Monthly Archives: October 2010

An evening with Stephen Hawking

I heard some time ago that Prof Hawking was in the process of writing a new book, and had kept an eye on when it would be released. Shortly before I pre-ordered it, a friend pointed out that he would be presenting a public lecture at the Royal Albert Hall. This public lecture included a copy of the book, so I was quite happy to wait for a month and a half after publication for it.

Just prior to the release, the book was afforded a huge dose of publicity, by the interpretation of some in the media relating to theological claims in the book. Since the extracts were being published in the Times, and this is hidden behind a Murdoch-dictated paywall, I had to rely on scant quotes from it as cited by the BBC, Guardian and Independent.

The headlines were saying that Hawking had declared that God didn’t exist, although the quotes belied this position, as they instead seemed to indicate merely that God was not necessary for the creation of the universe. Over the course of a few days, the book picked up loads of free advertising with atheists and theists taking shots at one another. A lot of words were used (most of which have been heard before ad nauseam) yet very little was actually said. Another thing that was picked up, and was potentially the more interesting claim, was that “philosophy is dead.” More on this later.

Even though the above 3 named news outlets tend to be the most objective and fair minded, they still managed to quite sensationalist in the matter. So I decided it would be better to hear what he had to say himself, and to read the full text of what he had written. I have not yet read the book, so I can only comment on his lecture.

It was nice to see a venue as large as the Royal Albert Hall full of people wanting a public lecture on science, although the sight of the ticket touts outside was something I hadn’t expected. I am used to them for gigs, but not for lectures. Once I’d taken my seat, I was soon asked to take a photo of a group of rather excitable postgrads who were in the box behind me. Before long, we were ready to start, with Prof Jim Al-Khalili giving a very well-spoken introduction.

It was interesting, and really quite telling, that his opening gambit was to address the issue that had been the cause of the heightened publicity surrounding the publication of the new book. He stated that Prof Hawking was not here to discuss the existence or non existence of God, and he also refuted the claims that Hawking said God did not exist. He then put forth what Hawking’s view was. He said that “God” was the name we give to the reason we are here. And in Hawking’s opinion that reason is physics.

So really, there did not appear to have been a significant change from the pantheistic view Hawking had earlier propounded in A Brief History of Time. Although I thought this quite clear, it did strike me as odd the Prof Al-Khalili felt this needed saying at the start. Why couldn’t Prof Hawking address this during the lecture? It did seem another instance of words being put in Hawking’s mouth, although at least these ones did seem to chime with the evidence.

After just a few minutes, Prof Hawking was brought onto the stage. It took a couple of minutes for his assistant to hook up the microphone to his computer but eventually we were treated to a “Can you hear me” in that familiar, mechanised American voice. The Albert Hall is not the ideal venue for that kind of voice to be projected, and in many places throughout the evening it was quite difficult to make out what the professor was saying. On other occasions, there were prolonged pauses while the professor was inputting his speech into his computer. At times, this made a few people uncomfortable, but it was not a significant distraction.

To help his talk, there was a large screen up behind him which showed graphics of various degrees of helpfulness.

The first half an hour of the talk was spent covering a lot of Stephen’s earlier life. The screen showed various locations important to his life, although the accuracy of the map certainly left something to be desired. Oxford appeared to be just north of Cheltenham , London was magically moved on top of Reading and Cambridge was now parked on top of Peterborough!

He revealed that as a boy he was very interested in train sets, and was keen to understand how they worked. His philosophy was that understanding led to a feeling of control. I felt it was an interesting point to note, as it may help to understand his thinking about his own motor neurone disease, although he didn’t mention it explicitly in this context. Later on, he said that if we understand the universe, then we are the lords of it.

As a child, he spent some time living on the island of Majorca with his mother and sisters, whom he considered cleverer than he was. Though he didn’t learn to read until late on, he did learn and the key text he was given as an example of good English was the King James translation of the Bible. There was a problem with this, however. An analysis of the first word of each sentence in the first couple of books revealed that “And” was most commonly used. If the pie chart that went up on the screen was to be believed, then it accounts for the start of around a third of all of these sentences.

