Do you have faith in your pills?

bad_pharmaIn recent years many of the insititutional pillars of society have fallen into disrespect. Politicians, obviously, but also journalism, the priesthood, the police, many others. Groups that were trusted who have now fallen from grace. Are doctors going to be next?

This is a question raised by Ben Goldacre in his extremely stimulating book ‘Bad Pharma’, which I read on holiday. Goldacre is a qualified medical doctor and psychiatrist, and presently a lecturer at Oxford. In his book, published in 2012, Goldacre sets out to show, in his words, that “Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects.”

Goldacre supports these contentions throughout his book building up a detailed critique of the pharmaceutical industry and the way in which it systematically distorts the medical process at every stage. The motivations for the pharmaceutical industry to do this are quite straightforward, given that it is a multi-billion pound industry and a successful new drug can mean the difference between a company flourishing and failing. However, in pursuit of that economic end, Goldacre documents the ways in which the industry undermines the scientific process in order to make more profit. The material that Goldacre presents is utterly shocking, and if I had any residual faith in the science lying behind much modern medical and psychiatric treatment, it has certainly vanished now.

Goldacre describes one example from when he was working in General Practice, which relates to the drug Reboxetine (Edronax), which is used as an anti-depressant. He had a patient who was not improving on other drugs, and was considering using Reboxetine to see if it had a beneficial effect. He looked at the available literature which seemed positive, and agreed with his patient that it was worth trying, and duly wrote out a prescription. However, shortly after this, a review of all the research on Reboxetine was published, which for the first time included data from medical trials that had not been published (one of the main ways in which the pharmaceutical industry manipulates things is by only publishing information about trials that show their drug in a favourable light, whilst suppressing information that is critical). Goldacre writes, “I did everything a doctor is supposed to do. I read all the papers, I critically appraised them, I understood them, I discussed them with the patient and we made a decision together, based on the evidence. In the published data, reboxetine was a safe and effective drug. In reality, it was no better than a sugar pill and, worse, it does more harm than good. As a doctor, I did something that, on the balance of all the evidence, harmed my patient, simply because unflattering data was left unpublished.”

The problems that Goldacre are describing are recognised as serious problems by some influential voices. The British Medical Journal, for example, recently published an editorial written by Goldacre entitled “How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it” so there are some grounds for hope. However, very little of substance is changing, and the pharmaceutical industry continues to operate with a great deal of freedom in how it manipulates the scientific process.

What really needs to happen is that the light of public attention needs to shine on this area in a sustained and intensive way. We need to become as worked up about what is happening in pharmaceuticals as we are about all the other scandals of our time. All institutions run the risk of becoming cocooned in their own ways of thinking and patterns of life, and sometimes it takes an outsider to come along and say ‘this is simply not right’. MPs doubtless thought that claiming expenses for the draining of their moats was simply how things were done; journalists doubtless cynically accepted that phone-tapping was the way in which the truth was discovered; church hierarchies were doubtless concerned that priests accused of child abuse had to be given a chance for redemption. In the same way I believe, following Goldacre, that the medical profession needs to be told that the present practice of relying on the pharmaceutical industry as the principal guide for the benefits or otherwise that come from any particular medicine is not acceptable.

I suspect that this will be a very difficult process because there is something different about the medical profession at the moment that doesn’t apply to the other examples. In our current society, as I have said many times, “science” operates in the role that theology used to, in that it is the overarching and dominant form of knowledge, which incorporates all others. Those who are learned in this form of knowledge are the priests of our contemporary age and, in particular, those who provide forms of healing on the basis of that form of knowledge function in the modern world in a very similar fashion to ancient shamans. Sometimes the healing can be entirely ritualistic, as is most apparent when considering the difference in effectiveness between anti-depressants and placebos (sugar pills) – both have the same healing effect, which rather suggests that such healing as takes place is a product of the ritual visit to the tribal medicine man. In other words, what we are dealing with here is not a simple, practical, technical problem that can be solved by the application of sufficient determination and good will. No, here we are seeking to topple the gods of our society, and Goldacre is a blasphemer and heretic.

There are, obviously, many ways in which the pharmaceutical industry has helped the common good, and Goldacre gives credit where it is due. However, it is equally clear that the present system is broken. I would thoroughly recommend Goldacre’s book to anyone who is interested in this subject. I shall be following the ongoing conversations with great interest.

“Jesus is Santa Claus for adults”

santa science
I want to take issue with the comment attributed to Christopher Hitchens by Nick Cohen in the last edition of the Courier, to the effect that ‘Jesus is Santa Claus for adults’.

What is being alleged is that the belief in Jesus held by Christians is similar to the belief in Santa Claus held by young children. That is, there is a fantasy figure who comes bestowing gifts in a hidden fashion, that the children believe because they are told the story by adults. As the children grow up, so the understanding about the nature of Santa Claus changes, and belief in the real existence of Santa Claus gives way to a shrewder understanding of parental manipulation (if you’re on the naughty list Santa won’t bring you any presents), a manipulation which those very same children then indulge in when they become parents themselves. It is something that adds to the wonder and excitement of Christmas for the children after all, so where is the harm in it?

To think of Jesus in these terms is to think of Jesus as a nice story told by the grown ups to the children in a similar fashion, a way of duping the understanding in the service of a more effective manipulation by those with a fuller knowledge of the truth. To stop thinking of Jesus in traditional Christian terms is therefore, on this analogy, akin to a child growing up and looking behind the curtain, or seeing Mummy kissing Santa Claus, or simply glimpsing presents wrapped up and hidden that later ‘inexplicably’ come down a non-existent chimney from Santa. Belief in Jesus is therefore a child-like fantasy, which no grown adult could countenance.

I want to emphasise this aspect of Hitchens’ point. Belief in Jesus is seen as a childish, a relic of a superstitious age that those with a more mature outlook on life have simply left behind. Notice that this means that, in our present society, those who do retain some belief in Jesus (still a majority of the population even now) are seen as child-like by those who have rejected such a belief, like Mr Hitchens.

What I would like to know is how this analogy bears up when an adult is converted to Christian faith. After all, this is not a rare occurrence, it is a daily event. Has any adult ever been converted to a belief in Santa Claus? In contrast, in this country and abroad, mature and responsible adults are converted to a belief in Jesus Christ each and every day – I would guess thousands every day, if not more.

