Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lenten devotional

I just received a link to a Lenten devotional from EEN (the Evangelical Environmental Network) and Tear Fund.

Every day has a specific devotional task.  Here's today's: "28 February: Refrain from judgments today. If the opportunity presents itself do not speak ill of another or weigh in on the latest controversies in the relationships that you encounter today."

I found the whole structure of this devotional deeply encouraging (easy to say, I know, I haven't started it yet! but still...) Check it out at this link, or the whole thing is available as a PDF here.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Evolution and climate change

At least one current presidential candidate does not believe in the theory of evolution (except, he allows, in a "micro" sense).

Well, apart from some bemusement, why should I care? After all, it is difficult to imagine circumstances in which a vital presidential decision will hinge on said president's understanding of the origin of the biosphere.  Perhaps this candidate, if elected, would be like the robot QT-1 in Isaac Asimov's short story "Reason", which carries out its duties flawlessly despite embedding them in a web of bizarre beliefs.

The trouble is that in order to hold a anti-evolutionist position, one has to cope somehow with the fact that the vast majority of professionally qualified scientists see it as fundamentally mistaken.  There are standard strategies for doing this: suggest that the scientific consensus is founded on a shared, mistaken ideology; magnify the significance of disagreements and discrepancies within the consensus; and hint that the consensus is on the point of disintegration.  (To see these strategies in action, take a look at Philip Johnson's Darwin on Trial.)

But these strategies, once they are deployed, are conveniently available to avoid listening to any other uncomfortable news from scientists.  When a candidate calls climate science "an absolute travesty of scientific research that was motivated by those who, in my opinion, saw this as an opportunity to create a panic and a crisis for government to be able to step in and even more greatly control your life", you can see the same strategy at work.  And it is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which a vital presidential decision will hinge on said president's understanding of the extent to which humanity's actions press up against the limits of the earth's carrying capacity.

Of course we all bring values, beliefs, and fears to the table when we discuss climate change, and still more when we discuss policy actions in response - such discussions are never a matter simply of neutral "facts". (Mike Hulme's book Why We Disagree About Climate Change is a wonderful guide to this complex territory.)  But one thing we can't bring to the table is a set of earplugs that will allow us to avoid listening to things we don't like.

I fear that one of the side-effects of "scientific creationism" may be to provide some of my fellow-believers with a comfortable, multi-purpose set of earplugs.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Limits and Liberation

Yesterday, a thick envelope arrived in the mail from overseas.  My name and academic title on the outside in straggling handwriting.  I knew what it must be before opening it.

It's from a circle-squarer.  He wants me to look at his "discovery" of a "new value for pi".

The manuscript contains some familiar themes.  The author is not trained in mathematics.  He has been working on this project for twenty years!  He has produced pages and pages of diagrams, dense with construction lines, circles, and letters. He claims the solution reached him by divine revelation.

The problem of "squaring the circle" using straightedge and compasses was proposed in ancient times. In the 19th century, Galois' theory of algebraic equations and Lindemann's proof that pi is not the root of any algebraic equation were combined to show that it is impossible to solve the problem on the terms originally proposed.

That word "impossible" is a red flag to the circle-squarer.  My correspondent wants to believe that it means simply that people did not try hard enough, or were not enlightened enough, or perhaps that the truth was deliberately suppressed for sinister purposes.

But it doesn't. In this context, "impossible" is a liberating word.  It signifies not ignorance, but enlightenment.  It signifies that we understand the limits of the tools that are available to us.

Such understanding will be needed in humanity's uncertain future.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Operation Noah

Yesterday, Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of fasting and repentance, a group of (mainly) British church leaders endorsed a Declaration produced by Operation Noah, "a Christian organization which provides leadership, focus and inspiration in response to the growing threat of catastrophic climate change endangering God’s creation."

From the Declaration: "The primary driver of human induced climate change is the belief that prosperity depends on limitless consumption of the earth’s resources. Today, the challenge is to seek a different, sustainable economy, based on the values of human flourishing and the well-being of all creation, not on the assumption of unlimited economic growth, on overconsumption, exploitative interest and debt. "

Read the full text on the web page of Archbishop Rowan Williams, one of the signatories. 

(H/T: Byron Smith)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A creation care event next week.

