Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Denis Alexander at Norwich Cathedral.

The following are some notes I made after my visit to Norwich Cathedral to hear Christian Biologist DenisAlexander.  (8 March)

Denis Alexander: a man who deserves to be in the spot light rather than in the shadows!

Denis Alexander is very much a part of the scientific establishment – in fact part of tax payer funded public domain academia, a culture much despised by fundamentalists and the right wingers of the de-facto “IntelligentDesign” community. Unfortunately the latter have had the effect of blighting the term “Intelligent Design”, for although it is clear that Christians like Alexander would ultimately claim the universe to be the product of divine intelligence they are not likely to want to associate themselves with de-facto ID; perhaps because de-facto ID is too close to the cranko-fundamentalist fringe and the politics of the extreme right wing. Moreover, de-facto IDists have effectively hi-jacked the appellation “Intelligent Design” and rather presumptuously see the term as exclusively applying to themselves. No surprise then that Christians like Alexander are coy about identifying themselves with the rubric “Intelligent Design” (See also John Polkinghorne). It’s a classic case of community polarisation. Contrast this with the statement by Alexander that he attends a church in Cambridge where different views on the creation question are tolerated (as one would expect of a moderate and intelligent evangelical ethos).

Talk Notes.
The talk was titled Evolution & Adam: Reality, Myth & Symbolism
These notes are not comprehensive but really represent salient issues that stood out for me.

Alexander started with an overview of human evolution. He said that the first humans emerged around 200,000 years ago. Evidence supporting this data is a human skull radiometrically dated as around 195,000. (My comment: This date appears to be fairly well established in academic circles as I’ve heard it for several years now).

Migrations of humans to the rest of the world started out from Africa around 60,000 years ago. 50,000 years ago humans reached Australia and Europe 43,000 years ago (However, a human tooth has recently been found in China which could be 80,000 years old throwing doubt on these dates). African populations are more genetically diverse than non-African – this is evidence that makes sense if a relatively small human migration came out of Africa with a correspondingly narrower gene pool. Further support for the “out-of-Africa” theory comes from the presence of Neanderthal DNA in non-Africans caused by interbreeding.

After this introduction Alexander switched to theology which was his main concern given the title of the talk. Moreover, in his book “Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose?” Alexander says that he believes “the Bible to be the inspired word of God from cover to cover”, so clearly Christian theology will interest him deeply.

Alexander regards Genesis as a set of theological essays and quoted Philo who said Genesis is symbolic rather than literal, Origen who said the Bible was figurative, Augustine who believed the creation story wasn’t literal because he thought creation was instantaneous, and Calvin who said you can’t learn astronomy from Genesis. Alexander summed up by saying that there is no science in the Bible. He said that the Genesis reference to man as the image of God compares to the language used by the monarchs of the day who were claimed to be the image of God on Earth, In effect the Bible democratises the idea of all humans, both male and female, being made in the image of God on Earth. Hence, all humans have special status and this was contrary to the infanticide practices and slavery carried out in ancient times. There is ongoing infanticide (& slavery) in the world today (My Comment: However Alexander didn’t mention abortion which would have been a natural reference here)

The word “Adam” translates as a generalised type for man. Woman is the “helper” to man, a title also used of God himself. NT references to Adam are in the context of the origin of Sin.

Alexander said he regarded Evolution and Theology to be two complementary narratives.

At what point did people become responsible to God and when did sin begin? At what point did a community of faith start?  There are some speculative answers: 
Model A: Gradual awareness of God as humanity has evolved. Then there was a fall and rejection of God.
Model B: (Favoured by Alexander) God selected a community or a couple for revelation.  They become the federal “parent” of the race, just as Ataturk become the “father” of Turkey although not literally. The fall followed this revelation. (Note: I have found that fundamentalists seldom have the imagination to appreciate that old Earth narratives introduce so many degrees of freedom that the ways of integrating the fall and death into those narratives are myriad)


See here for a complimentary set of notes on Network Norwich and Norfolk. Either I missed it or there seems to have been quite a lot of interpretation inserted into the NN&N account, although not unreasonable interpretation: These interpretations emphasize the Genesis story as “a radical theological and political text” subversive of the politics and religion of the day, and also of modern times as well.

