Thursday, 27 January 2011

Awww poor America.

Sadly American education on evolution is still not doing well, see here. I don't have much to say about this, though I think it is such a poorly taught subject in the UK as well. Shame.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Why Ediacarans?

As may be obvious, I am obsessed with the Ediacaran biota, which are organisms from the end of the Precambrian that are puzzling to palaeontologists, both in their relationship to living organisms and in how they lived. They have often been referred to as the Rorschach test of palaeontology - every palaeontologist sees something different. To the average viewer they probably look dull,; a friend of mine recently referred to Dickinsonia as the fart of a jelly slime and my girlfriend tends to refer to Ediacarans as "animal plants" or something similar, clearly thinking of Charnia. So why Ediacarans?
The jelly-slime-fart...errrm.... I mean Dickinsonia.
As a child, the Ediacarans would have bored me to tears. I was obsessed with dinosaurs and nothing else. Not even pterosaurs or ichthyosaurs. Even the massive mammals from earlier in the Cenozoic could not distract me from the dinosaurs. However, I do think part of my love for dinosaurs went on to later influence me, and not just because they involve fossils. Dinosaurs are weird, yet familiar. I think the weirdness and mystery appealed to a small extent, but those features are bland in dinosaurs when compared to some of the weird wonders of the ancient invertebrate world. Still, thinking about extinct lineages does have its appeal when it comes to imagination.

When I later returned to palaeontology it was due to a passion for evolutionary biology. It brought the fossils back to life for me again and I wanted to be a vertebrate palaeontologist, getting paid to research transitional forms and to write books about the ins and outs of evolutionary theory. Neil Shubin's work appealed to me a lot as it tied in genetics, which I also find fascinating. At this point the Ediacarans might have come to my attention, but even then they were an odd little esoteric detail. They were covered for no more than a page of a book really, which tended to amount to little more than mentioning that they are enigmatic and may have been a failed evolutionary experiment. I learnt about them at this point solely to inform me about the goings on of the Cambrian "explosion".

My favourite proposed evolutionary sequence (and ontogenetic)
from the Ediacaran, going from Parvancorina to an arthropod.
Before I started my course I read Trilobite by Richard Fortey and found it enthralling. At some point during my first year I asked myself if I would be interested in invertebrate palaeontology as opposed to vertebrate palaeontology and I instantly imagined studying trilobites. My answer was yes, with the addition that although I still wanted to study evolution, I could study all sorts of other things too. This potentially opened things wide as I was no longer far removed from the Ediacaran, but my subject of interest went back at least to the Cambrian. I was possibly also swayed whilst I was working with a friend on a poster presentation about crinoids. Crinoids are stalked echinoderms, which also often get mistaken for plants. We did the poster on a comparison of adaptive strategies, enabling me to engage with evolution and my friend (or should that be colleague?) to study crinoids. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of researching a group I knew little about and realised that I would not be opposed to doing it for a living (studying areas I had not yet considered, such as invertebrates). University is supposed to make one specialise, yet there I was broadening my possibilities. 

The poster presentation was done as a little competition too, from which I won a book. It was Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould and as should be well known, it is about the Cambrian explosion. I found myself exposed to many of the weird beasties from the Cambrian and finding them fascinating. Vertebrates were certainly out of my mind by that point, yet evolution could still remain at the forefront. Gould briefly covered life just before the Cambrian explosion and I started to take notice, though at this point it was the Small Shelly Fossils (or Fauna) which intrigued me. They are such mysterious creatures, considering for most of them we just have microscopic bits of shell. The picture I use for this blog is Microdictyon; a SSF which was originally known by only its sclerites, until soft-bodied fossils were found, revealing it to be a lobopod worm. 

The Cambrian oddball Opabinia. 

So by this point my interest was in SSFs and the Cambrian diversification, still obsessed with evolution, having forgotten about vertebrates and embraced invertebrates. It did not take long for my obsession to switch, but I don't know how. I think I desired to see the link from Ediacarans to SSFs then through to the Cambrian diversification. It is so difficult to link these times together, I needed to know more. The Ediacarans are by far the most mysterious of the lot and the more I learn about them the more I find I do not know. There is a surprise round every corner, or in the case of palaeontology with every fossil found (and in my case with every paper or book I read). I still like the SSFs and the Cambrian diversification, but the Ediacaran has managed to enthral me with its mystique, yet like the dinosaurs of my youth they are tangible in a way. The fossils range in size, but many are large enough to make out without having to get too close. There is also a good diversity, contrary to what most books show. Your average book which mentions them, including textbooks, will show typical forms like Spriggina, Dickinsonia and Charnia. Yet I fell in love with Parvancorina and Kimberella. 