I would like to describe one such example which I know quite well, which is my own. When I was a teenager at school I was a militant atheist, by which I mean I was a devotee of the writings of Richard Dawkins, most especially his excellent ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, and I used his arguments to regularly attack Christian friends. I’m pretty sure that I used the Santa Claus analogy myself. I was quite certain that I was right, that I had matured away from a childish belief in a sky-fairy, and that the march of reason was unstoppable.

What shifted my perspective was going up to university to study philosophy and theology and therefore become forced into a much more rigorous pattern of thinking. I remain grateful to one particular tutor who was immensely patient with me as I trotted out the standard Dawkins lines and in each case he pointed out the logical fallacies and absurdities associated with that position. I would add: this isn’t intellectually difficult, The God Delusion could happily be set as a first-year undergraduate set text in philosophy as it contains so many excellent examples of bad argumentation. Properly considered it would provide a very thorough grounding in how not to make a coherent case.

Put simply, when I was forced to think through an intellectual position more thoroughly than I had done so before, when I had to dig more deeply and not rely on supposedly witty soundbites like the Santa Claus reference, I discovered that what I had been rejecting all along was not Christianity as it had been understood for the best part of two thousand years. Rather it was a caricature of the faith that had become dominant in the Protestant countries of North-Western Europe as a direct result of the political and social effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions. Dawkins was simply echoing arguments first raised several hundred years previously, as Hitchens then echoed Dawkins.

How, then, is my belief that ‘Jesus is Lord’ similar to a child’s belief in Santa Claus? The real irony is that what I came to realise was that it was my understanding of science that was more like that of a child’s belief in Santa Claus. After all, it was science that had the supposedly wonderful story to tell. Here was a method that provided wonderful benefits, that was a royal road to truth, that was practiced by people who were wiser and more rational than the common person – in sum, it was science that was the dominant belief system in my mind. What a proper academic study of science did for me – and what I really wish someone like Richard Dawkins could make time for – is realising that science is a human endeavour just like any other, with benefits and costs, and which is very much prone to making mistakes.

To my mind, it is the prevalent belief in science, and the deference given to those who dispense science, which is most like the child’s belief in Santa Claus. It is a naïve understanding, and not one that can be sustained after a ‘look behind the curtain’ which marks the threshold from childishness to maturity. This is not an abstract point – lives are at stake. I will write next time of one area in our cultural life where this childish deference towards science has done immense harm to us, with a look at the pharmaceutical industry.

Fundamentalism, fairy tales and the beating of dragons

Wittgenstein once wrote “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc., to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, the dominant understanding of the ‘arts and sciences’ in our culture is that science does the ‘hard’ stuff, the important stuff, all that provides real knowledge, whereas the realm of the arts and humanities is merely a question of what entertains us – and are we not entertained?

This over-emphasis upon scientific truth has taken two specific forms. The first is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that is an outlook called positivism. This approach took shape in the nineteenth century but it is implicit in much that goes on for a hundred years before then. Positivism argues that only things which can be established by reason or by empirical proof and investigation are valid knowledge. Anything else is rejected. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says: “If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That is the voice of positivism, and when positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, it is radically constricting our capacity for true wisdom. If the serious questions facing our civilisation are ultimately questions of value, then such an approach can produce nothing to say on this subject. The root problem of our time is the way in which the over-emphasis upon science in our culture has crippled our ability to see clearly and exercise a proper discernment and wisdom in our lives.

The other way of over-emphasising science is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation is more important that anything else. This is fundamentalism, and this is the outlook shared by both Richard Dawkins and those who take a literalistic approach to the Bible. It is not commonly understood that Biblical fundamentalism springs from the scientific revolution. It is, in truth, a direct product, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens – the Bible is put through a scientific meat grinder because what is wanted from the end is a scientific sausage. Where particular forms of knowledge are seen as higher than others, and where science is seen as the most valuable, then, in order to preserve the value of the Bible, it has to be seen as the most authoritative scientific text. That is what fundamentalism is, and it utterly misses the point about Jesus. If you look into the origins of fundamentalism, in America, the end of the nineteenth century the beginning of the twentieth, it is very explicit – they defend their views by saying this is the scientific approach to the Bible. Richard Dawkins and the fundamentalists agree on what sort of text the Bible is – and I think they both completely miss the point.

Scientific knowledge and awareness, compared with the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, is comparatively trivial. In fact narrative is the most important way in which our understandings are formed. Our way of telling stories to each other is the means by which our emotional bedrock is formed. This is why the common recognition that science has too important a place in our cultural life has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst the poets and playwrights – those whose scientific credibility is not strong. The mythology of Faust developed when the scientific revolution was taking off, and it captures the truth: Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain some scientific knowledge and only realises at the end that it was a bad bargain. Similarly, the legend of Frankenstein expresses the same truth, as do any of the myriad stories with a white-coated mad scientist, crying out “I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. These all describe the consequences that come when science is given more value than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed. As the story has developed in the telling, the scientist is replaced by a monster, then by a robot, and eventually by computers and ‘Terminators’. In each case what is missing is the emotional core, the ability to exercise a human judgement.

Simply put, science is ultimately trivial. It can act as the robot helper, collecting samples and sifting evidence, but on the question of wisdom, of what we are to value, of how we are to live, science – the scientific method and the culture which it has fostered and within which it is passed on – science is silent, and can never speak. Although the scientific stance is an important part of a wider wisdom, the converse is not the case. This is a moral blindness, and our scientific culture is systematically blind when it comes to questions of morality. I therefore call our society asophic because it is blind to wisdom. Science’s technological genius is providing us with tools, but the way that science has been taken up in our culture has removed our ability to see what to use those tools for. Our sense of what is right, our sense of what is of value, our sense of what is human and what is humanly important – these have all been ravaged by the dominant culture, like crops consumed by a plague of locusts.

Science cannot help us to determine what it is that we most value, or how to distinguish between different values. Our delusion that it can is the fatal flaw of our civilisation, with a single great consequence: we have forgotten what it means to be wise. Our scientific endeavours must be made subject to wisdom, both intellectually and practically – it is only in this way that we will be able to deal with the problems we now face. To become wiser, we need to become reacquainted with the wisdom traditions of the world, and most especially our own, Christianity. To quote from another of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

(Courier article – adapted from part of my book)

The argument from authority and CAGW

Here is a classic quotation from John Gummer, for whom I used to work (as a civil servant): “No reasonable person would ignore expert opinion and wager his children’s future on the contrarian views of people who are not peer reviewed.”

