Archive for Religion

Gravity and Grace

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2011 by telescoper

This morning I came across the following quotation, which is translated from the book Le Pesanteur et la Grace (i.e. “Gravity and Grace“), written in 1947 by French philosopher Simone Weil:

Science today must search for a source of inspiration higher than itself or it must perish.

Science offers only three points of interest: 1. technical applications; 2. as a game of chess; 3. as a way to God.

I’m not sure I agree with what is written, and in any case the options don’t seem to me to be mutually exclusive, but a number of things did strike me reading it.

For a start, and for what it’s worth, I do think science has value within itself, so I’m at odds a bit with the initial premise. On the other hand, science is a human activity and it therefore doesn’t stand apart from other thing humans are interested in.

Then there is the extent to which we now all have to pretend that pretty much the only point of interest in science is “1. technical applications”. I don’t believe that’s true, actually, and I’m worried that by continually saying that it is, scientists might be sowing the seeds of their own destruction.

And then there’s “the game of chess”. I’m actually hopeless at chess, but I understand this as representing some form of abstract mental challenge.  If that’s what it does mean, then I’d agree that’s probably what got me interested in science. I’ve always been pathologically interested in puzzles. When I look at galaxies and stars, I don’t tend to gaze at them in awe at their enormity or beauty, I just tend to wonder how they work and what they’re made of. I don’t really mind people having a sense of awe, of course, but there’s a danger that if we take that too far we end up being over-awed which might make us shy away from the biggest questions. To me the Universe is just a great big puzzle, though it’s actually rather a tough one. I’m still stuck on 1 across, in fact…

Finally, we have science as “a way to God”. I find it quite interesting that a Christian philosopher could present science as that, especially when so many of my atheistic colleagues regard science and religion as polar opposites. It seems likely to me that anyone who studies science primarily as a means of finding God is probably in for a disappointment. I’m reminded of a quote  from Thomas à Kempis I learned at school:

The humble knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than the deepest search after science.

But that’s not to say that science and religion are incompatible with each other. I think they’re basically orthogonal, although in an abstract space with an extremely complicated geometry…

One of the interesting things about working in cosmology is that the big questions are very big indeed, which may be the reason why cosmologists tend to have strong views on matters of religion (and metaphysics in a general sense).  Just take the Templeton Prize, for example. The arguments about this year’s award to Lord (Martin) Rees are still simmering on, but it’s worth remembering that many recent winners of this prize, including John Barrow (my PhD supervisor, in fact) and  George Ellis (former collaborator of mine), are most noted for their work in cosmology. Both are religious: John Barrow is a member of the United Reformed Church, and George Ellis is a Quaker. Martin Rees is an atheist. But their religious views are not in conflict with their research. All are outstanding scientists.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the Easter holiday about religion and science. It’s partly the Templeton prize saga, partly the occasion of Easter itself, and partly the fact that I’ve been reading even more of the poems of R.S. Thomas. In case you didn’t know I was brought up in the (Anglican) Christian tradition, attended Sunday School, sang in the local Church Choir, and was confirmed in the Church of England. When I went to seconday school – the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle – I joined the Christian Union and remained in it for 3-4 years.

Although  I was immersed in Christianity – the Christian Union was vigorously Evangelical – it didn’t really stick and eventually all melted away.   I don’t really remember precisely what it was then that made me turn away from religion, although the sins of the flesh might have had something to do with it…

However, although I became an atheist I’ve never been a particularly devout one. The only thing that I’m really sure about is that I don’t know the answers. Does that make me an agnostic rather than an atheist? I don’t know. Perhaps I could just describe myself as a non-believer? That wouldn’t do either, because we all have to believe in some things in order to function at all. Even science starts with unprovable axioms.

A career in cosmology has given me the opportunity to think about many Big Questions. Why does the Universe have laws? Why is there something rather than nothing? And so on. I’m not much of a philosopher, though, and  I don’t have the answers. I do, however, refuse to take the easy way out by denying that the questions have meaning. Of course it’s not entirely satisfactory having to answer “I don’t know”, but I don’t agree with those of my atheist colleagues who think religion is an easy way out. I’m sure that a thinking Christian has just as many difficult issues to grapple with as a thinking atheist. Not thinking at all is the only really easy way out.