From there he moved on to his time as an undergraduate at Oxford. In those days, those who worked for their degrees were looked down upon. There weren’t exams every year, only the finals counted. Even for those, you were expected to pass on the basis of your brilliance alone. It was only when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease that he realised the value of work and how much he wanted to do in the time he had left alive, given that he was only expected to live for a few more years.

Since he did very little work, he was on the border between a first and second class degree, and had to go through a viva process. During this he was asked what he intended to do with his degree. His answer was that he intended to go into research, with the condition that if he got a 2:1 he would stay in Oxford, and if he got a first he would go to Cambridge. After a short pause, he said, “I got a first!”

At this point, he gave away something that I feel showed why he is a physicist and not a mathematician. He said that though he could follow equations, he never got a feel for gravity. My own experience of mathematicians and physicists is that mathematicians get an instinctive feel for equations and then see what the final result looks like in a physical manner, whereas the physicists tend to think through the mechanics of what happens in the observable universe and then try and work out what the equations are that fit this model.

Throughout the talk, Hawking made references to those people he came across and worked with. This was quite a long and distinguished list. However, of them all, two names stood out for me as being spoken of with particular affection. This may be influenced by my own filter of how I regard them, but those two people were Dennis Sciama, Hawking’s PhD supervisor, and Roger Penrose, a mathematical physicist with whom Hawking did a lot of work on black holes.

Getting slightly more technical on some of the work he did, he began to talk about Wheeler Feynman Electrodynamics. I confess, this is not something I recall ever having come across before. He summarised like this. [“The light that is emitted from a lightbulb is dependent upon all the energy in the universe.”] I paraphrase as I didn’t write down the precise wording. It was related to the idea that the inertia of an object is due to all of the other mass in the universe. Now while this may seem quite an odd concept, if you imagine a universe with only 3 massive objects in it, then the situation becomes fairly clear and the idea of light simply uses the mass-energy equivalence of general relativity. At least I think so! I may have gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.

The talk moved on to some hand-wavy arguments (not literally, of course) about black holes. In particular how they are formed. This was something I never really studied at university; my particular focus was on finding solutions of the Einstein equation. So I was quite happy to learn a little about the theory of how black holes can be formed. The focus was on a star collapsing and whether or not that star needed to be perfectly spherical in order to form a black hole. There had been a theory proposed that indicated that unless there was a perfect sphere, the star would “bounce” back and not entirely collapse in on itself. This certainly seemed a problem, given that no star ever observed has been a perfect sphere.

However, Penrose later showed that minor deviations from perfection could still lead to the total gravitational collapse of a star and result in a singularity. From here, the natural progression was to talk about cosmic censorship, the notion that “nature abhors a naked singularity.” Whenever I have come across this before, it always struck me as a bit axiomatic. Other than the fact that it makes some equations possible to solve, there is no evidential basis for it. Hawking confirmed that my suspicions were correct. I still think the idea is probably true, given that it agrees with working theories and sounds quite reasonable, though the fact that it has not been confirmed by experiment leaves it open to revision.

The professor then had a brief discussion on black hole entropy, although I’m not sure he defined it particularly well for a lay audience. He put up on screen the only equation of the evening, being the formula for black hole entropy that he developed with Jacob Bekenstein, along with the idea of information loss. The analogy he used was taking an encylopaedia and challenging someone to find some information in it, only before you give him the books, you burn them and presenting only the ashes. The idea is that information which goes into a black hole is not lost; it is just very hard to read. That said, I think the analogy is more flawed than the theory.

Some of what followed was a brief recap of A Brief History of Time, covering ideas of inflation theory and imaginary time. Both of these are neat ideas that help to sort out some mathematical problems, although their actual validity is something I’ve yet to be convinced about. But this wasn’t the forum for those particular discussions.

Finally, Hawking moved onto the outline and purpose for his new book, The Grand Design. In short, its scope is to look at the “big questions.” As noble and worthwhile a task as this is, it did seem to me from looking on Amazon that a book of less than 250 pages would be able to cover this in sufficient detail to make a good case. But the book is yet to come. I shall read it shortly (am currently half way through Kafka’s The Trial) and write a review thereafter.

