Death by Explanation

ImageScientists can describe to you the project of finding a “universal theory,” something that explains the whole of existence in its most basic terms.  This generally involves some form of reductionism, usually collapsing the three great sciences into one another.  Biology is to be explained by chemistry, and chemistry is to be explained by physics.  In other words, the activity of our hearts and minds are the firings of neurons and the swirling of chemicals.  Those chemicals are fundamentally the interactions of molecules, which are the interactions of atoms, which are the interactions of protons, neutrons, electrons.  If you slice with a thinner razor, you come to quarks and leptons and bosons.  The universal theory aims at getting to the center of these Russian dolls and explaining how the little one, and the forces that hold them together, governs everything else.

This is a real effort in the sciences.  Darwinism is the greatest reductionist theory in existence, an alternative to a Designer.  Next, scientists are looking for a source for the big bang, trying to come up with a viable alternative to a Creator.  This is a real effort in the sciences – and it really isn’t going to work.

Renee Descartes tried to do the same thing with the mental world.  He tried to break thought down into its smallest, most basic parts.  If he imagined that the world around him didn’t exist, imagined even that the parts of his body didn’t exist, that with which he ultimately left was “I think therefore I am.” The criticism of his theory has always been, “Hey, where did this ‘I’ come from?  What’s the ‘I’ that’s doing the thinking?” In other words, you can’t really separate thinking from the person who is doing it, so it’s hard to say what the tiniest little atom is in the sequence of mental events.  You could try saying, “Thinking happens,” but that doesn’t really explain the fact that thinking is self-conscious.  Our thoughts are part of a bigger story, a narrative, and no one thought can be separated out by itself from the others.  Thoughts can’t be broken into atoms.

The same thing is true in the physical sciences.  The problem with atomistic theory is that nothing in the real world can be dissected down to constituent parts that are actually separated from one another.  The atoms are holding hands.  Physics is a narrative.  The fact that some atoms make up the point where my pencil ends and others make up the point where the paper begins constitutes a story about the atoms that the individual atoms can’t tell on their own.

Ultimately, materialistic, atheistic scientific efforts will keep hacking away at life looking for its smallest unit.  But science is trying to grab hold of mercury.  What it’s trying to contain will always slip away.  Atoms will never by themselves tell the story of existence.  The whole narrative is bigger than the sum of its parts.

The scientific reduction of biology into chemistry and physics tells us as much about life as dissection tells us about what it feels like to fall in love.

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.

Blessed Hypocrisy

You plop down on the beach, the kids go spiraling off to the water like dolphins in a boat’s wake, you take an overdue deep breath and stare at the horizon, and that’s the point at which you realize a thought has been hitchhiking in the boxcar of your prefrontal cortex.  It’s been there for a while, but you haven’t noticed it until now.

I remember in the 80s watching the scandals of the Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggart ripple through the late night comedians and into the minds and mouths of my schoolmates.  I was fairly cognizant of the fact that Christians were generally getting smeared.  I read Elmer Gantry for the first time back then.  And I remember saying, “We’re not all like that!”

Since then I picked up a little hitchhiker.

Now I listen to a rising generation dismissively writing off the church with the under-thought branding, “hypocrites.” But I know that the more they study history and the more they look in the mirror, the more they will regret holding anyone else up to that righteous standard.  Now I hear people accuse Christians of hypocrisy, and I’m inclined to answer, “Absolutely.  We’re all like that.”  Inside the church and out.  We’re all like that.

Proves we need a savior.

The Millennial Spirituality of Starbucks

ImageThey made over my favorite Starbucks recently, closed it down for a month and unveiled a new décor.  The décor is, very much like the old Starbucks, decorative.  It’s intended to be mood altering, soothing, and quietly provocative.  Architecture is a pair of glasses that the room holds up to our face to make sure we see it through its chosen lens.  Every shape and curve in the world around us, down to the intentional squiggles in this font, provoke minute reactions in our hardwiring.

What’s curious to me is where Starbucks just went.  They’ve made a geographical move.

The Tuscan colors were reminiscent of old world Europe.  They were meant to harken back to the historical, so much as it is grandfatherly, to be quaint, to whisk us away to a place with short work days and long naps.  It was meant to be a third space that is not only out of the office, it was out of the country.

The color palate has changed, though only slightly.  It took me a minute to see what they had done.  The colors are now more muted and more beige.  The burnt orange and avocado are gone.  It’s now the color of the desert.  The light covers have been replaced with woven basketry.  And the picture on the wall, formerly a partial nouveau sketch, is now a zen garden curled in sand.  We’ve moved from Italy to India.

Traditionally the Starbucks aesthetic is limited to four options: Heritage (worn and dark), Artisan (hand polished woodwork and exposed steel), Regional Modern (bright and lined with fabric), and Concept (experimental).  What may have changed is that last October the company opened their first store in India, and they are cross-pollinating.  They rapidly expanded in Mumbai and New Dehli, and this month they announced that they are targeting most major cities in India.  Market estimates suggest that they may have tapped into 100 million new customers.

