About Me

Friday, 16 April 2010

Note to Ron !

In reply to Ron’s comments on my blog on creation and evolution... It’s a rather lengthy reply so I’ve posted it as a new post rather than lots of comments. Feel free to add further comments. I am genuinely interested. I have just read back what I’ve written and I do rather go off the point a bit, but there you go… Must do further reading on the subject then re-post!

Hi Ron
Thanks for you lengthy (!) reply. And actually I found it very interesting. It’s always good to be challenged and to learn from other peoples points of view. I am actually interested as to what your profession is – looking at your own blog there are many religious references, presumably related to your self-professed atheism? (although, and I don’t wish to be pedantic, from what you say it seems like you are more agnostic than an atheist, from my understanding an atheist is someone who actively denies the existence of God, you seem to say there is no evidence either way).
But back to the point, the way you word your scientific references seem to have an educational touch to them, put in simpler English than any scientist, so I presume you must be interested in science rather than having it as a profession? Do correct me if I’m wrong – I’m simply interested.
I must admit first of all that I haven’t studied this subject enough to know the answers to many points, but I have actually just ordered Darwin’s Theory of evolution and intend to read it for myself. So my response to your post is mainly from a personal point of view rather than any kind of academic one. I am not, as you can probably tell, someone who finds science an easy subject but I am interested in it and would like to get a better handle on this and other issues.
Dawkins first, as you say... I haven’t actually seen him speak, all I know of him is from his own writings, articles and such like, so I have not been biased by anyone other than myself. I’m not sure I will read his book but thanks for the recommendation, simply because from the things I have read of his, I don’t like the way he writes and I’m sure there are plenty of other writings on evolution and so on to look at instead.

I liked your point about theories/facts/truth. One of my own arguments about many scientific discoveries is that some scientists and ‘experts’ refer to theories as if they are the truth, which in many cases is misleading, particularly to those not able to tell the difference, the media is very guilty of promoting this attitude and it does irritate me, but that’s for another discussion!
In terms of Christian belief, you are right in saying that theists hold their truths to be absolutely true, but indeed there are Christians out there who hold beliefs that are not true, whether it’s from religious dogma, mental imbalances or otherwise. (I don't think it's fair to put all those who call themslevs Christians in the same bracket - rather like we cannot say that all Muslims are fundamentalists). My point of view is that all 'Truth' in a Christian sense comes from the Word of God, the Bible. Again we could get into a lengthy discussion about the validity of the Bible, but that is not for now. What I mean is that as far as I see it, any Christian truth I believe has to be backed up by scripture. For example those who kill in the name of Christ in my opinion cannot be true believers. Jesus did not preach this – he told us to love our enemies. So undoubtedly there are those that call themselves Christians who would not be deemed to be so by God himself.
Equally I agree there are ’facts’ that many would disagree about, and this can only come from their own minds. The individual mind, which is of course a product of every individuals experiences of life, whether a Christian or not. However again I say that often those who believe a point fervently as a fact are not in fact as well informed as they should be (the Daily Mail brigade come to mind). And sometimes those who believe so fervently cannot be dissuaded in any way from their belief that a fact is true or untrue in a certain situation. I am aware of course that this sentence could equally be applied to Christians, but I prefer to think of that in terms of a spiritual relationship between Jesus and the individual, rather than that person being swayed by outside influences or the media.

I accept that in general scientists like to have hard evidence or proof to make theories become ‘fact’. However science and Christianity need not be exclusive of each other, there are some well known Christians who use science in their ministry very well (Louie Giglio springs to mind). And in fact I am an example of someone who takes on both. I absolutely believe in Jesus Christ, as the Son of God, and to do that I need faith, but in science terms I am quite an analytical person – I will not accept one side of an argument or debate without listening to the other. Many Christians are the same – because they accept Jesus in faith it doesn’t mean they just accept any old theory by faith too!

I am grateful for your admission that ‘science can never prove something beyond all doubt’, indeed I’m sure there are many ‘facts’ from previous scientific discoveries that can now be disproved by more modern methods of testing. In fact your phrase below was particularly interesting:

‘…But when a fact or theory has such an abundance of evidence supporting it, and no reasonable evidence against it, then scientists are prepared to call it true’.

