Wednesday, August 31, 2005

SOL #1.5 Evidence (end of chapter one)

This appeal to evidence, however, is not as strong as we normally think it is. For in examining these debates, the key is clearly how 'evidence' is interpreted. Evidence in and of itself – that is, the different observations and measurements collected by scientists in their daily work – is not unambiguous.

A good historical demonstration of this ambiguity is the parallel investigations carried out by Priestley and Lavoisier at the end of the nineteenth century. The experiments that each scientist made were broadly the same, as were the factual results. However, Priestley took the evidence as confirming the existence of phlogiston, whereas for Lavoisier the evidence was taken as confirming the existence of oxygen. Each scientist operated within a different overall pattern of understanding, and that governed their interpretation of the relevant data.

This is not a particularly controversial point. Indeed, it is now commonly accepted - the current expression is that 'there are no uninterpreted facts'. There is a tension between experimental data and the governing interpretation used to understand that data, and the two are engaged in a continual iterative dance of cross-fertilisation, interpretation and translation. It is not simply that a particular governing understanding is the best explanation of the available evidence, nor that singular facts govern the nature of the understanding employed. Instead there is a dialectical process of interpretation, where one side continuously informs and is informed by the other.


The debate between the different schools in evolutionary biology - those associated with Dawkins, and those associated with Stephen Jay Gould - has become notorious for its ill-temper, often played out on the pages of the New York Review of Books. Yet clearly there is much on which the two different schools of thought agree on: the acceptance of a Darwinian account of evolution, including natural selection, variation and differential reproductive success. Unlike the creation scientists both sides accept that the earth has existed for billions of years, that there never has been nor ever will be any 'special creation' of species outside of their development in evolutionary terms, and also that the progress of science genuinely improves our knowledge of the world.

Yet just as clearly each side thinks that something very important is at stake - that the other side has got something seriously wrong. Which serves as a clue that perhaps the main difference between them lies in different answers to the serious questions - that, in fact, the principal disagreements between them lie in different overarching frameworks of understanding. From the atheistic Dawkins, via the humanistic Gould, through to the conservative Christian creation scientists - clearly there is a wide variety of opinion on the serious questions.


Consider the various transitions in the history of physics - from the Ptolemaic, geocentric view of the world, to the Newtonian system, through to the modern understanding derived from Einstein and quantum physics. In each case the dominant understanding had certain other beliefs 'built in'.

Ptolemy assumed that the earth was the centre of the cosmos; that things had a particular nature (earth, air, fire, water) and that those things tended to their 'natural' place - with the earth at the centre, which explained why things fell down to earth - and heaven beyond the stars. Humans were given the central role in a cosmic drama. Hell was beneath our feet, and very hot; heaven was above the sky, and was ethereal.

In contrast to this, Newton described the world as a mechanism, rather like a clock; it was a machine that had been set in motion by a divine creator, but that since that first impetus the clock had proceeded according to certain discernible laws - of motion, gravity and the like. That machine operated within a framework of absolute space and time. In the Newtonian system, we are essentially machines, composed of various parts interweaving mechanically in a closed system that would inevitably run down.

After Einstein, this 'clockwork' model has been rejected, along with the idea of 'absolute' space and time. Time speeds up or slows down according to where you are in relation to what you want to measure. The only constant is the speed of light. In this contemporary understanding, our view of physical reality cannot be divorced from how we look at it - if we look for one thing, then we cannot find another. We are still working through the implications of that development.

A natural question might be: will there be another Einstein to come along in a few hundred years to provide another understanding, a different constant?


What I would like to emphasize isn't simply that science has a revolutionary history, although that is something that needs always to be borne in mind, but that what drives the debate - what underlies the differences between the different accounts - is something deeper than questions of evidence or rationality. These questions of evidence and rationality are conventional scientific questions - what the ancient Greeks called 'physics'. What lies behind them is something called 'metaphysics' - from the word 'meta-', meaning 'after' or 'above'. Metaphysics, then, is how we can start to describe the domain of our serious questions. In each case there have been claims made that 'this is how things are' - with consequent metaphysical implications also claimed.

So when Richard Dawkins writes that '…our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but… it is a mystery no longer because it is solved' he is not simply describing a scientific conclusion, he is also advocating a particular metaphysical stance, a particular view of what science is and what it can provide. That metaphysical stance can be described and underpins the difference between the two schools of thought in evolutionary biology. For Dawkins is a staunch believer in the ability of science to provide for human progress, whereas Gould sees the relationship between science and society as a much more complex system.

Interestingly, that brief glance at the Newtonian model throws up an interesting parallel, for Dawkins also sees the universe as essentially a clockwork mechanism. Ironically he has a much deeper agreement with Paley - the person who originally conceived of the 'watchmaker' argument for the existence of God - than he seems ready to contemplate, for whilst Dawkins tweaks the model to provide his 'blind' watchmaker, the idea that the universe is best understood as a watch (ie as a Newtonian system; DNA succession tumbling down the generations like the mechanisms driven by a watchspring) is common to both. Dawkins' account of evolution is thoroughly Newtonian in its metaphysical assumptions.


Yet the question remains: is Dawkins correct? If we cannot reach a final conclusion based on logic or purely evidential considerations, can we yet determine an answer to that question, either positively or negatively?

In other words, just how it is that we choose between different understandings?

Some comments on SOL

Ian Glendinning has provided some comments on chapter 1 of my book here.

go read :)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

SOL #1.4: Logic

Humans are rational animals, that is, we are creatures that can apply a mental faculty to the understanding of events and actions. This has its roots in the very biological need to perceive the necessary consequences of certain actions: IF I put my hand in the fire, THEN I will be burnt. IF I go to the waterhole at dusk, THEN I might be able to kill one of the animals drinking there, AND I might gain some food. This faculty, this capacity to reason, is indeed a marvellous attribute.

In the paragraph above, I capitalised certain words: IF, THEN, AND. Computer programmers might recognise them as logical commands – in other words, they are commands which a computer can execute. The computer knows what to do when a program includes such terms – that is how it has been set up and programmed – and the computer will happily pursue such commands for as long as the person doing the programming wishes it to. When I was younger I learnt how to program computers using the language BASIC, which included terms like these. One of the most important elements in the programming was the IF…THEN command. This allowed the computer to make ‘choices’ according to certain established criteria. Perhaps the program wanted to ask the observer to press a certain key to indicate ‘yes’ and another key to indicate ‘no’ as an answer to the question that the computer was asking. The programmer could then write IF (keypress = ‘Y’) THEN do one thing, but IF (keypress = ‘N’) THEN do another thing. Of course, my language there was a little inaccurate – the computer is not making a real choice – it is simply following the predetermined path laid down by the programmer. The programmer wanted to give the user of a program a choice at this point, and has instructed the computer to react to that choice in the appropriate way.

What I would like to bring out from this example is the way that reason follows a set pattern – we even have the phrase ‘a chain of reasoning’ to talk about such patterns – and a computer program is a very clear example of the pattern in which reasoning functions. This pattern which reason follows has its own name: logic, and reason and logic are essentially linked. Logic is the study of these patterns or chains of reasoning, and the usefulness of logic lies in the way that it can show how some chains work (i.e. are ‘valid’) and some chains do not. To go back to the example of a computer program, the line of programming could read: IF (keypress = ‘Y’) THEN do such and such ELSE IF (keypress = ‘Y’) THEN do some other thing. When the computer follows the program and gets to this point then it will become stuck and ‘crash’. This is because the command has told it to do two different things at the same time. If the user presses the Y key then both sides of the argument are satisfied – and the computer will have to do both!


Another way of thinking about this same point is to talk about consistency. In the example of bad programming above, the source of the difficulty was that ‘Y’ was given as the ‘keypress’ in both cases. One or other should have been ‘N’ – or, even, ‘any other keypress’. This line of programming was therefore inconsistent – it was asking the computer to do two different things if the keypress was ‘Y’. Let’s go back to the waterhole – imagine a brain set up like a computer, with instruction sets that stated: IF it rained yesterday THEN go to waterhole today at dusk, but also, IF it rained yesterday, gather fruit from trees. In this situation, the person concerned is given two incompatible instructions – gather fruit or go to the waterhole? Chances are the poor individual will just stay where they are, unable to reconcile the contradiction, until some other impulse takes over and the situation changes.

To put this in the language of logic, the program at this point is invalid, and in computer programming to call a program ‘invalid’ is to say that there is something wrong with it, that it has a ‘bug’. Although the situation gets much more complicated with today’s software, in essence this is what happens when any computer crashes – it is trying to carry out commands that don’t ‘make sense’. The millennium bug caused some concern a little while ago – this was, in principle, just such an example of invalid programming. Computers were set up to recognise dates by only the last two numbers in the year – so 1999 was simply ‘99’, for example. This was because the computers were programmed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the assumption was made (either consciously or unconsciously) that they would be changed before the year 2000 came along. So, in the programming, a certain assumption was built in – all years would be 19xx, where the xx was the date supplied by the user. The millennium bug happened because this assumption became untrue from the year 2000 onwards. Consequences followed from this mistake, which at some point were believed to be on the scale of a minor apocalypse, although in practice we were spared such a judgement.


