Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Meeting Saturday, December 5th

Dear everyone who can make it,
We'll have our last meeting of 2009 this coming Saturday December 5th at my place at 11:45. We'll be talking about the mystery of human origins.

Saturday's gonna be a packed day. The Pasadena ticket office opens up early that day (7am) to sell Rose Bowl Game and BCS National Championship Game tickets (to Pasadena residents). After the meeting, the all-important SEC Championship Game begins, which is going to be interrupted by a wedding ceremony. I've also been told that UK is playing UNC in basketball, each team vying to reach the hallowed 2000 wins mark.

Hope to see everyone there.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Theistic evolution and intelligent design (part 5): Are we bold enough to test it?

In my last post, I drove home the point that intelligent design and theistic evolution, in the most generic sense of the two, should be welcome bedfellows. This is not to say that intelligent design of the kind that says "the bacterial flagellum is too complex and thus evolution cannot be true" should be wedded to theistic evolution; instead I am saying that evolution or no, God is sovereign, and He designed this universe and all life at some level.

However, if we accept that, we are denying what many people (in academia and elsewhere) equate with the theory of biological evolution: a naturalistic worldview. We should have no problem with the idea that all life on earth is related, but we should have a problem with the idea that, since we descended from an ape-like ancestor that also gave rise to chimpanzees (in common vernacular: we came from monkeys), we do not have inherent moral value. Or that we have the same moral value as chimpanzees. Or that we are different in degree only, not in kind. Folks, we were made in the image of God! Tarnished now, but that is true for no other creature (including the angels). And none other has the chance for redemption that we do.

What's more, as Christians we are in a unique position. We can affirm evolution, but we deny the naturalistic worldview. However, the proponent of naturalism (i.e., the atheist) must affirm evolution, because he/she denies the theistic worldview. (I hope I am not simplifying too much here, but I feel I am more or less correct.) And thus, the veracity of biological evolution carries too much weight; the atheist's worldview depends on it. And perhaps this is why evolution is considered sacred to biologists (as I mentioned in an earlier post).

I understand that most biologists would say that evolution has such high regard in biology because the entire field hinges upon it; it is the foundation for all biological research. I say hogwash to that. The field only hinges upon it if you have a naturalistic worldview.

Anyway, back to my main point. The naturalist's worldview hinges on the veracity of evolution. In contrast, the Christian worldview hinges on the veracity of the resurrection, and not on any "intelligent design" argument. We can go into the evidence for the resurrection later, but my point is that as Christians and as scientists (ok, some of us are scientists), we can take or leave biological evolution.

And so my question is: are we bold enough to test it?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Theistic evolution and intelligent design (part 4): "Will you marry me?"

Hearkening back to my original post in this series, I mentioned that I thought neither the "Theistic evolutionists" nor the proponents of the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM) have it right. I pointed out in part two that theistic evolutionists should, at their very heart, be proponents of intelligent design. In parts 3a and 3b, I spent most of the time talking about the IDM, but did mention that all Christians should be intelligent design (notice the lowercase letters) proponents of some sort.

Why can't then these two positions (theistic evolution and intelligent design) be married together in some way?

Sure, the natural mechanisms of biological evolution (that is, descent with modification, natural selection operating on variations caused by mutations) can promote diversification and speciation. But how does that detract from the fact that this universe and everything in it was part of the Designer's grand plan? Isaiah 45:18 says that God "did not create it [the earth] to be empty, / but formed it to be inhabited." It was God's plan in the beginning that earth should be filled with life. And if I may be so bold: human life was part of His plan as well. In other words, things may have evolved, but life was still designed.

Look at it this way. There are a lot of quotes from famous scientists that tread the edge of intelligent design, while at the same time vehemently denying it. For example, Francis Crick (in his book "What Mad Pursuit") says the following: "Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved." Uhm, excuse me, but why not both? No, seriously, one would correctly infer from this quote that biological entities, at the very least, appear designed. They do. The common evolutionist answer to that is the appearance of design is what we would expect given the mechanisms of evolution.

I have two things to say to that. First, how do we know? I think that's coming pretty close to putting the cart before the horse. Although I would tend to agree with that statement, I am still disgruntled that we take that at face value and don't test it.

Second, that statement (as well as the quote by Dr. Crick) relies on a false dichotomy. It's either designed, or it evolved. Theistic evolutionists and IDM proponents (and most people in general) play into that game, perhaps unknowningly. Most theistic evolutionists I know are uncomfortable with the idea that life is designed, even though I believe that's a natural consequence of their philosophical position. But we don't have to fall into that trap! Even though God may work through the natural laws and processes that He created, there is no reason to believe that life didn't evolve with a purpose, with a design!

In other words, I'm saying that if you're a Christian, and you believe that evolution correctly describes the history of life on earth and the diveristy of life we see today, you should still believe that it has been designed for the benefit of humanity. And that's just based on a philosophical/theological position. It doesn't even take into account the scientific evidence in favor of that position. (Perhaps I'll describe that evidence at a later date.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Theistic evolution and intelligent design (part 3b): what is Intelligent Design?

Last time, I introduced the generic idea of intelligent design, contrasting it with the higly political Intelligent Design Movement (IDM). To be perfectly up front, I have problems with the IDM, mostly because they offer no testable/falsifiable hypotheses, yet they want their "theories" taught in high school biology courses. This is a no-no.

But what should the IDM do differently if it wants to get into the classroom? (As I said in my previous post, I personally have no problem with ideas of intelligent design being taught at the high-school level, but only if these ideas have been shown worthy of scientific merit.)

First, stop focusing so much negative evidence. At this point, you cannot overturn naturalistic evolution as an explanatory hypothesis by saying that it can't do something. I'm not saying that negative evidence never overturns hypotheses, but it won't overturn evolution. Evolution is not quantitative enough, and itself isn't testable/falsifiable enough to be challenged in this way. If the IDM wants to go up against evolution, it needs to show that it has more testable/falsifiable explanatory power than evolution does.

Here's an example. The bacterial flagellum (a whip-like structure attached to bacteria that allows them to swim) is an "icon" of intelligent design. The basic IDM argument is that the flagellum is so complex, there's no way that evolution can produce that. It's beyond the limits of what evolution can do. Evolutionists respond with, "no, that's not true, and we can imagine ways in which evolution can do this." Notice that neither of those assertions are actually testing anything; in essence they are just hand-waving arguments. It is extremely difficult to overthrow a scientific paradigm using hand-waving arguments, even if that's all that the other side is doing.

Second, the IDM really should try to move to another field (ie, besides biology/biochemistry). I don't know why, but for whatever reason, biological evolution is different from other scientific theories. Most disciplines (such as astronomy, physics, geology, chemistry, etc) tolerate or even welcome challenges to long-standing scientific theories. This is not true in biology; challenging the veracity of naturalistic evolution meets you with ridicule and disdain. Evolution is somewhat sacred to biologists, and to go up against it is sort of like going up against the premise that the bible can be trusted. Weird, but true. Perhaps this is a direct outgrowth from the whole "Scopes monkey trial" fiasco...and now anyone who disbelieves evolution is perceived as being either ignorant or brainwashed.

The other motivation IDM proponents should have in focusing on other scientific disciplines is that almost all other theories are infinitely more quantitative than biological evolution, and thus are also more testable/falsifiable. One problem with the theory of evolution is that we have no idea what the limits are to its explanatory power (if any). Because of this, we can attribute almost anything to evolution. (By the way, this is an interesting twist on the God-of-the-gaps fallacy, which I have written about several times.) In addition, using negative evidence to demonstrate that God created (ie, showing that naturalistic forces could not account for some phenomenon) is actually possible in a quantitative field, such as cosmology. In that case, the classical arguments coming from the IDM camp become less like hand-waving arguments and more like testable hypotheses.

Finally, the IDM should drop the facade about being religiously neutral. They see the past failures to get religious ideas taught in science classrooms (such as young-earth creation) as stemming from the religious content. So, IDM proponents make the claim that the movement is completely secular. They refuse to identify the intelligent Designer, and thus say that they have no religious affiliation. Note that this tactic is not working. No one in the scientific community buys that; most have linked the IDM to conservative Christianity, and rightly so in my opinion. After all, where else has the opposition to biological evolution come from? This has the unintended consequence of galvanizing the opposition to Christianity and has given intelligent design (note the lowercase letters) a bad name. At the beginning of my last post, I said that affirming "intelligent design" in the most generic sense should not subject one to ridicule. I didn't say does not. Now nearly any discussion about any kind of intelligent design links you to the IDM, which links you to a political agenda of anti-science and ignorance, which brings you ridicule. Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but the IDM has given Christianity an uphill battle.

At any rate, the proponents of the IDM have had a fallacy in their political thinking. It wasn't actually the religious content of creationist ideas that blocked their introduction into science classrooms, it was the scientific merit. The rulings of the courts in the mid-to-late 20th century regarding the teaching of young earth creationism rested on academic merit, not religious content. Furthermore, if the IDM were following the "proper route" into classrooms, rather than try to force their way in via court rulings, there wouldn't be any issue anyway. Secularists and atheists might be upset about the fact that scientific theories promote a Designer, but what we would prefer shouldn't matter anyway. In summary, instead of trying to be fake and subversive in their agenda, why doesn't the IDM simply come clean? At this point, the IDM gives most people an untrustworthy vibe.

