Monthly Archives: January 2012

Book Review: The Limits of Science by Peter Medawar


The Limits of Science

I can’t remember where it was that I first saw this referenced. It took a little bit of finding, as I could not find it print in any major bookstore either on the high street or online. Eventually, I managed to get my hands on a second hand book. The cover is a bit, well, utilitarian. I’ll include a photo, so you make of it what you will:

As soon as you see it, you’ll realise it’s a tiny book. The book is comprised of 3 essays and in totality it is less than 100 pages. The first is entitled “An essay on scians” where the author has used an alternative, archaic spelling of ‘science’ to make his point. It is a very general essay on the nature of science. There is some detail in there but it is only there to make a point rather than educate the reader in any particular point. It is greatly enjoyable; I would describe its style as an Englishman attempting to write like Richard Feynman. After all, where else would you find a subsection entitled ‘Science and cricket’? In a short essay he manages to cover issues of sociology, politics, history and the public perception of science.

I would recommend this to anyone considering taking an undergraduate degree in any science. It is a real gem; concise, clear, passionate and well thought-through.

The second essay has as its title a very straightforward question: “Can scientific discovery be premeditated?” This is an even shorter essay, at just 8 pages. Medawar uses 3 examples to demonstrate his argument that the answer to the question is “no.” His main target seems to be the industrialisation of science in modern academia where research is often only funded if an application of the science is foreseen. This goes very much against the spirit of science that prevailed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

His final essay is the culmination of these, where the main question posed is that of whether or not there are questions that science cannot answer. Specifically he has in mind “childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as “How did everything begin?” “What are we here for?” “What is the point of living?””

It would be very easy to heap praise on Medawar because his views line up roughly with my own. That is to say, he thinks there are questions that cannot be answered by scientific means though he rejects the school of positivism as put forth by AJ Ayer and the Vienna Circle, by accepting that such questions do make sense. Probably the most interesting part of the essay which I had not previously considered was his consideration of ‘The Law of Conservation of Information’ which is stated thus:

“No process of logical reasoning – no mere act of mind or computer-programmable operation – can enlarge the information content of the axioms and premises or observation statements from which it proceeds.”

He finishes the essay with a consideration of ‘The Question of the Existence of God’ – a subject that tends to divide opinions like few others. I shan’t tell you what his conclusion is on this. I would heartily recommend that you read it for yourself. You can get a second-hand copy from Amazon (as I did) for a couple of quid, as it seems to be out of print now. But it is well worth it; eloquently written, sharp, witty and not overflowing with superfluous words.

Book Review: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

In some of my reading I am trying to make up for lost time. I didn’t read much while I was doing my A-levels or my degree. I did get through Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but I think that that was a huge mistake. I’m guessing most people my age will have already read this book, but I needed to catch up. Oddly, it’s one of those books so famous that most people who haven’t read it could give you a summary of the plot as well as some of the detail. What I was keen to do was to read the original text and learn for myself, rather than count on the wisdom of others.

There are few things to note from the outset. Firstly, there are no chapter divisions in the book. This makes it quite difficult to note where there are natural breaks in the narrative. Whenever I put the book down I would lose my exact place (in spite of the use of a bookmark). Secondly, you have to note the language. It is a little archaic and the terminology used at times may well seem racist, though this is probably more a reflection of the cultural norms of Defoe’s day. Thirdly, the book is told entirely in the first person, though it is not clear if Robinson is writing this as he goes along his journey or whether it is written in retrospect, which keeps the reader joyfully uninformed as to his final fate.

There are 2 principle stories on which Defoe seems to have based his book, both of which are biblical: The parable of the prodigal son and the life story of Jonah. Crusoe is a runaway from home, leaving against his parents’ wishes. He goes through some early disasters including a near-shipwreck in the seas outside London and later, being taken captive by pirates off the west coast of Africa. He escapes but soon ends up shipwrecked properly on a remote island, the only survivor of the ship’s crew. This opening part of the narrative has the feel of being rushed and is a little confusing, as the author doesn’t always make clear precisely where the story is taking place.

While Defoe portrays Robinson Crusoe as an everyman, begging the question of the reader “what would you do in his situation?” our hero is actually very well provisioned. The author goes into some depth describing the salvage operation which enables Crusoe to have to hand canvas from which to make shelter, a gun & gunpowder with which to hunt amongst a whole load of other things which come in handy as a narrative device to stop Crusoe from dying in the first few days of his time alone. By the time I got halfway through the book, I will admit to finding it a bit turgid, as Defoe waffles a little bit.

