Science and experience

May 10, 2011

In the third chapter of “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins spends his time dismissing the most common arguments in favour of the existence of God. I don’t have a problem with much of the chapter if I’m honest. Many of the arguments he covers are indeed somewhat feeble, and a poor basis for a belief on which to base your life. I would also say, however, that my faith is not ultimately based on a convincing intellectual argument about God’s existence, and I think most Christians would confer with me on this.

There are two points that I would quibble with however . The first of these is his dismissal of ‘The argument from scripture’. This is a big topic and I don’t intend to go into it in great detail. I would merely say that as I read through and meditate on the Bible, its authority, consistency and relevance – thousands of years after it was written – is striking.

The main thing I want to say, though, relates to his discussions on ‘The argument from personal experience’. Even in this, most of what Dawkins says is true. He cites an example of an undergraduate contemporary who mistook the call of a ‘Manx Shearwater’ for the devil, to demonstrate that a spiritual experience may have  a more down-to-earth explanation. He rightly points out our brain’s ability to read something that isn’t there into the sensations that it receives. Yes, we can easily misunderstand, misinterpret and misremember isolated events that happen in our live and to base a life-changing belief on one ‘mystical experience’ might be a flaky enterprise.

The problem with his argument, however, is that Dawkins misunderstands what Christians mean by their personal experience. While I can only properly understand my own experience, I don’t think I am unique or even in unusual in what I say. For me, while there are spiritual ‘high points’ and specific times when I’ve been very aware of God’s presence, my personal experience of the reality of God does not rest on just one (or indeed several) such isolated events. Rather my personal experience is as much the cumulative impact of being aware of God in the everyday. There are many aspects to this personal experience, for example:

  • seeing God answer prayer in both quite spectacular and more ordinary ways.
  • seeing something quite different in the lives of other Christians which I can only account for by God’s work in their lives.
  • the relevance of God speaking into the events of my life, sometimes quite directly, as I read the Bible.
  • a real sense of God’s presence, not just in spiritual high points but often in my every day life following him.
  • reflecting on my life, and recognising that it only makes sense if God is there.

There are other ways that I could say that I am aware of God’s reality in my life (perhaps other Christians reading this could reflect on how they are aware of God’s reality in their lives, and comment on some of the forms this takes?) but the point I wanted to make is that personal experience for most Christians does not come from a one-off experience, a voice or a vision, but a more common every day reality, different to but yet analogous to the way in which we experience most of the realities of our every day life.

For I think one common misconception that underlies a denigration of ‘the argument from personal experience’ is that personal experience is somewhat inferior to an argument that can be written down in a logical (and preferably mathematical) fashion on paper. My experience of my love for my family and theirs for me is not something that can be written down in this fashion, yet is no less real for that and also a core centrality in my life. Ultimately all things, even scientific facts boil down to basic truths that we accept because of the experiences gathered through our senses in our every day life.

Personal experience is powerful and a key reason why I, and others, believe in God. It could not be any other way.

Changing reflections

January 11, 2011
Icy lake at Blenheim Palace

Icy lake at Blenheim Palace

2011 has arrived, and the start of a new year is often an appropriate time to reflect over the past one. 2010 was a year of change for us as a family. I changed job half way through the year. A few months later we moved house and have been working our way through all the tasks that this entails since then. We’ve had other, sadder and harder changes to come to terms with this last year too.

Too much change brings stress and exhaustion. I don’t think that this is good for you(!) – but I’ve known something of this reality over the last year. However change also brings us the chance to learn new things, to develop and grow.

To give a trivial example. Our new house – the second we’ve bought – was also the second house that we’ve moved into with a broken letterbox in the front door. This had been fixed by the previous owners using glue but in time the fix came apart and the front plate came off – much like it had in our last house after I’d glued that! In our old house we eventually got a door repair company to come and change it. This time I was more adventurous and decided to try and fix it myself. I learned that actually this was very easy to do, that the mainstream DIY stores do not tend to stock replacement letter boxes for doors like ours, but that your can buy replacement letter boxes of all shapes and sizs on ebay! We now have a nice shiny new letter box on our door. It also cost rather less to fix this myself, than it does to pay for someone else to do it.

I would hope that learning to fix uPVC door letter boxes has not been the most profound thing that I’ve learned through the changes of last year. While changes can be uncomfortable, life would be much less rich without the challenges of new circumstances to face. A school that gave the same lessons each day would not be one to recommend.

Change while not always nice is often good for us.

…  a bit less change in 2011 would be nice though.

For everything there is an appointed time, and an appropriate time for every activity on earth… (Ecclesiastes 3:1. NET)

Magesteria

June 7, 2010

One of the main points that Richard Dawkins tries to make in the second chapter of ‘The God Delusion’ is that science has something to say on the question of whether God exists or not. He states that

Either he (God) exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability

He spends a fair amount of time criticising the concept of NOMA, or ‘non-overlapping magesteria’ as put forth by other atheists /agnostics such as Stephen Jay Gould or Thomas Huxley which suggests that science and religion look at different realms or magesteria – science covers the empirical realm of what the universe is made of and why it works that way, whereas religion extends over questions of meaning and moral value. As these two magisteria do not overlap science cannot comment on religious questions.

