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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Atheists Assuming Too Much from Neuroscience


Most atheists today are materialists. They don't believe people have immaterial souls and think that all of our experiences and thoughts can be reduced to electro-chemical functions in the brain. In fact, they often point to neuroscience to make their point.

In my debate against Richard Carrier he made such a claim, stating:
We can break your consciousness. A bullet can go through your brain or a surgeon can go into your brain and cut out a piece of it and you will lose that function. For e.g., there is a part of your brain that recognizes faces. We can cut that out and then you can't recognize faces anymore. You've lost a part of your consciousness. And every single thing that we do, like vision, the seeing of color, the seeing of red, is associated with a location in the brain that we can cut out, and you won't have it anymore. So we know that there is actual machinery that is generating this stuff.1
Of course, Carrier is equivocating on the word consciousness, using it only in terms of ability rather than sentience. Using the word as he uses it above, a blind man is less conscious than a sighted man while a dog hearing a dog whistle has more consciousness than any human at that moment. Obviously, such an idea is flawed.

But let's leave that aside for the moment. Instead, I'd like to focus on Carrier's assertion that we can know a certain part of the brain is responsible for us seeing red or recognizing faces. I've heard this claim many times in conversations, usually with atheists pointing to fMRI imaging of people thinking about a thing or medical studies where neurologists will point to a damaged portion of the brain inhibiting something like speech. Like Carrier above, they claim that science has proved this is the area responsible for this function and the function is therefore wholly materialistic in nature. The brain is basically a biological computer and should be understood as such.

Testing What We Know vs. Assuming What We Don't

It turns out, though, that Carrier's confidence in knowing "there's a part of your brain that recognizes faces" or whatever is over-simplistic. The case is made very well in a new article from The Economist magazine. Originally entitled "Does Not Compute," the article states how neuroscience has drawn most of their conclusions through the study of the two methods I mentioned above. However, Neuroscientists Eric Jonas of the University of California, Berkeley, and Konrad Kording of Northwestern University, Chicago decided to go a different route and test these tests, so to speak.

Jonas and Kording reasoned if the computer is an accurate analog for the brain, then they should be able to find which portions of a computer chip are responsible for specific functions by either incapacitating that portion or imaging the chip to capture activity. Since all aspects of a computer chip and its functions are already known, they could see how well these tests accurately identified the structures as those primarily involved with that function. The article states they chose a MOS Technology 6502 CPU chip, one used in early Atari games and Apple computers. It was simple enough to handle but still had a wide variety of programs and functions to be tested.

Assumptions Come Crashing Down

The results of their tests were fascinating. The article reports:
One common tactic in brain science is to compare damaged brains with healthy ones. If damage to part of the brain causes predictable changes in behaviour, then researchers can infer what that part of the brain does. In rats, for instance, damaging the hippocampuses—two small, banana-shaped structures buried towards the bottom of the brain—reliably interferes with the creatures' ability to recognise objects.

When applied to the chip, though, that method turned up some interesting false positives. The researchers found, for instance, that disabling one particular group of transistors prevented the chip from running the boot-up sequence of "Donkey Kong"—the Nintendo game that introduced Mario the plumber to the world—while preserving its ability to run other games. But it would be a mistake, Dr Jonas points out, to conclude that those transistors were thus uniquely responsible for "Donkey Kong". The truth is more subtle. They are instead part of a circuit which implements a much more basic computing function that is crucial for loading one piece of software, but not some others.

Another neuroscientific approach is to look for correlations between the activity of groups of nerve cells and a particular behaviour. Applied to the chip, the researchers' algorithms found five transistors whose activity was strongly correlated with the brightness of the most recently displayed pixel on the screen. Again, though, that seemingly significant finding was mostly an illusion. Drs Jonas and Kording know that these transistors are not directly involved in drawing pictures on the screen. (In the Atari, that was the job of an entirely different chip, the Television Interface Adaptor.) They are only involved in the trivial sense that they are used by some part of the program which is ultimately deciding what goes on the screen. 2
Of course none of this proves that the consciousness of living beings comes from an immaterial source. There are other really good reasons to believe that. The big takeaway in Jonas and Kording's research is that all the Sturm und Drang made by atheists on how neuroscience has "proved" our thoughts come from our brains is shown to be bias rather than fact. Neuroscience is in its infancy and has proven nothing of the sort. In fact, even fMRI imaging is nothing more than "a conjecture or hypothesis about what we think is going on in the brains of subjects."3

At one time, people spoke assuredly of bloodletting as the cure to various maladies. They had confidence in the science of their day. Today, people speak confidently of how much they know from neuroscience. Carrier's assertions above are just one example. One cannot simply "cut out" one area of the brain responsible for facial recognition. If atheists are as open to reason as they say, they need to stop making grandiose claims from very tenuous data.

