My attitude to science

(repost – thought it was relevant)
This has come up in the comments again. I thought I’d put together a list of some of the things I’ve written about the scientific approach, rather than retyping the wheel.

Probably the best place to start is this post: The Holiness of Stuart Staniford, as I do see something holy in scientific endeavour (not really surprising as it has such deep theological roots) and I believe it would be a tragedy if scientific research were to be repudiated in our society.

My main problem with science as it is received and worshipped in our culture is that it is apathistic, in other words it is systematically blind to what we most value. If we are to defend what we most value, we must be prepared to topple science from its perch.

That perch is embedded in a particular story. My paraphrase of that story is written up as: the mythology of science.

My longest discussion of science can be found in my Let us be human sequence, and the transcript of the relevant lecture is here.

I think what I would most want to stress is that the great majority of my criticisms of the way science is revered and estimated in our culture are valid independently of any claim for the truth of Christian faith. Which is why sophisticated atheists agree with most of them 😉

“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered the problems of life remain completely untouched.” (Wittgenstein again)

Does the internet matter?

A train of thought prompted by the Dawkinsnet kerfuffle.

I would say: it matters in the same way any other human activity matters. In the end, it will all pass away into nothingness.

The merit is what happens whilst we are working on it.

The real motorcycle is yourself.

Which is why the crass stupidity of the administrators has caused such anguish. A part of the self has been torn away.

Here is where I would say: only religious language can deal with this phenomena. “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.”

Actually, this post is very relevant to the Dawkinsnet situation. I might bring it up front.

The atheists didn’t expect the Inquisition

Seems like the idol of reason isn’t so reasonable after all. Very interesting kerfuffle going on about

Start with Ruth here, then have a read of these two posts (for a very different perspective).

So: the forum was an active community with thousands of heavily invested participants (ten times bigger than the front page) which has now not just been shut down but largely deleted. If someone came along and deleted my blog – or if some technical problem deleted the blog – I would feel bereft. It was bad enough when I lost about nine months worth of e-mails last year when my PC died. So I can understand the mental anguish that this has caused.

Also, bluntly, if Prof Dawkins doesn’t make a very strong effort to fix this – and counteract the impression that he doesn’t care for all the people who have rallied to his cause over the last several years – then i) his leadership of same is over and ii) the cause he has been promoting for so long has been grievously hindered.

Supersense and the porpoises

Bernard Moitessier:

“I hear familiar whistlings and hurry out, as always when porpoises are around. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many at once. The water is white with their splashing, furrowed in all directions by the knives of their dorsal fins. There must be close to a hundred. I would like to shoot some film, but it is too dark; the shots would not turn out, and I have not film to waste. An hour ago they would have given me the most beautiful pictures of the trip, with the sun all around. A tight line of 25 porpoises swimming abreast goes from stern to stem on the starboard side, in three breaths, then the whole group veers right and rushes off at right angles, all the fins cutting the water together and in the same breath taken on the fly.
I watch, wonderstruck. More than ten times they repeat the same thing. Even if the sun were to return, I could not tear myself away from all this joy, all this life, to get out the [camera]. I have never seen such a perfect ballet. And each time, it is to the right that they rush off, whipping the sea white for thirty yards. They are obeying a precise command, that is for sure… They seem nervous…
Something pulls me, something pushes me. I look at the compass. Joshua is running downwind at 7 knots straight for Stewart Island, hidden in the stratus. The steady west wind had shifted around to the south without my realizing it… I drop the mizzen staysail, then trim the sheets and set the wind vane for a beat…
I go back on deck after just a few drags on my cigarette. There are as many porpoises as before. But now they play with Joshua, fanned out ahead, in single file alongside, with the very lithe, very gay movements I have always known. And then something wonderful happens: a big black and white porpoise jumps ten or twelve feet in the air in a fantastic somersault, with two complete rolls. And he lands flat, tail forward. Three times he does his double roll, bursting with tremendous joy, as if he were shouting to me and all the other porpoises: ‘The man understood that we were trying to tell him to sail to the right… you understood…. you understood… keep on like that, it’s all clear ahead!'”


Bruce Hood (Supersense):

“Every religion has a supernatural component, but not all supernaturalism is religious. I could be an atheist and still think I have abilities that go beyond nature but without the need to believe in God. This is important because while all religions come from culture, that is not true for all supernatural beliefs.”

“…our intuitions from an early age provide a fertile soil for creationism, whether we stumble on it ourselves or are led to it through religious doctrines. These include:

  1. There are no random events or patterns in the world.
  2. Things are caused by intention.
  3. Complexity cannot happen spontaneously but must be a product of someone’s plan to design them for a purpose.
  4. All living things are essentially different because of some invisible property inside them.”

“We all know what it is to be irrational. Humans are destined to make mistakes of rationality. This irrationality reflects supernatural assumptions that appeal to patterns, forces, and energies categorically denied by science. We don’t have our rational radar on all the time. Sometimes our behaviour and decisions are based on inferring the presence of things that science tells us do not exist. That’s because the idea of there being something more to reality is such a common ingredient in so much of our human behaviour, irrespective of whether we are religious or not.”