A few years ago I spoke at an interesting meeting in Cambridge entitled God or Multiverse? In fact there’s a picture below of the panel discussion at the end -I’m second from the right:

I thought it was an interesting dialogue, but I have to say that, if anything, it strengthened my non-belief. Prof. Keith Ward argued that the primary motivation for belief in God was the existence of “Good”. I have to admit that I find the Universe as a whole amoral and although humans have done good from time to time they have done evil in at least equal measure. The vast majority of people on this Earth live in poverty, many of them in abject misery. Good is a bad word to describe this state of affairs.

I just can’t accept the idea of a God that is interested in the Universe at the level of human beings. We’re so insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, that it seems very arrogant to me to suppose that it’s really got much to do with us. We appeared somehow, miraculously perhaps, but could disappear just as easily. I doubt the Universe would miss us much.

But I might be wrong.

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A Census of the Ridiculous

Posted in Bad Statistics, History with tags , , , , on March 12, 2011 by telescoper

My form for the 2011 Census arrived yesterday. Apparently they were all posted out on Monday, so that’s 5 days in the post. Par for the course for the Royal Mail these days. I’m slightly surprised it arrived at all.

There’s a hefty £1000 fine for not completing the Census, so I suppose I’ll fill it in, despite my feeling that it’s both intrusive and unnecessary. What’s worse is that several of the questions are so badly designed that the information resulting will be useless.

For example, according to the census guide:

Very careful consideration is given to the questions included in the census. Questions must meet the needs of a substantial number of users in order that the census is acceptable to the public and yields good quality data. The questions are selected following several rounds of consultation with:

  • central and local government
  • academia
  • health authorities
  • the business community
  • groups representing ethnic minorities and others with special interests and concerns

Hang on. The “business community”? Why should they be consulted? What do they want with my personal information? I thought the census data was for planning public services!  On the other hand, when everything is privatised maybe all our personal data will be flogged off to the private sector anyway.

The 2011 Census is the first one to include a question on health. According to the saturation advertising about the census, this question will help plan new hospitals and distribute NHS funding. So what is the new question, the answer to which will provide such valuable data? Here it is, together with the possible responses:

13. How is your health in general?

  • Very good
  • Good
  • Fair
  • Bad
  • Very Bad

And that’s it for “health”. Does anyone actually believe such a vague question is  going to be of any use at all in planning NHS services? I certainly don’t.

And then there’s the famous question about religion.

20. What is your religion?

For a start I don’t think my religion or lack of it should be any concern to the government. To be fair, however, this question is marked as “voluntary” so respondents are allowed not to answer it without getting locked up in the Tower of London. But in any case it’s a leading question and should never have been included in the census in this form anyway. “Do you have a religion and, if so, what is it?” would have been much better.

I could go on, but I’ve got better things to do today.

I’ll just say this last thing about the Census. Most of it clearly has nothing whatever to do with planning public services. In fact the government already holds most of the information about your private circumstances the form demands. The Census is nothing more an opportunity for the government to cross-check tax, benefit or other records in the hope of finding inaccuracies. In other words, Big Brother is watching you.

And the cost of all this snooping? A whopping £500 million, more than double the cost of the 2001 Census, and all of it  at a time of huge cuts to public services. You have to laugh, don’t you?


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Hawking and the Mind of God

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 2, 2010 by telescoper

I woke up this morning to the news that, according to Stephen Hawking, God did not create the Universe but it was instead an “inevitable consequence of the Law of Physics”. By sheer coincidence this daft pronouncement has come out at the same time as the publication of Professor Hawking’s new book, an extract of which appears in todays Times.

It’s interesting that such a fatuous statement managed to become a lead item on the radio news and a headline in all the national newspapers despite being so obviously devoid of any meaning whatsoever. How can the Universe be  “a consequence” of the theories that we invented to describe it? To me that’s just like saying that the Lake District is a consequence of an Ordnance Survey map. And where did the Laws of Physics come from, if not from God?

Stephen Hawking is undoubtedly a very brilliant theoretical physicist. However, something I’ve noticed about theoretical physicists over the years is that if you get them talking on subjects outside physics they are generally likely to say things just as daft as some drunk bloke  down the pub. I’m afraid this is a case in point.

