Blog Archive


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 Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Is Easter Pagan? Part 1 - The Rites of Spring

Recently, I received a request from a friend who asked, "which came first, the Easter celebration: the resurrection of Jesus Christ or all this other stuff about the goddess of fertility and the eggs and rabbits and all that?" As we approach the Easter season, the question isn't uncommon. Modern media loves to plaster the covers of magazines with questions about Jesus or the Bible during this time, since they know such "special" issues are guaranteed moneymakers.

They also look to run some of the most inflammatory tripe passed as fact. For an example, look at the article in The Guardian newspaper that ran a couple of years ago.  Entitled "The Pagan Roots of Easter," author Heather McDougall leads with:
Easter is a pagan festival. If Easter isn't really about Jesus, then what is it about? Today, we see a secular culture celebrating the spring equinox, whilst religious culture celebrates the resurrection. However, early Christianity made a pragmatic acceptance of ancient pagan practises, most of which we enjoy today at Easter. The general symbolic story of the death of the son (sun) on a cross (the constellation of the Southern Cross) and his rebirth, overcoming the powers of darkness, was a well worn story in the ancient world. There were plenty of parallel, rival resurrected saviours too.
So, should Christians worry? Is McGougall right? Does a Christian need to prove that the resurrection came before these other celebrations? The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic no. While one can go on a historical odyssey, checking out dusty books for hard dates, usually answering such claims doesn't take that much effort. If one were to slow down and just think a bit about what we do know, you can see how quickly these kinds of charges fall apart. I want to look at several points, in a series of posts, but we will start with the most obvious.

1. Seasons are Universal

The first point one must realize is that everyone throughout the history of the world experiences the change in seasons. (Folks like me living in California may be an exception, but that's a separate story.) Of the four seasons, spring has always been the biggest deal, because it is the time of more temperate weather, where one can come out from indoors. More importantly, it's the time for planting the food that will feed you and your family for the next year. Spring is the time when the trees and the flowers begin to bloom, so the season is associated with new life. Is it a surprise that various cultures would develop festivals and feast days to their gods at this time? Of course not!

There is a natural reaction to the new life that is sprouting from trees and from the ground. Part of that reaction is to tie the days of spring to the concept of new life. In early cultures, items like eggs and rabbits, which are known for their rapid reproduction, are natural symbols of new life. But because of the ties to new life, ancient people would tie sprint to the sexual cults. So the cult of Astarte (Astoreth in the biblical accounts) with the fertility and sexual prostitutes would have springtime festivals. But the spring is 25% of the entire year! Just because some fertility cults had big orgies and used symbols like eggs and multiplying rabbits doesn't mean there is any tie whatsoever to the resurrection! Think about it — what does a Jewish Messiah who rises from the dead have to do with temple prostitutes and creating babies? The similarities are tenuous at best.

Tomorrow I will go into more detail about the problem of the Jewishness of the resurrection accounts versus pagan spring rites. But until then, one must be mindful for an important principle: correlation does not imply causation. An example I use is the "Redskins Rule." For 60 years the outcome of the last home game of the Washington Redskins has predicted the outcome of that year's presidential election: "when the Redskins win, the incumbent party wins the electoral vote for the White House; when the Redskins lose, the non-incumbent party wins." The accuracy of that predictor over such a long period was Impressive, however anyone can see that one had absolutely nothing to do with the other. (For another interesting case, see the case of the book that predicted the sinking of the Titanic.)

I hope this first point has helped some in dispelling any worry that the resurrection may have ties to ancient pagan practices. Join me tomorrow and we'll see just how flimsy this "evidence" can be.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Jehovah's Witnesses and Jesus: What does "Firstborn" Mean?

One of the main problems with Jehovah's Witnesses is their denial of the deity of Jesus.  They claim that the Bible teaches that Jesus is a created being and point to passages like Colossians 1:15 and Proverbs 8:22 to make their point.

In this video, Lenny dispels those teachings by showing what the word firstborn really means and why Jesus must be more than someone who is created.


Image courtesy Emw and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dealing with All Those "Lost Gospel" Claims

Did the church fathers pick and choose which gospels to include in the Bible by selecting the ones they like and rejecting others? What are all these "other gospels" we hear so much about? Do they offer us new knowledge of who Jesus really was? In this podcast, we'll debunk the idea that we somehow "lost" gospels and show why we can be confident in the Biblical record.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Problems with Utilitarianism

One of the most prevalent moral systems adopted by many in higher learning is that of utilitarianism. It is popular because it purports to have a rational basis for morality while not requiring a God to be the originator of such a system. Here we hope to discuss the claims of utilitarianism and see if they accomplish what they assert.