References

1. The Great Debate: Does God Exist? Lenny Esposito versus Richard Carrier. Prod. Come Reason Ministries. Perf. Lenny Esposito and Richard Carrier. Come Reason Ministries, 2012. DVD.
2. "Testing the Methods of Neuroscience on Computer Chips Suggests They Are Wanting." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 21 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Jan. 2017. http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21714978-cautionary-tale-about-promises-modern-brain-science-testing-methods.
3. Nöe, Alva Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons of Consciousness.
New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. 20.

Image courtesy Gengiskanhg, CC BY-SA 3.0

Friday, January 13, 2017

Our Concept of Superheroes Comes from Christianity



Many scholars have categorized the superhero tale as a type of grand myth,1 and the hero is a common archetype in myth.2 However, the modern superhero is different from Homer's heroes. The hero in ancient myths was more driven by self-interest or in protecting the state of the polis or the societal norms from change. Larry Siedentop explains how "the ancient hero had been Odsessyus-like—an aristocrat. Springing from a leading family and often associated with the foundation of cities, the ancient hero was typically male, strong, wily, and successful."3 So, Jason seeks out the Golden Fleece to return to his family and receive the crown, Heracles seeks to perform labors to pay for his sins, and Theseus seeks to restore his birthright.

Siedentop argues the concept of what a hero is morphed as Christians began to topple the values of the Roman Empire. He states the Christian martyr didn't reinforce the established societal expectations, but rebelled against them by refusing to "bend under the claims of family and civic piety or to worship the Emperor." Instead of strengthening the social order of the polis, they "disregarded gender, class, and status."4 Their very public deaths were the epitome of selflessness to the underclass:
In making martyrs of Christians, the ancient world was consecrating what it sought to destroy and destroying what it sought to preserve. For Christian martyrs gained a hold over the popular imagination. And it was easy to see why that should have been so. The martyrs offered a model of heroism. As Tertullian remarked early in the third century, the martyr's blood provided "the seed of the church."5
Siedentop summarized it was the cult of the martyrs that "began to redefine heroism."6 Self-sacrifice is the most uniquely Christian aspect for all superheroes. Every hero sacrifices his own happiness or comfort in some way. Superman could rule the planet given his powers. Instead, he accepts being humiliated as Clark Kent in order to serve humanity as Superman.

In Iron Man, Tony Stark realizes that his weapons have been misappropriated by terrorists and his experiences change him so he is no longer driven to build more and profit from them. This even shows up in more complex Marvel storylines, such as Captain America: Civil War. There, the Hobbean Iron Man supports a government registration program for all super-powered beings while Capitan America believes freedom is the natural right of the superhuman. But both are driven to their positions in seeking what's right, not their own interests. This is the opposite of Roman and Greek myths. Leo Partiple observed "Whereas the god heroes of old were petty, cruel, or indifferent, the traditional superheroes try to mirror Christ. They stand against injustice and offer us a moral example to follow."7

Siedentop uses the hero as only one small example in his sweeping survey showing how Christian "moral beliefs have given a clear overall ‘direction' to Western history."8 Still, the Christian concept that every human has intrinsic worth stands in stark contrast to pagan societies who would do unconscionable things like discarding infants because they were the wrong sex,9 or selling them for profit or sacrifice.10

The sanctification of human life runs throughout the genre. The 1966 Batman movie has a scene where the caped crusader finds a lit bomb in a dive bar on the wharf and spends several minutes running around Gotham's ship docks seeking a place where he may dispose of the sparking globe without injuring bystanders. The scene is camp and played for laughs. However at the end of the sequence, after Batman is nearly blown to bits, Robin expresses his amazement at taking such a chance:

ROBIN: Holy strait jacket, Batman! You risked your life to save that …riff-raff in the bar!

BATMAN: They may be drinkers, Robin. But they're also human beings, and might still be salvaged. I had to do it.11

The intrinsic worth of all human beings is just one of the uniquely Christian values that are indispensable to creating costumed crusaders. Marco Arnaudo emphasizes this when writing "the traditions that have most profoundly made a mark on the development of the modern superhero genre are undoubtedly Judeo-Christian."12 Christianity changed the idea of what it means to be a hero, and thus opened the door, allowing the modern superhero to emerge.