The Ediacaran period is one of the most important times in evolution. Animals were evolving at this point, but exactly when we do not know. Finding the unequivocal ancestors of extant phyla is fraught with difficulty. Understanding the evolution within the Ediacaran biota is tricky, with potential relationships found all over the place. It has been included in disparate interpretations of the metaphysics of evolution. Gould supported Seilacher's Vendobiont interpretation as it expresses the contingency and happen-stance of evolution, rendering humans as mere accidents. Whereas McMenamin looked at the same interpretation and believed that some of them showed potential signs of cephalisation, which he extended to mean that they could have evolved sentience had they not met their demise! McMenamin thought that the Vendobiont hypothesis supported convergent evolution as ubiquitous and directional, whereas Simon Conway Morris, a champion of convergent evolution, saw fit to want to get rid of the Vendobiont interpretation, believing that fewer lineages meant a more directed evolution. But I have digressed a tad.

Those beautiful Ediacarans...

What next? I doubt that my Ediacaran fondness will wane. I feel like I have found an area which I am sufficiently passionate about to study to a high level, perhaps dedicating my life to it. Other interests pop up now and again. I am interested in my local palaeobiology, enjoying studying the Permian fossils of the Zechstein Sea and their palaeoecology, but that it a side interest as it connects my home to my studies. I found trace fossils very interesting when we studied them, so fortunately there are Ediacaran trace fossils. I also really enjoyed examining the eurypterids at my local museum last summer, though I don't see that as a career prospect. I currently intend to try to find a doctorate position studying Ediacarans when I finish my degree in a year and a half's time. Watch this space. 

Monday, 24 January 2011

Charnia - About Time!

One of the most important fossils ever discovered, especially when you are interested in the Ediacaran period as I am, is Charnia masoni, yet I have never blogged about it. I barely ever mention this iconic find. On top of its importance it can be found in Britain and I have looked at casts of it, yet still no mention. Until now...

The original Charnia masoni fossil. 
The discovery of Charnia is a very well known one within palaeontology. In the past year it has been discussed on Bang Goes the Theory by the lovely Liz Bonnin, and more recently by Sir David Attenborough in his First Life documentary. The absence of fossils before the Cambrian had baffled Darwin, causing him much embarrassment which creationists sadly still think is a problem. In the 1950s fossils were found in Australia, but due to circular reasoning were not recognised internationally as they should have been. As Precambrian rocks were devoid of fossils, so the logic went, the fossiliferous rocks must have been Cambrian. It wasn't until a budding young geologist in Leicestershire's Charnwood Forest discovered a frondose fossil in unequivocally Precambrian rocks.

Modern sea pens.
Like all Ediacaran fossils good old Charnia is difficult to classify and its life habits have remained mysterious. It was first classified as algae (in the journal of the Yorkshire Geological Society believe it or not) before being reinterpreted as a sea pen (pennatulacean cnidarians), an interpretation which stuck for quite some time and resulted in many Ediacaran forms being shoe-horned into modern phyla.

This interpretation was first challenged when Dolf Seilacher presented his Vendozoa classification, suggesting that the Ediacaran forms were an evolutionary experiment in multicellularity which left no descendants. The nature of what are now referred to as Vendobionts has changed a lot since Seilacher's ingenious proposal. Originally they were a separate, metacellular, kingdom, before later becoming an extinct phylum which diverged before true animals evolved. Eventually Seilacher settled on the idea that Vendobionts were large, quilted protists.

Seilacher's view of a separate phylum is widely accepted, though his classification of the Ediacaran Vendobionts as protists is less well accepted. Charnia is classified as a Rangeomorph - a taxon containing the frondose fossils of the Ediacaran, believed to potentially be a monophyletic clade (meaning they are not from separate groups but have similar morphologies because they are closely related) morphospace data appears to bear this out.

