Wednesday, December 31, 2008

God Under the Microscope

I have been reading through God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger, whose title pretty clearly explains the purpose of the book. I thought I'd blog about it chapter by chapter because a) that will help me think more clearly about the book as I'm reading it and b) because the book deserves a response, even though I think it is based on a number of flawed assumptions.

The first chapter sets up the main argument of the book. Stenger's thesis is that God, in the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic understanding, ought to have some effect on nature that is measurable and inexplicable through any means other than the "God hypothesis." He makes it perfectly clear that he is not talking about any other sort of god, which may or may not have any real, continuing interaction with the world. In the preface Stenger writes that "this God is not the god of deism, who created the world and then left it alone, or the god of pantheism, who is equated with all of existence."

Thus, at the beginning of Chapter 1, Stenger writes,
The founders and leaders of major religions have always claimed that God can be seen in the world around us. In Romans 1:20, St. Paul says: "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." We will look for evidence of God in the things that have been made.

He then proceeds to talk about the scientific method of constructing models and testing them with experiments. I won't go into all that, since it's a lot of review (so much so that I wonder if he isn't belittling his audience) but you get the idea.

The main point that distinguishes Stenger from other scientists these days is that he believes that science can study the supernatural. I think he is very wise about this. "The thesis of this book," he says,"is that the supernatural hypothesis of God is testable, verifiable, and falsifiable by the established methods of science. We can imagine all sorts of phenomena that... would suggest the possibility of some reality that is highly unlikely to be consistent with metaphysical naturalism."

By "natural" he means stuff that can be broken down into pieces that bounce off of each other. It is rather easy to see what kinds of phenomena would imply that there is something supernatural in the universe. If ESP were real, for instance, then we might safely say there is more going on than just pieces of matter bouncing off each other.

The one nice thing about Stenger's thesis is that he defies the classic program of secular modernism. Since the Enlightenment, the modernist agenda has been to drive a wedge between the secular world "downstairs" and the religious world "upstairs." (I didn't make this up; if you read anyone like Francis Schaeffer or N. T. Wright you'll get the same idea.) Thus you can let religious pietists go on worshiping their God in private while running things in the public world with purely secular principles.

Stenger rejects such a division of the "upstairs" and "downstairs" spheres of our existence, or at least he finds it inexcusable to kick religions like Christianity upstairs. Let's keep it downstairs, he seems to be saying, and we'll fight it out to see whether this religion is worth anything. This is pretty much what I appreciate about Stenger.

However, with this view of his come what I think are misunderstandings about what the "God hypothesis" should imply about our natural world. He lays out eight properties of God that he thinks he can test scientifically, because he thinks he knows what kinds of things should result from such a God existing. For example, as I will discuss in detail when I get to chapter 3, he thinks the effects of prayer should be measurable in a particular way, and this allows him to interpret the data to mean that God doesn't exist.

As I read this book, I am not going to try to deny any of the empirical assessments that he is making. From evolution to studies on the effects of prayer to the Big Bang, I will more than likely accept his science as true and rigorous. This is only fair, since he is a very experienced and accomplished scientist.

The one point where I will consistently try to nail him is his distaste for, and hence rejection of, metaphysics. In his words,
Perhaps quarks and electrons are not real, although they are part of the highly successful model of particle physics. We cannot say. But we can say, with high likelihood, that some of the elements of older models... are not part of the real world. ... Furthermore, we can proceed to put our models to practical use without ever settling any metaphysical questions. Metaphysics has surprisingly little use and would not even be worth discussing if we did not have this great desire to understand ultimate reality as best as [sic] we can. (emphasis mine)

This statement is at the very foundation of his project, and it is, in my view, where his project collapses.

Traditional pursuits of knowledge, in every culture throughout history, have involved seeking not only a description of what is happening in the world around us, but also what this means for us. Civilizations gather under common ideas of what role humans have to play in this world. This is not terribly unique to Judeo-Christian-Islamic thought. It is a necessity for human beings to consider our purpose in relation to the world, and thus also the world's purpose in relation to us.

In my view, metaphysical questions ultimately boil down to questions about purpose. Just a model of what is happening in the universe won't do, because we need to know something more about what we are experiencing. We need to know, what is our role in it? If we are to make "practical" applications of our models, which applications are worthwhile?

As part of our quest for knowledge, we can't help but ask questions about what is truly good. This cannot be settled without asking metaphysical questions about objects that exist in the universe. If it is true that we, just like everything else, are made up of electrons and quarks, what does that mean? Do electrons and quarks have intrinsic value? Or do they have value only when they achieve certain configurations? These questions are inescapable. Science, which gives us mere descriptions of what is happening around us, is not enough to give us complete knowledge about the world.

The first chapter has some puzzling things in it, such as a section on "logical proofs" that God does not exist, all of which are highly dubious. Here's one rather bizarre example:
1. If any being is God, he must be a fitting object of worship.
2. No being could possibly be a fitting object of worship, since worship requires the abandonment of one's role as an autonomous moral agent.
3. Therefore, there cannot be any being who is God.

I find premise 2 very bizarre, although I think that it is an increasingly popular conception among secularists. For some reason, their view tends to be that worship devalues the self. Anyone who has actually experienced worship knows that the opposite is true. Also, it is highly questionable what is meant by this phrase "autonomous moral agent."

In any case, I don't want to dwell on that section of this first chapter. It really adds nothing to his argument, and distracts from the main thrust of his book, which is to provide empirical arguments against God's existence. All it does is tell me that Victor Stenger is a bad philosopher.

Also, I hate to see Stenger be so low as to simply make fun of his opponents:
Indeed, the gods of ancient mythology--including the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God--are clearly models contrived by humans in terms people could understand. What is amazing is that in this sophisticated modern age so many still cling to primitive, archaic images from the childhood of humanity.

Atheists are always saying that atheists are on average wonderful, moral people. I wonder if they view arrogance as immoral. In any case, I just wish Stenger hadn't included lines such as that one, because they don't help his argument at all.

