Posted by: gcarkner | November 14, 2014

International Christmas Dinner, November 29

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Posted by: gcarkner | November 10, 2014

Two Ways of Seeing Reality

Two Different Philosophical Approaches to Seeing the World

For a deeper understanding/grasp of the relationship between reason and faith, it is helpful to understand the impact of two distinct ways of engaging the world intellectually and philosophically: epistemological and hermeneutical. They constitute two different set of glasses as shown by philosopher Charles Taylor. These two perspectives emerged as a helpful talking point in a recent lecture on Middle European History at St. John’s College, UBC. A Rice University professor of Polish descent had a vastly different perspective to those who favored the German or British way of seeing this post-World War 2 history. They had two radically different ways of seeing the issues related to the emergence of middle Europe after the cold war.

  1. Epistemological Approach (Descartes, Locke, Hume). The set of priority relations within this picture often tends towards a closed world position (CWS). Its assumptions include the following:
  • Knowledge of self and its status comes before knowledge of the world (things) and others.
  • Knowledge of reality is a neutral fact before we (the self) attribute value to it.
  • Knowledge of things of the natural order comes before any theoretical invocations or any transcendence (which is thereby problematized, doubted or repressed). This approach tends to write transcendence out of the equation.

 Within the Epistemological View, the individual is primary and certainty is within the mind. The self is an independent, disengaged subject reflexively controlling its own thought processes, self-responsibly. The oft-presumed neutrality of this view is in question. The way of seeing is in fact a heavily value-laden approach or posture. It offers a whole construction of identity and society with its own distinctive priorities and values. Read More…

Posted by: gcarkner | November 9, 2014

Learning from The Great War

War? What is it Good For?…

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This year 2014 marks the hundred-year anniversary of the start of World War I, the conflict that introduced industrial-scale carnage to the world. Never before had science and technology—the mortars, machine guns, tanks, barbed wire and poison gas—conspired so effectively to destroy humans and nature, and effectively to disillusion a whole generation. Ten million soldiers died; twice as many more were wounded or disfigured. Civilians also suffered terribly. The so-called Great War called into question popular beliefs about human progress, morality and religion. It brought in its trail mass disillusionment. Yet for two extraordinary authors and friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the war deepened their moral and spiritual convictions. Both fought in the trenches on the Western Front and used their experiences to shape their Christian imagination. The pair met in 1926 as young scholars at Oxford University and went on to produce epic stories of heroism. Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Lewis earned fame for “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a series of children’s books now considered classics. Their tales are fundamentally about a cosmic struggle between good and evil—a theme radically out of step with the cynical and fatalistic spirit of their age. The authors’ use of fantasy is not an escape but a steely realism that captures the human predicament. The stories, combining both tragedy and hope, have fired the imagination of a whole generation. It is a truly courageous and inspiring narrative.

  Read More…

Posted by: gcarkner | November 5, 2014

C.S. Lewis Summer in Oxbridge

Videos of Lewis Summer Institute 2014


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Posted by: gcarkner | November 3, 2014

Brainy Foods for Postgraduate Students

Brain Foods for Grad Student Health

beyond coffee

The brain is important for cognitive function and mental health. When compared to the rest of the body, the brain consumes an immense amount of energy. It is the body’s first organ to absorb nutrients from the food we eat. Dietary factors can affect multiple brain processes by regulating neurotransmitter pathways, synaptic transmission, membrane fluidity and signal transduction pathways.1 The following nutrients are important for brain health.

Dr. Andrea Goldson, PhD graduate of UBC in Food Science 2012,

Programme Coordinator, M Sc, Food & Agro Processing Technology at University of the West Indies, Jamaica

Read More…

Posted by: gcarkner | October 28, 2014

Recentering the Self

Loss of Center: the Shifty Identity of Nihilism

In a recent viewing of the PBS film Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen, one is reminded of the struggle of the young, highly educated woman struggling for her identity. First she is imprisoned in the Tower of London by her Catholic half-sister who has married Philip of Spain and wants to turn England back to the Catholic faith. This is a bloody time of burning Protestant leaders such as Ridley, Cranmer and Latimer at the stake. You can stand on the spot where it happened in the Broad Street in the heart of Oxford. Elizabeth is accused of conspiracy. This experience in prison helps shape her; she endures humiliation with strength and dignity even though she is King Henry VIII’s daughter (from Anne Boleyn).