Question Time
The question time started with the chairman reading the riot act: People wanting to make lectures or engage in arguments would not be tolerated. The first “questioners” tried to do just this! I was rather puzzled as in my previous attendance to the talks of John Polkinghorne and Simon Conway Morris no warning was issued and the question time was good tempered. Had troublemakers been spotted coming in? The points of the “troublemakers” were too incoherent to record here

Q: (from a “Creationist”): How can a “good” creation be reconciled with death?  Should we expect death to reign in heaven?
A:  “Good” did not mean perfect but “fit for purpose”. “Good” doesn’t imply no death. Eating from the Tree of life lead to spiritual alienation not death.  You can’t have life without death biologically speaking,  cf. the huge thicknesses of chalk speak of death. Is there death in heaven? No Jesus had a radically changed resurrection body.  He had gone beyond death.  

Q: There are two discontinuities in this world: 1. Spontaneous complexity and OOL. 2. The discontinuity of consciousness. What sense can we make of these?
A:  Another century might fix the OOL problem. cf RNA world etc.  Lots of progress has been made.   Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon.  You see it emerging in children and in the animal world.  It’s a process and is complexity related.

Q: Is there life on other planets? 
A: Alexander would love to see life discovered elsewhere. Life is probably out there, but perhaps not intelligent life (Moot).  Convergent evolution suggests that life can be “discovered” many times. Very complex molecules have been discovered in space like fullerenes.


My general comment
The subliminal and sometimes not-so-subliminal theme underlying events like the above is the “science vs theology” dichotomy. This dichotomy has, in my view, been reinforced by fundamentalists (and also, might I add, by the “Intelligent Design” community who generally have a poor view of the immanence of God and what it entails). In fundamentalism the “science” of academia tends to be thought of as the “natural” profane human way of knowing, a way of knowing to be contrasted against the “supernatural” godly ways of knowing found in a blend of holy texts and gnostic revelations. Moreover, fundamentalism has a knack of distorting the epistemology of science in such a way that it potentially emasculates its epistemic potency.

And yet it is clear that so-called “holy texts” cannot be interpreted without a huge hinterland of background innate understanding, culture and non-biblical texts. Holy texts, so-called, are organically joined to their “natural contexts”. Perhaps as a way of attempting to bypass this inseparable union of holy-text and profane context there is sometimes a last resort to gnosto-fideism, a philosophy which claims to eschew reason and observation. This is the way of sublime inner light, the way which attempts to disconnect epistemology from profanity by affecting to rise above “natural” textual contamination through the pure revelations of irreducibly intuitive experiences of the divine. This, I theorise, is the religionist’s reaction to the epistemic pressure on Christianity that has built up since the Copernican revolution. The outcome has been a drift either toward text based Biblicalism or the existentialism of a gnosto-fideist rendition of Christianity.  It’s alright for bright guys like Alexander who can see their way through the epistemic jungle, but the average Christian often find themselves thrown into the arms of fundamentalists who pronounce bald certainties.

In the science vs. theology debate there is a great irony which I have noted before. Both subjects are empirical to a greater or lesser extent. This is a conclusion which will surprise many, but we only need observe Alexander’s methods to support it. Alexander is using his (presumably God given) gifts and talents to try to make sense of his observations on the human predicament, on society, on science, on holy texts and so on. Yes he’s doing a good job of it given its difficulty, but generalised empirical protocols actually form the basis of his theoretical synthesis; Viz: observations on life, observations on history, scientific observations, observations on scripture etc. These observations are the dots which are then joined into a unity by the overall textual synthesis Alexander has constructed.  In short sense is made of the human predicament through observation and synthesis of those observations by theoretical reflection. Ergo, theology is empirical, although it has to be added not in the highly controlled, standardised, formal and mechanically testable sense of spring extending and test-tube precipitating science.  But then it is arguable that the science of string theory has a more post-facto sense making role than it does as a testable theory.

The contrast couldn't be greater. When this wonderful vaulted ceiling was built the Ptolemaic cosmos, where man's abode was at the centre of special creation, still held sway. Man was confident about his position in the cosmos. Like the vault of the cathedral the vault of the heavens was clearly made to house man. But today with Denis Alexander's help we, as Christians, were trying to come to terms with a very, very different universe! Just how successful these attempts will ultimately prove to be remains to be seen. Time will tell.


The Philosophical Muser said...

Very nice analysis there Tim. Thanks for sharing.

Timothy V Reeves said...

Hi James. Thanks! Follow the link to the NN&N article and have look at the comments section!

The Philosophical Muser said...

Oh, bloody heck - not him again. One half the Halloway/Holland Tweedledum/Tweedledee coalition of nonsense based in our area!

I'm glad I documented my long with his partner in crime, Halloway, in this comprehensive exchange, before Keith had a cull of my older posts (at my request I should add) -