Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Still two cultures: Reflections on Bird Sense

I've been busy writing for various book projects and a lecture course, so it's been a while. After enjoying The Soul of an Octopus, I've followed up with Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird. And I'm mildly annoyed before finishing the preface!

Firstly, Birkhead refers to Thomas Nagel's paper about what it is life to be a bat. Birkhead is waving the flag of science (fair enough, it's a book on science and looks at what we know about animal perception, etc), but in the process he wants to relegate philosophy (how trendy). While science he thinks can tell us quite a lot about how animals perceive things by extending our perception using technology (his pragmatic approach), Nagel's understanding that we can't know exactly what it is like to be a bat is "subtle and pedantic." Is it too subtle for a scientist or science journo? That reflects badly on Birkhead.

As for pedantic, once more we see the view of science offering us a better way and relegating issues of meaning, significance, etc to the scrap heap. Actually, science contains a lot of subtly, and anyone who's tried to publish a paper will know about its pedantic nature. More than that, understanding perception tells you little about qualia, and claims of epiphenomena assume a lot. Nagel's gone a step further to challenge materialism. As well he might.

A second annoyance is the statement "our behaviour is controlled by our senses." Isn't it the case that our senses inform our behaviour? Control seems too strong a word. But then I'm being pedantic.

Thirdly, he argues that "natural selection ... provided a much better explanation for all the aspects of the natural world than the wisdom of God." Sigh. Anyone who's read any history knows that even Christians found much of Paley's natural theology as suspect. Darwin was reacting against this, after having formally embraced it. There's a world of difference between rejecting Paley's laboured design arguments, and complex pneumatological (Spirit), perichoretic (Trinitarian) and kenotic (self-emptying) arguments about creation/evolution. [Addition] He actually discusses Paley in more detail in chapter one, making the above statement all the more ironic!

I think Birkhead needs a history, philosophy and theology education. I'm expecting his science to be much better.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Why I marched with a multifaith group at the climate march

In sense this should be a big non-issue, but it is also an excuse to blog (it's been a while). I'm there on the left holding a multifaith banner. The other in a circle is meant to catch anyone else not captured by the logos.

As a Christian from the Evangelical tradition (I won't try and identify myself on the spectrum except to say the label is broader than some will allow for), I place a premium on the person, deity and uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth, the one called Christ (Messiah, anointed king). But this was not an opportunity for covert prosletysing.

Because I come from a religious tradition, I believe in Earth as sacred space, sacramental if you like. This derives from an understanding of nature as creation, of the Genesis accounts as using temple language. It doesn't represent the entire of the Christian tradition, but I think it's biblical. It isn't a view at odds with some idea of stewardship, or fair use, but stretches it to see the Earth as value to God, home to all of humanity and all of Earth-bound life.

All of the people there hold to some idea of the sacred, and it's a concept that even secular people can identify with, from Stuart Kaufmann's attempts at constructing a secular sacred to the rapturous language of Richard Dawkins in his writings on evolution, captured in music by the symphonic metal band Nightwish in their album Endless forms most beautiful.

Regardless of what we believe, we share one world. Denialism to me is bearing false witness, breaking one of the 10 commandments. Call it what you will. I marched with these men and women for God, for creation and for humanity, to love my neighbour as myself. Here's praying good things come out of COP21 in Paris.

PS: Here is a blog I wrote for Red Letter Christians on why I was marching.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

St Francis and the preaching of the birds

October 4 is the feast day of St Francis. Now of course there are a lot of church traditions who don't recognise the concept of sainthood or feast days. And yet, an increasing number of people are adopting Francis because of his attitude toward the non-human part of creation.

This image shows Francis preaching to the birds. Now while it has been demonstrated that certain birds (some corvids, African Grays, etc) are intelligent, they require no sermon or conversion. The fault of environmental damage lies at the feet of humans alone, rooted in uncontrolled and unbounded growth and desire.

Perhaps this feast day is more a reminder that we need to hear a sermon from the birds. Once, the Passenger Pigeon occupied the skies for days, now it is extinct. Once, birds were threatened from DTT thinning their eggs, at least for now the use of this substance is controlled. Rising temperatures stress birds - one heat wave in Western Australia killed half the population of an endangered parrot. Rising sea levels are causing some countries to think about building sea walls that would cut off coastal flats that matter to migrating birds. The birds are preaching to us and telling us we are out of control. They are quite literally, the canary in the coal mine.

In my favorite psalm, Psalm 104, we are told:

12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
    they sing among the branches.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
    the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
    the stork has its home in the fir trees.