Charnia's connection to the sea pens was not completely thrown out, particularly because the classification of Charnia is hugely important. If it can be connected to modern forms then the Garden of Ediacara was not so bizarre after all, perhaps evolution is actually quite predictable. If, however, it was a failed experiment, then the Ediacaran remains ridiculously enigmatic, positively alien to us. The connection to sea pens was made through a Cambrian frond-like fossil called Thaumaptilon, which I elucidated here. At the time I did not want to comment on a potential relationship with Charnia, but now I know that they were unlikely to have been related. One simple reason I will give is that Charnia has no stalk running down the centre, yet Thaumaptilon does, though a much better case can be made. Charnia's potential connection to the sea pens took its heaviest blow when it was shown that it grew in a very different way to sea pens. Ontogeny is important in connecting disparate fossil forms as it can be inferred from fossil data and is often quite evolutionarily rigid. Sea pens grow by adding extra polyps to the bottom, whereas Charnia did the opposite and added to the tip.

In working out the evolutionary relationships of many Ediacaran forms, particularly rangeomorphs, it seems that working out their life cycle might be the key. Many have overlapping morphologies which may be different growth stages. With heterochronic evolution changes in developmental timing produces different adult-stage morphologies, allowing a juvenile form to reach sexual maturity for example. These overlapping forms may also be different variations of the same organism, but from different environmental conditions (ecophenotypic variation) much like the variation seen in people from different continents. Bradgatia is one such form, as it is like a bush of Charnia. Many fossils are spindle forms (e.g. Fractofusus) which resemble two Charnia stuck end to end, branching outwards. All have fractal branching frondlets.
Bradgatia from Charnwood Forest. Photograph by Tina Negus. 
How it lived is perhaps the biggest mystery. It is believed to have lived quite deep, so photosynthesis seems to have been out of the question (whether it was an autotroph or used symbionts). Filter feeding is a possibility, but it seems to have evolved ways of folding which were inefficient. We may never know how it lived and fed.

There are many other rangeomorph fossils which resemble Charnia. Unsurprisingly Charniodiscus is one such fossil, also found in Charnwood Forest, a cast of which is pictured to the right, upside down, with myself using it for a rather lewd pose. This specimen is small compared to the 2m long Charnia found in Newfoundland.

The mysterious ivesheadiomorphs, or "pizza-discs", have recently been interpreted as the decayed remains (taphomorphs) of Charnia and related taxa.

An ivesheadiomorph.
Now all I need to do is see Charnia up close. I intend to visit Charnwood Forest some time over the summer if possible, though the Charnia found in Newfoundland, Canada, do greatly appeal.

Antcliffe, J.B.; Brasier, M.D. (2007a). Charnia and sea pens are poles apart. Journal of Geological Society 164 (1): 49.

Antcliffe, J.B.; Brasier, M.D (2007b). Towards a morphospace for the Ediacara biota. 377–386. In VICKERS-RICH, P. and KOMAROWER, P. (eds). The rise and fall of the Ediacaran biota. Geological Society of London Special Publication 286, London, 456 pp

Brasier, M.D. & Antcliffe, J.B. 2004. Decoding the Ediacaran enigma. Science, 305, 1115–1117.

Ford, T.E. 1958. Precambrian fossils from Charnwood Forest. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, 31, 211–217.

Liu, A. G.; McIlroy, D.; Antcliffe, J. B.; Brasier, M. D. (2011). Effaced preservation in the Ediacara biota and its implications for the early macrofossil record. Palaeontology: In press.

Seilacher, A. (2007) The nature of vendobionts. 387-397. In VICKERS-RICH, P. and KOMAROWER, P. (eds). The rise and fall of the Ediacaran biota. Geological Society of London Special Publication 286, London, 456 pp

Shu, D.-G., Conway Morris, S. & Han, J. et al. 2006. Lower Cambrian vendobionts from China and early diploblast evolution. Science, 312, 731–734

Dickinsonia, still alive?

Look, photographic evidence of the Ediacaran form Dickinsonia on the modern sea floor, taken using specialist cameras:

OK, so I lied... this is actually a picture of a Dickinsonia cast which I played around with for a bit. The photo was poor quality so I tried to improve it and ended up finding different settings which made it look like a possible modern photo. A much better job could be done in faking this (not that I am advocating that) as this was a mess around for a few minutes.