Because in a sense that same sentence could be applied to Christianity. There is actually an abundance of evidence supporting it, and by this I mean ‘Evidence as: ones basis for belief or disbelief; knowledge on which to base belief’. Historically it is agreed to be a ‘fact’ (by non-believing historians) that a man called Jesus of Nazareth existed, and I do not mean in the Bible, there are historical and contemporary references to a man of this name being sentenced by Pontius Pilate for blasphemy in more than one place. So in terms of the man, we can assume that he existed. There is also evidence that he was a Holy man with a band of followers. The Bible whether you believe it as the word of God or not, is also a useful historical document. It stands up against other contemporary writings and if I recall correctly (will try to remember where I read this!) there are more copies of the early Bible than any other historical document of this era. I won’t go into reams of info here but you can see that in historical terms certainly there is a lot of evidence to show that Jesus certainly existed, that he had a band of followers and those who wrote about him. So either he was who he says he was or he was ‘deluded.’ an early schizophrenic maybe? I for one chose to believe the former. So in that sense you could say that as the ‘theory’ of Christianity has much evidence supporting it, and no reasonable evidence against it (is there? I don’t know of any – that’s the point of faith, you can’t prove or disprove it) that we would be prepared to call it true?

Ok so on to the issue in hand – evolution – something which Christians all over the world disagree on! As I said I haven’t yet read Darwin but I am looking forward to. My understanding so far is that the main point of ‘natural selection’ cannot be proved to the extent which the theory implies. eg: an animals tail length or markings could be changed over generations with the right breeding, but that for a new breed entirely it is simply ‘impossible’ (probably not the best word to use in a science discussion…:) ). And indeed I accept that evolution happens and has happened over the centuries, but not that everything came from the 'big bang' and that we are all descendants of organic matter, all of us, every living thing on this planet. I mean really? I think the example that is often used is that of the human eye – that there are so many different aspects of it, in order for it to work, it needs every single on of these parts, so what could it have evolved from? In order to be a functioning eye it had to have so many bits even initially. I liken it to people who say that if you put a bunch of monkeys in a room with a typewriter eventually they will produce the works of Shakespeare. I don’t care how many theories of probability that you can produce, does anyone actually believe that could happen? And even then they only have one goal – with one typewriter. Evolution assumes that we all, every living thing evolved from organic matter. So that’s not just producing the works of Shakespeare, that’s like writing out all of his works in every language known to man 10 times over (or possibly more…) Do you see where I am going? Am I rambling..?!

And on Shakespeare:
You said: ‘If we ever think we have found an underlying reality, how would we know there isn't something else just beyond our scientific reach’ which makes me think of a line from Hamlet:

‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’

Which is one of my favourite lines from Shakespeare, and links in to your line above. No matter what we discover there is so much we can’t possibly know and we would be foolish to think that we did.

In terms of evolution as I said I don’t have a problem accepting that things evolve, what I struggle with is the beginning – the creation – so how did everything evolve from the big bang? That’s what I would like to know from a scientific point of view. Can you help me out? I have read arguments disputing bits of the original research but until I have read it for myself I will hold fire on repeating those.

So on to Chrisitanity (again!). You said:
‘theologians are keen to tell us what God wants from us, but when we enquire about God we are told he is unknowable, beyond our capacity to know. Well, if that's the case how come theologians feel at liberty to claim to know just enough for their purpose of determining how we act?’

I think this is slightly unfair! Of course ‘the church’ at large does have a lot to answer for and 'The Church' and Christianity should be thought of in separate frames really. I don’t know what your knowledge or experience of church or theology is, but as in anything there are good and bad theologians and priests out there. Anything that theologians tell us should, as I said before, relate to scripture. And mainly this relates to a good moral code and not 'God is telling me you must give all your money to the church' or ' we must go to war against that nation...' or other notions which have been used in history... I won’t get into denomination, but I am an Anglican, so I don’t go in for confession or anything along those lines. I don't go in for the dogma or rhetoric that surround Christianity other then what I have personally experienced. Anything that comes from the church should, as I said before, refer back to scripture and not from individuals. Being a Christian is about having a personal relationship with Christ, Christ as part of the Trinity of God the Father, God the son, God the Holy Spirit. It is perfectly possible to have a relationship with him, and I do mean personal. And that is through prayer and studying the Bible. I believe there are things that only I and God know about me and that has been demonstrated to me any number of times recently. A non-believer might say well that’s just coincidence, but I can tell you if that’s the case I must be particularly lucky at the moment.
Of course there are things that are just too unimaginable to be able to understand, just as there are in life in general. For example if you look at the universe, scientists just have no idea how far it extends, it is talked of as ‘infinite’, because we simply don’t know yet how far it extends. Future generations of scientists may have made probes or space craft that can travel further and faster than we have been able to yet, but for now, it is unfathomable. Equally the human mind – we can only know so much – but to really delve into how it works in great detail – scientists only have part of it sussed out. And imagine if you’d said to someone 100 years ago, ‘in your life time, we will see man on the moon’ – what would they have thought? Probably they would have found it unthinkable too. So I don’t think it is wrong in essence to say that parts of God and the way he works are unknowable, because there are many things in life like that too and we cannot understand them all. But you can know him through his Son Jesus Christ, who is a part of him too. Happy to expand on this if you are interested…

You said: ‘Theists often claim scientists are arrogant, that scientists claim to know stuff as fact.’
True, but then some of them do… :) as with any large group of people, one can make generalisations: Atheists often claim that Christians are deluded, doesn’t mean they are…!!

