Superhero gripes

You know that kids’ song, “Jesus, you’re my superhero”? Some time ago I commented on YouTube that it was one of dumbest things I’d ever seen (admittedly, not my strongest review). Yesterday I came across the only comment on my impoverished YouTube channel, dated 3 years ago:

Well, no wonder you thought that “Jesus is my superhero” song was garbage! You’re one of those stick-in-the-mud Catholics!

Despite being hilarious and maybe a bit worrying in calling me a Catholic (I hope it’s obvious that I’m not), it led a dear friend on FB to ask me what it is I find so wrong with it. So here are the arguments I gave, which I would also argue for a multitude of other so-called “Christian” songs:

  1. It diminishes the biblical status of Christ.
  2. It arises from and promotes a misrepresentation of Christ’s identity.
  3. It distorts the relationship of the Christian to Christ.
  4. It distorts the image of Christ before the world.
  5. It diminishes the substance of music/singing in the context of worship.
  6. It epitomizes the spiritual shallowness and feel-goodness that currently plagues great portions of modern Christianity
  7. It diminishes and confuses the work of Christ
  8. It confuses who Christ is to children.
  9. It implies that biblical material and truth is not adequate to make Christ “relevant” to us
  10. It has no obvious edifying and teaching purpose to those who sing or hear it.
  11. It propagates the already rampant notion that Christians are idiots who’ll try any cheesy practice to keep their atrophying religion going.

Of course, the counter-arguments are that:

  1. such songs “relativise” Christianity to the young and make the gospel more accessible to certain age/cultural groups
  2. they help children (not adults, I hope) comprehend something about God given their cultural context
  3. they are an innovative/creative way by which we can express our worship and understanding of God
  4. those who would come up with 11 reasons about why “Jesus, you’re my superhero” is wrong are simply elaborating on a personal dislike and shouldn’t put God in a box.

I have absolutely nothing against any of that, but there is the Bible, and I believe that it sets some beautiful standards which we can worship God in song and music. They always come from and lead to a correct understanding of God – something I think this well-meant ditty fails to do.

Review: “Why Us? How science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves” by James Le Fanu

Books like this are not written every day; actually, they’re hardly ever written. In Why us? How science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves, medical doctor James Le Fanu sets out to demonstrate how two indisputably phenomenal achievements of science – the mapping of the human genome and the deeper understanding of the human brain’s workings – are impossible to reconcile with the worldview of absolute materialism adamantly held and preached ad nauseam by scientists today. And it goes without saying that his criticism immediately targets Darwin’s theory of evolution and common descent, though it extends well beyond that.

Le Fanu’s central thesis is that the model of common descent via random mutation and natural selection cannot even begin to explain a) the surprising similarity between genomes of completely different species and b) the non-material nature of the human mind (as opposed to the brain), which does however exert very material effects (you reading this review is a good example).

Chapters overview

Science triumphant, almost

An overview of the history of scientific achievement, culminating in the recent mapping of the human genome and the findings of the Decade of the Brain. However, both have failed to reveal how life can be organised by mere genetic “chemicals” or how the human mind can function by mere “electrical firing” in the brain.

The ramifications of the seemingly disappointing outcomes of the New Genetics and the Decade of the Brain are clearly prodigious, suggesting that we are on the brink of some tectonic shift in our understanding of ourselves.

The Ascent of Man: A riddle in two parts

The art, social life and intellectual achievements of the earliest civilisation of Homo sapiens, dated around 30,000 BC, challenge the notion of human evolution.

…how and why twenty or more distinct species of hominid should, over a period of several million years, have undergone that wholescale anatomical transformation required for standing upright, and then followed it up with acquiring that prodigiously sized brain whose potential to comprehend the workings of the universe appears so disproportionate to the needs of a hunter gatherer.

The limits of science 1: The quixotic universe

Isaac Newton’s landmark discovery of the law of gravity gave us a Grand Unifying Theory of the universe, but left us with the question of how mass exerts its gravitational force over mind-boggling distances without any physical medium (e.g. planets in space). It is an example of the limitations of science and an absolutely materialistic worldview.

