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.