Tag Archives: theologians

Is the Universe Absurd?

December 2015 Pulse

In an interesting essay published in 1998, the well-known Australian populariser of science Paul Davies asks a provocative question: ‘Is the Universe Absurd?’

In crafting his answer, Davies begins by pointing out the marvellous things about our universe that scientists have uncovered but could not fully explain. He mentions the rational way in which the universe appears to be ordered, the intelligibility of nature and what he calls the ‘lawfulness’ of the universe that makes it dependable.

The overwhelming evidence of design however does not lead Davies to embrace traditional theism or even to conclude that God exists. ‘Simply declaring that God made the world and selected a judicious set of laws offers no real explanation at all’, he writes. As one would expect, Davies rejects the argument that God had caused the Big Bang, labelling such arguments (quite unfairly) as conjuring the ‘God of the Gaps’.

Yet Davies appears to be totally dissatisfied with attempts of atheists to address the question of the purpose or lack thereof of the universe. ‘Having insisted that everything in the world can be explained in terms of natural laws, when it comes to the origin of the laws themselves a mental backflip is performed: the system of laws must simply be accepted as brute fact, they say. The laws exist reasonlessly’, he writes.

Davies rightly points out that the strategy taken by naturalists would lead to the rather gloomy conclusion that the universe is absurd, a conclusion he rejects. He is adamant that the answer to the question about the purpose of the universe cannot be found in what is to him abstract metaphysical commitments – atheism or theism – but in ‘pursuing our scientific investigations in a spirit of humility and openness’.

Let us be very clear about what Davies is saying here. He is not proposing a form of ‘natural theology’: unlike medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Davies is not saying that we could attain to some general knowledge about God through our empirical study of the world.

Davies is rather asserting that it may be possible for science to discover the purpose of the universe by studying its structures and laws. That is, the universe will ‘explain’ its purpose to us if we were to listen attentively and humbly to it.

There are number of interesting moves that Davies makes in his arguments that blatantly reveal his assumptions.

I shall highlight just two. Firstly, despite emphatically eschewing metaphysical commitments such as theism or atheism, Davies is in fact holding to a set of assumptions that can only be described as ‘metaphysical’ in nature.

Secondly, in assuming that science or scientific investigations can help humankind understand the purpose and meaning of the universe, Davies appears to be working with a certain philosophy of science called scientism that is rejected by many philosophers and scientists.

For example, the Roman Catholic theologian John Haught who has worked for decades on the relationship between theology and science writes: ‘Natural science is simply not equipped to respond to such momentous issues as whether there is a point to the universe, or whether it is friendly toward us’.

‘If scientists such as Einstein and Weinberg undertake nevertheless to address such matters’, Haught adds, ‘they must surely realise that their opinions are not a part of science, but conjectures about science’.

Nevertheless, the question that Davies asks is an important one. The question is nicely put by the 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: ‘The first question which should rightly be asked is, Why is there something rather than nothing?’ It is a question that has plagued ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

Unlike Davies, many Christian theologians, philosophers and scientists are quite convinced that science on its own is unable to answer the questions concerning the origin and purpose of the universe. Theologians maintain that the natural sciences can to some extent help us to understand how the world works. But it is unable to tell us why there is a world in the first place.

Nor can the purpose of the universe be gleaned from our observation and study of it. To speak of the purpose of the universe is not only to refer to the reason for its existence but to also suggest directionality and goal, its teleology. To speak of purpose is to appeal to mind and will.

Christian theologians therefore argue that the purpose of the universe is to be found in the mind and will of the Creator who brought it into being out of nothing. Put differently, the answers to the questions why there is a universe and what is the purpose of its existence can only be found in the revelation of God, the Creator.

On the basis of this revelation in Scripture, Christians can say confidently that the wonderful and mysterious universe we inhabit is not absurd because God had lovingly created it. And because God is sovereign, his creation will attain the goal or telos for which he had intended for it.

