Saturday, October 14, 2006

Professionalism

I give you this anecdote as a rumination on a theme provided by another of Custard's posts.

When I was doing my intermediate year of engineering at Canterbury University, I ended up taking some computer science papers, which I enjoyed thoroughly. Part of the reason it was so great is that we could get stuck into some serious problem solving, and often the solutions were quite elegant.

One time we were set an assignment by the lecturer to test our understanding of a particular data structure. It could be done using a brute force approach, which worked fine, except that it sometimes took a long time to get the desired result. After reviewing our individually submitted code, the lecturer asked one girl to get up in front of the students during the next lecture, as she had solved the problem another way. So, up she gets. She has maybe sixty or seventy people waiting with baited breath for her to explain her method to the rest of us. There is silence in the lecture theatre. She launches wide-eyed into some extended quote from the bible - about Noah and the Ark - and starts telling us all about that. The rest of us are looking around at each other, thinking 'is this her explaination or am I dreaming?' After waiting for a while to see if she would get to the point, the lecturer rolls his eyes and prompts her to give the explaination of what she did that solved the problem, which she then did. (I must add that her solution worked fine in the particular context of the assignment, but had the same issue as the brute force method in other contexts. I think the intent of the lecturer was to show that there's more than one way to skin a cat and to give her credit for thinking outside the square.)

Now this girl was really quite smart. Maybe not a genius, but certainly she was talented as far as science was concerned, and sometimes we chatted about physics or computer science when we met in the corridor. Sometimes I helped her with code problems, sometimes she helped me with maths.

After the biblical quote incident, I became aware that she was quite active in a campus christian group. What really stunned me was that this girl who was obviously a scientist at heart could believe such nonsense as the bible. I was shocked and disappointed by the incident, and it made me wonder 'how do christians involved in science manage to reconcile within themselves the conclusions of science and the teachings of their faith, especially those findings which so strongly contradict religious teaching?' These can be almost diametrically opposed on certain issues. I still don't have an answer.

More to the point though, I felt it was quite inappropriate of her to start telling us about what she personally believes, instead of just answering the question, like she'd been asked to. Just because she has made a choice to be a christian doesn't give her the right to inject it into places where it is not warranted. If I got up in front of the students and started ranting about the non-existence of god, I would be no less guilty of inappropriate behaviour.

7 Comments:

Blogger Custard said...

Inclined to agree that it wasn't the appropriate response from her.

'how do christians involved in science manage to reconcile within themselves the conclusions of science and the teachings of their faith, especially those findings which so strongly contradict religious teaching?'

Now that's the sort of question I got a fair bit from kids when I was teaching (and which I expected).

Care to explain which "conclusions of science" contradict which "teachings of the faith"? I can't think of any offhand.

1:21 AM  
Blogger J.L. said...

Well, there's the 7-day creation, and another that ties into it is the belief held by some christians that the earth is only about 8000 years old. I personally know one man who holds this belief, and who claims that evidence of an older earth such as the fossil record and the presence of crude oil in the earth's crust "were put there by 'god' as a test of faith" (his words, not mine). Presently the best scientific estimate of the age of the age of the earth is around 4.5 billion years.

Others relate to miracles, as you and I have discussed, and determinism.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Catana said...

It's not reconciliation, it's compartmentalization. Keep them separate in your mind, and you don't have to dirty your fingers with reconciliation.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Custard said...

OK - 7 (or 6) day creation isn't a teaching of the faith, it's a relatively new innovation within the faith, which some people believe and some don't.

The age of the earth is also a teaching of some within the faith, but isn't a "teaching of the faith".

I think we can agree that neither the faith nor science teach that miracles happen routinely...

Determinism - which way do you go on it? I know scientists who go both ways; I know Christians who go both ways; I've argued both points of view as both scientist and Christian. And I'm officially undecided on whether people have free will...

4:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Religion is for human comfort - it's like eating chocolate cake.

Do scientists eat cake? Of course. We're all human and we all need to be comforted in one way or another.

Most people do not approach their faith the same way they approach chosing a mortgage - ie: they disengage the rational mind.

Scientists aren't robots. Not all of them, anyway. In fact, some of the maddest people I know work in science.

9:33 PM  
Blogger J.L. said...

Custard -

"OK - 7 (or 6) day creation isn't a teaching of the faith, it's a relatively new innovation within the faith, which some people believe and some don't."

From Genesis, which happens to be the first book of the Old Testament: Genesis 2:2 -

"And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made."

Not such a new idea at all. Do you know what consensus - if any - has been reached by those christians who don't believe this account?

"I think we can agree that neither the faith nor science teach that miracles happen routinely..."

No, science says miracles don't happen.

"Determinism - which way do you go on it?"

I do believe in free will, within the bounds of the laws of science. I am going to think further on it though.

Simon -

Hmmm. Religion or cake...
Let them eat cake!

"Most people do not approach their faith the same way they approach chosing a mortgage - ie: they disengage the rational mind."

You raise an interesting point: Can the irrational mind lead us in a rational direction? On first thought, I would say only by chance. I may pursue this further.

1:17 AM  
Blogger King Aardvark said...

Ok, you've convinced me: all churches shall stop preaching and just serve chocolate cake. I'll be there every Sunday!

5:42 AM  

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