Though imagine the implications of finding this thing alive, having been absent from the fossil record for over 540 million years. So many questions would be answered by simply observing it. Does it move? This is constantly being debated as the trace fossils found accompanying some dickinsoniid fossils may not be trace fossils at all. Interpretations range from it being highly mobile, to it moving rarely, to not moving at all but producing the traces through being buffeted by currents. How does it feed? We'd be able to tell whether it sucked up nutrients from algal mats or whether it carried endosymbiotic organisms, or whether it used some completely different mode of feeding. A proper analysis of its morphology would be possible, giving much better insight into its habits, but most importantly its taxonomy. And of course, genetic testing would be possible, answering some of the fundamental questions which might potentially never be answered using fossil evidence alone. Ah, one can dream...

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A spot of news

I stopped blogging about various bits of palaeo news quite a while ago when I slipped way behind and couldn't be bothered to catch up. Well, now I can, so here are the stories which have been catching my eye recently:

Darwinopterus is sexy

As my university is involved in pterosaur research I do like to keep my eye out for new information on those flying beasts (occasionally being privy to info before it has been published). This particular story is exciting for several reasons: the pterosaur in question is Darwinopterus, which is the rather recently found intermediate form between the two major groups of pterosaurs; it provides insight which is usually difficult (or impossible) to glean from fossils; and it simply is a beautiful fossil to look at. "Mrs T" as the fossil has been dubbed, is a Darwinopterus fossil which has been found with an egg. The egg appears to have been expelled from the body, probably due to the usual build up of gas after she died. This find allows palaeontologists to sex pterosaurs accurately for the first time; before now trying to determine the males and the females was based on conjecture. Mrs T lacks a crest, showing that pterosaurs are sexually dimorphic and lending support to the idea that pterosaur crest evolution was driven by sexual selection. Amusingly, Attenborough's ambitious pterosaur documentary in 3D apparently shows two crested pterosaurs mating (I intend to review his documentary at some point, as palaeontologists attending the premier in London recently were heavily critical of it). The females also had larger pelvises than the males, which naturally fits with their need to lay eggs. For more info on pterosaur sex, see here. For the press release, see here.

Palaeobiology is important for conservation

For a while now I have been making the claim that palaeobiology is important for our understanding of how organisms respond to environmental change and that this data is important for conservation efforts. (I most often make this claim to creationists when they claim evolutionary biology is not fruitful.) It is good to see that this is occurring, see here.

Two oxygen related stories for the price of one

It turns out that the early oceans were oxygen-free, which puts considerable constraints on what sort of life can exist. This helps explain why the Earth has been barren with regards to complex life for the majority of its history. See here. Oxygen has also impacted the early evolution of animals more than we realised as it has fluctuated a fair bit. See here.

Pterygotus dethroned

Last summer, while volunteering at Doncaster museum, I had the pleasure of carefully examining and photographing around twenty eurypterid fossils. Eurypterids are extinct sea scorpions, one group of which - the pterygotids - grew incredibly large, reaching lengths of eight or nine feet. All of the pterygotids I looked at were tiny in comparison, but they are still a fascinating group. It has long been thought that Pterygotus was a terror of the Silurian seas, the top predator, causing chaos as it consumed other hard-bodied prey with ease. Attenborough's recent documentary, First Life, depicted them this way, surprising other eurypterids by snapping them up voraciously. This view is already out of date. A study has shown that they would not have had the strength to do this and had limited movement. Instead they could only have preyed on small, soft-bodied animals, and may even have been scavengers or herbivores.

Their sheer size has led to at least one imaginative rendering:

Friday, 21 January 2011

Perverting Palaeontology

When I found the casts of Ediacaran fossils in my university store rooms I was instantly enthralled, examining every single one in fine detail. I also had a friend with me, someone who finds Ediacaran's boring, so we did mess around a fair bit. Here are the results, along with a couple of other pictures:

Here I am with a cast of Charniodiscus. 
Most of the Ediacaran casts are of either Charnia or Charniodiscus, both of which were found in Charnwood Forest, where I hope to go some time soon. I really need to get a good look at the two frondose fossils as I am currently unable to tell the difference (except that the holdfast on Charniodiscus is often very prominent). 

Cyclomedusa being modelled as a nipple.
This is Cyclomedusa, which was originally thought of as like a jellyfish (hence the 'medusa' part of its name). It was then interpreted as a possible holdfast, but the rest of the organism was not known. This would explain the slight stalk in the middle which makes it look like a nipple. It is now thought to have been a microbial colony.  
I don't know the name of this foram. 
We had a project on foraminifera for micropalaeontology. This is a large model of one of them; the models were used to help identification. They were not intended to become miniature penises.

