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Tolkien and Lewis as Pre-evangelists

March 20, 2015

I have been reading Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, by Holly Ordway (Ignatius, 2010), the autobiography of her conversion from atheism to Christ. Ordway is a professor of English literature, and her biography provides an interesting insight into the old Tolkien-versus-Lewis debate. As is well known, Tolkien and CS Lewis were friends, although, as is also well known, Tolkien had a strong disliking for Lewis’s style of allegorical writing. Indeed, readers themselves tend to polarize around one or other of the two. Ordway, however, describes how both of them prepared her for her eventual conversion.

Here is some of what she says about Tolkien: “Long before I gave any thought to whether Christianity was true, and long before I considered questions of faith and practice, my imagination was being fed Christianly….At some point in my childhood, I found JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and that changed everything. Not suddenly. Not even immediately. But slowly, surely. Like light from an invisible lamp, God’s grace was beginning to shine out from Tolkien’s works, illuminating my godless imagination with  Christian vision….The Lord of the Rings was where I first encountered the Christian evangelium, the good news….[S]omething took root in my reading of Tolkien that would flower many years later” (24-25).

Here is some of what she says about Lewis: “The idea of a personal God was almost impossible for me to grasp to begin with, let alone the Christian claim that the Creator became a human person…I could understand the definition of the word ‘Incarnation’ but not grasp its meaning….But what if the idea of the Incarnation did not have to be solved like a math problem.. .what if I could get hold of its meaning in a different way? I picked up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: this time not to analyze it for my dissertation but to enter Narnia like a little girl again. And I encountered Aslan….In Narnia I found that the Incarnation was not a bizarre idea, out of place in the world. It infused the very atmosphere. I breathed it in and was strengthened by it. That God would join his creatures by becomng part of creation himself seemed, here in Narnia, as fitting as the fact that winter’s end brought crocuses peeking brightly through half-melted snow…” (86-87).

Ordway also describes how other Christian writers, from Donne to Hopkins, prepared her imagination and worldview for her eventual turn to God and conversion to Christ. But what strikes me in Ordway’s account of Tolkien and Lewis is her ‘both/and’, rather than ‘either/or’, appreciation of them both, for each contributed to her eventual conversion in their own way.

Materialism’s ‘Cheap-shot Galileo Fallacy’

November 15, 2014

Recently I was reading Complexity: A Guided Tour, by Melanie Mitchell (OUP, 2009). While discussing Galileo as a pioneer of experimental science, she makes the following comment as an aside: ‘(Galileo got in big trouble with the Catholic Church for promoting [heliocentrism] and was eventually forced to publicly renounce it; only in 1992 did the Church officially admit that Galileo had been unfairly persecuted)’ (p.17).

I cannot remember how many times I have read this sort of needless cheap-shot in otherwise-scientific texts. Whenever Materialists (atheists) want to take a shot at Theists, out comes the old ‘the Church persecuted Galileo’ canard—as if this somehow discredits Christianity or theism at large, or the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Much of the time these comments are actually embarrassingly irrelevant to the author’s discussion, as in Mitchell’s case. And, as in Mitchell’s case, much of the time the pejorative implication is left hanging, for the reader simply to guess at. I call this ‘the cheap-shot Galileo fallacy’. Of course the Roman Church’s treatment of Galileo was atrocious. The fallacy, however, is that citing the Roman Church’s treatment of Galileo somehow impugns theism or Christianity in general.

Are such people really so ignorant of scientific history? Are they truly unaware of how often Materialist scientists have mocked, excoriated, harassed, and marginalized peers for theories that would eventually become scientific orthodoxy? I doubt it. Scientists don’t get this far in their careers without knowing significant swaths of the history of science. I cannot help but conclude that those who invoke the Galileo fallacy are operating with an intentionally-selective memory. So here I will point out four well-known cases of Materialist malice, to help inoculate Materialists against selective-memory syndrome. Of course, numerous other examples could be cited.

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) is hailed today as the inventor of the modern atomic theory of matter and the founder of statistical mechanics. Nonetheless, during his lifetime his professional peers, including Ernst Mach, harshly denounced his ideas. Boltzmann eventually committed suicide—in part because he had a history of depression, though many have felt that the malicious treatment he received from his colleagues was a significant contributing factor. Ironically, and sadly, it was soon after his death that his theories were proven valid.