The final point I want to mention in the first chapter of Stenger's book actually comes up at the very beginning:

"If God exists, where is he? Philosopher Theodore Drange has termed this the lack-of-evidence argument, which he states formally as follows:
  1. Probably, if God were to exist, then there would be good objective evidence for his existence.
  2. But there is no good objective evidence for his existence.
  3. Therefore, probably God does not exist."

I'd rather not approach this as a philosopher trying to point out the weakness in the logic of this argument. Instead, I just want to say, as a human being with hopes and fears and many questions about life, this argument is not powerful because it is logically sound, but because I have a deep-seated desire for all people to find the ultimate good. Yes, that's an emotional statement, coming from a human being who wonders a lot about things like, what's the point? Is there a happy ending?

Ultimately, to respond to the arguments of an atheist cannot be a mere intellectual exercise. To deal with this question, "Does God exist?" is to deal with the question, is there a happy ending? As a Christian, it is hard not to feel genuine concern for a man like Victor Stenger, who seems so proud and secure in his beliefs that he is willing to risk all of eternity for them. It is at the same time wonderful and tragic.

But as a Christian, I can also say that God's love is the only means by which any problems, whether moral or spiritual or even intellectual, can ultimately be resolved. I hope that my reading this book will be more than just an exercise for my brain. I hope to see God at work in it.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Philosophical Meanderings on "The Dark Knight"

Spoiler Alert: If you still haven't seen The Dark Knight, you should skip this post!

So last night my family watched The Dark Knight, the second Batman movie directed by Christopher Nolan. Words cannot express how much I love this movie. With the huge recent collection of superhero movies, it's awe-inspiring to see these Batman movies stick out so prominently. While they give superhero lovers all the action and adventure they need to be excited about watching, they also capture some of the most serious themes that human beings deal with--love, loss, evil, justice, and sacrifice.

The topic I thought most about while watching The Dark Knight was justice. I have no idea where the writers for this movie are coming from in terms of worldview, but regardless, I think it implicitly gives several reasons why justice based on pure secularism is impossible. This analysis might say more about me than it does about the movie, but I still think it's worth mentioning. I just want to point out a few things that The Dark Knight teaches us about justice.

Justice cannot come from chance. The movie's main villian, the Joker, fancies himself a "better class of criminal." He doesn't care about money; in one scene, to the horror of a fellow criminal, he burns millions upon millions of dollars he has made from his crimes. He claims that his only real goal is to defy every moral constraint society imposes--to create chaos. As Alfred wisely points out to Bruce Wayne, "Some men just want to see the world burn." This love of pure chaos is precisely what makes the Joker so frightening beyond belief (that and Heath Ledger's--God rest his soul--absolutely brilliant performance).

But even the characters who are good can become evil by embracing chaos, putting their faith in chance to give them justice. Harvey Dent becomes Two Face when he decides that the death of his true love, Rachel, was the result of random chance. After all, why Rachel, and not him? He then takes his anger out on the police, who he perceives to be corrupt all around. He flips a coin to determine whether or not each one will live. Whereas before he had made his own luck--the coin he uses was once heads on both sides before one side was defaced in the explosion that nearly killed him--now he depends on random chance to give him justice. He, too, has become a monster.

Batman explains to Harvey at the end of the movie why he lived instead of Rachel. It was a choice, based on who Batman thought the city needed more at the time. True justice is based on real choices, not random chance. This ought to give us pause when we think about our origins as human beings. If we were not created by a loving God, but instead by random chance, what reason to we have to suspect that justice means anything? What hope do we have of establishing justice in a universe that is based on chance?

Justice is universal, not relative. In one of the most incredible scenes I have ever watched, the Joker attempts to show how weak humans' commitment to justice really is by giving two groups of people a choice: kill or be killed. There are two boats, one carrying more or less average, middle-class citizens, the other carrying prisoners. Each boat is loaded with enough explosives to kill everyone on the boat, and each boat is given a detonator for the other boat's explosives. The Joker gives the two boats until midnight to decide whether or not to kill the other boat. He promises that if one boat decides to kill the other, then he will not kill that boat. But if neither of them decides to kill the other, he will destroy them both.

The Joker does this kind of thing earlier in the movie on a smaller scale, forcing three criminals to fight to the death so that the survivor may join his forces. Presumably these men do indeed fight to the death, especially since they are hardened criminals who can't trust each other. One senses that there is a disturbing credibility to the Joker's theory that human beings can't be all that committed to justice after all. In the right circumstances, we will all succomb to our baser instincts.

Indeed, anyone familiar with game theory will see that the scene with the two boats couldn't possibly turn out well for justice. Both sides would have to be convinced that the other side was going to kill them, and therefore both would attempt to act quickly to save themselves. But that isn't what happens. Neither boat can produce one person who is willing to pull the trigger and kill the other boat. Even the boat with the prisoners refuses to kill the other boat. (Indeed, one of the most powerful moments in the movie comes when a prisoner asks for the detonator from the commanding officer on the boat and proceeds to throw it out the window.)

Both sides know that justice, if it is real justice, applies to everyone equally in all circumstances. It can't be one kind of justice for you and another kind of justice for me. It is universal, not relative. It is even universal in the sense that there are many things all people know to be wrong without having to be told. Of course that does not mean we are all naturally just; it just means we are capable of being just. Perhaps there are weird exceptions, but as a general principle I think this holds. If it doesn't, then what do we even mean by justice? How can justice be justice if it is not universal? But justice is universal; even a criminal knows what it is and knows deep down that it applies to him.

This does not mean that every dispute over morality can be resolved easily, but it does mean resolutions are possible. Slavery has ended all over the world because people finally confessed the truth that was already self-evident, namely that a person is not an object. Ending slavery took a huge toll on some very powerful economies in the 19th century, particularly that of the British Empire. But justice is universal, and some things should not be tolerated no matter what side-effects may result.