References

1. See Marco Arnaudo and Jamie Richards. The Myth of the Superhero. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013; Ben Saunders. Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes. London: Continuum, 2011; Zanne Domoney-Lyttle. "Comic Books as Religion: How Superheroes Connect Ancient and Contemporary Beliefs." Diss. U of Glasgow, School of Critical Studies, 2013.
2. See Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008. Print.
3. Siedentop, Larry. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. London: Penguin Random House UK, 2014. 79. Print.
4. Siedentop, 2014. 79-80.
5. Siedentop, 2014. 80.
6. Siedentop, 2014.79
7. Partible, Leo. "Superheroes in Film and Pop-Culture." The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Pop Culture. Ed. B. J. Oropeza. New York: Peter Lang, 2008. 251. Print.
8. Siedentop, 2014.2.
9. Schmidt, 2004. 49.
10. See Paul Chamberlain's summation of ancient infanticide in Why People Don't Believe: Confronting Seven Challenges to Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011. 130. Print.
11. Batman. Dir. Les Martinson. Perf. Adam West, Burt Ward. 20th Century Fox, 1966. Film.
12. Arnaudo, 2011. 27.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Clarifying Objections against Bible Reliability



There's an old joke about a professor walking at his University and sees a young Christian from a small town reading the book of Exodus. "Praise God!" the youth exclaims, "What a miracle! God parted the Red Sea so Israel could pass through!" The prof decides to dispel the backwards beliefs of the yokel, telling him, "I think you're misinformed. Scholars have concluded that what you read as the Red Sea is really the Sea of Reeds. That area is really only covered buy a few inches of water, so the Red Sea wasn't really parted. Education has debunked that miracle, so there's nothing there to shout praises for."

The student sheepishly thanked the teacher for enlightening him to this new-found knowledge. Feeling a bit cocky as he began to walk away, the professor was surprised to suddenly hear the student exclaiming the greatness of God and his miracles all the louder. Turning on a dime, the lecturer quickly returned to the student and snapped "Didn't you believe what I said?"

"Yes sir, I did." answered the lad. "But then I kept reading and it says here that God drowned all of Pharaoh's army in those few inches of water. What a mighty miracle of God!"

Two Types of Charges against Scripture

Certainly one of the more persistent objections Christians hear to their faith is the Bible is untrustworthy. I've heard this charge raised in many different venues. Sometimes Christians will rush in to defend the Bible with stats and quotes, but this would be a mistake. As I've engaged skeptics in colleges and universities who question the veracity of the Bible, their objections are not monolithic. Different people have different objections to the Scriptures, and it is important that in conversation you address the specific objection in the objector's mind.

The first thing that I ask someone who claims the Bile can't be trusted is "in what way can't it be trusted? Can you be more specific?" This helps shape the conversation going forward so I know where to place my emphasis. Objections to the Bible come in one of two main categories: either doubting the accuracy of the text or doubting the fidelity of the accounts. Each category will need to be answered very differently. Let's take a look at both so you can more easily identify them.

Accuracy of the Text

When asked to be more specific, most people who make the claim that the Bible is untrustworthy will respond with a more specific objection. You may hear objections like these:
  • The Bible's been translated too many times
  • No original versions exist
  • It's been too long between the copies we have and when the originals were written
  • There have been too many changes to the text over time.
All of the examples above fall into the first major category, questioning the accuracy of the text. These kinds of objections may be answered by pointing to methods of textual criticism that show why scholars have a very high level of confidence that we can know what the original scriptures said. I've written on an easy-to-remember way to show that here. (The "translated too many times" objection is based from ignorance.) The accuracy of the New Testament text really isn't an issue for scholars, and the Dead Sea scrolls have demonstrated that the Old Testament text has remained reliably copied for thousands of years.

Fidelity of the Accounts

But textual accuracy isn't the only type of objection one may hear. You may also be confronted with objections like:
  • There are contradictions in the Bible
  • There was too much time between oral stories and when they were written down for legends to develop.
These charges are not questioning whether we have the right text, but whether the text accurately records the accounts as they happened. Answering charges against the fidelity of the scriptures requires a different approach. You may need to discuss how the Gospel accounts had to meet a high level of expectation as history or how archaeology has confirmed many of the biblical accounts. You may need to spend some time discussing just what they mean by "contradiction" and how different contradiction claims fail. You may even need to talk about why the Gospels offer a ring of truth as eyewitness accounts. Wherever your discussion leads, it will be a very different one than with someone who questions the accuracy of the text itself.

