Everything contradicts itself (except this title!)

For this post, I want to first persuade you (by a series of examples) that at the heart every idea or circumstance there exists a deep contradiction. Second, I will ask what we should do about the fact.

Now to explain what I mean by this is difficult – the sheer pervasiveness and scale of these contradictions kind of makes it hard to conceive of them directly. That said though, at some level anyone reading this should already know or understand what I mean. So I’m going to take a cheeky expositional shortcut and give you a list of contradictions – it isn’t exhaustive and it’s in no particular order. (Credit – many of these were scribbled down in the margin of a Harcourts brochure by my Dad during a chat we had last year.) Here they are:

work

versus

leisure
changing things accepting things
expansion consolidation
details big picture
being alive being dead
suffering peace and plenty
political left political right
uniqueness equality
authority/leaders submission/subjects
free speech being respectful
law/rules freedom
justice mercy
form/essence substance/existence
female male
predestination/determinism/fate free will
action/decisiveness contemplation/being open-minded
scepticism trust
saving spending
personal fulfilment service
stubbornness compromise
conflict peace
reason intuition/faith

Let’s take a few of these examples and run with them a bit further. Say you need to make an urgent decision but you don’t yet have much information to go on. Should you act immediately on what you do know, or put off committing to a course of action while you wait for more details to come in? To make the best possible decision at the time,  you will need to pick the most appropriate of the two options – let’s say you decide to act immediately. But the next day you might need to make another decision, and decide to put things off for a bit. A joke might be funny in one context, but offensive in another. For a project to be successful the details need to be sorted, but if you can’t see the wood for the trees then the project will miss its true purpose. The underlying considerations of decision making, joke telling, and project management all lie in contradiction to each other – and we just have to somehow know how to apply each side correctly (either by experience or perception).

Something similar is true about life at the cellular level. Say a cell needs to make a protein to for its outer membrane. The right section of DNA needs to be unwound in order to be read, and the protein to be manufactured (translated). Then the protein (along with the piece of membrane it is embedded in) needs to be loaded into a vesicle (a tiny bubble-like container made of membrane) so it can be brought to the cell’s Golgi body. This is a pile of  huge flattened vesicles (all squashed against each other like a stack of pancakes) which are constantly pinching off bits of themselves into smaller vesicles (the technical term is ‘blebbing’) and passing these blebbed vesicles back and forth between each other. The protein will passed from vesicle to vesicle until it’s sorted into one bound for the cell’s outer membrane. This final vesicle merges with the outer membrane, and the protein is in position at last. This whole process takes place incredibly quickly, and all the while the cell is carrying out thousands of other processes and reactions! (see below)

metabolic pathways poster
(Some of) our cellular metabolic pathways. Your exam is next week! http://bit.ly/1RTl9UU

But how does the cell stop making this protein? It has negative feedback mechanisms that – in the presence of the protein – interfere with one or more of the above steps in its production and transport. If there is too much of the protein, this negative feedback will become more powerful and the protein’s production will be scaled back. But if the cell finds itself in a situation where it needs unusually high levels of the protein, it will have another feedback system – this one able to block the first one and allow for extra high levels of the protein. For the cell to work properly, it needs to 1) have multiple ways of doing things that contradict each other (in this case, producing protein vs not producing protein) and 2) have ways of choosing the right thing to do. Cells can make tricky decisions between vastly divergent options extremely cannily – and they manage this perfectly well without needing to think or have a brain!

Take another look at the above list of human contradictions. There’s actually a very strong analogy between the way we use these ideas or circumstances and the way a cell uses its protein machinery. Each side of the contradiction is extremely important to have – their weird differentness actually makes up a sort of bedrock of who we are as humans. Cells are complex and if you try to pare them back to make them easier to work with or understand, then they become primitive and boring and will only survive in a lab in a controlled environment. The same goes for humans – we are complex creatures that form complex societies and if you were to try and somehow iron out all our kinks and quirks we’d all diminish into something less than we are. The importance of maintaining and extending our repertoire of ideas and circumstances (contradictory though they may be) cannot be overstated.

That said, many of our ideas and circumstances are unhealthy, or even destructive if used carelessly. If a cell produces too much of an outer membrane protein, then (depending on what the protein is) all sorts of bad things could happen to it, from popping due to osmotic pressure, to getting destroyed by the immune system, to starting to become cancerous. Disregarding the advice of a close friend, exercising your free speech disrespectfully, trying to please everyone all the time, or voting purely according to ideological reasons will mess you or your society up in no less serious a way. We are constantly challenged by the question of how to marry these contradictions (that is, how to make use of both sides while marginalising neither of them).