Dawkins, as I said, objects violently to this view – he considers God’s existence a scientific question which should be assessed using our scientific knowledge. As often, he makes some fair points. If God has and does intervene in supernatural ways in this physical world, as the Bible says and I believe, then this intervention is not outside the ability of our scientific instruments to measure and comment on. In one sense, I am not that bothered by Dawkins’ view as I do not think that the ‘evidence’ points in the same way that Dawkins does.

However Dawkins does overstate his position and ignores two significant things:

1) When God works supernaturally / miraculously in the world it is a ‘one-off’ occurrence whereas science is essentially a study of the repeatable. Few scientific studies or discoveries are accepted until they have been repeated at least once by other researchers. The basis of science relies on the world working in a consistent way so that we can repeatedly study that consistent behaviour. The normal everyday way things work which science describes are (I believe) the way they are because that’s how God has made them, but they are not what we would call miraculous or supernatural. When God however causes the world to behave differently to the normal rules that he has created it is not ‘repeatable’ behaviour – and so science will (and does) ignore it as an unexplained ‘blip’.

2) If God (as I believe) is responsible for the world we see around us coming into being, God is not part of that creation. The created world is therefore not ‘all that there is’ to know about. To suggest that it is necessarily rules out the existence of a creator God. A study of that world cannot by definition study the God who is beyond, outside, greater than that created world – this is not a convenient fudge to move God outside of the realm of scientific study but an unavoidable implication of who we mean by God. While God may and does impinge on that physical world, the study of the world alone will always have significant limitations in what it can say about God (including about his existence).

The upshot of these two facts is that I think that science will only ever be able to say a very limited amount about God’s existence or non-existence. There is evidence, although it is perhaps more in the historical / experiential / personal realm than in the scientific one, but belief in God will always be, ultimately, a matter of faith. We will never scientifically prove God’s existence or non-existence, and I think there may be good reasons why God has made it that way – more about that, perhaps, in a later post.

Spiders

January 12, 2010
Spiders

Spiders

For a couple of months in autumn, two spiders made our front window their home. It was obviously a good home as they looked well fed! I don’t particularly dislike spiders, but did think that they spoiled the view somewhat. One day, therefore, I chopped down their webs, but the next day they were back  just as intricate and extensive as ever.

Although they did somewhat dominate the view out of our front window, having them in such a prominent position meant that we could observe their web making skills quite close up. It was quite amazing the way that they managed to build up such intricate, complex structures, and clamber along them, starting from nothing!

This is just one example of the way the world around us can provoke a sense of wonder and awe. Lookup up at a clear dark sky night never fails to amaze me, especially as I think of just how vast the small section of the universe that I’m looking at is. In the first chapter of Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’, Dawkins also talks of the awe and wonder that scientists feel as they study and seek to understand the world. Often scientists use religious language, even talking of ‘God’ as they seek to explain the astounding world in which we live. Dawkins points out however that many of these scientists are not intending to refer to a personal god, such as the God of the Bible. He quotes Einstein, for example, who says

To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflecion, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.

Dawkins is absolutely right to point out that atheistic – or pantheistic – scientists who use religious or ‘god’ language are not speaking in favour of a Christian God, or arguing for his existence. It is wrong of Christians to use their words for such purposes when this is contrary to their real meaning. However, it is also true to say that other scientists – when they ponder the beauty and brilliance of the universe – do see behing it the work of an even more wonderful God. Indeed I’ve met many for whom this is exactly their response.

For me also, when I consider the wonder of our universe I cannot but feel that this could not have come about but for God who chose that it should to come into being and who ultimately is the cause of its existence. I’m not suggesting that this is a proof of God’s existence, but it is an entirely appropriate response.

Dawkins and Delusion

February 11, 2009

I’ve recently got hold a copy of Richard Dawkin’s book, the God Delusion. I know that I am unlikely to agree with it!, but feel it is appropriate to read the arguments of someone who argues so passionately against something which is so important to me. I hope to give it a fair reading, although it is hard for any of us to avoid bringing our bias to a subject.

Time to read is limited when you have a young child – so I’ve only read the first two chapters so far. From what I have read, though I have to say that although Richard Dawkins is clearly a highly intelligent person, and an excellent author and communicator, the fallacies or weaknesses in his arguments are not too hard to sport. For all of us (me included) a strong bias blinds us to being able to see other perspectives or possibilities. As a leading spokesman for atheism I therefore feel that his case against God is somewhat poor.

There are many others who have pointed out the faults in his books and arguments – and have done so more eloquently than I can. I am not willing to leave him unanswered personally, however, so I intend to do a series of blogs looking at perhaps one of the issues discussed in each chapter, once I’ve read them.

I’d better get a move on with the first two then!