This system of ethics was an answer to conflicting moral dilemmas, such as lying to save a life. Many people argued against moral absolutism by claiming that if lying is always wrong, then it is sinful to lie even when you are lying to prevent a bigger atrocity, such as hiding Jews during World War II, for example. This strikes many people as unreasonable that God would hold one guilty for committing a sin when they were trying to save lives.

The idea of a moral system based on utility was first put forth by Jeremy Bentham in 1789. It quickly became influential but was taken to even greater heights when John Stuart Mill advanced his version. Though there are some deviations between Mill's and Bentham's version, both maintain the basic belief that people should act in such a way as to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.1

Before we go too far, I want to unpack these ideas a little bit. Utilitarians cannot base actions on intrinsic rightness or wrongness, because that would require someone higher than humanity to set those standards. Therefore, there must be a self-supporting reason to do action A instead of action B.

Bentham and Mill say that that no action is good or evil in itself, but the results of those actions are the only things that matter. However, the question then arises how do you judge results of an action for their morality if good and evil don't really exist? The answer for the utilitarian is happiness is really what we mean by good. Whatever makes people happy, whatever brings pleasure is a good thing, and what gives people pain is what we mean by evil. This is why utilitarianism is also known as "social hedonism". You should maximize pleasure for the most people while minimizing pain.

What this means when we put it into practice is that lying in and of itself isn't wrong. If you lie and it makes people feel good with no negative effects, you've done nothing wrong. The actions you choose are only considered good or evil based on the results they produce.

While utilitarianism solves some of the problems of conflicting moral situations, it doesn't follow completely. First off, utilitarianism isn't a true moral framework. I say this because it confuses facts with values. Doing that which gives the most people the most pleasure is a statement of circumstance, not a good prescription of actions.

Let me give an example: imagine a married salesman visiting a distant town. He meets a woman, also married, and they instantly feel a powerful attraction to each other. Knowing that they'll never be found out, they embark on a passionate affair for the three days they're together. According to utilitarian ethics, they have not done anything wrong. On the contrary, it would be morally wrong for them to not sleep together because one would be denying the other pleasure!

Another situation shows the problem of the opposite situation. Imagine a young child pinned down in a burning building. Two firemen see her and know they can free her if they work together, but they will almost certainly die in doing so. In such a situation, we would regard the firemen as heroes, but in a consistent utilitarian outlook their actions would have to be labeled a bad. More pain was inflicted in the two men dying than in the saving of the one child.

Besides some of the strange circumstances one may face in utilitarian philosophy, the bigger problem is with the compulsion of subscribing to the philosophy at all. If everyone was a utilitarian, then all actions might be able to be judged within that framework, but you can't call the system itself  "good" because that implies a separate criterion.

Lastly, utilitarianism cannot work because, like all morally relative beliefs, it is self-defeating. Suppose everyone in the world were utilitarians. Now, suppose they all met and agreed that it was just too difficult always having to worry about what effects their actions would have on other people. The constant analysis was making their lives miserable. The consistent thing to do, according to utilitarian ethics, is to give up utilitarianism. In order to follow utilitarian beliefs you would have to abandon utilitarian beliefs! Can you see how contradictory this is?

Utilitarianism, while a popular way to try to ground moral truths, doesn't really succeed as a moral system. I takes a pragmatic approach to duties and values and fails to make a distinction between what's right and what's going to make most people happy. It smuggles in the idea that happiness is the greatest good, but it doesn't prove that point. It merely assumes it based on our human nature. However, if Christianity is true, then our nature is corrupted by original sin and it cannot be trusted to provide a grounding for good and evil. So, along with everything above, utilitarianism begs the question. Even though it is so that all people have the desire to maximize pleasure and reduce pain, why should we assume that those desires are right?