Part of me just wants to laugh this story off, but another part is alarmed at what must appear to many to be an example of an arrogant scientist presuming to pass judgement on subjects that are really none of his business. When scientists complain about the lack of enthusiasm shown by sections of the public towards their subject, perhaps they should take seriously the alienating effect that such statements can have. This kind of thing isn’t what I’d call public engagement. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In case anyone is interested, I am not religious but I do think that there are many things that science does not – and probably will never –  explain, such as why there is  something rather than nothing. I also believe that science and religious belief are not in principle incompatible – although whether there is a conflict in practice does depend of course on the form of religious belief and how it is observed. God and physics are in my view pretty much orthogonal. To put it another way,  if I were religious, there’s nothing in theoretical physics that would change make me want to change my mind. However, I’ll leave it to those many physicists who are learned in matters of theology to take up the (metaphorical) cudgels with Professor Hawking.

No doubt this bit of publicity will increase the sales of the new book, so I’ve decided  to point out that I have  written a book myself on precisely this question, which is available from all good airports bookshops. I’m sure you’ll understand that there isn’t a hint of opportunism in the way I’m drawing this to your attention. If you think this is a cynical attempt to cash in then all I can say is

BUY MY BOOK!

I also noticed that today’s Grauniad is offering a poll on the existence or non-existence of God. I noticed some time ago that there’s a poll facility on WordPress, so this gives me an excuse to try repeating it here. Anything dumb the Guardian can do, I can do dumber. However, owing to funding cuts I’ve decided to do a single poll encompassing several topical news stories at the same time.


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Scientology and Stupidity

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on July 20, 2010 by telescoper

The first bit of news that caught my eye this morning as I ate my toast was a local item about Councillor John Dixon of Cardiff City Council. I’m not a big fan of the Council, particularly their bizarre Highways Department which, on the one hand, is narrowing all the roads in the city centre causing ridiculous levels of traffic congestion and, on the other, has completed an appalling road into Bute Park for the purpose of promoting its use by heavy trucks and lorries. When I saw a councillor was in trouble and that the word “stupid” was involved, I assumed I knew what it would be about …

However, that turns out not to be true. The Councillor was on the receiving end of a complaint by the Church of Scientology because of something he posted on Twitter. The message was

I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.

The notoriously litigious “Church” complained to Cardiff City Council that this comment impinged on their right to religious freedom. The main point of the Scientologists’ argument was that offending tweet came from “CllrJohnDixon”, implying that he was acting in an official capacity. Indications are that Councillor Dixon has indeed transgressed the Council’s code of conduct and the case will be referred to their disciplinary committee.

This is an interesting situation that brought a number of questions to my mind. First is whether Councillor Dixon actually did anything wrong. I think it’s obvious that his comment wasn’t a criminal act. I doubt if it was actually defamatory either, so it’s unlikely to be involved in a civil case on that basis. However, he was identified as a Councillor and may well have acted contrary to the code of conduct that forms part of his terms of employment if the code of conduct says something about religious belief. That is a matter for the Council to decide and I don’t think it’s helpful to comment here, primarly because I don’t know what the Code of Conduct says.

The second question is whether one’s reaction to a quip that Scientologists are stupid should generate any different reaction to a similar remark about Christians. Or Muslims. Or any other religion. I’ve run into Scientologists myself and read a bit about their religion, which I regard as a hilarious  hotch-potch of laughable fantasies cobbled together by a tenth-rate Science Fiction author with the express purpose of duping the gullible and the vulnerable out of their cash. I believe that anyone caught up in it must indeed be a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but does that give me the right to say they’re “stupid” in public?

Actually, I think it does. And I think I should have the right to say such things about other religions too. For their part they also have the right to protest if they’re offended. But they do not or should not have the right for any form of legal redress simply because I expressed an opinion. I don’t have a problem with this, any more than I have a problem with lampooning people like Simon Jenkins for the stupid things they say.

I suspect there are atheists who think all religions and religious people are stupid, as well as religious people who think all religions are stupid other than the one they believe in. Then there are people, like me, who don’t follow any religion but also don’t think that all of them are totally silly. I think it’s a reasonable principle that the right to hold and to espouse religious beliefs should be respected, unless, of course, the religious beliefs in question contradict common law or basic morality. Should we consider racism or homophobia to be acceptable if motivated by religion but not if such views stem from an atheistic political philisophy?