So logic is really a way of working out if something makes sense, either in terms of an argument being able to follow on properly (like a computer program) or in terms of one thing being consistent with another. Consider the following, which is something of a classic:

1. All men are mortal
2. Socrates is a man
3. Socrates is mortal.

This is an argument: that is, it is the assertion of one item (3) as a consequence of the assertion of two other items (1 & 2). It is saying: because 1 & 2, therefore 3. In some ways it is a similar argument to a computer program which uses IF…THEN language. IF 1 & 2, THEN 3. As it happens, this argument is a valid argument, and it is worth unpicking why it is valid, and precisely what it means to say that the argument is valid.

The first item, 1, defines an attribute of men, stating that they are mortal. The second item, 2, states that Socrates belongs to the class of men. The third item draws the logical consequence of these two items: Socrates is a man and therefore shares the attribute that all men share – mortality. As such, Socrates is mortal. To say that this argument is valid is to say that the conclusion follows from the premises, that it makes sense. If it were a computer program you would say that it didn’t have any bugs in it. In this argument, the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises (philosophers say that the conclusion can be deduced from the premises) – in other words it has to be the case that, IF 1 & 2 are true, THEN 3 also has to be true. There are no situations in which 1 & 2 are true, and 3 is not. This is what is meant by a valid argument: that the logic is sound, there are no ‘bugs’.


However, although interesting, this is not ultimately very exciting. This is because logic and valid argument tell us nothing about truth, or how things are in the world. Consider the following adaptation of the above argument:

1. All men are born with two heads
2. Socrates is a man
3. Socrates was born with two heads.

In terms of the logic of this argument, there is nothing to choose between this argument and the original; they are both equally valid. Yet the first argument says something true, the second says something that is not true. This is because logic is not concerned with truth or falsehood, but only with consistency and the validity of arguments. The difference between these two arguments – one says that all men are mortal, the other says that all men are born with two heads – is not something that logic can be employed to decide between. Whether men are born with two heads or not is not a question about the validity of a particular argument but about what is the case – is it true that all men are born with two heads? In the normal course of events, this is a question that would be answered by looking at the evidence of our senses – have we tended to see men always born with two heads? Are one-headed men carrying wounds where one head was taken away at birth?

In order to establish the truth in this situation, then, we would need to employ a different tool of our understanding. This is a crucial point to bear in mind: logic is a tool, it is not the source of all enlightenment. Think of the tools in a tool-box; there is a hammer, a chisel, a hacksaw, a spanner. It would not be appropriate to use a spanner to separate a plank of wood into two halves – there you should use a saw. In a similar way, although logic is a wonderful and essential part of human life, it is not the only tool that we have when we are reflecting upon the true nature of our world – it must be used in the correct place, in the correct way, and not elsewhere.


So can we use logic to determine which account is the best, between Dawkins, Gould and all the others? Well, it will certainly assist (it might point out some self-contradictions in an argument), but on its own it is not much help. That is for the simple reason that any position you like can be made logically coherent, if a person is prepared to take the consequences. As pointed out above, something can be perfectly logically valid and still be untrue (Socrates has two heads). Consider: although I have never met someone who believes that the earth is flat, I am assured that there is a 'flat-earth society', whose members believe that the earth is not a sphere in orbit around the sun, but is instead a flat disc, with edges, and that it is possible to fall off the edge. You might think that it is impossible to make such a belief consistent, that it is impossible to be a logically consistent believer in a flat earth. Yet what arguments would be persuasive? Pictures of the earth as a globe could be fabricated; stories of travel around the world might be fables to lure the unwary; various physical tests could be written off as optical illusions. Even if it were possible to take such a believer out into space so that they could see for themselves that the earth is a globe - "Look! See! It IS round!!" - that would not necessarily succeed. The believer could say "I have been drugged; you have set up a theme park providing this remarkable illusion. My eyes see a globe, but I do not believe my eyes…" And so on.

You can lead the horse to water but you cannot make it drink. So our analysis must shift to the second of our standard criteria: questions of evidence. Even if we cannot reach a logically conclusive argument, we could at least gather together as much relevant evidence as possible and then let people make their own conclusions - and surely, there aren't many people prepared to place logical consistency ahead of the straightforward evidence of their senses?

SOL #1.3: Gould, Intelligent Design, Creationism

The first set of objections is associated with the name of the late Stephen Jay Gould, and this approach goes by the name of 'punctuated equilibrium'. It should be stressed that - as Richard Dawkins himself has written, "the theory of punctuated equilibrium lies firmly within the neo-Darwinian synthesis." The difference between Dawkins and Gould is rather technical, but illuminating nonetheless. 'Orthodox' neo-Darwinism - by which I mean that understanding described above, associated with Dawkins - asserts that the pressure which natural selection exerts is a gradual process; that species change in small amounts over vast stretches of time; and that this selection pressure operates through the genetic inheritance passed on from parent to child. Gould disputes this emphasis upon the gene - for him, not only is there a significant amount of luck involved in inheritance, but the pressures of natural selection bear down upon the individuals, not just their genes. Put differently Gould disputes the 'genetic determinacy' associated with the orthodox neo-Darwinian account. For Gould, much of Dawkins' understanding is accepted, but Gould's outlook allows more room for random chance (e.g. asteroid impacts), and also a slightly different notion of what science can and cannot achieve. For Gould science is not immune to cultural influences, and there is much in human history that cannot be sufficiently explained by reference to natural selection, or indeed, by any scientific outlook. Gould's writings take much from the realms of literature, history and religion - and are much richer as a result.

The second set of objections is one which is presently gaining ground in the United States of America, and comes in two varieties - 'creation science' and 'intelligent design'. Put simply, these understandings of the universe derive from a more or less literal rendering of chapter one of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, so that the source of the diversity of life as we experience it is explained as a choice by God. Depending on the particular type of creation science advocated, the earth is seen to be only a few thousand years old, and the variation of life experienced is explained by describing the inexhaustible creativity of God. Intelligent design is a slightly different account, although it shares some assumptions; it accepts that the earth has existed for billions of years, but sees the change in different species - and most particularly the development of human intelligence - as something which results from a direct intervention in the universe by God. These approaches argue that the intelligent cause can be identified with the Judaeo-Christian deity, the 'God of the Bible'. Their understanding grants authority to a religious text and a tradition of interpretation of that text, and they point out the various problems with the theory of evolution, which, on their accounting, leave room for that traditional religious commitment. The creation scientists go one step beyond the intelligent design theorists, in that their tradition of interpreting the Bible requires a strictly literal rendering of the account of creation given in the Book of Genesis. They reject the notions of natural selection, evolution, and indeed the generally accepted timescale provided by modern science, considering that the universe is only some few thousand years old.

How are we to determine the truth between these different accounts? The conventional view - and I imagine the one that Professor Dawkins would advocate - would be to examine each point of view and ask: does this point of view make sense, is it logically consistent? And then ask: what is the evidence for each point of view? Which point of view is best supported?

So let us look at logic and evidence.

Monday, August 29, 2005

I saw a leaf fall

Bank Holiday Monday in the UK. It's been a big weekend, so I take some time off, and (having spent the morning overhauling the garage, amongst other things) I sit and watch my two young boys splash in the paddling pool. I have a beer in my hand, there is clear blue sky, and I am sitting in the shade looking up at the leaves of the tree on the front lawn. A moment of contentment and contemplation.

I once read that every leaf on a tree catches sunlight. Which I thought remarkable; and then I considered how if a leaf doesn't catch any sunlight, it can't be doing the tree any good in terms of processing the energy, which is why the leaves grow where they do. There is an explanation available.

Then I saw a leaf fall which wasn't green, it was a sickly yellow. It wasn't catching enough sunlight to live.

(I sometimes feel a bit like that leaf, but afternoons like this get my chlorophyll working again.)

And I remember that the explanation doesn't really make much difference. The tree is beautiful. It is still remarkable how each leaf catches the sunshine; that this is how it all hangs together.

In Remarks on Colour, §317, Wittgenstein writes: "When someone who believes in God looks around him and asks 'Where did everything that I see come from?' 'Where did everything come from?', he is not asking for a (causal) explanation; and the point of his question is that it is the expression of such a request. Thus, he is expressing an attitude towards all explanations."

In other words: this is meaningful. Asking the question is an expression of its meaning, not a query about the meaning.

Ricky Fitts: It's like God's looking right at you, just for a second, and if you're careful you can look right back.
Jane Burnham: And what do you see?
Ricky Fitts: Beauty.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

New window

Yesterday, the Archdeacon of Colchester, Ven. Annette Cooper, solemnly dedicated a new window in West Mersea Parish Church, to commemorate the Island's Fishermen and Oystermen. (Thanks to Pat Kirby for the photo)

Soli Deo Gloria!