Then we got round to a point I mentioned earlier: the statement that “Philosophy is dead.” This was stated as a matter of fact. The reason given was that philosophy had not kept up with physics and that now the sciences are the leaders in thought. If this is true, I wondered if this event was the funeral and if The Grand Design was the death certificate. The trouble with the idea is that it doesn’t seem to have been noticed until the last couple of months. I have a distinct feeling that the fate of this statement may befall the same as Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead,” which proved to be unfounded and untrue. There is also the view that this is a deliberate hyperbole, which is not meant to be taken seriously. A possible indicator of this was the laugh that the statement evoked from the audience. Nonetheless, I am sure I shall have more to say on the matter after reading the book, where I hope this point is expanded on and not left as a pithy aphorism.

Professor Hawking then embarked on what I thought was a quite remarkable little exercise, where he presented a highly deterministic view of the universe. Now I was of the opinion that quantum mechanics, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in particular, had signalled the end of determinism in physics. Maybe the old clockwork is back, eh?

Then he came back slightly to his views on theology. Following on from determinism, he gave his opinion on the nature of the laws of nature (sorry for using the same word with two different meanings in the same sentence – limitations of my English & all that). For an elongated, entertaining and informative book on this topic, I cannot highly recommend enough The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman. Hawking didn’t have enough time to go into depth on this subject, though he did say that “A law is a law, with no exceptions or miracles. Gods and demons cannot intervene.” So here we have, though somewhat indirectly, Hawking’s definition of a miracle: something that contradicts the laws of nature. While I know some people who would agree with this, I know more who think that the definition is that a miracle is something extremely unlikely to happen, right on the borders of possibility.

However, Hawking did hint at one of the most important questions on the physics/philosophy border: where do our physical laws come from? His answer: M-theory. Now we get to the crux of the argument. I’m well aware of the issues faced when trying to explain anything beyond basic quantum mechanics to a lay audience, particularly in a short space of time (no pun intended). There was a diagram put up on the screen showing how M-theory is related to the 5 major string theories, although he never explained what they were or what differentiated them. His analogy was to use a patchwork map of the world, where the patch is correct in some areas, but cannot be used for the entire surface of the globe. However, where two patches overlap, they are in agreement. I’d like to see the workings behind how this analogy stretches to the overlaps between different string theories. The problem with it, is that doesn’t tell you if you actually have all the pieces.

From my present understanding of M-theory, the term “theory” is a bit strong and not really warranted. It is an hypothesis of a theory that may exist, but no formulation of it yet exists. I know a lot of work is being done on it, though it is yet to make a convincing case for itself. At times, the fervour of belief in M-theory is more befitting a cult than that of a community of scientists. For an excellent critique on this, please read The Trouble With Physics by Lee Smolin.

One hypothesis in particular that has had a noticeable rise in popularity over the last 10 years or so is that of the multiverse. Hawking gave a little explanation of this which was very good. The idea goes like this: Our universe is just one of many. And by ‘many’ we means googolplexes of the things. The idea (in the M-theory framework) is that the laws of physics we see in our universe are the way they ‘just because they are.’ The fine-tuning elements of the constants of nature has long been a puzzle for a physicists and a boon for proponents of a teleological argument for the existence of God. If the multiverse hypothesis is true, however, then it wipes away that line of the teleological argument for good. Every different universe has a different set of laws of physics. However there are supposed to be more fundamental laws of M-Theory that govern what particular laws arise in each given universe. The problem with this, though, is that we have no idea what these more fundamental laws might look like. Hawking didn’t admit this is his talk. He only got so far as uttering the phrase “if confirmed by observation…” which is just about the biggest IF hanging over all theoretical attempts at finding a Theory of Everything. I hope his book is a little more sober.

The evening finished with 3 selected questions.

Q1: Is a black hole a sphere?
A1: Yes, if it’s non-rotating, but it will be squashed slightly if it is rotating. [Bit of a bland question, I thought. Should be obvious]

Q2: Do we see the same galaxies over and over again but at different ages.
A2: It might be possible for light to come right around the universe, but it’s not old enough for light to have travelled that far. So while it is theoretically possible, it is presently impractical.

Q3: Will we ever know and understand all of physics
A3: I hope not

Overall, it was a greatly enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking evening. I look forward to reading the book.

Book Review: Simply Christian by Tom Wright

I was reminded about the existence of this book recently when I read an extract from it that was used in Francis Collins’ compilation of the writings of others, entitled Belief. The extract from Simply Christian was included at the start of this anthology and was taken from the first part of the book.

