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Sunday, 13 April 2008

Miller, Polkinghorne, and Wright: The Evolution of the Long Commute

I often spend up to 2 hours of my workday commuting to and from my clients' offices, in a train where possible, but more often than not in my car. Needless to say I am not too happy about this wasted time.

John Stackhouse claims that this commuting problem also increases my risk of becoming dumber:

What are we doing during those hours upon hours in our cars, buses, trains, and the like? Some of us are getting dumber: listening to (bad, which is to say, typical) talk radio or pop music; fuming at other drivers while trying to shave a few minutes off the commute; or simply letting our minds idly flit from one vaguely anxious or annoying or trivial thought to another.

So a few months back, I bought a converter that allows me to play mp3s from my laptop to my car stereo. I’m glad I did. This has allowed me to listen to a wide variety of lectures and sermons during my long commute.

(Please note: I do set the whole thing up prior to backing out of my driveway. I do NOT endanger others or myself by attempting to drive & interact with my laptop simultaneously).

Many of my commuting lectures are downloaded from the “Faraday Institute of Science and Religion” multimedia page. Faraday has a wide range of resources on the religion / science interface, probably the best set of resources that reflect both a commitment to Christian orthodoxy and integrity in science. Categories include bioethics, biology, the environment, divine action, evolution, history of science and religion, philosophy of science, physics and cosmology, and science and the bible. I have just started working my way through the series but, from what I can tell, most lectures are exceptionally strong.

Some recent highlights:

1. Ken Miller: “Chance, Necessity, and Evolution”

The title of this lecture is probably a little misleading. Miller (author of Finding Darwin’s God) conducts a wide ranging discussion on his own experience in the Evolution vs. ID conflict, including his account of the Dover trial. Although not necessarily an in-depth discussion of randomness in evolution, Miller is at his engaging best in this lecture, and I definitely recommend it.

One particularly interesting item: When addressing the idea of “apparent age”, Miller refers to the “Steve Martin God” because the God postulated by the apparent age argument is “One Wild and Crazy Guy”. Just another reason for me to despise the Omphalos hypothesis.

2. John Polkinghorne: The Future of the Science-Religion Debate

This was a very interesting lecture on the direction Polkinghorne thinks the Science-Religion dialogue (why must we always call it a debate?) is heading. One topic he discusses is the coming shift in emphasis to the human sciences (eg. psychology & sociology). Fortunately the evolution-faith discussion may be ending; unfortunately the discussion re: mind-soul-faith could be just as nasty. Another growing area of interest is the place of information theory and pattern dynamics. Polkinghorne predicts that by end of the 21st century, “information will take its place beside energy & matter” in the physical sciences. Connecting the two topics above, Polkinghorne believes that the soul is not some detachable spiritual entity but is an “almost infinitely complex information bearing pattern”. Anyone want to start a blog called “An Evangelical Dialogue on Non-reductive Physicalism”?

3. N.T. Wright: Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection

I must confess that I have not read much N.T. Wright, but I plan to rectify that in the future (I am currently reading The New Testament and the People of God). This lecture is (I believe) a whirlwind summary of his very important The Resurrection of the Son of God. That is next on my list.

Wright had a memorable line in the Q&A following the lecture. When asked about Richard Dawkins' God Delusion he replied “I must confess I never finished it. It was one of those books that once I put it down I could not pick it up again”.

Short Conclusion
I’m not sure that a commuting lecture strategy will allow me to avoid becoming any dumber. But it certainly has made the commute much more enjoyable.


James F. McGrath said...

The Pimsleur language courses are wonderful for making good use of your commute. If you learn Mandarin, Japanese, and Russian during your commute, it will do your brain good as well as having practical applications. When you finish with those, the Teach Yourself Conversation series isn't bad either! :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, you must practice steering with your knee. Speaking of N.T. Wright, there are tons of materials on the 'N.T. Wright page' which includes his series on Jesus ('Jesus and the Kingdom' etc. on MP3) which helped me realize that Jesus is way more interesting than I had been led to believe. www.ntwrightpage.com/

Speaking of education, I was at Powells Books today (a huge bookstore in Portland) looking for Gordon Glover's book. They have hardly anything like that (only Francis Collins), but a gigantic section on 'Creationism.' Depressing.

Steven Carr said...

There is a discussion forum for Wright's lecture at Can a scientist believe in the resurrection

I posted a fair bit, quoting Wright from the lecture and pointing out where he was wrong.

So the organisers deleted almost all of my posts....

Wright's arguments cannot be defended in a public forum.

The book 'The Empty Tomb', edited by Lowder and Price has chapters which demolish Wright's arguments.