The political Jesus

(today’s sermon)

Simon – leading disciple – declares that Jesus is the Son of God; and then Jesus calls him Peter – Rocky! – ‘on this rock I shall build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it’.

Peter, duly renamed, feels great.

Yet within moments, when Jesus starts to explain what it meant to be the Son of God – that there was suffering involved - Peter tries to talk him out of it.

“Get thee behind me Satan!”

Any chance of Peter’s ego being too large vanishes.

What did he get wrong? The problem is that Peter was using the Son of God language in the way that parts of the Old Testament sees the Messiah – a Son of David, who would restore Israel, fulfilling all the promises made by God. This was the secularisation of God’s intentions. God called Israel to be the holy people, the ones who would demonstrate justice and God’s own nature to the wider world. Not to be another country, squabbling and warring over who shall be in control. And Jesus was the fulfilment of God’s plans for Israel because in him God’s call is answered. Christ, perfectly obedient, displays to the world what God is calling humanity to be.

And it doesn’t involve him sitting on a throne in Jerusalem.

So does this mean that Jesus wasn’t political? And that – as Christians – we shouldn’t pay too much attention to the political process? Not at all. Jesus’ ministry could not have been more political.

Consider how it begins: after being baptised, and tempted by Satan, Jesus goes back to his hometown, goes into the synagogue, reads from Isaiah and declares the Jubilee! So: all those who had become rich, who had accumulated land – sorry guys, time to give it all up. Whereas all those who had lost their land, who had got into debt – Hallelujah! Redemption Song!

It’s difficult to imagine anything more directly political than taking wealth away from rich people and giving it to poor people; yet that was the heart and soul of Jesus’ ministry – as it is of the Bible as a whole. “I am the God who called you out of Egypt” - out of slavery. That is still the promise which God makes.

This is not because wealth is itself sinful. It’s that the concentration of wealth in few hands causes, inevitably, other people to fall by the wayside. It’s the story of Lazarus at the gate, which should surely cause us all to tremble.

So why isn’t Jesus wanting to take that throne in Jerusalem? For the simple reason that Christ knows it isn’t force which is required. It isn’t a change of political system that is required. It is the change in people’s hearts. Think of the language of the leaven in the bread; or the salt that has lost its savour. It is, for Christians, never a question of changing the system, so much as of changing the people within the system. First we learn what it means to love one another, then we can seek to express that love through a political arrangement. The Christian calling is to live out a different life, one structured by the values of the Kingdom of God.

And that has profound political implications.

Those implications need not be headline grabbing. They need not, for example, be consumed with the exact whys and wherefores, the rights and wrongs, of what is going on in Iraq. They are, instead, very concrete, down to earth and specific. How will you relate to your neighbour? That may easily have political implications, but the roots of the behaviour lie not in a concern with power, but in a concern with love. We are called to follow the way of love, to love one another as He loved us; and this will have consequences.

Consider the story of André Trocmé. Trocmé was a pastor in central France in the middle of the twentieth century, at a place called Le Chambon. When France was conquered by the Nazis, and the Vichy regime started to implement the anti-semitic legislation required, Trocmé stood up in front of his congregation and told them that he was not going to co-operate with the state. He was not going to violently resist, but nor could he simply stand by and watch violence be done to his neighbour. And so – with the full and active support of his congregations, Trocmé established a system which enabled the hiding of hundreds of Jewish people, especially children, until the darkness could pass, and that system was destroyed. Trocmé risked his life for his neighbour, and it was a matter of sheer luck that he wasn’t executed. We are not in that situation; not yet – although if the anti-Islamic tendencies strengthen in the coming years then we must be clear about what the Christian faith calls us to do – to defend all those made in the image of God from actions which would blaspheme that image, and oppress or persecute our brothers and sisters.

This is the nature of the life to which we are called. And this is what Peter couldn’t quite understand. Peter sought the implementation by force of the right answers. And certainly, the forcible implementation of a Jubilee would have represented the establishment of justice – for a time. For the truth is that the use of force perpetuates and legitimates the use of force. Jesus’ way is a different path. It is a path which leads through death.

Peter cannot cope with the idea that Jesus might die. And it is precisely this fear of death which provides the authorities with their power. They trust that, because they have the ultimate power of killing those who oppose them, that they will be able to get their way. That might will make right. Yet what does it profiteth a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul? It is this fear of death that Jesus overcomes in the resurrection. The resurrection is the single most powerful political statement ever made – it dethrones all the powers that be, and exposes their nature.

Recently I came across a wonderful summary of the New Testament. It reduced it all to two short and succinct phrases. The first was: If you don’t love, you die. In other words, we are made in the image of God, and that means that we are made to love one another. If we don’t love each other, our soul begins to shrivel and wither, and we make ourselves less than human, we deface the image of Christ within. If we do not love, we die.

The second phrase was: if you love, they’ll kill you. In other words, acting according to our true nature and loving our neighbour will lead to opposition and conflict with the powers of the world. If we love, then we shall be persecuted. This is the way of the cross. This is the path which Jesus trod, and it is what we are called to follow. There is a glorious liberty about this path – it is the way of life, life in all its fullness, and everything else is stale and shallow by comparison. But it will lead to conflict with the values of the world.

Peter himself came to understand this, and at the end of his life, after a long and fruitful ministry, he too was crucified. Not many of us will be called to witness to the truths of our faith to that extent. But it remains the calling that every Christian must be prepared for. For we are not children of this world, we have a different Lord. May his grace surround us as we walk in the path, and give us the strength to take up our cross, and follow Him.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

SOL #1.2: the claim of evolution

Dawkins draws a remarkable conclusion from this approach. His conclusion is that science can replace religion; that religion has been superseded by science; that science can answer the questions which were once answered by religion. Consider these comments:

'[now that we have the theory of evolution we] no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man?' (from 'The Selfish Gene' )

'…our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but… it is a mystery no longer because it is solved.' (from 'The Blind Watchmaker' )

'I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence' (from 'The Blind Watchmaker' , his emphasis).

Dawkins is here asserting that the theory of evolution is able to provide the only answers that are viable in our present age; that, in the words of a fellow zoologist whom he quotes with approval: "The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question [What is Man?] before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely" .

In making this argument, Dawkins' writings are congruous with much 'popular science' writing. Paul Davies, for example, claims that ‘In my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion’ . Stephen Hawking's famous conclusion to 'A Brief History of Time' ends with the dramatic claim that if we found a complete physical theory of the universe, "…it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would know the mind of God". According to ‘The Independent’ newspaper: ‘The real priests of the future are scientists, as they have been since the Industrial Revolution’ .


Dawkins refers to 'deep problems' or 'mysteries'. These problems are the ones where, historically, Christianity has offered the answers that our culture has accepted. Other cultures have had more or less different answers, bound up in each case with religions that are more or less different from Christianity. Yet in each case the character of the answers provided are religious - they engage with us at the most profound level possible, and the answers given then shape the wider culture. Let us agree to call these questions of meaning, purpose and self-understanding "serious questions", for they are concerned with the seriousness of life. Dawkins' claim, then, is that science gives the best answer yet to our 'serious questions'.

I believe that this is profoundly mistaken. I believe that no scientific answer could possibly be an answer to our serious questions. In my view, the process by which an answer becomes a 'scientific' answer (in the sense that Dawkins requires) necessarily stops that answer applying to our serious questions.

Clearly, I have a significant task of explanation on my hands.


So what is this conception in which Dawkins places such trust? In brief, it is an explanation of biological complexity, which relies upon only a few simple axioms to account for the diversity of life as we presently experience it.

The central idea is that of natural selection. If we consider the history of animal breeding - for example, with horses or dogs - then it is clear that humans have changed the characteristics of various breeds, in line with their own preferences. In these instances there is a human being (or a succession of human beings) acting as a selector of different traits within a breed which causes the breeds to change over time. Darwin employed this as the ground for a metaphor - that, over time, nature acted in the same fashion as these human selectors - and that there is therefore something called natural selection.

Where human selection was driven by human preferences, natural selection is driven by one single 'preference' or constraint - the ability to reproduce, to have offspring. The idea is that in any given context there are limited resources available and that different species - and different individuals of the same species - will compete to gain those resources. Those individuals and species which succeed in gaining those scarce resources will be able to have more offspring, and, over time, will dominate and drive their competitors to extinction.

For Darwin, the 'unit of selection' was unknown. That means simply that Darwin didn't know how the ability to compete was passed on from parent to offspring. This is crucial to the theory, for if it could be shown that the ability to compete is not passed on from parent to child, then the theory breaks down - for there is nothing for natural selection to act upon. However, following twentieth century developments in molecular biology, we have a much better understanding of what this unit of selection might be - we call it the gene. Although there is still much that is unknown about the ways in which the gene affects the overt characteristics of individuals and species, it seems fairly clear that the genetic inheritance is responsible for a great deal of the success or failure of individuals and species within a particular environment. This is the 'neo-Darwinian synthesis' - a synthesis which combines the Darwinian ideas of natural selection and inherited characteristics, with the science of DNA. It is this synthesis which Dawkins articulated and popularized so successfully in 'The Selfish Gene'.


