Friday, June 10, 2011

Review: "The Atheist Delusions"

     I read "Atheist Delusions:  The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies" and found it packed full of facts, details and assessments that inform on the matter of faith and culture like no other book I have ever read.  The author, David Bentley Hart, is clearly a scholar and spends considerable time describing events in history using original sources.  He examines the early Christian Church that birthed western culture using facts that describe the actual history (rather than the standard myths that disparage the church).  The brightest light in this book shines on the early church (100-1000 AD) with repeated clarifications and references to ancient and primary sources (but his clear command of historical knowledge is evident in other periods as well.)
    The author is not Catholic but that makes his arguments and clarifications even more compelling.  His fluency in ancient literature and events is precisely what is needed to dispel the false notions often cited concerning Christianity.  One myth is that Christianity has long been at war (and is still at war) with science even though Christianity birthed and nurtured science as an academic discipline.  The uniformed idea that there was a period called the "Dark Ages" (the transitional period from Roman Empire to Christian Europe) which was less civilized than the Roman Empire is addressed.  There is also the astounding idea that Christianity suppressed the rights of woman and slaves (when in fact they systematically freed and uplifted relative to all cultures around them). There is no way for me to provide a complete review so I focus only on those parts that seemed most well done.
     Aristotle had a lock on science for more than a millenia that was broken by Christian free thinkers like St. Thomas, Copernicus and Galileo.  Ptomley was focused on astrology and never saw the implications of his careful measurements (that gave him the power to predict planetary and astronomical events).  Copernicus was NOT an isolated genius in the desert of western culture but rather someone and influenced by those who trained, tutored and challenged him to understand the heavens and the natural order absent direct divine action.  Technology (in practical applications during the Christian period) rapidly advanced at a rate unparalleled in the previous Hellenistic and Roman era's.  The author speculates that the slow dismantling of slavery may have nurtured innovations that made human labor more productive during these "Dark Ages" which were in fact anything but "dark".
     A considerable amount of time is spent on the Galileo affair.  This event, often cited by those who wish to describe the typical and systematic posture of church and science at war.  Details (facts) are provided so that the reader can have a better understanding what actually transpired and how this event was a rare event of the church overstepping self imposed bounds.  The church asked that Galileo prove his assertion of the earth and planet orbiting the sun (virtually all of them agreed with the Copernican model that eased the ability to predict the placement of planets and stars in the sky).  The assertion of a rapidly spinning earth speeding at unrealistic speed in an orbit about the sun was later found to be correct but Galileo lacked the evidence that satisfied scientifically informed critics who understood his assertion fully.  Galileo had errant explanations for the tides (sloshing about as a result of the spinning earth failed to recognize the role of inertia which would not be articulated for a hundred more years), he failed to explain the lack of parallax in star location, he failed to explain the lack of retrograde motion of the stars when compared to the planets along with other numerous shortcomings.  The Earth certainly appeared to be stationary to those who were on the earth.  So while the Copernican treatment made locating planets in the sky easier it was not clear to scientific minds that this meant that the earth (and planets) were truly orbiting the sun.  Galileo's critics appear more grounded in empirical-scientific reasoning than a Galileo that believed in mathematics trumping reality.
     The real story of this event was how personal relationships can be strained, friends can be alienated and those of great talent can neglect the need to relate in productive ways with those around them.  Galileo was a physicist who interpreted data with great insight but he was by some accounts arrogant (almost condescending) and vindictive.  His his inability to maintain productive discourse with those in the church who provided him great comfort and privilege contributed to the house arrest and forced his retirement while well cared for in a luxurious villa.  The church (at the time) was struggling with charges that it was compromising scripture, facing  schisms and failing to confront heresies.  These factors (lack of transparent reasoning, personality and political pressure) all culminated in an event that the church has long regretted and asked forgiveness for.
     The anlysis of culture was well done.  While he has plenty to be disappointed about in the now post christian west (that still benefits from the christian culture that fermented it) he does not end the book in despair.  He points to the past Christian response to similar challenges of the faithful in moving to the desert at the edges of society to reflect, and pray and change.  He looks for the presently marginalized Christian culture to rise up and empower the faithful in Africa, Asia and South America even as it retreats in the shrinking populations focused on materialism in Europe and the United States.
     This is one book I will reference in the future again and again.  Packed with facts and presented by a master.

Please note that the views expressed here by me do not  represent the views of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, Archdiocese of Mobile or any  part of the Universal Catholic Church.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Reflections on "Saving Darwin"