Sadly this is not a good picture, as the cast of Dickinsonia is from quite a well known fossil (Google image search Dickinsonia and you will see what I mean). It has two large Dickinsonia specimens on the slab, the larger of which seems to have been more flexible. There is another, smaller Dickinsonia and if you know where to look you might spot Parvancorina too, which I was very pleased about as there were no casts of that alone. They had a single Kimberella cast, which sadly showed practically nothing, it was like a smear in the rock.

This Allosaurus skull cast is in a display case, which we were tempted to open up. Naturally I would have done some suspect pose with it. Allosaurus was always one of my favourite theropods, perhaps because I didn't like seeing Tyrannosaurus getting all the glory. 

Monday, 10 January 2011

An Alternative View to the Possibility of Purgatory

This was written as a challenge to myself, to explore a viewpoint which I had not looked into and assess it. I ended up convincing myself. My views of the afterlife change more often than any other theological position, as you can read here. By addressing Purgatory as a possibility I found a richer theological view which has changed my understanding of Hell and of universalism. Here is what I wrote, though I present it as an exploration of an idea, rather than my actual view.

An Alternative View to the Possibility of Purgatory


The commonly understood concept of Purgatory is that it is a place (along with Heaven and Hell) which souls of people who are friendly with God but not fully free of sin go to. Much of this common conception is influenced by medieval understandings of Purgatory, such as those in Dante’s Divine Comedy where Purgatory is a mountain. This is a common misconception, as in 1999 Pope John Paul II declared that Purgatory indicates a condition of existence and not a place. At the Reformation Purgatory was rejected as it had become associated with the selling of indulgences and had become the crude, literal view outlined above. They were right to reject this view, also emphasising the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice; this understanding has remained in Protestantism. What I wish to present here is not a reformulation of the Catholic understanding of Purgatory, but an alternative view which also includes the state of purgation. C.S. Lewis saw justification in rejection of the “Romish” doctrine of Purgatory, as it had become a “commercial scandal”, but saw merit in a process of purification akin to that found in John Henry Newman’s Dream of Gerontius, where the angel said to the soul,

When then—if such thy lot—thou seest thy Judge,
The sight of Him will kindle in thy heart
All tender, gracious, reverential thoughts.
Thou wilt be sick with love, and yearn for Him,
And feel as though thou couldst but pity Him,
That one so sweet should e'er have placed Himself
At disadvantage such, as to be used
So vilely by a being so vile as thee.
There is a pleading in His pensive eyes
Will pierce thee to the quick, and trouble thee.
And thou wilt hate and loathe thyself; for, though
Now sinless, thou wilt feel that thou hast sinn'd, {360}
As never thou didst feel; and wilt desire
To slink away, and hide thee from His sight:
And yet wilt have a longing aye to dwell
Within the beauty of His countenance.
And these two pains, so counter and so keen,—
The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not;
The shame of self at thought of seeing Him,—
Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.

Is Purgatory Un-Biblical?

The Bible is not explicitly clear on matters concerning what lies beyond death, Purgatory included. Much in the same way that the Trinity is not mentioned or explained by Scripture, Purgatory is not mentioned either. It is the fruit of hundreds of years of developing theology, an explanation of the data contained within the Bible; one might almost call it a theory. Rejecting Purgatory based on the absence of an explicit description would be hypocritical if done by a Trinitarian; supporting Scripture must be found.

When punishment is mentioned in the first letter to the Corinthians it is described in a purifying sense, "Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." (1 Corinthians 3.12-15) The verses here clearly refer to works (which include sins) yet the sinful one is being saved through fire. To assert that this verse is purely about works is to make works a criterion for Salvation (which Protestants generally oppose).

Similar ideas can be found in the words of Christ, "And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:34-35, cf. Matthew 5: 25-26) Clearly the talk of paying debt or being saved “as through fire” should not be ignored.

There are also words of Christ which appear to be highly compatible with the concept of Purgatory, whilst not necessitating it, such as John 5:25, "Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live." Here we read that the dead are able to hear and respond, before they are granted new life.

We also read from Scripture that Jesus descended to the dead and preached to them, "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey" (1 Peter 3:18-20 cf. 1 Peter 4:6) Are we to believe that this is a one-off event?