Justice is not purely democratic. In that same scene with the boats, the "average citizen" boat decides that they should vote on whether or not to kill the other boat. That's because a lot of them are in theory convinced that killing the other boat makes sense. So they put their trust in the democratic process to give them justice. The results are not surprising. A large majority of the boat votes yes, they should destroy the other boat.

When it comes to actually pulling the trigger, however, no one is able to volunteer. One man finally stands up, the man who was most vocal in his support of killing the other boat. "After all," he says, "they had their chance," referring to the fact that the other boat is full of prisoners. Yet despite his ability to justify himself in words, he cannot pull the trigger. He holds the detonator in his hand for a long, frightening moment, and then puts it away and returns to his seat. No one blames him. When it gets right down to it, the majority opinion just doesn't matter. Justice is not relative, even to the majority.

Many secularists believe that while morality is not relative to the individual, it is relative to the majority--that is, democracy gives us morality by definition. This is simply not the case. When we really want to work for justice, we want to work for something much grander and nobler than the will of the people, as grand and noble as that might be. Yet everyone knows how the will of the people can be horrible, and often we have to protest against it on the basis of a truth more powerful than a majority vote. Indeed, I cannot conceive how the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement would have been successful if not for the deeply spiritual impulses behind them.

This is exactly what Batman does. By becoming more than just a man, in fact by becoming a symbol, he is able to fight for a kind of justice that is both universal and more powerful than the laws made by men. And despite the Joker's assumptions about mankind, the people on the two boats--both criminals and average citizens--prove that ordinary people do believe in this kind of justice, which transcends even the will of the majority.

Justice requires sacrifice. Not just any sacrifice, either. I find Christ's sacrificial atonement intriguingly present in The Dark Knight. When Harvey Dent, who is now Two Face, falls to his death after having killed several police officers and threatened the child of Commissioner Gordon, both Gordon and Batman are crestfallen to see their hero die in shame. Gordon thinks the battle for Gotham's soul is lost, but Batman will not accept it. Because Batman is more than just a man, he can take the blame for Two Face's killings; he can be the Dark Knight, who takes blame for the very evil he fights against.

In this way Harvey Dent is, to stretch Christian terminology, a justified sinner. At the end of the film, Batman is chased by police officers--a crucifixion, of sorts--while Commissioner Gordon explains to his son that even though he has done nothing wrong, he is willing to be the bad guy for Gotham's sake. Batman's sacrifice means that Gotham will remember Harvey Dent, the saint, not Two Face, the sinner.

I think this can teach Christians a lesson on the concept of atonement. Christ died to make sinners right with God, but did He do it merely for our own sake? Is Christianity just about how I can be right with God? No, Christianity is about how God will save the world, and I think that He justifies sinners not just for their sake, but for the sake of the world. Think about all of the amazing people of this world who fight for justice and truth; then think about what would happen if we could truly see into their hearts and uncover all the wretched evil thoughts and deeds that even the best of us carry inside. God will not allow this. He saves sinners, because it is by making sinners into saints that He will save the world. He absorbs all the guilt into Himself, as we see visibly demonstrated on the cross of Jesus Christ. He is our Dark Knight, who fights evil where we cannot bear to see it, even in the depths of our own hearts.

And because we have such a Dark Knight, justice is worth fighting for. What a different message it would've sent if those two boats had been blown up by the Joker. It would have been poignant, indeed, for then we should say that one of the two boats probably should have killed the other and at least saved some lives (or worse, that in the end there was no correct decision at all--all justice is meaningless without a Savior). But the Joker did not have the last word. Batman sought him out and stopped him. In the same way, evil and chaos--that is, random unfeeling chance--will not have the last word in our world. Justice is meaningful because God will do something about evil. He is doing something about it. He has already raised Jesus Christ from the dead in defiance of it.

Of course, you can always just watch the Batman films without thinking about these things, but I prefer to let them stimulate my thinking and learn a thing or two from them. If you got The Dark Knight for Christmas, I hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Tonight is Christmas Eve, and my cousins and I just watched The Muppet Christmas Carol again, simply because we have done it for at least ten years in a row. I love that movie. It is a delightful rendition of Dickens's famous story, and really, who can resist the muppets?

Seeing that movie one more time got me thinking about traditions. So much of what we do comes from the familiarity of it. My mom's side of the family always goes to Pittsburgh for Christmas. From the time my brother and I and our three cousins were children, we always made a big event of Christmas, with all the gift-giving excitement you would expect in a typical American consumerist family. Why get rid of a good thing?

I'm happy to be here in Pittsburgh again this year, but I can't help notice how different things are. My brother, just like last Christmas, is on the other side of the Atlantic doing Christian missions. (Fortunately, he'll be with us tomorrow thanks to the wonders of Skype.) My cousin Loren is engaged to be married next year. Ethan and Eric are now thoroughly into their military careers, and I'm in graduate school. The "kids" are not kids anymore.

This is also the sixth Christmas I have celebrated without my father. Although I am glad to know that he rests in the arms of his father in heaven, I can't help but feel a little sorry for myself for having been without him all these years. I am astonished at how much more I have thought about him this Christmas season than I did in any of my four years of college. Perhaps that is because Christmas has given me the chance to reflect on these past few years more than the summer after my graduation. Perhaps I needed to look back at where I came from, so that I can assess where I've really gone since then, particularly in my college years.

I could go on about that, but I won't. Not here, anyway. I guess I was just thinking about how we tend to fall in love with the familiar patterns of life. All cultures develop some sort of calendar to keep track of time, both for practical and sentimental reasons. We need to know what's coming--what the weather will be like, for example--but we also need to set aside time to think about important events, themes, values, etc. which are represented by our various holidays.

What results from this scheme is a very cyclic view of the world. Every Christmas, we see something very familiar, and there is comfort in that. The New Year will come around just like it did last year, and we can look forward either cynically or optimistically to a lot more of what we've already seen. There is surely something good in this cycle. After all, it is part of nature for things to come in cycles.