However, he does it rescue it with the appearance of other people on the island. I will try not to spoil it for you, but if you don’t want to know too many details, this may be a good time to stop reading this review. Crusoe spies evidence that the island is now playing host to occasional visits from a tribe of cannibals. It is only then that we meet the second most famous character in the novel, Friday. Most people the name, but not the man. He is one doomed to be dinner at the hand of the cannibals but is rescued by Crusoe, who adopts a highly imperialistic attitude by adopting Friday as his slave.

Although the novel deals with a wide variety of subjects, including colonialism, providence and human nature, they are all approached indirectly, so as a reader I was left mulling things over whilst reading at the same time, which slowed me down somewhat. So even though it is a very short book, it is extremely rich and I would recommend that you read it if you haven’t already done so.

Friday round up

Hello everyone. It’s that time of the week when I was aiming to have finished my latest blog post, but find that I just haven’t been efficient enough. So, as is often the case, I have a bunch of half-written stuff saved on my laptop and a few jottings in a notebook. None of which is ready to go up online yet.

So what I shall offer you instead, if you had not already found these already, is a selection from the best of the blogosphere from the last week or two. Enjoy!

Christianity for the rest of us: A short, but honest, account of being hurt in church

Dyfed Wyn Roberts on inspired scripture and the rather poor argument that is often used to back it up

Running Life: “taking a high church Anglican to a Pentecostal church should be a spectator sport.”

Heresy Corner: Bored of the American elections

PhillipaB witters on: A lovely collection of footballing snowmen

Quodlibeta: Some interesting thoughts on the multiverse:

For an example of truly terrible journalism, please see this from the Telegraph’s science correspondent, which epitomises everything that is ever wrong with science journalism.

Finally, here’s a really fun video showing a “spaghetti monster” created my mapping particle paths as they orbit around a trefoil knot.

Why I prefer a paper Bible

There are lots of words that could be used to describe me. Among some of the more reasonable would be ‘Luddite’ ‘technophobe’ or ‘old fashioned.’ One aspect in which this is true is how I read books. I do not own and have no desire to own a kindle or other sort of tablet device to use as my primary mode of reading. I love picking up a real book and reading it. Even when I have read something, I still like dipping back into it occasionally. Though, of late, I haven’t re-read many books entirely, there are a few which I like to return to again and again: Jamaica Inn, Jude the Obscure, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and His Dark Materials are among the works I’ve read more than once.

Above all these, though, is the anthology of writings which is commonly known as the bible. It really is 66 separate books (though some are sequels to earlier books), spanning a variety of genres, telling the history and beliefs of a nation, climaxing in the life, death and resurrection of one man; and of starting to explain what it all means for the wider world.

Though I consider myself a religionless christian (where I use the term ‘religion’ to indicate a life of ritual, rite and ceremony – see more here) the bible is still, for me, the primer for my belief.

Also, as a reasonably well-educated person (though, admittedly, I don’t have a PhD) I know the importance of, where feasible, checking your sources. If I see, say, a rumour on Twitter of something significant happening, but it’s not being reported by and of the mainstream media then I become quite skeptical and will (if I think it’s worth the effort) try to trace the origin of the idea.

Likewise, if I hear or read anything about christianity, then my first port of call is usually to check against the bible. Is someone making something up (even if it sounds like the sort of thing that ‘might’ be in the bible), quoting something out of context or choosing to ignore another point of view that might significantly alter their position?

So here I come back to the point about paper books. If I do an electronic search for what I am looking for (say, on Bible Gateway) then that is all I will see. Though I have a concordance, I am reluctant to use that as a first reference. You see, if I only have a vague idea of what it is I want to check, and I don’t ‘cheat’ then what I have to do is read a lot more material than I otherwise might.

For example, if I think that the passage I am looking for is in 1 Corinthians, what I have to do is re-read most of, or maybe all, of the book. What happens when I do this? More often than not, I come across a passage that I can learn something from, or remind myself of, that I had no intention of reading half an hour earlier. Also, by reading large sections quite quickly, I find that the books flow much better than when broken down into small chunks over a long period of time. Even if you take the longest gospel, Luke, this can easily be read in one sitting on a quiet afternoon (if you have the luxury of such a period of uninterrupted peace). Yet many will eek it out over a week, 2 weeks or even longer!