1. While Bentham's view of utility is based solely on the amount of pleasure or pain the actions ultimately produce for the people, Mill felt that some pleasures, such as the pursuit of knowledge, the arts, and music were more weighty than others. Yet, at its core either version of utilitarianism seeks pleasure over pain, happiness over unhappiness. There is nothing more to warrant labeling things good or bad.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Breaking News May Break Your Heart: Tales from the Front Lines in the Culture Wars

This week has been an explosion in news items for those who care about the Christian faith and the culture. The most important religious freedom case in at least a generation (Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby) was argued before the Supreme Court early in the week. Then the evangelical relief organization World Vision announced that they would be revising their employee policy to allow hiring of same sex couples who had a Christian cleric officiate a wedding ceremony. (Yesterday, World Vision reversed that decision.) Finally, a story broke in the UK about how British hospitals were using the remains of aborted and miscarried babies to generate heat for those same hospitals. And that was just through Wednesday.

As someone engaged in apologetics ministry, the clash between worldviews is part of my calling. I hope to communicate a reasoned Christian viewpoint on ethical and cultural issues that have theological implications to an unbelieving world. Most people today assume morality is a relative concept and religion is simply a private belief that shouldn't affect one's public interests.

As you may expect, the news has given me a busy week. But it gave me something else, too. It gave me a very heavy heart, which was a bit unexpected. I feel weary, weary not only in the added engagements but also weary that a moral framework that would have been so clearly understood just a few decades ago are now lost in the fog of this modern age. It scares me that people cannot connect the revulsion they experience when reading about using fetuses as fuel to the marginalization of an unborn child in the rhetoric of pro-abortionists. It scares me because I know that the marginalization of natural marriage will lead to further dangers down the road. Frankly, our slide towards Gomorrah is simply breaking my heart.

But maybe that's the thing. In my morning devotions, I always pray that God would change my heart to be more like the heart of Jesus. I think this is a fairly common prayer among Christians. What I didn't expect is such a change would cause pain. When looking over Jerusalem before His triumphal entry, Jesus wept over the city that would soon turn against Him. He didn't cry for His suffering and He didn't rejoice in the judgment that it would face in the coming years. It didn't cause Him to be angry; it caused Him to grieve. An unexpected consequence of having one's heart be conformed to Christ is to not only feel more love, but to feel more pain. When sin grieves us, we have a more proper understanding of what sin truly is.

I had a prominent apologist friend who was once being slammed by various critics for what he had written. I have been in that position, too. Especially online, there are critics who can get nasty and personal. They may even verbally attack your family, which happened to me in one instance. My friend, clearly anguished, asked "Why can't God give me a thicker skin to do work like this?" But I don't think God wants to do that. A thick-skinned apologist would be a dangerous thing, using arguments as clubs. I think God wants us to be tender-hearted to both the travesty of an evaporating moral standard and to those who would criticize us for taking a moral stand.  Like Jeremiah, we should warn with fervency, but all the while with tears in our eyes. Only then can the Gospel be shown to be what it truly is: the power of Christ to accomplish salvation in the hardened hearts of the unsaved. Jesus wept, then moved forward. Let us do so, too.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Britain Looks to Soylent Green Energy

The headline read like something out of a horror novel. Certainly this wasn't what it seemed, right? It must be satire, a Modest Proposal updated for the 21st century. Yet, there is was in the respected UK Telegraph for all to read: "Aborted babies incinerated to heat UK hospitals."

The story tells of how the remains of over 15,000 aborted or miscarried babies were labeled as "clinical waste" and incinerated in hospital "waste-to-energy" facilities while the mothers of those babies that were miscarried were simply told their babies' remains were cremated, with the hospitals never asking the parents how they would like their children's remand to be handled.

The British healthcare system is run through their government under the label of the National Health Service or the NHS. NHS Trusts are the public corporations that run the hospitals on behalf of the NHS and must answer to the UK's Department of Health. 27 NHS Trusts were found to have incinerated aborted babies over the last two years, according to the British television program Dispatches. This was not a rogue hospital making an error in judgment but a systemic approach to desecrating human remains throughout the government healthcare system.

How can such hideousness and callous disregard happen in an advanced society? Part of the problem stems from the rhetoric that has permeated the abortion wars. We're told over and over that fetuses are nothing more than "a clump of cells" or "a mass of tissue." So, even if a young couple was hoping to start a family but suffer the tragic loss of miscarriage, you cannot have a service for a mass of tissue. You simply dispose of it, like a removed appendix.1