This is an appeal to authority – to ‘expert opinion’ which has been ‘peer reviewed’. Now, in straightforward philosophical terms, this argument is an error, it is the epitome of a text-book mistake. Appealing to authority is only as effective as the authority itself which is being cited and conveys no additional weight. In the absence of other consideration it can have some use, certainly it makes for a much more efficient life if the vast majority of our understandings can be developed by those who do things professionally. However, where those authorities themselves are in dispute, where their findings are contentious, then a proper response is not to retreat to ‘authority’ but to engage in the substantial issues.

So, with respect to Global Warming, the emphasis upon ‘consensus’, ‘expert opinion’, ‘peer review’ and all the rest of it makes sense in so far as those things themselves stand up to scrutiny. Where they do not – where, for example, the IPCC is shown to be systematically unscientific and corrupt, where the process of peer review is so problematic, where the predictions made are so at variance with observation – then the argument from authority is not simply mistaken, it is pernicious.

This is not the only field where appeal to authority causes problems, it is simply a very salient issue at the moment given our weather. Having authorities does not absolve us from the responsibility to think for ourselves. Most of all, having authorities does not absolve the church of the responsibility to think for itself on the major issues of the day. I am more and more persuaded that most of the problems with the Church relate to it having given up on the intellect – as if it feels it has lost the battle for intellectual credibility and now tries to justify itself to the world through its acceptance of social progressivism and works of peace and justice. See, we’re nice people, now you don’t need to be so horrible to us by pointing out our intellectual nakedness!

We need to be much more robust. We need to once more believe that theology is the queen of the sciences, and therefore all other knowledge is subordinate to the knowledge of the living God. Doubtless many will instantly cringe at such a cry – that is the depth to which we have fallen. If we concede this, we concede all.

Science and green strategy

One of the more useful soundbites about our financial predicament is ‘you can’t get out of a debt problem by increasing the amount of your debt’. As with any useful maxim, there are times when it might be wrong – I think there are occasions when it might make sense to increase debt in order to solve problems, eg as part of a general restructuring – but as a rule of thumb, it seems pretty good to me.

I want to argue that there is a similar maxim that applies to our present ecological predicament, one that is thrown up by our crashing in to the Limits to Growth. The maxim is this ‘you can’t get out of an idolisation of science problem by making more appeals to science’. I write about what the ‘idolisation of science problem’ is in my book, but put succinctly, I see the root problem in our culture as a blindness towards questions of value and a consequent neglect of the development of wisdom. That is, I see our culture as institutionally apathistic, and I see the principal presenting symptom of that lack of wisdom being the excess valuation given to whatever ‘science’ might say.

For those who understand the nature of the Limits to Growth – call them the ‘greens’ for now – there is an irreducible element of scientific understanding inherent in the perspective. Information about pollution and resource limits is largely a matter of science. What we are to do in the light of that information, however, is not. It is a matter of human discernment, for which science is trivially irrelevant. Worse than that, the subordination of wider human understandings to the narrow scientism that dominates our culture is itself one of the principal obstacles that need to be overcome

I have written before about the ‘climate screech’ which I see as one of the problems of contemporary green advocacy. The predicament that we are in, which the greens understand, is so much wider and deeper than the question of global warming, on which I continue to become increasingly sceptical. If we are to enable people to shift their understandings, their patterns of life, away from our present unwise paths, we will not be able to do so by continuing, to all intents and purposes, to insist in our advocacy on the primacy of “science”. Science says X, therefore we must do Y. This is a path that is doomed to failure, not least because science changes its mind on a regular basis, and greens who married the scientific consensus of the late 1980s are now finding themselves widows – and the necessary political arguments have been lost.

I believe that those who advocate green courses of action – a wiser and more responsible stewardship of this planet – need to do a great deal of soul-searching to understand why it is that the emphasis upon global warming has been such a political failure, and why the continued screeching is having such a counter-productive impact upon the wider green movement. To my mind it seems clear that we cannot get out of a crisis caused by too much science by simply increasing the amount of science on which we rely.

In the meantime I am looking forward to taking part in the Dark Mountain festival next month. This is a group that really ‘gets it’.

TBLA(8): Biology and theology

John Richardson left a comment on an earlier post which I’ve been meaning to respond to – and now Bishop Alan has written on a related topic. It’s unusual to disagree with John and +Alan on the same grounds, but there you go!

John writes: “I would have thought it was biology, rather than theology, that keep sex and procreation together, but this should affect our thinking about ‘sexual relationships’, especially where, in effect, they are not.” +Alan writes: “Concepts of “natural” and “un-natural” are very fundamental to where people position themselves about homosexuality. There seem to be two basic perceptions from which everything else flows. As clearly and charitably as I can put it Either Homosexuality is a phenomenon against nature, and defies Creation and/or evolution Or Homosexuality is a phenomenon within nature, and thus part of Creation and/or evolution”.

It seems to me that a properly Christian pattern of thinking needs to be careful about importing secular assumptions unnoticed when discussing certain scientific conclusions. That is, from a theological point of view, there is no neutral ‘biology’ from which we then draw theological conclusions; nor is there any mileage in the word ‘natural’. Put differently, a properly theological perspective has the capacity (not the necessity) of construing the biological or the natural in a way that runs against any particular scientific consensus about ‘facts’ and, sometimes, it is obliged to do so. (This is essentially Milbank’s point in Theology and Social Theory, although I think Wittgenstein got there first.)

I’ll talk about the ‘natural’ first. The major problem with use of the word ‘natural’ in any discussion like this is that it cannot be given any substantive content. That is, human beings are themselves part of any ‘natural’ order – and so anything which human beings do is therefore ‘natural’ and the word loses any distinctive purchase. Alternatively, the distinction is drawn between the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’, in which case nothing ‘human’ is ‘natural’, and again the word loses its distinctive purchase. What use of the word ‘natural’ tends to be employed for is some sense of ‘this pattern of activity aligns with this purpose’ – that is, the substantive content of the word ‘natural’ when used in an argument derives entirely from the underlying aim envisioned for the human being, and it is at that level that the debate needs to engage. So, in matters of sexuality, one position envisions human sexuality as being entirely about procreation – this is what gets privileged as ‘natural’ – and therefore anything which is not procreative is proscribed as ‘unnatural’. Alternatively, human sexuality is envisioned as being about pair-bonding and mutual affection etc, and therefore a much larger variety of sexual expression is ‘natural’.