What I anticipated was a more modern version of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, being a outline of apologetic reasoning with some, though not many, sources being cited as evidence. Given the difference in backgrounds between C.S. Lewis (a pretty ordinary bloke with a gift for clear writing) and Tom Wright (one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars), I was expecting this to be a little more scholarly, but that the discussions would follow a broadly similar path. This turned out not to be the case.

It was very refreshing to see a new approach to apologetics where the book wasn’t written in direct response to an atheistic polemic, but it felt far more like it was addressing an unfulfilled need. The book is beautifully written and a large amount of credit is owed to the author for being such a clear and down-to-earth writer.

It was also good to see the author tackle some difficult topics head-on, which all too often many christian writers either avoid or give cursory answers that do little but enrage the critics.

There are frequent glimpses of the breadth and depth of study that have gone into this book though if there is to one criticism of it, it would have to be the lack of references.

This is not a book that I would recommend for dyed-in-the-wool atheists. I think the matter-of-fact presentation is not designed to be persuasive – it just states the case clearly. This is far more helpful for those wanting to investigate Christianity (e.g. those who may be thinking of going on, or have just done, an Alpha course – or something similar) and it serves as a useful reminder for those of us who are Christians about what it’s all about. It can be easy to get sidetracked by various issues at one time or another, and this serves as a good reminder to tell us “this is what’s all about. Don’t ever forget it.”

Book Review: So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore by Wayne Jacobsen & Dave Coleman

There are quite a number of issues with this book, which I will deal with in order of increasing severity.

The first one is the editing. The book is littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes which should have eliminated before going to print. I hope later editions have this sorted out, as it made the reading unnecessarily difficult.

Secondly, there was a noticeable lack of characterisation. Everyone spoke with the same platitudinous two-dimensional turn of phrase. The authors often embarked upon long dialogue, which would have been more at home had they been writing a play, rather than a novel. Given their reluctance to say who was speaking, and the fact that everyone was the same, I was often left having to flick back several pages and count alternate statements in order to determine who said what, which made the reading of the book needlessly wearisome.

Now that we’ve got the style issues sorted, we can finally get onto the content. This is not really a book, so much as the authors’ fantasy sermon. Only it’s not quite a sermon, more of an interactive seminar. There is clearly a long list of things that the authors would love to be asked about but never are. The main character, Jake, is a concoction of sycophantic questioning invented as the foil against which the authors (through “John”) can reel off their opinions on what is wrong with the church and how to fix them.

There is nothing in here that hasn’t been said before:

  • Being a minister and running a local church is tough.
  • You can’t please everyone all the time.
  • Be Christ-focussed.

The above three lines above sum up the whole book, but they’re truths that just about every local pastor knows.

For a more coherent, insightful and relevant story, read The Visit by Adrian Plass.

Doubting Thomas and a scientific approach to theology

It is my firm belief that that which is true cannot be proven to be false. That doesn’t mean that a true thing cannot appear to be false, given an incorrect presentation of of facts are withheld.

But proof should not be mixed up with evidence, they are not the same thing. Proof is conclusive and final; evidence only points towards truth and must, as much as possible, be corroborated with other evidence pointing in the same direction.

For example, I could prove to you that there exists no rational number which, when squared, equals two. This is an exercise in mathematical logic. I could not, however, prove to you that the Riemann Hypothesis is true. [For those of you without a science background, the Riemann Hypothesis is related to the distribution of prime numbers and basically says that a function (called the Riemann zeta function) has non-trivial solutions only if those solutions take a certain form.]

The fact that every single solution to the problem conforms to the hypothesis is strong evidence for its truth but does not prove it irrevocably. That is why it remains an hypothesis and is not yet elevated to a status of a theorem.

Yet this has no bearing on its truth. Either the hypothesis is true or it is not. Evidence only informs our opinion of whether or not something is true.

Faith is taking all the evidence that is available to us and saying “I believe this is true.” Once you have reached a position whereby you can ascertain what you believe to be true, then the life of faith is living as though it is true.

Think of a Venn diagram. The largest set that we want to consider is the set of all things that are true. A subset of this, entirely contained within the set of truth is the set of all things for which there is evidence. This is where we make a break from the logical positivist school of thought.

