Debate, Doubt, and Darwin

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Not long ago I posted a review of Darwin’s Doubt which went viral and provoked the response of a fiery graduate student.  The review and pursuant conversation actually provoked a conversation of its own.

A bumper sticker I’ve seen around in Seattle protests the War on Terror, warning that “We’re making enemies faster than we can kill them…” Without wading into matters of national defense and military strategy, I’ll give the author of the slogan this much: Any strategy that focuses too much on attacking people, and not enough on making reasoned arguments, is doomed to fail in winning hearts and minds.

For an illustration, take a look at a post by Reverend James Miller, of Glenkirk Church in Glendora, CA. He recently explained….

Read the rest here….

Muddy Morality

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This article was posted on the Download Youth Ministry blog, one of the most well-read youth ministry websites out there.

One of the most and least popular Sunday school classes I ever taught involved a lot of mud.  “Most” popular, I say, because the students always remembered it.  “Least” popular, because their parents weren’t all that happy with the results.

Early on Sunday morning, I walked out onto the church lawn with a hose.  This was one of those formal churches, where the girls where frilly dresses and the boys wore handsome suits.  On the front lawn of the church that day, I made a mud puddle.  And by “puddle,” I mean lake….

Read the rest here.

Everyone Knows God Is There

MMI knew there was a college guy out there somewhere settling into a dorm, scoping out the weekend nightlife, and generally not thinking about the fact that his flippant comment about church had brought his mother to my doorstep. She caught me on the patio after church almost in tears. She told me her son was in his first year at college and had given up on everything she had taught him about faith. Years of Sunday school instruction had amounted to firm agnosticism. So many childhood bedtime prayers had now resulted in an adulthood of sleeping in on the weekends. She described recent conversations and arguments and e-mails, which had concluded in a closed door.

“How do I convince him that there is a God?” she asked….

 

Read the rest here.

Certainly Agnostic

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Posted on the Christian Apologetics Alliance

When I offer an apologetics seminar that I call “Know Why You Believe,” I find that the skeptical attendees have a preferred label for themselves.  “So I’m an agnostic,” says the first person to raise his hand, and that is the preface to his question.  A few others nod their heads eagerly.

I’m not sure if I believe him or not.  But I’ve finally come up with a good, brief answer….

Read the rest here.

Changing My Mind on Darwin

ImageSo I’ve changed my mind about Darwinism.  I guess I have to tell you where my mind was to tell you where it now is.

I’ve never invested much study in evolution because I was neither threatened by it theologically nor enchanted by it philosophically.  The biology teachers taught it to me.  I can explain it.  As a follower of Jesus, I can see a viable explanation for how God could do it that way.  I’m also not overly confident that science is fueled by objective curiosity rather than passionate self-interest and ideology, money and power.  Science is motivated reasoning on its best days.

When I listen to militant Christians talk about Darwinism, it’s pretty clear they aren’t scientists, don’t know what they’re talking about, and aren’t even open-minded enough to think about the subject.  When I listen to militant Darwinists, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t scientists, don’t know what they’re talking about, and aren’t even open-minded enough to think about the subject.  I guess there are just so many fundamentalists in this debate on both sides, I’ve stayed away from it entirely.  I read a few books about it years ago and felt like there were a few intelligent people arguing for and against, surrounded by a cacophony of lunatics.

I’ve just read Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt.  Meyer is a Cambridge PhD in philosophy of science.  He hangs out with the Intelligent Design people.  His writing is fluid, detailed, and reasonable.  He seems to know what he’s talking about.

The book makes the case for the fact that the fossil record doesn’t support Darwinism.  The sudden appearance of new phyla without sufficient time for the mutation and selection process to work is simply unaccounted for by the rocks.

The problem is that when Meyer says things like, “the Precambrian fossil record simply does not document the gradual emergence of the crucial distinguishing characteristics of the Cambrian animals,” how on earth should I know if he’s right?  I don’t have time to immerse myself in paleontology.  I’ll never be an expert.  I just have four hundred pages of articulate, self-assured, well-documented evidence for Meyer’s case.

So here’s how I find my way into a conversation on subjects that are not my primary field of study.  I read the reviews that are antagonistic to the source and just look at the logic that’s employed.  I find that this often gives me the best read on a work.  If the critics are sincere, the reviews are usually precise.