One way of progressing the debate might therefore be to enquire as to what is the actual ‘biological’ truth – is it the case that human sexuality is entirely about procreation, or not? Is it the case that, as John infers, it is ‘biology’ that keeps sex and procreation together? Where this aspect starts to break down, for me, is that it ignores the cosmic dimension of the Fall. That is, in Christian thinking, there is a distinction between the world that God originally made, and the world that we now inhabit. The latter is a broken or impaired form of the former, one that is slowly being redeemed and healed as we head towards the Kingdom. To say that it is biology that keeps sex and procreation together – if it is to do anything more than simply point out that (so far) conception is a biological process – does not advance our understanding very far. To return to the question of gay relationships, it is perfectly possible to say that homosexual attraction is a part of the evolved order in which we find ourselves, but to describe that as being part of the cosmic Fall. In other words, it doesn’t actually advance the case in favour of gay relationships to point out all the ways in which there are gay relationships elsewhere in the existing order. It is perfectly possible for someone to say ‘yes, that’s true, but that’s just evidence of our brokenness – it is not part of God’s original intention and one day it will pass away’. (This relates to the ethical question about how to proceed if there was a ‘cure’ for homosexuality.)

There seems to be a distinction, therefore, between how something might be ‘as God intends’ and how things presently are – and from those to how we are to behave within our present context. I don’t believe that appeals to ‘biology’ or what is ‘natural’ actually progress the discussion in a more Christian direction. What would do so, I believe, is if Christians began by pondering the rest of +Alan’s post, most especially the shocking vitriol hurled at him for putting his head above the parapet on one side. If it is by their fruits that we will know them, then that is probably a much more certain place to start our considerations than any questions of biology or naturalness.

Those odd and pesky little facts

So: this is the global temperature trend of the last fifteen years. It is downwards. (Found here)

Now, in and of itself, that doesn’t mean very much – it could all be part of the natural fluctuation within an overall increasing trend, etc etc blah blah blah. (Although, obviously, the longer it continues, the more difficult the ‘mainstream consensus’ will find it to brush things away).

However, what I want to compare and contrast this graph with, is this one, showing use of fuels through the twentieth century (from Gail Tverberg).

Notice how the use of fossil fuels (=oil) really kicked off after the Second World War and that we are now using some four times as much per year as then. Now it occurs to me that if the relationship between the use of fossil fuels and the temperature of the earth was in any way a direct one, then we would be observing a similar acceleration in the year on year increase of temperature as can be seen in the use of fossil fuels. What we observe instead is a contra-indication. Not only is there no acceleration of the increase, there isn’t even an increase!

Clearly, carbon dioxide is only one factor in a chaotic system, and there simply isn’t a direct and linear relationship between the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and global temperature change. That’s just a pesky little fact.

The interesting question, to my mind, is about how far the increase in temperature in the second half of the twentieth century is anomalous when compared to other periods of history – eg, when compared to the trend since 1700, or the trend since about 1800, or the trend since about 3000 BC. This, however, leads us into Hockey Stick territory – and it explains why that remains such a totem. If the Hockey Stick is correct, then the acceleration can be (just about) found. Yet if the Hockey Stick is fraudulent – which I believe it to be – then this is some strong empirical evidence running against the CAGW hypothesis. I shall maintain my watching brief.

A biblical view of the cosmos (1)

One of the things which the recent death of Neil Armstrong brought to mind is the way in which the 20th century profoundly altered our understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos. The beginning of the film ‘Contact’ provoked awe when I first watched it, on a trip to Boston in 1997. It is the ultimate in ‘pull-back shots’ (you can find it on YouTube, search for ‘Contact opening scene’), beginning from the surface of the earth and just going back, and back, and back… and back. Out of the solar system, past the heliosphere, through the Milky Way, beyond the point where our galaxy is just a small dot in a haze of other galaxies. I had thought that I had a good sense for the scale of the universe, but when I lost my sense of depth about three-quarters of the way through the sequence, I realised that I had been deluding myself. The sense of scale that we need to try to comprehend when we consider our position in the universe is quite possibly unattainable to the human mind. Our Galaxy, the Milky Way, has some 400 billion stars. There may be 125 billion such galaxies in the universe. There are probably more stars than there are grains of sand on earth. I find these numbers meaninglessly large – but I’m not sure that the existential issue is any different from when the Psalmist wrote “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”

The Christian understanding of the world was born in an environment radically different to the one that we inhabit today. As well as the difference in size of the universe that we are living in, there is a difference in the scale of time of comparable scale. Whereas when the church was getting established, it was considered that the world was created, in roughly the form it has now, some few thousand years ago – and it’s end would be a similar number of years in the future – we now consider that in fact the earth was created some 4.6 billion years ago, the universe perhaps some 15 billion years ago, and we do not have any conception of when it will end, if indeed that question has meaning. I often ponder what some of the implications are for Christian faith. For in traditional terms, Christians look forward to the resurrection of the dead on the last day. This says something very important about our bodily future – that our existence as embodied beings now will somehow be recognised on that last day. Also in traditional terms, that last day will come after the apocalypse, when the last trump shall sound, the anti-christ shall be overthrown and Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead.

This hope or expectation of a last judgement is something which has been of great comfort to many believers over the years, and I believe it says something profoundly true, not least about social justice. What I would say, however, is that it is not something which wholly grips me. My point is to do with the ‘background drama’ against which we might understand the story of Jesus of Nazareth. The early church placed that story in the setting of their culture, and we must do the same. Our culture has radically changed its conception of time and space, and our understanding of the significance of Jesus must change too. It is rather as if we were watching a Punch and Judy show, and we were caught up in the drama, and that small stage bounded our world – and then suddenly we were pulled back to see that this stage was placed in the centre circle at Wembley Stadium. At this point the story just doesn’t have the same imaginative impact any more. Then we are pulled back to a satellite orbiting above London, and really the question of what is going on in the Punch and Judy show on some grass in North West London has to do something really rather remarkable if it is going to attract our attention. Then we pull back… and pull back.