This is certainly part of the problem, but it isn't all of it. The emphasis on finding new ways to "go green" reduce waste and carbon emissions plays into the decision as well.  This document published by the NHS's Sustainable Development Unit gives us a better understanding. In part, it reads:
Although domestic waste is by far the largest proportion of NHS total waste, clinical/hazardous waste is the most costly to dispose of: £380-450 per tonne for non-burn alternative technology (i.e. autoclave/microwaves etc) and £800-1,000 per tonne for hazardous/pharmaceutical waste high temperature incineration. As waste created by the NHS continues to rise, both by tonnage and by disposal cost, this is an area where investment in sound management can save money and reduce carbon emissions. The most important principle in waste management is to apply the waste hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle, energy recovery – with disposal being the least favourable option (emphasis added).
So the push by the NHS was to save money, especially on clinical waste which is the most costly, and to reduce carbon emissions. The answer is simple: go green by not burning coal, but burning bodies. The UK has pioneered the use of Soylent Green Energy, where we protect the environment at the cost of human dignity.

Western culture is now beginning to suffer from the ramifications of its own teachings. We're told that people don't bear the image of God but are simply another evolutionary accident, simply another kind of animal. We're told that the miracle of bringing new life into the world is only special if the parents to be wanted that child, and only then if it meets factory specification. We're told that the only truly valuable thing in the world is the world itself, so we had better do everything possible to make it as though no humans even live on the planet. Then, when people take those teachings seriously, we become aghast at the horrific results. Ideas matter and I shudder to think of what other repulsions await us when people start believing what they've been teaching.


1. I would object to even the burning of amputated organs such as appendixes to heat hospitals. That is simply because these are not like medical sponges, discarded gauze, or other disposables that are byproducts of modern medical care. These organs were a part of a human being, and as such they are unique. We don't need funerals for them, but we do need to recognize that the owner has suffered a loss and thus they should be disposed of with at least some distinctio

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Three Problems with the World Vision Decision

"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife."  1 Cor. 5:1

Yesterday's announcement by president Richard Stearns that World Vision will "allow a Christian in a legal same-sex marriage to be employed" at the ministry sent immediate shock waves through the Evangelical community. World Vision has required all of its employees to not only assent to a statement of faith, but also to abide by the ministry's Standards of Conduct Policy, which forbids any employee from participating in actions such as sex outside of marriage. Thus, making such an allowance for united homosexuals confused many supporters as it seemed completely out of step with World Vision policy.

In the official announcement, the company claimed to not be compromising their position. It reads:
Since World Vision is a multi-denominational organization that welcomes employees from more than 50 denominations, and since a number of these denominations in recent years have sanctioned same-sex marriage for Christians, the board—in keeping with our practice of deferring to church authority in the lives of our staff, and desiring to treat all of our employees equally—chose to adjust our policy. Thus, the board has modified our Employee Standards of Conduct to allow a Christian in a legal same-sex marriage to be employed at World Vision.

I want to be clear that we have not endorsed same-sex marriage, but we have chosen to defer to the authority of local churches on this issue. We have chosen not to exclude someone from employment at World Vision U.S. on this issue alone."
The notice also justified the policy change by stating "our board of directors is recognized as one of the leaders among Christian organizations in the U.S. It includes deeply spiritual and wise believers, among them several pastors, a seminary president, and a professor of theology." Interestingly, there is a biblical parallel here in the early church at Corinth. The Corinthian church also struggled with divisive theological battles. They also allowed people who practiced what the Bible clearly labeled as sexual sin within their ranks, and they also claimed themselves as wise. When addressing each of these issues in the epistle of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul took the church to task. "We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute… When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things."

World Vision's Failed Foresight

Of course, World Vision is trying to claim that it is remaining neutral on issues where good Christians disagree. Note the claim, "I want to be clear that we have not endorsed same-sex marriage, but we have chosen to defer to the authority of local churches on this issue." My response is that it is impossible to claim neutrality by implementing such a policy. Here are some reasons why:

First, World Vision, in recognizing same-sex "marriage" while keeping their abstinence provision has made a theological judgment: they have concluded that marriage is not something designed by God, but is something that can be redefined in whatever way some denomination's whims take it. As I've stated before, natural marriage can be easily seen in the fact that men and women's bodies couple in a unique way and the natural result of that coupling is offspring. The Bible says "the two shall become one flesh" and that is exactly what happens if there is nothing to impede nature. Realize, there is no institution other than marriage to properly bring children into this world. None. However, by equating same-sex unions to marriage, World Vision says biology, God's design for family, and the right of a child to have a mother and a father don't really matter. Marriage is what a partner denomination says it is.