Thus, ironically, this most scientific of theories, grounded in the observation of the movements of the planets expressed in mathematical form, subverts the scientific or materialist view which holds that everything must ultimately be explicable in terms of its material properties alone.

The (evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything’: Certainty

The history of Charles Darwin’s “On the origins of species” and the way it was received as the Grand Unifying Theory of life, despite contemporary and later scientific criticism. The mostly non-Darwinian fossil record and the mysterious Cambrian explosion have presented with the problem of “transitional species” (aka “missing links”), i.e. the conspicuous absence of the multitude of intermediate organisms demanded by gradualistic evolution.

…there are dangers in supposing the wonder and diversity of the natural world to be so much more rapidly explicable than it really is… Darwin’s evolutionary theory readily short-circuited serious intellectual enquiry as it could, in an instant, produce a reasons for (literally), everything.

The (evolutionary) ‘Reason for Everything’: Doubt

The experiments of Gregor Mendel introduced the concept of the gene. Although his own notion of genetic “fixity” seemed to contradict Darwin’s theory, the discovery of gene mutations provided a biological way by which speciation could occur via natural selection – except that random mutations are rare and almost invariably disadvantageous. Mathematical models attempted to solve this dilemma by shifting the locus of evolution from the individual to the species as a whole, but failed to actually provide a consistent answer. Furthermore, the fossil record failed to answer the problem of “perfection” of organs and organisms as well as the conundrum of limb homology.

Thus, as of the early 1980s, science no longer had an adequate materialist explanation for the history of life. The surprise perhaps is how readily refutable Darwin’s theory turns out to be, as if it must contain some hidden flaw that invalidates its scientific credentials – as indeed it does.

The limits of science 2: The impenetrable helix

The discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA led to a progressive understanding of the genetic code, culminating in the mapping of the entire human genome in 2001. In light of this, genetic information could no longer be thought of as a chain, but rather as an intricately complex network between genes. This further minimised the impact of a single random mutation in driving evolutionary diversity. Further, vastly different species share hosts of identical genes, often in relatively similar numbers. Finally, identical control (“master”) genes produce entirely different variations of an organ (such as the Pax 6 gene for the eye), further compounding the problem. The gap from genetic material to genetic information cannot be bridged by strictly materialistic means.

The Double Helix fails the further test of scientific knowability because, like Newton’s gravitational force, it imposes the order of ‘form’ on life without there being any evidence of some scientifically measurable objective means by which it might do so.

The Fall of Man: A tragedy in two acts

In The descent of Man (1871), Darwin explained away the human mind by evolutionary means. The ripple effect of his theory had virtually unavoidable consequences on the way humans viewed themselves, setting the stage for racism, eugenics and other reprehensible forms of “genetic oppression”. Further, this “sociobiology” brought about the new discipline of evolutionary psychology that sought to “naturalise” human virtues like altruism.

We need, in short, a fuller, more rounded view that acknowledges the core reality of the human experience which sets us apart – the sense of the autonomous, independent ‘self’ not as some shadowy, elusive entity, but something real and tangible that explains the force of character and the personality that is within each of us.

The limits of science 2: The unfathomable brain

The human mind is obviously non-material, and yet it exerts material effects. The history of brain research has given us many tremendous insights into how our brains interact with the outside world. However, the purely scientific approach has left us with five seemingly insurmountable mysteries: subjective awareness; free will; the richness and accessibility of memory; human reason and imagination; and the Self.

Might neuroscientists discover how the electrical activity of the neuronal circuits of the brain gives rise to the non-material mind, and confirm as ‘mere illusion’ our perception of ourselves as free autonomous beings? The answer… must be ‘no’.

The Silence

An evaluation of the role of science in understanding the dual nature of reality (material and non-material). Some history of philosophy, looking at the way materialistic thinking overtook religious worldviews during the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science. However, the scientific inaccessibility of the genetic code and the human mind demand an alternative approach in defining the world and decisively challenges the claim of science as the absolute means of knowledge.

