Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Weekend before Christmas

I am busy preparing the different orders of service for tomorrow. The following is another Christmas sermon I preached a few years ago.  It was on Christmas Eve when we get a lot of visitors and so I was trying to enagage with people who might not yet be Christians, but who were interested enough to turn up.  I have to say it was not appreciated by some of the regulars, but did seem to interest some of the younger memebers of the congregation in their teens.  See what you think!

Design: The Existence of God
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I used to teach a very simple introduction to the Philosophy of Religion.  One of the essential parts of this was to examine the traditional arguments for the existence of God.  There are several, classic arguments that have been used in an attempt to prove or establish the existence of God.  One of them, however, has caused the greatest exasperation.  Perhaps I can attempt to explain it now.  Please forgive me if you know it already. 
It was first developed by St Anselm, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the twelfth century.  Anselm began by asking what we mean by God.  Most people think of God as the greatest possible Being: ‘than which nothing greater can be conceived’.  This surely seems reasonable.  This does not mean that we believe he, she or it exists just that if we want a God at all, and especially if we want one we can worship, then he, she or it needs to be pretty special. 
Now, said St Anselm, a Being that does exist is greater than a Being that does not exist.  Again, that sounds logical.   However, said Anselm, if God’s the greatest, and existence is greater than non-existence, God, logically, must exist.  Most students feel this cannot be true, without being able to say exactly why, and feel somewhat frustrated as a result. 
I had a similar feeling recently as my students must have had when reading an article by Nick Bostrom.  He is the British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy at Oxford University, and writes extensively about the philosophy of science.  In what is an important article, he puts forward a significant philosophical argument.  Let me try it out on you.  This is my version of it and all errors are mine!  Let me begin with three questions. 
Firstly, do you think that we will continue to develop ever more powerful computers?  I think we probably will.  There is a saying that the moment you buy a computer it becomes obsolete.  
Secondly, do we want to develop ever more realistic computer games?  Well, yes, the answer to that seems to be that we do.  Take for example, SIMS 2.  Let me read the manufacturer’s description to you: 
‘In the The Sims™ 2, you direct your Sims over a lifetime and mix their genes from one generation to the next.  You set your Sims' goals in life; popularity, fortune, family, romance or knowledge.  Give them a long, successful existence or leave their lives in shambles.  Take them to extremes, from getting busted to seeing a ghost, from marrying an alien to writing a great novel.  Unleash your creativity with the all-new Create-A-Sim, new building options, and the new in-game movie camera. Get ready to mix their genes, fulfill their dreams, and push them to extremes.  What do you want to do with your Sims' lives?' 
Thirdly, how do you know you are not in a computer simulation?  We may prefer not describe it as a game, but how do you know that you are not part of a computer generated virtual world? 
Bostrom argues that we will continue to develop ever more powerful computers and that there is at least a possibility that the human race will survive to build very powerful computers indeed. 
He also argues that we would like to simulate reality. 
So, he asks, how do we know that another race has not got there already, before us, and we are the product of their success?  To put it another way, are we a version of the SIMS, a computer game, or, if you prefer, a simulation? 
By now you may be thinking that the pressure of Christmas has got a bit too much for me.  So it is worth asking you how many of you will be watching one of the Matrix Trilogy this Christmas.  The Matrix is after all based on such a story line.  And yes, I agree it could all be dismissed as science fiction were it not for the fact that scientists at the cutting edge of scientific research are also arguing just this. 
It is relatively easy to dismiss philosophers such as Bostrom.  Philosophers are known for playing mind games.  Personally, I think that Bostrom weakens his case by saying that being in a simulation should not make any difference to us.  He tells us that he has had people, who have read his article, writing to him in support claiming to have seen pixels in their bathroom mirrors.  Bostrom just dismisses such people as mad as you may wish to dismiss him. 
However, when the person suggesting that we are a simulation is the Royal Society Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge University, that is, Sir Martin Rees   Things get a little more serious.  He has said recently on British television (in a UK Channel 4 television programme): 
‘Over a few decades, computers have evolved from being able to simulate only very simple patterns to being able to create virtual worlds with a lot of detail. 
If that trend were to continue, then we can imagine computers which will be able to simulate worlds perhaps even as complicated as the one we think we’re living in. 
This raises the philosophical question: could we ourselves be in such a simulation and could what we think is the universe be some sort of vault of heaven rather than the real thing.  In a sense we could be ourselves the creations within this simulation.’ 
We are not now dealing with philosophers and their seemingly mad ideas.  We are in the case of Sir Martin dealing with one of the very best scientists in the world.  Why should such scientists have such fantastic ideas?  Well, it is all to do with a question that scientists find hard to answer. 
Why is the universe so friendly to producing life on earth? 
Scientists are at a loss to explain why the laws of nature have been written to enable you and me to emerge. 
I freely admit to not being a scientist, but take an example all are agreed upon.  Carbon.  Carbon is the basis of all life.  But carbon was not in the Big Bang that most scientists believe gave birth to the universe.  Instead, carbon has been cooked inside giant stars that have exploded and spewed soot all over the universe.  However, the process that generates carbon is a delicate nuclear reaction.  If the force that holds atomic nuclei together were just a tiny bit stronger or a tiny bit weaker, the reaction would not have worked properly and life may never have happened. 