I seem to have rather gone off the point – but I hope I have answered some of the points you made without being argumentative! I really am genuinely interested in the subject of creation vs evolution and as I said, I know I need to read further (haven’t looked at your other suggestions yet but will do.) I also do not wish to be one of those Christians who make it their personal mission to argue with any non-Christian point of view. That is not where I am coming from, so I hope it doesn’t come across that way. A good debate should be just that – good conversation, and an interesting debate.

Red x


Ron Murphy said...

Hi Red,

Your last paragraph first. I appreciate the opportunity to compare points of view. I won't be offended by anything you say, so please be as candid as possible. I think that it's necessary to avoid misunderstanding. Likewise I'm not trying to be abusive in anything I say; it's just my point of view - for example, when I mention delusions it's simply what I understand the brain to do sometimes, including mine; it's not intended as an insult.

My reply was lengthy because I wanted to give you the whole picture from someone who is both atheist and who thinks that science shows evolution to be the best description of life on Earth. I'm afraid a short answer is rare from me, as i like to make sure I've been as clear as possible.

I'm a software developer, though my education is in electronics, physics and control systems. So I have something of a scientific background, but I wouldn't classify myself as a working scientist - I don't do science research, I don't perform double blind trials, and so on.

I find the evidence for a natural world (materialism/physicalism) so abundant that I would consider it pedantic to call myself an agnostic, though strictly perhaps I am. I find the total absence of evidence to support a case for a god, multiple gods, etc., enough to warrant calling myself an atheist.

Without wishing to be rude it is the case that many people are persuaded by religions and mysticisms because they don't have a good grasp of science. It's easy to be led astray by pseudo-science. This is also why many complementary medicine regimes are so popular, the promoters give them an air of being scientific, without backing up their claims with good evidence. There are also commercial and political interests that play on the general public's lack of science understanding - e.g. Big Pharma in the US - see this presentation by Beatrice Golomb:

If you've only read Dawkins I guess it's easy to read a manner into his style that isn't necessarily how he is in the flesh.

"I am not, as you can probably tell, someone who finds science an easy subject..." - I'd be happy to help, by pointing out good online sources, or answering any questions you might have, if I can. The least I can do is offer my understanding of current science, which of course may not be up to date or complete.

So, on to some particular points...

Ron Murphy said...

"...scientific discoveries is that some scientists and ‘experts’ refer to theories as if they are the truth" - I think you'll find in most cases it's poor media reporting or political manipulation of science that does this. Historically though, yes, science hasn't had a good public communication policy.

I agree not all Christians can be treated as one group. The problem for an atheist making any particular point is that there will always be some Christians who pop up and say, "That doesn't apply to me. That's not my Christianity. Therefore you are wrong."

"However science and Christianity need not be exclusive of each other..." - If God has revealed himself to someone, through revelation or through miracle, then he has made a physical change in this material universe - a revelation makes physical changes to the brain of the recipient, walking on water requires energy to counter gravity, miracle cures require biological change, the effects of intercessory prayer should be testable (the latter has been tested and no effect has been found). All this is testable by science.

"...I am an example of someone who takes on both..." - It is possible to use the products of science, to accept scientific results, to participate in scientific activities, and still believe in God (e.g. Ken Miller). The problem for the religious comes when it is put to them, "You disbelieve in (i.e. you are an atheist about) all other gods but your own. And, you think followers of other religions have got at least some parts of their religion wrong. And, you see all the varieties of religious belief that exist. And, you think yours is right just because you have decided it is, or you feel compelled to believe it. In all other circumstances you would say this is an unacceptable and irrational position and want evidence before believing something. Why is your religion an exception?"

"...they accept Jesus in faith it doesn’t mean they just accept any old theory by faith too!" - To Muslims your faith is any old theory. As are both Islam and Christianity to an atheist.

"I am grateful for your admission that..." - It's not an admission. It's just a statement of how science works.

Ron Murphy said...