We can no longer be certain, as we might have been till recently… ‘that is all there is to it’, because we cannot, by definition, comprehend the nature of that potent non-material realm with its power to conjure the wonders of life from the bare material bones of scientific knowledge.

Restoring Man to his pedestal

Looking to the future, we realise that we have reached a tipping point for science. We realise that the long-held theory of evolution fails spectacularly to fit the evidence, and a worldview of materialistic reductionism is no longer sustainable. Instead, the author calls for a new paradigm of science; one that can accommodate notions of extraneous (or even intelligent) design in nature and the non-material dimension of the human mind. In particular, the exceptionality of the latter must drive us to an understanding of man that goes against Darwin’s Descent. Just as Marx and Freud failed to provide a “Theory of Everything” for history and human behaviour respectively, so does Darwin ultimately fail to provide an overarching explanation of life.

It now seems deeply irrational for materialist science to deny the exceptionality of the human mind and to insist that the sense of self and free will are no more than illusions generated by the workings of the brain. It is certainly irrational to assert the truth of the evolutionary doctrine (‘the mystery of our existence is a mystery no longer because Darwin solved it’) in the face of all the scientific evidence that would contradict it.

Evaluation

There isn’t really much left to say after the above. As a scientist, I think this is a powerful book and an inspiring call for science to do what it does best: self-correct – in this case, before it’s too late.

The fact that Le Fanu does not have an obvious religious context behind him (at least as far as I can see) means that, for once, a strong critique of Darwin might actually be taken seriously by the scientific community. Having said that, we cannot overlook that he does utilise many arguments (fossil record, comparative anatomy and irreducible complexity, to name a few) that have been previously posited by openly religious writers who, in turn, have been largely ignored or dismissed as ‘the crazies’. What that says about the scientific world, we leave the reader to decide.

The strength of Le Fanu’s arguments lies especially in the fact that they are up-to-date. His research is solid, both from a literary and scientific point of view. The writing flows and never becomes bogged down with the technical language that often plagues this genre (‘public communication of science’). His ability to clarify and simplify complex concepts is enviable, and certainly makes the book accessible to a wide audience (I particularly enjoyed his two-page description of gene coding).

Of course, the very nature of the book calls for a non-scientific evaluation. For people of religious conviction this will leave a few gaps. Despite his call for a non-materialist approach to knowledge, Le Fanu is careful not to lend ammunition to those who would accuse him of being a ‘creationist’, whatever that means anymore. He certainly gives scientific credence to the Design hypothesis, but with qualifications:

There is, of course, nothing in the new paradigm that can be interpreted as direct evidence for a Creator, or that would resolve the insuperable difficulty for many of conceiving of his existence and purpose. But while it is hard to imagine him hard at work designing several thousand species of beetle, there is vastly greater evidence for ‘design’ – for those who would wish to interpret it as such – than the supposition that the vast panoply of nature should be the incidental consequence of those numerous genetic mutations that the genome projects have so unequivocally failed to identify.

Overall, this is an important book in more than one ways. Its purpose is to raise awareness on the shortcomings of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which has further stagnated in light of recent scientific discovery. But where the book really succeeds is in opening a bold way in which religion and science can find a realistic common ground. For those of a religious persuasion and especially Christians, who have been particularly shunned and berated by scientific materialism, this can only be good news.

Why Us? calls for scientists to free themselves from the bonds of Darwinism or risk corrupting the very essence of science itself. In my opinion, the book does this persuasively, though it is certain that the more vocal members of the evolutionary camp will proceed (and already have) with the usual accusations of “bad science” and “quote-mining”, followed by nit-picking that misses the big picture.

Of course, this will do nothing more than prove Le Fanu’s point: Adhering to (macro)evolution is no longer rational, but demands virtually religious faith. Ironically, the evidence leads us further and further away from Darwin; the problem is that science is desperately clinging on instead of looking for a new direction. But what that direction may be lies beyond its current materialistic borders.

Thoughts on Nature’s essay: "We cannot live by scepticism alone"

In this week’s issue of Nature, Professor Harry Collins, Director of the of Centre for the Study of Knowledge Expertise Science at Cardiff University publishes an essay entitled: “We cannot live by scepticism alone”.