But Christmas really isn't about cycles at all. If there's one thing the birth of Christ tells us, it's that history is going somewhere. Just as my cousins and I are not kids anymore, history also has grown up. Every year we are approaching the fulfillment of all God's promises; otherwise Christmas--the incarnation of God--is meaningless.

Human beings really have no excuse anymore for the way we continue to tolerate immorality and injustice. We have a perfect model in the man whose birth we celebrate this time of year. When I think about the atrocities of the world, whether it be the genocide in Darfur, or the terrorism of Al Qaeda, or perhaps the secret atrocities that we in the West commit daily, though we prefer not to think of them as such--I think, how can this be, seeing that God himself was born to us more than 2,000 years ago?

Yet the whole story of the world, according to Christianity, is one in which human beings cause both the downfall and the renewal of God's perfect world. "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God." (Romans 8:19) Indeed, you can already see signs of life in the dead race of man. There is love, there is joy, and there is peace this time of year, in many places all over the world, where people gather together to celebrate the God of all goodness and beauty and wonder.

God is doing something among us, and that is why we see our lives moving forward. For me, it means that these years ahead of me in are not just about building a career for the purpose of gaining enough of an income in my adult life to be comfortable. My future is all about God's future, which means ushering in an era in which people really do act like Christ. It means standing up against atrocities, showing people the most excellent way, and hopefully living ever more consistently with the message I endorse with words. I cannot just sit idly by while the world suffers, especially when God really has been so good to me.

God is moving history forward. In a world of cycles, it is easy to believe that what has happened cannot be undone, and that every year we know what to expect. But the challenge of Christmas is to believe that in fact the dead can rise again. Not only do we celebrate people being changed from Scrooges into saints, but we also look forward to a literal resurrection, in which people like my father will once again live on the earth, never to die again. No matter what it is in this world that makes our hearts sigh and yearn for things to be different, we know because of Christmas--because God is now with us--that things can be different, and they will be different.

I suppose that's the whole reason I started this blog. I know that even though history tends to repeat itself, nevertheless everything we choose to do with the time we are given matters. Every word we say, every stand we take, and every person we reach is a building block in God's project of history. If I didn't see it this way, I think I'd go insane. It's nice to take comfort in what's familiar, but a life that only goes around in circles really is meaningless. I guess I have just enough faith to believe that God is using these silly little blog posts as part of His mission to change the world.

Having said all of that, I really do think one of the best ways to change the world is to celebrate. There's nothing like a celebration to show the world that love and joy really will prevail. There's nothing like a celebration to show people that the King really is here to make things right. After all, we ought to be living in light of our hope for the future given to us by Jesus Christ, so how can we help but celebrate? The world needs to see what a real party looks like!

So to all of you out there in cyberspace...

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pro-life Atheists

I have known for some time that there exist many atheists for life in this country. Okay, maybe I shouldn't say "many," because they surely make up a tiny percentage of the population. Nevertheless, I think it's essential to realize how many people can make perfectly valid secular arguments against abortion.

Still, I was almost shocked when I saw a Newsweek article published recently that reveals an amazing fact--Christopher Hitchens, the infamous atheist, calls himself pro-life:

Hitchens, known for his defiant and politically incorrect positions, takes an uncharacteristic middle path on abortion. When asked whether he is "pro-life," he answers in the affirmative. He has repeatedly defended the use of the term "unborn child" against those on the left who say that an aborted fetus is nothing more than a growth, an appendix, a polyp. " 'Unborn child' seems to me to be a real concept. It's not a growth or an appendix," he says. "You can't say the rights question doesn't come up."

Now Hitchens isn't entirely consistent in this belief. He doesn't think Roe v Wade should be overturned, and he apparently thinks we should merely replace surgical abortion with abortifacient drugs like RU-486. Still, I get the sense that he simply feels stuck between a rock and a hard place on the issue: "I'm happy to say some problems don't have solutions," he says (quoted in the article).

Of course I get what he's saying. No one wants women to be forced to have children. In a culture where women are sometimes still treated like objects (consider the persistently high rates of sexual assault on college campuses) it's easy to see why women don't want to be thought of merely as vessels for an unborn child. And yet, the undeniable biological fact is that a unique human life begins at conception. It is awfully callous for people to be talking as if a human being might not be counted as a person, or might not have the right to live.

Yet Hitchens is at least on the right track. He apparently doesn't realize that Roe v Wade essentially allows a mother to abort for any reason. It is true that Roe contains language that would seem to allow abortions only up to the "point of viability," but it also allows abortions after the point of viability for the sake of protecting the mother's "health"--which wouldn't be all bad, except that a partner case, Doe v Bolton, made the mother's "health" a rather loosely defined term (oh, you gotta love lawyers). If Hitchens really looked at the facts, I don't see how he would still support Roe.

And of course using abortifacient drugs is still abortion. If Hitchens really wanted to be consistent, he would have to be in favor of limiting even these kinds of abortions. Nevertheless, pro-lifers need to realize that while we don't really have an advocate in Chris Hitchens, we do have a potential ally, if only we can learn to be sensitive to the issues he is sensitive about.

Personally, I have find religious arguments against abortions both unnecessary and rarely useful. The Bible never mentions the practice of abortion, and even if it did, would we need to first convince the whole world that the Bible is true before we could make a case against abortion? Of course not. Just because people choose to reject Christianity does not mean they can easily shake off the idea that every human life is valuable.

As far as I know, every respectable pro-life apologist out there tends to stick to the strictly secular arguments against abortion. With articles like the one that appeared this month in Newsweek, maybe people will stop viewing the pro-life movement as a bunch of religious fanatics.

Additionally, the pro-life movement is already doing a lot to become more and more sensitive to women's issues, so as to win people over with compassion. One need only look at the ministry of pregnancy centers, or the work of Feminists for Life, to see that.

So could this be a sign that we're winning the debate? It's not at all clear. There are still clearly a number of misconceptions about Roe v Wade (and a total lack of awareness of Doe v Bolton), and there are still many reasons for people to cling to abortion as a solution to serious problems in our culture.