This form of thinking is particularly prevalent amidst the more militant atheists who insist that without physical evidence of the existence of God, at the exclusion of all other possibilities, the non-existence of God should be the status quo of reasonable thought.

However, this is very simplistic thinking and demonstrates an extreme form of closed-mindedness. To presume that nothing can be considered true without evidence denies some very basic truths, and some fundamental theorems of mathematics which have been proven to be true. For example, the proof of the irrationality of the square root of two is reliant on a proof by contradiction. But this methodology has no meaning to a logical positivist, so is a tool they cannot use. And without it, you cannot prove that the square root of 2 is irrational, which we know it is. Therefore logical positivism acts as a set of blinkers that blinds you from seeing some truths. Additionally, the idea falls on its own sword when you apply the reasoning to the philosophy itself; it’s rather like Medusa looking in a mirror.

Returning to the idea of proof and our Venn diagram, the set of things that can be proved is a small subset of the things for which there is evidence. This set is remarkably small given how stringent the criteria are for anything to be proved.

Usually, if I ever hear someone talking about proof, it is my cue to stop listening to them, since a failure to distinguish between evidence and proof is the hallmark of someone who doesn’t understand what they’re talking about. And if they ever use the phrase “enough proof” then my blood starts to boil and steam starts coming from my ears.

So for most practical purposes, proof is simply not obtainable. But this doesn’t stop the world turning or prevent us from carrying on with our everyday lives. The point is that the unavailability of proof does not deny truth. Something can be perfectly true even if we can’t prove it to be so. In the absence of proof, the next best thing would be an overwhelming body of evidence.

So then, let’s have a little think about evidence. What constitutes evidence? You could ask a host of difference people and get a different answer each time. It will depend on their professional background, education and yes, religious inclination.

I won’t advocate anyone else’s point of view here, I’ll just give you my opinion, which you are welcome to disagree with and debate. Evidence is a signpost to truth. It can come in many different forms. The nature of a signpost is that one by itself won’t get you to your destination; you need multiple signposts to guide your way. Similarly, one piece of evidence is rarely enough to form a valid opinion on what is true. This is why the scientific method requires corroborative evidence. That is, you can find multiple pieces of evidence that all point in the same direction.

Now we can move on to discuss the quality of different forms of evidence. There is a very good treatment on this subject in Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ. I understand that he has written some follow-up books to this, but I cannot comment on them since I have not read them.

The essence of it is that different forms of evidence can be of vastly differing use. In a court of law, eyewitness testimony is extremely valued. But one eyewitness is rarely enough. Their testimony must be backed up by other eyewitnesses or by alternative forms of evidence. In science, eyewitness testimony holds no credence. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in furore over cold fusion. Two scientists claimed to have seen it, but they had no corroborative evidence to back them up and their methodology, when repeated by other scientists, did not produce the same results. Consequently, their work was discarded and their credibility irreparably damaged.

The point is, even though evidence points to truth, we are not always great at following the evidence. Given one clue, multiple hypotheses may be concocted that are in accordance with that clue. If we then find a second clue, then we can refine our search for truth. Given that any evidence is open to interpretation, it must therefore be open to an incorrect interpretation.

From here, we can move on to the concept of intellectual integrity. If we cannot establish the truth of an issue via proof then evidence is the best thing to look for. But in this instance (which actually accounts for the vast majority of our experiences) we have to allow for further evidence to become available later and which may change our perception of truth.

To do otherwise would be arrogant and closed-minded. While some truths change (e.g. I live in Sussex, but I won’t always) and some don’t(though I hesitate to give examples, just in case I’m wrong), our perception of these truths can constantly change. So when I often hear the accusation that theology cannot progress yet science can, I am quick to point out the absurdity of that comment. While, as a Christian, I don’t believe God changes, my understanding of him does. Similarly, the laws of physics don’t change but my understanding of them does. So theology can progress just as easily as science can, based on the evidence available to inform our opinions on them.