Although I don’t have any particularly objective yardstick for judging how silly different religions are, and therefore find it quite difficult to be entirely even-handed in my attitudes to religions, I do find Scientology particularly ridiculous. But then looking at the Church of Scientology’s track-record I don’t feel the need to apologize for that.

Behind this is the whole issue of freedom of expression and the extent to which it should be limited, either by the law or by employment contracts. For a start, I know that nobody likes to be on the receiving end of abusive comments, but I can think of much worse examples than “stupid”. Abuse related to an individual’s beliefs also belong to a different category to those related to, for example, race, gender or sexual orientation. People choose their religion (as they do their political views) and while one must respect another’s right to have different opinions, that doesn’t mean those opinions should be immune from challenge or comment. That’s why I disagree with all laws, such as those relating to blasphemy, that put religious beliefs in some special category compared to other kinds of thought. I’m not so sure about laws relating to racist sexist or homophobic abuse. Part of me says that in a free society you have to put up with the freedom people have to be nasty. Another part says that people deserve legal protection from extreme forms of verbal abuse, especially when it becomes threatening to them or if they are in a vulnerable situation.

However, all this about laws is really irrelevant in this case (I think). Whatever the legal situation in the big wide world, employers have a right to decide on what sort of behaviour they will accept from their employees in their office. In many cases – especially, but by no means exclusively,  in the public sector – such things form part of the contract of employment. If an employee transgresses they should face disciplinary action. If that doesn’t happen, or it is done in a discriminatory way, then the whole system starts to look grossly hypocritical. Better surely not to have rules at all than to have them but use them only as window-dressing?

I think what I’m saying is that I think it’s at worst a bit impolite for a private individual to call Scientologists “stupid” but nothing more than that. It’s also perhaps a bit different for a Councillor to do so in their professional capacity than as a private individual. However, I myself would not say that the Church of Scientology itself is stupid. I think it’s much worse than that. I think it knows exactly what it’s doing.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens now in this case. I hope Councillor Dixon gets nothing more than a slap on the wrist. I fear, however, that the media spotlight will compel the Ethics committee to take more drastic measures. That would be a shame, especially when I can think of other examples where much worse and much more obvious  transgressions than this have gone completely unpunished by public bodies who have indeed also connived with the miscreant to conceal evidence of wrongdoing.

Popularisation or Propaganda?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 25, 2008 by telescoper

I was just reading a piece by Jim Al-Khalili in today’s Guardian online science section. Jim is Professor of Physics and of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. His piece seems to have been inspired by the new appointment of Marcus du Sautoy to a similar position at Oxford University recently vacated by Richard Dawkins. His message is essentially that scientists should not only be more active in popularising science but also do more to “defend our rational, secular society against the rising tide of irrationalism”.

The legitimate interface between science and society has many levels to it. One aspect is the simple need to explain what science tells us about the world in order that people can play an informed part in our increasingly technological society. Another is that there needs to be encouragement for (especially young) people to study science seriously and to make it their career in order to maintain the supply of scientists for the future. And then there is the issue of the wider cultural implications of science, its impact on other belief-systems (such as religions) other forms of endeavour (such as art and literature) and even for government.

I think virtually all scientists would agree with the need for engagement in at least the first two of these. In fact, I’m sure most scientists would love to have the chance to explain their work to a lay audience, but not all subjects are as accessible or inspirational as, say, astronomy. Unfortunately also, not all scientists are very good at this sort of thing. Some might even be counterproductive if inflicted on the public in this way. So it seems relatively natural that some people have had more success than others, and have thus become identified as “science communicators”. Although some scientists are a bit snobby about those who write popular books and give popular talks, most of us agree that this kind of work is vital.

Vital, yes, but there are dangers. The number of scientists involved in this sort of work is probably more limited than it should be owing to the laziness of the popular media, who generally can’t be bothered to look outside London and the South-East for friendly scientists. The broadsheet newspapers employ very few qualified specialists among their staff even on the science pages so it’s a battle to get meaningful scientific content into print in the mass media. Much that does appear is slavishly regurgitated from one of the press agencies who are kept well fed by the public relations experts employed by research laboratories and other science institutes.