In a refreshing way, Prof Collins gives a background to the way that social sciences have perceived the scientific world: First by regarding Science as the ultimate form of knowledge, and secondly with skepticism. He then moves on to propose a new model of understanding the impact of Science on today’s societies – a model which he calls “elective modernism”, as opposed to the current trend of POST-modernism that influences much of Western thinking today.

He writes: We must choose, or ‘elect’, to put the values that underpin scientific thinking back in the centre of our world; we must replace post-modernism with ‘elective modernism’. To support this, social scientists must work out what is right about science, not just what is wrong — we cannot live by scepticism alone. Natural scientists, too, have a part to play: they must reflect on and recognize the limits of their practice and their understanding. Together, we must choose to live in a society that recognizes the value of experience and expertise.

The primary drive of this proposal seems to be a growing misunderstanding of the limitations of Science, especially by scientists who virtually deny that those limitations actually exist because of their a priori postulation that the natural world is all that there is.

Writing about the Big War between scientists and social constructivists in the 1990’s, Collins writes: The conclusions of most of us were moderate: science could not deliver the absolute certainties of religion or morality, and scientists were not priests but rather skilful artisans, reaching towards universal truths but inevitably falling short. Far from being anti-science, we were trying to safeguard science against the danger of claiming more than it could deliver. If science presents itself as revealed truth it will inevitably disappoint, inviting a dangerous reaction; even the most talented craftsmen have their off-days, whereas a god must never fail. (my emphasis).

Prof Collins’ point is to encourage scientists to take and promote the fact the science is, by definition, limited. He wants scientists to be realistic and “teach fallibility” to a society that increasingly bestows upon them the role of moral leadership because it is also increasingly discarding and relativising its own ethical and moral standards.

Another quote: “If we are to choose the values that underpin scientific thinking to underpin society, scientists must think of themselves as moral leaders. But they must teach fallibility, not absolute truth. Whenever a scientist, acting in the name of science, cheats, cynically manipulates, claims to speak with the voice of capitalism, the voice of a god, or even the voice of a doctrinaire atheist, it diminishes not only science but the whole of our society.”

But, sadly, that’s as far as Prof Collins will go: Science is uncertain, but it might be all we have. We can’t be skeptical about it every time it doesn’t flow with Popper’s falsifiability standard (e.g.Joseph Weber’s gravitational waves in the 1960’s) but in the same time, we can’t grant it powers of divine and absolute revelation. Still, we must encourage it to take the reins of modern society – but always under the shield of open debate.

Towards the end, Prof Collins praises scientific discovery over “religion’s revealed truths” and claims that it is better grounding for the structural basis of society – so long as Science does not propagate delusions of certainty.

Reading this essay, I think it’s obvious that Prof Collins is not religious in any way. I would also dare to disagree with his proposition of a purely scientific society on the grounds that a) given his admitted uncertainty of science, it would ultimately produce a narrow and jelly-like foundation that, in the possibility of overturn would leave only destructive anarchy behind it with nothing to fall back on; b) it would illogically and unnecessarily close off the exploration of non-scientific dimensions, and c) it would turn scientific expertise from a noble goal into an unprecedented and unchallenged global political power-play with far-reaching repercussions.

Having said that, I do applaud Prof Collins for bringing the issue of scientific uncertainty into such sharp relief. And those of us who are Christians should take note, especially in an increasingly secularised world that wants the Christian worldview out of the public forum ASAP on the grounds that it has no validity in light of contemporary scientific progress. Strange, considering that it was that Christian worldview in the first place that, at least in the West, gave birth and sustenance to the scientific process.

“Science’s Blind Spot”: thoughts on the Creation/Evolution debate

Every now and then, a strange thing happens in the world of books. Powerful, thought-provoking works go largely unnoticed, while moronic and juvenile scribbles hold the world captive. Truly, we have some twisted values.

Here I’ll break the rules: I’ll talk about a book I’m currently reading; one which I haven’t finished yet. The reason I’ll dare such hubris is two-fold: First, I’ve almost finished it and second, it has shifted so much of my thinking, that it just can’t wait.

