News Round-up (January 2022)

The Age of Omicron, the James Webb Space Telescope, and utilitarianism and the decline of Christianity.

Happy 2022! I realize I’m late to this party, and I’m not claiming the year is new anymore. Still, I wish you the best in the next 11 and a half months. This year is definitely off to a busy start, so we kick things off with a news roundup. And as always, whether it’s about Greek alphabet letters, astronomy, sociology, or religion, philosophy and worldviews shine through.

The Age of Omicron

We have entered the Age of Omicron. As 2021 wrapped, we looked at the new year with a mixture of excitement and concern. After all the progress with vaccines, treatments, and public health measures, normalcy seemed around the corner – until Omicron – the variant also known as “little” “O” – reared its head.

I won’t elaborate much. You know the story, and likely you find it exhausting. I know I do! I just want to point out that scale changes things, and it’s interesting to see how we react to that. I see this every day working on software. It is one thing to spruce up that spreadsheet where you keep your personal finances. It is a different story to build an internet banking system, or a commercial personal budget app. You’re still in the same personal finance domain. But the nature of the problems you face, and the solutions you need to deploy, are radically different, as you go from one user, a handful of accounts, and a few dozen transactions, to millions of customers and billions of interactions.

If you’re not a software expert, I’m sure you can think of many other examples where this holds. Chemists, entrepreneurs of all sorts, freelancers – occupationally, almost all of us face this pervasive phenomenon. Simply trying to do more of what worked at small scale is unlikely to help when things go big.

But ultimately, because of our nature, we’re inclined to keep doing what has worked for us. And the clarity that scale brings to technical issues isn’t always as obvious in political and societal matters. To be sure, the scale of Omicron has forced some policy changes. Even progressive governments have shifted their stance somewhat. The focus, more than before, seems to be on learning to live with the virus. Something as simple as the inability to test and trace at scale forces everyone to think differently about where we are and where we’re headed.

But in Canada, the health system remains under threat, and the way sides are becoming polarized in terms of how to deal with that is very concerning. The state threatens to lean in harder, applying increasing levels of coercive power in a specific direction. On the other end, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers fester.

Caught in the middle are the rest of us. There’s people like me. I believe in the vaccine. I was blessed in securing a booster shot right before New Year’s Eve. And I am elated that I had no financial, occupational, and more importantly, conscience considerations to wrestle with. Unfortunately, also caught in the middle are many people for whom that isn’t the case. People with legitimate hesitancy, sometimes driven by legitimate reasons. People who may not be particularly good at “choosing sides” or at publicly expressing their concerns, but who deserve respect nonetheless.

It seems that as the problem scales, clear thinking at large hasn’t scaled with it; screaming at each other has. Given what the Bible teaches about the human heart, it’s not surprising at all – but it is concerning. Without detracting from the immense pain, suffering and devastation that this virus has caused, I can only wonder what would happen if we brought this mindset into something even worse, like a nuclear disaster or similar cataclysm. True leadership has been conspicuously absent, and the first half of Proverbs 11:14 rings painfully loud and harsh.

So, it’s up to you and me, dear friend, to find ways to remain civil. To dig deep into our personal worldviews in order to achieve what’s truly best for society at large. I’m wary of a physically healthy but politically fractured community. And I know it’s a tall order, but I still think we could have both.

Looking Into the Past: the James Webb Space Telescope

Let’s move on to a lighter topic, but one which also highlights the importance of philosophy and worldviews in pretty much everything we accomplish as a species. On Christmas Day 2021, NASA finally launched the James Webb Space Telescope into space. The JWST, as it’s also known, is the 10 billion American dollars, 25-years-in-the- making spiritual successor of the venerable Hubble telescope.

JWST’s mirror is almost three times larger than Hubble’s. This matters because it takes many years for light to travel interstellar distances. Therefore, looking into the sky is, in a sense, looking into the past. The larger and more sensitive your instrument is, the farther back you can look. Scientists estimate the universe to be 13.7 billion years old. JWST will look back at a point in time 100 to 250 million years after the Big Bang. In other words, if the universe was a one-year-old baby, JWST would allow us to look back to when it was around five days old.