There is a great deal of evidence which supports this synthesis, which recommends it to us as a good account of how different species have come to be as they are. To begin with, there is the question of timescale. We know from research in geology and astrophysics that the earth has existed for a very long time - some four and a half billion years or so. This provides evolutionary theory with a sufficiently broad canvas, within which natural selection can operate.

Secondly, there is the evidence from palaeontology - the study of fossils. We can tell from examination of rock strata that certain layers of rock were laid down at certain periods of time (the Pleiocene, the Cambrian and so on), and in those strata there are fossils of all sorts of different life-forms. The most popular of those life-forms are, of course, the dinosaurs, who existed until some 65 million years ago, and whose demise - probably as the result of an asteroid impact with the earth, although that is disputed - allowed mammals to become the dominant species on our planet. So we have both a sufficient timescale within which evolution can take place, and we also have evidence of a wide variety of life existing during those different periods.

In addition to this, through the study of DNA we now have a very clear idea of how characteristics can be inherited from parent to child, and through mathematical studies, we can model the distribution of particular characteristics in a population. There is a wealth of detailed evidence to support this understanding.

For Dawkins, then, all of life can be explained by the story of evolution, the slow step by step climbing of 'mount improbable' by the genetic line of inheritance. Natural selection - and only natural selection - is both a necessary and sufficient explanation for the existence and nature of life as we know it.

Does this mean that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is incontestable as an account of human nature? Not so fast.

Friday, August 26, 2005

SOL #1.1: Beginning from Richard Dawkins

Chapter One - The story of creation

"Very intelligent and well-educated people believe in the story of creation in the Bible, while others hold it as proven false, and the grounds of the latter are well known to the former." (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §336)

"The popular scientific books by our scientists aren't the outcome of hard work, but are written when they are resting on their laurels." (Wittgenstein, 1942)

"We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched." (Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.52)


I read this in 'The Independent' newspaper of 20 February, 2003. Richard Dawkins is responding to questions sent in by readers of the newspaper.

Did you have a Pauline conversion to atheism? Or did your beliefs evolve more slowly over time? What changed your mind?
(Adam Elford, Northampton)

I had a normal, decent Anglican upbringing, which is to say that I was never brainwashed as I might have been had I been brought up in another faith.

I toyed with atheism from the age of about nine, originally because I worked out that, of all the hundreds of religions in the world, it was the sheerest accident that I was brought up Christian. They couldn't all be right, so maybe none of them was. I later reverted to a kind of pantheism when I realised the shattering complexity and beauty of the living world. Then, around the age of 16, I first understood that Darwinism provides an explanation big enough and elegant enough to replace gods. I have been an atheist ever since.

If, when you die, you find yourself unexpectedly at the Pearly Gates, what would you say to St Peter?
(Mark Richards, by e-mail)

OK, I was wrong. But I was wrong for the right reasons. Those guys in there were right. But just look at their reasons.

Richard Dawkins is possibly the most prominent atheist in England. He is the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He has written many books about the nature and implications of evolutionary theory, books marked by their lucidity and intellectual verve. He is clearly a very intelligent man with a gift for communicating difficult ideas in an accessible way. Unfortunately, almost everything that he has ever said about Christianity is false.


This is not entirely Professor Dawkins' fault. His understanding of Christianity is a very common one. Yet, as I am sure that Professor Dawkins' would agree, the fact that many people hold such a common understanding does not mean that it is the correct understanding. As the joke has it: a hundred thousand lemmings cannot be wrong.


My point is not that Dawkins believes Christianity is about believing one thing, whereas in truth Christianity is about believing something else. No: although beliefs have their place, my disagreement with the Professor is more basic than this. Dawkins - in common with many people on both sides of the Christian/atheist divide - considers that the defining characteristic of a Christian is the acceptance of certain beliefs. This I deny. Christianity is not about belief in certain propositions, it is about the orientation of your life.


Dawkins has a very distinct conception of what sort of thing religious faith is. He writes in 'The Selfish Gene':

‘Another member of the religious meme complex is called faith. It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational enquiry.’

In a footnote to this passage he expands:

‘But what, after all, is faith? It is a state of mind that leads people to believe something – it doesn’t matter what – in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway… I don’t want to argue that the things in which a particular individual has faith are necessarily daft. They may or may not be. The point is that there is no way of deciding whether they are, and no way of preferring one article of faith over another, because evidence is explicitly eschewed.’

Dawkins goes on to say:

'…faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness… Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings… What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb.'

According to the Dawkins conception, then, faith is ‘blind’, and not open to rational debate. Justifiable beliefs must rest upon a rational account of the world, where there is recourse to publicly available evidence and harmony with our discoveries and experience. In other words, they must be scientific answers.

Faith and science are therefore the same sort of thing. They are both beliefs about the world. They have the same logical status. The difference between them is one of rational legitimacy. Religious beliefs cannot be supported by appeals to reason or evidence. Scientific beliefs can. Therefore, scientific beliefs are superior to religious beliefs.

This is the key mistake, for religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are not at all the same sort of thing.

The Seriousness of Life

‘If what we do now makes no difference in the end then all the seriousness of life is done away with’

That's Wittgenstein, responding to why Origen was considered a heretic for believing in universal salvation.

It's also the title of the book I'm writing. So when I put extracts onto the blog I'll title them 'SOL #1' etc - normally with something else as well, to indicate the content.

First example following shortly...

The MoQ is real!

Or at least, there are real people involved in it. Just come back from my first human conversation (as opposed to electronic) about the MoQ, with Ian Glendinning, who dropped by. Constructive conversation about some ways to take things forward with practical steps, possibly including a joint paper.

One thing that occurs to me (which may explain my interest to any Christians reading): the MoQ describes the world, using philosophical terms that correspond roughly to the world, the flesh and the soul - and it offers a way of integrating that language with the world of science. Something worth exploring, IMHO.

A sense of proportion

Good pithy statement of view by Father Jake on the presenting issue here with which I have great sympathy.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

For my friends

Hello my friend.

You and I have had many conversations in this last decade, for we share significant interests - not least an enjoyment of 'popular science'. Yet I have so far been unable to explain how and why it is that I see no conflict between science and my Christian faith; or, to make that point more strongly, why it is that I consider my Christian faith to include and perfect science - to be a more sophisticated and complete understanding than science could ever offer.

For you, things are different. You find it impossible to believe the sorts of things that (you think) Christians are required to believe, even though you are not hostile to religions in general. You enjoy debating religious questions, many of your best friends are Christians, and yet you cannot see a way to accept Christianity without at the same time surrendering your intellectual integrity. For surely Christianity is historically discredited - a threadbare stitching together of superstition and supernatural nonsense, compromised by papal arrogance and protestant bigotry, implicated in wholesale slaughter and the denial of our deepest human values. Centrally, Christianity and so many Christians seem transparently unreasonable, both in belief and behaviour. You do not consider it an accident that Galileo was condemned, and deep down, I suspect you think that those Christians whom you respect are worthy of respect in so far as they are less whole-hearted in their faith; they are 'liberal' and accommodating to the modern world.

I do not deny that, as a Christian reflecting on Christian history, there is much cause for shame and repentance. Yet I would like to explain why I do not abandon my faith - to retell the story of Christian history in such a way that the causes of such evil are laid bare, leaving, in consequence, a clearer understanding of what Christianity actually is - and, moreover, a clearer understanding of science, that pattern of thinking with which Christianity has been struggling like Cain with Abel.

I can summarise our differences quite easily: you consider Christianity to be, at root, built around certain supernatural beliefs. I deny this - strongly - for I consider Christianity to be, at root, built around certain mystical practices, which bear fruit in a holy life. My hope that I can explain Christianity to you is founded on the belief that we would both recognise such a holy life when we saw it.

To justify these comments is the endeavour of the book that you hold in your hand. I have come to realise that I need this large canvas on which to paint my portrait of Christian faith. As a portrait it reflects my own understandings and emphases; it is a sketch, not an exhaustive analysis. I have deliberately tried to use broad and bold brushstrokes and not to become distracted by academic detail, for both practical and principled reasons. As will become clear, I do not believe that the academic method is appropriate in all forms of inquiry, indeed, it can be radically counter-productive. Nor is this book meant to be a 'final answer' to our questions - on the contrary, it is an invitation to conversation, a conversation at a deeper level than many of our favourite 'popular science' writers have shown themselves able to achieve. Perhaps one day I will have the opportunity to develop a more rigorous 'summa', but that is not in my hands - if it is God's will, then he will 'make it so'. In the meantime, I offer this brief essay to you, with my love and prayers.

