Friday, July 6, 2007

Summer Reading

Summer is a great time to catch up on the books one has wanted all year to read but never had the time. So far this summer I've managed to finish three books each of which I enjoyed very much:

The Edge of Evolution by Michael Behe: Most of the hostile reviews of this book have been long on ad hominem and short on substantive criticism. That may be because one of the favorite criticisms of any book on intelligent design, i.e. "Whatever it is it's not science," simply doesn't stick to this one, so critics like Richard Dawkins are reduced to pathetic exercises in personal insult. Behe makes a strong case that random mutation is a very limited mechanism for producing viable genetic novelty. Those interested in following the controversy surrounding this book can find plenty of links here (scroll down). I also commented on the book here.

A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson: This 1976 tome by the prolific British historian has been sitting on my shelf for about fifteen years waiting for me to work up the resolve to commit to its 500+ pages. Well, last May I finally started it, and finished it at the end of June. Johnson directs much of his attention to the Roman Catholic church which means that we learn not as much as we might have liked about Orthodoxy or some of the pre-Reformation movements. The book is also almost obsessively concerned with highlighting the negative aspects of Christianity's history, and, of course, there's much ore in that vein to mine. There's also a great deal in its history that redounds to Christianity's credit, but Johnson doesn't seem much interested in exploring this terrain. Even so, I found it a rewarding read and would recommend it to anyone who has a some knowledge of European history and who wants to enrich his/her understanding of the development of the Christian church.

Erasmus and the Age of Reformation by Johan Huizinga: This past week I, my wife, and youngest daughter joined my oldest daughter and her two children on a Disney cruise to the Bahamas and thereabouts. The flight down and back, as well as a day spent on the beach at Castaway Cay afforded much opportunity to read, and I spent the time with Huizinga's classic biography of the 16th century reformer Desiderius Erasmus, who in several respects I found to be a man after my own heart. Erasmus was a scholar and lover of ancient texts who once said that "When I get a little money I buy books. If I have any left over I buy food and clothing." He was also a theological minimalist who was distressed by the violence wrought over what, to him, were trivial matters of doctrine. He was not without his faults, of course, but compared to some of his contemporaries, like Luther and Calvin, his life and spirit were estimable and every Christian would profit from learning a little bit about him.

Having completed the above I'm working now on Escape From Evil by Ravi Zacharias, Are the Gospels Reliable by Mark Roberts, and a reread of Del Ratzsch's Nature, Design, and Science.

Waiting on deck are Journey to the Ants by Bert Holldobler and Edward O.Wilson and the formidable 800 pages of Joakim Garff's Soren Kierkegaard: A Biography. Unfortunately, that last one might be another book that sits on the shelf for fifteen years before I muster up the courage to take it on.


Davies Must Be Desperate

Physicist and science author Paul Davies tries hard to explain the incredible fitness for life of the cosmos without invoking either an intelligent designer or a multiverse:

We will never fully explain the world by appealing to something outside it that must simply be accepted on faith, be it an unexplained God or an unexplained set of mathematical laws. Can we do better? Yes, but only by relinquishing the traditional idea of physical laws as fixed, perfect relationships. I propose instead that the laws are more like computer software: programs being run on the great cosmic computer. They emerge with the universe at the big bang and are inherent in it, not stamped on it from without like a maker's mark.

Davies is much too smart to be proposing something like this as an alternative to an intelligent designer. If the laws of physics are to be compared to computer software then the question shouts itself at us: Who do you think wrote the software? Software does not arise from non-rational, non-intelligent sources. It doesn't just appear ex nihilo. It must be designed by a mind.

He goes on:

Man-made computers are limited in their performance by finite processing speed and memory. So, too, the cosmic computer is limited in power by its age and the finite speed of light. Seth Lloyd, an engineer at MIT, has calculated how many bits of information the observable universe has processed since the big bang. The answer is one followed by 122 zeros. Crucially, however, the limit was smaller in the past because the universe was younger. Just after the big bang, when the basic properties of the universe were being forged, its information capacity was so restricted that the consequences would have been profound.

Here's why. If a law is a truly exact mathematical relationship, it requires infinite information to specify it. In my opinion, however, no law can apply to a level of precision finer than all the information in the universe can express. Infinitely precise laws are an extreme idealisation with no shred of real world justification. In the first split second of cosmic existence, the laws must therefore have been seriously fuzzy. Then, as the information content of the universe climbed, the laws focused and homed in on the life-encouraging form we observe today. But the flaws in the laws left enough wiggle room for the universe to engineer its own bio-friendliness.

Gosh, this sounds positively marvelous. Information - which in our experience is always the product of mind - pervades the universe, constructing it in such an astonishingly precise way that life can exist in it. But, you must remember, it all happened totally by accident - like a million monkeys fiddling with the parts of a computer for billions of years somehow serendipitously producing a fully functional PC, only almost infinitely more improbable.

Somehow the universe in the first nano-seconds of its existence, "wrote" the laws that would subsequently govern it. This raises the question of what laws were operating in the early cosmos that enabled it to "write" the laws of physics as we know them and where did they come from?

Anyway, distinguished scientist Dr. I.D. Finetunski - no doubt an untenured university prof who doesn't want to lose his job - is unimpressed by Davies' theory and proceeds to shred it into little pieces here.