Although not accepted by Protestants, the Apocrypha contains mentions of prayers for the dead, “Wherefore he made the propitiation for them that had died, that they might be released from their sin.” (2 Maccabes 12:45; see also the rather lovely prayers in Baruch 3, also in the Apocrypha.) This demonstrates that pious Jews did pray for the dead, with belief that this had an effect. The surprising thing is that Paul does not condemn such practises, even though he is clearly aware of them (1 Corinthians 15:29).

Against the concept of Purgatory, verses in support of the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ are often used, demonstrating a clear lack of desire to engage with Purgatory seriously. For example, “Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.” (Hebrews 7:27) The use of this verse in response to belief in Purgatory caricature it as requiring more than just Christ’s sacrifice, but this need not be the case. Indeed, Christ’s sacrifice is so sufficient that it goes beyond death and can save those who were not righteous in God’s eyes! They justly suffer on their way to paradise and it is Christ of the cross who saves them. Purgatory, if anything, should be seen as a declaration of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice!

Another example makes a simple mistake which can easily be made. One such verse is 2 Corinthians 6:8 (cf. Philippians 1:23) where it is often quoted as saying that beyond death we are “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” However, before this it clearly states that “we would rather be away from the body...” This verse, when used against Purgatory, is obviously ripped out of context. If we were, however, to take it as meaning that beyond death we are at home with the Lord, then we still have the possibility that for those still in sin being in the presence of God would be like a purifying fire.

One might have problems with other things which have become attached to the notion of Purgatory, such as the use of indulgences, or an occasional emphasis on works; but this does not mean that the essence of Purgatory needs to be rejected. Scripture supports the idea of a punitive state of purgation where sins are removed and Salvation awaits, so from here on I will refer to it as a state of purgation and not as Purgatory, as I wish to stick to the purging of sins and have none of the attached stigma which comes with this theology.

Early Christian Understanding

Many of the influential early Church Fathers took an approach which contains all the hallmarks of a state of purgation, leading to some Orthodox Christians referring to it as purgatory (though their understanding is not necessarily identical to the Catholic approach). Gregory of Nyssa for example explained it this way, "When, over long periods of time, evil has been removed and those now lying in sin have been restored to their original state, all creation will join in united thanksgiving, both those whose purification has involved punishment and those who never needed purification at all" (Catechetical Oration 26). Gregory believed that this state of purgation required repentance and is not forced on everyone by God.

Maximos the Confessor perceived of the soul moving infinitely towards God, where all souls come to know God as He is and will know the true nature of good and evil. To the Church Fathers evil was not a created thing, but has relative existence which will be annihilated when the end comes. Souls are therefore purified, purged of evil. From this understanding the state of purgation may not be a place, but a state of being, where God’s love purges sins. It also need not be an alternative to Heaven and Hell (as popularly perceived) but an intrinsic part, or link, within the two.

The Character of God

In Scripture we are given the picture of God as not being one to stop when He has a desire, “he will not grow weary or give up” (Isaiah 42:4) and has “weakness... stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25.) To think that He would give up on mankind after death seems to be out of character, but instead, as one who is love, it seems more likely that He would keep His offer of Salvation extended to us, unperturbed by the apparent obstacle of our deaths. As God is love (1 John 4) we might expect Him to continually seek repentance from sinners, rather than give an eternal punishment from which no good can come, for “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

In addition to showing God as loving, a state of purgation also shows God as a just Lord, one with justice as a desire. This is where the punitive aspect of purgation comes in, for it is the consequence of sins but ultimately leads to rehabilitation. This understanding, of both love and justice, is more Biblically consistent than an instantaneous universalism (where all souls are immediately in paradise, with no punishment) and fits God’s character better than condemning unrepentant sinners to infinite suffering for finite sins.

What about Hell?

If a state of purgation is accepted, then there are two key possibilities for how we can understand Hell. It may be that Hell is what is being spoken of in the passages which mention purification, making Hell a temporary place of suffering which ultimately leads one to Heaven. Purgatory and Hell then become synonymous, rather than completely separate states of being.

The second option is that both Hell and purgation can be chosen. One can choose to accept God’s free gift of Salvation post mortem, however, this would then include going through a purging of sins in order to reach salvific completeness. To reject the free gift would leave one in an impure state, which would be referred to as Hell. These two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, for the states of Hell and of purgation may be the same, but that the former is not purifying whereas the latter is.