Georg Cantor (1845-1918) was the founder of set theory, now considered the fundamental basis of mathematics. ‘Although Cantor’s work seems obvious to us now, in his lifetime it was considered radical and unacceptable by many of his fellow mathematicians. Cantor suffered tremendously for holding fast to his ideas’ (Noson Yanofsky, The Outer Limits of Reason, The MIT Press, 2013, p.94). Such Materialists as Poincaré, Kronecker, and Wittgenstein heaped scorn on Cantor’s work. He received so much abuse from his peers that he suffered significant bouts of depression for much of his professional life.

J. Harlen Bretz (1882-1981) was a geologist ridiculed and marginalized for decades by his professional peers for his theory of catastrophic flooding, which he first proposed in the 1920s. Yet in 1979, at age 97, the Geological Society of America awarded Betz its highest honor, the Penrose Medal, for his ground-breaking work. (Sorry—I couldn’t resist the lame pun!)

Then there is the notorious case of Dan Schechtman. In the 1980s Schechtman was working with a particular metal alloy, from which he created a pattern of crystals which scientific orthodoxy of the day considered impossible to exist in nature. As it turned out, he had found an entirely new class of solid material, which is now called quasi-crystals. For years, however, colleagues mocked him because, within their set of [false] assumptions, they considered it impossible for such a pattern of crystals to exist. Schechtman was even asked to resign from his research team at The Johns Hopkins University ‘for bringing disgrace on the team’ with his absurd claims. Schechtman has described how Linus Pauling, a giant in late 20th Century science who won two Nobel Prizes, spent a decade ridiculing Schechtman, trying to discredit his work and end his career. Yet in the end Schechtman was proven right: in 2011 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry—for his discovery of something that supposedly couldn’t exist! The Nobel Committee stated that Schechtman’s work ‘forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter’. Here is a scientist whose peers ridiculed his ideas and tried to destroy his career—yet went on to receive a Nobel Prize for his work.

In light of such examples (and many more could be cited), criticisms of ‘the Church’ for its treatment of Galileo seem willfully ignorant of history. Indeed, one could make a case that far fewer scientists have suffered rebuke and marginalization by ‘the Christian Church’ than by ‘the Materialist Church’. It is time that Materialists stopped using the strawman figure of Galileo to try to hammer ‘the Church’ and/or theism. Invoking Galileo in this way simply combines a selectively-biased reading of history with fallacious reasoning, producing nothing more than hackneyed and misleading cant. The Roman Church abused Galileo in his day; in our day the Materialist Church has found a new way to abuse him, namely by co-opting him for the Materialist cause — which, as a Theist himself, Galileo would have opposed.

God’s Love and the Meaning-Making Brain

April 11, 2014

What is the meaning of life? In The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), Paul Thagard, a philosophy professor who directs the cognitive science program at the University of Waterloo, Canada, explores how the human quest for existential meaning is related to the functioning of the brain. Thagard contends that existential meaning is a goal-directed function of the brain: life is meaningful ‘to the extent that [a person possesses] coherent and valuable goals that they can strive for and at least partially accomplish, yielding [the reward of] satisfaction and happiness’. To be meaningful, goals must be coherent, valuable, and at least partially accomplishable. Thagard identifies love, work, and play as three realms of life which are particularly significant for providing coherent, valuable, and at least partially-accomplishable goals for a meaningful life. He describes how all this happens at a neurological level.

I find Thagard’s proposal helpful; however, I wish to add a number of points from a theistic perspective. First, it needs to be said that meaningful and satisfying goals are not necessarily moral goals. A criminal might highly value, and successfully accomplish, the effort to pull off a string of untraceable bank frauds. The criteria for what counts as a moral goal are separate from the criteria for what counts as a meaningful goal.

Second, in addition to work, love, and play as particularly significant for meaningful lives, I would add three equally-significant meaning-giving goals: engaging in personal interests (creating and engaging in meaningful activities for one’s life); discovering one’s origins (creating meaning from the past, at four possible levels – biological, familial, ethnocultural, and as a species); and, the converse of one’s origins, leaving a personal legacy (making meaning from the future). In each of these ways we construct meaning for ourselves.

Third, Thagard’s account is missing a fundamental element (in addition to goals) for life to feel meaningful, namely self-value or self-worth—a sense that my life, my existence, is valued by me and by others. In other words, life is most meaningful when we possess not just goals that are coherent, valued, and at least partially achievable, but when we possess such goals within a sense of positive self-value—when I feel valued, cared for, affirmed, included, and befriended by others, including God, family, friends, colleagues, and the wider community. The less these are present, the less life feels meaningful.