But there are some good things about the IDM. Some of their arguments, such as regarding the bacterial flagellum, I find to be intellectually compelling, just not scientifically defensible. (Notice a trend? I'm saying that a lot these days.) What Christians need are good scientific minds developing Christian apologetic arguments (or even better: research plans) that are both compelling and testable/falsifiable.

Theistic evolution and intelligent design (part 3a): what is Intelligent Design?

First of all, I have to apologize to everyone. I've been out of town for a week, and haven't been too frequent with my postings. Note that it took me about three weeks just to finish up a summary of our last meeting about the origin of life.

Now, where to begin when talking about Intelligent Design? First, we have to differentiate between intelligent design and the Intelligent Design Movement.

To me, the words "intelligent design" simply mean that a supernatural, causal, intelligent agent created this universe, and perhaps has a hand on the unfolding of history. This is seemingly uncontroversial, as most Christians should agree with this, and most anyone who truly believes in God likely does as well. In addition, even most atheists respect the fact that many people believe in God, and thus do not find fault with belief in an intelligent agent. In other words, believing in "intelligent design" in the most generic sense should not be a big deal, nor should it subject you to ridicule.

The "Intelligent Design Movement" (IDM) on the other hand is a completely different animal. This appears to be a group of people (mostly scientists, I suppose; the most prominent of whom is Dr. Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University) that has a political agenda. Maybe that's going a bit too far, but it does explain why intelligent design has faced major opposition. Simply put, the IDM wants to force the teaching of creationism in high school biology classes.

I have no problem with that. Except for the fact that the ideas of the IDM are not scientifically defensible. At this point. A commenter from my last post asked me what I meant by "scientifically defensible". This was in response to my saying a couple times that my discussion of the origin of life was intellectually compelling but not scientifically defensible (see here and here), and I likened that to the IDM.

So here's what I meant. The hypotheses held by the IDM are mostly negative explanations regarding the veracity of biological evolution. They offer no way to test their hypotheses, and thus it boils down to "some biological features found in nature look so complex, there's no way naturalistic evolution could have resulted in that; it must have been God creating it." They offer no counter explanations that can be tested, and thus, it is quite difficult to publish in peer-reviewed, scientific journals (much less overthrow a scientific paradigm) if you have no hope of testing/falsifying your hypotheses. In summary, they don't offer an alternative model!

And here's the kicker. If you can't publish in the peer-reviewed scientific journals, then you cannot get into high school curricula. The proper way to make your way into the textbooks is to publish in the peer-reviewed journals, then get into cutting-edge graduate level classes, and then finally trickle down through the undergraduate levels to the high school level. The IDM is trying to circumnavigate this whole process and make their way straight into high school biology classrooms. That's not how science is done. They're playing at politics, and they're losing. What's worse, they're losing for the rest of us (more on this later). Scientific theories must be peer-reviewed, must be testable/falsifiable, and must stand the test of time.

This post is getting quite long, so I'll stop here. Next time, I'll go into more detail about what the IDM proponents should do to be taken seriously.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Summary of meeting on 10/24 (part 6)

I'm going to try to finish up the summary of our last meeting here in this post, because the excessive number of sub-parts is getting kind of ridiculous.

I still have one more point to cover here: are there chemical pathways, relevant to the conditions on the early earth, by which life's precursor molecules could have been made? If so, we should be able to deduce these pathways through conducting laboratory experiments.

So, what is the current state of biochemical pathways pertaining to the origin of life? Let's start with a history lesson. Most biology textbooks these days discuss seminal work by Stanley Miller in the 1950's (called the Miller-Urey experiment) in which he bubbled water vapor into a chamber filled with ammonia and methane (hydrogen-rich gases thought to comprise the primordial atmosphere). After simulating lightning with electric discharges for a long period of time, he found that some simple amino acids had formed in the reaction chamber! Subsequently, the origin of life research community had great optimism that the solution to the origin of life problem was just around the corner.

Fast forward 50+ years to today. Now we know the primordial atmosphere did not have the composition that Miller thought it to have. (Instead of reducing gases, such as ammonia and methane -- which have lots of hydrogen atoms -- it contained oxidizing gases, such as carbon dioxide and oxygen.) Most origin of life researchers today consider the Miller-Urey experiment to be irrelevant to the origin of life.

Most scientists today consider something called the "RNA world hypothesis" to be central to the origin of life question. Today, we live in a DNA-protein world, where DNA stores genetic information, and proteins catalyze the biochemical reactions. It would be difficult to envision that life could originate that way, since you would have to get two extremely rare events happening simultaneously: the chemical origins of DNA and of proteins. On the other hand, RNA can fulfill both roles, albeit slightly less efficiently. RNA can store information in the same way DNA can (but is less stable), and some RNA molecules can catalyze reactions similar to what proteins do (but not as well). So if the first life-form was RNA-based, instead of DNA/protein-based, then this would eliminate a major barrier to the likelihood that life arose naturalistically. Later, DNA and proteins could have slowly replaced RNA in its roles as information carrier and reaction catalyst. (This replacement would have been more or less permanent because DNA and proteins are better at their respective jobs than the RNA was.)

Now the question comes down to identifying a reasonable way in which RNA could have formed on the early earth. However, efforts to do this have been met with uninspiring results. In 2002, at an origin of life conference, here is how one leading origin of life researcher (Leslie Orgel) put it: "It would be a miracle if a strand of RNA ever appeared on the early Earth."

However, perhaps he was too quick to pronounce the miraculous-seeming nature of life's origin. Research published this year on the synthesis of nucleotides (the building blocks of RNA) demonstrated that perhaps it would be less-than-miraculous if a strand of RNA appeared on early Earth. On the other hand, some in the scientific community are skeptical. Leading origin of life researcher Robert Shapiro (and by the way, if I had to identify the three leading origin of life researchers of the 20th century, I would have said Miller, Orgel, and Shapiro) had this to say of the recent work: "The flaw with this kind of research is not in the chemistry. The flaw is in the logic -- that this experimental control by researchers in a modern laboratory could have been available on the early Earth."

In other words, even our best efforts to determine the chemical pathways to life's precursors suffer from one thing: the hallmarks of intelligent design.

Ugh. My entire summary suffered from the hallmark of intelligent design. Like I've said in previous posts, we don't want to construct an argument from a negative point of view, saying, "Look how crazy-complex this must have been an intelligent designer." However, I do find these arguments regarding the origin of life to be intellectually compelling, just not scientifically defensible.

Until next time...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Summary of meeting on 10/24 (part 5!!)

I'm really sorry to have dragged this summary out like this. There's just so much to talk about!

Back to our discussion of the origin of life: one of the main predictions (or, more like expectations) of our naturalistic scenario is that the first life was initially simple, and only later evolved to become complex. This was expectation was seemingly borne out in the early days of microbiology: the simplest known life forms at that time, bacteria, when viewed under the microscope seemed to simply be "bags" of jelly, with very little structure or organization. If these life forms are really that simple, there is a possibility that the earth's first life was also that simple, or perhaps even simpler. This would fit well into a naturalistic paradigm.

On the other hand, as we have grown to understand microbiology more, we now realize that the internal and surface structure and organization of prokaryotes such as bacteria are incredibly complex; it's just that this organization couldn't be seen under a simple light microscope. By itself, this doesn't rule out the possibility that the first life was simple. However, further research into the minimum complexity of life has shown that even the simplest life form possible, which could not exist/thrive without constant TLC from intelligent agents (ie, laboratory scientists), requires at minimum roughly 200 genes. That's 200 different sets of instructions to build 200 different complex molecules. If that is indeed life's minimum complexity, then the first life form must have had at least 200 genes. That indeed is an uncomfortable fit into a naturalistic scenario.

Further geobiochemical evidence has supported the notion that earth's first life was complex. As far back as 3.5 billion years ago, an evolutionary instant after the end of the late heavy bombardment (see my previous post), we have evidence of entire ecosystems of microbes in symbiotic relationships.

In addition to that, very early on -- and I must confess, I am not sure about the published date for this -- we have photosynthetic life on earth. Why is that important? The biochemical machinery required to have photosynthesis is quite complex; not something you would expect from the earliest, most simple life forms posited by naturalistic models.

I just realized something. This blog post is supposed to be a summary of the meeting we had two Saturdays ago, but I just rambled on about something we didn't actually talk about. I guess it's bonus material.

And please, if you guys have any comments or questions, criticisms, I welcome them.

Summary of meeting on 10/24 (part 4)

Last time I left you with the cliffhanger that the oldest rocks known to man show the chemical signatures of life, rather than non-life. In other words, as far back as we can study geological formations, life has been here. Let me put this in perspective.