Wright has never responded to them, although he knows all about the book.

I wonder why criticism of Wright is silenced, deleted or ignored.

But never answered.....

Steve Martin said...

James: My wife (an editor type) claims I have difficulty with English. I figure I should probably perfect that before trying to mangle another language. :-)

steve R: Hey. Thanks for the tip on the NT Wright page. For others, see http://www.ntwrightpage.com/#video for lots of mp3s (includes audio, not just video on this link).

steve C: As I noted, I haven't read a lot of Wright (or his critics) so I can't really comment on your claim. I would however be extraordinarily surprised if Wright was ignoring / silencing his critics or if anything "demonlished" his arguments. I guess I'm just becoming tired of claims in the theist / non-theist world (on all sides of lots of these arguments) where people claim to have "demolished" the other side. On closer inspection, I generally find out that the data is much more ambiguous & the argument is much more complex than either side is letting on. One interesting debate to follow (I think) is the NT criticism stuff. Good forum of Erhman vs. Wallace here: http://ricchuiti.blogspot.com/2008/04/greer-heard-forum-2008.html

Steven Carr said...

It is a plain fact that the moderators of the Wright discussion forum deleted almost all of my points where I quoted Wright and showed where the facts differed from his.

It is also a plain fact that Wright has never responded to the arguments in 'The Empty Tomb', although he emailed me to say he was aware of the book.

Wright also emailed me to say he had 'no time' to discuss the ideas in the book, although he has plenty of time for interviews where he knows he will not be challenged.

These are all just plain facts. They might be a surprise to you, but that does not change their factual nature.

I also have an ongoing debate Resurrection Debate

Comments are always welcome.

Wallace appeared to change the subject of the debate, from whether the NT was changed (which it obviously was) to whether there was an *organised* attempt to change the NT..

JR said...

A little acerbate on Francis Collins and his genomic miracles.

Collins knows that no new Aquinas-prodigy has proffered proofs and that his Aquinas-like list is just a list (.. 1) there is something instead of nothing, 2) unreasonable .. mathematics (he inverts Wigner), 3) the Big Bang resulting/emerging in empirical precision of physical constants supporting life, 4) conformity to moral law). Now, just a list. Safe. Modest. Sufficiently null.

Let's move on. Collins in context moves from plausibility of God (via Lewis, he says) to a possibility of God (list above) to a leap.

The leap is where he loses me.

I’ve read enough of the flying leap to know that Neo didn’t make it on the first jump (and of other failures).

But, where Collins really loses me in his flying leap-a-deep is that Collins (NPR interview) adds gratuitous dicta in saying that 40% of practicing scientist believe in a God to whom you can pray “in expectation of an answer.” Now, Collins is referentially very reserved here: he knows that marshaling believing-scientists-as-evidence violates rules against thinking that a theory’s probability is increased by adding new relations, whether via adding authorities or by adding more logical connections to data. But still, Collins leaps!

Why leap? – why leap when data acquired in between states of plausibility-possibility (validly null) and the potentials of test-by-prayer don’t require any leap at all, because answers to prayer can be entirely analogue? Leaps are for quanta. And leaps presuppose separation thresholds of energy: so too with memes. Why leap when a smooth transition to complex distributions through prayers answered can provide the metron (metron: act according to the “measure” of your grace) analog for bridging the take-a-flying-leap approach?

Or, is the whole reference to scientists-believe-in-prayer not only gratuitous, but worse, are scientists’ beliefs about prayer so vacuous that scientists themselves don’t really believe what they say they believe (as hard studies in attribution show)?

When atheists (Colin McGinn and company) can posit normative “ethics of belief” for atheism (I find the arguments mostly persuasive), then where’s the ethic of belief for taking flying leaps, while simultaneously paying lip-service to scientists-believe-in-prayer?

There’s a “put up or shut up” law of diminishing returns to keep saying that you believe in prayer, without cranking out the data of answered prayers.

Or, are we in the “God is dead” eternal recurrence (Eliade is right) from the 60's-70's?



Steve Martin said...

Hi Steven C:,

I’m not necessarily surprised that some posts are deleted on those forums or that Wright has not responded to every criticism. There could of course be perfectly good explanations for this. (I know nothing of the particulars so I’ll leave it at that). But if Wright truly is systematically ignoring all criticism (almost all popular writers / thinkers are accused of this at one time) I doubt his star will last too long. That just doesn’t work anymore. From what I’ve read / seen, I’m definitely given him the benefit of the doubt.