These factors mean that what comes out in the media can be a distorted representation of the real scientific process. Head of research groups and laboratories are engaged in the increasingly difficult business of securing enough money to continue their work in these uncertain financial times. Producing lots of glossy press releases seems to be one way of raising the profile and gaining the attention of funding bodies. Most scientists do this with care, but sometimes the results are ludicrously exaggerated or simply wrong. Some of the claims circulating around the time the Large Hadron Collider was switched on definitely fell into one or more of those categories. I realise that there’s a difficult balance to be struck between simplicity and accuracy, and that errors can result from overenthusiasm rather than anything more sinister, but even so we should tread carefully if we want the public to engage with what science really is.

Most worryingly is the perceived need to demonstrate black-and-white certainty over issues which are considerably more complicated than that. This is another situation where science popularisation becomes science propaganda. I’m not sure whether the public actually wants its scientists to make pronouncements as if they were infallible oracles, but the media definitely do. Scientists sometimes become cast in the role of priests, which is dangerous, especially when a result is later shown to be false. Then the public don’t just lose faith with one particular scientist, but with the whole of science.

Science is not about certainty. What it is a method for dealing rationally with uncertainty. It is a pragmatic system primarily intended for making testable inferences about the world using measurable, quantitative data. Scientists look their most arrogant and dogmatic when they try to push science beyond the (relatively limited) boundaries of its applicability and to ride roughshod over alternative ways of dealing with wider issues including, yes, religion.

I don’t have any religious beliefs that anyone other than me would recognize as such. I am also a scientist. But I don’t see any reason why being a scientist or not being a scientist should have any implications for my (lack of) religious faith. God (whatever that means) is, by construction, orthogonal to science. I’m not at all opposed to scientists talking about their religion or their atheism in the public domain, but I don’t see why their opinions are of any more interest than anyone else’s in these matters.

This brings us to the third of Jim’s suggestions: that more scientists should follow Richard Dawkins’ lead and be champions of atheism in the public domain. As a matter of fact, I agree with some of Dawkins’ agenda, such as his argument for the separation of church and state, although I don’t feel his heavy-handed use of the vitriol in The God Delusion achieved anything particularly positive (except for his bank balance, perhaps). But I don’t think it’s right to assume that all scientists should follow his example. Their beliefs are their business. I don’t think we will be much better off if we simply replace one set of priests with another.

So there you have my plea for scientists to accept that science will never have all the answers. There will always be “aspects of human experience that, even in an age of astonishing scientific advance, remain beyond the reach of scientific explanation”.

Can I have the Templeton Prize now please?

Science and Religion

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews with tags , , on September 16, 2008 by telescoper

This is a write-up of a talk I gave at the University of Derby earlier this year. Although I’m not religious myself, I don’t agree with the likes of Richard Dawkins and am quite happy to engage in dialogue on such things, as I think science and religion ask different questions and get different answers. But there can be no dialogue if there is dogma, whether it be of theist or atheist flavour.

Does the Big Bang Theory Explode Religion?

The Big Bang theory has been around for many years, and provides an amazingly accurate description of how elements were formed in the early Universe, so does this mean we have removed the need for a creator God?

When eminent cosmologist Professor Peter Coles talked to a group of people of many faiths (and of no faith) at the Multi-Faith Centre in the University of Derby on 14 February 2008, he gave a very clear andsuccinct description of the theory, using wit and wisdom to engage the audience in an evening of information and discussion.

Peter appears regularly in the media. His expertise includes the Big Bang theory, the expansion of the universe and whether it will continue to expand or ultimately collapse. He is based in theSchool of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University. He entertained the audience with his wit and humour. He gave a brief history of cosmology, explaining the evidence for our current understanding of the Universe and worked his way back to discuss its creation.

The conclusion of the event was that cosmology tries to explain HOW the Universe came about but cannot tell us WHY. “If I was creating the Universe I wouldn’t have done it this way,” Peter joked. “I would have had something simpler, not all messed up like this. But it wasn’t my decision.”

For a fuller report on the event see

http://www.emsec.org.uk/index.php/Creation_of_the_Universe