Monday, May 19, 2008

Beautiful Birds III

Here are a couple more pics of some of the more brilliant examples of our North American avifauna. The first is a Wood duck, one of the most common waterfowl in the northeast. Despite their abundance they're not often easy to see up close. They're shy, they inhabit wooded ponds and streams, and will often take flight before they are even spotted. Nevertheless, if the male can be seen at close range or with good optics in good light, it's stunningly colorful.

This next little fella' inspired one of America's most famous naturalists and artists, Roger Tory Peterson, to devote his life to the pursuit of birds. As a boy he was walking in New York City's Central Park one May, and a birder directed his gaze to a Magnolia warbler flitting in the bushes. Once he saw it he was hooked for life.

Finally, this last photo is of perhaps the most colorful songbird in all of North America. It's a male Painted bunting. These are found across the south and only rarely wander north of the Mason-Dixon line. Nevertheless, there was a female in Philadelphia's John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge throughout the winter of 2006.

Nature offers so much beauty to delight the senses and enrich our lives. It's a shame that we have so little time, and, sadly, too little inclination, to take it in.


The Future of Faith Pt. I

David Brooks has a column in the New York Times (free subscription may be required) which has already sparked some lively discussion. He talks about how advances made in the field of neuro- and other cognitive sciences are ultimately going to undermine belief in the Bible and in the soul, but not in the existence of a transcendent deity.

His last paragraph provides a good summary of his essay:

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That's bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They're going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I'm not qualified to take sides, believe me. I'm just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We're in the middle of a scientific revolution. It's going to have big cultural effects.

Actually, the future Brooks predicts has been with us for almost two centuries. Ever since Darwin, and even before, scientific naturalism and religious faith have been at daggers drawn. Moreover, for the last several decades we've seen the growth of a syncretistic "New Age" religion which seeks to hold onto transcendence while pretty much disposing of inconvenient religious doctrines.

In any event, Brooks thinks that our deepening understanding of the brain is going to somehow hasten the process of dissolving religious particularism. He believes that Christian belief will become less and less persuasive for more and more people as science learns more and more about how the brain works. If he's right then those churches and Christian institutions which have failed to teach their young the basis for belief and ground them in a solid understanding of why they believe what they believe have done the faithful a real disservice and will indeed come to be seen as increasingly irrelevant.

He writes:

Lo and behold, over the past decade, a new group of assertive atheists has done battle with defenders of faith. The two sides have argued about whether it is reasonable to conceive of a soul that survives the death of the body and about whether understanding the brain explains away or merely adds to our appreciation of the entity that created it.

Brooks makes an assumption here about the soul that needs be teased out. He seems to be conflating soul and mind, which is not an unusual association, but neither is it necessary. Mind and soul may well be two different entities, in which case the question is not whether the soul survives the death of the body but rather whether the mind does. In other words, even if the materialist view is correct that we are just atoms, and that mind is just a word we use to describe the function of the brain, that doesn't necessarily eliminate the soul.

In the materialist view the soul, life, emotions, and consciousness are nothing but the products of chemical processes which have reached a certain critical mass and give rise to certain astounding emergent phenomena. But we need not accept this dehumanizing reductionistic materialism, a view which, by the way, is thoroughly unscientific because there's no way to test it, in order to grant that it might be that there's no soul, in the classic sense, residing in persons. It is possible that we have a mind which works in concert with the brain and is necessary for its proper function and also have a soul which is not necessarily a mental entity.

Perhaps the soul is not some gossamer, wraith-like entity that inhabits our body like a ghost-in-a-machine, to use Gilbert Ryle's famous metaphor. Perhaps instead we can think of it as the sum total of information which describes us as a person. It is, on this view, the totality of our history, our personality, hopes, dreams, loves, and fears. It encompasses a complete description of our physical, emotional, and moral selves. It is a comprehensive account of every aspect of our being all stored like a computer file folder in the data base that is the mind of God. As such it is eternal and indestructible unless God chooses to delete it. Even at the death of the body we have the potential to exist as long as God holds us (the information which describes us) in being in His mind. God may, if He chooses, reinstantiate us when our body gives out by downloading selected files from our folder into another suitable structure in some other reality.

Thus the materialists could be correct that we (our bodies) are comprised solely of material substance (I don't think they are, though, because I have my doubts that matter alone can fully explain consciousness) but they could still be wrong in asserting that there is no soul.

And yet my guess is that the atheism debate is going to be a sideshow. The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it's going to end up challenging faith in the Bible.

This is probably true, but it's not news. The Bible has been under assault for at least two hundred years. Despite the exegetical difficulties presented by certain passages, especially in the Old Testament, it has weathered many storms. Whether it will continue to do so depends, at least from the human side of things, on the scholarship and skill of its defenders. Again it must be said there will be increasing need for well-educated, committed Christian scholars to face these challenges. If we don't produce them Christianity could well become sociologically and culturally marginalized.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Here we see one of the many vulnerabilities of secular materialism. If our moral sense is just a by-product of genetic evolution then we're no more obligated to obey our instinct for fairness, say, than we are to obey our instinct to be promiscuous or aggressive. Instincts impose no demands and are not moral imperatives. They carry no moral value. To act contrary to human instinct, if indeed such a thing exists, is to do nothing that can be judged morally wrong.

The best explanation for universal moral intuitions, and the only one that gives them any moral sanction, is that they were woven into the universe by an omnibenevolent, omniscient mind which insists, on pain of eternal consequences, that they be obeyed.

Brooks says more on the future of faith that I'd like to talk about in a separate post.