So far, we have only discussed the scientific method and some of the philosophy behind it. We don’t seem to have touched on the title of piece. To get a little more personal, I have two main methods for studying the Bible. One is the systematic method, where I go through a book in detail and follow up on all cross-references to ensure that any of my interpretations of scripture are consistent and well-grounded. The other is to the thematic method, where I re-examine my beliefs. This involves thinking through a particular topic and then searching through the Bible to see if what I believe is Biblically based and changing or refining my view based on the outcome of that study. First, I seek backing for what I do believe and then carry on my search for other aspects that have, until now, eluded me.

If the point of this exercise is not yet clear to you, then please go back to the beginning and read from the start again.

The Bible is the best source of evidence the Christian has. Now at this point I can almost hear the howls of derision coming from the atheists. And in the other ear are the cries of the fundamentalists who will refer to various Bible verses as a back-up for this statement. Neither of these positions is sustainable, though.

The scoffers ignore the huge body of evidence that points to the authenticity and reliability of the Bible, through centuries of scholarship and textual criticism. Likewise, those that point to any Bible verses as back-up have been caught in a snare, as it is a circular argument. In order to rely on the Bible as a source of evidence, you have to seek corroborative third-party evidence.

Now I don’t have the space here to go into all the details, and there is plenty of work done by scholars who are far better than I. If you are interested, and want to pursue this line further, then I would recommend you read Nothing But The Truth by Brian Edwards as a starting point. This line of study does come with a health warning. Many people have devoted their lives to this line of study and if you want to get on with your own Christian walk, then this is just a starting point, but it would not be productive to get bogged down by it.

So then, one of my recent studies was to challenge my opinion that a scientific approach to theology is the best approach. The reason for that is because I spend a reasonable amount of time defending the Christian faith against attacks from atheists. One of the most common attacks is the claim that faith is belief in the absence of evidence, and therefore no reasonable or rational person could hold a position of faith without compromising their intellectual credibility. Another attack on a similar line is that the Bible encourages faith over evidence and that believers would do best to believe without critical thinking.

Key to this view of Christianity is the story of Thomas after Jesus’ resurrection. The story goes something like this: “After Jesus rose from the dead, there were a large number of witnesses that testified to having seen him alive. Word reaches the disciples who are delighted, except for Thomas, who refuses to believe it until he has seen Jesus for himself and examined the wounds in his wrists and side. Jesus allows Thomas to examine the wounds but Thomas is thereafter vilified as having no belief and that those who believe without evidence are the heroes of the piece.”

So let’s have a look at the evidence for this. First up, the book of Matthew. The amount of narrative regarding the resurrection is minimal and there is no mention of the Thomas incident at all. Our next candidate is the book of Mark. The resurrection account here is a little longer that Matthew’s, depending on your opinion regarding where the book ends. This is quite an interesting story in itself, but I’ll let you look into that yourself.

Thomas is not named in the longer ending, but reference is made in verses 12-14: “After this, [Jesus] appeared in another form to two of [the disciples], as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table, and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.”

As much as I love the term ‘upbraiding’ for its imagery of lifting someone by their long hair, it isn’t one that I would use in everyday language. So let’s look a couple of alternative translations to try and get a more well-rounded version. The NIV uses the term ‘rebuked’ and the Amplified goes for ‘reproved and reproached.’

So this would appear to give credence to the notion of praising belief without evidence. We’ll come back to this later. In the mean time, let’s continue our whistle-stop tour of the gospels with a look at Luke. This has got a lot more detail in it, though yet again there is no explicit mention of Thomas. What we do have is the reason for Jesus’ rebuke. In verses 25-27 Jesus explains why his resurrection should not come as a surprise. Later on, in verse 39, we find Jesus actively encouraging the disciples to examine his wounds to determine that it is really him.

So if we compare this to Mark, it would appear that the reason for Jesus’ rebuke for a lack of belief is that his resurrection should have been expected, based on the evidence that the disciples had been witness to during Jesus’ ministry.

This is an example of what I was talking about earlier about evidence acting as a signpost. Given the Mark passage, there are a number of possibilities of how to interpret it, some of which are more obvious than others. When we then gathered further evidence in Luke, this helped to clarify the Mark passage and helped to direct us in a more specific direction that was not the obvious route we may have thought at first.

Finally, we need to come to the gospel of John. Like Luke, this book contains quite a lot of detail of the post-resurrection period. But at last, we do find mention of Thomas, so all those rumours about him may not be unfounded at all! Rather than copy it all out here, I would encourage you to read John 20:24-29, though for context it would be good to read the whole chapter.

