Monday, 2 February 2009

5 mysteries of the universe

For your amusement, from The Guardian. You'll have to follow the link to read the actual items.
Even today, there are scientific phenomena that defy explanation. If history is anything to go by, resolving these anomalies could lead to a great leap forward, so what are the greatest mysteries, and what scientific revolutions might they bring?

1 The missing universe

2 Life

3 Death

4 Sex

5 Free will

• Michael Brooks is a consultant for New Scientist and the author of 13 Things That Don't Make Sense, published by Profile on Thursday
No. 3 has certainly intrigued me for some time. If evolution is essentially driven by survivability, how come things don't survive terribly long? The reply may be, "They survive long enough to reproduce." But that doesn't seem much of an answer, because surely the longer you survive to reproduce, the more offspring you will have and the more those selfish little genes will be around to replicate. Ipso facto, evolution ought to be favouring the 'survivors' in the longevity stakes and things should be living longer and longer, compared with a few millennia ago.

Yet Psalm 90:10 still applies now as it did then: "The length of our days is seventy years — or eighty, if we have the strength."

I await the book titled, Better off Dead: the evolutionary advantages of death. Meanwhile, answers, as they used to say, on a postcard.

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  1. (Chelmsford)

    I was also interested by point 5. if our brains don't make the decisions, what does? I for one am not hyper-Calvinistic enough to believe that I have no free will at all because every detail of my life was decided by God before the foundation of the world. So are the real decisions being made by our immaterial human spirits? I know Roger Penrose has speculated about mechanisms allowing quantum fluctuations to affect the brain's behaviour. So maybe that is how the spirit's choices affect the body without breaking the laws of physics.

  2. Dear Peter,

    that sounds rather like Calvinism to me. There's no difference with Hypers on that issue.

    Reformedly yours,

    John Foxe (Hertford)

  3. John, are you claiming that Calvinism teaches that human free will is an illusion? I'm sure Jeremy Pierce would disagree with you strongly. He argues, here and here, for compatibilism, that human freedom is real even though from another viewpoint there is determinism. To him this is true Calvinism, and the idea that there is no real human freedom is Hyper-.

  4. "Yet Psalm 90:10 still applies now as it did then: "The length of our days is seventy years — or eighty, if we have the strength.""

    Roman/Egypt Life Expectancy circa 1AD:20-24yrs.
    Approximately 3% made it to 70-80yrs.
    (Bagnall/Bruce W. Frier. The Demography of Roman/Egypt 1994).

    Currently there are 19 countries with an average life expectancy of more than 80yrs.
    (CIA Factbook).
    English women's current life expectancy is >81.5yrs.
    "Taking into account the continued improvements in mortality assumed in the 2006-based principal population projections, life expectancy at birth for those born in 2006 is projected to be 88.1 years for males and 91.5 years for females."

    Average global life expectancy at birth in 1955 was just 48 years; in 1995 it was 65 years; in 2025 it will reach 73 years.

    Do people think that the number of 70-80 in Psalm 90:10 referred to an average or upper limit? If and when we surpass 80 as an average life expectancy who updates the bible??


  5. Donald, I think you're taking the numbers thing a bit too seriously for the purposes of the post, but of course and average can be very misleading when infant mortality rates are very high (as they have been in most cultures until quite recently).

    As to the extension of the 'top end', it is again that we are able to treat life-threatening conditions of old age, rather than to keep people younger longer.

    Despite our best endeavours, however, a ninety year-old today still looks old. Incidentally, in my 30+ years of ministry I have noticed a shift upwards in 'average age' of the people I'm burying of about 7 years. I am sure that much of that, however, is to do with the reduction in smoking-related diseases, especially amongst men. I would not expect the next thirty years to see another upwards shift by the same amount.

  6. Dear Peter,

    who is Jeremy Pierce? I couldn't see any discussion of hyper-Calvinism in his post. I'd equate hyper Calvinisms with issues like whether the gospel is to be preached indiscriminately to all, whether a preparative work of conviction is needed before someone can put their faith in Christ, and whether assurance of salvation (or election) is necessary before faith can be professed.

    I would think that from a compatibilist perspective 'free will' is better 'called genuine choice'. You will forgive me for not having read all 45 posts related to the link you sent me.

    As the WCF V , on providence, puts it

    1. God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

    2. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

    That would seem to cover all the details!

    I'm assuming that you would at least agree that human will is fallen and so not free in the sense of being able to choose good without God's grace being at work so I haven't posted the WCF on that topic.


    John Foxe (Hertford)

  7. John, thanks for replying. Jeremy Pierce is an American blogger who is an expert in philosophy. He is not a recognised authority, but then to me no one and nothing is outside the Bible, and that includes the WCF. But the WCF does seem to allow for free will as a "second cause", which is what is being denied in the Guardian article.

    You could try searching Jeremy's blog for "hyper-calvin" to find his view of it. Or see Jeremy's comments on this post on my blog, where he writes (comment 82341):

    ... 3. The Calvinist holds that God controls events in a stronger way. God works through human hearts and minds to bring about free choices that we’re morally responsible for.
    4. The hyper-Calvinist thinks God causes everything without distinction between different ways of causing and end up denying any kind of human freedom whatsoever.

    This is the kind of distinction I was referring to in previous comments.

    You are wrong in assuming that I believe that the human will is unable to choose good. But then I am not a Calvinist, certainly not of your kind, although my position is only subtly different from Jeremy's. But don't waste your time quoting WCF at me as if that has a higher authority than the Bible which clearly teaches human free will.