The book is Science’s Blind Spot: The Unseen Religion of Scientific Naturalism, by Cornelius G. Hunter. Hunter is a biophysicist, and is known for his previous books, Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil and Darwin’s Proof: The triumph of Religion over Science, both of which offer some of the most intelligent skepticism on the Theory of Evolution.

There – after dancing around the subject, it finally appears openly on the Microscope.

I’m a Christian. I’m also a biologist, actively working in research. There are people today who will consider both those roles mutually exclusive. I have seen fellow Christians wince as if I told them that I work for a drug cartel (well, I have worked in pharmaceutical industry, ha ha). And even though today there are many new pebbles that scar the smooth interface of Science and Religion (see stem cells, cloning, abortions, LHC, euthanasia), the question of how we all got here is still Hot Topic Number One. And rightly so, since that question determines the direction all the others will go: It’s not strange that Darwin’s Grand Idea is invoked at the very beginning of current debates on life, death and even “sexual preference” issues. It’s clear: if we are the lucky outcome of random mutations over a long period of time, then there is no Greater Morality over our heads except whatever we invent at any time to suit our particular purposes and preferences. But if we were indeed created according to the image of a Higher Person, then things are diametrically different. If God made us, then we ought to take that into serious consideration.

It’s a vicious battle. And if you were hoping that in this post you’d find a quick “warrior’s manual” for either Creationism, Intelligent Design, Theistic Evolution or Naturalistic Evolution, I’m afraid I will have to sadly disappoint you. Maybe in the future – I’m always studying – but for now, all I can do is share some fruits from what I’ve been growing.

There are a few things that I can point out with a degree of certainty. First, there has been a lot of damage done to the debate from both sides (Creationists vs Evolutionists, or the new fashion, Atheists vs Theists). Fair enough. It’s an emotional topic. Right or wrong, Religion is a HUGE aspect of mankind as we know it, and is deeply ingrained in our minds and cultures. We all agree with that, and we also agree that you can’t just pluck it out like a thorn in your shoe.

But I don’t know if all that justifies the inimitable stupidity (I use that term with all its academic force) that is often displayed by many who engage this debate. A great example was the “Does God exist?” debate between the “Rational” “Response” Squad (atheists) and the Way of the Master Radio members (Christians) that took place in 2007 on prime-time US television (I wrote about it before). Most of what was on display from both sides could never qualify as “debate” (watch it for yourself on YouTube), but, in particular, the arguments for and against Evolution did no justice whatsoever to the Sapiens part of our species. Why? Because none of those debating had any proper understanding of Darwin’s theory – or if they did, they hid very well.

And this is painfully frequent example of how this debate goes between people on both sides who really haven’t done their homework. Evolutionists are constantly trying to patch the holes in their hypotheses and models (as all good scientists should – that’s not the problem) and Creationists (mostly Christians) are still utilising regurgitated arguments from the ’70s.

The point is not that it is not a reasonable argument (even Darwin had issues with it), but that, in the eyes of many scientists, it has been answered successfully and alternatives have been long suggested. Not to mention that the recent spotlight on the Tiktaalik fossil has actually revived the “intermediate species” view (which was, of course, previously doubted). In short, it seems to me as if most of the Creationist side seems to be constantly lagging a few years behind, or to not be up-to-date with trends in evolution theory. And that doesn’t help anyone.

I know what you’re thinking: “So you’re saying that we are supposed to keep up with every trend in evolution theory?” Well, yes – if you want to debate a theory that is based on Science, make sure you first understand the science. Ignorant accusations, wild theorising and outright fanaticism does not get you heard. And I say that, openly, to BOTH sides.

Now, there are many resources out there that cast skepticism on evolution, ranging from conservative Creationist (e.g. http://www.answersincreation.org), to intermediate Creationist (e.g. http://www.reasons.org), to theistic evolution, which attempts to reconcile evolution to the text of the Bible basically suggesting that shouldn’t take its first three chapters too literarily (and maybe a few others too while we’re at it). One thing I can say with some certainty is that the dividing line runs firmly between the biblical account of Creation and Darwin’s theory of Nature playing dice, and trying to fuse the two together doesn’t seem to satisfy anyone so far.