More to the point is the claim that his views have “been destroyed”. I find it funny to visit the “fan” sites after a debate (eg. Richarddawkins.net vs. whomever). The boards will light up with those claiming their guy “slaughtered” his opponent. Believe me, Fundamentalist Christians do not have a monopoly on the fundamentalist non-thinking mindset.

Hi Jim,
Talking about leaps, that comment was a real leap of context :-).

On Collins claim re: 40% of scientists, I think (if I recall correctly) that his point was simply that religious faith, including a faith that believes in a God that answers prayer, is not necessarily inversely proportional to one’s scientific understanding and ability. Basically just addressing the claim that anyone who understands science can’t really believe in God.

Steven Carr said...

It is not a surprise to me either that moderators would delete posts which dealt with the amazing claims that Wright makes in his lecture.

For example, if Wright claims that women were not regarded as credible witnesses, then the moderators dare not allow postings showing how the Biblical authors regarded women as credible witnesses.

That would give the whole game away.

Wright is no more than a fundie, who has yet to find an error in the New Testament...

It is obvious that Paul thinks the resurrected body of Jesus was a new body, not the old body transformed. Even NT Wright in his book 'The Resurrection of the Son of God' recognises that.

However, as Wright also believes that the old body of Jesus left the tomb, Wright has to play with the ultimate in harmonisations - that the body of Jesus was smuggled out of the tomb underneath a new body.

Wright says 'Did Paul, perhaps, believe that Jesus' new body, his incorruptible Easter body, had been all along waiting 'in the heavens' for him to 'put on over the top of' his present one?.' (page 371)

Of course, Paul did not think that Jesus had turned into a set of human nested Russian dolls. Paul did not think Jesus had two bodies at once, no matter how NT Wright tries to harmonise Paul and the Gospels.

In his efforts to harmonize Paul and the Gospels, Wright goes to any length, it seems, including such absurdites as claiming that Jesus had one body on top of another.

JR said...

Steve, cheers. Yeah, a leap of context. Sorry about that.

Your stylization seems close. He didn’t claim prayer as a real praxis. Just a vague claim about “belief” in prayer. So, he left himself an out: counting on the generosity of inferences of his audience to make sense out of the irony, or not to see the irony, of invoking “belief” in prayer without fielding data.

I’m not against leaping. Emergency room doctors do it all the time via interventions before tests come back. Judges too issuing ex parte restraining orders. Pastors too who risk malpractice for failing simple steps of crises intervention in suicide cases. Everyone who translates hifalutin theo-poetic nests of concepts to praxis takes some leaps. Leaping can be fun, anyway.

It’s just that in all these cases, test results do come back to close the leap that er doctors take; courts do have further hearings to close the gap of leaping into ex parte orders; pastors who are half-competent clinicians do follow up on suicide interventions to close the gap of interventions by taking further narratives to tickle out the origins of distress; and, researchers look for best data sets to close gaps in their Bayesian predictions.

In every case, the gap between leap and smooth continua is re-examined. I’m not stuck on smooth continua. No metric is “god.”

In the end, if scientists wax poetic by invoking "leaps" of faith, then they're just counting on inferential generosity. Their leap is their business. It's not for me to betray their testament (Kundera).

There is a deeper tie to your thread here.

The deeper tie is that I can see mathematical physicists (Polkinghorne) appealing to theo-poetic types of theologians, since there are many maths that don’t fit to data, and maths that don’t need to fit to data, just like some theologies can float around in mid-air, like Plotinus’ emanations, without empirical grounding. There’s a higher percentage of mathematicians who claim belief in God than is claimed by scientists in hard sciences (that data may be dated).

But, I can’t see a genetic scientist getting away with theo-poetic non-sense for very long among his own college; sooner or later, the alpha-dogs of hard studies will quit giving him breaks. The ironies of invoking “belief” in prayer without fielding data will have to be addressed.

The tie to your blog, at an even deeper level, is that invoking “belief” in prayer is sort of like paying lip service respect to the “resurrection” as if verbal-confessional affirmation is enough, and the “resurrected” referent is really dead to any intervention in real life. Unless you want to “leap” in the blind and hold onto nothing, but a mute god.

There's a difference between a lemma and a lemming!

The hard studies filling in gaps from leap to continua will get mocked up elsewhere (and already are), I’m guessing.



Steve Martin said...

Hi Steven,

The owners of that forum are not here to defend themselves, and there could be perfectly good reasons for the post deletions, reasons that have nothing to do with their fear of your arguments. A better way to get your point across, certainly better than attacking Wright or his defenders on my blog, is to post the entire exchange - in context & noting which posts were deleted - on your own site. If they are in fact just dodging you, it will become clear to your readers.

