Tag Archives: theology

A “theology of science” debate with Tom McLeish

Last November I took part in a debate on science and theology at the invitation of the Keele University Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences. My fellow speaker (I don’t want to call him an “opponent”) was Professor Tom McLeish of Durham University, a leading soft-matter physicist.

Tom McLeish portrait

Professor McLeish is a Christian who has written a book, newly out in paperback, Faith and Wisdom in Science. To prepare for the debate I ordered a copy for the library. My first indication that this wasn’t a typical science book was that it got shelved with books on Biblical exegesis, and I thus found myself wandering to a region of the library where I’d never previously been!

Tom McLeish book Faith and Wisdom in Science

I liked the book, one can learn a lot about the nature of science from it. Tom McLeish emphasizes that science is a fundamentally human enterprise with deep roots in our history. Science is not just a modern phenomenon, newly sprung on the world with The Enlightenment, but is a continuation of age-old human attempts to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. It should not be seen as a separate, arcane and primarily theoretical subject (as it is often badly taught in schools), but as human exploration.

As Professor McLeish explains, science does not accept that anything is outside of its purview. And neither does theology. If the claims of the Abrahamic religions are true then theology must infuse every aspect of our existence. Thus the oft-stated and politically-correct claim that science and theology operate in different domains and answer different questions is deeply unsatisfying both to scientists and to theologians.

With a foot in both camps, Professor McLeish sees this clearly. He thus talks, not about theology and science, but about a theology of science. His book sets out that vision.

My role in the debate was to present the alternative way of reconciling two idea-systems that both claim to be all-encompassing — and that is to play the atheistic curmudgeon and simply reject and excise theology entirely. Continue reading

I get taken to task by Jeffery Jay Lowder over the Cosmological Argument

Jeffery Jay Lowder, founder of Internet Infidels, has objected to a post of mine, William Lane Craig’s eight Special-Pleading arguments for God’s existence, that was in turn a reply to an article by theologian William Lane Craig in Philosophy Now. Craig’s article presented a number of arguments for the existence of God, including the “cosmological argument”.

Lowder’s charge is that I didn’t take a serious enough approach to Craig’s article, and didn’t respond carefully to how Craig had laid out his argument. I accept that my article was dismissive in tone, and, rather than giving a thorough examination of each of Craig’s points, I attempted to highlight a “special pleading” element running through all of them. But, I still regard my post as being fair; essentially, I regard the whole cosmological argument as being one big whopper of special pleading. Continue reading

Contra theologian Roger Trigg on the nature of science

scientismRoger Trigg is a senior theologian and philosopher. His new book, “Beyond Matter”, is soon to be published by the Templeton Press, part of the wealthy Templeton Foundation whose aim is to produce a religion-friendly version of science.

Roger Trigg

An excert from the book promotes a view of science that is common among philosophers. Those of us with a scientistic perspective see it as erroneous, and yet, since Trigg’s account of science is widely accepted, it is instructive to rebut it.

Trigg argues that science rests on metaphysical assumptions:

What then has to be the case for genuine science as such to be possible? This is a question from outside science and is, by definition, a philosophical — even a metaphysical — question. Those who say that science can answer all questions are themselves standing outside science to make that claim. That is why naturalism — the modern version of materialism, seeing reality as defined by what is within reach of the sciences — becomes a metaphysical theory when it strays beyond methodology to talk of what can exist. Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics. It involves standing outside the practice of science and talking of its scope. The assertion that science can explain everything can never come from within science. It is always a statement about science.

This view can be summarised by the “linear” schematic:


One can see why theologians like this account of science. If it were really true that science rested on metaphysical assumptions then science would be in big trouble, since no-one has ever proposed a good way of validating metaphysical assumptions. Continue reading

T. H. Huxley, James Clerk Maxwell, and the divorce of science from religion

A review of “Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon:
from theistic science to naturalistic science”,
by Matthew Stanley of New York University,
University of Chicago Press, 2014

At the beginning of Victorian-era Britain, science was so thoroughly entwinned with religion that “it was expected that men of science would take religious considerations into account”, says Matthew Stanley. But by the end of that era things had changed so much than now “it seemed impossible that they would do so”.