This challenge is a taxing and demanding one. It requires that people make decisions on which side of a contradiction to promote over the other. These decisions will often be moral ones. Unfortunately, the challenge is all too often dismissed in safe and platitudinous fashion: “seek balance,” “all things in moderation,” “live a moral life…” These pat sayings belie the true tricky seriousness of contradiction marrying.

Fiction can be pretty useful for understanding the moral gravity of contradiction marrying. Now a friend and I were discussing the Lord of the Rings not too long ago, and he told me about how he’d come up with a theory when he was younger that all decent literature and fiction is fundamentally about good and evil (and I agree). This comment reminded me of a speech I heard from a friend in English class at high school where she made the same observation (also making reference to LOTR) – but claimed that is was actually a problem because simple old good and evil don’t do justice to the complex moral ambiguity of the real world. I object to this view – it’s true that the world is morally complex (this is another way of saying that marrying contradictions is hard), but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to do better.

Take LOTR (since it’s always got such good examples!) Many of the characters spend plenty time and energy umming and ahhing over the contradictions in their lives. Gimli (a dwarf) and Legolas (an elf) need to figure out whether a traditional enmity between their people should bear on their relationship. Frodo needs to figure out whether he should kill treacherous Gollum, or if pity should prevent him from doing so. These are not simple decisions to make – Gimli and Legolas have been brought up a certain way and shouldn’t be too quick to disregard what they’ve been taught. A living Gollum could ruin Frodo’s all-important mission. But these characters 1) believe in good and evil, and 2) dare to chase after the ‘better way of doing things’, even if it means trouble for them. ‘Aspiring to do better’ opens them up to more options, more complexity, and more ways of marrying contradictions together.

Conversely, some characters implicitly acknowledge the existence of good and evil, but for whatever reason do not aspire to do better. Take Saruman, a wise and powerful wizard who perceives the horrendous power of the dark lord Sauron and becomes fearful. He opts for self preservation and advancement, a simple and easy course of action that prevents him from being able to think and act freely and reduces him to a lesser being – who ultimately loses his power and authority to Gandalf before meeting a sticky end. In abandoning any hope of defeating Sauron, Saruman reacts to fear instead of aspiring to do better. Fear prevents us from confidently and boldly marrying our contradictions in an effort to make full use of everything we have. We to need to acknowledge the fact that we have our cake, and then we need to plough on ahead and aspire eat to it as well!

Saruman-saruman-20940226-500-200
“A wizard should know better!” http://bit.ly/1S5ufy3

To finish, I will note three things. First, the importance of contradiction is actually a fairly common philosophical observation – for example see Heraclitus and Kierkegaard. The business of bringing contradictory things together is dialectic. I haven’t been especially rigorous from a philosophical point of view for this post, but I’m confident that my argument could be further refined if need be.

Second, well-married contradictions are an excellent analogy for good relationships. Any two people will be vastly different, but often highly complementary in certain ways. In any relationship (friends, family, partners) careful work is needed to make the most of what each person brings to the table.

Third, it is worth thinking about the role of institutions in mediating the marriage of contradictions. My #1 institution is the church – so here is a quote from G.K. Chesterton on its exuberant struggle to marry as many contradictions together as possible (in truth, it provided the inspiration for much of this blog post). I use the metaphor of “marrying your contradictions”, but his one is a bit more dramatic:

“The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom–that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”

[From Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton – rest of the book available here]

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“Peace in our time” – not entirely silly

Peace is always topical because everyone wants it. But what is it? This blog post introduces a brief framework for understanding peace better. A framework that gives rise to such questions such as: how does one best find/lose peace? Where does peace come from? Is it merely naive optimism to hope for peace all the time, or can a hope for peace be justified?


In 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain had just returned from the Munich Conference where he had signed an agreement that gave the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. Blissfully unaware of what the future had in store, Chamberlain stood on the steps of number 10 Downing Street and addressed his country:

“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”

chamberlain
“I have in my hand…”

Ouch, the historical irony is real. Chamberlain’s words have taken on a certain notoriety, being parodied by Monty Python and used as a one-liner in the latest Avengers movie. Mentions of “peace in our time” are now usually loaded with the suggestion of anything but. I’m sure Chamberlain was a fairly intelligent and astute individual, but his negotiation skills were not up to the task of appeasing the Hitler and the Nazis. Pulling off a diplomatic settlement for that situation would have been hard for anyone, if not impossible. Powerful forces were in motion and in hindsight, there was little that any one person could have done to prevent a war.