In this regard, the older atheists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were more realistic and perhaps also more honest than Davies in their admission that if there is no God the universe and human life is meaningless. Sartre could speak of the ‘nausea’ of existence, while Camus in his brief novel The Stranger could conclude that universe is indeed absurd if there is no God to give it meaning.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Three Adults and a Baby

September 2015 Pulse

On 3 Feb 2015, the British Parliament voted 382 to 128 in favour of legalising a technique in assisted reproductive technology known as mitochondrial replacement, after much heated debate. The UK is the first country in the world to legalise this treatment that would result in children with three genetic parents.

Speaking in support of this controversial legislation, UK Prime Minister David Cameron asserts: “We are not playing God here, we are just making sure that all parents who want a healthy baby can have one.”

Mitochondrial replacement is a technique that purportedly would allow women with mitochondrial diseases to have healthy children. Dysfunctional mitochondria inside cells – caused by mutations in the mitochondria DNA (mtDNA) – can result in serious health problems such as neurodegenerative disease, blindness, deafness, muscular dystrophy and diabetes, and could even lead to death.

Researchers think that replacing the disease-linked mtDNA with healthy mtDNA would prevent the transmission of the defective mitochondria to the offspring. While there are a few ways of doing this, the technique that is legalised in the UK is called maternal spindle transfer.

This technique requires an egg donor who is free from mitochondrial disease. The cell nucleus (or the spindle of chromosomes) is removed from the unfertilised healthy donor egg and replaced by the cell nucleus of the mother (i.e., the woman suffering from mitochondrial disease). The resulting ‘combi-egg’ with healthy mitochondria is then fertilised in- vitro by the sperm of the father. The advantage of this technique is that the social parents could also be the genetic parents.

While Christian theologians and bioethicists recognise the plight of women with mitochondrial disease, they have serious concerns about this treatment because of the many ethical and social issues it raises.

An important issue associated with this procedure is that the child would have three genetic parents. Some scientists, however, have tried to downplay the significance of ‘third- party’ mitochondria in a person’s genetic make- up. They assert that third-party contribution is inconsequential since the egg donor who provides the healthy mtDNA provides just 0.1 per cent of the genetic make-up of the child.

However, the fact remains that in maternal spindle transfer, the genes of two women are mixed as the nuclear DNA from the mother’s egg and the donor’s mtDNA are housed together. Thus, the embryo in fact carries a paternal DNA code and two partial maternal DNA codes. As François Baylis points out, “while it is undeniably true that the egg provider who contributes the healthy mtDNA provides less than 0.1 per cent of the total genetic make-up of the newborn, this fact is irrelevant to the accuracy of the claim that there are three genetic parents”.

Even if the success rate of mitochondrial replacement technology is reasonably good (and it’s simply too early to offer an assessment at this stage), questions about safety must still be taken seriously. As A. Bredenoord and P. Braude have candidly put it, we simply “do not know … whether a mixture of mtDNA from two different origins is safe”.

Here, safety has to do not only with the child in question but also with future generations. With mitochondrial replacement technology, the mtDNA of a third-party donor will be passed from women to their children. Female children will in turn pass this donor mtDNA to their children, down the female line. The long-term consequences of this are simply not known at this point.

Aside from the risks involved in the procedure, egg donation itself poses some serious ethical issues in addition to that of the commodification and even commercialisation of women’s bodies. Egg donation also raises questions about the relationship between the donor and the child. These questions apply even though only the mtDNA of the donor egg is used, as is the case with maternal spindle transfer.

Philosophical questions like how such procedures alter our perception of the child, often not addressed in the literature, must also be pressed because of their profound social ramifications. In maternal spindle transfer, the child-to-be is put together like a collage, using genetic materials from the eggs of two different sources in a process that is not dissimilar to an assembly line. The end result is the product (and triumph!) of homo faber (Latin for “Man the Creator”).