After the earth was formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago, it was unfit for life (or formless and empty). There were many impactor events that would have melted the earth's crust and vaporized all of its water in this early, "hadaean" period, which lasted from the time of earth's formation until roughly 3.9-3.8 billion years ago. The end of this era was particularly harsh, and was called the "late heavy bombardment", when the intensity and frequency of these impactor events were quite high.

These events are planet-sterilizing, so any life that could have existed was snuffed out. (Interestingly enough, there is recent research that argues that some life, if it existed, may have survived. However, this conclusion is controversial at this point. We'll have to see how that theory shakes out over then next year or so.) In addition to destroying all life, these impactors also melted all of the rocks, such that the oldest known rocks on the planet today (which are in Greenland I believe) date to the end of the late heavy bombardment, roughly 3.85 billion years ago.

In these rocks, the carbonaceous materials that we can find all bear the signature of life! In other words, the oldest known rocks date from a period that is also the earliest possible moment that the earth was habitable, and yet they show signs that life existed then! Not only was there no prebiotic soup (see my previous post), but life arose essentially instantaneously.

Wow. OK, next time we'll get to the third point I brought up in my last post: the initial complexity of life.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday (part 3)

As I left it last time, the origin of life is hard! (It kind of reminds me of this "the onion" article.) But what exactly is the current state of origin of life research?

Oh, and here's a disclaimer for you all: this post is going to look a lot like a negative argument against the naturalistic paradigm, and also a lot like the God of the Gaps fallacy. If you have a problem with that, well, so do I. But as I said earlier, I still find the argument somewhat compelling, just not scientifically publishable. (See part 1 of this series of posts.)

There are four crucial parts of a naturalistic scenario for the origin of life that we currently lack evidence for. First, life must arise from a "primordial soup", or a concentrated solution of biological precursor molecules. Second, life must arise gradually over many, many years. Third, life must initially be very simple (whatever that means), only later evolving to be complex. And fourth, life must arise from identifiable biochemical reaction pathways that can be deduced from laboratory experiments.

The primordial soup, or prebiotic soup as some would call it, was a hypothesized aqueous mixture of all the biochemical molecules necessary to form life. I am not sure who first proposed this idea, but I am certain that it was a hypothetical construct for which we never had an evidence, yet somehow was made to be as fact in popular literature (see for example the series finale of "Star Trek TNG") and in textbooks. Darwin talks about it in a letter he wrote to a colleague in 1871:
...[W]e could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, heat, light, electricity, etc. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes...
And so the primordial soup was just some "warm little pond", or ocean, with a bunch of the necessary life chemicals in it, such as sugars, amino acids, and nucleobases (the molecules that give DNA sequences their identity; the A's, G's, C's, and T's).

Well, it turns out that not only do we still have no evidence for a prebiotic soup, but we actually have evidence against there ever existing such a hypothetical mixture. I must confess that I don't know a ton about the science behind these observations, but the chemical signatures from the oldest known rocks show evidence of life, rather than non-life processes (such as prebiotic chemistry). This leads us directly into the second point: how long did it take for life to arise?

Oh boy, I didn't realize how long this post was going to get. We'll have to save discussion of the other this and the other two topics for later.

Until then.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday (part 2)

One of the things I like to do, in order to impress upon people the legitimacy of some of the claims I make, is to quote non-theistic scientists. This time, Paul Davies, an agnostic theoretical physicist (who incidentally is quite interested in asking life's big questions) provides two powerful quotes regarding the origin of life. Both are from his book, "The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life":
When I set out to write this book, I was convinced that science was close to wrapping up the mystery of life's origin...Having spend a year or two researching the field, I am now of the opinion that there remains a huge gulf in our understanding...This gulf's not merely ignorance about certain technical details, it is a major conceptual lacuna.
He goes on to say:
Many investigators feel uneasy about stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they freely admit that they are baffled. There are two reasons for their unease. First they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists...Second, they worry that a frank admission of ignorance will undermine funding...
So, the moral of the story (for now) is that the origin of life is hard.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday (part 1)

Last Saturday, we had another discussion meeting, this time about the origin of life.

Ugh. This topic is really tricky, because, when discussing it, you get really close to the God of the Gaps fallacy. We spent some time discussing this fallacy, mostly in regards to the Intelligent Design Movement (which I will be posting about in the near future). In summary, the God of the Gaps fallacy is when you say fill in the gaps in our knowledge with god.

An example commonly-used by opponents of theism is that, thousands of years ago, people supposedly thought that bolts of lightning were thrown by the gods. Now we know that it is the electric discharge that occurs after a large potential difference builds between two clouds (or a cloud and the ground).

In relation to the origin of life, the God of the Gaps fallacy works like this: Scientists have no idea how life could have originated by strictly naturalistic means. In fact, by our current knowledge, it basically looks impossible. Therefore, since science can't explain it, it must have been a miracle performed by God.

In a way, I actually find that argument somewhat convincing. My reasoning is that the scientific evidence actually shows that the probability of life originating naturalistically is so remote that it would never happen even in a mole of universes (that is, 10^23 universes). But again, this is negative evidence, and I don't think the field is quantitative enough at this point to rule things out by negative evidence. So, based solely on this argument, I would say that denying a naturalistic origin of life is intellectually satisfying to me, but not scientifically defensible. In other words, I find that argument compelling, but I don't think it is ready to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, much less stand the rigor of getting into high school textbooks (as many are trying to do).

More to come later...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Meeting this Saturday

We're having another discussion meeting at my place this coming Saturday (Oct 24th) at 11am. We'll be talking about the origin of life, and how the current scientific understanding provides evidence for a creator.

See you then.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Theistic evolution and intelligent design (part 2): what is theistic evolution?

Last time I rambled about this topic, I remarked on an article describing the Catholic position on cosmic and biological evolution. At the end of that post, I said that neither Theistic evolutionists nor Intelligent design proponents have it right, and that I would have to go into deeper detail about exactly what "Theistic evolution" and "intelligent design" mean, in this context.

In this post, I'll talk about what seems to me to be the most commonly held aspects of theistic evolution. Although, I admit that these may not in fact be the most commonly held, but only appear to be that way because they are held by the loudest proponents.

In summary, it seems that theistic evolutionists are only a step away from deistic evolutionists. Deism, in contrast to theism, is the view that a god or gods created the universe, but sits back and watches as everything unfolds, with little or no participation or intervention. Most theistic evolutionists would adamantly claim that this is not their stance...adopting such a stance would deny the deity of Christ, for example. But it seems proponents of theistic evolution are uncomfortable with the idea that God had a hand in any sort of physical, chemical, or biological process perhaps up until the time of Abraham, and maybe even after. (Again, they would not deny that God specially sought after a relationship with humans.)

Here's an example: a quote from Ken Miller, a quite famous theistic evolutionist and professor of biology at Brown University (and author of "Finding Darwin's God" and "Only a Theory"). He said, "Why would God have to break the laws of physics that He created?" In other words, if God directly intervened in the history of the universe for creation purposes, that would go outside the laws of physics. But God is the author of the laws of physics. Why couldn't He have just set everything up at the beginning so everything would play out as he wanted it?

There is more to this story, though. Miller's stance in his second book, "Only a Theory", is that a creationist God, who intervenes over the course of history, specifically in creating new life forms throughout the history of the earth, would be a bumbling, mistake-prone God. Consider all of the plant and animal species that have gone extinct over the last 500+ million years. It would seem like a creationist, intervening God just couldn't get it right.

I don't see how adopting a near-deistic point of view saves you from this precipice, though. Theistic evolutionists, as far as I can tell, still affirm the sovereignty of God, it's just that His plan was enacted from the get go and required little-to-no "midcourse corrections", as it were. In that case, given all of the life that has arisen and gone extinct, wouldn't a theistic evolutionary God also seem to be not "getting it right?"

So here's the beef I have with theistic evolution. I would argue that a theistic evolutionary point of view may be scientifically tenable, but it's full of philosophical loopholes. If we dig really deep into its philosophical tenets, we find that either we believe that human existence is an evolutionary accident (thereby denying the sovereignty of God), or it is part of God's initial, divine, cosmic plan. If we take the second to be true, and follow it to its logical, philosophical conclusions, then every life form that lived and died on this planet was part of a grand design by the cosmic Designer Himself. This further implies that life was indeed designed, a position that every proponent of theistic evolution would be uncomfortable with (at least, upon inference from hearing many theistic evolutionists speak).

So, what's the deal?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thinking clearly (part 2a)

One thing I forgot to mention is what to do when you're confronted by someone who is using a red herring argument, or some other logical fallacy (such as ad hominem or straw man). One thing you definitely should not say is, "Don't you know that your response to my argument is irrelevant?!?" I know this is tempting, especially if you are in a heated debate with someone.

Instead, you should respond with patience and grace, yet not giving in to the other side. (Kind of like turning the other cheek). Say something like, "I appreciate (or even agree with) your argument, however I would like to point out that it does not directly address my points." And then politely explain why, and then say something like, "I am still waiting for an answer to my argument."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Thinking clearly (part 2 of who knows how many)

Last week I opened up a discussion topic on logical fallacies, and I introduced a list of common fallacies that we run into frequently. The first one I listed was the "red herring" argument.