This blog post is going to be about conflict. History is full great examples, but given my enthusiasm for historical detail I’m worried about getting bogged down… so let’s move from the historical and geopolitical to a more relatable example of conflict in the 21st Century…

Now most of the time, cyclists and motorists exist side by side happily enough whilst on the roads. But there is an underlying instability or tension, which at times will rear its ugly head as a conflict. For cyclists it might when cars, trucks and buses impatiently and unsafely overtake you, when there is a lack of good cycleways, when you get a faceful of diesel exhaust, or when someone toots at you while you’re cold, wet and tired. For motorists it might be when you get stuck behind an excruciatingly slow rider who just won’t let you past, when a cyclist in another lane veers in front of you without warning, or when a cyclist dings your mirror whilst cheekily dodging and weaving through a slow moving column of traffic.

cyclist

Whenever a cyclist or motorist is caught in such an incident it is due to a fundamental difficulty – our roads are used by both wobbly and slow muscle-powered vehicles with fragile exposed riders, and by swift motor vehicles with an enclosed cab. It is a situation that generates instability and tension, making conflict likely. Now when individuals act as cyclists or motorists they enter into a role that places them right in the middle of this unstable and tense situation, where they could potentially become implicated in a conflict (examples of which are listed above). In any conflict a victim and a perpetrator will be present, although the roles can sometimes be a bit blended (e.g. if revenge is taken) or there may be multiple victims and/or perpetrators. When a conflict occurs, it is a way of diagnosing the fundamental difficulty (or the unstable and tense situation) that allowed it to happen. Once a diagnosis has been made, it is possible to resolve the fundamental difficulty and remove the source of conflict – hopefully leading to peace.

Now I see three ways in which a fundamental difficulty can be resolved. First, the two parties adapt to the situation, and learn how to cope with it (tolerance). Perhaps cyclists and motorists will become more used to each other and learn to make allowances. Second, one party may edge out the other (victory and defeat). Perhaps the bicycle-loving mayor of Wellington (where I live) will ban the use of cars in the CBD. Or perhaps cyclists will be banned from certain major roads due to concerns for their safety. Finally, the fundamental difficulty might suddenly be removed due to a change in circumstance – allowing each party to exist as before (conflict dissolution). Perhaps the adoption of driverless cars greatly reduces the risks run by cyclists.

  1. Tolerance
  2. Victory and defeat
  3. Conflict dissolution

Now if ‘conflict dissolution’ sounds like nonsensical waffle that some corporate manager might ineffectually throw at a troubled cubicle farm, then you would be forgiven… I thought up the term myself (or so I thought), googled it, and this silly thing was the first result! [Now some people think conflict is simply due to an overactive sense of individuality – that we must revert to some romanticised Rousseau-esque state of nature where we coexist with each other in pre-industrial happiness and the word ‘rival’ does not exist. Were it so easy. Fundamental difficulties (and the conflicts that arise from them) are at least as old as biological life. Predation and biological competition are reminiscent of conflict, and even the pre-agricultural humans from over 10 000 years ago practised warfare. This isn’t to say that the history of life is just a long tale of brutal striving and struggle, but we should all be able to agree that conflict is in the mix somewhere – and that you can’t get rid of it by just “suspending make-believe and being natural”.]

Rather, by conflict dissolution I mean an abrupt (or miraculous) change in circumstances which suddenly makes everyone go “why are we fighting over this? It used to matter, but now it doesn’t”. One might claim that a conflict could still be perpetuated out of a sense of historical grievance (and there is some truth in that), but in my opinion the only historical grievances that get remembered are the ones where something tangible is still at stake. Conflict dissolution removes that which is at stake and essentially ringbarks the conflict. It may hang around for a bit longer, but its life is gone.