The first two chapters of my book can be downloaded here

I'm going to write it on-line, in small chunks. Feeback welcome :o)

The loss that touches everything

Titus one nine pointed me to this paper from Walter Brueggemann (the great bible teacher, if you didn't know him already). Great stuff:

"The loss, now among us, that touches everything public and personal for everyone, conservative and liberal alike, includes:

• the failure of the old social fabric, now deeply in jeopardy;
• the failure of the old consensus of intellectual certitudes;
• the failure of old patterns of privilege and domination that we count on;
• the failure of economic viability--except for the privileged few--so that
"down-sizing" of claims and possibilities goes on everywhere.

So now we--together--must engage in what ancient Jews did in Babylon, and what ancient Christians did in Jerusalem and in Galilee: embrace the loss that is more than can be imagined. We are the people who know loss best because it is definitional in both our traditions. We are the people who know best what it is like to give up what is over. We are the ones who are entrusted with resources to help our communities and our society move beyond the loss.

Now, as then, there are some who engage in denial and nostalgia, imagining that not much is happening, that the loss is not deep, not permanent. . . except that

Jerusalem really was gone;
Jesus really was dead;
old patterns really are over: no denial; no nostalgia.

Now, as then, there are some who engage in fantasy and in irresponsible private actions, out of touch with social reality. But then--get this!--some, in the loss of Jerusalem, and some, in the death of Jesus, engaged in massively buoyant acts of recommitment to the future. It is that massive, buoyant act of commitment to the future that is our proper agenda and our proper topic. And here I reflect with you on that agenda."

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The religion of metaphysics

As you may be aware, I spend too much time arguing philosophy at a place called MD, stemming from my falling in love with the book 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' in my late teens. I've posted a few times about it (they're the really long ones that don't get read. This'll be another).

There was an academic conference at Liverpool University recently, filmed by a crew from the BBC, attended by Robert Pirsig (author of ZMM) and convened by Anthony McWatt, who had just been awarded his PhD for work on Pirsig's 'Metaphysics of Quality'. However, it turns out that one of the papers for the conference was a hoax. See here.

This makes me wonder whether all the time and effort that I have put into the MoQ over the last few years is worthwhile (not the first time I've wondered that). Grounds for doubt are:
- the MoQ discussion group often functions like an evangelical cult;
- if you accept Wittgenstein (as I do) then what are you doing with 'metaphysics' anyway?
- haven't I got more important things to do?
- aren't there some severe flaws in Pirsig's presentation, which make the whole thing useless?

Well, sort of. Maybe I do need to scale back my involvement (or refocus it on a more academically significant outlet). But what this episode has crystallised for me is the way in which metaphysics functions as a religion (and this is where I reconcile the MoQ with Wittgenstein).

Consider the role of agriculture in a human economy. At the subsistence level agriculture simply is the economy, there is no distinction between the two. As an economy develops and become more affluent then part of the economy becomes non-agricultural and the economy can support other things. In our modern economy agriculture is a very small percentage of the whole economy, most economic activity is non agricultural and that is where most development takes place. Importantly, there is influence from the non-agricultural sector to the agricultural, for example scientific advances can help to increase crop yields. However, even though agriculture is a very small part of the economy, the economy cannot exist without agriculture, and remains dominated by it. Unless people are fed they will die, and the sophisticated economy supported by agriculture would collapse (which is something that elements of our culture appear to have forgotten). In this analogy, the whole economy represents our lived experience; the agricultural economy represents our bodily or instinctual nature; the non-agricultural sector represents our understanding, our theorising – our linguistic forms of life in all their variety (in MoQ language, the agricultural is the biological level, the non-agricultural is the social and intellectual).

As I understand Wittgenstein he is trying to argue that the mistake made by philosophers is to assume that the non-agricultural economy is all that there is, in other words he wants to resist the attempt to give a global explanation of our life. This is because these explanations are by their very nature linguistic products, products of our understanding, and are therefore irretrievably part of the ‘non-agricultural sector’. When Wittgenstein talks about a practice having ‘depth’ he is referring to the fact that some practices involve more of us than our conceptual understanding, they resonate with our bodily and instinctual nature. With his remarks on Frazer he is not arguing that all ritual is reducible to this instinct; he is trying to remind us of an inescapable part of ritual experience. Most importantly I don’t think for a moment that Wittgenstein would wish to deny the importance of conceptual reflection upon a ritual, or the way in which ritual can develop into liturgy through the benefit of prayerful consideration. Just as there is interaction between the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors of an economy, so too can there be interaction between our intellectual and instinctual natures.

One implication of this is that for Wittgenstein we will never be able to gain a complete understanding of our experience. This seems to me to be the basis of his ‘religious point of view’, for his position seems ultimately to be apophatic. The roots of our religious and moral life lie outside the realm of the conceptually understandable, and can never be fully integrated within a conceptual understanding. In other words, it is impossible to say anything final about God: ‘If such a book were written it would immediately explode the whole world’.

Wittgenstein is concerned to provoke a remembrance of the importance of agriculture within the economy; that is, of our bodily nature in our humanity. He is not concerned to say that all economic activity is agricultural, or that all our humanity is bodily. This bodiliness is far reaching in its scope: ‘the way in which animals are similar to and different from one another and in relation to man, the phenomena of death, birth and sexual life, in short, everything we observe around us, year in and year out’ . For Wittgenstein we cannot understand our language until we understand our embodiment, and it is in understanding our embodiment that we gain a proper understanding of our language. There are (of course) languages that are remote from our bodiliness – eg maths and logic – but for our purposes, in religion especially, we need to be reminded of what actually happens when religious language is used.

Wittgenstein saw the search for an overarching explanation as ultimately pathological. I understand him to be saying that metaphysics is the attempt to understand conceptually that which will always be beyond our understanding: an attempt by the non-agricultural sector to describe the agricultural sector in non-agricultural terms, to return to my analogy. What Wittgenstein is trying to do is to encourage us to recognise the primacy of our non-conceptually mediated bodily life in order that our language does not try and extend beyond itself. Metaphysics understood as a proclamation ‘this is how things are’ is inevitably totalising. Metaphysics understood as poetic ‘this is where I stand (and this is how it looks from here)’ is ultimately religious, a form of theology, and it allows for a proper recognition and validation of our human nature which does not prioritise ratiocination. It allows for the discovery of the new – it allows room for the Holy Spirit. It is in this sense that ‘all that philosophy can do is destroy idols’ for an idol is that which is put into the place of God, whether a golden calf or a metaphysical system.

By limiting, from within, what philosophy can actually do Wittgenstein allows room for our conceptions to be altered. It is the closed conceptual scheme which is idolatrous - and it is the closed conceptual scheme that the MoQ was slowly becoming. As Struan Hellier put it, some language was used pejoratively for those who hadn't 'found salvation' in the MoQ. But it is a perennial human tendency to seek salvation, to seek an understanding that gives peace to our hearts and minds. Trouble is, in a culture which has a terrible blind spot where it's own religion (Christianity) is concerned, that religious thirst will be slaked in stagnant water.

What can be salvaged? Or, what do I actually think the MoQ is worth? I would pick out two things that have stood the test of time for me. The first is the way that it integrates scientific understandings with wider artistic understandings. There are commonalities across the different fields, and I think the language of 'Quality' is an excellent unifying term. Secondly, the levels - how higher levels are built up out of the lower levels, that still makes profound sense to me. But other stuff, especially grounding it all on "experience" (pretending to be 'empirical') and using the phrase "Dynamic Quality" in a parallel way to how religious people use 'God' - all that is garbage, from my point of view.

Interesting (for me at least). I wonder where it'll go from here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Sayyid Qutb

Excellent paper to be found here describing the outlook of Sayyid Qutb, intellectual godfather to the <islamist terrorism.

What I need to ponder is why I agree with so much of his analysis.

Monday, August 22, 2005

A strange dream

Last night I dreamt that I was attending a Russian Orthodox service, and ++Rowan was censing the altar.

I've been thinking a lot about church identity recently, and read an interesting blog here by a priest who converted to orthodoxy. So the issues are circulating in my mind - what is it that I hold fast to as an Anglican? From where does my certainty or trust in the continuity of Anglican identity derive? Could I move to Rome or to the Orthodox?

The most important thing for me is the community. Over a thousand years of continuous worship in the place I serve. Whatever happens in the stratosphere, the sheep need a shepherd to feed them (for better or for worse). And Christ was always with the sheep, not the shepherds.

I also came across this recently: "If the Church of England were to fail, it would be found in my parish" (John Keble)

Now there is a man to emulate.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Mongolian Job (Self Preservation #1)

Ten years ago, five ex-Oxford students were sharing houses in London, and the prospect of middle age – mortgages, marriages, families - was a remote gleam on the horizon. But one of their number could see it coming, and suggested that a fund should be set up, as a sort of lifeboat once the seas of middle age got too stormy, which would pay for a holiday for the five, as a way of returning to those halcyon days.

And bizarrely, we all agreed. Due to a profound reverence for the work of Michael Caine, we called ourselves the Self-Preservation Society. And each month we paid in a small amount to our fund. And after nine years we managed to agree that Mongolia was the place to go. (Largely because a sixth ex-Oxford student had travelled the world a few times, and we simply HAD to go somewhere that he hadn’t been).