Robin Knox-Johnston:

“The sea and ships are great levellers… I am always amazed when looking over the Victory in Portsmouth that a thousand men could be jammed into that small space for years at a time. A harsh discipline (to our modern eyes), teamwork, self-reliance, trust in their officers and each other, formed the pattern of their lives, but they were also brought face to face with the colossal natural forces that one meets at sea. Their whole existence depended upon their ability to come to terms with the wind and sea, and to use these forces to drive their ship.

It is not surprising that most of them thought more than their counterparts ashore about the cause of these forces, and not in the least surprising to me that so many were strongly superstitious or developed unshakeable religious beliefs, and sometimes both. I have found myself thinking deeply on the matter when out in rough weather in a small boat. It is all very well for someone sitting in an office to explain logically how the waves can build up before the wind, for we have discovered the natural laws that control this, but to a seaman, the explanation of these laws does not always seem to be sufficient. However practical you like to think you are, the feeling comes that there is more to it all than just natural laws, and if you have been brought up in a society that bases its philosophy upon the existence of a Superior Being, you come to consider that this Being is responsible, and to accept that he exists…
On my own in Suhaili, dealing with the elements in a straightforward manner and with only the basic rules of the sea to go by, things appeared in a far less complicated light than they do when surrounded by the diversions of civilization. The answers I came up with then seemed both simple and honest. I stored them for future reference in the private corners of my mind; right or wrong they will always be there.”


From Psalm 107:
” 23 Others went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.

24 They saw the works of the LORD,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.

25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.

26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.

27 They reeled and staggered like drunken men;
they were at their wits’ end.

28 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.

29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.

30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.

31 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for men.

32 Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people
and praise him in the council of the elders.”

Reasonable Atheism (33): Moral generativity

Just pursuing a theme from the previous post (and it links in with bls’s comment): one of the ways in which I see the humourless atheist position as deficient is that I believe it is severely lacking in moral generativity. I need to explain what I mean by that.

Pursuing the good life involves rules, but it’s not ultimately a matter of following rules. There needs to be some awareness of the good that is sought by the following of rules; in other words, over time, what is most needed is an awareness of when the rules need to be broken in order to preserve what the rules were there for in the first place! This is the Christian debate about Law and Grace, but you don’t have to use theological language to understand the point.

Any creative or craftsman-like endeavour involves an awareness of learning the rules, then learning when to break the rules. There is an aphorism that goes something like: the student follows the rules, the rebel breaks the rules, the master transcends the rules (because both the rebel and the student are equally bound into rule following).

Now, when we are talking about how to navigate our lives, how to determine what is valuable and what is trivial, what sort of shape of life to pursue – Christians have recourse not just to a two-thousand year history of rules and rule development; they also have access to the founding narratives which provide a context within which to argue about whether the rules are right or not. This allows for something new to develop within the understanding of the faith. There is a space within which new forms of rules, and new understandings of the rules, and new understandings of how to assess the rules (ie to look at the rules from above) can come. In other words, there are resources here with which to build a life creatively, not just from an assembly line. This is what I mean by moral generativity.

This is important because whilst human nature remains more or less constant, the cultural situations within which humans find themselves change all the time, and thus the moral discernment needed has to develop over time too. Consider: what is the morality of using a car? We are in a new situation, we need to develop new thinking. Christianity has the resources required to meet this sort of question, as do other wisdom traditions.

I want to know what the moral resources are for a humourless atheist? What are the guiding narratives and structures from which the integrity of a life can be built, which allow a space within which to pursue the good life? Humourless atheism, just does not seem to have this. It is parasitic on other wisdom traditions – principally, but not exclusively, Christianity.

(Of course, as soon as a positive answer is given to this line of questioning, the humourless atheist is no longer such – now there is a positive hook on which to hang identity. More on that another time.)

Reasonable Atheism (32): How do you navigate your life?

Christianity – or, more precisely, Jesus himself, as LOGOS – provides the context through which I understand the meaning of my life. It expresses the framework by which I assess what is valuable and what is trivial, what counts as good and evil. It’s not simply that I download a Christian operating system and then run it on my wetware; there is a discussion and argument and interrogation and self-analysis and slowly, over time, I own more and more of the Christian world-view. It becomes a central part of who I am. There are some exceptions, some grey areas, some bits where I suspect I will one day understand, some bits where I think I will always resist. But Christianity is the framework; it is, in a real sense, how I navigate my life. It tells me (expresses for me) what way is up.

One way of distinguishing between a reasonable and a humourless atheist is that the former understands this and, indeed, can offer an answer to the question ‘How do you navigate your life?’ There will then be an offering of their own navigation system, whether that be a different faith or something like humanism or Stoicism. Whereas a humourless atheist will normally try and avoid the question, often trying to argue that is makes no sense – in other words, they don’t ‘get it’ (hence, they are humourless).

Whereas I find that the most interesting of conversations come when we find out what it is that people most value, and how they are then able to talk about them, and to establish common ground and areas of difference. It is the sort of thing that can enable those of different faiths (or different varieties of the same faith, or those of no faith) to come together on common projects.

Humourless atheists can’t take part in this conversation. I think they miss out on something essentially human as a result. Of course, I also think that such a position is incoherent and unjustifiable – but that’s the point of distinguishing one atheism from another.

Is this a strawman? Are there any humourless atheists? Sam Harris would appear to be one.

Other posts on atheism here.