What about mediation? A mediator has no power as such, and can only facilitate negotiations between the two parties – in the hope that some sort of mutually acceptable arrangement may be reached (a mix of tolerance, and of victory and defeat). This can lead to peace some of the time, but it doesn’t always work! Just ask any of the numerous US presidents and secretaries of state who have tried to negotiate an agreement between Palestine and Israel…

Madrid 1991
Madrid 1991
Oslo 1993
Oslo 1993
Aquaba 2003
Aqaba 2003
John Kerry, Tzipi Livni, Saeb Erekat
Washington 2013

A lot of the time (and certainly in the case of Palestine-Israel…) a conflict may be so deeply entrenched and intractable that it would take nothing short of a miracle to make the underlying problems go away. Sure, if you wait for 500 years perhaps the Palestinians and Israelis will have grown tolerant of each other (perhaps), if only because the conflict has become too destructive for each side to countenance. If one side drives out the other by force, then the conflict will also be resolved – but bear in mind that resolving the source of conflict is not sufficient for peace. The means of resolution must also be a peaceful one (‘pacifying’ your enemies militarily is not the same as making peace with them!) Mediation is worth trying, but don’t expect it to give you something for nothing – peace with no attempt to resolve the fundamental difficulties that give rise to conflict. In extreme cases like Palestine-Israel, it is nigh-impossible to imagine a dissolution of conflict such that ‘peace in our time’ would be a reality.

Conflict is awful, because it draws in nice ordinary people and pits them against each other. Most should be avoided like the plague (tolerance). Some conflicts are worth getting involved in (victory and defeat) – but one should never become judgemental and prejudiced towards the other side. Finally, we should hold out in hope for the dissolution of deep-seated issues underpinning our conflicts. Perhaps driverless cars will fix our road safety issues. Perhaps Big Business will decide that preserving the environment is in its interests. Perhaps Sunnis and Shiites will come to some some happy theological accommodation. Perhaps the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and the wheat will be separated from the weeds. “Give peace in our time, O Lord“.

Oil and water? A ramble on science, Christianity, and evolution

Science (my chosen academic field) and Christianity (my chosen religion) have had a long and entangled relationship. Sometimes they have worked really well together, but other times not… This post is targeted at Christian scientists, non-Christian scientists, Christian non-scientists, and even non-Christian non-scientists.

“Christianity versus science” is too simplistic

Christian creationists believe that God created (and is creating) the universe, that He created (and is creating) humanity in His image, and that this gives us a unique position of authority and responsibility. These essential tenets of Christian creationism are orthodox and important components of the Christian faith. But in this day and age, ‘creationism’ is more often associated with a silly belief in anachronistic dinosaurs:

Ken Ham (2000)
Pseudo-science and pseudo-Christianity. Ken Ham (2000) “Dinosaurs of Eden: Tracing the Mystery Through History” Source: https://goo.gl/zb5DwE

Oh dear. Literal ‘7-day’ creationism is tarred as pseudo-science, and rightly so. It’s also terrible PR for Christianity, which has been (and still is) the religion-of-choice for legions of scientists and Nobel Prize laureates.

Now 7-day creationists are certainly Christians, and they hold beliefs about the physical universe that, not too long ago, would have been fairly harmless. If you didn’t have any reason to think differently, why not believe the universe appeared over the course of seven days, around 6000 years ago? No one else had anything more scientifically rigorous to suggest. But scientific advances have disturbed some Christians who simply relied on the Bible for all things cosmological and biological. Some of these Christians try and keep it simple, by repeatedly insisting that it’s just a matter of believing what you read, because Scripture is inerrant.

But regardless of whether or not it’s true, hiding behind a scriptural inerrancy doctrine ignores the fact that Scripture is always read out of a hermeneutic framework. Not every single verse, or even every single book, is of equal importance; and plenty of early Christian writings didn’t make the cut. The ‘interpretation’ can of worms is already well and truly open for older questions like “what does the Bible mean by ‘sexual immorality’?” and “who are the elect?”and Christians must either try to defend their chosen position, or say “I don’t know”, or “it doesn’t really matter”. 7-day creationism wants to make things a simple choice between Christianity and science when other (more defensible) positions are available.

Reinforcing this dumbed-down dichotomy, but from the other end, we have Dawkins and co. (the ‘new atheists‘). The result is toxically polarised mess. Even here in little New Zealand I can sense the confusion radiated by some of my fellow science students when they hear I’m a Christian — or by some of my fellow Christians when they hear that I accept evolution. So I’m going to bypass all that rubbish, and discuss what I see as the real relationship between Christianity and science.

Science and Christianity are separate pursuits (of course)…

Science is thought of as an objective ‘realist’ pursuit, meaning that scientific findings stand true regardless of who it was that discovered them. Subjective Postmodern critiques can inform the history and philosophy of science, but can say nothing about the truth of scientific findings themselves. So even if a scientist was old, white, rich, bourgeois, straight, cis-gendered and male (as most eminent scientists have historically been) that would have nothing to do with the validity of his results.