The famous five:
Al: “Hang on lads, I’ve got a great idea” – because it was his idea.

Al works for L’Arche in Germany
Stu: “Known as Big Stu, for obvious reasons”

Stu is a founding partner of Gecko
Paul: “Don’t put him down because he’s a man of learning. He’s very important to the job”

Paul does something .complicated in the City.
Ian: “Will it take the weight?”

Ian is a patent attorney and
Sam: “I think we’d better arrange a funeral”

Sam is your friendly blogger with a collar.

Now, it was going to be straightforward. We were all going to fly to Beijing. But Stu was bringing his theatre company back from Moscow on the day we travelled, and being the responsible type, he wanted to make sure they all got back safely. So he flew Moscow – London – Beijing, and joined us after a day.

Whereas the other four all met up at Heathrow, in various states of unbelief, and feeling very concerned that Al was going to do something silly – concerns which seemed fully justified when he got into vigorous debate (that’s a euphemism) with the lady at the check-in desk. But it was cool. We got onto our flight OK.

And then we were off, preserving ourselves.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Dust and bones

A post from the MD discussions that I take part in:

Sam is totally identified with his religion. It's his tightly held persona. He's a Christian priest and it suits his needs. Strip Sam of his persona and you have dust and bones. But Sam has Value, I'm sure like Bono he performs good deeds.

I know you like Sam. I do too.


I've definitely pushed the boat out in the MD discussions recently. I've always previously kept my most deeply held beliefs under a tight(ish) rein - because it's a secular forum, so I have never felt it that appropriate to come right out and say 'hey, I'm a Christian, I really do believe this stuff'. But after one comment from a newbie, which - I thought - portrayed me as a hypocrite, I felt the need to lay my cards down on the table. This is what I said:

I would place my understanding of God within the Christian tradition, specifically, in the context of classical Christian mysticism. So to explain some of the core sense of that, I'll need to use two words 'cataphatic' and 'apophatic'. (I've written about this to DMB before, but probably nobody else noticed).

Can God be spoken about or not? The cataphatic answers the question positively, saying that there are things which can truly be said about God - so the language used in the Bible to talk about God is meaningful language. And it is also possible to say true things about what God is not. So God is NOT X, Y or Z. In contrast, the apophatic tradition answers this question negatively, so apophatic mysticism is the 'negative' tradition, which says 'not this, not that' etc. Specifically, it says that all language about God is meaningless so we should shut up and not 'yelp about God'.

The important thing to know is that these two answers to the question are siamese twins, rather like yin and yang, and they cannot exist without the other. The mainstream mystics in the western tradition (Denys, Eckhart, Julian of Norwich etc) have their different emphases and 'flavours' but in each case the language of their writings is predicated on the truth of both answers. So first there is the cataphatic response to the question, and there is an overflowing abundance of language referring to God, eg saying 'God is light' and then, in dialectical movement, there is the negation of this, eg saying God is darkness (this is STILL the cataphatic, NB), and then - *and this is the key 'apophatic' moment* - this distinction of positive and negative is itself negated by saying 'God is dazzling darkness'.

So, just to ensure this is understood, the cataphatic is *both* statements (God is light, God is darkness) and the apophatic is the paradox *beyond* the statements, that state of understanding or enlightenment when the soul has absorbed or developed the truth about God. In other words, the mystical writers in the Western tradition are using the natural language of theology, for "Good theology... leads to that silence which is only found on the other side of a general linguistic embarrassment" (Denys Turner). It is the difference between knowing nothing (the state of innocence) and knowing that you know nothing (the state of wisdom) - and the mystical tradition is a way of enabling the journey from the one to the other, _through_ the dialectic of cataphatic and apophatic.

(This mystical tradition, just to head off a possible criticism, isn't exclusively Christian. It has two parents - Moses going up the Mountain, and Plato's allegory of the cave - and it's the latter which brings out its relevance to Pirsig, for he is a neo-Platonist.)

So when I say 'God does not exist' I'm using the _first_ bit of cataphatic language (ie I'm denying 'God exists'). And Paul is quite right to say that I'm committed to saying 'God does not not-exist'. That is the apophatic response, and this is the paradox and failure of language to capture the reality of God.

Much more interesting than that technical stuff, however, is the spiritual journey within which that language makes sense. That is, the soul aspires to union with God, but is prevented from enjoying that union as a result of sin. Putting that in MoQ terms, our fourth level patterns seek to be fully open to Quality, yet are restricted by the social patterns which are harmfully static. The process of mysticism (as I understand it) is the discipline of renouncing all the static patterns so as to enable mystical union.

"In the Pauline and Johannine writings of the New Testament, life in Christ consists in a dynamic union with God. Depending on the emphasis, this union is presented as being with Christ as with God's divine self-expression, or with God (the Father) in and through Christ. God's spirit seals the union and initiates an ever-growing participation in the intimacy of the divine life. The presence of the Holy Spirit endows the Christian with a 'sense' of the divine that if properly developed enables the believer to 'taste' (_sapere_) God and all that relates to him." (Louis Dupre, 'Unio Mystica')

In other words, what motivates the quest for God is love; as Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him. I understand the mystical tradition to be a process of breaking the back of the intellectual ego, so as to allow the soul to grow in wisdom, and grow into God.

Kevin (the newbie) said:

> I ask
> myself, what meaningful purpose would the leader of a
> Christian community have
> for that's not quite right...for
> championing a stumbling block.

(the stumbling block being my - orthodox - assertion that God 'does not exist')

Which as you might imagine is quite a challenge.

Firstly, for the record, might I state (if anyone had any doubt) that I believe in God, I pray to God, I worship God, etc etc. It's the defining feature of my life. My relationship with God runs deeper in me than any thoughts or perceptions or considerations that might otherwise emerge. I am absolutely certain of the reality of God. Indeed, if that certainty were to fail, I would check myself in to a psychiatric unit, as I would have no other conclusion to reach than that my mind had failed. The reality of God is more firmly rooted in me than any sense of self, so if there is a conflict, its the sense of self which is suspect.

So why might I be saying 'God does not exist'? Part of the answer I've already provided; part is, as you rightly point out, that I am being provocative. But is it a needless provocation, or is there something more substantial? I think the latter.

A bit of personal history might help explain things. I was raised in a fairly standard Anglican home. Religion was there in the background, but it was never dominant. I became an atheist when I was 12, following a conversation with a conservative evangelical, when I was told that Gandhi was going to Hell because he didn't confess Jesus Christ as his personal lord and saviour. That seemed unjust to me; God cannot be unjust; therefore if he claims that then he doesn't exist. I remained an atheist throughout my teenage years, lapping up people like Richard Dawkins and all the other secular opposition to Christianity. I tucked into lots of 'alternative' understandings, both the occult and more mainstream mythological stuff like Campbell. Christianity was simply a busted flush. Nobody with any intellectual self-respect could possibly take it seriously.

I then went to university to study Philosophy and Theology (and read ZMM). My conscious purpose was to get lots of good arguments to bash Christians around the head with (I was very influenced by 'The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail' - source for 'The Da Vinci Code'). However, once I was dealing with the subjects at a serious academic level I discovered that most of what I understood about Christianity was wrong. What I had been rejecting wasn't Christianity- it was a degraded, watered down hybrid of Modern Philosophy and Protestant Fundamentalism. Once I realised how mistaken I had been, the scene was set for me to enjoy a moment of enlightenment, which is what has given me, ever since, the certainty that I refer to above.

But a fundamental driver in my personality now (which sometimes leads me astray) is to uproot and destroy the misconceptions that prevented someone like me from understanding, and therefore taking seriously, the claims which are made by the Christian faith. And those misconceptions abound, especially on this forum. Take the claim that a person believes that God exists. That might be considered (eg from a fundamentalist viewpoint) as sufficient for faith. To my mind, that is profoundly mistaken. Belief that God exists is next to useless in the context of Christian faith. (Even the demons believe - and they tremble). For the key thing about Christian faith is to be transformed by the love of God into a creature capable of sharing that love of God in the world. This is less about a belief that God exists than about developing the relationship with God, so that one gets caught up within the love of the Trinity, what the medieval mystics called the _unio_mystica_.

So when I challenge people by saying 'God does not exist' I am wanting to unsettle the belief - held by both believers and atheists - that they know what 'God' is, as explained to Paul. I think people have far too much confidence about the nature of 'God' (I wouldn't exclude myself either). So often belief or disbelief in God seems to be about the existence or non-existence of a particular entity with definable attributes. As if the difference between a believer and a non-believer were that in the universe of the believer, everything was just the same as for the non-believer, except for the addition of an extra item, the causal source of it all, called 'God'. I think such debates are totally unconnected with the living reality of what Christian faith is about. To believe in God is to see the world - ALL of the world - completely differently. To see the world in a certain way - and live out the consequences - that is what it means to believe in God, whether God is named as such or not. Yet one can claim a belief that 'God exists' and still completely miss what that means. And in precisely the same way, one can claim that 'God does not exist' - and therefore reject Christian faith - and yet have completely misunderstood what is being claimed and rejected. What I am trying to do (probably failing, but I'll always try) is to _remove_ a stumbling block. I am saddened that I appear to have created a different one.

