Sherlock (although as my daughter points out the original Holmes is a much nicer character than they have made him in the “update”).  But with the best will in the world, comic writers are not reliable guides to truth. As you have said, you need to make up your own mind.

Alien design and simulation

First off, thank you so much for your site and books. As a lifelong Christian studying science at an American university, your answers have been extremely helpful in my continued quest to maintain a strong faith.

My two questions come about two theories in response to fine-tuning that I find ridiculous, but some of my non-religious friends find ground in:

First, what are your thoughts on the possibility of alien design as proposed by Alan Guth (who claims that humans could eventually generate new universes)? My main response is to ask, even if this is possible, what makes the alien universe fine-tuned and how did that universe come into existence? Am I correct in asking such a thing?

Also, if you have the time, I was wondering what your thoughts on simulation theory were? Again, I find it to be utter speculation that still doesn't solve the problem of an outright creator.

Response: Thank you. You have good points.  But interestingly they can be turned to “our” advantage:
  1. If people accept the possibility of “alien design” (as I think Dawkins did in the recent debate with Rowan Williams) then they accept that the universe is fully compatible with a (non-ultimate) Creator. But this is equally compatible with an ultimate Creator.
  2. Similarly if they accept that the universe could be a simulation then logically they have to accept that it could be a Creation as well.

Developmental understanding of God,

I am reading your 2011 book on "Testing Scripture". In it, several times you make a case for the developmental understanding of God, and God's relation to the world, found across the historical development of the canon.

When I make this case, I have been accused of implicitly violating Article XX of the 39 Articles: "the Church [may not] ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."

By saying that a certain portion is "less developed" than later Scripture, and therefore superseded by it, I have been told that this is making one place in Scripture "repugnant" to another. I would assume that this same criticism could be, or has been, leveled at you.

If this is the case, what is your reply?

Response: It's rather encouraging to hear that people take the 39 Articles that seriously!

I don't think it is at all "repugnant" to say that all scriptures, especially the OT, must be interpreted in the light of Christ. It was long known to the Fathers that much of the OT should be interpreted allegorically and christologically, and indeed this was (I believe) considered the highest form of interpretation.  A favourite example (which we use in Questions of Truth) is St Benedict interpreting the (apparent) blessing on bashing babies brains out in Psalm 137 as an injunction to nip sins in the bud.

John adds: I see the 39 Articles as 'historic formularies', very much embedded in their own time. They do not carry the authority of, say, the Creeds. I have a great respect for scripture but part of taking it seriously is to recognise tensions within it, for example between the stories of genocide in Joshua and the Lord's command to love our enemies. I think this requires an acknowledgement of the unfolding developmental character of God's revelation through the biblical authors. You might be interested to look at my Encountering Scripture.

Follow-up: Thank you for your thoughtful responses. I think that what you say makes a great deal of sense, and I use similar explanations when describing the matter myself. However, what I am dealing with here is a Church culture that is heavily immersed in the southern U.S. "Bible Belt", and speaking of any style of interpretation other than "literal" is often interpreted as a liberal cop-out. Even if one points out both the historic antecedents found in the great Tradition of the Church.

And, I suppose that just has to be the way it is, and one must explain things as best they can.

Second Response: Well whatever St Augustine and St Benedict were, they were hardly “liberals”.

Universe eternal or ex nihilo

It seems to me that, apparently, there are two possibilities accounting for the existence of the Universe: it is either eternal, and if so, it has only been changing shapes eternally (Big Bang being only an episode in its history); or it came into being ex nihilo. Does science promise to give a self-contained explanation of either? Or is this question, in the words of Richard Swinburne, an Oxford professor of philosophy, too big for science?

Response: Science can never explain why science works, or why the particular laws that science discerns should apply rather than other logical possibilities.

Suffering and limited omniscience

My question relates to suffering. Most suffering can be explained as due to our exercise of free will. More suffering can be explained by our having to live in a rule-governed world. But why would God create such a world if (according to orthodoxy) he knew our future in his eternity, knew about Auschwitz. But if he is inside time then why create a universe not knowing where it would go???

Response: Trying to grasp a “god’s eye view” of anything is pretty well impossible for humans.  “my thoughts are not your thoughts” etc..

But John (and I) think that the least misleading way of thinking/speaking about this is that God chooses to limit his knowledge in order to give us true freewill and hence the possibility of true love.  Omniscience does not mean “God knows everything” but “God knows everything that God chooses to know” (otherwise it would be a limit on God’s omnipotence).  And we now understand through Quantum Mechanics that observing something is not quite the purely passive act that was previously supposed.

The only thing we know is that the ultimate answer to “Why does God to X” is “God chooses to do this motivated by perfect Love”

But the questioner said: It’s not good enough to say that God’s thoughts  are not our thoughts’ : that is Muslim theology: ‘What God does is right because God does it’. Just putting God as the subject of a verb doesn’t make the related action necessarily right. Quoting quantum mechanics is a real get-out. Exactly what does quantum mechanics have to say about the morality of creation (I have studied quantum mechanics)?  How can God choose NOT to know about Auschwitz unless he knows about Auschwitz and then chooses to dismiss it from his knowledge?

My question remains: at the point of creating did God know the course to be taken by his creation or did he not? No matter which answer is given to the question God stands condemned either for his knowledge or for his ignorance.