Secondly, by maintaining the abstinence component of the Employee Standard of Conduct, World Vision sends a strong message that individuals who violate the Bible's prohibition on premarital sex are committing a greater sin than those practicing homosexual intercourse on a consistent basis. Both acts are condemned in the Bible, but one must assume that same-sex couples who went through a ceremony have the intent to repeatedly engage in sexual immorality. There is no repentance in such instances, and it is clear that World Vision therefore is making a theological claim that there is then no sin.

Lastly, I understand that different denominations hold to different views on a variety of theological topics. However, no Christian denomination teaches that one is in habitual sin by holding to the perseverance of the saints or whether baptism should be full-immersion only. We recognize that Christians will differ on these issues. Habitual sexual sin, though, is clearly taught to be a factor in one's salvation. Paul warns the Corinthians "Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." So, deferring to denominations on matters of disagreement is fine, but not where the action bears on what it means to be a Christian.

"But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!" 1 Cor. 6:8

Spears states that part of the reason for the policy change is to keep them focused on their mission. "The board and I wanted to prevent this divisive issue from tearing World Vision apart and potentially crippling our ability to accomplish our vital kingdom mission of loving and serving the poorest of the poor in the name of Christ." The Corinthian church was also successful. They were "not lacking in any gift" (1:7) and were even able to contribute to the collection Paul was taking up for the Christians suffering in Jerusalem. But, their ministry and abilities were considered secondary to their obedience. He says by allowing such immorality go unchallenged they Corinthians are harming the body of Christ.

Many Christians today have been taking a live and let live approach to same-sex unions. "I may believe that homosexuality is wrong, but I don't want to judge others." Such a view is wrong. We are called to be stewards of one another first, and our ministry to the outside world is secondary. Homosexuality is physically dangerous, and as Paul has stressed, it is spiritually deadly. World Vision seems to have focused so much on its ministry to the world that it has gone blind to its ministry to the church.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Does Religious Liberty End When Business Begins?

Recently, the Los Angeles Times ran an Op-Ed piece once again denouncing the idea that privately-owned companies such as Hobby Lobby can set policy that reflects their deeply held moral convictions when that conviction is set at odds with some government mandate. Of course, the question wasn't phrased that way. David Gans wrote "Are secular, for-profit corporations free to violate the rights of their employees by claiming that the law violates their corporate religious conscience? That's the big question at the heart of the two blockbuster challenges to a key provision of Obamacare that will be heard by the Supreme Court next week."

As you can see, there's bias even in the way Gans chose to word the question. There is no violation of employees rights if one works for Hobby Lobby. Their employees are completely free to exercise any right they have, including their choice to use abortifacient drugs. They simply have to pay of that right themselves, instead of asking the company to do so.

While I hold a very firm stand on the immorality of elective abortion, that isn't the main idea I am concerned about in this article. My bigger concern is that much of the Western world has bought into the idea that religious beliefs are not anything truly important. Most people think that while individuals may feel passionately about their religious convictions, such beliefs are akin to the passion other people feel for a favorite sports team or music artist. These fan-addicts see themselves through their fandom and any criticism of their object of adoration will lead to hard feelings and harsh words.

Such thinking is ignorant in the extreme. No matter what one's religious persuasion is, one's understanding of truth and morality are shaped by one's religious views. This includes even those who would say they are "nones, " atheists, or humanists. As I've explained before, in order to make sense of the world, everyone has some kind of worldview. Thus, an atheists lack of belief in God will color his understanding of right and wrong as much as a Christian's understanding of God will color his. No one is immune to this.

The crucial respect for religious beliefs is why the pilgrims left Europe and endured suffering and pain to establish a society that would recognize that respect. It is why when the United States was founded the people demanded that the Constitution contain a statement guaranteeing the free exercise of religion without government intrusion.

The problem becomes when people trivialize those foundations of right and wrong, especially when it comes to business owners. In the article above, Gans claims "Corporations lack the basic human capacities — reason, dignity and conscience — at the core of the free exercise right. Corporations cannot pray, do not express devotion to God and do not have a religious conscience." I think Gans claims too much here. If corporations don't have religious conscience, then they have no conscience at all. There is no distinction between a religious conscience and a secular one, except for the basis of the worldview from which it is based. Therefore, if one were to take Gans' view of corporations as automatons that lack any kind of reason, dignity, and conscience, then Enron is morally equal to Tom's Shoes and we should quit pressuring manufacturers to care about pollution. A corporation is equal to the machines that it employs and nothing more.