By being (i) explicitly Christian, and (ii) saying that 'God does not exist', I am not being a woolly liberal post-modern trendy vicar. I am consciously trying to unsettle the certainty with which people say they don't believe in God. I think a lot of people (not all) are in the position I was in when I was a teenager - they reject a deformed part of Christianity, and believe that they are rejecting the whole. As I said to Ian recently, if he explained the nature of the God he didn't believe in, he would probably find that I don't believe in him either. Hence my regular quotation from Denys Turner: "in the sense in which atheists. say God 'does not exist', the atheist has merely arrived at the theological starting point. Theologians of the classical traditions, an Augustine, a Thomas Aquinas or a Meister Eckhart, simply agree about the disposing of idolatries, and then proceed with the proper business of doing theology".

But I DO believe in the orthodox Christian God, so help me God.

"I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless, that you have to change your life (or the direction of your life)...the point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you, you can follow it as you would a doctor's prescription. But here you need something to move you and turn you in a new direction."

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Br Roger murdered in Taize

I was deeply saddened to learn of the murder of Br Roger at Taize. Details here.

Taize has been hugely important to me in my growth in faith. I am truly shocked.

Just yesterday I quoted one of his prayers to a parishioner: "We cling to our troubles like a hand clutching a thorn bush. Let go into Christ"

nada te turbe, nada te espante, quien a dios tiene, nada le falta, nada te turbe, nada te espante, solo dios basta

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Read Jesus outed in megachurch (all of it).

Sort of cross between Richard Bach and Dostoyevksy.

Wittgenstein and the philosophy of love

This is a MoQ post from October 2001.

"The first step is to define the term." I interpret one of the main messages of ZMM (especially part IV) as being a refutation of the need to define things in every circumstance, that in fact the desire to define can in important cases be radically counterproductive - that is how I understand the 'victory' of rhetoric over dialectic. Now I may be biassed in my interpretation of this as a result of my studies of Wittgenstein (my principal philosophical interest), who I think says very much the same thing, but because the constructive part of this post depends on understanding Wittgenstein's view of language, I'll spell out his view in a bit more detail. I promise to bring the discussion back to love and the MOQ eventually, and I also promise to try my hardest to avoid jargon. Wittgenstein's underlying idea is actually astonishingly simple, it just runs completely counter to standard (including SOM) thinking, so people who are steeped in the standard models don't really 'get it'. One last bit of preamble - Pirsig says different things to Wittgenstein, they are not the same and there are places where they disagree. The relationship between them reminds me of what Phaedrus says about - I think - Poincare, as someone who was climbing the same mountain, but from a completely different starting point, and stops at just the other side of where he had stopped. But on with the show:

Wittgenstein once said 'It has puzzled me why Socrates is regarded as a great philosopher. Because when Socrates asks for the meaning of a word and people give him examples of how that word is used, he isn't satisfied but wants a unique definition. Now if someone shows me how a word is used and its different meanings, that is just the sort of answer I want.' Wittgenstein had in mind a passage such as this one, from Socrates' first speech in the Phaedrus: 'in every discussion there is only one way of beginning if one is to come to a sound conclusion, and that is to know what one is discussing... Let us then begin by agreeing upon a definition'. In the conclusion of the Phaedrus Socrates restates this: 'a man must know the truth about any subject that he deals with; he must be able to define it.' For Wittgenstein it is this emphasis upon definability in words which is the source of all our metaphysical illusions, illusions which 'lie as deep in us as the forms of our language'. Wittgenstein's view, in contrast, is that "in most cases, but not in all, the meaning of a word lies in its use in the language game".

Wittgenstein's positive philosophical achievement lies in an understanding of language which is not predicated on this Socratic perspective. The easiest way to get a quick grasp of Wittgenstein's view of language is to talk about the difference between what he calls surface grammar and depth grammar. Surface grammar is the explicit content and form of a sentence: the division into nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. It is what we normally think of as grammar. Depth grammar is the function that a sentence plays within the life of the person speaking the sentence. In other words, an investigation of the depth grammar of a word will indicate the use that the
words have. Think of the expression 'I need some water'. This seems quite straightforward, but depending upon the context and the emphasis placed upon different words, it could have all sorts of different senses. For example, it could be a straightforward description of thirst, or an expression of the need for an ingredient in making bread, or preparing water colours. So far, so straightforward. But think of something more interesting. Perhaps it is an insult: I am a mechanic, and I am working on fixing a car radiator. My assistant knows that I need some fluid, but passes me some left over orange squash: 'I need some water' - where the expression also means: why are you being so stupid? In other words, the surface grammar of a comment may be the same, but the depth grammar is radically different dependent on the situation at hand. For Wittgenstein, true understanding came not from the search for definitions but from grammatical investigation - ie, looking at
real situations and seeing what is being discussed.

Now, for Wittgenstein, the point of this grammatical investigation was that you achieved clarity about any questions that are at issue. If there is a philosophical discussion, then the way to proceed is to conduct a grammatical investigation of the words and concepts that are in dispute, to look at how different words are used in their normal context. For Wittgenstein, philosophical problems are the result of conceptual confusion and to meet these problems what is needed is conceptual clarification. The task of the philosopher is carefully to depict the relationships between different concepts, in other words, to investigate their grammar. The concepts are the ones used in our everyday language, and it is the fact that the concepts *are* used in our language that gives them their importance. A grammatical investigation in the Wittgensteinian sense is one that looks at how words are used within a lived context. Hence there is the need to investigate the nature of "language games" and "forms of life", which are the usual phrases which you hear when people talk about Wittgenstein. This is a method, and it is with this method that Wittgenstein's true genius lies. In contrast to almost all philosophers within the Western tradition Wittgenstein was not concerned with providing answers to particular
questions. Rather, he wished to gain clarity about the question at issue, in order therefore to dissolve the controversy. He wrote: 'Philosophy can in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.'

An example might help to make his view clearer. A traditional metaphysical question might be 'What is time'? We want to know what the word means, and because the word is a noun we look to see what it is that is referred to. Yet there is nothing to which we can point and say 'That is time'. Thus philosophers are puzzled, and trying to answer questions such as this is the classic job of a philosopher, or more precisely, a metaphysician. For Wittgenstein, though, the question is without sense. Wittgenstein would say, why do we assume that there must be something to which the word refers? Look at how the word is actually used in our language, and see if that enlightens your consideration. Thus, when we look at the contexts in which we use the
sentence 'Time flew by' they would tend to describe moments when we are particularly absorbed in a piece of work, or where we are with friends having an enjoyable evening. The phrase derives its meaning from that context. To then ask, 'What is time?' would be absurd. What we must always have at the forefront of our minds is the organic basis of the language that we use. Language has evolved for particular purposes, it has various distinct uses, and there is no necessity that there is a clear and logical basis for it. One of Wittgenstein's best images is to suggest looking at language as like a tool box, with different tools to perform different functions. Why should there be something which all tools have in common? And why are you so concerned to find it? Wittgenstein is very concerned to ease the philosophical mind away from its tendency for abstract theorising, and to focus it on everyday details, to see what language is actually doing in a given situation. (To come down from the mountain of abstract reasoning, into the valley of life, to misquote Pirsig's image)

To me, the question of love is is the 'important case' par excellence, and if we start down the path of trying to define love, then we are already on the wrong path. I would suggest that, following Pirsig as much as Wittgenstein, we look instead at what is going on when people use the language of love, ideally by taking the best exemplars of what are commonly accepted as loving people, and seeing what they do with it - hence my profound agreement with Platt pointing towards the New Testament as a place to start.

Now, having said what I wanted to say about Wittgenstein, it's time for something constructive about the nature of religious belief. For me (speaking as a fully paid up member of a religious sect ;-) ) Christian doctrine *is* the philosophy of love. But that requires more explanation.