And here I return to the book. The first reason I found it to be so interesting was that its claims were substantiated, with frequent and clear references to actual, peer-reviewed research papers and books. As a scientist, I like to know how you know what you know, and I was thus delighted for once to see a responsible, properly researched piece on the topic.

Secondly, the book makes a very significant claim, one that most of those involved in the Creation/Evolution debate actually ignore (myself included). And that is that the Theory of Evolution originated not so much from empirical observation of data (as a normal scientific hypothesis), but rather as an attempt to answer theological concerns.

Don’t panic. Darwin and his friends were no devout Christians. But it is naïve to think that the man set out on the Beagle to look at some birds at the Galapagos Islands and one day “it all just came together”. Nope – read his “(On) The Origin of Species” (6th edition, preferably) if you don’t believe me, and you’ll find him often doing something that few scientists have the maturity to do: Tell his readers how his theory could “be taken apart” (e.g. in the context of incomplete fossil record). It doesn’t mean that Darwin didn’t believe his own ideas. But it does mean that the conclusions he penned down were not purely the result of what we’d call today “scientific observation”.

In his book, Hunter suggests that Darwin’s thinking sailed on a stream of theological angst that was trying, essentially, to separate God altogether from the physical world. Hunter names this “theological naturalism”, and, in my opinion, he’s right.

Hunter finds the origins of theological naturalism in the works of Thomas Burnet (d. 1715), but admits that even those have roots in the thinking of Immanuel Kant, who promoted the slicing between the “Noumenal and Phenomenal” realms. The general idea went something like this: The world as we perceive it is imperfect, asymmetrical, and laden with pain and destruction; thus to assume that God was and is intimately involved in its creation and maintenance is blasphemy, since God is perfect; thus it is better to understand that God merely created the natural laws under which the entire universe and all of life came to be, quasi-randomly. Now, keep going a bit further on this line of logic and you’ll arrive to that cliché of today, propagated by a certain Oxford professor: “God doesn’t exist because we don’t need Him to explain the world”.

Hunter’s point is that it is grossly mistaken to assume that the Theory of Evolution is mere science as opposed to something requiring a degree of “faith”. In fact, I can’t help but think that Richard Dawkins would find this interesting, given his absurd position (of many) that scientists cannot be religious and that evolution is somehow definitive proof that God “probably” doesn’t exist (and people ask me why we call it “new” atheism).

In any event, Hunter’s is an interesting view, and I think it’s worth our attention. If anything, it very accurately explains the virtually religious dogmatism and fanaticism of evolutionists today: It’s not just science. It began with religious concerns and it is constantly pushed, changed, re-changed, modified and evolved even in the face of significant evidence (of which the book gives a good overview).

Despite its 170 pages, Science’s Blind Spot is not an easy read. The writing is often dry and reads like a PhD thesis – not a problem for this kind of subject material, but it certainly doesn’t make the book engaging to a wider audience. It could really benefit from an extensive re-write, expanding and emphasising the key points. Having said that, the constant repetition of those points makes them stick and provoke some thinking outside of the traditional Creation/Evolution debate box. And although it seems targeted mostly to scientists and those literate in the debate, I think there is much in there that many on both sides would find beneficial.

I realise that this isn’t a comprehensive review, and after reading this post I find that it’s not as coherent and informative as I’d like it to be, so I hope you’ll forgive me for that. The Creation/Evolution debate is a huge topic with ramifications on many levels. Here, motivated by Hunter’s interesting and thought-provoking book, I just wanted to share some thoughts on the subject in the hope that you’ll find something helpful in there.

A response to Nature’s “Triumph of the medieval mind”

This week’s issue of Nature publishes an essay entitled Triumph of the medieval mind by Philip BallNature‘s consultant editor and freelance science writer. It takes a look at the “scientific revolution” of the 12th century AD, a time when re-circulation of translated works of ancient Greek philosophers such as Euclid, Aristotle, Archimedes and Ptolemy led to a challenging of the generally-accepted views on how the world functioned. As the essay puts it: “The translations guided scholars towards a mode of inquiry governed by scepticism and reason rather than by the search for validation in the Bible or St Augustine.”