The New Yorker’s review began with a genetic fallacy, presented arguments that Meyer had refuted without mentioning that Meyer had addressed them, and then deferred to another blogger for the scientific content of the review.  It then called Meyer “absurd,” which, given how shoddy the review actually is, was an absurd thing to do.

Then I read the review from which the New Yorker piece got its “science,” which was actually written by a grad student at Berkeley.  Now I have to say that Berkeley is, in fact, one of my fields of expertise, and I know exactly how Berkeley grad students go about their “work.”  Somehow Berkeley selects the crazies and the militants who show the most promise and then teaches them that knowledge is a completely subjective power tool which should be manipulated by those on an ideological crusade to undermine authority.  I’m not kidding.  I went to Berkeley.  That’s what we did.

What’s interesting about the grad student’s review is that it was posted 24 hours after the release of Meyer’s book, and it’s filled with snark.  He’s not having an intelligent conversation, he’s insulting Meyer in order to defend something religiously.  In a later, defensive review, the grad student says that he read the book “during lunch.” He read over 400 pages of scientific material during lunch, and then posted an insulting review.  He says his detractors are just “slow readers.” People who win speed reading competitions tend to cover 1,000 words per minute (maybe 4 pages) with 50% comprehension.  That level of comprehension is almost useless, and it becomes less useful the more information-rich the content.  A book of Meyer’s size would have taken an hour and forty minutes at that pace, with minimal retention, and that’s if you’re not, oh, say, eating lunch.  On top of that, the review is almost 10,000 words long, which would take some time to write, making it highly suspicious that the review was written after the book was read and not before, in anticipation of the book’s release.

See, this is how I know who to trust in academic communities.  The charlatans have no character.  You read the grad student’s defenses of his review (and they sound a little panicked), and you realize that he has been following Christians around and arguing with them for years with an inquisitor’s zeal.  There’s a personal agenda here, and his approach to new information on the subject is anything but scientific.

Now I start to smell a rat, and I change tactics.  Now I really want Meyer to be wrong.  I want one, good, solid review by an objective thinker, maybe even a Christian, who can debunk Meyer.

So then I read Donald Prothero’s review.  He’s a paleontologist and a scholar.  It begins with a caricature and a smear, saying that anyone who questions evolution suffers from confirmation bias (explain Thomas Nagel?).  He then says they have PhD’s in the wrong fields and thus aren’t qualified to discuss evolution (Meyer, again, studied philosophy of science).  Then he launches into unsubstantiated accusations, saying there are errors on every page.  He says Meyer claims the Cambrian explosion happened “all at once.” Now look, I just read Meyer, and he doesn’t say that at all.  This isn’t a mistake.  This is a lie.  The truth comes out as he goes on to refer to Meyer’s religion as a “fairy tale.” Again, I haven’t found a scientific mind.  I’ve found another fundamentalist.

Now I start to sweat.  A host of scientists have endorsed the book (http://www.darwinsdoubt.com/blurbs/).  I want one to reject it on perfectly level-headed grounds, with no patronizing rhetoric.

Another definitive work on the Cambrian Explosion came out in January of this year.  Called The Cambrian Explosion, it attempts to give a scientific explanation for how so much variety erupted in such a short time.  The authors say “the Cambrian explosion can be considered an adaptive radiation only by stretching the term beyond all recognition.” That means the evolutionists are saying the fossil evidence doesn’t bolster evolution in this particular era.

The New York Times ran a science article last month that said that scientists will spend the coming years trying to figure out what combination of environmental triggers caused the Cambrian explosion.  It doesn’t mention Meyer.  It also seems to leave a big, open question mark about why we need to defend Darwinism at points where the evidence leans away from it.

So now I’ve changed my mind.  I don’t think the fossil evidence does support the current representation of Darwinism.  I think there are some otherwise well-trained scientists who are freaking out, and doing it in widely public and observable ways.  Their lack of command of reason is a tell-tale sign that their motives for defending their orthodoxy are not scientific.  And I believe the failure of the scientific communities to engage in this conversation in a rational way is a manifestation of power brokering rather than honest intellectual engagement.

Could humanity have evolved?  Sure.  But the case isn’t as strong as they told me in biology class.

When is a thought not a thought?