Yet there is something validating to know that such a famous contrarian as Chris Hitchens considers himself pro-life. Indeed, what could be more anti-establishment than opposing a practice that has been forced on us for almost 36 years? I consider myself very progressive on this issue, as should all pro-lifers.

Who knows? Maybe with enough patience and persistence in breaking down old stereotypes of the pro-life movement, we will eventually win over our secular culture to see the importance of defending life in the womb. Christians can always hope that our culture will embrace the Christian tradition as well, but that shouldn't be the only way in a free society like ours to save little innocent children from destruction.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

No Intelligence Allowed

Last night I got to watch Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. It was a very good movie that exposes the way in which the academic elite discourages discussion about Darwinian evolution. Stein gives no actual arguments in favor of any particular "intelligent design" theory, although he does give a fascinating and moving investigation of the link between Darwinism and social philosophies such as Nazism. (This part of the movie gets very personal for Stein, a Jew, but it also, I think, gives some real insight into some of the intellectual problems people have with Darwinism.) In any case his purpose is mainly to expose the lack of freedom in current scientific discussion. I highly recommend the movie.

The real crux of the whole debate between "Darwinian" theories of evolution and theories about "intelligent design" is the question, "What is science?" This is what I infer when I hear criticisms of intelligent design from people like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, who like to make blanket statements such as, "It's not science." The word science these days carries with it a certain authority, as in the statement, "Global warming is a scientific fact." A large part of our culture now views scientists as experts on what they consider the only real objective truth. But what kind of truth is that?

What is science? Having majored in math and physics in college, and having taken a course in the philosophy of science, I'd like to think I know a little something about how difficult this question really is. I think it depends on what you think is at stake. If you think science is just one of the many academic pursuits that leads to real, objective truth, then that's one thing. If, on the other hand, you think that science must by definition be only legitimate pursuit of objective truth, then I should warn you, you must question whether what our culture calls "science" really is the total package.

I have no doubt that scientists today really are discovering objective truth about the world. The vast majority of people do not dispute this. Some scientists like Dawkins, however, are prone to go so far as to say that scientists are the only ones gaining objective truth. Most scientists would not say they are the only people with intellectual merit. However, some would say that the only questions with objective answers are the ones they study--this is key.

Frankly, I can relate. I'm a mathematician, for crying out loud. I could just as easily say that the only questions with objective answers are the ones I study. I certainly don't think there's much comparison between mathematics and biology (Dawkins' field). The kind of precision and rigor that is required in mathematics makes it extremely trustworthy, and of course that's one thing that's so appealing to me about the subject.

Even so, my friends who are apt to complain about mathematics are right: Who cares? If these really are the only kinds of questions with objective answers, then heck, we're screwed. If questions about meaning, purpose, ultimate beauty, and maybe even eternity are just unanswerable, then we humans have lost the search for knowledge, because it isn't there. The existentialists would have us make up our own answers, but really, can anyone really live with a purpose he just made up for himself? My own conscience would repeatedly nag at me, saying, "Uh, hello? Get real!"

So, maybe science doesn't answer all of life's important, objective questions. Then why worry about evolution? Isn't it just a theory that explains a natural phenomena, something that falls in the realm of science?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Evolutionary theory is about the mechanism by which all species came into existence. This has profound philosophical implications for us as human beings. Intuitively, one would think that the way in which we came into being has a great deal to do with our purpose or meaning in this universe. If we came about unintentionally, that rather makes us look like the bastard children of the universe.

Evolutionary scientists like Dawkins are actually willing to accept this, and they parade around their atheistic views for the whole world to see. I fail to see how anyone can live with this kind of worldview, but I won't go on about that, since I already have previously on my blog.

Even those scientists who don't accept this worldview, however, seem to insist that scientific theories can't involve discussions of purpose and meaning. The problem is, the link between the meaning of human existence and the origin of the human species is unbreakable. Human beings need to know.

Intelligent design tends to get written off as just trying to rebuild a case for the Genesis 1 account of creation. However, it's really not that. It's simply a non-Darwinian explanation of evolution. There's this idea of "specified complexity," that is, if something (say, a cell) is very complex and could not have existed without all the parts coming into existence at the same time, then the mechanism by which it came into being must be something called "intelligent design," as opposed to "random chance."

The typical response I hear to this is that it's more of the same "God of the gaps" stuff: I can't explain X, so therefore X is an inexplicable act of a higher intelligence. I disagree; I think intelligent design theorists are trying to flesh out a genuine understanding of intelligent design as an explicable mechanism. That is, there should be some criterion by which to classify a particular biological development as "designed." Specified complexity is one attempt at such a criterion.

The problem is that many evolutionists will say that this kind of pursuit is inherently worthless. An explanation of the universe involving "design" isn't elegant enough. That's what people like Dawkins say. But isn't that really just a way of saying that doesn't fit a particular worldview? Should science necessarily operate under the assumptions of philosophical naturalism? I don't think so.

There is something attractive, of course, about a theory that is simple, yet universally applicable--that is, elegant. Newton's theory of gravity works that way: instead of saying that gravity just happens to apply here on earth, he said it applies to all objects with mass. This is an elegant theory; there is a principle behind it that can be applied to all things equally.

Yet the assumption that all legitimate explanations of the universe must be this way is a bold one, and it is actually shockingly theistic. Where would we expect such uniformity in the universe to come from? A universe that came about by chance? In any case, I'm sure it's impossible to have purely empirical reasons for thinking that all scientific theories should have this particular "elegant" form.

The final irony for me is that I suspect that evolutionary theory is more correct than Intelligent Design theory, precisely because of my particular theistic view of science. I do think that elegant theories are somehow more likely to be true. There is a certain elegance--i.e. uniform simplicity--inherent in the universe, and to me this is bound up in the fact that God created it. I think Francis Collins does a stellar job of explaining this.

The important thing for our culture is that scientists keep these discussions open. The danger is that in embracing philosophical naturalism as the only "objective" way to see the world, scientists have begun to squelch critical questions. If science is not the only path to objective truth, then science needs to allow itself to be influenced by other realms of human thought. In particular, we do need to pay attention to what we think it means to be human even as we study the origin of our species.