When defending your faith, asking clarifying questions is crucially important. Sometimes when challenged, people don't even have a focused objection in mind. They're just parroting back something they've heard. Challenging them to be more specific brings this out and it will tell you just how seriously they are taking their own claims. But if they do, you now have a better idea of how to approach the discussion and whether or not they're earnest in listening to a response.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Why a Beautiful Sunset Argues for God's Existence



Have you ever seen a beautiful sunset or had your breath taken away by a stunning vista? Such experiences leave us with a sense of awe. They also feel a bit hallowed; people are a bit more reverent when taking in the natural beauty of the world. The delicate symmetry of a snowflake or the glistening of a spider's dew-dropped web awakens a sense of beauty in our souls, prompting believers to thank God for His amazing handiwork.

But is that last move valid? Can we infer God simply from something we ourselves find beautiful? Actually, we can.

Last week, I was discussing the various arguments for God's existence with Dr. Robert Stewart and Dr. Sean McDowell. Most Christians who are interested in apologetics are familiar with arguments from the existence of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, and the reality of moral values and duties. Some have heard the argument from consciousness or the argument from reason. But there is another argument that many people don't hear about and that is the argument from beauty.

What is the argument from beauty? Richard Swinburne explains it this way:
If there is a God there is more reason to expect a basically beautiful world than a basically ugly one. A priori, however, there is no particular reason for expecting a basically beautiful rather than a basically ugly world. In consequence, if the world is beautiful, that fact would be evidence for God's existence.1

The objective nature of the beautiful

I think one of the reasons the argument from beauty isn't more well-known is simply that people don't believe beauty is an objective thing. We've all heard the bromide that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and taken that to mean beauty is completely subjective. Even shows like The Twilight Zone foster the idea. People assume that beauty, since it is enjoyable, is like other enjoyable experiences. And given that everyone has a different view of what counts as enjoyable, then beauty must also be subjective in this same way.

However, the beautiful is different from the merely enjoyable. Roger Scruton upacks the difference:
There is also a sense in which you cannot judge something to be enjoyable at second hand: your own enjoyment is the criterion of sincerity, and when reporting on some object that others find enjoyable the best you can sincerely say is that it is apparently enjoyable, or that it seems to be enjoyable, since others find it so.

However, it is not at all clear that the judgement that something is enjoyable is about it rather than the nature and character of people. Certainly we judge between enjoyable things: it is right to enjoy some things, wrong to enjoy others. But these judgements focus on the state of mind of the subject, rather than a quality in the object. We can say all that we want to say about the rightness and wrongness of our enjoyments without invoking the idea that some things are really enjoyable, others only apparently so.

With beauty matters are otherwise. Here the judgement focuses on the object judged, not the subject who judges. We distinguish true beauty from fake beauty-from kitsch, schmaltz and whimsy. We argue about beauty, and strive to educate our taste. And our judgements of beauty are often supported by critical reasoning, which focuses entirely on the character of the object.2
In his book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, Scruton builds a strong argument for the objective nature of beauty. But it strikes me as obviously part of the human condition that we are built to recognize beauty. That's why no one thinks a rainbow is ugly and why all cultures across time have used color and art to increase the beauty of their surrounding environment. Psychiatrists have noted that distortions of the beautiful can even signal severe mental disorders, as the famous series of cat paintings by Louis Wain demonstrates.

Beauty grounded in God

If beauty is objective, then it reflects a common understanding among all people. The argument from morality says because all people have an inherent understanding of morality; because we can recognize what is good, we can know God exists. The argument from reason states because we can reason towards the true, we can know God exists. The Good and the true are what Scruton calls "ultimate values"—something we pursue for its own sake." He then explains, "Someone who asks, 'Why believe what is true?' or 'why want what is good?' has failed to understand the nature of reasoning."3

We recognize the beautiful like we recognize the good or we recognize the true. And it is because God exists that we can hold the true, the good, and the beautiful as valuable and objective.