I think most of the participants in this forum would have sympathy with the argument that Pirsig makes, first in Zen and then in Lila more systematically, that there is something wrong with present-day Western scientific and technological culture. Scientific culture claims to be value-free; and Pirsig offers a beautiful route out of the problems which that dominant view has created. Science was born out of a political and religious context - principally what are traditionally called the 'wars of religion' of seventeenth century Europe. One of the consequences of those historical events was that 'enthusiasm' was greeted with great suspicion. It was believed that those who were so caught up with their religious views that they 'enthused' about them were dangerous fanatics, who had to be opposed. The cardinal virtues were now tolerance and rationality. (Any of this ringing some bells, by the way, given present day events?) This came through most in the work of John Locke. Locke's principal innovation was his argument that, in order to resolve these disagreements we should resort to the light of Reason. He wrote:

'since traditions vary so much the world over and men's opinions are so obviously oposed to one another and mutually destructive, and that not only among different nations but in one and the same state - for each single opinion we learn from others becomes a tradition - and finally since everybody contends so fiercely for his own opinion and demands that he be believed, it would plainly be impossible - supposing tradition alone lays down the ground of our duty - to find out what that tradition is, or to pick out truth from among such a variety, because no ground can be assigned why one man of the old generation, rather than another maintaining quite the opposite, should be credited with the authority of tradition or be more worthy of trust; except it be that reason discovers a difference in the things themselves that are transmitted, and embraces one opinion while rejecting another, just because it detects more evidence recognizable by the light of nature for the one than for the other. Such a procedure, surely, is not the same as to believe in tradition, but is an attempt to form a considered opinion about things themselves; and this brings all the authority of tradition to naught'

Locke fleshed out a practical programme for how our beliefs should be guided. The following aspects are the most crucial:

1. we have a moral responsibility for what we believe,
2. we should apportion our beliefs according to the evidence available to us, and
3. in all things we should let reason be our guide.

Put positively, the beliefs that we can hold should be those which can be rationally demonstrated, either by appeal to self-evident first principles, or to empirical evidence. Beliefs must, in either case, be shown to have a rational foundation. Where a rational foundation is lacking then we are subject to unreason - to the excesses of enthusiasm that had led to the cultural crisis of the 17th Century.

Now I want to pick out two aspects of this project for criticism. The first relates to the nature of religion, the second to the flaw in the scientific world view.

What is religious belief? (I'll talk here only about Christianity - it's the only one that I understand from the 'inside', but I'm confident that my points would be accepted by people in other faiths, even if not by all.) The secular world has a clear view of what it considers religious belief to be. One of the most outspoken critics of Christianity in the West is Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene and other works about the theory of evolution, and someone who (possibly not consciously) is clearly following Locke. He writes:

'Another member of the religious meme complex is called faith. It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational enquiry.'

And in a footnote to this passage he expands:

'But what, after all, is faith? It is a state of mind that leads people to believe something - it doesn't matter what - in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway.I don't want to argue that the things in which a particular individual has faith are necessarily daft. They may or may not be. The point is that there is no way of deciding whether they are, and no way of preferring one article of faith over another, because evidence is explicitly eschewed.'

According to the Dawkins conception, then, faith is 'blind', and not open to rational debate. The distinguishing characteristic of a Christian (or other religious believer) is their belief in certain things, for example that Jesus is the Son of God. This belief is something that is held independently of any grounds that can be rationally demonstrated (at least to Dawkins' satisfaction). For Dawkins the debate between an atheist and a religious believer is therefore about what can or cannot be believed by an intelligent and aware person. He would argue that there are no credible grounds for believing in the Christian religion and that therefore one should not be a Christian believer (or, at least, the justification for such a belief would not lie in the truth of the matter, but rather in something like social utility or personal psychological need). The secular world therefore sees religious belief as being primarily about certain propositions, certain claims about the nature of the world.

It seems to me that this is the voice of SOM thinking, which Pirsig and Wittgenstein both dismantle, albeit from different directions. To condense quite a long argument, religious belief is NOT a matter of accepting propositions. Let's go back to Wittgenstein's view of language - words don't necessarily refer to something (they aren't in need of being defined)because we understand the meaning of the word from its use in the language; in other words, what are we doing when we use certain words. In this context, 'The way you use the word "God" does not show whom you mean - but, rather, what you mean.' For Wittgenstein (and for me) 'Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.' In other words, when religious believers use religious language (eg doctrines) they are actually *doing* something with them - they are not offering descriptions of an outer reality. As Wittgenstein puts it, 'I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless, that you have to change your life (or the direction of your life)...the point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you, you can follow it as you would a doctor's prescription. But here you need something to move you and turn you in a new direction', or, in another place, 'Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe through thick and thin, which you can do only as a result of a life. Here you have a narrative, don't take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it.' To come to the crunch - a religious statement (eg God made the heavens and the earth) does not function in the same way that a scientific statement does (eg the universe started with a big bang).

As a summary (and my favourite quotation from Wittgenstein): 'A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer...It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense.'

So: the western scientific outlook systematically misunderstands the nature of religious belief. Onto the second of the flaws (again, something which Pirsig deals with). The scientific outlook completely devalues what might be called the emotional realm. I'm sure you're familiar with what Pirsig says, so I'll put it in my own words:

Scientific method is built upon the exclusion of the individual viewpoint, and in particular, upon the exclusion of the individual's emotional reactions. Science is concerned with providing knowledge that is 'objective' and 'value free'. The ideal is that of disengaged reason (following Locke) which alone can provide a lucid analysis of the way that things really are. Of course, this is impossible, as scientists have now discovered. If you exclude the observer from consideration then you are rigging the experiment. More fundamentally, the act of excluding emotions means that the possibility of finding value in something is intrinsically excluded. The idea that pure reason is a path to truth is an old one, but it is no longer credible. In particular, we now know that our emotions are linked to our reason in a much more fundamental way than hitherto suspected (see Damasio). We are embodied intelligences, and we cannot function without the body and the emotions which reside therein. The
emotions actually play a role in our reasoning capacity. (Which is why the search for artificial intelligence is in one sense deeply misguided; intelligence as a reasoning capacity might be duplicated, but intelligence as something which might provide something separate to our own is tied up with the importance of emotions and our bodily life. AI will therefore depend on the prospects for artifical life). It is the difference between meaning and knowledge (knowledge is meaningless as it stands, it requires emotional engagement to become meaning, and as science excludes the emotions, all it can produce is meaningless knowledge). If, as I believe, religious language is primarily concerned with value, then there is no surprise that the dominance of science has resulted in undermining the structures of religious belief, for the method of science rules the subject matter of religion out of court from the beginning.

In saying this, I do not mean to argue that the intellectual stance is without value. At the heart of science, and also wider academic endeavour, is the conception that any claims might prove to be wrong. It is therefore ultimately a holy activity, because (in theory) there can never be an idol constructed by science. Of course, scientist themselves fall short of this ideal, and therefore promote certain iewpoints as definitive (eg Dennett and Dawkins on Darwinism). There is a necessity for a reengagement of emotion and reason, and the recognition that that is a higher form of intellectual activity than mere science itself (which is what Pirisig has
done with the MOQ). Furthermore, it is the only 'science' that has the potential to be religious, for it does not exclude the spiritual - the shaping of the emotional response in accordance with the wider values of the community, ultimately derived from God (or Quality!). The intellectual stance has value because it does produce knowledge, but knowledge as such is unimportant. What is important is the weaving of that knowledge into the fabric of a whole life. Or, put in a different way, the highest academic virtues relate to the discovery of truth, to honest intellectual endeavour. That value, however, is only one value of many, and (even speaking purely
cognitively) that value is subordinate to the values of beauty and the good. Truth is in itself beautiful, but is only one aspect of beauty, and beauty is only one aspect of what is good. What we need is the largeness of spirit to integrate the value of academic truth within a wider sense of the truth, which includes the beautiful and the good. The truth which is provided by reason is ultimately only that of consistency. This is important, but it is limited. A consistency which inspires by its beauty and humanity, which provokes us to fall in love with it, is rather more truthful than one which doesn't, and, in practise, a consistency which does not embrace these values, even if only in part, will not succeed (Kuhn).

Of course, it is not simply science that suffers from this, it is actually the stance of disengaged intellectual endeavour, ie the academic mind (SOM!). The root of the church's problems lie in the 11th and 12th centuries, when academic theology became separated from the monastic practice of devotional reading. There was a shift from the quest for knowledge in order to help belief, to the quest for knowledge for its own sake. The disengaged stance required for academic endeavour is incompatible with spirituality, for the latter is concerned with shaping the emotional response, and the former is predicated on the exclusion of emotion from consideration.

Which brings me (at last! Hallelujah!) to what I want to say about the philosophy of love and the MOQ. The principal function of religion (Christianity) is, for me, to educate us in love. The apparatus of doctrine and worship - developed as static latching mechanisms attempting to safeguard the dynamic breakthroughs made by Jesus - are things which are primarily functional, not definitional or descriptive. The traditions of prayer and spirituality are a highly sophisticated means of raising our
emotional awareness - and therefore our cognitive capacity - in a qualitatively superior direction. In other words, if we really want to describe and understand a philosophy of love, we have to live it, not just talk about it.


If you've made it this far - thanks, and congratulations. A summary of the above might be handy:
1. Definitions are worse than useless in some contexts. Talk of love is one such.
2. If Wittgenstein is right, then we understand what a word means by seeing what is done with it.
3. The West systematically misunderstands the nature of religious belief.
4. Religious belief is not essentially propositional language, but functional language (it shapes our lives in a certain way).
5. The scientific outlook is emotionally defective (and the MOQ removes the defect).
6. If we want to understand the philosophy of love, the religious traditions are a very good place to start.