Bible, Science, Philosophy

Here’s the outline of a talk I’m giving soon. Enjoy.
I may fill it in more later.

5pm Start.

Play 4min clip from Francis Collins (former head of the human genome project) on how he became a Christian.
(from here)

Religion & Jesus.

Naturalism & Richard Dawkins.

Science – how I came to care about it.

[books – The Fifth Miracle, Darwin’s Black Box, The Way of The Cell, & Nature’s Destiny]
What I think about it now.

The Bible – what’s your interpretive lens?

What’s the nature of the God revealed in the Bible?

What about the early chapters of Genesis?

Historicity – a couple of case studies
What are the hard questions remaining?
What’s the consistent message of the Bible?

Philosophy – briefly, how it relates to God and science and living well.



cognitive democracy

Here’s an interesting idea I haven’t seen formalised or analysed before – the ‘common consent argument‘ for the existence of God.

At its core, it is the claim that:

the fact that the majority of the world are theists is evidence for the existence of God.

This raises three questions for me:

1) Given that this is evidence, can this evidence be debunked (fully or only to some extent?) by an evolutionary account of our cognitive development?
2) More generally, is a putative naturalistic explanation of a claim that is supposed to support theism enough to obliterate the evidential support, or does it only weaken it?
The situation dialectically when the claim is introduced is:  (P is probability, C is ‘the claim is true’, T is theism, N is naturalism)
P(C|T)  is higher than P(C|N) – this therefore constitutes some evidence for T over N.
The naturalist then gives a naturalistic explanation of C, represented as ‘X’. What follows? Well, for one, it’s not necessarily the case that now P(C|N&X) > P(C|T), or that P(C|N&X) = P(C|T). It’s going to depend on whether the explanation is a good one – I think, specifically, on whether it is true, equivalent to something like asking whether P(X|N&B) is high, where ‘B’ is our background knowledge, but I’m not sure. Hopefully I’ll get to read more about probability sometime soonish.
3) Is there such a thing as a ‘generic’ belief in God, which isn’t specific to particular religions? And, is this something that is shared by, say, Muslims and Christians? I’m strongly inclined to think the answer is yes (based on my interpretation of Romans 1 in particular, along with what I’ve read in the cognitive psychology of religion). Perhaps I’ll do some more work on it in future.

A PhD on the EAAN, and other acronyms

I’m currently reading through part of a PhD thesis on the EAAN written in 2010 (note the rhyme there). Incidentally, I’m probably in over my head with this little project, effectively trying to take on naturalism in one of its supposedly strongest domains – the philosophies of mind and science/probability, apparently with little competent support other than Plantinga himself.

A specific which drives me near to despair: the thesis mentioned devotes (as far as I can tell) approximately a page to summarily dismissing the possibility that R is high on either Epiphenomenalism or Semantic Epiphenomenalism (SE). That seems rather quick, to say the least. Worse, the author gets Semantic Epiphenomenalism quite wrong, claiming under SE there are “links between beliefs and behaviors, but no causal links”. Actually, Semantic Epiphenomenalism according to Plantinga (Probability and Defeaters, 2003) is “belief is causally connected with behavior, but just by virtue of its neurophysiological properties and not by virtue of its content”. I wonder, how could this error get into a PhD thesis? Perhaps it’s considered a simplification, but it’s a bizarre one.

More ranting on this and related things may be added later. …



Getting noticed

On one of my numerous blog-trawling sessions atm (trust me, these things are useful!), I’m skimming a book on Amazon. I quite like the “LOOKINSIDE!” feature at that site. Btw, when I find a book that looks interesting, I get the info from Amazon (at least for starters) and look at bookdepository to see if I might be able to afford/justify-buying it sometime.

The book I’m skimming is “Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World”, by Michael Hyatt.

Once upon a time I might’ve bought the book on a whim or at least considered it, but since my stacks of unread volumes are piling up and my wishlist extends to over 100 (and my bank account dwindles, and student loan looms), I’ll be content to skim for now. Let me quote from page 7:

“We don’t need more messages or products or services. Instead, we need better messages, products, and services.” 

Simple but profound.

The message of the first few pages of the book helped raise a question for me, as I’m in the process of trying to reimagine and revitalise a group I’m part of: what kind of groups do people want to be a part of; what kind would my friends want to be a part of? This leads me to reflect:
I think it’s pretty clear – people want to be part of (amongst other characteristics) warm, intelligent groups with a good sense of humour which are open at the edges but solid at the centre. They want to be refreshed rather than drained. They want to get away from superficiality to things that matter, but only if they are comfortable with the group environment. They want to be heard and to be recognised as important.

So, let’s hope for more such communities!