Stanley explores the decades when science changed from being theistic — with most scientists taking it for granted that a god was an integral part of the world and how it worked — to being atheistic, no longer having any need of gods as part of the explanation. The contrast is exemplified in the theistic James Clerk Maxwell (“I have looked into most philosophical systems, and I have seen that none will work without a God.”) versus the anti-clerical Thomas Henry Huxley (“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science …”). Continue reading

Catholic theology facilitated the child abuse

This article was commissioned for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and is reproduced here.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has been hauling the Vatican over the coals regarding its record of systematically covering up the sexual abuse of children by its priests. Hearings in Geneva this week are the first time that senior Vatican officials have been confronted in public about the ongoing scandal. Despite UN requests, the Vatican still refuses to open its archives containing records of every instance of abuse reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, long presided over by Cardinal (later Pope) Ratzinger. It also tried to argue that it was responsible only for abuse that took place in the tiny enclave of the Vatican City, not by Catholic priests worldwide.

The story is now all too familiar. Time after time priestly child abuse was hushed up by the Church, the victims sworn to secrecy, the files sealed in the Vatican vaults, and the priest not turned over to secular authorities but instead quietly moved to a new parish. There the abuse would continue with a new set of victims. If the Church did apply “punishments” they tended to be a requirement for “penitence and prayer”.

The pattern was worldwide, from Ireland to Australia to Germany to Mexico and the US and … we still don’t know about many Third World countries where the Catholic Church is still powerful enough to continue its cover-up. Power corrupts, and the fact that the Catholic Church regarded itself as morally answerable only to itself, coupled with the excessive deference paid to it by others, enabled the ongoing corruption that has now shredded the Vatican’s claim to any moral authority. Continue reading

William Lane Craig’s eight Special-Pleading arguments for God’s existence

William Lane Craig — Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology — has set out in the latest edition of Philosophy Now his eight “best” arguments for the existence of God (non-paywall access here). For an atheist these are worth reviewing if only to marvel at how bad such arguments — touted as the best of a “renaissance of Christian philosophy” — actually are. All show the pattern of deciding ones conclusions on wishful-thinking grounds and then using any amount of special pleading and spurious argument to defend them.

They are the sort of arguments (following in a long tradition including C. S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell and many others) that only convince those who already believe. Their general tenor is actually to make things worse, trying to “explain” something by pointing to something that is even harder to explain. Only, the believer doesn’t ask that question because at that point they’ve already got to their god, and so stops.

(I) God is the best explanation why anything at all exists

Right, so in order to “explain why anything at all exists” you start off with something unexplained, namely God. Anyone can “explain” why something exists if you’re allowed to start off with something!

Admittedly, even Craig can see that flaw, so he uses special pleading. While claiming that everything needs an explanation, he then exempts his god, which of course doesn’t need explaining. He does this by claiming a distinction between “contingent” things (which need explanation) and a “transcendent personal being” (which doesn’t). Thus his argument becomes:

1. Everything needs an explanation of its existence.
2. Except God, of course, which doesn’t.
3. Therefore God created everything else.

A 14-yr-old could see the flaw: “So, what caused God, then? And if we’re allowed to say that God doesn’t need an explanation then why not just say that the universe doesn’t require an explanation?”. Continue reading

Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense

Whether morality is an objective property of the universe, or instead the subjective opinion of humans, is one of the longest running issues in philosophy. Jerry Coyne recently returned to the theme, arguing that morality was subjective, and, as I usually am, I was surprised by the number of commentators arguing the contrary.

This debate seems hampered by a lack of clarity on what “objective” and “subjective” moralities are. Coyne gave a sensible definition of “objective” morality as being the stance that something can be discerned to be “morally wrong” through reasoning about facts about the world, rather than by reference to human opinion.

If morality were objective, it would have to be conceivable that the statement “George’s actions were wrong and he deserves to be punished” would be true even if every human in the world were of the opinion, “George’s actions seem fine to me, perhaps even laudable”.

Thus, if morality were an absolute set by a god, something could be immoral even if every human disagreed. If, instead, human feelings and desires are what ultimately count, then that is a subjective morality.

Thus, a subjective morality is strongly preferable to an objective one! That’s because, by definition, it is about what we humans want. Would we prefer to be told by some third party what we should do, even if it is directly contrary to our own deeply held sense of morality?

Given that an objective morality would be highly undesirable, why do so many philosophers and others continue to try hard to rescue an objective morality? Continue reading