After all, is doing science really worth it if we're just the bastard children of the universe?

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Tyranny of "Choice"

The incoming Obama administration has posted a memo that gives in detail the wish-list of the various pro-choice advocacy groups who support him. What did that memo say? Let's take a look at some key points.

The President’s budget should strike language restricting abortion funding for ... Medicaid-eligible women and Medicare beneficiaries (Hyde amendment)...

The Hyde amendment was passed in 1976, three years after Roe v Wade was passed, in order to prevent the government from funding abortions with taxes. Bottom line: pro-"choice" groups want me to help pay for abortions.

The budget submitted to Congress also should omit language known as the Federal Refusal Clause (Weldon amendment) and call on Congress to reject this language in its annual health spending bill.

The Weldon amendment, according to this pro-choice web page, simply allows health care providers to refuse to do abortions. Bottom line: pro-"choice" groups want doctors to be forced to participate in the practice of abortion.

Abortion. What exactly are we talking about here? What are my tax dollars going to pay for?  I always hear about a woman's right to "choose."  Choose what?  A job?  A house?  A car?  What?

The picture I put on this blog post is a picture of a baby who would've been aborted last year if it hadn't been for the efforts of committed pro-lifers. Behind the baby through the car window you can see the abortion clinic where he would've been aborted (read: killed).

Now, imagine telling one of these pro-lifers, "We're not asking you to agree with the practice of abortion; we're just telling you to pay for it." Have I no right to be outraged? Is this not pure tyranny?

And what about those doctors who cannot in good conscience participate in the practice of abortion? A while back I blogged about this very thing. Imagine if all the Catholic hospitals in this country were forced to shut down because of the tyranny of "choice."

Have I no right to choose? Does Barack Obama have no respect for my right to stand up for my brothers and sisters who are being crucified for the sake of "women's rights"? What a mockery it all is. If poor women need food, clothing, shelter, jobs--anything--I would be happy to sacrifice what I have for them. Instead, the government would have me pay for abortions, so that all women have "equal access" to so-called "health care."

I guess we'll see whether the great Barack Obama is able to follow through with this pro-"choice" agenda. Funny, that word "choice." I never thought it meant forcing people to do what you want.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Environmentalists foiled by beavers

OK! Magazine has an absolutely hilarious story:

GREEN campaigners called police after discovering an illegal logging site in a nature reserve – only to find the culprits were a gang of beavers.

Environmentalists found 20 neatly stacked tree trunks and others marked with notches for felling at a beauty-spot in Subkowy, northern Poland.

But when officers followed a trail left by a tree which had been dragged away, they found a beaver dam right across the river, as reported by the 
Austrian Times.

A police spokesman said: "The campaigners are feeling pretty stupid. There's nothing more natural than a beaver."

It's too bad nature can't cooperate with nature-lovers.

Do you know what the Electoral College does?

An editorial by Ed Feulner appeared on today highlighting the fact that most Americans just don't really know how government works.  You can find the article here.

According to the article, "The ISI [Intercollegiate Studies Institute] gave more than 2,500 people a 33-question quiz about basic historical and constitutional principles. The average score: 49 percent."

Here are some other results of the test:

* Fewer than half can name all three branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial).

* Only 53 percent realize Congress has the power to declare war (even though lawmakers have voted twice in the last eight years to approve foreign wars).

* Just 55 percent know that Congress shares authority over foreign policy with the president. Roughly 25 percent mistakenly believe that Congress shares its foreign policy authority with the United Nations.

This is perhaps the most disturbing part:

In ISI’s sample, 164 of the 2,508 respondents said they had been elected to government office at least once. There’s no way of knowing if this meant federal, state or local government. But it’s sobering to note that those who say they’ve held office earned an average score of 44 percent on the civic literacy test -- lower than the public they were elected to serve.

And get this:

Among these officeholders, almost half (43 percent) don’t know what the Electoral College does. One in five guessed it “trains those aspiring for higher political office” or “was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates” instead of identifying its actual role: selecting the president of the United States.

So not only are voters tragically uninformed, but the people we're voting for are, as well.

I have a recommendation to anyone who wishes to change this state of affairs. Read the US Constitution. It's actually not long at all. My pocket-sized version is only 37 pages, including all the amendments. Compare this to the European Union Constitution, where the "reader friendly" version has 219 pages.

And if you're not good with big words, they even have a version of the US Constitution for kids!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My brother should appreciate this

A few days ago my brother posted a note with the same title on his blog.  Now I get to return the favor.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Reason for Good

I have very much enjoyed Tim Keller's The Reason for God, so the following complaint ought not to leave anyone with the impression that I disagree fundamentally with anything the book says.  Still, I don't think I'm just being nit-picky when I make this complaint.

In Chapter 11, entitled, "Religion and the Gospel," Keller lays out the classic evangelical reasoning for doing good works, as opposed to the supposedly Pharisaic view:

In the gospel, the motivation is one of gratitude for the blessing we already received because of Christ.  While the moralist is forced into obedience, motivated by fear of rejection, a Christian rushes into obedience, motivated by a desire to please and resemble the one who gave his life for us.

This is great and everything, but I have two problems with it.  One is simply a common sense problem.  I tend to sympathize with my atheist friends who point out, "Why can't one do good simply because it is good?"  Indeed, it sometimes feels just as trite to try to please God out of gratitude as it does to try to earn God's favor with good works.  Gratitude is wonderful, but it really is only one the many emotions that drives us in our Christian life.

