Grace for Creation: free!

We have a great tradition of holding classes for parishioners in Lent, but once Easter comes, and Spring springs, we tend to focus on other things. But, what would happen if we tried an Easter class – like a Lent class, but later?

Have I got a deal for you:

In 2011, the Episcopal Church House of Bishops issued a pastoral letter on the environment. In response, a five-week study course titled A Life of Grace for the Whole World has been created. The curriculum follows the five sections of this letter.

via Curriculum – Grace for Creation

This is the result of work done by the Episcopal Church in New England, spearheaded by Bishop Tom Ely and two incredibly talented priests, Stephanie Johnson and Jerry Cappel. It’s a perfect fit for a springtime course, and it’s basically turn-key. Download it and go. The only thing we ask is that if downloadbutton.jpgyou use it, you let us know how it went. What could be easier?

“Science alone cannot save the planet”

Anglicans and Orthodox believers are organizing in advance of the upcoming UN Summit on Climate Change:

Science alone cannot save the planet the spiritual leader of an estimated 300 million Orthodox Christians has insisted, as he joined forces with the Archbishop of Canterbury urging followers around the world to fight climate change.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, insisted that global warming is a “moral crisis” requiring millions of people to change their day-to-day behaviour as much as politicians making treaties on the environment.

More: Science alone cannot save the planet, insists spiritual leader of Orthodox Church – Telegraph

‘Zeno effect’ verified—atoms won’t move while you watch

From the Weeping Angels developmental lab:Doctor_Who_Weeping_Angel_from_The_Time_of_Angels

One of the oddest predictions of quantum theory – that a system can’t change while you’re watching it – has been confirmed in an experiment by Cornell physicists. Their work opens the door to a fundamentally new method to control and manipulate the quantum states of atoms and could lead to new kinds of sensors.

The experiments were performed in the Utracold Lab of Mukund Vengalattore, assistant professor of physics, who has established Cornell’s first program to study the physics of materials cooled to temperatures as low as .000000001 degree above absolute zero. The work is described in the Oct. 2 issue of the journal Physical Review Letters

Of course this doesn’t answer the real, more fundamental question: How do the atoms know we’re watching?

Source: ‘Zeno effect’ verified—atoms won’t move while you watch

Lucas Mix: Toward a definition of Life

My friend Lucas Mix, who is Warden of the North American Chapter of the Religious Order of which I am a member is working on a definition of “life” – a project which is taking on new significance now that we have found water on Mars…

He writes in introduction to a series of posts he’s planning:

I would like to suggest five prominent approaches to how we model life. I do not claim these five ways are exclusive or exhaustive. Rather they are five well worn paths that many have taken in search of the meaning of “life.” Specific models – such as Aristotle’s nutritive soul or Schrodinger’s delayed entropy – can be assessed by the work they do in each approach. Often they will have been designed with one approach in mind and be very successful in that way. Often they will then be appropriated by thinkers to do work in another approach – with mixed success.

Each of the approaches comes associated with a focusing question or two that highlights what I see as a central concern. I hope to better identify the place of these various approaches in specific conversations – for example scientific origin-of-life research or Catholic environmental ethics – as well as global conversations on the definition of life. I will return to these questions at the end with my own concerns – how to search for life in space and how to build healthy relationships between individuals and communities. First though, I hope to improve communication between a wide variety of people with a wide variety of concerns by talking about what may be at stake for them – and for all of us – as we discuss “life” together.

Read more at the source: Lucas’s Weblog | An Ecclesiastical Peculiar

Is there any objective reality at all?

“As measurements improve further, physicists will be left with two possible interpretations of the wavefunction: either the wavefunction is completely real, or nothing is.”

To my mind the fundamental objection to a Quantum reality, from a philosophical perspective, is that it seems to raise the question of if there’s any reality that exists outside of the experience of the observer. In other words, the Universe is only realistic if there’s someone looking.

The classic thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat is the best known illustration of this conundrum. A cat in a closed box and a randomly timed explosive device is, as long as the box is closed, both dead and alive at the same time. It’s only when the box is opened that we “pin” the cat into one state or another.

Most often the weird idea is explained away from having any physical reality by insisting that the whole paradox stems from our incomplete knowledge of the system. In other words, the cat is alive or is dead in the box, but because we can’t see into the box, we’re just writing a mathematical expression that contains our lack of knowledge. There is, goes the argument, an objective reality that exists apart from the observer, even if we can’t perceive it.

But that’s not true according to a new analysis by a team of Australian physicists who have done a detailed analysis of the situation.

They looked closely at the mathematical description of the cat’s state in the box, it’s “wavefunction” and how that function describes reality. The weirdness of Quantum Mechanics is essentially contained in the question of how to interpret and understand how wavefunctions describe reality.

This is what they found:

“‘Our results suggest that, if there is objective reality, the wavefunction corresponds to this reality.’

In other words, Schrödinger’s cat really is in a state of being both alive and dead.

As measurements improve further, physicists will be left with two possible interpretations of the wavefunction: either the wavefunction is completely real, or nothing is.”

More here.