Of course, I put a reasonable time limit on such searches, otherwise I would never reach my goal. This I usually cap at about half an hour; only if I can’t find something after that do I resort to my concordance.

An analogy I find useful is that of climbing Scafell Pike, the tallest mountain in England. I ought to add, I’ve not actually climbed it myself, though I have climbed much taller mountains in the Alps. Many who attempt to conquer it don’t make it to the summit. It’s not because it’s an especially hard mountain to climb, it’s because there are some beautiful sights to be found just off the route to the top. So climbers get distracted by these and by the time they are ready to move on it is necessary to start making their descent, lest they be caught by a creeping nightfall.

The other benefit to the paper bible is the cross-referencing that is included in some. In my NRSV bible, I have a list of cross-references in a thin column down the centre of the page. So what I do is look up the reference whilst keeping a finger in the original passage. Any electronic bible I have used has not been able to replicate this with either the practical ease or the tactile pleasure that you get by flicking through pages.

So what about you? Are you one to adopt any and every new technology as it comes to market or are you more of a stick in the mud like me? Would love to read your opinions.

Celebrity Christians

[Please note that this was written before the recent flare-up of vitriol both propagated by, and in reaction to, Mark Driscoll’s comments about UK christians]

Those of you who know me will know that I’m quite critical of what I call the ‘cult’ of celebrity Christians. By cult, I do not mean occult, or necessarily that all such folk are unsound teachers (though I do have strong reservations about some). I merely mean that that they often have a wide following that is much broader than that from their own individual churches.

Such people include (but are not limited to): Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Bill Johnson, Alister McGrath, Joyce Meyer, Joseph Ratzinger, Rick Warren, Rowan Williams & Tom Wright.

I was tempted recently to go to a one day conference where another of these kind of people was to be speaking: William Lane Craig. But then I just caught myself and started questioning my motivation. So this post is simply an exploration of what went through my mind in relation to that, as well as my concerns in relation to the phenomena of the celebrity preacher.

The bite from the blogosphere

For just about everyone that gains any level of “fame” there will be detractors. It’s not hard to find them; all you need do is type their name into Google and add the word “false” at the end. One has to be very cautious with this, I think, as it is tempting to think “there’s no smoke without fire.” You can also go the other way, and think that because someone is coming up against a lot of opposition that they must be talking sense.

The truth is, the blogosphere can be filled with a lot of junk and people pushing their own agenda. As an aside, I will let you draw your own conclusions about this tiny and obscure corner of the blogosphere that you find yourself reading at this instance. For me, the key word is “discernment.” There is a subtle difference between this and “judgement” though the consequences can be very far apart.

It is very easy to condemn someone with whom you disagree as “false” and to launch attacks on them. Of those named above, the newcomer to the scene who has only really come to prominence in the last couple of years is Mark Driscoll. I do not agree with everything he teaches, but I will not condemn him as a false teacher. I think he is mistaken on some issues, but I do not, based on that, reject anything and everything he says.

On those that I tend to agree with more, say, Alister McGrath, I do not accept uncritically everything he says or writes as being true and correct. To do so would be to fall foul of the Argument From Authority fallacy, though I do have some unorthodox views on this which I may expand upon on in a future post.

Are we guilty of “itching ears?”

Amongst the detractors, there is a common verse that is referred to. 2 Timothy 4:3 says

“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

In today’s world of social media, it is easier than ever to listen to whatever you want to listen to. Sermons and blogs are published online and you can gather all the soundbites you like off Twitter. In so doing, one can filter out anything you disagree with and choose a select group of people to listen to.

This is not something new. Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians

“What I’m talking about is this. Each one of you is saying, “I’m with Paul!” “I’m with Apollos!” “I’m with Cephas!” “I’m with the Messiah”” (1 Corinthians 1:12, NTFE)

You could take any period of history and substitute any names. If you take the slightly later church, you could have Origen, Tertullian & Ignatius. Move on to the Reformation and it might be Luther, Calvin & Zwingli. Today, it could be any of those I named at the top. The important thing to me is that we don’t become followers of men & women, but that we are followers of Jesus. That’s pretty much Paul’s gist in this passage and it’s one that I think has never ceased to be relevant.