Christianity on the other hand, is mostly seen as a personal and subjective pursuit. Christians don’t often impress with their objective truth-claims: “I’m telling you, Jesus rose from the dead because the Bible says he did, and the Bible is actually pretty reliable on this point!!”. Rather, Christians impress with what they do (e.g. the Salvation Army) and with their subjective faith experiences (everyone loves the idea of being ‘spiritual’). Therefore, in the eyes of many, the validity of a Christian’s ‘results’ are down to their personal conduct, not their intellectual achievements.

…but they still inform each other

Despite being different pursuits, there is still plenty of interaction between science and Christianity. 7-day creationism is an unfortunate result of this interaction, and Christians need a better way of incorporating humanity’s new objective knowledge of the material universe into their faith (more on this later).

Science doesn’t operate in a vacuum either. For a start, it can get very expensive. As soon as human resources and  money become involved, highly non-scientific concepts like ‘morality’ become involved. The Large Hadron Collider cost €7.5 billion. NASA spent about $109 billion (2010 dollars) on the Apollo programme from 1959-1973, which works out to about $18 billion for each of the six moon landings. Biology has the virtue of usually being cheaper than physics, but studying living things often requires killing them. Pharmacology is both expensive — taking a new drug through clinical trials costs about $1 billion on average — and potentially lethal for any rats or chimpanzees involved. It’s pretty sobering to think of the staggering amounts of money, human resources and animal suffering that have fuelled our precious scientific advances. I like to think that scientists everywhere are keenly aware of this, and spend many sleepless nights either justifying these decisions to themselves, or repenting of them.

There’s also a more individual side to it. As professional academics, scientists need to ask themselves hard, personal and subjective questions on how their careers should be spent. Is it all about ladder-climbing, publishing as many papers as possible, and getting tenure somewhere? Or should it all about some ‘big cause’ like species conservation, or climate change mitigation? Should you climb down from your ivory tower and try to engage the public on important issues? Or should you just keep your head down, work hard, and try to enjoy yourself along the way?

By Frits Ahlefeldt. Source: http://goo.gl/hR74RZ
By Frits Ahlefeldt. Source: http://goo.gl/hR74RZ

So the subjective and personal aspect of science is extremely important. There are lots of capable scientists out there and some of them will be Christians trying to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ to the academic world of research.

Evolution for Christians?

So if you’re a Christian who finds evolution convincing, but would like to keep on being a Christian, what should you do? When discussing biblical interpretation earlier, I mentioned that one could either take up a position and defend it, admit you don’t have all the answers, or simply dismiss it as a trivial distraction (“guys, let’s just go feed the poor ok”). My own view is a mix of all three, and I’ll summarise it below.

(And if you’re not a Christian, I’m sure you’ll find this interesting too… prepare for some profound insights into the tortured and cognitively dissonant mind of an evolutionary theist!!)

Defend a position — evolution is mostly deterministic, which is good

In Genesis 1, God first made the universe, the Earth, the plants and the animals. He looked at everything and said that “it was good”. Then He made mankind in His image, took a second look at things, and said that “it was very good”. How can this be reconciled with a picture of evolution where everything is the product of random capricious processes?

First, note that evolution isn’t actually random. If it was, scientists would be far less enthusiastic about it! Allow me to explain with some basic biology… For every gene in your genome, you have two copies (alleles). These get packaged into separate gametes (i.e. sperm or eggs), so if you have a child then each allele has a 50% chance of being inherited. It’s the same odds as to whether your child will be a girl or a boy — the father’s X and Y chromosomes have an equal chance of being inherited. In an evolutionary context, this is called genetic drift, and it is the only aspect of evolution that is actually ‘random’ in any sense. This kind of randomness isn’t too disconcerting. Humans are pretty used to the whole ‘is it a boy or a girl’ thing, as well as the uncertainty of whether their child will end up with Mum’s nose, or with Dad’s eyes.

Girl or boy? It's more or less 50:50. Source: http://goo.gl/jbYuCn
Girl or boy? It’s more or less 50:50.
Source: http://goo.gl/jbYuCn

Darwin didn’t know about alleles, but the modern evolutionary synthesis views evolution as the change in the frequency of alleles, in a population, over time. Small differences in allele frequencies between Europeans and Asians make us slightly dissimilar, but larger differences between the human and chimpanzee populations make us far more dissimilar. Genetic drift is one of four ‘forces’ that determine the frequency of an allele in a population. The other three are migration (alleles leaving and entering), mutation (produces new alleles) and natural selection (encourages ‘good’ alleles and removes ‘bad’ ones). While very hard to find and measure, these other three forces are properly deterministic (yes my doubting friend, perhaps even mutation!) Complex and tricky? Yes. Random? No.