The second reason is that I honestly don't see the Bible itself put such a great emphasis on this gratitude bit.  Honestly, most of the time you see that good works are motivated by reward.  See, for instance, the words of Jesus countless times in the Sermon on the Mount.  But even in Paul, who for some evangelicals is thought to teach nothing ever except justification by faith, you see how good works are done in order to gain a reward:

I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.  Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that you may win it. (1 Corinthians 9:23-24)

For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming?  Is it not you?  Yes, you are our glory and joy! (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20)

For he will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life... (Romans 2:6-7)

The way some people talk about Paul, you would have thought the answer to Paul's rhetorical question in 1 Thessalonians 2:19 was going to be, "Nothing but the blood of Jesus!"  While that is a great song, and true as far as it goes, Paul doesn't say that, and in fact he really seems convinced that his good works (namely bringing the Thessalonians to Christ) will be cause for boasting when the Lord Jesus comes.

Well, I suppose one could take all of this biblical data a little too far if one is not careful.  But it does suggest that gratitude as a motivation for good works might not be sufficient.

The way I have come to see it is more in terms of Jesus as a true political leader (after all, we do call him "King," do we not?) and as such, he brings a certain vision to his reign over the world.  Think of our own political system.  Some people really think Barack Obama is the Messiah or something.  Why?  Is it not because they think he's promised them the right direction for America?  Is it not because he's going to bring us "Change"?  The hope is that by following his plan, all will now be right with the world.

Only God is the real thing.  Jesus Christ is the true Messiah, the one whose vision of the world actually is all it's cracked up to be.  His notions of power, goodness, love, justice, and truth are all exactly what we need them to be.  His rule will be as described in all those amazing prophecies like Isaiah 9:2-7 and 11:1-9.

So why do we do good works?  I think it is honestly for reasons similar to the reasons people went out and volunteered for the Obama campaign.  Change is coming.  A new vision of the world is here.  This is what human beings are made for, and this really is what drives us.  When Paul talks about boasting before Jesus Christ, I think the sentiment being expressed is, "Yeah, the King is now here, and I had a part in his campaign!"

Jesus Christ's campaign isn't a campaign for votes.  It is more of a military campaign, in which all evil will be vanquished.  To be part of that is exactly what we were made for, and when you start to think about it in these terms, there's no reason to really ask anymore, "Why do good works?"  This is simply what we were made for; there's no denying the attractiveness of it.

Change is coming.  God is here.  We, through our actions, can be part of His campaign to take over the world.  Or we can continue to be those rebels who get overthrown.  The core message of the Bible seems to be, take your pick--either way, God is going to win.


So, I finished reading Tim Keller's The Reason for God, which I last blogged about here.  There is much to praise about the book, and I especially enjoy the last three chapters of the book.  Keller has a very good explanation of why Jesus had to die, and his chapter on "The (True) Story of the Cross" is almost a sermon on what it truly means to forgive.

Forgiveness means absorbing the debt of the sin yourself.  Everyone who forgives great evil goes through a death into resurrection, and experiences nails, blood, sweat, and tears.

There really is something about being wronged that makes a person physically ill.  I mean, you can literally feel the hurt flowing through your body.  That's what you have to absorb in order to truly forgive someone.  And yet, in parables that appear in passages such as Matthew 18:23-35, we read that the sins we have to forgive others are petty and worthless compared to the sins God must forgive us for.  Forgiveness, then, really is a requirement that Jesus makes of us (see Matthew 5:14-15).  I suppose it's true what Christians say: the more you realize God has forgiven you, the more you realize how right it is to forgive others.

I know there are many who object to this idea, and I've had some objections, myself.  I mean, does everyone in the world really owe God that much?  What about people who are just plain awesome--always giving to the poor, doing great things for the community, and generally being nice, wonderful people?

I think it helps to look at things in terms of the grand narrative that Christianity presents.  In the beginning, God created us with power over the perfect world that He had created.  Our rebellion consisted not in breaking this or that petty commandment, but really in destroying this perfect created order.  The message of the Old Testament is that the human race, corporately, in cooperation with one another (a cooperation that disintegrated precisely because of our sin) destroyed the perfect order God gave us.

I don't think we owe God more than we can ever pay simply because God the lawyer can cite points A, B, and C where we have failed to live up to His standard.  I think we owe Him more than we can ever pay because we, the creatures He designed to be leaders over a perfect world, used our power to achieve our own greedy ends.  We, the vice-regents, set ourselves up as kings.  Even the most kind, nice, and moral people among us have taken part in this rebellion, in which the One True King of all creation has been rejected by His people.  So it's not really a question of how "nice" we are.  It's simply a question of who we serve.

God is clearly not the tyrant in this image.  Although rebellion is the thing He condemns us for, it is not because He can't stand to be out of control.  Clearly, God has been happy to let us make our own decisions, i.e. our own mess of things for thousands of years.  Yet God has always been there in the midst of our faulty, divided kingdom.  He is uncompromising and unyielding in His methods.  His method has always been love, even when it means the kingdoms have literally destroyed themselves by their own evil.

In a way, God's love is oppressive.  His forgiveness is offensive, as forgiveness so often is.  You know--someone forgives you, and you begin to resent them for being the kind of person who can forgive you for what you did.  You begin to say in your heart, "Oh, I bet they think they're better than I am."  It really is hard to be forgiven, to realize that yes, you actually did damage to someone else that had to be absorbed, not merely forgotten.

But in thinking about all of this, I have begun to realize that God forgives not simply because it is good for us, but surely because it is good for Him.  As Hebrews 12:2 rather mysteriously says about Jesus, he "for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame...."  It is a nice sentimental (and true) thing to say that God didn't have to forgive us, but He did for our sake.  Yet it is also true, and powerfully so, that God forgave us for His sake.

That means there is something fundamentally good about forgiving.  We don't simply owe that much to God that we must forgive everyone.  It is also good for us.  In a truly Christian worldview, to forgive is to show or perhaps gain strength.  Just as you can imagine a warrior becoming stronger by defeating more and more enemies, so does a person become stronger by defeating evil right where it strikes the hardest--in the heart.  Forgiveness is indeed a powerful weapon.