ImageI’m not sure if everyone follows this, so forgive me if this is abstract.  I just kind of find it hilarious and awfully compelling.

If you don’t believe in God, you believe the world is fundamentally matter and that life came about through the process of evolution.  Evolution requires only the survival of the fittest, and survival simply comes about through 4 things: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproduction.  That’s it.  At no point along the way do your thoughts about the world around you actually have to truly represent the world around you.

For instance, an evolutionary psychologist might tell you that mild paranoia actually gives you better chances of survival than realism, so you may have evolved into a kind of paranoia that you now think is an accurate picture of reality.  In other words, your thoughts about what is “true” and “real” simply aren’t, because you’re more likely to survive this way.

That means that when you say “I don’t believe in God,” you are saying that you can’t trust your thoughts to actually reveal reality.  You don’t trust your own thoughts to be true.  As a consequence, your perception that there is no God can’t be trusted to be true, and thus you don’t believe in your own atheism.

If this seems silly on first glance, you might want to give it a second thought.

Hardwired

Philosophers of all stripes are coming to see that scientific methodology can fundamentally undermine itself.

These are the kinds of things I speculate about in

Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know.

The Ground

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I remember reading about a man badly injured in a car accident.  When asked about the vehicle that hit him, he said, “I didn’t see the truck, just the crash.”  Sometimes we’re so panicked about the crash, we miss what hit us.

The Greek poet Epimenides saw things that most people miss.  He was hailed as a prophet, and legends about him supersede history – that he slept for 50 years, that he lived for 300, that before he died his body appeared tattooed, and that he saw visions.  However, what little we have of his poetry doesn’t suggest mystical visions so much as common sense.  I wonder if prophets are sometimes just people who saw what hit them.Image

He wrote a poem called the Cretica, The Cretan.  It was a poem about Zeus, king of the gods.  In it, the king of Crete tells Zeus that the Cretans have lied by building a tomb to Zeus.  However, King Minos knows that Zeus is eternal and needs no tomb, because “in you we live and move and have our being.”

Two things interest me about the poem.  One, he doesn’t charge them with a mistake; he charges them with lying.  Given the nature of the issue, I’m not sure who they could be lying to except themselves.  Two, his proof is not data to be analyzed, but existence on the whole.  In you we live, we are active, we exist.  Without you, someone has to explain life arising from inanimate matter, motion, and a universe that has somehow come to be.

Hasn’t it always been the case that when one claims that God is dead, whether a Roman centurion stationed outside of Jesus’ tomb or Friedrich Nietzsche stationed on the doorstep of the 20th century, we’re taking part in a grand self-deception that is corrected by reality itself?  God is the ground on which we stand, and I cannot deny him any more surely than I can stay in mid-jump.  Without God, there’s no reason why there should be a universe rather than not, and no explanation for how something came from nothing.  Without God, there is no explanation for the constant motion in which life is immersed, motion which pushes us, as Sartre said, inevitably towards moral crisis and commitment.  And without God, there is no explanation for how inanimate matter produced consciousness and mental properties, as even atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has admitted.

The Apostle Paul quotes Epimenides (Acts 17:28) when he engaged the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill.  He’s proof-texting from their own library.  It’s as if to say, “You already know God is there.  Your own poets have said so.  Your own prophet would call you a liar for denying it.”

I think the charge of lying may be harsh, though technically correct.  I might use a different word for it.  It’s a coping mechanism.  The reality is that crashes are startling and leave us resentful of a fragile world in which they happen.  Denying the possibility of a good, overseeing father figure may be a way of voicing resentment.  It’s fear boiling over into rage.  But at the end of the deny, it’s still just a denial of reality.  Without God, there’s no one to be mad at.

What about Zeus?