More is at stake in mitochondrial replacement technology than simply fulfilling the wishes of parents who want to have a healthy baby. As science and technology advance, the ethical issues raised become correspondingly more profound and ramifications more far-reaching. Society must never respond to these difficult challenges with simple clichés and naïve pragmatism.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Secularism and its Discontents

August 2015 Pulse

The American sociologist Peter Berger is perhaps one of the most interesting scholars of secularism and religion. In his book The Sacred Canopy published in 1967, Berger presented the famous secularisation thesis which postulates that as modernity advances, the influence of religion will diminish and eventually disappear altogether.

Thirty years later, however, Berger changed his mind. In The De- secularisation of the World published in 1999, Berger and his colleagues abandoned their earlier hypothesis because “the theory seemed less and less capable of making sense of the empirical evidence from different parts of the world”. Berger, who now could speak of the “myth of secularisation”, argues that modernisation and secularisation are not synonymous.

Secular philosophers and scholars are also beginning to acknowledge the limits of secularism. For example, the eminent atheist German philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues emphatically that secularists must take religion seriously because of the enormous contributions it has made to civilisation. He adds that the philosophy and values that the Judeo- Christian tradition has inspired are still important in modern moral and scientific life.

This is not surprising. Theologians have long maintained that it is secularism – not religion – that is an anomaly and must offer compelling justifications for its own outlook.

Can secularism do this? Can it present a substantial and comprehensive rationale and ethic for the moral and social life?

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

As a vision of reality, secularism has been shown to be wanting and impoverished. Even its extravagant claims of neutrality and as the supreme guarantor of social peace have been rightly challenged.

Let us begin with the myth of secular neutrality. Far from being philosophically and ideologically neutral, secularism is a way of understanding and constructing reality. It is a worldview.

To be a secular humanist, one needs to embrace certain commitments like “God does not exist” (atheism) and “the physical world is all that there is” (scientific materialism), none of which can be established on scientific grounds. It takes a lot of faith to be a secularist.

On its own secularism is unable to offer a moral vision that is indispensable for human societies to flourish. Irving Kristol writes perceptively that “The philosophical rationalism of secular humanism can, at best, provide us with a statement of the necessary assumptions of a moral code, but it cannot deliver such a code itself.”

That Western secular humanists can speak eloquently of values like dignity, freedom and rights is largely because secularism is parasitic on the Judeo-Christian tradition it denounces. But it is precisely because it has rejected the tradition that provides the philosophical and theological foundations for these values, that secular ethics will willy-nilly drown in the sea of relativism.

Secularism often appeals to the Enlightenment myth of the triumph of reason. But experience has repeatedly shown that reason alone is unable to forge a universal consensus, especially when the issue in question is complex and contentious.

Nietzsche is exactly right when he says that no man of reason would rejoice in the death of God. For if God is truly dead, reason’s demise will soon follow.

For if God is really dead, truth itself would dissipate. What is left is an ocean of conflicting and clashing opinions, preferences, and assertions. As the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak has pointed out: “If all is chance, random and inherently meaningless, reason has no North Star and its needle spins mindlessly”.

Because secularism fails to offer a substantial vision for the moral and social life, it is also unable to articulate the meaning of human existence. And in a meaningless world, the purpose of human action becomes frustratingly murky.

On its own, secularism must remain silent in the face of suffering because it simply does not have the resources to respond to human tragedy. What has secularism to say to the weak and the vulnerable, asks Novak, “that it does not borrow directly from Judaism and Christianity?”

The great 20th century theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg perceptively notes that “Secular culture itself produces a deep need for meaning in life and therefore also for religion”. Secularism raises a bitter protest, but offers no answers.

And it is perhaps the very impotence of secularism that has led to what G.K. Chesterton has memorably described as the “revolt into orthodoxy”. It has caused atheists like Francis Collins and many others to put their faith in God.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.