Monday, 26 April 2010

Skrifenn Eth: Bora gans Golowder - Writing Eight: A Glorious Dawn

Listen to the song here:

I draw attention to the following lyrics:

"The sky calls to us
If we do not destroy ourselves
We will one day venture to the stars

A still more glorious dawn awaits
Not a sunrise but a galaxyrise
A morning filled with 400 billion suns
The rising of the Milky Way"

This "hymn to science" contains unproven and quite probably untrue statements of faith.

There are probably more, but the one I want to focus on here is the belief in the inevitability of human progress, measured in the range of humanity's expansion.

John Michael Greer in "The Long Descent" calls this the myth of progress, the idea that the present is an improvement on the past and the future will be even better until some Utopia is reached. In this case the utopia is the dawn of interstellar travel. JMG also mentions the myth of apocalypse, the idea that our current civilisation can only end in a sudden and total catastrophe greater than any fall of any civilisation before.

The myth of apocalypse is present in Sagan's world view as the possibility of global nuclear war, which threatens to entirely destroy humanity.

Are the only two possibilities open to humanity ascent to the stars, or total destruction in a nuclear holocaust or grand ecological catastrophe?

The Long Descent's chapter on "The Stories We Tell Ourselves" talks about this issue, as well as presenting us with a third alternative of a long decline, he also write about the fact that many of us in the industrial world have only one story, whereas people in traditional cultures have typically many stories. This one story is generally progress towards some Utopia, either directly or through some grand apocalyptic transition.

As a Christian, I am someone who embraces the grand story of God's relationship with humanity. The story of Christianity is one where peopel are brought into a relationship with God through God's dealings with humanity supremely through the person of Jesus, the ultimate goal of which is a perfect relationship between God and humanity, realised in the new creation. I believe this must be the overarching metanarrative behind my life and understanding of the world.

It is not the only thing that is important in my outlook on the world. I am a scientist (well, an apprentice scientist..) and I think it is one of the great ways God's image is worked out in humanity that we seek to understand the material world for its own sake as well as for practical benefit. It's really what at the end of the day separates us from the animals.

As a Cornishman, I would like to go some way towards understanding the worldview of my ancestors. One way is to read Cornish folk tales. There were a number of these recorded by a William Bottrell mostly in West Penwith in the latter part of the 19th century. They were recorded in English (although there is a single tale in Cornish extant "Jowan Chi an Hordh") but the world they were recorded in was one in which the Cornish language had been natively spoken within a century.

Bottrell's collection speaks of a legendary past where the land was inhabited by giants. Piskies, witches, conjorors and mermaids also feature. Volume one is available online here

One story speaks of a "piskey-led" traveler, who becomes lost in the lanes between St. Ives and Penzance, apparently through the action of piskies. The traveler is a pin-maker from Birmingham who visits St. Ives and gets lost on the way back to Penzance. This story shows the clash of cultures between the country folk and the new emerging industrialism. From the country people's perspective, the idea that one could make a good living from making pins is clearly ludicrous. The first reaction of the country people when hearing a knock on their window late at night is to think it is some sort of spirit.

However, most of the tales are not so concerned with this particular kind of clash of culture, but instead embody a pre-scientific worldview of an enchanted world, one where the existence of spirits of one form or another is taken for granted.

The question is, is the transition from the traditional to the scientific materialist view of the world "progress"? Certainly the scientific materialist worldview has provided much growth in the understanding of the material world and benefited humankind materially. Its downside is the disconnection from ecological realities. No longer inhabiting an enchanted world where non-human but sentient spirits existed, under scientific materialism humanity stood alone in the Universe, standing above and separate from creation, shielded from the realities of being part of natural ecosystems by the use of millions of yearsof stored sunlight.

The Christian worldview acknowledges one God, but the existence of non-human spirits is also affirmed when Jesus is able to heal those who have apparently been demon possessed. Conversely there are also angels. The main difference I can see between this and the Cornish folk-tales is that the Cornish piskies etc. are not necessarily explicitly angels of God nor agents of Satan. The scientific materialist would say that none of these spirits exist, including God himself and that we are no more than animals.

I watched a part of a DVD produced by the Faraday Institute called "Test of Faith" showing scientists who are Christians talking about how their faith interacts with belief. It largely concentrated on the doctrine of creation and how that can be understood in a scientific context. There is much else within Christianity that I think could conflict with the scientific worldview. The resurrection of Christ and of Christians to life in heaven. Revelation and predictive prophecy. Angels, demons and other non-human spirits. The Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man.

All of the above clearly conflict the strictly materialist brand of the scientific world view. Perhaps the answer to that is that scientific materialism has a series of unproven assumptions, that there are no miracles (exceptions to scientific laws), there is no divine intervention after the creation, there is nothing real other than the material.

The question is, can there be a truly Christian and truly scientific world view and what does that look like?

The view that the Universe is governed by fixed laws is actually one that derives from the Abrahamic faiths through belief in a supreme law-giving God. It can be argued that another set of beliefs, such as the belief in multiple, capricious deities would not lead to the scientific enterprise.

What I am uncomfortable with, is that it appears I must switch between different sets of assumptions when I have my Christian hat on, to when I have my scientist hat on. I study the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies on the assumption that they have evolved from their early state as fluctuations in the density of the early Universe without intervention from beings divine or otherwise. If I were to admit the possibility of exceptions to scientific laws in this context, as I do as a Christian to allow for resurrection and revelation etc. how could I be sure of my findings?

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