Then her half-sister dies suddenly and she is thrust into the royal court to become sovereign of the country. The power struggles begin with her counsellors and advisors and several plots to assassinate her and take over the country. The counsellors want a strategic marriage as quickly as possible, in order to consolidate their power  as much as hers. Her other sister, Mary Queen of Scots, is also a threat, so she must be imprisoned in Dublin Castle. She both loves and fears Mary. Her big decision is to remain single, the virgin queen, and “have no man rule over me”. She manages to consolidate her power and fight off the Spanish Armada and rule for a full lengthy forty years. In all of this, she must find her true centre; she can ill afford to waffle; she needs trusted advisors who will speak truth to power. She has to know who she is and what virtues she stands for, if she is to lead her country, serve it well and defend herself from several plots and conspiracies. It is a time of both chivalry and treachery, honour and manipulation. She leaves a legacy, lives large, and wins the hearts of her subjects, establishing Elizabethan England for posterity. Read More…

Posted by: gcarkner | October 16, 2014

Peter Harrison’s Brilliant Insight on History of Science

Think Again about the History of Science with Oxford Scholar Peter Harrison

Posted by Philosopher   for the Colossians Forum on December 5, 2011       Reposted here with some edits and additions by gcarkner Oct 16, 2014

A common myth about modern science is what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “a subtraction story.”  According to this widespread myth, scientific enlightenment was a triumph over religious belief.  The relationship between the two is construed as dichotomous: either reason or faith; either science or theology.   In short: more science, less religion.

This myth has been roundly criticized as a false dichotomy (consider, for example, Alvin Plantinga’s most recent book,Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism).  More importantly, historians of science have pointed out that this false dichotomy is simply not true to how science emerged in the West.  Far from being a detriment to scientific exploration, a number of scholars have pointed out that it was precisely Christian theological concepts–and especially those that emerged during the Protestant Reformation–that propelled empirical investigation of nature.  So science wasn’t a way to lose one’s faith; it was Christian faith that compelled scientific exploration.  We shouldn’t simply confuse the history of science with the rise of naturalism.

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 4.37.21 AMHowever, the story is complicated and complex.  And no one helps us appreciate that more than Peter Harrison, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.  A historian of science with training in philosophy and theology, Harrison has an uncanny ability to appreciate the theological nuances at stake in emergence of science in the seventeenth century–and how this was informed by theological shifts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Harrison is not content to generically speak of “religion;” he zooms in to consider the specifics of different Christian theological traditions and their impact on the emergence of what we now call “science.”

For example, in his masterful book, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Harrison deftly shows how it was a shift in biblical hermeneutics that gave rise to a very different way of “reading” nature that we now associate with the scientific method.  In The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge University Press, 2007), drawing on careful analysis of theological and scientific texts, Harrison argues that what motivated close empirical investigation of nature was a deep sense of how much how knowledge had been corrupted by the Fall. In both of these studies, Harrison goes beyond simple notions of a Creator to explore the specific theological doctrines that impacted the emergence of science in the West.  Indeed, his work has influenced us here at The Colossian Forum and we encourage folks to acquaint themselves with Harrison’s work.  And in some ways, we see our emphasis on the specific riches of the Christian theological tradition for engaging science as an extension of his work.

Peter Harrison holds a PhD from the University of Queensland and Master’s degrees from Yale and Oxford. He began his academic career at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast, where for a number of years he was Professor of History and Philosophy. In 2006 he was elected Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. During his time at Oxford he was Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre and a Fellow of Harris Manchester College. In 2011 he assumed directorship of the Centre of the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland. A Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, he was a recipient of a Centenary Medal in 2003. He was the 2011 Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and is a Senior Research Fellow in the Ian Ramsey Centre at Oxford. In 2013 he received a DLitt from the University of Oxford.

Harrison is best known for a number of influential writings on religion and the origins of modern science. He has argued that changing approaches to the interpretation of the bible had a significant impact on the development of modern science. He has also suggested that the biblical story of the Fall played a key role in the development of experimental science. His earlier work traces changing conceptions of religion in the West. Harrison contends that the idea of religions as sets of beliefs and practices emerged for the first time in the seventeenth century.