  8. The longer an organism lives and reproduces the more likely it is it will pick up environmentally-caused genetic damage which will limit the viability of future offspring. So the benefit of an extended life reduces gradually. Eventually none of your offspring would be viable, and by hanging around consuming resources the methuselah-beast would be actually counter-productive to the survival of its genes.
    Just a thought...

  9. I am convinced that I have no free-will as Mrs B, makes all the decisions but lets me think I do..

    Chris Bishop

  10. Dear John,
    I think you misunderstood.
    I'm not asking a theologian his opinion on statistics or demographics. Unless Ugley has had a famine or war I missed you can only have buried a few hundred people and you don't appear to have kept notes. This does not 'Trump' national or world statistics.
    "The plural of anecdote is not evidence".
    You put the quote out as 'relevant' I merely respond that it is out of date.
    The question I ask this site for guidance on is: Can no-one update the bible?
    The Apochrapha lie on the biblical cutting room floor. The Gnostic books have not been included. Therefore there have been decisions as to what not to include.

    Currently I have been advised not to take Genesis literally, and the numbers seriously. I am currently left with a book full of punctuation ;o)


  11. David,

    I think we're actually 'singing from the same hymn sheet' on the ages thing. You pointed out that average life-spans have increased in some countries (though they have decreased in others, especially sub-Saharan Africa). I commented that I have observed this even in the last thirty years regarding the ages of people I've buried. With respect, I'm probably more in touch with this aspect of life than most people, but I'm just saying yes, people are living longer.

    However, I would also suggest this longevity is asymptotic. That is to say, it gradually approaches an upper limit. People will not live ten years longer in this century, ten years longer in the next, and so on, any more than runners will get faster until they can do a thirty-second mile, just because a four-minute mile is no longer considered exceptional.

    As to the Bible, the quote is simply to reflect an observation - people lived so long, and no longer. Today, to make the same point we might up the figures by a decade, but the point is the same.

    As to the Gnostic books, they are much too late to have been considered part of the New Testament. They were not included in the Bible because they didn't come on the scene until much later than our biblical books and reflect quite a different spiritual tradition, despite using Bible 'characters'.

    Similarly, the Apocrypha were never part of the Jewish Scriptures. The Jewish historian Josephus shows that the Jews were quite clear on the distinction between 'Scripture' and 'other writings'.

    A book I would suggest is John Dickson's
    The Christ Files - How historians know what they know about Jesus.

  12. Dear Peter,

    I think my reply got lost in the ether.

    I searched Pierce's blog and the only hit I got left me with the distinct impression that he is not very aware of what Calvinism actually is. Consequently my point remains that the issue he raises is not one where Calvinists and Hyper-Calvinists disagree. No primary references have been provided to demonstrate it is an issue between them and a commonly used web article on their differences does not include it as one of the issues that do distinguish them

    The WCF definitely rejects 'free will' as being able to choose good or evil amongst fallen humans. It also affirms that God, in his providence, orders all things.

    I am also a bit surprised you think I am wasting my time quoting the WCF. After all, you asked a question about what Calvinists believe and one can hardly answer the questions without quoting the Reformed confessions.

    And no, I don't believe the Bible teaches free will. Although the Bible's authority is above that of the Confessions, the Confessions do also have an authority as they set out what the Bible teaches. But here we digress from your initial query...


    JF. (Hertford)

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  14. John F, I agree that the WCF is an authority on what Calvinism teaches, but not for what I should believe. Perhaps Jeremy doesn't know as much about Calvinism as he claims to. But then I wonder if there is any generally accepted definition of hyper-Calvinism except along the lines of "more extreme than I am"; in Johnson's words many "unthinkingly slap the label "hyper" on any variety of Calvinism that is higher than the view they hold to".

    But I note that even Johnson whom you refer to quotes from Toon's definition of hyper-Calvinism "acutely minimizing the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners", which is of course a corollary of denying free will. Johnson also denies that hyper-Calvinism is "a mechanistic determinism" by refuting the mechanistic part, implying that it is determinism.

    I don't accept that the WCF denies free will, for, in the passage you quoted it states "he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently." (my emphasis)

  15. Dear Peter,

    thank you for your reply and yes, it is easy, and wrong, to label anything to the right of one as hyper! Of course, since you are an Anglican I recognise you aren't bound by the WCF. I am pleased to see you do think you are bound by scripture but it would be nice to add the 39 Articles to that too to avoid charges of Anabaptism ;)

    The issue you raised entered the metaphysical realm of how God's sovereignty is compatible with free will. Calvinists do deny libertarian free will but firmly hold onto real human responsibility and culpability for choices that are made. There is certainly a strand of hyper-Calvinism that tends to fatalism, that sees God's election as nullifying the responsibility of the sinner to use the means of grace in order to seek salvation. However, going back to your original question there is no difference between Calvinists and hyper-Calvinists on whether God has determined everything that happens.

    Here's the chapter from the WCF (it's short) on free will for ease of reference. I'll have to do a bit of hunting but I'm not sure that the 'freely' terminology you are pointing to refers to 'free will' as such.

    Of Free Will
    1. God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.

    2. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it.

    3. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.

    4. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by his grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.

    5. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone, in the state of glory only.


    JF. (Hertford)

  16. John, Article VI of the 39 explicitly states that I should not be required to believe anything outside of Scripture. So I can be a good Anglican without believing these Articles, even if that also makes me an Anabaptist.

    I think paragraph 1 of your chapter clearly makes the point that, according to the WCF, the human will is free and not "by any absolute necessity of nature, determined". And although according to WCF (I do not agree here) part of that free will was lost at the fall, I don't think this is teaching that it was replaced by absolute determinism. Anyway it clearly states that the believer has by grace been given back the full extent of the original free will.