     I am glad to have read "Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution" by Karl Gibson.  The text started by identifying the author as a fundamentalist Christian who once believed strongly in creationism.  Initially I thought the text would not have a perspective useful to me (due to the fundamentalist perspective).  He rejected creationism in his sophomore year in college, obtained a Ph.D. in physics and retained (most importantly) his Christianity.  This text reveals a great deal about the historical and cultural factors that have been at work in elevating the false dichotomy of science (Evolution) vs. faith (Christianity).
     The analogy of a gathering storm and scientific discovery struck a harmonic chord (having seen the process from time to time).  "A cloud appears, here and there, in a deep blue sky.  A drop of rain is felt.  More clouds. More rain.  The sky becomes partially, then fully obscured.....the clouds begin to break, and the sun reappears.  But it is not the same sun, and everything looks different."  Clearly this storm (that has brought evolution) has been with us well over a hundred years and the sun is only beginning to emerge among the those who remain steadfast in the faith.
      Legal and cultural battles (particularly in the United States) are discussed in depth.  The false spectacle of science versus faith in the Scopes trial (and in the trials since) are examined in depth.  You can be sure that the media (consisting of those who are antithetical to small town life) went to great lengths to paint the trial as the enlightened versus those not so enlightened.  Those Christians, more fully informed about the theory of evolution and who had recognize the wonder of evolution were not called by either side and not reported on.  The full story is not usually revealed in these controversies and Dr. Gibson goes to great lengths to detail this fact.
      The question of why these battles take place is examined.  The author makes a number of observations that are related to this ongoing struggle (between creationism and evolution) in our culture.  First the author points to the fact that half of the population recognizes creationism in polls as the best explanation for the state of life (on Earth).  Secondly the author points to the use of evolution and natural selection to justify eugenics and murder at the largest scales in the history of mankind.  The United States, in particular, has fought costly conflicts against regimes that believed in extermination of others due to race, religion and nationality.  The pairing of evolution (as a guiding principle) with Marxism and Totalitarianism may be the undercurrent of resistance to adapting evolution as a valid explanation for biological species.
     The author details the failure of our culture to separate the science that explains how evolution differentiates life from the wrong use of power to "accelerate" and "optimize" the evolution of the human race.  This failure is at the heart, in the view of the author, of why creationism is still held so strongly by so many.
     This theme (acceptance of evolution) opened up a line of personal reflection.  The fact that classrooms are used to transport facts and knowledge but do not focus on students experiencing the process of science may be contribute to the resistance (of evolution).  The lack of understanding about what science is may contribute to the failure in separating the scientific explanation from the wrong use of state power (or use as a philosophical model).  Creationists, Socialists, Marxists and/or Nazis would all rather use "Darwinism" (or anti Darwinism fervor) rather than have students see evolution as truth formed using science that explains the complexities of emerging life forms.
     I wish I could have known more, from this text, about the reason for the two dissents in the most recent "Intelligent Design Case".  One dissent (by Scalia) may not be due too a belief in "Creationism".  The author cites a devout Catholic faith that may have influenced his dissent.  It may be more reasonable and consistent that he would oppose federal intervention in local school board matters because of the deference and limitations he thinks the court should display in such cases (and would be consistent with the someone who thinks the original intent of the constitution should impact government today).  If science class was about how to obtain and analyze data to draw valid conclusions then maybe the textbook content would not be such a huge issue.
     A bright spot for Catholics is found when the author reports that the Catholic Church has remained fully in support of the value of life of every individual and the right to pro-create despite being labeled as dim, criminal or wrongly conceived.
     The author certainly reveals a concern about the struggle that falsely places science at odds with faith.  Clearly he has good reason for concern.  If those fervent in the faith fail to see truth then there are consequences for those faithful.  This book is an attempt to help all of us see the truth.

Please note that the views expressed here by me do not  represent the views of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, Archdiocese of Mobile or any  part of the Universal Catholic Church.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Reflections on "Finding Darwin's God"

     "Finding Darwin's God" by Kenneth Miller is an impressive work that clearly supports the idea that science and faith are, in fact, mutually supportive (each benefiting the other). He does an especially good job at laying out (in lay terms) the radioactive dating methods and geological data that support the modern scientific estimate of the earth's age.  The treatment of biological understanding of species differentiation was done well (he is well respected biologist).  He has a burden for those faithful who find natural selection and evolution to be a disturbing contradiction. It is a refreshing work that recognizes the need for God's creation to provide us with a genuine choice about the purpose of life and specifically our lives.

     It was surprising nugget of information to read about a series of Schrodinger lectures in Dublin in 1943. The lectures detailed ideas about how modern quantum physics and developing chemistry could explain cellular processes and biological systems.  Schrodinger speculated that populations of atoms that would make up biological information and transcription systems would compensate for the individual quantum variation (providing reliability and certainty).  How quantum uncertainty plays out in biological systems helps explain the forces that drive the process of natural selection and, in the end, evolution.

    The text is full of great quotes but the one I think captures the theme of the book (and follows a detailing of how quantum uncertainty drives biological variation): "Things look diffferent today. Darwin's vision has expanded to encompass a new world of biology in which the links to molecule to cell to organism are becoming clear. Eveolution prevails, but it prevails with a richness and subtlety its originator may have found surprising".

Please note that the views expressed here by me do not  represent the views of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, Archdiocese of Mobile or any  part of the Universal Catholic Church.

Review: "Aquinas on Creation"

Aquinas on Creation
by Steven Baldner and William Carroll

     Read a book titled "Aquinas on Creation" which were translated by Steven Baldner and William Carroll. The book is basically the original writings of Thomas Aquinas on the text by his mentor Peter Lombard. The text and language is very dense and the reading is not recreational. It is amazing that the arguments posed by present day scientists and academics with genuine lives of faith still use the reasoning and assertions of this classic western thinker.

     In Physics during the last 50 years it has been noted that the constants that guide the behavior of our universe have values that happen to allow for the emergence of life. Gravity, as an example, is strong enough to induce fusion that powers our sun but weak enough to allow for planetary orbits at appropriate distances. The electrostatic constant, Plank's constant, nuclear force constants are seem to have values that are in the range that allows for life (some of these ranges are very small relative to possible values). This is the basis if the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle states that the universe has been formed with the possibility for life. This idea is consistent with the writing of Thomas Aquinas in the 1200's.

     I was especially impacted by the assertion that all things in the universe are good. "the divine power shines forth even among the wicked in the fact that they are held back and the divine providence shines forth through the fact that evil deeds are turned into good". The assertion by John Paul II that theology and philosophy need each other also is found in the writings of Aquinas.

     Thomas Aquinas also points out that creation is compatible with natural causes in nature. This continued to lay the groundwork for the the birth of science as an academic discipline in western culture. The tremendous support for science of all types by the church is fueled by the encouragement to understand all natural causes and links because they are certain to lead back to our creator.  This text confirms this ancient western tradition among the monotheistic faiths.


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