A friend of mine is a pastor-in-the-making who is interning at a church and exploring all the questions of ministry that pastors-in-the-making get.  Recently he told me that someone had suggested that ancient cultures had invented goImageds, and Christianity was just one more invention.  That seems to me a shallow and unnuanced take, and I think reality is a little more complex.  It seems that if God had created us for himself, we would naturally be inclined to seek him out. After all, all creation points towards him (Psalm 19), and his existence is so clear that we are “without excuse” for not believing (Romans 1:20).  He is actually not far from any one of us (Acts 17:27), and he rewards our seeking (Matthew 7:7).  So given that we’ve been built with a GPS that points us back to him, it seems that a host of ancient gods would not be disproof of Christianity, but rather proof all the more.  If we’re made for God, it makes sense that we would reach out for him and try to grasp him, and where we can’t find him, we would make up substitutes.  The ancient pantheons are not grounds for dismissal of Christianity.  They’re only the groundwork for true revelation.  The fact that we guessed repeatedly and sometimes close doesn’t mean that Christianity’s similarities to other religions prove it false, only that Christianity in fact satisfies our deepest longings and proves to be the the bullseye around which we had been misfiring.  Ancient religions were simply set-up to the real thing and proof that we were hardwired for the God who would soon reveal himself to us.

These are the kind of speculations captured in Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know.

Book Review: Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel

ImageYou kind of wonder about the book that could provoke Daniel Dennett to say, “it’s cute, it’s clever, and not worth a damn” and incite the betrayal of Steven Pinker, who tweeted of it “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Every page is filled with jaw-dropping concessions to the foundations of theism, though even on the last page, Nagel isn’t a convert.

Mind and Cosmos (Oxford, 2012) is a book in which an NYU philosophy professor seeks to undermine materialism, a bedrock of the modern scientific establishment.  He almost patronizingly names that materialism and neo-Darwinist theory defy common sense and are simply unlikely.  It reads like a kid who has been eating candy all night and is finally sick and considering vegetables.  This is the closest an atheist will ever come to undermining his own worldview before prayer.  It’s the last glimpse of the stars before the sun rises.

Nagel confesses, “…for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works.  The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes.  …it seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense.”

He then goes groping for a non-theistic explanation for consciousness and morality, which he insists cannot be products of matter.  Perhaps there are atomic particles that are strictly mental, which we simply haven’t developed the apparatus to trace.  Perhaps the laws of nature are somehow innately teleological for reasons that we cannot explain.  (At this point, the gentle whisper of the choir begins to rise behind him.)

And Nagel admits to reading not only established Christian philosophers (“I agree with Alvin Plantinga…”) but to writers on Intelligent Design, heretofore the subject of late night TV mockery.

He spends time dabbling in the “constitutive question,” of what consciousness is made of, and the “historical question,” of how it came to be.  But in the end he simply admits to a “gaping lack” of an explanation.  Then he goes on to the problem of cognition, by which he means the kind of objectivity that reason depends upon.  He calls this problem simply “intractable.” And finally he covers issues of value and morality.  Here he admits that on a Darwinist rubric, impressions of value “are groundless.”

He has basically made many of the intellectual concessions necessary to establish that theism is more probable than atheism.

Feedback has been unfriendly.  “He is questioning a certain kind of orthodoxy, and they are responding in the way the orthodox respond,” said philosopher Alva Noe of Berkeley.  But I have to say a word of thanks, that he would be intellectually honest enough to own up to the things that atheists aren’t supposed to say.

Euthyphro Redux

Socrates: Why the long face, Euthyphro?

Euthyphro: Our previous conversation has made me come to realize there can be no actual virtue, Socrates, nor a god.

Socrates: Gads!  Why not, friend?

Euthyphro: Because if virtue is good because the gods command it, it is merely their arbitrary will.  And if they command it because it is objectively good, then the gods themselves are subject to something greater than themselves.  Thus I conclude that there is no value, and probably no gods anyway.

Socrates: You’ve clearly left port without a sail, sad companion.  With what will you replace the gods and value then?

Euthyphro: With Nature, Socrates, and with Reason.  Nature has brought us into being over the long course of time, and Reason is the pinnacle of our being.

Socrates: That’s a thinker.  I wonder, though, if I might ask you a question about that?

Euthyphro: I’d kind of prefer that you not.

Socrates:  Is reason objectively accurate because it has been created by nature to be so, or did nature create it to be so because it’s objectively accurate?  If nature created it to be so because it’s objectively accurate, then something other than nature brought its objectivity into being.  If it is accurate because it is created by nature, then nature’s dictation of it is merely arbitrary, the bouncing around of particles, rendering it not actually objective.  Yet obviously reason works objectively, or else we couldn’t have this conversation.  From whence then, comes reason?

Euthyphro: You know I hate you, don’t you, Socrates?

 

“Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity and cannot confirm it without circularity.” – Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, p. 81.