It’s nice when you find that something is deterministic. Scientists pummel the universe in the hope of finding intelligible rules and consistencies, and Christians look for the order which God created from something that was “formless and empty”. In fact, any scientific evidence of determinism stands a good chance of being picked up by natural theology — which is the attempt to demonstrate truths about God solely on the basis of reason and nature (as opposed to using revelation). While basing one’s faith on natural theology alone may be unwise (i.e. it can turn people into deists), it’s still fun as a hobby. If King David and Thomas Aquinas weren’t above indulging every once in a while, then it can’t be too bad!

For modern-day natural theologians (like this guy), convergent evolution is intriguing. The evolutionary lineages of sharks (Gnathostomata) and dolphins (Tetrapoda, or Osteichthyes for the cladistic purists) have been separate for about 400 million years, but they’ve come up with the same streamlined shape, distinctive dorsal fins, and position in the food chain completely independently. A second example is the striking similarity in eye construction for vertebrates and cephalopods (i.e. octopuses and squid). These lineages have been separate for about 540 million years, but each have managed to come up with functionally identical image-forming eyes.

Here’s a more relatable explanation of convergent evolution. Imagine you’re an early cetacean applying for the highly competitive position of ‘fast versatile pelagic predator’ at apexpredators ltd. As a mammal, you make use of your inherited ‘advantages’ (breathing air, having a high metabolic rate and a big brain) and work on bringing yourself up to speed in other areas (limbs become fins, you use your vocalisations as sonar). Your CV impresses, and you well enough in the interview that your employers decide to partition the job between you and old Mr Shark (who used to have it all to himself).

Hmm, two very strong applicants. Source: http://goo.gl/caUBNM
“Hmm, we have two very strong applicants for the position.”
Source: http://goo.gl/caUBNM

But where did this ecological ‘job’ (niche) come from? Well to have predators you need to get prey, and to have prey you need to get photosynthetic organisms, and in order to have photosynthetic organisms you need to get a whole lot of stuff. Niches can be thought of as ‘emergent properties‘, arising as side-effects from an underlying system, but having the ability to feed back into their underlying system and influence it. Pretty cool.

Well, I could go on about convergent evolution and emergent properties all day, and hopefully you understand my excitement (if nothing else). My point here is that — as with the Big Bang theory — these scientific concepts are a godsend (haha) for natural theology. Science generally shows order and determinism triumphing over randomness and chaos.

Admit you don’t have all the answers — problems with evolution are just like problems with evil

Even if evolution is deterministic it can still seem cold and indifferent, or worse, cruel and capricious. Think of all the ‘failed experiments’ who died out, the ‘unfit’ animals who got eaten, the unrelenting need to reproduce… When you think about it, this is evilness, and it’s no different to humanity’s other experiences of evil. To name just a few of these experiences, we have climate change, the latent threat of nuclear destruction, 9 million Syrian refugees, inequality, poverty, religious persecution, insurmountable relationship problems, ruinous workplace environments, poor physical or mental health, the death of loved ones, and finally, our own mortality.

Christianity is no stranger to evil. I’m not talking about rotten things done in the name of Christ (that’s a separate issue for another time), rather that Christianity comes equipped with two ways of coping with the meaningless evil stuff in our lives. The first is the theological attempt to answer the question “how can an all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely good God allow bad things to happen to us?”. Many answers, or theodicies, have been proposed and the best of them is probably the Irenaean one. However, abstract theodicies on their own are usually of little comfort to people who are suffering.

Fortunately the Bible sans theology manages to deal with evil very candidly and cathartically, where no matter how bad things get there is always good cause for hope (see Job 14: 13-17 and Lamentations 3). And where do Christians find cause for this nutty hope? From their belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 7: 24-25).