Major Publications

See also Colossian Forum Science, Faith and Culture


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Posted by: gcarkner | October 11, 2014

The Genius of David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart May One of the Most Brilliant Philosophers Alive Today

David Bentley Hart

He is an editor of First Things Journal, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and cultural commentator. Hart earned his BA from the University of MarylandMPhil from the University of Cambridge, and MA and PhD from the University of Virginia. He has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota)Duke Divinity School, and Loyola College in Maryland. He was most recently a visiting professor at Providence College, where he also previously held the Robert J. Randall Chair in Christian Culture. On 27 May 2011, Hart’s book Atheist Delusions was awarded the Michael Ramsey Prize in Theology. As a patristics scholar, Hart is especially concerned with the Greek tradition, with a particular emphasis on Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor. His writings on such figures are distinctive in that they are not cast in the mould of typical patristics scholarship; Hart is quite willing, for instance, to use Maximus as a “corrective” to Heidegger’s “history of Being”. The emphasis is very much on ideas and “deep readings”, which seek to wrest from ancient texts insights that might fruitfully be brought into living contact with contemporary questions. Issues of the Scottish Journal of Theology and New Blackfriars have devoted special space to his work.

As a cultural critic, Hart has a brilliant ability to cut to the heart of current debates on God, meaning, the history of faith, aesthetics, and the postmodern condition.



  • The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven: Yale University Press: 2013. (a brilliant volume which critiques naturalism and promotes a fresh understanding of God).
  • The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans: 2012.
  • Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. (award winner challenge to historical revisions of Christian influence on Western culture)
  • In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans: 2008.
  • The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith. London: Quercus: 2007.
  • The Doors of the Sea. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans: 2005.
  • The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans: 2003.

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“Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the only truly substantial value at the center of the social universe: the price tag.”
“Empiricism in the sciences is a method; naturalism in philosophy is a metaphysics; and the latter neither follows from nor underlies the former.”
“It is only because a dreamer has temporarily lost the desire to turn his eyes toward more distant horizons that he believes he inhabits a reality perfectly complete in itself, in need of no further explanation. He does not see that this secondary world rests upon no foundations, has no larger story, and persists as an apparent unity only so long as he has forgotten how to question its curious omissions and contradictions.”


  • Response to critiques of The Beauty of the Infinite by Francesca Murphy and John A. McGuckin, Scottish Journal of Theology 60 (February 2007): 95-101.
  • “Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark”First Things 169 (January 2007).
  • Contribution to Theology as Knowledge: A SymposiumFirst Things 163 (May 2006): 21-27.
  • “The Lively God of Robert Jenson”First Things 156 (October 2005): 28-34.
  • “The Anti-Theology of the Body”The New Atlantis 9 (Summer 2005): 65-73.
  • “The Soul of a Controversy”The Wall Street Journal (April 1, 2005).
  • “Tsunami and Theodicy”First Things 151 (March 2005): 6-9.
  • “The Laughter of the Philosophers”First Things 149 (January 2005): 31-38. A review loosely structured around The Humor of Kierkegaard by Thomas C. Oden, containing a long excursus on Johann Georg Hamann.
  • “God or Nothingness” in I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments Carl E. Braaten and Christopher Seitz, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005: 55-76.
  • “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy” in Reason and the Reasons of Faith. Reinhard Hütter and Paul J. Griffiths, eds. London: T. & T. Clark, 2005: 55-76.
  • “Tremors of Doubt”The Wall Street Journal (December 31, 2004). This article was the seed for the book The Doors of the Sea.
  • “Ecumenical Councils of War”Touchstone (November 2004).
  • “The Pornography Culture”The New Atlantis 6 (Summer 2004): 82-89.
  • “Freedom and Decency”First Things 144 (June/July 2004): 35-41.
  • “An Orthodox Easter”The Wall Street Journal (April 9, 2004) (in “Houses of Worship”).
  • “Religion in America: Ancient & Modern”, The New Criterion (March 2004).
  • “A Most Partial Historian”First Things 138 (December 2003): 34-41. A review of Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England Volume III: Accommodations by Maurice Cowling.
  • “Christ and Nothing”First Things 136 (October 2003): 47-57.
  • “The Bright Morning of the Soul: John of the Cross on Theosis”, Pro Ecclesia (Summer 2003): 324-45.
  • “Thine Own of Thine Own: the Orthodox Understanding of Eucharistic Sacrifice” in Rediscovering the Eucharist: Ecumenical Considerations Roch A. Kereszty, ed. (Paulist Press, 2003): 142-169.
  • “A Gift Exceeding Every Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo“, Pro Ecclesia 7.3: 333-348.
  • “The Mirror of the Infinite: Gregory of Nyssa on the Vestigia Trinitatis“, Modern Theology 18.4 (October 2002): 542-56
  • “No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility”, Pro Ecclesia (Spring 2002): 184-206.
  • Contribution to The Future of the Papacy: A SymposiumFirst Things 111 (March 2001): 28-36.
  • “The ‘Whole Humanity’: Gregory of Nyssa’s Critique of Slavery in Light of His Eschatology”, Scottish Journal of Theology 54.1 (2001): 51-69.
  • “Analogy” in Elsevier Concise Encyclopaedia of Religion and Language (Elsevier Press, 2001).
  • “The Writing of the Kingdom: Thirty-Seven Aphorisms towards an Eschatology of the Text”, Modern Theology (Spring 2000): 181-202.
  • “Matter, Monism, and Narrative: An Essay on the Metaphysics of Paradise Lost” Milton Quarterly (Winter 1996): 16-27.