It is sometimes said that we cannot be Christians any longer, for the story of Christianity is a story that is inevitably tied in with an understanding of the world that has been rejected – an understanding which is based in a very small world, this earth, in a cosmos which is unimaginably huge. This is called the geocentric objection, for it is based on the rejection of the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe. How can anything which happens in our world have cosmic significance? (I remember once reading about someone who had calculated what proportion of the known cosmos could conceivably have been affected by the resurrection, ie, if the ‘information’ of the resurrection travelled out in every direction from Easter morning at the speed of light, what proportion of the cosmos has now been reached? The answer is a remarkably small proportion.)

For me, this criticism begins in the wrong place. It first of all buys into a ‘supernatural’ conception of how God works, that is, that God intervenes in an already existing process, rather than the orthodox conception which is that God is eternally sustaining that process, so the idea of ‘intervention’ makes no sense. (Think about the diffference between winding up a clockwork mechanism and letting in run, and playing a piece of music – God’s creation is like the latter, not the former). More significantly, it doesn’t take seriously the religious claim about Jesus’ humanity; in other words, as a criticism of Christianity, it only makes sense as a criticism of pseudo-Christianity, one which sees Jesus’ humanity as a mere appearance, so Jesus was not human in the way that we are human.

The Christian claim starts from an opposite place. Jesus was a human being, but a human being of a particular sort. Just as Adam and Eve were made in the image of God, so too are all human beings. Yet through sin, we have obscured this image in us. In Jesus there is no sin, so in Jesus we see a human being in whom the image of God is revealed without distortion – and thus, in Jesus, we can see the nature of God revealed. So Jesus shows us both what it means to be human – and what is the nature of God. This is what is meant by the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, that God is revealed in human form.

The reason why I believe this to be an answer to the geocentric objection is because it roots our understanding of God in our understanding of ourselves, or, put differently, it states that for as long as there are human beings, Jesus will show us the nature of God. The particular clothing in which the story of Jesus is dressed – such as the language of the ascension, Jesus rising bodily into heaven – may not be essential to the story. The essential story is of a human being who was given over completely to love; to the love of God and to the love of neighbour; who as a result came into conflict with the governing authorities and was executed by them; but who was raised and justified by God on the third day, thereby demonstrating his divinity and establishing the Church, to follow the path that he had forged – to be a Christian is to take that story, that dream, and build a life around it. Doing this will remain possible for as long as we remain human, no matter how far we travel, and no matter what dimensions our imaginations are engaged in.

Time for a Reformation of science

I first published this May 12, 2010. It seems even more appropriate in the light of what Gleick has done.In a comment on my Montford review, Byron said this:

“while it is possible that sometimes an emperor needs to hear that he has no clothes from a child, in general, credentials matter. I would not presume to be able to judge between competing scientific professionals working on climate change. Instead, I will have a strong bias towards those who are actively publishing in recognised peer-review journals and whose work is accepted by reputable national and international scientific bodies.”

As a general point, I think this has some force as an argument. Philosophically speaking it is an appeal to authority, and whilst, as such, it has no logical force (literally none!) and is irrelevant to an argument, in human terms I see it as significant, and reasonable to take into account. The question is: is the child seeing something that everyone else can see when it is pointed out? Or is the child not seeing something because it requires education or maturity in order to see it?

When Luther nailed his theses to the church door, he was protesting against corruption in the church. The reason that his protest triggered the Reformation (rather than it happening at a different time, eg a hundred years earlier) was because of two principal things (IMHO!): a widespread understanding that the church was rotten, which undermined the support for the church from within, and the political situation in Germany which allowed Luther to gain practical support and shelter. I’ve always found it intriguing that the countries which ended up Roman Catholic were the countries where there was an existing realpolitik settlement with the Vatican in 1517.

The question at issue with regard to the Hockey Stick raises similar issues. When McIntyre started up his Climate Audit blog, it was the equivalent of the 95 theses. In just the same way as Luther believed himself to remain a faithful Christian, and not be inventing a new religion, (and, in fact, had the church responded with integrity, he would have remained a Catholic) so too do McIntyre’s criticisms not raise any questions about the theory of scientific investigation. Instead, the questions raised are about the current practice of that scientific investigation, most especially with regard to paleo-climatology and the weight given to certain alleged results in that field. More broadly – and Montford is good at bringing out these details – the questions raised by McIntyre cut very deeply into the rhetoric of science as it is presently employed. The issue is whether the current practice of peer-review is sufficient for establishing truth, or whether, in this particular case as an exemplar, the process of peer-review has been corrupted, allowing vested interests to control the flow of funding and research. In other words, in just the same way as the medieval church preserved the rhetoric of Christianity whilst collapsing into corruption and turning salvation into a cash-cow, is the scientific establishment now colluding in the covering up of malpractice in order to keep the lines of funding open?

Let’s return to the question of authority. In the medieval era the priests were the embodiment of authority, with the ability to excommunicate all rebels. In the contemporary era excommunication takes the form of withholding or withdrawing funding. Just as priests had the capacity to bully, eg through the confessional, so too do present scientific authorities have the capacity to distort processes in their own interests, eg through blackballing particular researchers or boycotting or belittling particular publications that do not toe the line. This was what “climategate” was about. As repeated by most of the participants, the actual truth of the Hockey Stick graph is in itself pretty marginal to the question of AGW. What it is not marginal to is the question of the legitimacy of the scientific establishment. A light has been shone into the inner workings, and just as the church tried to obscure the reasons for Luther’s protests (called the Catholic or Counter-Reformation) so too do the propagandists for the establishment say, either, ‘move along now, nothing to see, everything is fine’, or else, ‘just a few bad apples, the rest of science is healthy and fine’.

The truth of this depends on the truth about the Hockey Stick itself, which is why it has acquired totemic significance. Which brings me back to the question of the Emperor’s New Clothes and how we are to argue about the science. Byron’s comment at the top of this post is not, as such, an unreasonable position to hold. It does, however, assume good faith on the part of the scientific community. If that good faith is held in question then there is nothing else to be done except to begin to investigate the points at issue. To say that this can only be done by scientists is to accept the closed circle of authority – it is the equivalent of the church saying ‘trust us’ to Luther. That does not mean that everyone has equivalent authority (the Protestant error) – what it means is that the only way to establish truth is for all the arguments and assumptions to be brought out into the open.