I don’t know which is more interesting. The superposition of life and death, or the denial that there is any objective reality. Both would have profound implications in theology. Both would be a pretty big challenge to classical formulations of the faith, at least as they are typically taught.

(Though those of us who are fans of Karl Barth, who seems to me to be a fan of Meister Eckhart, might see that his fundamental insight about the unknowable reality of God, other than what God wills to reveal to us, could be profoundly useful.)

Anglicanism and Evolution; “show, don’t tell”

What do Anglicans believe about evolution and the relationship between science and faith? That it’s a fantastically interesting conversation with lots for both parties to learn.

With all the talk the last few weeks about Pope Francis’ speech regarding the compatibility of Faith and Evolution, I’ve found myself having to remind numerous people, including media folks, that this is not a new development. What Pope Francis has done, albeit particularly effectively apparently, is reiterate the existing relationship between science and faith, at least from a non-American evangelical viewpoint.

But a number people asked me if Anglicans had anything to say on the matter, and other than a few essays here and there, a book or two, and of course the Catechism of Creation that a group of us are continuing to work on, there hasn’t been much that was accessible to non-specialists.


But that’s changing! A Manchester based group in the UK has a new site up called “God and the Big Bang” that is meant to provide all sorts of resources for secondary education students, and students in post-secondary (college) schools and even professional scientists at the beginning of their career.

The programs (and there are different lectures and events designed for different sorts of audiences) intend to inspire curiosity and encourage young people to think this sort of thing through for themselves:

God and the Big Bang allows young people to ask some of the big questions they usually struggle to find answers to, and hear responses from leading scientists with a wealth of knowledge about, and passion for, both science and theology. With fascinating questions and deeply insightful, respectful and honest answers, this panel session prompts a high level of discussion around science and faith, providing pupils with the opportunity to grapple with current ideas surrounding science and faith, in an inspiring, eye-opening way that helps make the event one that will be remembered by students and teachers alike.

Rather than telling people what to think about the relationship between science and religion, the programs demonstrate how various scientists think about such questions. It’s not a matter of telling, it’s a matter of showing (show, don’t tell” is one of my favorite teaching philosophies).

Keep an eye on the page.

What do Anglicans believe about evolution and the relationship between science and faith? That it’s a fantastically interesting conversation with lots for both parties to learn.

Pursuing the Mystery of Science and Faith – a sermon

I preached this sermon last week at the 2014 Ecumenical Round Table meeting on Science, Technology and the Church meeting in Salt Lake City last week.

A rabbi once told me, in a conversation about faith and science, that God hides the truth from us, and expects us to work, using all of our faculties to find it. That’s a counter to the common understanding of how Science or Theology work, but for those of us who are seekers in both fields, it’s something that we know to be true because we encounter its reality every day of our lives.

I was hoping to call out everyone who lives in both worlds and ask them to be living examples that one could be a believing scientist…

What’s going on with the new data from BICEP?

I’ve seen a number of news reports over the last day talking about the newly announced detection of primordial gravity waves by the BICEP program at the South Pole. Most of them trumpet these results as proving the Big Bang. That’s not what’s going on here.

I’ve seen a number of news reports over the last day talking about the newly announced detection of primordial gravity waves by the BICEP program at the South Pole. Most of them trumpet these results as proving the Big Bang. That’s not what’s going on here.
What’s been found is the first experimental evidence of a theory that’s been widely accepted but never “proved” by primary data, that very early on in the existence of our Universe, space-time expanded at rate far exceeding the speed of light. We don’t really know why that happened, and we don’t really know for sure that it stopped happening, but the fact that it happened was used to explain the relative homogeneity of matter and energy in the early Universe, and the fact that the space-time manifold is nearly flat.

The “nearly flat” part was the motivation for the original idea behind what’s called the “Inflationary epoch” of the Universe. When I was a physics student back in the mid seventies and mid eighties the big push in observational cosmology was to try to determine whether we lived in an open or closed Universe. A closed Universe would have had a overall curvature of space-time that would be “spherical” in a four-dimensional sort of way – like the two-dimensional surface of the earth is curved in a spherical way in three dimensions. An open Universe would have been curved like a saddle shape. A good chunk of my graduate studies were involved in working out some of the basic mathematics of a curved Universe (specifically: finding coordinates under which the Klein Gordon Equation was separable into individual spatial unit vector terms). We talked about the funny but completely unexpected possibility that the Universe was “flat” – and had exactly zero curvature. That was the Euclidean ideal, but no one executed to find it.

Except we did. The data kept coming in and as it got better and more precise, the observed curvature was shown to be about as perfectly flat as anyone could measure.

That was a big surprise. Of all the infinite values that the Universal curvature could be, the odds of it being exactly flat were vanishingly small. Something must have made it that way.

So cosmologists guessed that for some unknown reason the Universe had gotten very very big at some early moment in its history. And that while it was curved in some fashion at the largest scale, we could only observe a very very small portion, and that small portion was so stretched out that it looked flat to us. (That link is from 2011 btw.)

What the BICEP data is showing is something that was expected if Inflation was real, but hadn’t yet been observed, that the would be gravitational perturbations from that early epoch that would still be visible. The discovery of these waves is experimental proof that Inflation happened. So the idea that was invented to solve a puzzle about the flatness of space is now seen to have really happened.