Dr. Richard Johns, PhD Philosophy of Science UBC 

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Department of Philosophy, Langara College

Can Physical Systems be Creative?

Tuesday, October 21 at 4:00 p.m.

Woodward (IRC) Room 5 (UBC Gate One)



There are many arguments against materialism that take the general form: “Materialism is false because it cannot account for X”, where X might be consciousness, rational understanding, human free will, or the evolution of life.  Such arguments are advanced today by philosophers such as Thomas Nagel, David Chalmers and Alvin Plantinga.  Dr. Johns sees the last two arguments as linked, since free will and evolution both require creativity, in a sense that seems to be incompatible with both determinism and randomness (or a combination of them).  In this talk our speaker will define what it means for a process to be creative, and show that free will and biological evolution (as well as engineering) require creativity in this sense.  He will then look at arguments that material systems cannot be creative, and consider objections to them.


Dr. Richard Johns was born in the UK, and did his undergraduate training in mathematics and engineering before switching to logic and philosophy of science in graduate school.  He moved to Vancouver, B.C. to finish his PhD in philosophy at UBC.  Since then he taught philosophy courses at UBC and SFU before accepting a permanent position at Langara College.  His main research interest concerns the objective meaning of “probability”, as used in physical theories, which is the topic of his book, A Theory of Physical Probability (U. of T. Press, 2002).   He is also interested in the limits of self-organisation in physics, the question of whether material systems can have understanding, the possibility of free will in a material universe, and the recent emergence of “safety” as an overriding moral imperative.

 Possible Reading: Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies; Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos; David Chalmers, The Character of Consciousness (2010). Oxford University Press; David Chalmers, Constructing The World (2012) Oxford University Press.

See also blog post Ghost in the Machine; and Can we make peace between reason and faith?


Summary of the Argument: Can Matter be Creative?  by Richard Johns

It is commonplace to compare living organisms to human technology. William Paley, for example, compared organisms to watches, in virtue of containing parts with obvious purposes that meshed together to produce a functioning whole. Richard Dawkins compared bats to spy planes, bristling with advanced technology. Also note that biologists consider human technologies such as cell phones and airplanes to be products of evolution, since their creators are themselves such products.

While life and technology are similarly functional, their origins are thought to be very different. The development of new technologies requires that engineers understand the problem to be solved, and have knowledge of physical laws, the properties of materials, and so on. In short, creative engineering requires understanding. This is especially crucial when solving very difficult problems, which may take many generations of engineers. The Wright brothers, smart fellows though they were, could not have made a supersonic jet. Solving the problem of supersonic flight required a long cumulative process of somewhat gradual improvements, involving many people, who each had to understand the successes as well as the limitations of earlier designs.

Evolution on the other hand is not an intentional process, according to the standard evolutionary theory (SET). (SET refers rather loosely to contemporary versions of the ‘Modern Synthesis’, or ‘Neo-Darwinism’, developed in the 1940s by Fisher, Haldane, Wright, etc.) Evolution is a purely physical process on this view, and no thought or understanding is involved, until perhaps humans arrive on the scene. Nevertheless evolution is often described as a ‘creative’ process, on account of the fantastic technologies it has produced. I will argue, however, that no physical process can be creative in the required sense.

Engineers have, we might say, a ‘bias’ towards functional structures. If you produced a vast number of structures randomly, all with the same probability, very few of them would be functional. Very few would ‘do something useful’, such as walking, swimming, flying, detecting remote objects, producing light, generating electric currents, etc. Random processes are therefore unlikely to produce anything functional. Engineers however don’t produce objects randomly. They’re much more likely to produce a functional object than a random process would be.