Cheer up Job! You know, sometimes I find it really hard to get out of bed. Source: http://goo.gl/n16NX2
“Cheer up Job! You know, sometimes I find it really hard to get out of bed.”
Source: http://goo.gl/n16NX2

So by virtue of their faith, Christians are actually rather well equipped to deal with the unforgiving nature of evolution specifically, and of the world in general. Non-Christians and non-religious people in general sometimes characterise belief-motivated hope as a ‘security blanket‘, or as some sort of self-administered placebo. Well… I reckon they’re right in saying that hopeful and optimistic people are generally healthier and happier than the gloomy cynics. But if they go one step further and equate the belief that ‘Christ is risen’ with the belief that ‘it will be sunny tomorrow’, then that’s where we’ll start to disagree.

My point here is that the Christian faith is well suited to dealing with evil, and the thought of evolution taking place over billions of tough, cruel, attritional years should pose no problem. The years we face today are no kinder, and yet we still manage to enjoy ourselves.

A trivial distraction — Christians have better things to do

Does that heading sound a bit anti-intellectual? Good, it’s supposed to. Now it’s true that learning and speculating about all of this can be fun and edifying. It’s also a way of making one’s faith intelligible to people who’ve always assumed that Christianity and science have nothing to say to each other. But as with natural theology, getting too invested in it leaves you prone to abstract detachment and navel gazing or worse, arrogance and hubris. Having an excellent knowledge of biblical scholarship and theology is all very well, but Christians should not “merely listen to the word, and so deceive [themselves]. Do what it says” (James 1:22). The intellectual side to one’s faith is a tool (or a weapon) and so it’s always going to need a bit of care and maintenance. But it also needs to be used.

So, I think I’ve said what I had to say. Thanks for reading!

Chris

Why it is good to write: nearly ninety-five theses

Here are some reasons for why it is good to write things down. I’m not going to waste space arguing for any of them in particular, instead I’ll just type away, aim for quantity and not quality, and persuade you through sheer weight of numbers that writing (and this blog in particular) is a worthy enterprise. Is this a listicle? Yes, I suppose it is. But in that case, so were Martin Luther’s original 95 theses…

Dalil-Martin-Luther
Martin Luther knew how to drive a point home

Here we go then:

