Handbook of the Fellowship of Scientists

Readings 61-70


Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins


An extravagance of care

We have not yet found the dot so small it is uncreated, as it were, like a metal blank, or merely roughed in--and we never shall. We go down landscape after mobile, sculpture after collage, down to molecular structures like a mob dance in Breughel, down to atoms airy and balanced as a canvas by Klee, down to atomic particles, the heart of the matter, as spirited and wild as any El Greco saints. And it all works. `Nature,' said Thoreau in his journal, `is mythical and mystical always, and spends her whole genius on the least work.' The creator, I would add, churns out the intricate texture of least works that is the world with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care. This is the point.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, pp. 129-130


Marvelous things without number

... He who removes mountains, and they do not know it,
when he overturns them in his anger;

who shakes the earth out of its place,
and its pillars tremble;

who commands the sun, and it does not rise;
who seals up the stars;

who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the Sea;

who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades
and the chambers of the south;

who does great things beyond understanding,
and marvelous things without number.

Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him;
he moves on, but I do not perceive him.

Job 9:5-11


Probability and creation

Our first two points have been negative in the sense that they have tended to demolish arguments based on probabilities in favour of theism or the purposeful activity of a supreme being. Our third point goes in the other direction by exposing the fallacy in an argument which can be used against theism. It concerns the remarkable coincidences in the fundamental constants of nature without which life could not have occurred. These have been set out in great detail by Barrow and Tipler in their book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. For our present purpose it suffices to say that even a minuscule variation in the values of some constants would have made life impossible. This fact has been seized on by apologists of theism who have argued that such a highly unlikely combination could not have occurred by chance.

We have here another argument based on very small probabilities but in this case there is no basis for making a numerical calculation which would require some idea of how likely different combinations would be if they were selected `at random' in some sense. However, given that the set of values capable of producing life somewhere in the universe is so tiny compared with the set of all possibilities it seems clear, on almost any reckoning, the probability must be negligible. In reply it is sometimes argued that the coincidence is in no way remarkable since if it had not occurred we would not be here to observe it. It is thus inevitable that any universe with intelligent observers will display those characteristics necessary for their existence. The coincidences in question should therefore occasion no surprise. Put in probability language the probability of the coincidences given our existence is not small at all. Therefore there is no reason to invoke a creator to fix the values of the constants.

The fallacy in this argument is not in the statements about the probabilities, which are correct, but in the irrelevance of the conditional probability to the question being asked. The matter can be investigated more adequately using the algebra of probabilities as was done in my paper `Probability, Statistics and Theology'. The retrospective conditional probability which takes account of our existence does nothing to explain the values of the original constants which were fixed, we presume, long before life appeared. What is required is the probability that there was a creator God given everything that we know about the universe. And this, on most reasonable assumptions, appears to be much larger than the converse - that things happened as they have `by chance'. Indeed the only way that our existence could be unsurprising would be if there were a very large number of universes in each of which the basic constants were chosen at random. Sooner or later a universe would then appear which was suitable for habitation.

There are several cosmological scenarios which envisage this happening but even then theism is not ruled out. A God who used randomization in generating life on this planet might just as easily have used it at the initial stage. The question of whether there are many universes is, of course, beyond the reach of science because, in the nature of the case, we cannot observe their existence. We can certainly say that if there is only one universe then the appearance of ourselves within it is so remarkable that it is difficult to escape the conclusion that things were `fixed' to make it so. We should certainly not be surprised to find a very special set of basic physical constants in our universe but this fact has nothing to do with the question of how we got here in the first place.

Can Scientists Believe?, pp. 62-63



Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:

`I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist.
I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.

Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss.
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway.

Among all these I sought a resting place; in whose territory should I abide?
`Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent.

He said, `Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.'
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.

Sir. 24:1-9


One of the least

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, `Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

Matt. 25:34-40


The historical balance

A truer division of discourse, cutting across science and religion, is into three quite other modes: the personal, the abstract, and the historical. In emphasizing religious neurosis my friend reached into the personal. In challenging Christian origins she touched a larger historical mystery, the newness of civilization; geologically speaking the emergence of agriculture 30,000 years ago and of city-dwelling around 10,000 BC seems pitifully recent. This separation of categories, itself an abstraction, is never complete. Though mathematics is supremely abstract, a mathematician will, as Ludwig Boltzmann wrote a century ago, recognize the personal voice of a great exponent such as `a Cauchy, Gauss, Jacobi or Helmholtz, after reading a few pages just as musicians recognize after the first few bars, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert'. In what follows, I reject the cliche that science is all fact and reason and religion all irrational faith. Instead, I argue that Judaeo-Christian belief has an intense rooting in reason, while science involves acts of faith at various levels, and may, though this is more controversial, bring to those who practise it, whether believers or not, experiences that are inherently religious.