The New Creation

The Bible promises a new creation, the new heavens and earth (Revelation 21:1), where God becomes all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28). With this comes the resurrection of all and we learn that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” (Philippians 2:10) where “under the earth” applies to the contemporary understanding of the dead being in the grave below the ground. The grave was often synonymous with Hell, suggesting that even the sinners there have the chance to join in the new creation.

When God is all in all we have the possibility that the righteous and the sinners may both be fully in the presence of God. It might be that Heaven, for humans (as Heaven is God’s place) is the state of being fully in the presence of God’s unrestrained love. However, to be a sinner in this presence leads to a more Orthodox understanding of Hell, where our sins cannot be in this presence and so we would experience them as painful. If we have a will in the new creation and God’s gift remains open, then this purification leads to a paradise on the new earth. T.S. Eliot captured the pain of purgation in the presence of God’s love beautifully in his poem Little Gidding, from the Four Quartets:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.


Without accepting the medieval concept of Purgatory, which was justifiably rejected in the Reformation, Scripture still offers the possibility of a post-death state of purgation where the experience of the fire of God’s love brings self-knowledge which purifies us, purging us of sins. It seems that this fate might not await all as we see the thief on the cross promised paradise, though it may await those who accept God’s free gift beyond death. A state of purgation speaks of a loving God who wills for us all to come to Him, but one who is just, giving punishment where punishment is due and not forcing all to accept His gracious offer. It is a testament to the sheer power of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, going beyond death to bring all sinners to him so that the heavens may rejoice.

References and Links

Harries, R. 2005. Life After Death from a Christian Perspective. In Abraham’s Children. Eds. Solomon, S. Harries, R. And Winter, T. T&T Clark, London. pp 298-306

Ward, K. 2004. What the Bible really teaches. SPCK, London. pp 136-139

Free Will - Do We Have It?

Over the last few years I have been asking myself some pretty big questions, often where science, philosophy and theology all need to be taken into account. It doesn't hurt to take things one at a time, it can actually be beneficial as the mind can't always handle being bombarded with all the big questions at once, plus one answer can often lead to a cascade of revelations. One of the questions I put off for a while was the question of the soul - does it exist and what is it? The position I found satisfactory (scientifically, philosophically and theologically) was theistic monism, which I almost immediately wrote about. The nature of the soul was something which eluded me for a while, making me very uncomfortable as it kept cropping up. Another such question has been on my mind for a while now - do we have free will?

For a while now I have been aware of a degree of determinism in nature, but had not properly assessed it. Free will was a difficult idea to drop, especially as it gave comfortable answers to some theological issues (I loathed Calvinism for quite some time). Last year, before I finished my first year of uni, I bought Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett, in a bid to get myself thinking about this difficult subject. I figured that he might be a good philosopher to start with as I knew that he would address things from an evolutionary viewpoint, making it easier for me personally to digest, but also because he is an atheist and compatibilist. I figured that if he persuaded me then it would hold more weight, due to our different theological starting points. I am ashamed to say that I read the first two chapters, scratched my head a lot, then left it for another day. I now feel ready to read it again and actually absorb it.

Since that time I have been reading Facebook debates and recently waded in, allowing the discussions to shape my views as it went along. I felt quite comfortable as I was not the only theist supporting a deterministic reading of human volition. I have also been watching some videos from this website, helping me to grasp some of the issues. Interestingly I discovered the site through a creationist who sadly does not often present things which make me think. In the last discussion I had about free will I laid things out as I have come to see them over the last few months, so yet again I am going to do that thing which bugs me and post something from a Facebook discussion. I will, however, edit it, as it was aimed at a specific person, so I may also add to it as well.

First though, a little background into my theology in order to give context. I believe humans are intimately connected to creation through evolution, so any talk of free will which did not take this into account would be useless to me. I am also a theistic monist, so I believe free will must be a product of the brain, if it does exist. That was one of the main thoughts when going into this debate. I have also settled on universalism when it comes to Salvation, which softens the blow of determinism somewhat. I do, however, also believe in Hell, but that it is limited and purifying, something which I think also softens the blow of determinism on theology. Free will was no longer the explanation I had to cling to in my theology, though a freedom to "be" will likely always be emphasised. So, onto the post:

Here is the way I see it. We can start with the physical data, with our observations of the natural processes of the world, and acknowledge that our brains are subject to the same forces. We do struggle to unpack and untangle what is going on in order to establish a causal change, because at any one time there are myriad influences on a single action and we have extras like feedback loops and even emergence to contend with. Our decisions are often made before we are consciously aware of having a choice. So we end up with the acknowledgement that antecedent events necessitate the current and future states. Determinism is an observation, not a theory.