References

1. Swinburne, Richard. "The Argument from Design." Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. By Louis P. Pojman and Michael Rae. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1994. 201. Print.
2. Scruton, Roger. Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 6-7. Print.
3. Scruton, 2011.2.
Image courtesy JFXie (Flickr: O Praise Him) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, January 09, 2017

What's the Alternative to the Problem of Suffering?



One of the biggest challenges Christians face from nonbelievers is why God allows innocent people to suffer. The question is key, especially since it holds a specific emotional impact in its posing. People have an intuitive understanding that the suffering of others seems out of sorts with the way things should be. If a loving parent wouldn't want his or her children to suffer and would do whatever is possible to help those children avoid suffering, wouldn't an all loving, all-powerful God act similarly?

Christians in conversations about the problem of evil have traditionally pointed to the fact that as free beings, human beings are themselves the reason for a lot of suffering others experience. Most evil is the result of people sinning, and one consequence of sinning is that other people get hurt. I once had a philosophy professor who conceded that the majority of human suffering was caused by other humans. He didn't think that answer solved the problem of evil, though. He said that even if one was to conclude that the free will of human beings is of enough value for God to allow evil to exist, it wouldn't explain the instances of natural evil in the world.

Real Natural Evils Do Exist

Moral philosophers draw a distinction between evils caused by the moral failings of people and those completely out of human control. Killings, rape, suffering from neglect, etc. are categorized as effects of moral evil while injury or death from natural disasters, infection, genetic diseases, and such are categorized as effects of natural evil1. My professor held that even if God allowed moral evils to facilitate free will, God was still directly culpable for allowing natural evils to cause so much pain and suffering.

Before we go too far, it's important to note that even much of what we may consider "natural evil" can actually be moral evil unknown. Take the uptick in birth defects and epilepsy inflicted on babies in the Upper New York state in the 1970s and 80s. It was the sinful actions of people years before who ultimately were to blame. Classifying earthquake deaths as natural evil when the death toll is really due to shoddy building structure construction is questionable at best. However, people really from suffer from maladies or conditions over which they have no control. Some people die in earthquakes even though there is nothing more one can do to reinforce their homes. Is God accountable for the suffering of these people?

The only way to avoid suffering

The challenge of natural evil sounds difficult to overcome. Why would God allow a world where tsunamis or infections can ravage people? Why would he allow droughts that make people starve? These are tough questions, but if you reflect upon the problem, you need to ask yourself what alternatives are there? I can think of only one way where the present world could exist with no natural evil; all people would need to be Superman by necessity. I don't mean they'd need to have costumes and x-ray vision. They would, however, need to be indestructible. They would need to be impervious to any natural calamity, simply shaking off the effects of the necessary plate tectonics 2. They would need to somehow have their biology not have food as a necessity for gaining energy. They would also need that biology to be impervious to any disease while still capable of maintaining those cellular functions required for growing or sustaining their organs. They would need to be supermen.

Here's the question, though. If you have such a race of supermen and that race is capable of moral evil, then how does one vanquish that evil? How do you punish others who are impervious to pain but delight in wickedness? How do parents teach their children about the consequences of wrong and the value of right? How does this world work where no one dies but they can still inflict the villainy of emotional torture on others?

Genesis and General Zod

These ideas are really not new. In fact, the Bible starts off with them right up front with the sin of Adam and Eve. Once humanity was infected by sin, God ejects them from Eden and guards the Tree of Life so human beings wouldn't be able to live forever in their fallen state. God was making sure that a race of indestructible sinful human beings wouldn't come about, because he knew that such a scenario wouldn't create a race of supermen, but a race of General Zods, bent on having their own way because they cannot be crushed by others. Such a world could easily result in more pain and suffering rather than less. In this sense, even the natural evil we experience is ultimately rooted in a moral failing.

Like a Monday morning quarterback, it's easy to object to the problem of suffering. Tougher is to think about what kinds of alternatives one may offer that would remove such suffering. A world without any suffering would mean a world of isolation, where one couldn't hurt others. It would mean a world where one wouldn't be able to punish evildoers. How does this make the human condition better? Only if the stain of sin is removed from the human heart would such a world be feasible. Until then, what we have is better than any alternatives I can imagine.

References

1. Calder, Todd. "The Concept of Evil." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 09 Jan. 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/concept-evil/.
2. Broad, William J. "Deadly and Yet Necessary, Quakes Renew the Planet." The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Jan. 2005. Web. 9 Jan. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/11/science/deadly-and-yet-necessary-quakes-renew-the-planet.html.
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