How in this context are we to weigh the staggering factual claim that Jesus rose from the dead? Not by science. We cannot plot curves of body temperature or insist, with doubting Thomas, on personally inspecting nail holes and spear wounds. Rational inquiry turns on historical evidence which, with at least six independent lines of written testimony, is substantial. The earliest committed to paper is Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, dateable with considerable confidence to ~AD 50 or 51, closer to the event than we are to Martin Luther King's death.

This, in its casual treatment of the resurrection as accepted fact, is to me more telling even than the Gospel accounts. Something must have happened to generate such radiant confidence. Yet the historical balance is nicely poised. Questions remain. Hard as the saying is, the evidence may be exactly what it should be for a religion that intertwines history, reason, and faith: enough to allow belief not to be an abrogation of intellect but not so overwhelming as to compel us against our will.

Can Scientists Believe?, pp. 164-165


Even the demons believe

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, `Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, `You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe Ņand shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, `Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,' and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:14-24


The intricacy of the world

And it occurs to me more and more that everything I have seen is wholly gratuitous. The giant water bug's predations, the frog's croak, the tree with the lights in it are not in any real sense necessary per se to the world or to its creator. Nor am I. The creation in the first place, being itself, is the only necessity, for which I would die, and I shall. The point about that being, as I know it here and see it, is that, as I think about it, it accumulates in my mind as an extravagance of minutiae. The sheer fringe and network of detail assumes primary importance. That there are so many details seems to be the most important and visible fact about the creation. If you can't see the forest for the trees, then look at the trees; when you've looked at enough trees, you've seen a forest, you've got it. If the world is gratuitous, then the fringe of a goldfish's fin is a million times more so. The first question-the one crucial one-of the creation of the universe and the existence of something as a sign and an affront to nothing, is a blank one. I can't think about it. So it is to the fringe of that question that I affix my attention, the fringe of the fish's fin, the intricacy of the world's spotted and speckled detail.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, pg. 131-132


The vault of the heavens

The pride of the higher realms is the clear vault of the sky,
as glorious to behold as the sight of the heavens.

The sun, when it appears, proclaims as it rises
what a marvelous instrument it is, the work of the Most High.

At noon it parches the land, and who can withstand its burning heat?
A man tending a furnace works in burning heat, but three times as hot is the sun scorching the mountains;

it breathes out fiery vapors, and its bright rays blind the eyes.
Great is the Lord who made it; at his orders it hurries on its course.

It is the moon that marks the changing seasons,
governing the times, their everlasting sign.

From the moon comes the sign for festal days,
a light that wanes when it completes its course.

The new moon, as its name suggests, renews itself;
how marvelous it is in this change,

a beacon to the hosts on high,
shining in the vault of the heavens!

The glory of the stars is the beauty of heaven,
a glittering array in the heights of the Lord.

On the orders of the Holy One they stand in their appointed places;
they never relax in their watches.

Look at the rainbow, and praise him who made it;
it is exceedingly beautiful in its brightness.

It encircles the sky with its glorious arc;
the hands of the Most High have stretched it out.

By his command he sends the driving snow
and speeds the lightnings of his judgment.

Therefore the storehouses are opened,
and the clouds fly out like birds.

In his majesty he gives the clouds their strength,
and the hailstones are broken in pieces.

The voice of his thunder rebukes the earth;
when he appears, the mountains shake.

At his will the south wind blows;
so do the storm from the north and the whirlwind.

He scatters the snow like birds flying down,
and its descent is like locusts alighting.

The eye is dazzled by the beauty of its whiteness,
and the mind is amazed as it falls.

He pours frost over the earth like salt,
and icicles form like pointed thorns.

The cold north wind blows, and ice freezes on the water;
it settles on every pool of water, and the water puts it on like a breastplate.

He consumes the mountains and burns up the wilderness,
and withers the tender grass like fire.

A mist quickly heals all things;
the falling dew gives refreshment from the heat.

Sir. 43:1-22

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