In my last post on this subject, I defined the red herring argument as "an argument that looks good, but is actually irrelevant to the content of the discussion." Wikipedia goes farther to say that a red herring argument is a deliberate attempt to digress from the content of the discussion. This is more devious than an innocent, irrelevant response to an argument, although I am not sure if the term "red herring" these days must refer to something deliberate.

A good example of a red herring argument is the "selection effect" in regards to the anthropic principle, which I have discussed in earlier posts. Here is the low down:

Greg: "The universe appears to have a very high degree of design (fine-tuning for the benefit of life), which would be very unlikely to happen by random chance. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that God created this universe with a purpose."

Response: "Well, no, of course this universe appears designed. If it weren't so finely-tuned, we wouldn't even be here to observe it!"

Using an outline of our logic, we can easily see why the response is irrelevant:
  • Premise: This universe would never happen by strictly naturalistic means.
  • Conclusion: God created the universe.
  • Rebuttal: We wouldn't be here if the universe didn't happen the way it did.
What does that rebuttal have to do with answering the argument about the existence of God? (The correct answer is "nothing".) The selection effect, stated in this way, is irrelevant to this question. (There may be more sophisticated versions of the selection argument, but this serves well as an example.)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Theistic Evolution and Intelligent Design (part 1 of who knows how many)

A friend recently pointed me to a web article about the Catholic position on evolution. The article describes the unanimous agreement among scholars attending a plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (whatever that is) that the universe was ancient. The article goes on to say that the vast majority of scholars agreed that species of life today share common ancestry.

In contrast, the next paragraph of the article points out that none of the scientists attending the session were proponents of the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM), mostly because of its lack of scientific testability.

I think this is fantastic. A bunch of Christians getting together and agreeing on an ancient age of the universe, and allowing the scientific data to speak for themselves regarding cosmic and biotic evolution.

On the other hand, I am quite tired of hearing about the "debate" between theistic evolution and intelligent design. Or anything and intelligent design. Or anything and _____ evolution (be it theistic, biotic, darwinian, etc). In my opinion, neither the IDM proponents, nor the "Theistic Evolutionists" have it right. But to get into a deep discussion about that, I'll have to go into more detail about what the IDM means, and what most proponents of theistic evolution believe. Next time.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Thinking clearly (part 1 of who knows how many)

Peter told us to always be ready to give reasons (I Pet 3:15-16). That's one reason why I'm writing this blog and having monthly (or so) meetings to discuss faith and reason. However, Peter goes on to say that we should give our reasons with gentleness and respect. Therefore, we also need to be ready to not give not reasons. (Eh?)

What I mean is, when we're in a debate with someone, whether it's over religion or politics or philosophy, or whatever, we should always be prepared to treat their argument fairly and to stay away from giving arguments that sound good, but really have no content. In other words, we should avoid using logical fallacies.

Some of the most common logical fallacies I have seen are:
  • The red herring argument: an argument that looks good, but is actually irrelevant to the content of the discussion. It will often lead people down the wrong path.
  • Ad hominem attacks: this is when you attack the character of the person you're debating rather than their argument. (This one is very popular...)
  • Straw man argument: this is when you mischaracterize your opponent's argument, making it sound weaker than it really is, so you can easily dismantle it. (This is also quite popular.)
  • Begging the question (aka, circular reasoning): this is when you assume your conclusion, and use that to prove your conclusion is correct. Once discovered, this one is quite easy to point out to people.
  • Burden of proof fallacy: this is when you unfairly shift the burden of proof on the other party.
In addition to avoiding using these (and all other) logical fallacies in your arguments, you should also be ready to recognize and point out these fallacies in others' arguments. But be nice about it.

In fact, you should be nice about everything in these sorts of discussions. (And by the way, there's a difference between being "nice" and being a pushover.)

Geez, I can't tell you how many times I've been in a debate with someone about my faith, and have been a butt about it. When I act like that, I really can't convince anyone of my point of view, even if I have a convincing argument.

Anyway, in future posts I'll give some examples of using logical fallacies to sort of flesh out what I mean.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Problem of Evil (part 3?)

As I've mentioned earlier, the Problem of Evil (POE) is perhaps the biggest single reason why people reject the Christian faith. After all, if you look at all the suffering we see around us (e.g., moral evil like wars and murder, or natural evil such as earthquakes and hurricanes), how can one believe in a perfectly good God?

(And by the way, thoughts and prayers go out to those suffering from the aftermath of the earthquakes in Indonesia.)

One thing about the POE is that you always have to be careful when answering a skeptic's questions about it, because there may be two motivations behind his/her asking. First, it's possible that he or she has a logical, philosophical, or generally intellectual stumbling block to the Christian faith. In that case, one would want to argue clearly and cogently why the fact that evil exists in this world does not invalidate Christianity.

On the other hand, the skeptic could be looking for emotional answers. For example, if they have been hurt deeply recently, or wronged by some personal crime, then presenting a logical argument about why God may exist in light of evil in this world may not be much help. Expressions of love, hope, comfort, and acceptance may be more appropriate in these cases.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday part 3 (of 3)

In my two previous posts, I introduced the anthropic principle, pointing out that, while it is non-controversial that the universe appears designed, the philosophical implications are. I mentioned that one of the biggest philosophical "loopholes" to the apparent design in the universe is something called the "selection effect", and I described the fallacies associated with it.

Before I go on, I must apologize, because I didn't give the selection effect point of view enough credit. There have been many attempts to formalize the selection effect argument in terms of conditional probabilities and Bayesian inference (for those math-oriented people out there), and this is a good thing. Critics of theistic inferences from the anthropic principle correctly point out that it isn't enough to simply say "it looks improbable, therefore God must have done it." However, even if you do carry out the calculations in a probabilistically careful manner, you do arrive at theistic interpretations. In addition, even in the mathematical arguments from the critics of theistic inferences, the selection effect is nothing more than an irrelevant red herring.

OK, sorry. I had to get that off my chest. You are welcome to ignore that paragraph if you want. On the other hand, if you wish to know more about it, I am happy to correspond with you, but I don't think I'll take up any more room about it here.

Moving on, I wrapped up the meeting discussing actual examples of fine tuning. The first, and perhaps simplest case of fine tuning to describe is the mass density of the universe. The universe is expanding, but gravity acts as a brake on the expansion. Early on in the universe's life, the rate of expansion had to be just right in order for life to exist today. If it was expanding too fast, the matter in the universe would have been to disperse in order to form galaxies, stars, and planets. On the other hand, if the expansion had been to slow, matter would have clumped up so much as to only produce things like black holes. In other words, there had to be just the right amount of matter in the universe to control the expansion rate so exquisitely that if even a "dime's worth" of mass had been added or subtracted from the universe, no life would have been possible. That's fine-tuning to one part in 10^60. (ie, more remote that winning the lottery eight times in a row).

However, the most extreme case of fine tuning known today -- one part in 10^120 -- has to do with something very mysterious called "dark energy". This phenomenon acts as sort-of an anti-gravity, causing the universe to expand faster! (You can imagine the surprise of astrophysicists when, in the late 1990's, more and more evidence accumulated that the universe's expansion is indeed accelerating.) I must admit I have no way to explain to you why dark energy -- sometimes known as the space energy density, and represented by a number called the "cosmological constant" -- is finely tuned, or what that means, but here are some quotes from scientific papers that lament this fine-tuning (and are unsettled about the possible theistic implications therein):
  • The "cosmological constant...would involve the most extreme fine-tuning problem known in physics, and for this reason many particle physicists would prefer any mechanism that would drive the cosmological constant to be exactly zero today." -- Lawrence Krauss, 1998
  • "This type of universe [one with such a cosmological constant], however, seems to require a degree of fine tuning of the initial conditions that is in apparent conflict with 'common wisdom'." -- Zehavi and Dekel, 1999
  • "If [the existence of such a cosmological constant] should become an established fact, we are also confronted with a disturbing cosmic coincidence problem. " -- Straumann, 1999
Keep in mind that these are not commentaries or popular articles, but quotes from papers by experts published in quite prestigious scientific journals.

Wow, this post got too long. Before I go, let me say one more thing. It was a really good discussion, and outside of the material I summarized here, we talked about cool topics like life on other planets (which I am skeptical of, but not in a big way), and the multiverse (which I believe is worse than speculation-squared).

Until next time...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday part 2 (of 3)

In my previous post, I began to review our meeting last Saturday, in which we discussed the anthropic principle. Here, I continue the discussion about the problems with the "selection effect", which basically says "of course it looks designed, because otherwise we wouldn't be here to observe the apparent design!" In the last post, I noted that this is a red herring argument; it still doesn't address how the apparent design arose.

The second problem with this statement ("of course it looks designed, because otherwise we wouldn't be here!") is that it's a completely nonsensical answer. Let me shift our perspective to point out how absurd this is.

The degree of fine tuning required for this universe to support life exceeds one part in 10^70 (in fact, it exceeds this by a lot. A lot a lot). The chance of winning the lottery is more like one in 10 million (ie, 10^7). Just to get to one part in 10^70, you would have to win the lottery ten times in a row. Now, assuming you won the lottery even once, doing it twice in a row is quite ridiculous. If you even won it three times in a row, you can bet the FBI would be after you, and for good reason! They would suspect that you somehow rigged it.

If you don't like the lottery analogy, let's say you flipped a coin, and found that it came up heads ten times in a row. Not unbelievable, but quite unlikely. Now let's say you flipped it 10,000 times, and it always came up heads. Long before you got to the 10,000th flip, you'd start to suspect the fairness of the coin. After all of those flips, would you bet the 10,001st flip would be tails? Why not? If it was perfectly random, then the 10,001st flip would be 50-50 heads/tails, wouldn't it? Regardless of the previous 10,000 flips?

In other words, at some point, the odds become so ridiculous as to force you to conclude it isn't just a coincidence. If that's true with the lottery and the coin examples, why wouldn't it be true with the design of the universe?

However, I admit that neither of these examples specifically address the selection effect. Just the absurdity of avoiding the cause of the design. So, here's the classical refutation of the selection effect argument (thanks to William Lane Craig):
Suppose a dozen sharp-shooters are sent to execute a prisoner by firing squad. They all shoot a number of rounds in that direction, but the prisoner escapes unharmed. The prisoner could conclude, since he is alive, that all the sharp-shooters missed by some extremely unlikely chance. He may wish to attribute his survival to some remarkable piece of good luck. But he would be far more rational to conclude that the guns were loaded with blanks or that the sharp-shooters had deliberately missed.
(I stole that, word-for-word, from here. I admit I didn't read the whole website, so therefore I don't know whether I can explicitly endorse it, but it did have the information I was looking for...)

Anyway, it would be slightly ridiculous for the prisoner to say, "Of course I'm alive! I wouldn't be here to observe this remarkable coincidence otherwise!" The point is, regardless of the selection effect, we are far more rational to conclude, based on the extreme degree of apparent design, that the universe was in fact designed.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday, part 1 (of 3)

In our meeting yesterday, we talked largely about the anthropic principle, which basically says that, from our study of the universe we live in, it sure seems like it was designed for life in general, and human life in particular. And just like our previous meeting, in which we discussed the origin of the universe, it seems like we are sort of deadened to the implications of these discoveries.

Let me put it this way. The evidence for design is based on empirical data, and not philosophical or theological musings. Indeed, the impression of design is a non-controversial observation in the scientific community, and many have stated that this impression is overwhelming. However, many are still not coming to the most straightforward-seeming conclusion: that a Designer is responsible. In other words, theological implications are still avoided.

I often feel like quotes from non-theistic scientists carry a lot of weight, and so I read some during the meeting. I won't post all of them here in this blog; most you can find here. But here are some key ones:
  • "The impression of design is overwhelming." -- Paul Davies
  • "The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming." -- Freeman Dyson

So, if these are non-controversial statements, why isn't everyone rushing off to join "the First Church of Christ of the Big Bang (Stephen Strauss)?" Simply put, there are philosophical ways to get around what I called the most straightforward-seeming solution. The most prominent loophole has to do with what is called a "selection effect".

The selection effect basically says that the reason why we observe a universe seemingly designed for life is because if it weren't designed for life, we wouldn't be around to observe it, and not because Someone designed it for us. While it has been pointed out that this also takes some form of a faith committment, many people still find this answer to be intellectually satisfying. In other words, it's sort of like this: "The universe looks designed, but I don't (want to) believe in God. What do I do? Oh, good, there's this answer that settles my stomach about this apparent conflict in my worldview, and now I don't have to worry anymore."

But there are major problems with this philosophical approach. The most serious of which is that this "answer" doesn't actually answer anything at all. It's a red herring argument, so to speak, similar to the one I wrote about here. In other words, it notes what we observe, but it still lacks an answer as to why it happened. It says "of course it looks designed, because we otherwise wouldn't be here", but it doesn't say how it got that way. It avoids answering the BIG question!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Meeting this Saturday

We're having another meeting of the "Two Books" discussion group this coming Saturday (Sep 26) at my place, at 11:30am. As posted below, we're planning on talking about the "anthropic principle", that is, the ways in which God has designed this universe for the benefit of life in general, and human life in particular.

Let me just say right here that this was the main reason why the door opened for me to become a Christian. The evidence for design in the universe is overwhelming. And this is not simply something that a few radical right-wing Christian fundamentalists are saying; this is widely accepted by the scientific community at large!

Come and find out more...

Monday, September 14, 2009

The five greatest reasons

At the last meeting, I discussed my idea of going through what I call the five greatest scientific apologetic arguments, one at a time. The first one was the beginning of the universe, and so we talked about the big bang theory, and what theological/philosophical implications it has.

I would say, then, the five greatest reasons are (in no particular order):
  1. The origin of the universe
  2. The fine-tuning of the universe (including the anthropic principle and our privileged position)
  3. The origin of life (biochemistry)
  4. The origin of man (including the moral argument/imago dei)
  5. The design of life for the benefit of humanity (yes, I did say design of life)
Of course, these designations are somewhat arbitrary. Ask any ten people and they'll probably give you ten different answers as to what the five greatest reasons are. And most of these overlap. In fact, you could probably include numbers 2,3, and 5 all together into one big umbrella argument, and perhaps number 1 as well. The "origin of man" argument also has several different parts to it, such as archeology, philosophy, and genomics.

All in all, we'll see if we can cover roughly one topic per meeting for the next four meetings (given that we covered number one last time).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Summary of meeting last last Saturday

When we met on Saturday (more than a week ago now...I'm a terrible blogger!), we talked predominantly about the origin of the universe, which is basically the big bang theory. Not the tv show. The actual scientific theory.

Well, to be honest, I don't know a whole lot about the theory itself. But the theological implications are strong. The big bang theory says that the universe had an origin at some finite time in the past (current measurements place the cosmic creation event at 13.7 billion years ago). This creation event was the beginning of all space, time, matter, and energy. Before that, the universe simply did not exist.

I wanted to impress upon everyone how strong the implications are. I feel like we are sort of deadened to it these days, as if everyone understands that the universe had a beginning, and accepts it, but refuses to think about what that means. To put it into perspective, I talked about some of the initial (and ongoing, in some cases) opposition to the big bang theory. In each of these cases, the opponents admitted that their antagonism of the theory rested solely on a dislike its implications.

One example is Albert Einstein himself. After publishing his theory of general relativity, he realized the implications that came with it. (General relativity serves as the theoretical underpinnings of all current big bang models for the origin of the universe.) As a result, he later "added" a constant to his equations, changing the implication from a universe with a beginning to an eternal one. Later he called this the biggest mistake of his life.

Another example, one of the biggest opponents of the big bang theory, is Fred Hoyle. He was a major contributor to cosmology as a whole, but denied it because of its theological implications. Incidentally, Fred Hoyle was the one who coined the term "big bang", in ridicule of the theory.

On the other hand, experimental evidence has now verified, to an astonishing degree, some sort of big bang-type model. That is, we know that we live in an expanding universe that had a beginning some finite time in the past.

There are two reasons why non-theistic scientists find the big bang distasteful (yet most no longer deny its veracity). First, a beginning implies a beginner. Or a Beginner. And second, many scientists assumed that natural processes and evolution needed a nearly infinite amount of time to produce life. Certainly a few billion years is far too short a time for that. (It is interesting how our opinion changes due to necessity.)

But the reality of the matter is that we live in a universe with a beginning, and that life has originated and thrived here on this planet. These things are directly consistent with what the bible teaches about the world. There are many places in the bible that teaches about the beginning of the universe (as in, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo), as well as the beginning of time itself. Some would even claim that the bible teaches we live in an expanding universe, although I am hesitant to go that far. It is kind of provocative, though. Search biblegateway in the NIV for occurrences of the two words "stretch" and "heaven" in the same verse. It occurs ten times, all in the construct, "[God] stretches out the heavens." But again, we don't want to read too much into that.

The point of the matter, however, is that, from our study of the universe we live in, we have found that it indeed has a beginning. And most people nowadays either ignore the implications of that, or try to explain it away through metaphysical speculation. But it is a powerful apologetic point.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Meeting Saturday

We'll have a meeting at my place this Saturday at noon. We'll be discussing some cosmology. That is, to put it simply, we'll talk about how the "heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 19:1)."

The Problem of Evil (part 2?)

One of the things about the Problem of Evil (and by the way, thank you Laura for reminding me that there is a technical term for the POE: "theodicy") is that it can't be summed up in a simple answer. You can't boil it down to a yes or no question.

For example, let's say you are confronted with a skeptic who says that he (or she) is upset about the idea of hell. He just can't believe that a loving God would consign people who don't believe in Him to a place like hell. Then he goes on to say that his mother was a good, kind person, who gave money to charity, helped out with the elderly, and cared for some of her friends when they were sick. But she recently had a terminal illness and passed away. And she was a non-believer. Then he asks you, "Do you believe she went to hell?"

Put on the spot like that, many of us (if answering truthfully), would have to say, "Yes." But it's so much more than a one word answer (even for those of us who believe "no").

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Problem of Evil (part 1?)

I was thinking about the "Problem of Evil" (POE) last night, while laying in bed trying to go to sleep. I didn't get very far in thinking about it, since I fell asleep really quickly, but I was troubled by something I had heard about it. Apparently, from studies regarding the public perception of the Christian faith, it turns out that the POE is the biggest stumbling block to people believing in the God of the bible. I've also noted this from experience; it seems that I've heard more objections to the Christian faith regarding the POE than anything else.

The POE takes many forms, and lots of people don't even realize they're essentially the same thing. For example, there seems to be a large interest in this question "Why won't God heal amputees?" The idea is that, if God is good and real (ie, if He exists), then He would do miraculous healings of all kinds, not just of the kinds that people would normally recover from (such as sickness or broken bones). Since we don't see any amputees being healed, that must mean that all healing is natural, and probably means that God doesn't exist. After all, wouldn't He want to heal amputees?

This is just a special case of the famous syllogism (I don't know who originally came up with it):
  • Premise 1: If God were all good, He would want to eliminate evil.
  • Premise 2: If God were all powerful, He would be able to eliminate evil.
  • Observation: Evil exists.
  • Conclusion: God is either not all good, not all powerful, or neither good nor powerful (but He can't be both good and all powerful).
This syllogism has multiple logical problems with it, of course, but simply pointing out those inconsistencies isn't usually enough to persuade non-believers to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

I'll have more on this later, but for now, what are your thoughts on the POE?

Friday, August 14, 2009

I agree with Richard Dawkins

OK, first, I want to apologize for riding Richard Dawkins so much. This isn't a blog about him, and regardless of his views about Christianity, we really should not view him as some sort of "enemy".

That being said, this post is about him, but with an unusual twist: I agree with him. To some extent.

After thinking more and more about the topic that I posted the other day, I decided that I might want to read his The God Delusion. So, I was browsing for it on and found a short video interview where Dawkins is talking about his book.

In short, he says three things that I would agree with. (The rest of what he said, I pretty much disagree with.) First, he says that the question of whether God exists is an interesting, exciting question. Not much else to say about that.

Second, he says that the question of whether God exists is a scientific question. This is not to say it is purely a scientific question. It is also philosophical, historical, personal, and, of course, theological, to name a few other adjectives. But what he is saying here is that we can discover whether God likely exists or not based on our study of the natural world. That sounds like what I've been saying all along. He is basically refuting those atheists that are trying to keep God and science apart, who say that science can only discover natural phenomena, and can say nothing about the supernatural.

Then he goes on to say why he thinks it's a scientific question, which is the third point of agreement for me. He says a universe created by God (or one in which a god or gods exist(s)) would look completely different from one in which no supernatural being or force acted. I agree wholeheartedly. I just disagree about his conclusion. He goes on to say that this universe looks more like one in which there is no supernatural.

And that's the sticking point. But this is a good thing. If people are ready to put their theories to the test, then in the end, the truth will eventually come out. (I think.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Probability of God

I had a revelation this morning while I was swimming.

I had been thinking of something I read regarding a common atheist response to the anthropic principle (see my post from June 1). There is so much design apparent in the universe, it would be a monumental coincidence for all of this to happen by chance. But the atheists say that that does not prove God exists, because no matter how improbable our universe is, the statistical probability of God existing is even more remote. (Apparently, this is one of Richard Dawkins' arguments in The God Delusion; I haven't read it, but I was reading a book that critiqued it.)

The more I thought about it, the more absurd that argument seemed. First, my response was, "Who sez?" Or perhaps more eloquently, "How can you demonstrate that?" It seems to me that there is a fallacy of burden of proof here. After a statement like Dawkins', proponents of the Christian faith may be left sputtering, trying to figure out how to show that the probability of God existing is not as remote as Dawkins says it is. However, that is overlooking two things. First, perhaps Dawkins should be proving that it is remote, rather than the other way around. Looking at it that way, Dawkins' counterargument here to the anthropic principle seems to rest on an unprovable assumption. But even more intriguing is that this is a red herring fallacy as well. Simply saying that God, as an explanation for the improbability of this universe, is Himself improbable does not explain how we got here. It's just a negative argument against one explanation of how we got here. What we're left with in Dawkins' treatment of the situation is that we are here because we are here. Which doesn't answer any of the big questions at all.

So that's two logical fallacies Dawkins seems to be committing here. (And please forgive me if I'm not representing his case very well. I really should do my homework before critiquing someone else's position.) First is shifting the burden of proof, and second is the red herring fallacy.

But it gets worse.

The second thing I realized this morning is that the statement "no matter how improbable this universe is by chance, the probability of God is even less" is tantamount to saying "the probability of God existing is zero." Think about it. The only non-negative number that is guaranteed to be smaller than all positive numbers is zero. This is quite a strong statement. It goes far beyond saying God doesn't exist. It says that God cannot exist. In other words, Dawkins is using an assumption that God cannot exist to try to prove that God does not exist. It is a completely circular argument.

Here's another way to think about it, for the more math-oriented folks. In probability and statistics, the proof we're trying to make is something called a conditional probability. We see an improbable universe around us. What is the probability that God exists given we live in an improbable universe (ie, what's P(G|U))? Using Bayesian inference, we can easily come up with:

P(G|U) = P(G)/(epsilon + P(G)).

Here P(G) is the prior probability that God exists, and "epsilon" is the small chance that this universe came together by coincidence (all scientists would agree that epsilon is very small...something like 10^-50 or less). When doing Bayesian inference, you often have to bring in some a priori assumptions to assign prior probabilities (hence the name), so we have to guess at what P(G) is. But you never outright assume that P(G) is identically zero (or one). That would be the same as saying "no matter what our studies tell me, I will choose to believe X." (That's called blind faith.) Usually, when you don't know, you simply set your prior probabilities equal to 1/2. It's easy to see that P(G|U) (the probability that God exists given the universe we live in) would be extremely close to one for any reasonable choice of P(G). The only choice that makes P(G|U) small is P(G) = 0. Which is apparently what Dawkins wants to say.

Perhaps I'll write more on this later, but for now, I'd appreciate any comments.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Review of meeting about Genesis 2, part 3 (of 3)

In my first two posts about our meeting from July 13 (where we discussed Genesis 2), I addressed two common charges that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are conflicting, contradictory creation accounts. Here in this post, I will wrap up some miscellaneous discussions that we had during the meeting.

The first "miscellaneous" thing I noted was the length of Creation Day 6. In Genesis 1 (which, of course, does not conflict with Genesis 2), we are told that God created both Adam and Eve on Creation Day 6. However, in Genesis 2, which offers an expanded view of the relationship we have with God, and the relationship we have with the physical creation, we find that Adam had many tasks to perform before the creation of Eve.

In particular, we are told that God brought the animals to Adam so that he could name them. In Hebrew culture, this implies much more than simply assigning a name to the creatures he sees (see previous post). Adam would have to become acquainted with each animal, determine its characteristics, and name it accordingly. Note that this is after we have Adam placed in the garden in order to tend and maintain it.

Also note that at the end of all of this, Adam was lonely. The text directly says that Adam was alone, not lonely, but we can infer from the text that Adam was also lonely. After God creates Eve, and Adam sees her for the first time, he says, "This is now bone of my bones /and flesh of my flesh (v. 23, NIV)." The Hebrew translated here as "This is now" could more rightly be translated "At long last." This implies that the sixth creation day would be quite a bit longer than 24 hours. How much longer is not implied by the text.

Next, we discussed what kind of "creation" we are talking about, when God created Adam and Eve. The point here is, if we are interesting in discussing our faith with scientifically-minded non-believers, we may need to address this question. To be honest, I wasn't prepared to talk about it, but it is a quite difficult question to address. This question contains implications for biblical interpretation, what exactly is the "imago dei" (image of God), and who we (as humans made in the image of God) are.

However, one thing we can certainly discuss is the current state of the scientific theories of human origins. In our post-genomic age, we have discovered that humanity originated from a very small population, roughly 50-100 thousand years ago, in a region in northeast Africa. In fact, the scientific data so closely resembles the biblical account, it is often referred to as the "Garden of Eden" hypothesis.

But this is a whole 'nother can of worms. In what ways did God intervene in the history of the universe, if at all? Can we tell? Why should we care? Is life designed? Did it evolve from random processes? We'll touch on these topics in the near future, but for now, let's keep in mind that answering any of these questions has far reaching implications. It's not easy to address any of them by themselves.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Review of meeting about Genesis 2, part 2 (of 3)

A few days ago, I posted the first of three segments about our meeting on July 13 where we discussed Genesis 2. I mentioned that there is often confusion about verses 5-9, where it appears that God created Adam before He created the plants. Here I will briefly address the common charge that Genesis 2 appears to say that God created Adam before He created the rest of the animals.

Before we go on, one thing to keep in mind is that Genesis 1 and 2 each have different purposes. They are both creation accounts, but they specifically focus on different parts of creation. You won't find a very detailed description about the physical creation in Genesis 2, because that's what Genesis 1 is there for. Genesis 2, on the other hand, is primarily about God's relationship to us, and our relationship to the rest of creation. Any information about the physical creation is only there in Genesis 2 to give background information. If you want more detail, simply turn a couple pages back to Genesis 1.

That being said, I will try to dispel this apparent contradiction. In verses 18-20, we learn that God did not want Adam to be alone, and thus He introduces Adam to all the animals (the livestock, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air), in order that Adam might come to know each one well, and each species' characteristics. (In fact, the passage talks about Adam naming the animals, which would imply, from the Hebrew culture, that Adam must know the animals quite well at that point.)

But the problem here is verse 19. It says, right after God created Adam and the realized he was alone, "Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air...(NKJV)" This seems to imply chronological order. Did that really happen after God created Adam? The problem is the translations at times can be a little misleading. Recall from our discussion on Genesis 1 that verb tenses in Biblical Hebrew have several possible, literal meanings. In other words, the verb here (in the NJKV) translated as "formed" is, in the NIV, translated as "had formed". In light of this, verse 19 receives its proper place: as background information about what was taking place. Adam was about to be introduced to the animals, so we are reminded that God had, at some time in the past, formed these animals from the dust of the ground.

Now, how exactly did He do that? That, my friends, is a topic for another discussion. Perhaps I'll pick that up in the third and final post about this past meeting.

I'd be excited to hear someone's comments.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review of meeting about Genesis 2, part 1 (of 3)

On Monday, July 13, we met and discussed common objections to Genesis 2. I had basically prepared to answer the common charge that Genesis 1 and 2 are conflicting, contradictory creation accounts. In particular, the seeming order of events in verses 5-9 conflict, as it appears from Genesis 2 that God creates man before the plants. Additionally, some translations seem to say that God creates Adam before He creates animals. Today, I'll talk about the first conflict.

But before I discuss this conflict directly, it is important to note the focus of the chapter. While Genesis 1 seems to be primarily an account of the physical creation, and how God is mighty in His creative acts, Genesis 2 focuses primarily on the creation of humans and our relationship with God and with the rest of creation. In other words, attempting to glean details about the physical creation from Genesis 2 is almost silly when there is an entire chapter devoted to it in Genesis 1. Furthermore, as the focus is on Adam's relationship with God and the rest of creation, any details about the physical creation should be seen as the necessary background for understanding this context.

Even so, Genesis 2:5-9 does seem to be confusing. The passage seems to say, "When no plant had yet come up on the earth, ...God created Adam." Is it really claiming that God created Adam before He created plants? One of the misunderstandings comes from the fact that the word often translated as "earth" in this passage can also be translated as "land". Furthermore, it could be talking about a specific piece of land, or geographical area. So it need not mean that no plant had ever come up on the whole face of the earth. It is more likely saying that in a certain geographical area, no plant had sprung up (perhaps even that year) because the rainy season had not come yet, and this was before man was around to do artificial irrigation. So there were no crops yet come up in the land.

I don't think this is over-interpreting. Remember, this story was told from the standpoint of a highly agricultural people. Further support of this idea comes from Genesis 2:8-9, which then tells us what specific piece of land we may be talking about: Eden.

So, Genesis 2:5-9 could be read as following. At some point in time, there was no vegetation to speak of in the area which was to become Eden. That was because the rains had not yet come that year, and man wasn't around yet to do irrigation of the fields. At this point, the rains (or mist) began to come, and God created the first man: Adam. God also planted a garden in this piece of land, which was to be called Eden. The garden began to grow because the rains had just started coming. And God put Adam into the garden in order to tend it (otherwise, it would grow out of control).

Even if this is reading too much into the account, the point is that we must take the whole passage into context. The sentences in verses 5-7 are only meant to be understood in the context of the passage as a whole. The entire description of the lack of "shrubs of the field", etc, is meant to give us a background as to what the land looked like outside of the context of Eden. Then, the setting shifts to Eden and we are told Adam is to work the garden, such that the garden continues to grow and look beautiful, in contrast to what the land could look like without the garden and without man to tend it.

This perspective also harmonizes with Genesis 3, in which Adam and Eve sin against God. In that chapter, we are told that the ground is "cursed, because of you [Adam]." In our sinful state, our attempts to tend the land, such as Eden, will be less fruitful. So we have the contrast of what the land looked like before Eden, and what we can expect it to become like as a result of our misuse of the land after man became sinful.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Was Eden perfect?

I was listening to a sermon the other day, an the pastor said that Eden was where we were meant to live. I am not going to expressly disagree with him, because in some sense, I agree, but it was food for thought. In particular, such a statement raises questions about whether God had to scrap plan A (Eden) in favor of plan B (redemption through Christ) because of Adam's sin, and whether or not God foresaw/foreknew/predestined this outcome.

Without fully exploring the implications of this statement, I'll just go ahead and say that God at least knew, and at the strongest planned, for things to turn out this way. I'll give you three reasons why.

First, we know from our study of the universe that it is only temporary. We live in a continuously expanding universe, and it's accelerating. Pretty soon, the sun will burn up. Before that happens, some natural disaster will surely befall us. (I am not being doomsday-ish here; the more we study this world, the more we realize that we live at a very special time in earth's and the universe's history which allows for advanced life and a civilized human society. This is not true of the earth and the universe at any other era of time.) The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy (disorder) is a constantly increasing quantity in the universe, which will one day make it impossible to do work (i.e., have useful energy). In other words, from our studies of the world around us, it is clear that this earth, and Eden in particular, was never meant to be our permanent home.

Second, the book of revelation speaks of a new creation, one in which the laws of physics will be completely different. There will be no more darkness or shadows, as God's glory will illuminate everything. (It's debatable how metaphorical this could argue this simply means there will be nothing more to hide.) There will be no more suffering or pain, and God will wipe every tear away. One reason why the laws of physics must be totally different is because of the decay we see around us. I find it unlikely that the second law of thermodynamics will hold true, or even have any meaning, in the new creation. But the second law, in terms of statistical mechanics, is just an outflow of the fact that we live in a universe in which matter is made of small particles (atoms/molecules, etc.). If there is no law of decay in the new creation (as Paul implies in Romans 8), then the entire makeup of the new creation must be different!

Third, the laws of physics in this current universe are explicitly set up to provide a "battleground", if you will, against evil. Without our spatial and temporal limitations we experience here, evil cannot spread too rapidly. The second law of thermodynamics (yes, that one again) discourages and punishes evil. For example, I'm a very lazy person, but if I don't clean my house regularly, it becomes a mess. Big deal, right? Well, this sort of thing was a big deal for cities in medieval Europe. A simpler example is abuse of tools. If you're too lazy to take care of your tools, for example if you leave a hammer or screwdriver (or a bicycle...I'm guilty of that one) outside without putting it away, it becomes rusty and less useful. This is a general principle. Paul put it very succinctly when he said, "A man reaps what he sows." One could argue that God's wrath is waiting for the unjust, but it is also true that your own punishment befalls you naturally according to the way this world works. To sum up this paragraph, I'm saying that, from the way this universe works, it appears that it was meant to be a place where evil would be confronted and vanquished, for the benefit of all humanity.

OK, I'm pretty sure I stepped on a few people's toes with that one. If you're angry or excited, or just have something to add, please post your comment below.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Fully gifted creation

One of the hot button topics these days, at least in terms of Christianity and science, is evolution. Most of the time, the debate/discussion is artificially polarized/caricatured into two camps: creationism and evolution. If you're a Christian, you believe in creation, and if you're smart, you believe in evolution. (Whatever "believe in evolution" means.)

Some refuse to be part of that partisianship. Prominent scientists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins (both authors as well) ascribe to a view commonly called "theistic evolution", which loosely means they affirm both God's existence (both would accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior), yet also naturalistic evolution. That is, both would deny that God had a hand in creating any of the life by fiat miracle, as many creationists would state.

Howard van Till calls this point of view "fully gifted creation", in that God, when He created the universe, did it in such a perfect way, with the just-right initial conditions, such that everything would unfold according to His plan.

What is interesting about this point of view is that it isn't just a concession to mainstream science, as some creationists claim, but indeed it demonstrates the existence of an Intelligent Designer. If the universe unfolding this way is according to God's plan, then life's history on earth does have a purpose, even if it can be fully explained by "mere" naturalistic forces. In other words, even in a theistic evoltionary worldview, we would expect to see design and fine-tuning in life's history. It is an inevitable consequence of believing in a God "who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Eph 1:11)."

I'd really like to hear someone's (anyone's?) thoughts on this topic.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review of meeting about Genesis 1, part 4 of 4

Up until this point, I have primarily focused on a particular interpretation of Genesis 1, called the "day-age" view, espoused by an organization called Reasons to Believe. However, I don't think their point of view is the full story.

First, it is clear that the divine workweek, while perhaps not 144 hours as we would understand a six-day period to be, is at least analogous to our workweek. Six days of work, one day of Sabbath-rest (see Hebrews 4). Some have used this as an argument for a 24-hour day interpretation. However, besides a human work week, other things follow this pattern of six "somethings" of work, followed by one "something" of rest. For example, Exodus 23 instructs us to work the land for six years, and for the seventh let the land "rest". This pattern itself actually follows work six/rest one-Sabbath pattern: a "Sabbath of Sabbaths" shall occur every fifty years, in the year of Jubilee (see Lev 25)! In other words, perhaps God created in this particular pattern in order to provide us with analogy to our prescribed pattern. This is called the "analogical day view", and provides one answer to the question as to why God did not just create everything in a big "poof". (Delving deeply into this may be a topic for later discussion.)

Second, it is clear that Genesis 1 should be interpreted within a literary framework. The framework hypothesis, if I am portraying it correctly, states that each of the days should be taken as part of a literary whole. Note the parallelism in the passage. In the first three days, God creates "kingdoms". Day 1: day and night. Day 2: the waters and the sky. Day 3: the land. Then, in the next three days, God creates things to fill these kingdoms (the "rulers"). Day 4: sun and moon. Day 5: swarming creatures in the ocean, great big ocean beasts, and birds. Day 6: specialized land-dwelling creatures, and, of course, humans.

Taking these two positions together, in addition to what I've already described, answers a couple outstanding questions. Why does the text appear to say that God created the sun and moon on Day 4? Not only is that because they are first clearly seen on Day 4, but also because it fits the divinely-orchestrated creation psalm that we call Genesis 1. Why does God seem to create sea-dwelling mammals (Day 5) before land mammals (Day 6)? Because Genesis 1 is not telling the whole story, only the essential points, and doing it this way fits the literary framework. Perhaps God did create land mammals on Day 5 as well. But the specialized ones, such as horses, goats, etc, important for human culture, perhaps were created on Day 6. These are the ones that are highlighted. One many also ask why He created in this pattern at all? Because of the importance of analogy to our workweek.

Wow. I really must apologize for the long time it took to finish writing this. I hope it was clear. But hey, one of the reasons why I'm writing this thing is to hopefully stimulate some discussion among friends and brothers and sisters in Christ. I'd really appreciate hearing what you have to say.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Review of meeting about Genesis 1, part 3 of 4

The third point that I focused on in our discussion last Saturday was not a roadblock for non-believers so much as it was a positive case for Christianity.

The Genesis 1 creation account is primarily proclaiming that God is the one who creates. This can be seen in the way the sun and the moon are described in Creation Day 4 (ie, the "greater light" and the "lesser light"). Most scholars agree that this wording was chosen to help keep the Israelites from idolizing and worshiping these heavenly bodies the way many of their neighbors did.

But beyond that theological point, it also appears that the Genesis 1 creation narrative is a chronology. Now, many people object to this point of view, saying that "the bible isn't a science textbook". While that is true, it is also a mischaracterization of the problem. Even though the bible isn't a science textbook, it does speak the truth on matters that it discusses. You won't find descriptions of electrons, gravitational theory, or optics in the bible, but when it does speak of natural phenomena, it should be error-free (when interpreted correctly).

So, back to the chronology of Genesis 1. If we are so bold as to examine it as a chronology, we see remarkable accuracy. There are at least 11 major points discussed in the Genesis 1 account that are now known to be scientifically accurate in their statement or in their chronology:
  1. The universe is created from nothing, and time had a beginning.
  2. The primordial earth was dark (ie, blanketed with thick clouds).
  3. The primordial earth was unfit for life.
  4. The primordial earth earth was covered with water.
  5. Early on in earth's history, the thick cloud cover was exchanged for a thinner atmosphere.
  6. The water cycle began.
  7. Dry land appeared.
  8. Photosynthetic plant life appeared.
  9. The oceans swarmed with life (Cambrian Explosion).
  10. Advanced animals appeared.
  11. Humans appeared.
It's pretty remarkable that Moses, who knew nothing of these events, was able to describe them with enough detail that, with our knowledge today, we can recognize these events as happening the way Genesis 1 describes. But Moses had knowledge from the one who performed these acts. If God, who knew how these events took place, told Moses through the Spirit what to "write" and in what order, and from our vantage point today we find that these events, as recorded, are true, shall we say that it's a coincidence? Or should we affirm that the Genesis 1 chronology is a miraculously scripted history of earth and the universe?

One last thing. I am not saying that all the answers lie in Genesis 1. There are parts of this chronology that we don't understand, or, perhaps, seem to contradict what we have discovered through studying the natural world. However, there are other interpretations of the text, and I think it would be instructive to peruse these as well, in particular the "framework hypothesis" and the "analogical day view", which we'll get to in the next posting.

But for now:
Comments are welcome!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Review of meeting about Genesis 1, part 2 of 4

Continuing on with my previous post summarizing our discussion group, I'd like to discuss the second common roadblock that non-believers have with interpreting Genesis 1.

This second roadblock is that many skeptics object to the idea that the sun, moon, and stars are allegedly created on Day 4, after not only the earth has been created, but also the first plants have been created as well. First of all, this makes no physical sense, and second, we know for a fact that many stars (and galaxies) are far older than the earth. But Genesis 1:16 says, in the middle of the Creation Day Four account:
God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars (NIV).
What are we to make of this? The common misconception here hinges on a subtle shift in point of view. In verse 1:2, the text tells us:
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
This implies that it was dark on the surface of the earth (but not necessarily because the sun didn't exist). Then, in Creation Day One, "God said 'Let there be light,' and there was light (v. 1:3)." Does this mean that the light here in verse 1:3 is different from sunlight? Some have proposed it is God's shenikah glory, as will be true of the new creation (Rev 21:23). However, it doesn't have to be that mystical. I contend that it was dark on earth's surface because of thick cloud cover, and not due to the lack of a sun. When God said "Let there be light," He was not creating light, but allowing light to pass. (The Hebrew verb here, haya, can be translated "come to pass".) In fact, our best planetary formation models predict that the primordial earth was covered in thick clouds, much like Venus is today, and only because of a miraculous collision event with another planet-sized body (which, by the way, is the same event that formed the moon and a topic for another discussion) did the cloud cover become thin enough to allow light to impinge upon the surface of the earth.

So what then do we do with Creation Day Four? It seems that in verse 1:16, the Bible is clearly teaching that the sun, moon, and stars were created that day. Well, the answer is that the Hebrew verb tense translated as "made" could also be translated as "had made." In other words, verses 1:16-18 were, in a sense, parenthetical notes.

But Creation Day Four still talks about the sun and the moon appearing for the first time. God said "Let there be" lights in the sky, which as we saw before, means "let it come to pass that lights would be in the sky." We should interpret this to mean that, in this creation epoch, this is the first time that an observer on the surface of the earth can see and distinguish these heavenly bodies. Previously, the cloud cover that allowed light to penetrate was still scattering enough to obscure the sun and moon as distinct objects. Kind of like a haze. If you read further in Day Four, the text even tells you why it is important for the heavenly bodies to become distinguishable: to mark the days, seasons, and years. This was not previously possible.

So that's roadblock #2. I know it was kinda wordy, but hopefully understandable. Of course, if you didn't understand it or if you have questions/criticisms...

Comments are welcome!

Review of meeting about Genesis 1, part 1 of 4

Hi folks!
Yesterday, we had another "Two Books" discussion meeting at my place. My original intention was to discuss Genesis 1 and 2, as these chapters seem to contain a high concentration of stumbling blocks that skeptics have regarding Christianity. Indeed, one of my stated goals for this discussion group and this blog is to talk about thoughtful responses to common objections that skeptics raise. We had a good time discussing Genesis 1, but did not have enough time to get to Genesis 2. Next time!

We read Genesis 1:1-2:4. (Note that many Bibles place verse 2:4 with the chapter 2 creation narrative, while some place it with the chapter 1 narrative. Some, such as the NIV, even divide the verse into two parts.) In particular, we focused on three points.

First, many skeptics object to the Genesis 1 creation account because of the common view that it teaches that the earth and the universe are less than 10,000 years old. This comes from the divine work-week structure of the creation narrative. However, the Hebrew word translated as "day" (yom) can be interpreted in several different ways. Indeed, there are at least two uses of the word "yom" in the very same text that unequivocally mean something other than a 24-hour period. The first is in vv 1:5, 16, and 18 (here "day" means the roughly 12-hour period of daylight). The second is in verse 2:4. In fact, this appearance of the word "yom" is not even translated as "day" very often (the NIV does not even have a clear translation of this word), but this verse is referring to an ambiguously long period of time, greater than 24 hours.

The punchline is that "yom" can possibly refer to an unspecified, long (but finite) period of time, and if that's true, why would we be compelled to accept the days of the creation week as 24 hours? (And by the way, there are many scriptural reasons for regarding these "days" as long, unspecified periods of time, which are far beyond the scope of this particular post.)

So that's major roadblock #1. The other two will be to come in the next few days. As usual:

Comments are welcome!