Monday, 15 June 2009

Say it Again

Keith Ward's Affirming Liberalism lecture struck me as being rather like his first one a year ago. The central message was the regularity of science, indeed he wondered if the Islamic view that God could do as he pleased whenever undermined the development of Islamic science. He repeated his argument against Richard Dawkins regarding materiality, on a very narrow view of existence, on the basis that physicists deal in realities in mathematics and such as up to eleven dimensions. He also repeated his reference to the Hadron Collider and the expertise needed to know whether certain atomic events had taken place. I find this argument about dimensions unconvincing: physicists make assumptions and mathematical models about such as up to 11 dimensions, and so far none of this is experimented upon. It is arguable that so far the maths does not work, but where it does and where it is experimented upon then we bring that into the materiality of experimentation.

The other argument presented is that of consciousness, and that the universe is simpler (and better) explained coming into being via consciousness than via all kinds of amazing explanations like multiverses. Multiverses may exist so that every possibility of existence is realised: thus (joked Keith Ward) there may be a multiverse including resurrection and virgin birth. Again this puzzles me: if our universe requires a goldilocks existence, that it has to be just right, then it is going to be just right to exist. Who knows how many false starts previous universes had? As time is within each universe, issues of probability simply don't come into it. The pack of cards is laid out as it is laid out.

The one bit I did like was the infinitesimal-us and this universe, asked about in the questions. The answer was it takes about 13 billion years to produce carbon life forms of consciousness, so that the universe is going to expand by that amount in time in order to get to something like us. Though, I reflect, 'we' might have had scales and big bodies if the asteroid hadn't done its work. (Anyway, in case readers here are puzzled, the accompanying image is of a carbon life form.)

Newton, a "devout Unitarian" introduced regularity and this seems to be the key. (He was also a materialist - as we would see it - and believed in hidden meaningful numbers within the Bible. Early Unitarians were like that, a combination of biblical literalism and materialist science that accompanied materialist economics.) As for the nature of this God, Keith Ward thought it better during the questions that children should not draw God and that the Sistene Chapel is "a disaster". But this begs the question as to where the lecture could have gone: into more detail about a God that is more than deism, or about transcendence (questions led to a reference to the apophatic God being cataphatic somewhere). All there was, really, in terms of content, was a quip about a God of eternity making everything that is past and future outside of time meaning there is no six days of creation.

Obviously lecturers produce what interests them at the moment. I used to think Don Cupitt was repetitious, but there was always the margin of moving on, and he did try to say something of a different angle at Sea of Faith Conferences. Given the mention of Newton, and that it is "possible to have devout Unitarians", I would have thought this lecture could have added more flesh to last year's lecture. There was a hint of Keith Ward's own trinitarian language, but that was all, and also a question led to an unconnected with the lecture mention that all Christians, even the most fundamentalist, are selective about the Bible.


The written version of the lecture is a considerably cleaned up version (or the original) of the spoken lecture: my comments are based on what was spoken. Both overlap with last year's, the spoken more so.


Brad Evans said...

I'm trying to wrap my head around the concept "devout unitarian" but I just can't make it.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Go and find out.

john said...

I agree K Ward can be repetitive and so over-loaded that key points get obscured. But I think the present written version - as you yourself state - is different. As always (whatever the medium), Ward seems very well-informed about pretty sophisticated scientific thinking, he is completely fearless and he tackles fundamental problems head-on. For theists (of whatever stripe), his contribution to the 'science-religion' debate is indispensable, and very few theologians are as well-equipped in this area as he. For me, personally, as I have said before, he gives me hope and is one of many reasons why I shall remain an Anglican. No other Christian tradition seems to me as honest in confronting difficulty. I realise, of course, that claim cannot be made of all strands of Anglicanism!

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I agree that he does make an important contribution, and a better one than say Polkinghorne who, in my view, assumes too much religion from the science.