Ball also correctly points out that, at the time, dogmas concerning nature and the cosmos were pretty much influenced by religious thinking. Even the new kids on the block like Bernard of Chartres and his student William of Conches with their “crazy” ideas on natural philosophy were pretty devout men who generally regarded God as a supreme reality – Bernard of Chatres even regarded matter as created out of nothing. Of course, those who regard him so highly today would laugh at him had he said that 800 years later.

There is certainly nothing wrong with the history laid out in the essay, and it was refreshing for once to see something in Nature that didn’t necessarily concern the next CERN experiment or a new behavioural pattern of some obscure rat or even what the NIH is doing with its funding. But other than subject matter, the essay didn’t offer much in the way of novel thinking.

And let me tell you why.

On the shoulders of giants

There is a myth about scientists that is maintained, promoted and propagated even in today’s info-stuffed times. And that is the guilty, silly and tragic belief that somehow, “scientists know best” (You disagree? Then ask yourself why so many commercials today feature models in white lab oats). As a scientist, sitting on the cutting edge of biological research, I can appreciate why people would think that: Because it’s true – with qualifications.

See, the legacy of Science often has us looking backwards – just as in the case of this essay. In fact, it is Bernard of Chartres to whom we traditionally attribute the catchphrase: “Standing on the shoulders of giants”. And it is a good idea to acknowledge those giants lest we fall and break our necks. But in doing so, we unjustifiably carry over the image of those great men, and superimpose it on their successors of today without applying the filters of history in the process. The result? A distorted but popular image of today’s scientist that sees him or her as virtually omniscient – in every walk of life.

How does this happen? Simple: The people we call early scientists had a lot less to go on with than we do now. Information wasn’t as affluent as it is now and education was a privilege rather than a commodity. Labs didn’t exist – applied science was a dream. These “scientists” worked mostly with parchment and stylus, not a laptop and Nature Online. They were great thinkers in that they attempted to establish methodologies as to how to do what we call today “research”, and they did this because they were thoroughly trained and educated in Classics, Philosophy, Linguistics, Theology (or what passed as Theology then), History, and all sorts of other fields that most researchers today would regard as utterly useless. Why? Because, in terms of applied science, they are a waste of time. I can’t count how many times I have gotten blank looks from colleagues when I ask them what the Latin name of an anatomical part means (my favourite is cornu ammonis. It stands for – wait; you have Google! Look it up!).

But Science has changed in the past 800 years. Information, knowledge and the application of these has increased in leaps. And thus, those who occupy themselves professionally with Science no longer hold all the keys to the deep mysteries of the world. In fact – and I say this from personal experience, though many agree – specialisation is a necessary evil in modern research. We operate on groups of experts who are essentially people who’ve spent a lot of time on a certain subject. And you don’t need a PhD to know that being an authority in one field doesn’t necessarily make you an authority on another. Scientists can pontificate on their fields, but not on everything – especially in today’s increasingly specialising research world.

It’s called Presumption.

Back to the essay

That simple, axiomatic fact is beautifully demonstrated in Philip Ball’s Nature essay. Now, if you’re going to write to be read by today’s scientists, you have to follow a certain agenda. Stick to certain rules. One of them is that you need to have researched your topic – and there’s no denying that Dr Ball has done so. But another one is that you need to conform to the standard way of thinking when it comes to anything metaphysical: God is dead and those who believe in Him are brain-dead. Especially the God of the Bible.

I think it is still kosher in the scientific world to admit that you believe in a god, so long as he/she/it has nothing to do with reality. Scientists are fashionably fond of the Blind Watchmaker (mostly because of Richard Dawkins), but consider it absurd to attribute a personality to him – he’s more of a natural phenomenon whom one day our valiant Toolkit of Knowledge will dissect. As Dawkins puts it, God is just a delusion of a childish humanity – as we grow and mature He’ll fade away, much like Santa Claus does when we hit our teens. In his essay, Philip Ball puts it like this: “By making God a natural phenomenon, the medieval rationalists turned Him [sic] into an explicatory contingency for which there has since seemed ever less need.”