Here’s an excellent sort of technical explanation of what is going on in these observations. (It was posted the evening before the announcement was formally made.)

And here’s a superb(!) explanation of why this might be a very very big deal – we finally have data that takes us back to the very beginning. From this we might be able to say something about what was going on before our Universe was born. Note that I said “our” Universe. Because this almost directly implies (and maybe not almost) that there was something before we were. That’s a big deal.

(I have a book in front of me that argues from these principles and others that the possibility that there is something existence before we were might just give a full physics based reasoning for something we in theology call “eternity” – and maybe even more. I’m reading the book for my Lenten journey. Hope to be able to post on it later.)

Cosmological principle in trouble? Maybe.

There’s been a recent observational challenge. New images of a Large Quasar Group (LQG) show a structure much larger than should be allowed

One of the tools used by people doing cosmology is the assumption that at a certain scale in the Universe, things become isotropic in distribution. In other words, if you look at a big enough sample of the Universe, one part of the Universe should be essentially identical to another.

When we look out at the local section of the Universe, the Milky Galaxy or even our local galactic supercluster, this clearly isn’t true. But, if you zoom out far enough, the local density anisotropy begins to disappear. It’s a matter of practice that when you’re looking at length scales of this magnitude, you are working in the realm where the Cosmological principle holds. Even the massive voids between superclusters seem to be evenly distributed.

Except there’s been a recent observational challenge apparently. New images of a Large Quasar Group (LQG) show a structure much larger than should be allowed:

“Based on the Cosmological Principle and the modern theory of cosmology, calculations suggest that astrophysicists should not be able to find a structure larger than 370 Mpc. Clowes’ newly discovered LQG however has a typical dimension of 500 Mpc. But because it is elongated, its longest dimension is 1200 Mpc (or 4 billion light years) – some 1600 times larger than the distance from the Milky Way to Andromeda.”

(A quasar is now believed to be an early form of the core of an active galaxy – we only see them at extreme distance from the Earth, and thus at a very early moment in the Universe’s history.)

More here.

I’m not current enough in the field to know whether or not this is a major challenge, or merely represents a data point that the models can be adjusted to include. Cosmological data has extremely large error built into as a result of the difficulty inherent in making the observations used to support the models.

As I read this, it’s an error of a little bit more than a factor of 2. That just doesn’t strike me as a sufficient motivation to overturn the principle. (It is a principle representing phenomenological experience, not a formal law after all.)

Neat result though. More data for the models.

What will work and employment become?

Jobs are going away. Even cruddy, dehumanizing jobs of the sort that so many people decried during the height of the Industrial revolution. With no work, and no way to provide for a family’s needs, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing a breakdown in the structures of community.

Matthew Fox, the Episcopal priest, not the actor, is one of the few theologians I know who’s been thinking about the meaning of work and vocation within the larger matrix of an understanding of the purpose of Creation. There’s a sense in his writing, and of others, as well as that of sociologists, that human beings have a deep seated need to do meaningful work.

But there’s a problem lately. Jobs are going away. Even the cruddy, dehumanizing jobs of the sort that so many decried during the height of the Industrial revolution. With no work, and no way to provide for a family’s needs, it’s no wonder that we’re seeing a breakdown in the structures of community.

I came across this article a few months ago that points out that our increasingly sophisticated technology is perhaps driving the change. We need less workers to accomplish what we used to need…

From an essay by David Roffman in the MIT Technology Review that discusses the work of ­Erik Brynjolfsson, from the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Andrew McAfee which focuses on trying to get a handle on the shift:

“[T]he most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress. On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the ‘great decoupling.’ And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

It’s a startling assertion because it threatens the faith that many economists place in technological progress. Brynjolfsson and McAfee still believe that technology boosts productivity and makes societies wealthier, but they think that it can also have a dark side: technological progress is eliminating the need for many types of jobs and leaving the typical worker worse off than before. ­Brynjolfsson can point to a second chart indicating that median income is failing to rise even as the gross domestic product soars. ‘It’s the great paradox of our era,’ he says. ‘Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.’”

More here.

(It’s a long article…)

I think the Church clearly has a need to think this through. What will say to culture when the basic need of the community to provide meaningful work is no longer being met, but we still swim in a cornucopia of material goods that threatens to drown us.

Oddly enough Gene Roddenberry (of Star Trek fame) thought about this in his wondering about the future of humanity. He imagined that technology would commodify most of industrial production – and given a limitless source of energy – no one would want for anything. He imagined that mass produced stuff would lose it’s value. Food stuff, technology, etc would be essentially free. The things that would become valuable would be things that were handcrafted, one of a kind sorts of objects. A violin by a master crafter is much more highly prized than a instrument largely stamped out by machine. A hand thrown pot made by a master ceramicist in Japan is much more precious to us than a vase we pick up at the local big box store for a buck; even though both serve the same essential purpose.

So if technology is fundamentally changing the meaning of work and, I guess by extension, the meaning of vocation, what shall we as the Church contribute to the conversation?

Does anyone know of anyone working in this area of theology?