It is this which has most persuaded me that McIntyre is on to something. The response of the establishment to McIntyre’s questioning has been to close ranks and stonewall. What an outsider can do most effectively is raise up settled assumptions to the light. A genuinely scientific community will be able to defend those assumptions, or, if they are indefensible, be able to creatively renew itself by revising those assumptions. Although I am not a trained scientist, I am a trained philosopher, and what that training has given me is the ability to judge a good argument. In other words, it is beyond my capacity to assess, eg, the impact of cloud cover in climate models (IMHO the modellers are still awaiting a Copernicus – the models seem like Ptolemaic systems about to collapse under the weight of their own complexity). It is not beyond my capacity to assess whether, eg, the RealClimate community is engaging with the arguments that McIntyre is raising. When I see evasion, equivocation, deception and the refusal to release information – in short, when I see science not treated as a holy endeavour – then red flags go up and I start to suspect that indulgences are being flogged to build a new St Peter’s.

If agw was a purely abstract argument then the scientific community could be left to get on with it, and the paradigm shifts can be allowed to happen on generational time-scales, which is normal. The difference is that the agw thesis is highly politicised, not just in the vast funding being put towards it, but in prospect. In the end, the best arguments will win – and the best arguments are those that expose themselves completely to the judgement of the community. They are the ones that allow little children to ask obvious questions, and run the risk of being found naked. They are not the ones that employ a vast retinue of retainers to suppress all dissent, and ostracise such small children from the conversation.

This is something that the better scientists have recognised, and are taking steps to address (I’m thinking here of someone like Judith Curry, who seems to me to be asking all the right questions). More broadly, I’m coming to see that the process of peer-review, which has not historically been a necessary part of science, could best be replaced by transparency. Information wants to be free. What the vernacular Bible was to Protestantism, the blogosphere will be to this new science – a sociological revolution triggered by a technological shift. Of course, I could be completely wrong, but in my view, just as Luther triggered the Reformation, and in due course the Protestant church, I suspect that what McIntyre has done is trigger a new and Reformed style of science – one in which openness and transparency are the hallmarks, and which is faster, more dynamic, more creative – and more accurate – than the existing magisterium.

Idolatry and Science – chapter 3 of my book

(Shorter – 4500 words – and easier to read than the transcript!)

Chapter three – idolatry

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6)

“Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 19)

Jesus repeats and amplifies this when he says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22.37)

If this is the first and greatest commandment – so that, if we fail to keep this commandment, we fail in our duty as Christians – what does it mean? How are we to keep it? Answering those questions is the burden of this chapter.

I would like to begin an explanation by talking about an obscure rail road foreman from the nineteenth century by the name of Phineas Gage1. Gage was working in the Vermont area clearing land for the building of a new rail road when he had a rather dramatic accident – a tamping rod (used in the controlled explosions) was propelled up through his head, entering at the eye and leaving through the top of his skull. Those who were with him thought that it must have been a fatal accident, but Gage survived. That is, the physical form of Gage survived, for following the accident his personality seemed to be completely different. Whereas previously he had been sober and responsible, now he could not hold down a job and was delinquent and uncouth. He ended up being part of PT Barnum’s travelling circus, where he was exhibited – with the tamping rod – as a modern miracle.

According to a modern neuroscientist’s reconstruction, what had happened to Gage was that his capacity to exercise judgement had been destroyed. Consider what happens in a game of chess. There are a vast number of moves that are possible at any one point in the game and a competent player will immediately discount some of those moves as being ones likely to cause a defeat. Unlike with a computer, this is very rarely done on the basis of a full analysis of all the permutations that might follow (our brains are not that efficient); rather it is done on the basis of a judgement about what constitutes good and bad moves.

In the same way, in order to function in our normal, daily human lives we have to exercise judgement regularly, from when we get up in the morning, through all our daily interactions and deciding when to go to bed. Without that capacity to judge and decide we relinquish something essential. Antonio Damasio describes dealing with one patient [suffering from anasognosia#] and trying to establish a time for a next appointment. The patient deliberated for over half an hour about the various different options and only concluded the analysis when Damasio himself expressed a clear preference for one date.

The particular area of the brain that was damaged in Gage, and with the patients suffering from anasognosia, related to the ability of the brain to process information from the body, especially the viscera – in other words, our emotional reactions. Damasio writes that ‘it makes no sense to exclude emotions from our conception of the mind’. What seems to be happening in some neuroscientific circles today is a return to the classical understanding of human understandings and cognition – that our emotions are an essential part of the process, that our emotions are the means by which we evaluate information and make decisions. This truth was obscured by the Enlightenment perspective that reason and emotion are necessarily opposed, and that the path to Enlightenment lay in repressing and controlling our emotions wherever possible. (In contrast to this the great spiritual traditions have always been concerned with educating our emotions – a very different thing.)

What I am describing here can be easily shown. Compare these two statements:
a) your spouse is a teacher;
b) your spouse is an adulterer.

Most normal people would react differently to these two statements, simply because one is more ‘value laden’ than the other. In other words, we care about some things more than other things. In terms of deciding what is most important in life, our reasoning can’t give us answers on its own. We have to involve our whole bodies, our whole souls – and hence, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul”.

Now two analogies, to bring out what I am trying to describe. First, imagine a map, imagine that it represents our understanding of the world, with different areas of the map corresponding to different areas of our lives, and some areas are given more space than others – so our immediate families get more space than distant relatives and acquaintances. That might be a normal map. Now imagine that someone who is really, really interested in castles is forming their map, and on their map there is a tremendous area given over to castles. If we were able to compare maps, this map would stick out because it had so much space given over to this one element, emphasised well beyond a true proportion. In other words, their map is distorted – this person actually understands reality differently, as if they were wearing lenses that blurred their vision.

The second analogy is of a spider’s web, whereby the spider’s web is the map of an area. There was a series of experiments where spiders were fed certain substances and they saw what difference it made to the web they spun. A normal good spider’s web is fairly uniform, regular and it covers the area where the spider is trying to catch food. So that’s that’s a true spider’s web, it’s a sensible, realistic spider’s web. However, spiders that had been fed different substances all had things wrong with them. The spider fed LSD spun a disconcertingly perfect web; the one fed marijuana did not complete the web; the one fed caffeine had the worst web of all. This is a good symbol for what can go wrong when our judgement is impaired.