It is phrases like that, and the entire traditionally sneering, anti-God feel of the essay that reminds me of the words of the apostle Paul: But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. – 1 Corinthians 2:13-15 (NASB)

I’ve written about this before. I am constantly surprised of the phenomenal theological ignorance that is displayed by those who either directly – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet et al – or indirectly, like this essay, attack anything even remotely related to Christianity. For example, writing of the scientific awakening of William of Conches (ca. 1090– after 1154), Philip Ball comments: If everything is subject to the whim of God, there is no guarantee that a phenomenon will happen tomorrow as it does today, therefore there is then no point in seeking any consistency in nature. A logical proposition, except that the implication here is that this is a fundamental part of Christian theology: in other words the Christian God is whimsical, unpredictable and therefore completely unreliable (and non-existent, given the consistency of the natural world). Of course, this could be true; except that the Christian God is nothing like that: the central Christian proposition is that God has revealed Himself explicitly and sufficiently to us through the Bible, thus revealing everything we need to know about His nature, which the Bible describes as anything BUT whimsical. Like Socrates said, unless someone comes from above to inform us, we would be forever in the dark.

I would like to ask Dr Ball if he’s ever heard of the sola Scriptura doctrine – the historical Christian doctrine that the Bible is the inerrant and sufficient revelation of God to men; that it contains everything we need to know of Him as mortals. And if He has revealed Himself to us, then He must be consistent – otherwise, He would be inherently false and thus not a God – and thus not part of any religion, not only Christianity. That is a historical theological principle that seems to have eluded Dr Ball.

I would also like to ask him whether in his astute study of the medieval church, he ever wondered why its very practises and beliefs were eventually countered by the Reformation. That would hint at the possibility that what was regarded as Christian doctrine in 12thcentury Western Europe had very little or no grounding in the actual Christian faith. It was, as he rightly perceives, mostly blind fanaticism, superstition and ignorance maintained by the Roman church for political, rather than theological, reasons. For example, that the earth is the centre of the Universe or that it is flat, is not even remotely proposed in Scripture, and yet was maintained as a fundamental cosmological view at the time. On the contrary, there are biblical passages that hint to the earth as a sphere (Job 26:10, Prov. 8:27, Is. 40:22 “circle” (חוּג) (khûg) was used in Hebrew to also describe spheres), some 1000 years before Copernicus. And there are more examples like this, including the water cycle (Job 36:27-28) and the warm and cold continental sea currents (“paths of the sea”), which were discovered by the father of modern oceanography Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873) solely on the basis of Psalm 8:8.

So it seems historically inaccurate to claim that the rise of 12th century scientific thinking was really a blow to the blindness of all Christian theology. Such a view makes the puerile, yet often-uncorrected mistake of identifying Christianity with the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle-Ages without taking into account a) that what was called Christianity at the time was vastly separated from the Bible and thus had grown laden with religious superstition, which led, in part, to the Reformation; and b) that Biblical theology never encouraged the “God of the gaps” notion (we attribute to God whatever natural phenomenon we don’t understand) but regards God both as Creator and Sustainer of the entire natural world and c) that the Bible never promotes the image of a dice-playing God, but by claiming to be His (only) revelation, by definition describes Him as inherently consistent, especially in terms of His creation. Miracles in the Bible only happen for a clear and unequivocal reason.

So in conclusion (though there is so much more we could talk about), we can say that superstition – rather than Christianity – and Science can’t go hand-in-hand. But the Bible and the natural world have no real rift between them, despite many witting and unwitting attempts to alienate one from the other. The cornerstone of Science is the pursuit of ultimate natural truth, whilst the Bible is the revelation of all Truth. And even though Dr Ball obsequiously sneers at the “theologically immature dogmas” (I wonder what he means by that) of those whom he considers today’s fundamentalists and the “absurdities of today’s creationism”, it is, as those early 12thcentury proto-scientists would say, a matter of definitions.