JWST is also a complex technological marvel. It was too large to be sent up in its final configuration. Instead, it went folded into the largest available rocket. It took several nail-biting operations to unfurl this origami beast. 344 movements had no backup plan or alternative, and could have severely hampered or even doomed the mission had they failed. But in a testament to how far NASA has taken our creational mandate, the telescope completed these steps without a hitch, and is now en route to its permanent location. It will be summer in Canada when we start getting the first readings from the telescope, which is expected to operate for a decade.

I’m excited about what we’ll learn from this mission, and all the goodness that will come out of it. But what fascinates me most is how that information will simply reinforce the philosophical nature of the question of origin. Here’s what I mean. As a Christian, I have a theistic stance about the origin of everything, including life. The way that works for me is that the historical evidence for the natural events of the Bible is overwhelming. A rigorous historical and literary analysis of the supernatural narratives also makes a very compelling case for them. At some point, I had to wrestle with the reality of these supernatural events, and eventually align my ethics and other aspects of my worldview accordingly.

Now, the Bible isn’t a science or biology textbook. Its main point is that God created the universe and life – not how. I think that as science evolves it simply reinforces those points. But a full harmonization of these two dimensions will not happen in my lifetime. Other people have a non-theistic stance on the origin of everything. They think in due course science will be able to fully explain these things – though curiously, that statement itself cannot be scientifically assessed. They believe it’s just a matter of time because the process is sound and “it just makes sense.” But a full demonstration of these points will not happen in their lifetime.

Thus, in the end both sides are left with some pieces of evidence, individual journeys to assess that evidence and accept or reject it for various reasons, and a good dollop of faith to hope that what’s missing will be revealed to our successors someday. And the reason for that is that the question of origin is not for science to answer: it belongs to philosophy.

Here’s one last idea I want to address on this. I’ve heard people claim that because technology moves so fast, it’s inevitable that these discoveries will be made – that JWST or what comes next will enable scientists to fully explain the birth of the universe. For now, I’ll just point to the fact that the speed at which technology evolves isn’t at all the same speed at which science learns. I’ll have more to say on this in a later episode.

In the end, the question is this: are the ideas that science must exclude the supernatural, and that science has to be able to explain the origin of the realities in models, truly rooted in science itself? Or are they philosophical presuppositions? I think you know my answer.

The Decline of Christianity in Canada

Last, in the same vein of religion being left behind, I want to talk about a recent study by Statistics Canada on the state of religious affiliation in the country. More specifically, I want to address the fact that for the first time since 1985, when these reports started being collected, less than 70 percent of Canadians are pledging an affiliation with Christianity. A week ago, Global News put out a two-part report on this, talking to leaders from several denominations and religions and commenting on the trends.

I wrote a short blog post on this last week. Here I just want to revisit the connection between Christian influence in society and Christian religious practice. Like I wrote last week, the decline in the former naturally entails a decline in the latter. But I’d be curious to see if utilitarian ethics doesn’t reverse at least one of these trends down the road.

As a reminder, utilitarianism seeks to maximize happiness and well-being, or “utility”, for as many actors as possible. The influence of Christianity in Canadian law and society has brought about significant utility, through ideas like freedom of conscience, individual rights, and even democracy, which in its modern incarnation is buttressed by the doctrine of sin and the consequences of granting too much power to a single individual.

But the human species loves experimenting, and the latest round finds us divesting many elements of reality that undergird the very way our society works, along with their Christian roots… And thinking that we’ll get away with it – that everything will be just fine. We are tireless experimenters. We thought that the Enlightenment would mean the end of superstition, ushering in an era of peace and progress on the back of reason and science. We thought that communism would be the end of economic abuse and oppression. We thought that technology would free us from government overreach centralization and control. The list goes on and on, and you know how these experiments have fared over the centuries.

I think Christianity will continue to fade from the mainstream and move to the sidelines. But I wonder: once that inevitably translates into larger societal and welfare decline, will society attempt to recover that measure of Christian influence it’s so happily shunning today, even if it’s just for purely utilitarian reasons? History seems to imply that it could. And if it doesn’t, what comes next could be a bit terrifying, but also very exciting from a biblical standpoint.

Published: January 16, 2022