Can physical processes have a similar bias toward functional structures? Evolutionary biologists say, “Yes indeed!” (Richard Dawkins is especially clear on this point.) Were this not the case, evolution – a physical process – could never have produced the complex life we see around us in so short a time.

Here’s the difficulty. The process of evolution must have a strong bias toward making new functional structures, or it cannot explain life as we find it. On the other hand, the laws of physics themselves have no bias toward functionality. The laws of physics are very simple and symmetric, and have been shown to produce only objects that are either simple and repetitive, or complex but random-looking and haphazard (or a mixture of the two). Such objects are never functional to any significant degree. A bias toward functionality arises only, SET claims, with the first appearance of a self-replicating entity, whose descendants differ from one another in minor ways. This leads to a struggle for existence, a competition for resources among these variants, and an automatic ‘selection’ of the more functional types.

So SET is committed to four claims:

  1. (i)  The laws of physics have no bias toward producing ‘technology’, or functional structures.
  2. (ii)  The process of evolution, which begins with the appearance of self-replicators, has a strong bias toward functionality.
  3. (iii)  Evolution is a purely physical process.
  4. (iv)  The spontaneous appearance of a self-replicator may be improbable, but it isn’t fantastically improbable (or evolution would require a miracle to get going).

The conjunction of these claims is however in conflict with probability theory. The first claim entails that complex life is fantastically improbable relative to the laws of physics, too improbable to be a realistic possibility, even in billions of years. (In the Markov chain formalism that can be used to represent a physical system, it has very low ‘stationary probability’.) If this probability becomes much larger, upon the appearance of a self-replicator, then probability theory tells us that the appearance of a self-replicator must also be fantastically improbable, contradicting claim (iv) above. In technical language, if Prob(A) is some low number , but Prob(A | B) is some much larger value q, then Prob(B) is no greater than /q. In effect, the probabilities of events in a physical system are fixed by the laws of physics, and the initial state, and cannot change much thereafter. For an improbable event to become probable, an equally improbable event must occur first.

There is no possible escape to this problem, as long as the probability of functional organisms is indeed very low at the beginning of time. But to drop this assumption (i) commits us to the view that the laws of physics themselves have a very strong bias toward functional objects, including computers and bicycles. Apart from there being no evidence for this at all (and much opposing evidence), it would seem to remove the need for SET in the first place.

In summary, if evolution is a physical process, then it can produce living organisms only if the laws of physics and initial state are ‘pre-programmed’ (so to speak) to do so. There is no question of a physical process creating such a disposition toward technology on its own. Physical systems, whether deterministic or not, are ruled by their laws and initial conditions.





Posted by: gcarkner | October 2, 2014

The Leverage of Language in Late Modernity

Leverage Your Language; Empower Your Life

Language and text is a key focus of attention in late modernity. Students in the arts, humanities and social sciences think much in terms of language, sign, signifier, and signified. We envy the great poets and prophets who possess acute skill in word craft, the storyteller who can enthrall. Many university writers long to capture that brilliant articulate grasp of things, to enhance the capacity of their grammar, rhetoric, and story telling skill. Scholarship require that we express ourselves in the language of our discipline, that we are able to drill down into the language of a text. Language is power in university, commerce and society at large. Immigrants quickly realize that they are quite vulnerable without competence in the language of their new country; in Quebec or Belgium many have to master two new languages. We are homo linguisticus; language is essential to our very human and cultural survival.

Academics collect millions of words, analyze them, compare them, translate and decipher them. Libraries brim with millions of books, journals and periodicals, electronic articles. The final dissertation in one’s PhD needs to be very carefully written; editing the final draft can take many hours and weeks, even months. We make a ‘close reading of the text’ in order to have credibility in our analytical work. There is language or semiotics also in DNA within a cell—3.5 billion base pairs code for life. But academics also deconstruct or dethrone the language of those whose perspective they oppose, or a previous regnant philosophical regime they hope to depose. Or we can actually trivialize language by reducing it to mere games that get played at English seminars or colloquiums—this can become a form of clever nihilism. Words, signs and symbols are major currency of universities in all fields. If one transfers fields, a whole new vocabulary has to be mastered. Philosophers and lawyers are very fond of language, logic and grammar; wording is critical in a merger contract or a peace agreement. Read More…

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