The point is this: we can think of our reasoning ability, our logical processing ability, as being like a blanket spread over our emotional understandings. If the emotional understandings change, then the reasons follow it, the shape of the reason will follow it. Our emotional life is the bedrock and our reason simply flows over the top. There is a wonderful book by Martha Nussbaum, an American philosopher, called “Upheavals of Thought,” where she goes through great classical literature describing how this happens. It is something which is very much a current interest of contemporary philosophy and neuroscience. But it’s not a new insight.

The philosopher David Hume once said that “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” So reason is a tool; our logic, our reason is a tool, and it rests upon our emotional constitution – and our emotional constitution is concerned with values, with what is perceived as important. Some things are perceived as more important than others, and we react differently due to those emotional differences.

Now I can explain what idolatry is. Idolatry is making something more important than it really is. Simple as that. Contemporary theologians have a phrase about “making the penultimate, ultimate”. It comes from a mid twentieth century theologian called Paul Tillich, and this was the academic insight which I grasped when I was an atheist (I am sure it was one of the major reasons why I moved away from atheism because once you realise what idolatry is, then of course you don’t want to make things more important than they really are and logically, once you have accepted that you can’t get away from the reality of God). Making something which is penultimate, ultimate, making something which is important but not the most important, into the most important thing – this is what idolatry is. It is getting our priorities wrong.

For the faithful, God is the single most important thing in life. Moreover, if God is at the centre then everything else falls into its proper place. This is not an insight restricted to Christianity, or even restricted to Judaism and Islam as well. The beginning of the Tao Te Ching says “The tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao” If it can be named or described it is not the ultimate. Anything which we can specify in words, anything that we can point to is not the ultimate. We cannot capture God. God always eludes us. Our brains cannot capture Him.

One abstract rule for this is: “God is never the member of a class.” We can think of a class of objects, a class of things which are green, a class of things which are wonderful, a class of things which exist. God is never the member of a class. So in strict terms, God does not exist. We have got a very good idea of what it means to exist: we have myriad objects within the universe as examples. However, God is not an object within the universe. God’s existence underlies everything else, but to say strictly philosophically speaking that God exists is to go beyond what we can actually say. This is very important: God is always beyond us.

A different way of putting this is to say: only the holy can see truly, it is only the saints who can see the world clearly. In so far as our hearts are set on God then we see the truth. If we don’t have our hearts set on God and God alone then our vision of the world is more or less distorted. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

What are the ways in which this idolatry can form? Monolatry is when you worship one thing, that is, give highest value to it, and that one thing then becomes the most important thing in your world and everything else has to shift around it. You might be an absolutely dedicated football fan and you have to go to every match that your team plays. You might be obsessive about a television serial and insist on watching every episode no matter what else is happening. Once you have grasped what this is you can see it everywhere. The golden calf is a wonderful image for this. For most people, it’s not as clear and you have polytheism, many gods. It might be – oh, my family has this much importance, my work has this much importance, my friendships have this much importance, my pleasures in life, this has this much importance and there is nothing beyond them. This is where most people actually live, navigating between different competing interests, muddling along, but there is nothing which integrates them. There is nothing which puts them all in their proper place and actually allows them to flourish fully, to be fully human. Another option is simply chaos. Which is the position that Phineas Gage ends up in. They are driven by the momentary impulse, it becomes a biological thing. Rather like the dogs in ‘Up’ whenever a squirrel is mentioned, the dog will just pursue whatever the impulse is. Again, there are many people who function like that.

Everyone has a hierarchy of values – the truth is that everyone worships something. It’s impossible to be human and not have a sense of some things being more important that others, everyone builds their life around something. Now it could be that they build their life around various things, like polytheism, but everyone has a sense of what’s important. This is the sense in which it is true that everyone has a religion, and some religions are not as helpful, as holy as others. To quote Bob Dylan, “You’ve gotta serve somebody.”

Where the value system is severely distorted it is often described using the language of addiction – a clear example is an heroin addict – the process of being addicted to something where the life, the wider richness of life gets drained out and all that the junkie can do is think about their next fix. They gear their life around getting the money to get their next high. That is a very good image of what idolatry is. It doesn’t have to be a physical addiction, it can be a mental addiction as well.

An important truth about idols is that idols give what they promise. If an idol is worshipped, the idol will grant the worshippers’ requests. Heroin, to take that example, does give a tremendous high – it gives what it promises – but it takes away life in exchange. That is what an idol is. Mammon, for example, the god of money or wealth (an idol which Jesus talks about which is still very prevalent in our society) – if you worship Mammon, if you structure your life around Mammon, you will gain wealth. That is a spiritual, practical law, if you worship wealth, you will become wealthy. The kick is that you will lose your life in the process. Your life will be drained away. For what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?

Jeremiah: “Everyone is senseless and without knowledge, every goldsmith is shamed by his idols, his images are flawed they have no breath in them, they are worthless, the objects of mockery and when their judgement comes, they will perish. But he who is the portion of Jacob is not like these, for he is the maker of all things including Israel the tribe of his inheritance, the Lord Almighty is His name.”

In other words, if you worship the living God you gain life, life in all its fullness. This is what Jesus came to grant us. To reveal the living God and to give us that life, life in abundance, which is His intention for us. However, if you worship any other God, you will get what those gods can provide, and they will take your life in exchange; they will destroy life. It is only the living God who grants life, that is why the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered the problems of life remain completely untouched.”

How is it, then, that in a culture with such a long and profound Christian history, we have forgotten about idolatry? In a word: science. Science is the predominant idol of our age. There are two ways in which science can become a idol. One is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that’s called positivism. This approach took shape in the nineteenth century but it is implicit in much that goes on for a hundred years before then. Positivism argues that only things which can be established by reason or by empirical proof and investigation are valid knowledge. Anything else gets kicked out. Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says, “If we take take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That’s the attitude of positivism.