I'm speaking next week at a Creation Care Coalition event in State College, if anyone is interested. Here is the information:

All are invited to the next meeting of the Creation Care Coalition of Centre County on Thursday, March 1 at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church (corner of Foster and Fraser St. In State College). Meet together for dinner at the Community Cafe at 5:45, followed by a program in Room 325 from 6:45 to 7:45.

John Roe will present a program entitled "Spirituality, Stewardship and Justice: My Journey with GreenFaith." John will tell us about his experiences as a participant this year in a seminar offered by GreenFaith. Click here for more information on the Green Faith Fellowship program. Invite your friends, all are welcome to come to either dinner or the program or both.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

This Weeks Find in the Blogosphere

John Baez is a mathematical physicist at the University of California, Riverside.  He has been blogging since before there were blogs: his regular posting "This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics" appeared on Usenet since 1993.  Many mathematicians have learned about n-categories or octonions or loop spaces or whatever from "This Week's Finds".

I just learned that Baez recently announced a change of direction.  "This Week's Finds" has morphed into a new blog, Azimuth.  Introducing it, Baez writes

Hello!  This is John Baez‘s new blog.
I’m a mathematical physicist.  I teach at U.C. Riverside.  I’m about to make a big career shift.   I’ve been working on n-categories and fundamental physics, but now I want to work on more practical things, too.
Why?  I keep realizing more and more that our little planet is in deep trouble! The deep secrets of math and physics are endlessly engrossing — but they can wait, and other things can’t.
Since July 2010 I’ve been working at the Centre for Quantum Technologies, which is located in Singapore.  I’ll stay there until the end of July 2012.   This will be a good time to change gears and try something new.
I plan to talk about many things on this blog: from math to physics to earth science and biology, computer science and the technologies of today and tomorrow – but in general, centered around the theme of what scientists can do to help save a planet in crisis.
That expresses very clearly something that I have also been feeling.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Wanted: a theology of mining (part 2)

This is the second of (what I see as) a series of three posts about mining.  In the first post, I quoted the lyrical description of ancient mining in Job 28, and suggested that it raises three groups of theological questions for us:

1.               The bountifulness of God
2.               The nurture of creation
3.               The search for wisdom
Second question. How are we to understand the mystery and beauty of creation? Is there a distinction between “fair use” and exploitation?  There is something very sensuous about Job’s description of the mining process.  The miners are explorers of a mystery, walking in the secret ways under the earth.  As they “dangle and sway” beneath the earth, even perhaps as they “assault the flinty rock”, they respect the gift that God has given them.  Contrast this with the present practice of coal mining by “mountaintop removal” in West Virginia and Kentucky. The process, a startling pre-emption of Isaiah 40:4, is as drastic as it sounds.  Vast quantities of explosives are used to strip the tops off whole mountains to get at the coal beneath.  The debris chokes adjacent valleys which are filled in.  Over a thousand tons of explosives per day – two Hiroshimas per month – are employed in these operations which will soon cover an area equal to that of the state of Delaware.  

 One should not romanticize ancient practices; given the tools, ancient peoples have shown themselves just as capable of ecological devastation as we moderns are. (Cf. Jared Diamond, Collapse). However, one must ask whether the creation mandate of Genesis 1:28 licenses MRM with all its consequences.  If we say that it doesn’t, on what do we base that response, and how do we judge similar cases in the future?

In his recent book The Bible and Ecology, Richard Bauckham attempts to answer this sort of question by locating humans as "participants in the community of God's creatures". He writes: "A major concern of this book is for us to recognize that there is much more to the Bible's understanding of the relation between humans and the rest of creation than the mandate of human dominion given us in Genesis 1... We need to rediscover those biblical accounts of the human place in creation that are completely unconcerned with dominion and that do not set humans above other creatures... No part of Scripture does this more firmly and effectively than the book of Job."

So what wisdom can we learn from Job? More next time...

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tools for Living

In an earlier post I asked what an education would look like that "prepared students to live with the finitude and frailty of our society."

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education takes up a similar theme.  Here is part of the answer that it suggests: "Maybe it's time that instruction—at least at some colleges—included more hands-on, traditional skills. Both the professional sphere and civic life are going to need people who have a sophisticated understanding of the world and its challenges, but also the practical, even old-fashioned know-how to come up with sustainable solutions."

 Read the full article here.