Some individuals may be self-promoters, others are promoted by the institutions and organisations they are a part of. I would love if it the prominence were given not the person writing the books & blogs or preaching the sermons, but to the words that are written and spoken themselves. Instead of looking to a select few and hanging on their every word, I think it would be far better for the anonymous masses of churches to declare truth and have their words assessed on their own merits.

Of course, that then begs Pilate’s question: “What is truth?”

Book Review: The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg

I was first made aware of this book a few years ago when I read The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. For those unfamiliar with that book, the author is a former journalist who wanted to examine the evidence for the claims of the gospels by interviewing various christian scholars. One of the first experts Strobel interviews was Craig Blomberg, who refers to The Historical Reliability of the Gospels several times. The version I read was a later addition, and has clearly undergone some revisions. For starters, the version I read referenced books written after The Case For Christ was published.

To begin with, you have to note what this book is and what it is not. Blomberg deals with this question at the start of the book. He is only interested in the historical side of the gospels. Of course, from this stems the theological aspect, but that is not the aim of the book. He also restricts his view to look at the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John; there is very little by way of discussion of the rest of the New Testament, though I personally felt that it would have been apposite to include a look at Acts as well, given that that is the only historical book of the New Testament. Yet it has been left to a very brief discussion at the end of the book.

What follows is a work which summarises the scholarship of others, leaning heavily on the work Gospel Perspectives (which Blomberg contributed to, amongst others). He begins by looking at the general methods for the historical study of the gospels. These include harmonisation, redaction criticism and form criticism. Here, I felt Blomberg was fairly even-handed and gave praise to each methodology where due and criticism where it was deserved.

He demonstrates that he is not afraid to tackle potentially thorny issues head-on as from here he launches straight into the issue of miracles. He lays out various objections that one may have to believing the miracle stories of the gospels and then sets about his task of trying to show why they may be considered reasonable. It is here that I began to diverge from Blomberg. It seems his conclusions were reached before doing any research, though one may have guessed this from the outset. Personally, I found the chapter quite unconvincing and the arguments put forward fairly weak. That’s not to say I think it is without merit, but merely that his conclusions do not resonate with the evidence he presents. Central to this, and central to all of christian belief is the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Though multiple references are made to the recent magnum opus on this topic, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God , I felt that Blomberg’s case was too watered down. If it doesn’t convince me, a believer (albeit one not to taking to believe anything that confirms my viewpoint) I strongly doubt it would convince even the most open-minded of sceptics.

From here, he then widens his viewpoint to look at contradictions between the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), though he acknowledges at the start that there are so many “supposed” contradictions that he doesn’t have space to address them all. This is a little more reasonable than the previous section, particularly when one takes into account redaction criticism. The main argument is that if you accept that the gospels do not necessarily contain verbatim testimonies then to say “Jesus said x” may still be an honest and reliable account of the message he conveyed.

Central to Blomberg’s argument is to compare the multiple accounts of Jesus’ life to multiple accounts of other historical events and persons. Where there are summaries or apparent omissions, Blomberg challenges the critical reader to consider whether the gospels are often judged more harshly than other historical works. In particular, he argues that we ought to try and view the gospels through the eyes of early historians, rather than apply 20th/21st century historical analysis to a context where it does not belong.

Moving on from the Synoptics, he goes on to look at the specific case of the gospel of John. This is by far the most slippery of the gospels, when it comes to historicity. It seems to me a fairly common consensus that John was the last of the gospels to be written, and is the most “theologically biased.” In this, my opinion has generally been that the author of John’s gospel has been more of a portrait painter, whereas the Synoptic authors were trying to be more like photographers. So John has more character fleshing out the work, at the expense of strict historicity. Blomberg’s analysis seems to try to reconcile this view with his hypothesis that the gospel is also historically accurate. In this, though, he seems to come rather unstuck. He resorts to rhetorical flourishes at the end of his sections which give a far more firm conclusion than his own analysis allows for, which rather frustrated me as a reader. He tries to wriggle through arguments, rather than accepting what seems, to me at least, to be a far more reasonable conclusion that the gospel of John actually has some inconsistencies with the Synoptics. This is probably best demonstrated by Blomberg’s own words:

“Is John unaware the Jesus was born in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth? In fact, John knows the birthplace, but apparently some in Jesus’ audience did not. Their ignorance is not surprising, since Jesus had grown up and lived in Galilee for all but the earliest years of his life. That John lets this mistaken impression stand without comment testifies only to his skilful use of irony.”

