Friday, 27 November 2009


I went to another in the biannual series of Christians in Science lectures the other week. This time around we had an astrophysicist, Rev. Dr. David Wilkinson, who latterly became an ordained Methodist minister in Liverpool and then a theologian at Durham University. His lecture title, "God, Time and Eternity", wasn't one that he'd chosen, it having been "gifted" on him by the organisers, but it allowed him to draw on his experiences from both of his vocations.

The science part of the lecture largely dealt with big bang cosmology, with a bit of a focus on the period up to 10-43 s after it happens (= the part where our physical theories apparently break down). The speaker did a good job of introducing the history of and evidence for the big bang, and gradually wound around to the problems with the theory itself, and the complications caused by the appearance on the scene of dark matter and dark energy. This culminated in a quick overview of inflation theory, and a mention of the fudges that this involves.

Up to this point the speaker was entirely on-message. But the point where a speaker gets to gaps in the current scientific picture of a topic is often a sign of "bad things" to come. While this speaker was no exception, I have to say that he held it together much better than I was expecting, and much more credibly than any of the speakers to date.

By way of a quick summary of where he went "wrong":
  • The usual slippery description of god that skilfully bounces between an amorphous generic description and one which is specifically the New Testament god-Jesus fusion
  • A whiff of special pleading to shoehorn god into the explanation for the Great Mystery of Being (a mystery that agnostics et al. are happy to concede)
  • Dangerous skating around the anthropic morass of a fine-tuned universe
All that said, the speaker did have some very redeeming features. Although he may have been overplaying it for members of the audience who, like me, switch off in the face of a religious certainly in one particular god being the right one, he was quick to put the counter-arguments to his position as he went along. For instance, unlike other speakers in this series, his visit to fine-tuned fundamental constants took in the anthropic principle, and he even described the topic as "anthropic balances" to make draw attention to this rival explanation. He was also keen that believers should be very careful around gaps in current scientific knowledge and to avoid shoehorning god into these, and explicitly rejected the "tuned fundament parameters" argument as an argument from design (and for good reason, as I've remarked before).

More generally, he was very good at staying reasoned throughout his seminar, and occasionally even conceded points where his theology has no answers. For instance (and this was also picked up in post-seminar questions), he noted that our universe is pretty big and empty for something that was ostensibly created for us. Also, while clearly not enamoured of them, he accepted that multiverses (were they to exist) would cause his theology trouble by again decreasing the "specialness" of our world. Other speakers in these series have ranged from not covering such topics, to overplaying them and then dismissing such concerns out of hand. So this speaker was refreshing if nothing else.

Anyway, a much better performance from this seminar series this time. A very affable speaker, unafraid to concede ground, and willing to be upfront about gaps in his theology. Admittedly, as usual for these speakers, he came unstuck whenever he came close to the specifics of his particular faith, resorting then to bald affirmations or poetic metaphors. And he did have some strange antagonism with deism which was both confusing and unconvincing. But, overall, a step up for Christians in Science.

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