The other way of turning science into an idol is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation, this is more important that anything else. This is actually the idolatry of fundamentalism, and it has had a pernicious effect upon Christian faith. It is not commonly understood that Biblical fundamentalism springs from the scientific revolution, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens. The Bible is put through a meat grinder because what you want out from the end is a scientific sausage. Particular forms of knowledge are seen as higher than others – science is seen as the most valuable – and so, in order to preserve the value of the Bible it has to be seen as the most authoritative scientific text. That is what fundamentalism is, that is how it functions.

Wittgenstein again: “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc., to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, scientific knowledge and awareness, compared to the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, one form of knowing is considered vastly more important than the other. In fact narrative is the most important. Our way of telling stories to each other is the means by which our emotional bedrock is formed. This is why the Old Testament says to the people of Israel that they must tell their children this story about the Lord leading them out of Egypt, why Passover is important, “why is this night greater than any other night”, and they tell the story. This is why we have the Bible as it is, because the Bible is a story. It’s not because we can extract scientific facts from it, it is because this story governs our story. That is how and why the Bible is inspired by God. This is the story of God’s actions in the world, within which we fit and that is why the Bible is the supreme text.
Romans 12 v 32: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is, His good, pleasing and perfect will.”

This idolatry of science is something that our culture has recognised repeatedly, but the criticism has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst the poets and playwrights – those whose academic credibility is not strong. The mythology of Faust developed when the scientific revolution was taking off, and it captures the truth: Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain some scientific knowledge and only realises at the end that it was a bad bargain. Or the the legend of Frankenstein, or any of the myriad stories when you have got this white-coated mad scientist, “Aha, I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. They are all describing consequences of an idolatry, where science is given more value, more importance than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed in consequence.
In the film “The Matrix”, the heroes are kept within a machine world. They have electrodes implanted in their brain which give them the illusion of living in a real world and our hero, Neo, breaks out from this. In order to break out from it (because he realises that something is wrong) he goes to see Morpheus who is the terrorist, who the authorities are trying to correct and suppress. Neo has this conversation with Morpheus, and Morpheus says: “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain but you feel it. You have felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

We know that there is something profoundly wrong with our world, but we have not been able to put our finger on it. What’s wrong with our world is that it is profoundly idolatrous, it is not built upon the love of the living God. Our society, the things which our society values and esteems and rewards, these are all idols. None of them in themselves are intrinsically wrong, Mammon, for example, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with material wealth, God promises the Israelites the Promised Land which is a land flowing with milk and honey – this is a vision of material wealth. But our society has elevated material wealth above God; it has been given too much importance. Now because our society has forgotten God, has turned it’s back on God, we are living in a profoundly distorted and dehumanising system, and in so far as we live and share in this society, we are sharing in that distorted life, and deep down we know that it’s wrong. Do you know what I’m talking about?

I am talking about the idolatry of science – that scientific knowledge is seen as either the only valid knowledge, or the most important knowledge. Both of those attitudes are idolatrous and destroy life. However, what we need to remember about idols is that they begin life as something good, they have simply been elevated beyond their proper importance. So what is the original goodness and holiness in science? I would say that the holiness in science rests upon setting the emotional desires of the investigator to one side. There is a Greek word apatheia – think of the word apathy, which is what that word has now come down to us as. It means being uncommitted or uninvolved emotionally – an emotional distancing. This happens in science because the scientist is pursuing the truth about the world. What they are after, what they are trying to attend to, is what the world is actually like – not what they want the world to be like. So a true scientist will put their own desires to one side, they will submit to the process of scientific method, in order to pursue the truth. This requires a discipline, a training. You have to be trained in the attitudes of science, you have to learn what I call the apathistic stance. In order to become a scientist you have to be trained in how to investigate. I remember my ‘O’ Level Physics and Chemistry, where the scientific method was spelt out: this is what you do in order to ensure that your own biases, your own emotional desires, are put to one side. There was a particular method, a process in order to investigate things.
Now this is a spiritual discipline, it is a form of holiness. It is one of the core spiritual disciplines about keeping our own emotions and desires in check. I talked earlier about ‘only the holy can see truly’, and that is the Christian expression of this spiritual truth, but there are parallels in other faiths. In Buddhism, for example, this teaching is much clearer than it is in most forms of Christianity – in Buddhism it is described as the elimination of desire, for they see desire as the root of all suffering. The Buddhist’s aim is ‘a perfect state of non-attachment’, to become completely unattached to the world and when you gain this state of being unattached to the world, you see the world clearly. (By way of a side track, Christianity is about the formation of desire, it is not about the elimination of desire.)

Let us return to the apathistic stance. Remember: emotions are cognitive. In other words we learn things about the world through our emotional reactions, and our emotional reactions can teach us. This process of apatheia, the apathistic stance, is a way of learning more about the world, of learning in particular more about the physical and natural world, because the physical and natural world doesn’t really depend upon our emotional reaction to it. Our emotional reactions do not govern the truth. As with all tools, however, we need to learn how to use them properly – and this has not happened with regard to science. This process of emotionally disengaging from what we are trying to discover in order to discern more truth, learning how to put our own desires to one side, this discipline is a tool, and we need to learn how to use the tool, how to put it into a broader framework, a broader vision. We are not here to worship the tool. That is what the idolatry of science is. When Positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, this is worshipping the tool: it is the intellectual equivalent of walking around with a hammer chanting “this hammer’s going to save me, this hammer’s going to save me.” Once you understand it, it is obviously ridiculous behaviour. The use of a tool requires power over a tool and the ancient language which talks about how to gain power over a tool is the language of virtue (virtue simply means power). We need to change our desires, our will, and become virtuous again. We need to will towards the highest virtue: the love of God.
What the prophets teach is that God doesn’t allow idolatry to continue forever, that he will bring to an end such idolatry in wrath and fury. Our present way of life cannot continue, exponential growth within a finite environment cannot continue. This is good, for our present way of life is a terrible, terrible pestilence on creation. Our way of living – the western way of life, with its excess consumerism, all the things which it holds up to be of value – this way of life destroys life. The vision of Christian life, of full humanity, is that there is a way of life shown to us by Christ which allows us to be all that God wants us to be. However, in order to get to that Promised Land, we need to see and perceive the truth about the present way of the world, in order to reject it, in order to say this is false, this is idolatrous, this destroys life – and I choose life.

“I have set before you this day a choice, choose life that you and your descendants may live.” That is what God says through Moses to the Israelites in the desert. I think we have to hear those words today. The crisis which will break our civilisation down has begun.