Christ at Christmas

December 25, 2008

Well I managed the third of my three series of Christmas posts before Christmas is over – even if the last of these is on Christmas day itself!

It’s an appropriate day to write it however, for my third aspect of Christmas is that as well as being a busy time, and a time of celebration, Christmas for me is primarily about Jesus Christ who came from heaven to earth. This is I hope the most important focus for many others too – and Christmas day is the day on which we remember this tremendous happening.

It’s hard to write any new thoughts on this – after all the Christmas story is pretty familiar even to those who rarely venture to church. Even my two year old daughter is familiar with the fact the we remember baby Jesus being born at Christmas – even if it’s the Tweenies’ version that she remembers best!

It’s also hard to find time to think about this aspect of Christmas amidst all the busyness, the travelling, the presents, the time with family too. Writing this blog today is in some way providing an opportunity for me to give time to think about it.

As well as familiar, and hard to give time to, the fact that 2000 or so years ago, a baby Jesus was born in fairly poor circumstances is also mind blowing – because of just who that baby was and is. I know that this baby was the son of God – the one who had seen (and was responsible for) the whole universe come into being, sees (and is responsible for) all the life we see teeming around us – suddenly was looking out on the world from a feeding trough, with baby’s eyes and a baby’s limitations. It’s not something we will ever properly get our minds around.

I know that I find changes difficult and I have to give time to adjust to changes in life and surroundings. The bigger the change the more difficult it is to get used to. If you are raised in one culture and then move to live in another, if you’re being honest, you have to recognise that there might be some aspects of living in that other culture that you will never really be able to cope with. You may never truly be able to live like a native.

This was, for Christ, a cultural change bigger than any we will ever face. That he loved us enough to come here is amazing.

Happy Christmas.

Celebration at Christmas

December 18, 2008

I went into town today to buy a few last items needed for Christmas presents. Oxford city was, as usual in December, decked out with an array of different lights hanging over the streets, a Christmas tree (which didn’t have any working light on – a bit odd!) and so forth. The streets were buzzing as it was late night shopping. The stores were full of Christmas music …

I guess that for most people in the UK, Christmas for them is the biggest festival, and time of celebration, of the year. A time for parties, a long holiday, relaxing, spending time with family and friends, lights and decorations, presents and gifts, Santa and TV.

For me, neither trees nor Christmas lights, nor the all-too-familiar music are at the heart of what Christmas is about. I have some big problems too with the intense consmerism that surrounds Christmas, where stockings are less something in which you put a cherished gift or two, but rather something which needs to be ‘filled’ with imaginative, and completely unnecessary, novelties.

Having said this, however, I do still love Christmas the festival and time of celebration. Winter in the UK can be a somewhat bleak time, with dark days and limited sunshine, the cold setting in and the knowledge that it will be several months before things get warmer again. At this time the lights and festivities can really cheer things up. There’s one street near to where we live where quite a few houses are completely covered on the outside with flashing Christmas decorations. While I wouldn’t dream of having them on my own house, they are interesting and cheerful, and my daughter loves it when we drive past and she can admire them – so, to be honest, do I!

So while this all may not be at the heart of Christmas, Christmas time is still for me a time of celebration and festivity – and it’s good to enjoy it!

Crazy Christmas

December 8, 2008

One of the most obvious things about Christmas is that it’s a bit of a crazy time to say the least. In particular, it’s always busy. Maybe one of the reasons that most of us (Brits at least) have a long holiday between Christmas and New Year is that we need it to recover from the hectic rush which makes up life before (and sometimes during) the holiday itself.

There are the Christmas cards to write (I confess we won’t be sending many this year – mostly just emailed Christmas greetings!) and the presents to buy (hooray for Amazon, Ebay etc.). The house needs decorating and we try and fit in a trip to see the Christmas lights in town. The Chrismas holiday itself is usally spent with families – which is nice – but this means lots of travlling – more busyness.

Then, as a Christian there’s usually lots going on at church – we have our first carol service this weekend, and another the week afterwards, plus carol singing and so forth.

And with the long break at work there’s all that needs to be done in readiness for the shut down – and all the things you want to get done before the break makes you forget what it is you’re doing.

Is it meant to be this crazy?

Christmas is coming …

December 8, 2008

… and far quicker than I feel ready for! The last few days I’ve been thinking about what Christmas means for me, a Christian, a Dad, a Brit.

In reality Christmas has a variety of different meanings, and impacts life in many ways. I’ve decided to write a series of (probably 3, maybe more, but hopefully at least 3) blog articles about some of these aspects of Christmas in the coming two and a half weeks. Watch this space!

Making waves

October 23, 2008

… well maybe just watching them. We recently went on holiday to Swanage in the south of the UK. It’s a great place to holiday with small children and is on the coast – always a good thing (especially for someone who always seems to live in places about as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK!) I love watching the sea – and managed to get this photo of a wave breaking which I thought I’d share with you.

Hope you like it!

Breaking Wave

Breaking Wave


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