What interests me is not the economics but the spirituality.  American morality and theology have gravitated from Europe to India as well.  The churches of Europe are now dusty museums, and religion that appeals to the modern American mind is accepting, assimilating, non-differentiating, and, taken as a whole, polytheistic.  We prefer the non-committal and the omni-commital to the propositional and precise.  We want living and let-living and getting along.  (The irony being that the non-discriminating can bring little rational opposition to bear on a caste system.)

I don’t know that it lay in the back of the mind of whomever our interior decorator was, and this is literary license rather than observation, but Starbucks just caught the wind of culture and are riding it on a carpet.

Why Bother Defending an Omnipotent Being?

ImageThere are those who wholly question the enterprise of Christian apologetics.  The assert that God will call those whom he choses, and apologetics is just a distraction to the work of the Holy Spirit and the revelation of God.  This was Karl Barth’s position.

The idea is prima facie nonsense.  When a missionary travels to another country to proclaim the gospel, she learns the language of the people so as to communicate in terms that they understand.  Apologetics is simply the language the secular world uses to talk about God.  To say we shouldn’t practice a rational defense of the Christian faith is like saying the missionary need not study language, because the Holy Spirit can do whatever it wants.

When I was a junior in high school, a church youth group in which I was participating took me to a weekend retreat in hopes of setting up camp in my heart.  This was in Southeast Texas, and the only people who ran Christian camps there were Baptists.  I remember listening to a firey preacher say quite a bit about hellfire, and I spent a good deal of time after his lectures asking him questions.  Admittedly, I had not read the Bible, and he had.  The Jesus I wanted to talk about was a projection of the niceties I most enjoyed.  He was frustrated with me.  I’m sure I was not particularly respectful or informed or interesting to him.  And after what was probably a lot of patience, he said to me, “Sometimes you have to stop doubting and just believe.” Of course this was a wasted answer on a thinking person.  It was an act of the missionary saying, “I’m tired of learning your language.”

Compassion requires translation.  We must be about the work of addressing hard questions with meaningful answers.  And the cause of Christian apologetics will always be essential.

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.

On the baptism of my son

Koen,

Today I baptized you.  You were more excited about the party afterwards than the duty itself, but you had a particular interest in the proceedings.  You wanted it to happen in church instead of the pool next door – strange for an introvert – and for a moment you seemed to like the crowd.  We had rehearsed all the details.  It’s about Jesus forgiving your sins, and new life, and don’t goof around just because everyone is watching, and Papa might cry, and it doesn’t magically forgive you, it’s just a symbol, and hold your nose when you go backwards so you don’t get water in there.  It’s sort of a strange mix of cosmic theological truths and nitty gritty pragmatics.

Faith is kind of that way.  You can only imagine what the sovereign creator of the universe must want to say to us when we’re born.  “Now remember, I’ve already died for you for your forgiveness, stay close to me, look both ways before you cross the street, live by faith not by sight, say your prayers, and don’t swim right after you eat.” God has made us these fleshy spirits, and his will for us is a messy mix of cosmic truth and daily hygiene.

Part of the reason baptism is so beautiful because it is, as Augustine said it and no one has improved on his description since, a visible sign of an invisible grace.  It is the tangible washing of dirt mixed with the holy confirmation of cleansed sin.  It’s exactly what flesh and spirit need to speak the same language at the same time.  Sacraments are like phone wires from our bodies to our souls.

Fatherhood is a fleshy-spiritual kind of thing.  My deepest longings for you are that you would know Jesus, and that you would get married, that you would walk in peace, and that you would have good friends, that you would pray hard and that you would run fast.  I hope we learn to pray for each other as surely as we play catch.  And I’m touched that even if we weren’t related, we would still be best friends.  I have deep hopes for you, body and soul, and I’m thankful today that God came up with this amalgam of flesh-spirits that we are.  I wouldn’t want to miss out on either one.

Your dad can’t control all that happens to your body in a jagged world.  I can’t control Imageyour soul – because certain things can only happen in the conversation that you and God will have together, with me listening in through the door.  But I can drop you beneath the waters, accepting the reality that there is a part of all of us that must die, and then pull you back up to the life that I hope you will find.  I can raise you in a house where we pray, read the book, worship, and believe.  And I can point you in the direction of Jesus, who joined us in the messy package for spirit and flesh.

Love,

Papa

“Remember to fan into flame the gift that God gave you at the laying on of my hands.  God hasn’t given you a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, love, and self-disciple.  And don’t ever be ashamed of Jesus, or of his servants.  Instead, join me in enduring all things for the gospel, by the power of God.” -2 Timothy 1:6-8

Atheist Richard Dawkins “has lost”

In a provocative commentary entitled “Richard Dawkins Has Lost: meet the new atheists,” writer Theo Hobson alludes to how compelling the moral argument is.  In recent posts, I’ve presented it’s strongest formulation, and despite nitpicking and name-calling, I think the argument has spoken for itself.  Hobson observes that modern atheists are wrestling with morality: “Rejecting religion is no sure path to virtue; it is more likely to lead to complacent self-regard, or ideological arrogance.” He goes on to describe how secular humanists today have become squeamish about Dawkins’ arrogance and venom, and instead are turning to more nuanced and subdued appeals for humanism.  Once such nuance is the casual admission that atheists are still desperate to find a foundational, unifying moral ground.

 

Studies have reported that “the single biggest predictor of whether someone will be charitable is their religious participation.”