His last major study is to look at the historicity of Jesus outside of the gospels; in other words the potential corroborative or falsifying evidence. This is one of the more convincing chapters, though its main point seems to be correcting the hypothesis that Jesus never existed.

In the appendices, Blomberg really hits the nail on the head. His section on historical methods is, I think, bang on. Here, he discusses what should be the “status quo” of belief when looking at any historical source. Should it be disbelieved until otherwise shown to be true? Should it be believed until otherwise shown to be false? Or should the default position be somewhere between? For me, this should probably have formed part of the introduction to the book as this historical hermeneutic is vital to how one undertakes such a study.

In his conclusion, Blomberg does not conclude that the gospels are entirely historically accurate. The evidence is not strong enough. Instead, he concludes that they have “general reliability.” That is, though they may not pin down every point precisely, they are sound enough to be regarded as the most trustworthy accounts for the life of Jesus.

There is one key omission from his discussion, and one that has been on my mind quite a bit over the last 6 months or so, which is the historicity of the Nativity narratives. But with that and a few points already mentioned aside, this is a worthwhile book to read. I don’t think it’s a totally convincing case but it does deserve to be taken seriously, as indeed Blomberg takes seriously the views of serious critical scholars.

Sacraments as Signposts

I was having a little think the other day about what those of a high church persuasion refer to as “sacraments.” I wrote a little about these fairly recently. What got me thinking was a few instances where I had various people push the idea of the sacraments as being the main part of any church service. That is, they were more important than the worship or the sermon, even to the extent that anything else was marginal.

Also, I was recently described as being anti-anglican, though I think this is not really an accurate label. What I am opposed to is tradition for tradition’s sake and instances where a church has become an institution. There are strong aspects of these in both Catholicism and Anglicanism, though it would be unfair to apply such a specific charge universally against such large and diverse bodies.

Coming from an independent church background, looking as an impartial outside observer upon the public face of these two organisations, I cannot escape the idea that today’s anglican and catholic churches are the equivalents of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Key to this is the sermon on the mount as recorded by Matthew. Throughout this section, Jesus emphasises that there is a reason for the law. The law does not exist for it’s own sake, it is an application of more fundamental ideas. He gives something of a backhanded compliment in chapter 5:17-20 (Green):

“Do not think that I came to annul the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to annul, but to fulfil. Truly I say to you, until the heavens and the earth pass away, in no way shall one iota or one tittle pass away from the law until all comes to pass. Whoever then shall break one of these commandments, the least, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I say to you, if your righteousness shall not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, in no way shall you go into the kingdom of heaven.”

His point, which is also made elsewhere in the gospels is that the law was being observed for its own sake. The scribes and the Pharisees come across as being more concerned about the letter of the law than the underlying reasons for it. So while law and tradition are important, they are not the end goal.

So when I look at the institutional churches, what I see are institutions that are more concerned about their self-preservation and keeping their own rules and traditions than they are about actually being a church; where I’m using the term church to mean a collection of people.

So coming back to the sacraments, they are important for christianity, but they are not the be all and end all. They are signposts and symbols for God and the gospel. To become “evangelical for the sacraments” is like a person who spends their time admiring and arguing for the preservation of a motorway sign. We may be used to seeing the signs in a particular form, and if this form is changed, then I don’t doubt a conservative element would protest at such a change. But if a new format of the sign is used, which still serves the function, then it is in no way false, misleading or heretical. It’s just a different way of doing things.

Of course, one can to the other extreme and try to rid christianity of any and all traditions, embracing everything new just because it is new. Here, I am thinking particularly of the use of technology within churches. If you have song books that work well, is it really justified to spend a lot of money of a projection system? Of course, some investment may be necessary, but upgrading one’s PA system just for the sake it shows, in my opinion, questionable discernment; and I have seen instances of this is quite a lot of churches of varying stripes.

Returning to the signpost analogy, by concentrating on the sign, you never embark on the journey. This is probably my biggest concern for those whose energies are devoted to the preservation of tradition. Trying to stick to the precise methodologies by those who lived in vastly different time period and culture seems to against the instruction for each “to work out their own salvation.” By concentrating on treading in the footsteps of others, we may never look up and notice our surroundings or where we are headed. To this end, I love the maxim from Hebrews “Looking unto Jesus” which was, by the way, my old school motto.