  1. Writing is a way of capturing thoughts, impressions, stories, events and ideas for their circulation and preservation. Generally, this is a good thing.
  2. There is a dark side to writing. It has been used to disperse propaganda, toxic ideologies and general ‘bad stuff’. It is easily turned from a tool into a weapon. However removing our ability to write would be like giving humanity a pre-frontal lobotomy; it would certainly tone us right down, but it would also diminish us. Some inventions have been more trouble than they’re worth, but writing does not belong in that category.
  3. Imagine a world without any writing in it. All other factors being equal, is our world not a better one?
  4. Without writing we would be far worse at remembering past philosophical,
  5. religious,
  6. scientific,
  7. and literary achievements.
  8. We would also have a much poorer record of history. Things that are written down stay the same.
  9. The weaponsiation of words can serve good reasons. If you’re on the ‘right’ side of a disagreement (without going into what exactly ‘right’ means), your first recourse will probably be to a written attack on your enemy’s position (hopefully not an ad hominem attack). This means that debates can be had over long distances and long periods of time, allowing many more people to participate.
  10. Fighting with words can also be an alternative to fighting with real weapons. Fighting is never a good thing, but given that it happens from time to time we should be thankful for its expression in the notably nonviolent medium of writing.
  11. Writing is vulnerable to corruption from the unsavoury aspects of human nature. On some forums, it is just a way for someone to rabidly attack an enemy from behind a wall of detachment or anonymity. It allows us to lash out at others from places of strength, and to troll and pick fights with people we don’t like. But so long as this and all the other dark sides of writing can be sidelined, then it is something worth having.
  12. More personally, writing is way of artistically expressing yourself. I know people who have trouble making themselves understood in conversation, but become highly eloquent in writing.
  13. Writing allows people to express themselves through poetry,
  14. prose,
  15. song lyrics,
  16. and calligraphy (at least, I’m assuming that’s what it’s for!)
  17. Admittedly, I’ve so far been using the notion of ‘writing’ in a rather broad sense. But I will now home in on the benefits I hope to bestow and to gain in writing this blog. Saying that reading this blog will bestow benefits upon you may sound suspiciously snake-oily… but you never know! I’ve studied and/or happen to know a certain amount on areas such as biology,
  18. philosophy,
  19. history,
  20. theology,
  21. current affairs,
  22. military strategy,
  23. Age of Empires II,
  24. baroque music,
  25. classical music,
  26. classic works of literature,
  27. Youtube,
  28. and running.
  29. I’ve also had some great experiences in China as a kid,
  30. and in New Zealand as a teenager and university student.
  31. At this point you might be dazzled at my all-encompassing brilliance, might be bored, or might think I’m a little up myself. Well neither of the first two responses are quite appropriate, I was just introducing myself for your benefit, to give you an idea of what my writing will be like.
  32. The last response is unwarranted, cynical, and a major disincentive to ever attempting writing in the first place. Let me assure you that I’m my own worst critic, and that if I ever start harping on about amazing me in a self-indulgent manner, then I’ll be the first to notice, and you certainly won’t get to see what I’ve written. So provided you can trust me to do my job, then we should get along just fine.
  33. So as the writer here, what benefits do I hope to see? Well, I’m a bit of an idealist and a dreamer. At the same time, I am scientifically trained and see no good in a theory or an idea if it lacks utility or value. In other words, in order for me to be excited about an idea, I have to find it worthwhile in some way. So I enjoy running (idea), not only because it’s fun, but because I know it’s good for me (value). Computer games and board games are also fun (arguably more so than running), but I don’t play them very often because I perceive them to be less worthwhile in the long term, and this reduces my enjoyment of them. Here I’m using ‘fun’ to refer to short-term pleasure and ‘enjoyment’ to refer to the long-term satisfaction that comes from spending time productively. Another example is loving other people as you love yourself, sometimes termed ‘the Golden Rule’ (value). The most convincing explanation (idea) that I’ve heard for this value is the one given by Jesus, that we ought to do it as an expression of our love for God, whom we love because He loved us first. That’s a good one to talk about another time.
  34. While idealistic, I am also pragmatically scientific in that I acknowledge the risks, problems and doubts inherent in any viewpoint and strive to find the best explanatory ideas and theories using the resources available to me. But I also dogmatically adhere to a set of values that I feel simply must be true, no matter what. Rational explanations try to reduce reality down to simple and manageable tidiness, but senses of value – what is important in the world – are seated somewhere else, and no purely rational attempt to explain them is satisfying. This is a deep, deep divide in our consciousness (reason versus intuition, science versus faith, essence versus existence) and I’ve been a bit fast and loose with my terminology here. But it should be enough to get the message across. Are you intrigued? Well, that’s some of what I’ll be trying to nut out on this blog here.
  35. As an aside, I won’t just be writing about this deep stuff. I love the writing of G. K. Chesterton, who was able to be disarmingly provocative with the most innocuous of topics, such as his love of cheese and the pleasure of lying in bed.
  36. Writing in general, and blogging in particular, is a lot of work. I’ve spent over four hours on this so far, think of all the computer games I could have played in that time! Success is also a tricky thing to measure, but I guess I’ll know it when (or if…) I see it. But when you think about it, all the much lauded ‘important things’ in life, like relationships, careers, families, enriching experiences come from a similar formula of trying hard with no guarantee of success. Nothing tried, nothing gained. So if I’m too scared to try writing, how will I fare in other areas? Strangely enough, writing could be good practice for the tougher realm of real life.
  37. Psalm 116:10 reads “I trusted in the Lord when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted'”. Speaking out in the hope that your words are heard by someone, somewhere, is a wonderful thing to do. Hope is justified by faith, and faith is justified by… well that’s a bit harder, but it’s got to be a certain mixture of personal experience and revelation. I’m writing in the hope that my words will be doing something worthwhile, and not just crunching into a wall.
  38. As Gimli from the Lord of the Rings would say (in the Peter Jackson movies), there may well be a small chance of success. But had he been real and not just a fictional character, Gimli would have understood that a probable outcome is a world away from a determined outcome. What does it mean for an outcome to be determined, anyway? There is no way to demonstrate that something must necessarily happen in the future (see ‘problem of induction‘). If you regularly buy Lotto tickets you probably stand to lose money, but there is a such a thing as striking it rich. To win, you’ve got to be in. So indeed, what are we waiting for? I’ve carefully placed my bets (there’s got to be some skin in the game), and I’m going to have a proper go at this blog.

Hmm, it looks like I didn’t quite make it as far as 95. It’s a bit rambly, not all of my points were really proper theses, some of them were terribly contrived, and I’ve been pretty heavy with the personal touch. Now if you think about it, this unpolished and misshapen product is actually a practical demonstration of me not worrying too much about what people think (what do they know anyway), and just getting on with the business. So there you have it, I pass the confidence test for writing. But I’m still waiting for the results of my aptitude test.