If anyone wonders, the heart of my blog-trawling experiences tend to revolve around this blog: – I guess because it reviews lots of books, is Christ-centred (or at least attempts to be), and has plenty of interesting links.

What a Scientist should know – comments for the BSc review

This was my hastily typed submission to the review of the BSc degree at my uni. I feel so responsible and community-minded!

There are two suggestions I would like to make regarding the Bachelor of Science programme design and curriculum:
1) reasons to add a “scientific foundations” component to the degree.
2) consider more interactive tutorials and a common lunch hour – for student wellbeing

Firstly, students enrolled in the Bachelor of Science degree would benefit from core science knowledge and skills being a compulsory or highly-recommended part of the degree.

Scientists should have some sense of the underpinnings of the scientific project. This involves an introduction to the history, philosophy and ethics of engaging in science. Basic competency in mathematics and statistics should also I think be a requirement for graduating with a science degree. Majoring in economics requires taking a calculus paper – yet, while mathematics is at least as important in science, many BSc students do not have an even more basic competency with algebra, graphical representation and the like. Similarly and perhaps more importantly, understanding statistical concepts is a prerequisite for reading scientific literature. Similarly scientific writing and communication skills are also basic requirements for progressing on to postgraduate studies or finding employment, yet anecdotally many science students lack practice in these areas; while some disciplines require large lab reports at undergraduate level, a few involve very little writing and/or verbal communication.

To summarise, core skills ought to be built into the degree; I suggest these include the philosophy of science, statistical understanding and scientific communication. This could be achieved through implementing “core courses”, or modifying existing courses, making them “highly recommended”. I anticipate that a “Foundations of Science” course created with input from other disciplines such as history and philosophy could be a very popular component of an appropriately holistic Bachelor of Science degree.

Finally, the Bachelor of Science degree could benefit from the efforts towards promoting community, as is achieved in some non-science courses. Many Arts courses have interactive tutorials, where students engage with their lecturer or a tutor, as well as with a group of other students, in a format which promotes discussion, engagement and critical thought. Many science lectures are large and consequently quite impersonal; while laboratories can be an opportunity for developing practical skills, asking questions of tutors, and perhaps making friends, students could benefit significantly from a greater emphasis on interaction and sharing of ideas and questions. A related concern is that the timing of laboratories and classes can leave very little (to no) breaks for students, often for stretches of 5+ hours during the middle of the day. A common science-wide lunch hour without classes, even just once a week, could be an opportunity to develop community – for instance, with students being encouraged to be involved in clubs, or to attend faculty events.

‘Religion’ and the Infidels

There is a tendency in our culture to consider ‘religion’ as a unit. If you come across someone advocating religion, you can know basically what they’re on about and you can surmise that they’re a nutter, to some extent or another.

It strikes me that this view of religion could only flourish in a very secular context. (Of course, NZ and western nations more generally are not thoroughly secularized in terms of religion having been eradicated, or anywhere near it – but it has largely been successfully removed from public discussion and education/science, and these are the areas I’m interested in). It’s a similar view, it seems to me, as one that could’ve been held by a religious person (let’s say a Christian), in the middle ages. For him or her, there were two classes of people: Christians (or Muslims, etc.) and heathens – or if you prefer, ‘infidels’.

Such a categorization strikes us nowadays as a bit silly; clearly people have different reasons for not being a Christian (etc.), and you can’t just treat them all the same! (Atheists, for instance, it might be thought deserve some kind of special treatment, as a result of the greater degree of rationality inherent to their kind). But regularly we see religions grouped together as if they were an amorphous blob of human ideas and behaviours; “sure there’s some differences, but they’re all essentially the same, damn-it!” And not only amorphous, but amorphously evil and/or useless, if you take the writings of some self-proclaimed public intellectuals seriously. You’ve got Religion in one corner, cowering away in the face of impending Progress, and standing triumphant on the other side (or perhaps trampling upon Religion), there’s us, the rational scientific normal ones, occasionally wondering why the Other persists even now in this Enlightened moment of history.

A more nuanced study of religion will be careful to acknowledge areas of difference as well as similarity in the claims made by the world’s many faiths. Recognition that secularism and atheism can also be subjected to sociological and psychological study can also help cultivate humility in this area. Perhaps particularly frustrating is when one of the myriad (and inconsistent) secular explanations of religious belief is trumpeted as adding to the ascendency of Science, or secularism, over religion. The converse possibility of giving explanations of secularism or unbelief (or even, gasp, science!) which rely on theological premises does not interest many people; after all, we know that the secular account is always superior, right?

The vicious circularity frequently cropping up within the project of secular debunkings of religion is worth a careful ponder next time you’re tempted to be impressed by it.