We learn here that there is a place for everything and everything has a place - though this is in a time before virsuses, bacteria and disease was understood, so this isn't everything that could be said, although lions also have a place in this Psalm, and hence the picture isn't all rosy either. 

That caveat aside, here we see the birds preaching to us. Why don't we start listening?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Dutton's disdain in a drowning world

I've recently been reading Field Notes from the Edge: Journeys Through Britain's Secret Wilderness by Paul Evans. In chapter 5 entitled Flood, he talks about eldritch places, those places that feel eerie and sinister. He visits the old town of Llanwddyn, which now sits at the bottom of Lake Vyrnwy, which provides water for Liverpool. In the 1970s, a drought uncovered many of the buildings of the old town in a phenomena that people found disturbing. Besides the buildings, Evans wonders what else drowned down there.

This eerie feeling will become a common one as IPCC projections of about 60 cm of sea level rise by end of century seem quaintly optimistic. Even this is enough to condemn some island nations, but given the proportion of people living close to sea level, the impacts will be real and far reaching. Long term, several metres, if not 10s of metres are in store if we don't act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. No, coal is not good for humanity.

The disconnect between those currently affected and the rich and powerful is summed up well in a recent slip up by Australian Minister for turning away the boats, Peter Dutton. In a conversation with colleagues, he commented that "time doesn't mean anything when you're about to have water lapping at your door."

Now given the current Australian policy of tight borders, tow backs and imprisonment in offshore detention centres, such a comment indicates how climate change refugees would be treated. It belittles a coming catastrophe and a profound disregard for human life. No, it's not simply a joke, it's a symptom of an inability to "love your neighbour as yourself." Given the number of politicians who flash Christian credentials, I'd like to see this biblical saying of Jesus embodied in climate change, energy and refugee policies ASAP. To say nothing of attitudes towards the victims of our success.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Responding to Laudato Si

Last Thursday at a meeting of the Social Policy Connections, I spoke about the Papal Encyclical Laudato Si' for about 20 mins with Professor Joe Camilleri.

An online article for Ethos has just gone up which is closely based on what I said.

There are also two snippets now on YouTube.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Climate change is a justice issue

Over the last few years I've tended to focus a lot in my thinking on the creation care aspect of climate change, of an ecotheology that listens closely to the voice of the earth or non-human creation.

This Sunday just gone I spoke at Essendon Baptist Church and took a justice focus; with three main points
  1. Justice is at the heart of God - many thanks to the organisers of Surrender 2015, The Justice Conference and keynotes (and their excellent books) Ken Wytsma (Pursuing Justice) and Eugene Cho (Overrated) for helping me focus on this again
  2. Climate change is a justice issue
  3. We need to love our neighbours in a warming world
My texts were Jeremiah 9:23-24 and Matthew 6:1-2 to look at the importance of justice and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

On justice, see the excellent article (from his book) by Tim Keller. On the backstory of bandits in the parable, see this article.

The sermon is available on iTunes under sunday am - essendon baptist coomunity church. See here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Irony, consistency & protest

There's a couple of principles I think that are key when working for change. Not that I'm an experienced activist, although I've marched on a few issues. But as I consider the overwhelming number of justice issues we face today, I'm forced more and more to reflect on what it means to be an activist, what it means to work for change, etc.

The first principle is non-violence. If violence is used to combat violence, violence always wins (a rough paraphase of Tom Wright). I won't get into the ins and outs of war or policing. Evil needs to be restrained, and it may be that force is the only course of action (I don't yet put myself in the pacifist camp, but violence is always a last resort). The point is, if I believe climate change is violence done to others (eco-justice) and creation as a whole (eco-theology) then using violence to combat it seems to perpetuate systems that don't work.

The second principle is to be justice, not simply to seek it. In the case of the above picture, then yes ideally you'd want everyone to be doing things carbon neutral. That said, the supposed irony does little to invalidate the protest itself, that our reliance on fossil fuels needs to be curtailed, indeed we need who new sources of energy and raw materials. But what if the alternatives are largely lacking? Or the resources to hand used oil? Does this mean they shouldn't be used? Or used to at least so something other than stand back and point the finger? Does the originator of the meme care about the issue or is their self-righteousness more important?

Extricating ourselves from a broken system is difficult. This isn't an excuse for doing nothing, but highlights the need for change, change of everything. We will all be hypocrites, but better a hypocrite trying to change the world than someone apathetic about its issues or in denial things need to change.

So pursue justice, wherever possible in a way consistent with your aims.