That is why to me, Christ's death on the cross really was an incredible victory, not just for us but for him.  It is something we should emulate (indeed, he commands us to--see Luke 14:27).  Of course without the resurrection, the victory of the cross would be no victory at all.  Still, the crucifixion stands in my mind as Christ's true weapon against evil.  In fact, I will venture so far as to say it is still a weapon being used against evil today, whereby God still absorbs the evil that is being committed against Him even now.

All of this helps me to realize the value of forgiveness in my own life.  I look back on all of those times I let things get to me, instead of absorbing them, and I realize I missed a chance to become stronger.  I missed out on something desirable not only for others, but even for myself.  Just think how empowered someone must feel when they actually don't feel the need to retaliate against someone who does them wrong.

You will have to forgive me, dear reader, whoever you are, for going on and on with this.  I just think it's so wonderful when these truths come together, not just sentimentally, but logically.  God is a God we can actually think about, and He makes sense.  Hallelujah.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Robot solves a Rubik's cube

So, my brother put this video up on his blog, saying I should appreciate this.  Indeed, I did.

I'm sorry, I don't care what you think of math and science.  That's just cool.

My mother is a public school special education teacher, so I've been hearing about teachers' union politics roughly all my life.  Unions never sounded to me like a good idea, mostly because I have a strong philosophical bent toward merit pay.  Even if unions have a place in the workforce, particularly in education, one has to look at the facts about teachers' unions today and see that they are rather ineffective in ensuring quality education for students.

Check out this video:

The Truth about Teachers Unions from Union Facts on Vimeo.

I happened to find this web site,, and I was really impressed by how well it is put together, exposing the flaws in the current system.  I think education is probably my #2 political issue, right after right to life issues.  Good education is the only way to maintain a free society, and right now, according to the web site, our education is the worst in the world per dollar spent.

Something has to be done, and I think that includes reforms to give power back in the hands of the students and parents of students, and out of the hands of teachers' unions.  I'll definitely be keeping a close watch on this issue.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Problem of Suffering

I've been thinking a lot lately about justice. One of the biggest (and most logically cogent) complaints people have about Christianity is that it has tremendous difficulty explaining evil and suffering in this world. Atheism offers a chillingly logical explanation: there is suffering because the universe does not care whether or not we suffer, and we happen not to be invincible in the universe as it exists. So, do the best you can, and try to appreciate all that is good in life. In the end, there's not going to be any cosmic justice. The universe does not care that you're here now, and it won't care when you leave. So forget about the big picture and focus on living a good life now.

There are no apparent logical contradictions here, except that it makes the whole pursuit of justice an absurdity. I think this idea is well-developed in lots of authors from C. S. Lewis to present day apologists like Timothy Keller. Oh, and speaking of Keller, I'm reading his book, The Reason for God, which also happens to be why I'm writing this post right now. It's a nice read, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in answers to hard questions about Christianity.

Keller develops the point about why the pursuit of justice is absurd in an atheistic universe in the ninth chapter of his book, entitled, "The Knowledge of God." He makes the case that each of us already knows there is a God, and we think and act on that knowledge every time we make an assertion like, "This is wrong."

I've heard this kind of thing before, and it's the kind of thing that gets people on both sides of religious debates going in circles. Atheists will be floored by the idea that you have to have some big God telling you what to do in order to have a sense of right and wrong. And then Christians will wonder why atheists can't see how if it's all up to us, then really right and wrong are just relative and therefore meaningless. It's so simple, each side thinks, wondering how the other side could allow themselves to be trapped in such a web of nonsense.

Fortunately, Keller has been talking with people who have genuinely well-thought doubts about Christianity long enough to know better. That's why for all of his typical evangelical arguments he also makes some appeal to what I think is the more potent side of Christian thought.

Here's what he writes in his second chapter, on suffering:

The Biblical view of things is resurrection--not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired by will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater.

Having recently read N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, I am lately rediscovering the incredible power of the truly orthodox Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. It is not a belief that gives hope to the mere individual. The resurrection of the dead will bring with it healing and restoration to the cosmos, a perfection of all creation.

It seems to me that once you brush aside all the meaningless semantics, the fundamental difference between Christianity and other worldviews is the view of what the world is going to become, and how it is going to become that way. Atheism especially predicts no happy ending for humans, no real goal toward which we as a race are moving. But Christianity predicts a future made for human beings to flourish--yet not just humans, but all creation. This gives objectivity to the concept of justice. We know certain things are right and certain things are wrong because we know that one day, things will be like this, and not like that.

We will live forever; we will not die. It is bad when people die, and it is wrong when people kill each other. We will lack nothing, and we will be perfectly content. It is bad when people don't have enough, and it is wrong when people steal from one another. There is a whole logic to justice founded on the objective reality that we anticipate as Christians. All justice can be seen as a glimpse of the future we long for, the future we know will come with the resurrection of the dead.

How will this be accomplished? Through suffering, Christianity says. Not just our suffering, but even the suffering of God, who suffered on the cross. And not only that, but even the suffering of the whole creation--see Romans 8:19-23.

We have the what, the how, but there still is this elusive, "why?" Why should we suffer? Why does God allow us to suffer? Why does God subject his creation to suffering? Even if He's justified in doing so, why? Even if the fact that He suffered for us justifies the fact that He allows our suffering, well, why did He suffer? Could He not have chosen some other path?

I think that Christians must all admit that in some sense, this "why" will always be elusive. Just read the book of Job; in the end, God didn't really see the need to answer Job's question, nor did Job persist in demanding one. Yet I've always found this question fruitful. It always causes me to remember amazing things. I always remember how the greatest memories of my life are those which involved the most hardships. I remember how every time I've found something worth pursuring, there always seemed to be a degree of pain involved. I remember how often conquering pain can be a far greater pleasure than any pleasure that comes in the absence of pain.

Most of all, I remember that Jesus is the great conquerer. He does not merely deflect pain and suffering. He absorbs it, takes it into himself, and destroys it. That is a true conqueror.

With that kind of conquering spirit, who knows what the body of Christ could do today? Save the world, maybe? At the very least, we could give a glimpse of what we know must one day come. The sooner the better, I say.