Specifically about Jesus...

"So in terms of the man, we can assume that he existed. There is also evidence that he was a Holy man with a band of followers." - To an extent. But surely this is as least as suspect as whether Shakespeare existed, or was a single author of all the plays - there are disputes about the both men.

"The Bible whether you believe it as the word of God or not, is also a useful historical document." - Only to a limited extent. It's not a precise record. It's not clear what is historically correct and what is not. On the other hand, an original document about, say, some the equipment in used by Roman Legions could be trusted more, as long as it's age could be authenticated.

"It stands up against other contemporary writings..." - It's been put together with a particular agenda in mind, and as such is biased. "there are more copies of the early Bible than any other historical document of this era." - That fact only tells us that it was copied many times, which you'd expect from the type of document it is. This doesn't add more evidence, it simply repeats the same evidence. Imagine a physics experiment is reported the journal 'Nature', and that 10,000 copies are printed. This doesn't make the results any more true than if only 5,000 copies were printed.

"..certainly there is a lot of evidence to show that Jesus certainly existed..." - I don't think there is. I think you'd need to cite sources to convince me.

"So either he was who he says he was or he was ‘deluded.’ an early schizophrenic maybe? I for one chose to believe the former." - You say you 'chose' to believe; but that only tells me something about what you are thinking, not about the relaibility of any evidence. But so far you have only said you believe that a mortal man called Jesus existed. This says little more than me saying, "Well, it's possible the Shakespearean plays were written by multiple people, but I choose to believe they were written by one man, Shakespeare." They remain preferred opinions about what was the historical case, irrespective of what the historical case happens to be.

You are now considering two distinct faiths. One is that there existed a man called Jesus who went around his locality teaching and preaching. The other is that this was The Son Of God, and he performed miracles. There may be some evidence of the man. But there is no evidence of any miracles, only what is claimed in the Bible. And simple claims don't constitute evidence. It's the Son of God and miracles bit that's essential to Christianity.

Personally I don't have a problem with anyone saying, "I call myself a Christian. I think Jesus was a good mortal man, and I follow his teachings as explained in the Bible, but I don't beleive in miracles and God stuff. I go to church on Sunday's and say prayers in order to encourage myself in my path to follow Jesus. This gives me the feeling that I know him personally and that he knows me, even though obviously, in reality, this isn't the case." I realise that many Christians wouldn't accept this to be Christianity as they know it.

The point is that we know mortal men existed at that time, and that some of them were considered to be holy men, so accepting Jesus the man existed is not contentious (even if it is disputed by some); but claiming one of these holy men actually performed actions that fly in the face of everything we are able to show with our best science, this is extremely contentious and needs to be treated with extreme scepticism - i.e. extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Religious people may be content to believe, to have faith, in this story without any confirming evidence. Atheist are not content to do so, and act as if these extreme claims are untrue, until supporting evidence comes along.

Ron Murphy said...


"...but not that everything came from the 'big bang' and that we are all descendants of organic matter, all of us, every living thing on this planet. I mean really?" - Yes, really. It's quite simple once you grasp it. And the evidence supports it.

"I think the example that is often used is that of the human eye..." - This is a really old objection that is easily refuted. Guess you haven't watched the video clips I posted. The one that explains this is only 3 minutes long.

"it needs every single one of these parts" - No, this is so incorrect.

From the Shakespeare quote, let me complete it with what it should say:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy, or your Christianity, but because you don't have access to that information you're just guessing and speculating when you try to tell me anything about them, such as there is a God and he wants us to do such and such. The religious are as much in the dark as the scientists. Philosophers and theologians are very good at saying God is unknowable and beyond our understanding, and then going right ahead an telling us exactly what this God wants.

"In terms of evolution as I said I don’t have a problem accepting that things evolve, what I struggle with is the beginning – the creation – so how did everything evolve from the big bang?" - Evolution, or Darwinian evolution of life, doesn't address how life got started. It only addresses how life forms can change over time, and how with sufficient change this can lead to different species.

The start of life is a different matter. There is a hypothesis (a good guess based on what is known) that life started from some complex chemicals, similar to DNA or RNA, but not necessarily those. The important step was that these chemicals and the environment (e.g. the soup) that they were in was such that copies were made as part of the chemical process. This is thought to be the start of replication, or hereditary. Occasional copying mistakes were made, or other random changes occurred - i.e. mutation. This copies that were best suited to the environment and made copying simpler or more reliable or more productive, tended to be copied more - and there you have evolution from then on. As I say, this is still hypothesis. processes like this can be created artificially now in the lab, but it can't be concluded from these results that this is exactly how life started.