By the way, I am not an atheist trying to make difficulties, but a committed Christian trying to hold on to my faith. Having spent 24 years in one of the poorest countries in the world the problem of theodicy, a suffering world and an apparently omnipotent and compassionate but passive God, remains top of my list of moral perplexities.

Second Response: Sorry you don’t seem to have read the response clearly.

We say that God’s Omniscience means that he knows what he chooses to know (but does not know what He chooses not to know).

He deliberately limits His knowledge because only in that way can we have true freewill. He knew of course that evil would arise in the world, but chose not to know the specifics because only (we think) by not knowing the specifics can He endow us with the freedom for Love.

I’m sorry if I didn’t explain myself clearly enough before.

To which: No, I HAVE read you correctly. God cannot CHOOSE what he will know unless he has before him a mixture of what he will determine to know and what he will determine not to know. So at that point, presumably before the act of creation, he knows even what he will decide not to know. Eliminating some part of what he knows cannot absolve him from responsibility for what at some point he knew. But you appear to be suggesting that God gave us free will at the cost of not knowing where that free will would lead us. Isn’t that precisely my second point: it would surely be irresponsible to start a process deliberately not knowing where that process would lead us and without the possibility of interfering to eliminate evil?

Your last response to my question Why did God create?’ is to me meaningless: ‘God chooses to do this motivated by perfect love.’ Is it perfect love to put into our hands a free will that is not in some way limited in its choices by love...which would then not be free will at all?

Third Response: The statement “God cannot do X” can only be true if X is logically impossible. It is clearly logically possible to decide not to know/find out something that you could know/find out, without knowing it.  I do not know the value of 12345*6789*11 but I could easily calculate it if I wished. God is not some kind of “idiot savant” who automatically “knows” everything. Our point is that knowing is an act of will.  At no point did God “know” things that He chooses not to know.

You say it would “surely be irresponsible” to create the world in a way which gives true freedom. Well I can see that it might perhaps be irresponsible, it would depend what the alternative courses of action were, whether one had given them due consideration etc...   However the idea that we can accuse God of being “irresponsible” given our almost complete lack of knowledge of these topics is somewhat ridiculous, and there is a big difference between “X might perhaps be the case” and “X is surely the case”.  It seems to me self-evident that the present creation, with all its love and suffering, is vastly preferable to a creation with no love and no suffering.

It's also perhaps worth remarking that although we have free will our choices are obviously quite substantially limited. Most people can do very little evil, and even the vilest dictators and demagogues pass away after a few decades, and they can only do evil because other people let them.  But the value of love is eternal.

Time between my death and resurrection will not exist for me

My belief is that the next thing I will be conscious of  after my death will be heaven. Time between my death and resurrection will not exist for me.

Response: I have much sympathy with this view, but we are told to expect judgement first!
Though we can be confident that God will acquit us (not because of any “merit” of ours but through Jesus our Saviour) it may not be a completely painless experience!

Does QM really imply non-causality?

Does quantum physics really contend that particles can actually appear and disappear (and then reappear) into our time and space dimension without any outside cause or is it only a matter of that their measurement of them makes it appear like they do that?

Response: The correct interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is still hotly debated. It seems as if many possible interpretations (Copenhagen, Bohm, Many-worlds) are compatible with the equations and all the physical evidence. And no-one knows how to reconcile Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity, let alone how/whether String/M theory is correct.

So certainly in Hawking's highly speculative cosmology and interpretation things can happen "without any outside cause" and we do know that particles spontaneously appear and disappear in the so-called Quantum Vacuum - at a micro level this is very well confirmed by observation.

However (as John keeps pointing out) it is a ridiculous abuse of language to call the Quantum Vacuum "nothing" - this so called "empty space" is teeming with energy and an almost infinite number of particles.  Even if the existence of the Universe is a consequence of the laws of physics (and you can always formulate a set of laws of physics that "require" the universe to exist) this does not, and can not, address the question of WHY the laws of physics have the form that they do.  Hawking would suggest that anthropic selection answers this but that's really begging the question.

Further Question: Does changing the very beginning of time and space from a single point to a less than distinct point really change the Big Bang’s occurrence from an external causality to itself?

Response: No it's a mathematical "trick" with no real philosophical implications, though of course it might look as though it had. As St Augustine realised in the 5th century, the "need" for God does not depend on whether there is a first moment in time - but why is there time at all? You can always mathematically re-scale "time" so that it has no beginning and re-write the laws of physics appropriately.

As noted above, no-one knows how QM and GR reconcile. QM doesn't like singularities. Until there is much clearer empirical evidence the scope for clever speculation is endless, and Hawking is very clever and certainly offers deep insights (which may or may not be correct) at a physical level.  But he is no theologian/philosopher and doesn't seem to understand that his theories have nothing to do with the existence of God at all.

Why is God important? How can I hear God?

I desperately need someone who is  scientist to describe why God is important?  And how I can "hear" this God?

Response:  God is (by definition) the Ultimate Creator and we have good reason to believe that God is the Loving Ultimate Creator.

If the Loving Ultimate Creator is not "important" it's hard to know what could be "important" - especially since God's love extends to you and me and those that we love and care about.

Hearing God is not straightforward. After all even "hearing" the Big Bang requires highly sophisticated equipment and deep theoretical reflection. Prayer, reading the Bible (not as an encyclopaedia but as something more like a spiritual "laboratory notebook"), listening to others and silence are all important.

We wish you well in your quest.
Seek and you will find.