From a neurological perspective, making existential meaning for one’s life is a constant neural activity. I propose that we have two ‘existential meaning’-making (EMM) circuits in our brain—the goal-directed circuits and the self-worth circuits, both of which run through the pre-frontal cortex. Like so many of our neural operations, meaning-making operations are grinding away all the time, sometimes consciously but mostly sub-consciously, continually shaping the objectives, choices, and activities we find meaningful. In effect, Homo sapiens have evolved to be inveterate meaning-makers. I suggest this constitutes a fundamental part of what it is to be human. I would also suggest that this is not sufficiently appreciated in our anthropologies, whether theistic or materialist.

I propose that God intentionally launched the creative processes of the universe(s) such that meaning-seeking and meaning-making beings would come about. In part this means that God intends us to construct meaning for our lives. Yet, contrary to what constructivists (such as Thagard) claim, the fact that we are able to construct meaning for our lives does not remove God from the picture. For God has also provided an ultimate meaning for our lives, a source of existential meaning that fulfills our EMM and neural-reward circuits more profoundly than any other form of meaning—namely agapao-love (that is, self-giving for the benefit of others). Galatians 5:13 is my favorite statement of this in scripture.

The greatest challenge to human meaning is nihilism, typically represented by Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. The problem with constructivism is that it merely keeps nihilism at bay; in contrast, it is only God’s agapao-love, historically manifested in Jesus, that destroys nihilism. Here I will invoke these words from Hugo, the mechanically-gifted boy in Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, set in 1930s Paris: “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do…Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose…it’s like you’re broken.” When we lose God’s agapao-love purpose for us, then we are broken, despite the many other worthwhile meanings we may construct for our lives. Which always makes me more than just a little sad.

Atheism as a Spiritual Commissurotomy

April 11, 2014

Some people who are former theists say they don’t miss their old faith, and so they don’t miss God. And certainly those who have never had faith do not miss what they never had, although some Materialists (atheists) wistfully wish they could believe.

In response, I will draw an analogy from neuroscience, specifically with split-brain research. In his work trying to identify the nature of consciousness, Michael Gazzaniga (Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, HarperCollins, 2011) describes his research with severe epileptics (with frequent grand mal seizures) who had been subject to a surgical procedure called a ‘commissurotomy’, in which their corpus callosum and anterior commissure were surgically severed. This is done in order to prevent the electrical signals of a seizure in one half of the brain spreading to the other half of the brain. As a result of this procedure, each half of the brain can no longer communicate with the other half, although both halves still receive input from the senses, including receiving the same information from the brain stem to which they both remain attached. Following their commisurotomy, patients always reply that they feel no cognitive change, no change in their mental processes – they feel completely normal. Medically speaking, one could not ask for a better outcome: significant reduction in seizures, with no apparent change in cognitive processes, and happy patients!

Gazzaniga’s research, however, has revealed a fascinating phenomenon below the conscious awareness of such patients. A feature of our highly lateralized neocortical functions is that ‘any visual, tactile, proprioceptive, auditory, or olfactory information that [is] presented to one hemisphere [is] processed in that half alone, without any awareness on the part of the other half. The left half [does] not know what the right half [is] processing, and vice versa’ (Gazzaniga, 57). Consequently, when patients are asked after their commissurotomy, ‘How are you feeling? Do you feel any changes?’, they answer ‘I don’t feel any changes, I feel normal, just as I was before the surgery’. Yet in fact they are completely disconnected from all that is happening in the right half of their brain. In other words, because the left hemisphere controls language, it is their left hemisphere that is answering the doctor’s question (“I feel fine, no difference at all”), yet, while saying this, the left hemisphere is completely unaware that it has lost almost all connection with what is going on in the right hemisphere. Of course, all that is happening in the right half of the patient’s brain is hugely important for their well-being and proper functioning as a person, yet the left hemisphere is completely unaware of this and feels quite happy being out of touch with the right hemisphere, even believing nothing has changed.

Further still, it is no longer possible for the two halves to operate in tandem, losing those cognitive functions that require cooperative, tandem operations between the two hemispheres. A simple example is the ability to recognise composites, for instance that ‘toadstool’ is something different from a ‘toad’ and a ‘stool’. The commissurotomized patient is not even aware they have lost these tandem abilities, and happily carries on without them.

This provides a helpful analogy by which to explain the phenomenon of cutting oneself off from both belief in God and the life of faith – it amounts to a ‘spiritual commissurotomy’. The person who cuts these off and then says ‘There is nothing missing from my life’, is like the person whose right hemisphere has been cut off from their left, then answers the doctor by saying they do not feel they are missing anything by no longer being connected to their right hemisphere. In both cases, though, their conscious perception of no loss, and their continuing personal satisfaction with this situation, leads to a profoundly wrong conclusion, that nothing has been lost. With both types of commissurotomy, physical and spiritual, things are not the way they should be, even if the new situation subjectively feels fine.

