Sunday, March 19, 2006

Richard Dawkins, look away now

Richard Dawkins, look away now, The Guardian, John Harris, March 17, 2006 ... John D Barrow, professor of mathematical sciences at Cambridge University, must be a very happy man. On Wednesday, it was announced that he was being awarded the Templeton prize, an award totalling a cool £795,000 given "for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities" by the Canyon Institute for Advanced Studies, a "Christian interdisciplinary research centre" based in Phoenix, Arizona. As opposed to the kind of organisations that would have you believe the world was created just the other week, this seems to be an intellectually respectable setup, dedicated to an ongoing quest to square cutting-edge science with Christian faith (though their list of forthcoming lectures includes "Reading Genesis I With Ancient Eyes - what does it mean to create?"). Whatever its inclinations, it obviously has a lot of money and prestige, too: the prize is to be handed to Professor Barrow in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace by that well-known science expert, Prince Philip. According to the statement released in 54-year-old Barrow's honour, "the hallmark of his work is a deep engagement with those aspects of the structure of the universe and its laws that make life possible and which shape the views that we take of that universe when we examine it." So what is Barrow's work all about? His abiding point, it seems, is that science and religion need not clash in quite the manner that the likes of Richard Dawkins would suggest; as Barrow puts it, "Many of the deepest and most engaging questions that we grapple with about the nature of the universe have their origins in our purely religious quest for meaning. The concept of a lawful universe with order that can be understood and relied upon emerged largely out of religious beliefs about the nature of God." To ask the big scientific questions, he seems to suggest, is a quasi-religious enterprise - one that "has transformed the simple-minded, life-averse, meaningless universe of the sceptical philosophers" - and the mathematical aspects of astronomy are a perfect case in point. ... [See also British scientist wins $1.4 million religion prize, MSNBC and Math Professor Wins a Coveted Religion Award, The New York Times. But I must admit I liked this headline the best! The problem for Dawkins (and his atheistic ilk) is that, as Barrow indicates, "The concept of a lawful universe with order that can be understood and relied upon emerged largely out of [Christian Western European] religious beliefs about the nature of God." And science itself is diverging away from "the simple-minded, life-averse, meaningless universe of the sceptical [materialist = Darwinist] philosophers" and converging back towards a life-friendly, meaningful universe that Christianity teaches us to expect.

The lecture "Reading Genesis 1 with Ancient Eyes: What does it mean to create?" is by Wheaton College Old testament theologian Professor John Walton, whose Old Testament Introduction and commentary on Genesis I have. Walton's thesis is, as his lecture indicates, is that if we are to better understand Genesis 1 (and indeed Genesis 1-11, the most ancient part of the Bible), then we need to try to understand what it meant to its original hearers. Here is the outline of his lecture, which is not "forthcoming" in that, as the site says, it was scheduled for (and presumabkly delivered on) "January 19, 2006":

If we are to reach an understanding of an ancient text such as Genesis 1, we have to be able to think about the issues the way the ancients would have. A foundational issue is the way people think about existence. In the ancient world they believed that something existed when it had a role and a function in an ordered system. This is in stark contrast to our way of thinking, that something exists when it has material properties. In our world, to cause something to exist (i.e., to create) involves giving something material properties. In the ancient world, to cause something to exist involves giving it a function and a role. In Hebrew, the word translated "create" (bara') expresses this very idea. So, "In the beginning period (the Hebrew expresses a period, not a point, referring to the seven day period), God created (gave functions to) the cosmos. Thus in Gen. 1:2 the narrative starts with no functions (not with no matter), and assigns functions by separating and naming. After the major functions of human existence are established, he assigns functionaries to their various spheres. The cosmos is portrayed in the ancient world and in the Bible as a temple, and temples are designed to be micro-models of the cosmos. Temples are built in the ancient world for the gods to rest in, which does not refer to relaxing, but to enjoying and maintaining security and order. With the mention of God's rest on day seven, we can see that Genesis 1 is also thinking about the cosmos as a temple. God is creating his dwelling place, putting people into it as his images (representatives), and taking up his place at the helm to maintain the order he has established. The theology of the text presents God as the one who is the founder and CEO of the cosmos. He has brought order, established functions, and maintains the cosmos moment by moment. The insistence on his purposes and his engagement are the polar opposite of a naturalistic view of creation, which has no room for purpose or divine engagement. The theology also speaks to the real issue of creation: who is in charge? Dr. Walton is Professor of Old Testament in Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton Graduate School, Wheaton IL. He received his PhD in Hebrew and Cognate Studies from Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in 1981. ...

While I am not convinced of every detail of Prof. Walston's thesis (e.g. that "The cosmos is portrayed in the ancient world and in the Bible as a temple") nevertheless, for what it is worth, I think he is on the right track in seeking to first read Genesis 1-11 with ancient (i.e. ~21st century BC) eyes, rather with modern 21st century AD eyes.]

PS: I have include the following quote of Himmelfarb in a new section of my "Problems of Evolution" book outline, PE 2.8.17 "Fallacies used to support evolution ... Argument from ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam)", with the comment, "As pointed out by Himmelfarb, Darwin relied heavily on `an ingenious argument from ignorance' in his Origin of Species:"

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

"Somehow the fact that no adequate explanation suggested itself today seemed a warrant for the belief that such an explanation would suggest itself in the future, and that the explanation, moreover, would be bound to vindicate his theory. Thus the argument from ignorance was made the prelude to a confident affirmation: `We are far too ignorant, in almost every case, to be enabled to assert that any part or organ is so unimportant for the welfare of a species that modifications in its structure could not have been slowly accumulated by means of natural selection. But we may confidently believe...' [Origin, 1st edition, p.175] It may be objected, however, that in the logic of science, as in the logic of grammar, three negatives do not normally constitute a positive. To be sure, a scientific theory that explains equally well a variety of contradictory phenomena may still be true; there are reputable theories that cannot, in this sense, be falsified, [Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p.47] and hypothetical reasoning is a legitimate, even necessary, scientific technique. The difficulty with natural selection, however, is that if it explains too much, it also explains too little, and that the more questionable of its hypotheses lie at the heart of its thesis. Posing as a massive deduction from the evidence, it ends up as an ingenious argument from ignorance." (Himmelfarb G., "Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution," [1959], Elephant Paperbacks: Chicago IL, 1996, reprint, p.336)

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