What we find is Thomas saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nail and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” It was a whole week after saying this that Thomas gets the chance to do this. I can only speculate as t the kind of conversations he and the rest of the disciples had during that time, but I imagine they might have been a bit frosty.

Interestingly, when Jesus and Thomas are finally reunited, the first recorded words are not spoken by Thomas, but rather they were an invitation from Jesus to Thomas, asking him to examine him. At this point, Thomas acknowledges Jesus as Lord and God.

Yet the narrative in John does not record any remark of rebuke, but instead includes a line not included elsewhere in the gospels, which has an important bearing on our discussion. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

There are some who take this as an endorsement from Jesus in belief without evidence. After all, wasn’t it quite reasonable for Thomas to doubt the testimony of the other disciples and to seek corroborative evidence? The above would seem to imply that the answer is no. But let us hold judgement on that before we’ve looked for some other corroborative evidence, outside of the gospels.

One verse that I have had quoted back at me a few times is this from 2 Corinthians 5:7 “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” True as that may be, it immediately strikes me as a soundbite, taken out of context. So what is the context in which it rightly belongs?

The surrounding passage talks about our bodies as being temporary, likening them to tents that contain our inner nature. Yet it is this inner nature that remains unseen. As much as our romantic sense would like to differ, you cannot look directly into a person’s soul. Going back to verse 16 of the previous chapter, our inner nature is being renewed constantly (c.f. Romans 12:2). So to say that we do not walk by sight is not an endorsement of rejecting evidence; rather it is an encouragement to focus on more spiritual matters.

The New Testament has a lot to say regarding warnings against false teachers. Staying in 2 Corinthians for a bit, the first half of chapter 11 is devoted to them. Or take Matthew 7:15-23. It says “by their fruit you will recognise them.” So there is evidence that will allow you to discern between good teachers and false teachers. Similar analyses can be found in 1 John 4:1-3 and Revelation 2:2. These relate to putting them to the test.

So why is this important? Why is so much attention paid to weeding out the false teachers? Well, the answer is quite simple, they’re a huge risk. There wouldn’t be a warning against something that didn’t exist, so they were evidently a problem in the 1st century A.D. They are are no less a problem in the 21st century. The rise of the internet has allowed the messages of the poorly informed minority to gain a wider audience. If we do not show discernment by comparing what we are taught against scripture, then people will get the wrong ideas and these will spread. It doesn’t take long to find some very dodgy stuff on the web. Yet it’s not particularly hard to spot the false teachers; so it is something of a wonder that so many people are taken in by them. And of course, please test what I have to say as well and correct me if I am wrong on any points.

Some of the key indicators are the call to abandon discernment. Lines like “don’t think, just believe” will get me running for doors, as will anything with the stench of the so-called “prosperity gospel.”

OK, so that was a bit of a sidetrack. To recap the key points: test, evidence, discernment. These are the things that are valued. So the case for blind belief is looking a bit shaky in the face of the evidence-based approach.

But there are a few passages left that could inform us further. Take a read of James 2:14-26. The key verse here is verse 20. “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds in useless?” So what is this saying? That to demand evidence is wrong? Some might take it that way, but perhaps a less dogmatic approach would be to consider what this sort of wording means today. If I were to say to you “You silly person, do you want evidence that I went to university?” then I am not refusing to give evidence or denying that it exists. Rather, I am expressing exasperation at the failure of someone to see a point that they should already be aware of. The verses that follow the passage above are indeed James giving the evidence.

There are plenty of other passages that one could look at. For starters you could count the number of times discernment is mentioned in the book of Proverbs.

So what is our conclusion. My understanding of scripture is that blind belief is not a virtue. We have to examine and test what we are presented with and form our opinions and values based on those. Faith is not a cop-out, it is the bridge that takes us from evidence to truth. I will leave you with this from 1 Thessalonians 5:21

Test everything; hold fast to what is good.

Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

If you think that Frankenstein was a dim-witted green monster with a flat head, bolts sticking out his neck and moved slowly in a mummy-like fashion, then please dismiss all such notions from your head as that vision is highly inaccurate.

Without spoiling it too much, the monster was not given a name and Frankenstein was the name of the scientist who made the monster. Another mistake that some people make is in giving Victor Frankenstein the title of Dr. Frankenstein, as he never completed his studies. As for the monster itself, it was yellow, moved with immense speed & grace and was extremely well-spoken, having learned English from, amongst other thing, Paradise Lost.

The book begins very slowly. There is a lot of background detail given that doesn’t really add much to the story and by a quarter of the way through the book, I was considering abandoning the book. Thankfully I didn’t, for as the story continued I was drawn in to Shelley’s world.

The tale touches on themes of ethics in science, love, rejection, denial and a huge dose of revenge. Undoubtedly the best section is the first prolonged conversation that Frankenstein has with his creation. While some sections are tough-going, I would highly recommend this as a classic of literature, and the best antidote to considering Frankenstein as anything like Fred Munster.

Book Review: Who Made God by Edgar Andrews

This had been recommended to me a friend and I bought it some time before getting around to reading it. The reason for the delay was the list recommendations on the back of the book. Most notable was the endorsement by John Blanchard, whose own book, Does God Believe in Atheists? left me less than impressed. Thus, I was expecting Who Made God to be more of the same. A couple of other things worried me about the endorsements. There was one by Fay Weldon (who most people have probably heard of) but it was so short that it had the distinct flavour of something curtailed, something that omitted key insights. And the last of the main recommendations came from some random mother and housewife .

I am in danger of judging a book by its cover. However, I am not judging it yet. I am merely noting some warning signs. In terms of the actual cover and print quality, it is very well produced and makes for easy reading.

The approach of the book is to put forward the proposition that God exists and to see what sort of universe that would yield. The author then compares this to the universe we see around us and concludes that the God proposed at the beginning does indeed exist.

Though it is scientifically honest to take approach like this, the author apparently fails to appreciate the notion of Occam’s Razor. The trouble is that the conclusions lack exclusivity. In no place can you say “this is due to God uniquely, at the exclusion of all other hypotheses and possibilities.”

The author brushes off some arguments with apparent ease, but which really treat them with a contempt that they do not deserve. For example, at the start of the book, he dismisses the entire field of ontology (several centuries’ worth of philosophical reasoning) in under 3 pages.

Much of the first half of the book is spent taking apart some of the arguments in Victor Stenger’s book, God, the failed hypothesis – how science shows that God does not exist. I confess to not having read the book and in order to think well of Victor Stenger, I can only hope that his publisher came up with the title, as it is one that clearly oversteps the marks of any reasonable scientific evidence. One day, I may get around to reading it, but it’s not on my rather extensive reading list at the moment.

What does make a refreshing change from some counter-argument books is that the author does put forward his own point firmly, not just limiting himself to pulling the threads on someone else’s jumper. But this is where the book ultimately falls down. In making his case, the author isolates himself from just about every school of thought. He makes it clear that he is not a young earth creationist. He also disagrees with the theistic interpretation of evolution, making some rather unjustified cricisms of Francis Collins along the way. The closest school of thought he aligns himself to is intelligent design, though even this is subject to a bit of cold shoulder treatment. Prof Andrews refers to others painting themselves into a corner, though he fails to appreciate that he has done this himself, and now stands in a rather isolated position, having marked his territory with a colour that is quite unlike anything readily identifiable.

The book some have good points, though they are few and far between. I would be highly surprised if any atheists found this at all a convincing treatise for the existence of God and this is by no means in premier league of christian writing. I will not be recommending this one on to anyone else.


I am many things. This journal will seek to explore the various aspects of me that go towards determining my worldview. By training, I am a scientist and at heart I am a Christian.

There would be those who claim that these mutually incompatible, or that one dominates or disproves the other. I do not agree with this and amidst this journal, I shall seek to show evidence that backs up my belief. In fact, wherever possible, I shall seek evidence for any belief that I hold, acknowledging that I may be wrong and that what I consider to be true may in fact not be true at all.

I shall also be posting about plenty of other things that catch my attention, whether it be from the world of politics, sport, art or just something completely random.

Feel free to post suggestions for topics that I ought to investigate. I have a few challenges already, including some book reviews, explaining general relativity in 500 words and the first major post which I have been working on for an unhealthily long time: Doubting Thomas and the Scientific Approach to Theology.