Importantly, some people do reverse their spiritual commissurotomy. One example is Chris Wiman, former editor of Poetry, the world’s foremost poetry magazine, who abandoned the faith of his childhood while in college. As he puts it, in college he found that his earlier faith ‘couldn’t stand up to the challenge of modernity and secularism’. In the journal The American Scholar (Summer, 2007) Wiman describes his return to faith after a couple decades away, and, in interviews since the appearance of that article, has described what he has recovered by his return to faith. Similar stories are told by both T.S. Elliot and W.H. Auden, often considered the greatest poets in the English language. Such figures were satisfied with life during their time away from God, yet for various reasons returned to God and, in doing so, found themselves reconnected to important aspects of what it meant for them to experience the fullness of human existence. Unlike a physical commissurotomy, a spiritual commissurotomy can be reversed.


God and Probability

April 9, 2014

A phrase like “God and probability” likely conjures up thoughts of Pascal’s wager — what is the probability of God’s existence? But what I actually mean here is quite different — How does probability, as a fundamental component of physical reality, fit into God’s work of creation?

At the moment I am writing a chapter titled “Randomness, Order, and Probability”. The issue I’m addressing is how God could predict (or ‘foreknow’, in more traditional theological language) that loving beings would emerge in the universe. (For those not familiar with my argument, I argue that love is the purpose of the universe: God created the universe(s) to provide the space and conditions for the eventual and inevitable emergence of loving beings, in habitable bio-niches throughout the universe, to live in loving relations with God and with others; Earth is such a bio-niche, and Homo sapiens are an instance of such beings.) If the universe is deterministic — that is, if the laws of physics make every last little detail of the universe, including our actions, inevitable — then we are nothing more than biological robots (and, by implication, God is ultimately responsible for each act of evil). However, if we do have free will, at least to some extent, then existence is not predetermined, which means there is randomness and chance in the universe (see Peter Ulric Tse, The Neurological Basis of Free Will, MIT Press, 2013). Physics confirms this indeterminism by its probabilistic interpretation of reality — that physical reality, particularly at the quantum level, is not deterministic but probabilistic.

I propose then that God built the universe to be probabilistic rather than deterministic so that loving beings, with free will,  would emerge predictably but not predeterminedly. In other words, God’s foreknowledge of events in the universe(s), including the emergence of life and loving beings, amounts to prediction-without-predetermination.

Nonetheless, a universe built on probability is also a universe in which there is randomness, disorder, and chance. This is due to the second law of thermodynamics. So the question arises: in a universe built on randomness, disorder, and chance, how could God predict that loving beings would inevitably emerge in such a universe? 

Both randomness/disorder and necessity/order exist in physical reality. Peter’ Hoffmann, in Life’s Ratchet (Basic Books, 2013), shows how order emerges not despite the second law but because of the second law. (If this sounds counter-intuitive, read the book! Henry Morris is the victim here.) Hoffmann makes it clear that he is no theist, but his case for the crucial role of the second law in bringing about life and order sure fits well with theism (an implication which eludes him). How, then, is predictability possible with the existence of both disorder and order in the universe? Predictable outcomes without predetermination are possible:

a) through disorder by building into Creation processes that produce overwhelmingly large numbers (such as gazillions of galaxies and planets, and gazillions of evolutionary possibilities). This enables events with low probability (due to disorder and randomness) to probably come about nonetheless (such as highly unstable chemical bonds becoming stable and reproducible) by virtue of the vastly greater opportunities associated with overwhelmingly large numbers;

b) through order by means of the normal distribution (more commonly known as the bell curve). The normal distribution is found at every level of ordered existence.

In other words, the initial conditions of the universe(s) as created by God included such probability-related features as overwhelmingly large numbers and the normal distribution in order to ensure that the physical conditions of the universe would bring about beings with free will and the capacity for love in a manner that would be predictable but non-deterministic. Thus the probabilistic nature of physics is a fundamental component of God’s ultimate, loving creational purposes.

Of course, in this post I have glossed over many issues related to this proposal, and I am presently working on these. In the midst of wrestling with these matters, I have concluded that theologians and philosophers who seek to provide an account of creation that is meaningful for today’s scientific context need to understand the probabilistic nature of God’s creation much better than is usually the case.

Vinoth Ramachandra

IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement