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.