Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The terrible earthquake and resulting tsunami in Asia has led to a fair amount of soul searching by religious people. It has, less creditable led to some gloating by atheists as well as rather more measured reactions questioning God (such as this from Martin Kettle in the Guardian).

The Problem of Evil is the name usually given to the question as to why an all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing God (the so-called omnimax conditions) allows bad things to happen to good people. The problem first came to a head in the eighteenth century when Hume and Voltaire, the later inspired by another earthquake, asked how God lets evil happen. Oddly, it is rarely those who are actually suffering who doubt God, but rather those who witness the suffering of others from the comfort of their armchairs. For instance, the burning of heretics is a standard example of God being implicated in evil deeds, but the heretics themselves would not dream of using such an argument against his existence. There may be a few atheists in foxholes, but not many.

Evil done by man to other men is explained by the freewill defence. This states that God allowing us to do evil is the price we pay for freewill which is a greater good overall. Not everyone finds this satisfactory but I am willing to accept it as an explanation for moral wrong. It doesn't help at all for earthquakes.

Another explanation is to deprive God of his omnimax status. This is appealing for a number of reasons. First, the Bible gives very little support for the idea that God is infinitely powerful. Rather he is powerful beyond our comprehension which still allows a limit long before we get to infinite. Another limitation, accepted by nearly all theologians, is that God is limited by logic. He cannot make a stone so heavy he can't lift it. He cannot make a square circular or two plus two equal five. Nor, of course, can he make us free and unable to sin. Theologians also claim that God cannot defy his own nature - that he cannot sin or force us to sin. It is entirely possible that logic dictates the kind of universe that he can create as well. Clearly he requires that the universe has integrity and that it runs itself according to the laws he has laid down. Contra Newton, God does not need to step in every once in a while and realign all the planets that have gone astray. It may well be that a universe capable of producing life has to contain certain factors whose trade-offs include natural disasters. God can either step in and prevent the disasters or he can decide that the universe's integrity is more important and that it must be allowed to develop unimpeded.

Where do these possibilities leave us with earthquakes? Why are they necessary? Can we think of a world that works as well as ours but where they do not happen? Frankly, no. Earthquakes are a result of plate tectonics. As the plates on the Earth's surface move around, occasion jolts are inevitable. But why have plate tectonics? For the answer to that we need to look at the Earth's sister planet Venus which has a single solid crust. This sounds great until we realise that the entire surface of the planet is made up of rocks the same age. Every few hundred million years, Venus overheats and the entire crust turns to an enormous field of magna and then reforms once the excess heat has been ejected. So if Earth didn't have tectonic plates and earthquakes there would be no life here at all. Why have a hot core to the planet? Because its flow generates the Earth's magnetic field that protects us from getting nuked by the solar wind generated by the sun.... And so it goes on. There is a reason for everything and some things that are absolutely necessary have side effects that we regret.

None of this helps the victims in Asia. For them, we should dig deep into our pockets. But they should be in our prayers too as God welcomes those who have died and offers his comfort to those who survive. And how much worse it would be if death really is the end? Above all, our trust in God gives us hope even when nature has done her worst.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Wishing a very Happy Christmas to all readers!

We may not know the date on which Jesus was born but it still makes sense to warm up the cold of winter with a celebration of the Incarnation - the day when God opened his eyes in the world of men. I mus say that seeing all the snowmen and reindeer in the shop windows in South Africa during the heat of summer just didn't feel right!

I'll be back in the New Year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

There has been a good deal in the news recently about how Google is going to scan millions of books and put them on-line for free. This is certainly a very good thing and will make matters much easier even for those of us who hold more library cards than credit cards. However, the books that will be on-line will all necessarily be out of copyright and so will not include anything that is really up to date. This does have some disadvantages of which we have already had a taster when debating with sceptics. Because old books are going to be much more easily available, we can expect internet scribblers to use them as authorities even when they are completely superceded and inaccurate. This has already happened with the Internet Infidels library that contains various 19th century anti-Christian rants mascarading as history. These are constantly pointed to by sceptics when they are asked to justify their assertions about scientists being burnt at the stake or the Church saying the earth is flat. So it is likely that Google will end up privileging out of date material over current scholarship simply by making the out of date stuff more easily available to armchair researchers.

Of course, Google's initiative is an overwealmingly good thing but I fear we will all have to get used to pointing out that it does not mean there is now a substitute for actually trudging around the library stacks looking for the latest scholarship.

Monday, December 20, 2004

I'm back from a delightful honeymoon in Cape Town. It is a real shock to be returning to the northern hemisphere winter. On Thursday, we went to an outdoor carol concert in the shadow of Table Mountain under the stars. Needless to say, outdoor carol concerts are something of a rarity in England...

I notice a few people have been adding comments to some older posts. This is welcome (although not all the comments were exactly sensible!) but it is better to stick to recent posts as older ones tend to get lost and comments on them go unnoticed. I hope I've now replied to all the emails that I received while I was away, but if you are waiting for a reply then let me know. Also, I've finished Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate and Roger Steer's Letter to an Influential Atheist so will write up reviews soon.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Some news on a personal front.

On Sunday I am getting married to a beautiful and intelligent woman called Vanessa and we are then setting off for Cape Town for our honeymoon. This means I will be effectively off-line for two weeks and I am also unlikely to be able to reply to any emails that arrive in this period. After that it is the Christmas season which is also rather busy so don't expect a regular service to resume before early January!

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

I've been reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate on and off for a while now but hope to finish it fairly soon. It is actually not a terribly good book as it deals with either the blindingly obvious or the totally unjustified with very little in between. Pinker usually gives the impression he is talking to the converted rather than bothering to refute serious counter arguments. He also never questions his assumptions which means you get utterly fed up if you don't share them.

The book is intended to debunk three 'myths' which Pinker calls 'the blank slate', 'the ghost in the machine' and 'the noble savage'. The first of these is the belief that we are all determined by nurture rather than nature. Since no Christian can deny sinful human nature, this is really a dig at the political left who apparently claim we are born as a 'blank slate' and everything is down to our upbringing. There has been some controversy over this, especially with respect to racism and sexism, and Pinker is mainly just speaking common sense when he says that we need to take account of human nature rather than just wish it away. 'The noble savage' is the romantic idea that we are all good at heart and that savages untouched by western decadence all behave like angels. This I have come across a lot and its latest guise is to blame Europeans for all the Third World's problems. Again, no Christian can believe we are untainted at root or the corollary that we can create heaven on earth through our own efforts. 'The ghost in the machine' is the soul. To Pinker, this is another myth. As far as he is concerned, consciousness is nothing but an epi-phenomenon resulting from material processes. He does say this with utter confidence but I couldn't spot where he actually deals with all the arguments against materialism. He just assures us that 'neuroscience' has killed the soul and leaves it at that. In fact, there is an important debate here but Pinker doesn't touch it.

The main body of the book is intended to assure us that science has made the world safe for libertarians. Throughout this section, his arguments are either blindingly obvious (that genetic predisposition does not mean we will automatically become psychos) or totally unjustified (that moral responsibility exists even if we lack freewill). His efforts to explain sin as an evolutionary mechanism are deeply embarrassing as he clearly has no idea what he is talking about.

I'll post it here if the rest of the book provides anything useful but right now I'd only recommend it to the followers of Ayn Rand. My real interest is in the relationship between neuroscience and the soul. This, as I said, he hardly touches. Luckily a good few other writers do.