But the fact that you say “Wright is no more than a fundie, who has yet to find an error in the New Testament...” leads me to believe you may be seriously off track.

Hi Jim,
Re: the leaps, I believe Polkinghorne has a quote somewhere about “leaping, not into the dark, but into the light” with examples from both science and theology how these leaps have born fruit. On the theo-poetry, sorry, I’m not sure I understand what you are getting at.

Steven Carr said...

I can't post here stuff which has been deleted.

Because it was deleted.

In his resurrection lecture, Wright claims (on the basis of zero evidence), that false stories written at the end of the first century would *certainly* have included a reference to future Christian hope.

I asked how Wright came to know what false stories would *certainly* include, and whether the Gospel of Peter contained false stories, as it does not contain this reference to future Christian hope, which Wright claimed false stories would *certainly* include.

You can see why the Christian organisers did not want people to read that...

Wright is little better than a funide.

His massive resurrection book somehow finds no space to discuss why the Peter of Acts claimed that some flesh did not see corruption, while the Peter of 1 Peter was sure that 'All flesh is grass'.

You would think that an 800 page book would at least have some space left over for that and other problems, such as Paul's plea to be rescued from his body.

Bill Ather said...

Did this "physicalist approach to cognition" thread ever get started? I'd be interested.

I'm not a physicalist, though that's the direction that secular science is seeking to move the discussion. I describe myself to students as a "reluctant dualist" - reluctant because there are problems with dualism, but I think the problems with all other positions are worse.

Polkinghorne, as I read him, isn't a physicalist. He is a "dual-aspect monist" who thinks that matter and mind are flip sides of the same coin (everything has both a physical and a mental aspect). He acknowledges the obvious difficulties with this approach as well, though it avoids the dilemmas classically associated with substance dualism.

Is this discussion found somewhere on this site, or are the plans to launch one? Thanks.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Bill,

No I don’t think there has really been a discussion of physicalist ideas here. There is even less discussion of that in the Evangelical community than on biological evolution. But, as Polkinghorne notes in his lecture, that will probably change in the near future. Personally, I have read some of the stuff from a Christian (I would even say evangelical) perspective. For eg, Nancey Murphy’s “Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies” is quite good and very accessible (much more so than some of Murphy’s other writings). But I’m not really sure where I stand yet. Whereas the evidence for biological evolution is pretty overwhelming (IMHO anyways), our understanding of the mind has barely started. But I don't believe that the Christian faith stands or falls on Greek dualism.

In summary, I don’t really plan to do much posting on that here … not sure I have much to say.

Hi Steven C.,

A couple of suggestions. 1) In the future, use co.mments.com to track sites you post to. This will email the comments of posts you are tracking – if your comment gets deleted, you still have a copy of it. 2) Set up your own blog .. something like NTWrightisWrong.blogspot.com (It is still available .. I just checked) and post your conversations, comments, and challenges to Wright there. This is a much more acceptable way to get your point across.

Continuing to provide unsolicited points that are tangential to the original post, on sites that clearly have a different perspective, is bad netiquette. Repeatedly doing this would, I think, justify deleting comments.

VanceH- said...

Hi Steve,

I also realy dislike the Omphalos hypothesis, but I was recently challenged by someone who proposed that the wine created at the wedding at Cana was created with the appearence of age. It seems unlikely that wine was ever close to a grape. However the miracle at Cana doesn't feel like a deception. Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Hey Vance, good to hear from you!

The point of the water into wine miracle was exigency - they ran out of wine. What analogous necessity would God have had for creating the world with the appearance of age? There is no indication that the intent was to deceive those who drank the wine.

The most one can argue is that this miracle demonstrates that God has the ability to create things that look older than they are. Not only is this not much of a revelation (no one's denying He could have made the universe instantaneously appear), but it in no way suggests a reason that He would not only create the world immediately, but disguise it with an intricate history. Creating a fully formed universe is not the problem - it's planting unassailably complete evidence that this is not what He did. As Gordon Glover points out, to make these scenarios analogous, Jesus would not only have changed the water to wine, but he also would have planted into the minds of the servants false memories of preparing the wine; he also would have made sure to create winestains in the wineskins, etc. That's what the omphalos argument says God did with creation.

Hope this helps!

VanceH- said...

Hi Stephen, Yes, your comment was very helpful. I had looked in Gordon's blog briefly, but had not found his excellent appearance of age post.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Vance, Stephen:
No I haven't disappeared .. just swamped at work. I like Gordon's post too. It is my impression that only a relatively small number of creationists hold "appearance of age" ideas. I don't think this is a very stable intellectual position to hold (ie. it's just a phase before moving on to something else.) Maybe I'm wrong.