On the other hand we have those subjective experiences of free will, that persuasive pragmatism which really does get the job done. We are conscious of many of our choices and how such choices can be constrained. We are therefore faced with two seemingly contradictory notions - determinism and free will - which appear to be self evident. Either they must be reconciled, which can mean the reduction of one for the other, or one must be jettisoned completely. 

If we try to rid ourselves of determinacy then we have indeterminacy. Indeterminacy is found in nature, most notably in quantum mechanics, but the regularity when we surpass this level gives us little hope for establishing free will. If, however, we did view our world as indeterminate, then we have the same problem - it is also not compatible with free will. Instead of choices being determined before the event, they are instead selected for by lottery. Separate events may be possible from a single choice, but which is chosen is random. So it seems that with or without determinism, free will just does not work.

In order to circumvent the determinism of nature it is not uncommon to find that the "free" part of a person is thought to be metaphysical; the elusive soul controlling machines which we call bodies. Yet this simply moves the issue into another playing field; the issue remains, but is more difficult to talk about. This metaphysical soul itself would be either deterministic or indeterministic, which are both incompatible with free will. 

For this reason I often ask about the locus of choice and what constitutes us as people. If you go for a monist anthropology then you are faced with the determinism of the brain. If you prefer substance dualism then you face the question of whether the soul is deterministic or indeterministic. Free will just does not seem tenable either way.

So what option do we have? One option is clearly to throw away free will completely, to wave away the pragmatism of free will as mere illusion. The debate then becomes whether or not we can live like that. Do we go along with the illusion? or is there a way to see through the fog? Do we acknowledge that we cannot untangle the causal strings, meaning our free will is important even if it is an illusion? 

We could also redefine free will so that it is compatible with determinism. The freedom is then to act, even if it is determined. This allows us to embrace the free will, to follow its pragmatism wherever it leads. Through science we can acknowledge that free will, which could be such a burden and a cost to us, actually did evolve and must not be wasted. With a compatibilist view comes the risk of losing free will (I do wonder if a theological case can be made for this). Our uncertainty about the future is therefore to be embraced, for it frees us and allows us to determine what happens, even if that is ultimately determined. 

That is where I see it if we look to science and philosophy, but of course as Christians theology is important. With theology we have determinism again if God is held to be omniscient. This does not mean God forced us to act, but that our actions can lead only to one result. We are then faced with the issues of accountability and of Hell. How can I be held responsible if all is determined? How can God send people to Hell if they had no chance of avoiding it? 

With regards to responsibility we can still claim it with regards to our choices. It is us doing the choosing, based on our character, based on our desires, based on our beliefs and past experiences. It is I doing the choosing even if those choices can only ever lead to one result. Which leads us to the next question: is Hell justified if I am destined for it and can do nothing about it?

When answering this question we do risk letting emotion answer it for us. We also have a major presupposition to contend with, as our views of Hell will shape our understanding. If Hell is seen as eternal conflagration then the punishment for our inability to change our path seems incompatible with a just and loving God. If Hell is a wispy existence, out of God's comfort, languishing in rejection of Love, then profligacy becomes a characteristic of God, for we are naught but waste - the chaff cut from the wheat. If, however, one is a universalist (whether the instantaneous variety or believing in a purgative Hell which purifies) then we are all predestined for Heavenly life and our deterministic selves are not wasted but perfected. 

To conclude, I appear to be a compatibilist. I see determinism as a scientific inevitability, which goes hand in hand with belief in an omniscient God (though I do believe that God could limit His omniscience if He so chooses). I see free will as a strongly convincing illusion which has a purpose; it is pragmatic and is to be embraced. We do not see the mechanistic thought processes, the chains of causality in each individual, so to treat ourselves and others as free agents is the most effective way to act. I do not see us as mere puppets having our strings pulled, but active agents, affected and affecting. We will be judged on our actions and effects, determined by our past, by our nature, but all of us have the potential to grow in the love of God. Hopefully this view of mine will mature, but it is in its infancy in my mind and may change dramatically for all I know. Whatever happens, I look forward to it.

Palaeontologising and Mineralogising...

I made some more images, enjoy:

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Ah, geologising...

Also, happy new year. Should I get back to blogging again? I've neglected it so much that I don't know where to start.