The late scientist and astronomer, Fred Hoyle, was so struck by the coincidence that he described the Universe as a ‘put up job’.  But put up by whom or what? 
All this is somewhat new to the scientists.  Theologians and philosophers, however, have been wrestling with precisely these sort of questions for millennia.  For in addition to Anselm’s argument, which maybe does not convince, there have been others, which perhaps do.  Theologians, many centuries ago, noticing the incredible design of the universe argued that design implied designer in other words: GOD. 
To put it another way: if you walked out of the church tonight and found an instrument like a watch lying in the car park, you would not conclude it was the chance product of a gust of wind while you were in church.  No.  Things as complex as that have to be made.  For most of the 20th century, philosophers and scientists tried to resist the logic of this argument.  In a famous quote, Nietzsche, who died at the 20th century’s beginning, announced: ‘God is dead.’  To which has been made the wonderful response: ‘Nietzsche is dead.  God.’  
Now, however, it is scientists, not just philosophers and theologians, who are having to wrestle with design and its implications.  The Sydney Morning Herald in printing a report about scientists believing that we are in a computer simulation commented: 
‘Isn’t it amazing that scientists have finally had to admit that the design of the universe is so perfectly crafted so as to indicate intelligent design and yet they still try to avoid any explanation which includes the word God.’ 
Now I would not normally see the Sydney Morning Herald as an authority on these sort of issues, but I must admit that this seems to be bang on target. 
Indeed, I would suggest that rather than seeing the death of God, the 20th century ended with God very much alive, and that now at the beginning of the 21st century, it is atheism that has the intellectual problem.  One of the philosophers who championed atheism the most in the 20th century was a university professor of philosophy called Anthony Flew.  He has just announced at the age of 81 that he has been wrong all his academic life and that he does now believe in a god.  It is worth quoting him: 
‘I have been persuaded that it is simply out of the question that the first living matter evolved out of dead matter and then developed into an extraordinarily complicated creature.’ 
Frankly, if the choice is between a computer simulation and God to explain the complex design of the universe, then call me old-fashioned, but I am going with God.  Nevertheless, there is still a problem.  If, as Flew now thinks, there is a God, does not that make communicating with this God, the most important question there is? 
Strangely, one of the most popular books of the 20th century was Douglas Adam’s, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  It was the fourth most popular book on the BBC’s list of the top 100 books in English.  It is at present being made into a film.  In it, a computer, called Deep Thought, is asked the answer to the ultimate question of ‘life, the universe and everything’.  It comes up with the answer 42.  It is then they realize that they have to find out what the ultimate question is to which the answer is 42.  To do this, Deep Thought designs another computer greater than him.  That computer is the earth.  Unfortunately, the earth gets destroyed before it can give the question. 
Let me tell you tonight: the question and answer to the secret of life, the universe and everything is God.  Everything else is commentary. 
St Paul, quoting the Greek philosophers, said: ‘for in him we live and move and have our being.’  (Acts 17:28)  And as for communicating with him, we need not worry.  He has taken the initiative and communicated with us.  And that is what tonight is all about.  It is what we are here to celebrate: 
            ‘O holy night, the stars are brightly shining.
            It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.’ 
For God did not just design the universe and leave it to get on with it, keeping an eye on it as we might keep an eye on a computer programme, nor does he play with it as we would with a computer game.  In a passage of sublime poetry, philosophy, and theology, St John tells us: 
 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came in to being.’ 
Yet St John goes on to tell us: 
‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us …’ 
The designer has become part of the design.  We see the face of God in the face of a baby and the meaning of life lying in a manger.  St Cyril of Alexandria, a theologian in the fifth century wrote: 
‘… but we say that the Son of God , while visible to the eyes, and a babe in swaddling clothes, and still at the breast of his Virgin Mother, filled all creation as God …’ 
This is the staggering message of Christmas.  The cards, the trees, the parties, the presents, the food and the drink all fade into insignificance in the light of this amazing truth.  In the person of this baby lies the answer to all my questions, all my hopes and fears, all my longings and aspirations.  He is the meaning of everything.  O holy night, indeed! 
But there is a twist.  For on this most holy night, God wants now to ask you a question.  What is your response to this amazing event?  Philosophers, theologians, and scientists may each question God, but tonight God in the form of this baby in the manger questions each one of us and demands a response.  It is the most important question we will ever be asked, and our answer to this divine questioning will be the most important answer we have ever had to give. 
This is not a baby about whom God will allow us to remain neutral.  We can dismiss him as many were to do during his life on earth or we can believe in Him.  To those who believe in him, God offers the greatest of Christmas gifts: 
‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God …’ 
What is offered to us is a relationship with not only the Designer of the Universe, but the One who sustains it and keeps it in being.  It is the chance of a lifetime and may only come once in a lifetime.  It must not be ignored.  Tonight, for our sake, heaven and earth meet in Bethlehem and extend their presence to us here: 
    O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

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