As for the Big Bang and the processes that led to the formation of the universe, the galaxies, the star systems, and our Sun and Earth - these are all pretty well covered by theories that have a lot of data that supports them, right back up to just after the Big Bang. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in France is being used to study the type of events that might explain more detail. Clearly there is a lot still unanswered. But that's the nature of science - new things are being discovered all the time.

Ron Murphy said...

More on Jesus and Christianity...

I've just posted on Lesley's blog my opinion on the relationship between basic questions about God on the one hand and organised religions on the other - my comment that begins, "I see a distinction...":


"It is perfectly possible to have a relationship with him, and I do mean personal...." - I see this as you having a personal relationship with the idea of Jesus Christ. It's quite possible for humans to commit so thoroughly to an idea that they can believe there is some substance, some reality, to it, without that being the case. The brain is very flexible in what it can convince itself. For any other instance except religion this would be considered an unusual thing to do. But some children do it. They have imaginary friends that they really believe in. We don't think they are crazy, we just think its something the brain can do. But, sometimes, in adults, we see that this capacity to imagine can run away with itself; the brain is capable of inventing realities that clearly do not exist, delusions. The similarity between clearly identifiable delusions and the belief in a God for which there is no practical demonstrable evidence is the reason Dawkins called his book "The God Delusion".

"I believe there are things that only I and God know about me..." - If you invent a character in your mind, and part of this invention is that this character can know your mind, then clearly there will be things that only you and that character know about you. How can you tell the difference between a character you know that you've invented, and this other character in your mind, God, who think you haven't simply invented?

"...and that has been demonstrated to me any number of times recently." - I'd genuinely be interested in these, if you are prepared to share.

Red said...

Hi Ron
Indeed I find it all very interesting and am equally unoffended!
I do want to be careful however that this doesn’t become a debate on Christianity – I find myself doing what I said I never would – which is debate Christianity with an atheist. I kind of think it’s a bit of a pointless exercise, because we both have such strong views which we are going to stick to and nothing short of a miracle will persuade either of us otherwise. So in terms of Christianity I think we probably need to just agree to differ. But a few quick answers so you don’t think I’m taking the easy way out…:)
You said you would be interested in the instances where I felt things only God and I know about myself and that this had been demonstrated to me. I blogged on some briefly here and on ‘wow’ moments’:

This specific post is about a prayer appointment where 3 women who I didn’t know prayed for me. They all came up with the same answers. Some very personal to me, they knew my character, worries I had, one even picked out a specific song (a Christian one but not well known – but it is very pertitent to me and no one except myself and my husband knew that). That kind of thing… There are lots more, what you would probably call ‘coincidences’. Things that I have been thinking about that someone else has voiced an answer to without knowing. Answers to prayer. Specific guidance through scriptures. Far too many to mention. I know through discussions with my brother (as you have a similar approach to him) that you would probably dismiss any one of these as explainable, or as a coincidence, but for me there have been way too many in a short space of time to explain them away easily or rationally.
In terms of Christian evidence there is no all consuming proof, that is what Faith is about, but I personally can’t not believe. And as you rightly say I think followers of other religions have got at least some parts of their religion wrong, yes. There is no reason why I should expect you or them to accept Christianity as their faith. At the risk of making what may seem a weak point to you, I do believe there is an element of having ones mind open and having ones eyes opened to it, that makes it all make sense. I truly believe in the Holy Spirit working in us to help it all become clear, but I wouldn’t expect you to understand that without experiencing it. I know that probably sounds like a poor argument ‘well, you haven’t seen it so you can’t possibly know’ but for me I really feel like I’ve had an awakening or that my eyes have been opened and I know that is a common theme in many Christians lives.
And one last thing, you said: '... they remain preferred opinions about what was the historical case, irrespective of what the historical case happens to be.'

Surely ‘preferred opinion’ is what we all do with any conflicting evidence? We look at the ‘facts’ in front of us, see both sides and using our own judgement we draw our conclusions, hence why not every one who studies theology believes.

Back to evolution:

My mind is now overflowing with info and I think I need time to process it all! I have watched some of the clips you recommended and am half way through the Ken Miller. It is certainly helping me to clarify things and I realise it is not a simple issue at all. Which I guess is why I posed the initial question and why so many people disagree. In my continued reading I may well come back to you with science based questions, so thanks for the offer of help, it is much appreciated.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Red,

Okay, I'll leave it with you, and we can restrict any future discussion to evolution if that's what you prefer. I'll keep this post on my subscription list.