Of course, no one would hold to such ridiculous views. We understand that behind corporations there are real people and those people don't become autonomous simply because they own a company. To cheer the principled ecological convictions of a company and then turn around and decry the principled religious convictions of another is contradictory. Both are morality based and both flow from the worldview of the company's owners. By seeking to gut Hobby Lobby's stance against paying for abortifacient drugs, we are in danger of gutting any grounding for holding companies accountable at all.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Best Question in Apologetics

When defending or sharing your faith, many people ask "What's the one thing to say that will change someone's mind? What's the best argument to give?" Actually, the best thing is to ask a question, not preach a sermon. Many times Christians can forget that one is talking with a person, not an opponent. Here, in this short story, I share one encounter I had with a Jehovah's Witness and how asking a question made all the difference in the ensuing conversation.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Effects of Jesus on the Western World

"Even knowledgeable believers will be amazed at how many of our present institutions and values reflect a Christian origin. Not only countless individual lives but civilization itself was transformed by Jesus Christ. In the ancient world, his teachings elevated brutish standards of morality, halted infanticide, enhanced human life, emancipated women, abolished slavery, inspired charities and relief organizations, created hospitals, established orphanages, and founded schools.

"In medieval times, Christianity almost single-handedly kept classical culture alive through recopying manuscripts, building libraries, moderating warfare through truce days, and providing dispute arbitration. It was Christians who invented colleges and universities, dignified labor as a divine vocation and extended the light of civilization to barbarians on the frontiers.

"In the modern era, Christian teaching, properly expressed, advanced science, instilled concepts of political and social and economic freedom, fostered justice, and provided the greatest single source of inspiration for the magnificent achievements in art, architecture, music, and literature that we treasure to the present day."
  — Dr. Alvin J. Schmidt, Professor of Sociology
How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008). 8.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Swallowing the Poison of Moral Relativism

As society continues down the path of moral relativism, the principles we rely on to live our daily lives become more and more muddled. Because there are no real boundaries, we lose focus on where we should approach boldly and where we should approach cautiously. Because there is no yardstick for good and evil, we now begin to call evil "good" and good "evil," just as the Bible warned.1 The relativist becomes detached from reality and misidentifies what was supposed to protect us as being "restrictive" and what was supposed to help, encourage, or teach us as something oppressive.

Sexual promiscuity is a good example here. God's original plan was to keep sexual relationships reserved for a husband and wife after marriage. But many deem such standards as a repressive approach to a natural feeling. Of course, the natural consequences of such actions, such as sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy, soon follow. So rather than treating the cause of the problem and tying to demonstrate that sex should only be practiced within the commitment of the marriage relationship, most schools are now dropping an abstinence-based philosophy and adopting a "comprehensive" sex education curriculum that at its core seeks to reduce the unwanted consequences of premarital sexual behavior.2 Even though humanity for millennia have understood that loose sexual practices lead to pregnancy, disease, and emotional injury, our modern society seeks actions without repercussions.

Relativist claim: "Don't push your beliefs on me!"

Of course, such an approach is never consistently applied. No one is a relativist when it comes to prescription medication, for example. When receiving medicine from a pharmacist, I read the label carefully to see just how much I should take and when. I never think, "The doctor prescribed an antibiotic for my infection, but he's just trapped in his own biases, so I think I'll take some morphine instead." No, we rely on the training and expertise of the doctor, who knows that certain medicines have one outcome and others have a different outcome. If you seek to take only what feels good instead of what is good for you, you will end up in worse condition than when you started.

One aspect of moral restraints is that they function to protect us from overdosing on our cravings. Yet, the relativist objects to such normative rules for society by shouting, "Don't push your beliefs on me! You have no right to force me to accept your beliefs." The Christian can simply respond to this by asking, "Are you saying it's wrong to think that a personally held moral view should be applied to another? But isn't that a view that you personally hold? I mean if something is wrong, then it's a moral value. So, why are you trying to push that on me?"

Relativism offers up conflicting rules. Relativists seek freedom from traditional moral laws and are offended if anyone else tries to point out the fact that their actions have dire consequences. They believe a "healthy" morality is one that is right for them, yet they would never take such an approach with their physical health. But as we see with the rise in pregnancies out of wedlock, climbing STD rates, abortion, and ever younger children engaged in sexual activity, their actions are having dire consequences. Even the relativist becomes an absolutist when it comes to medical treatment! To believe that moral decisions are consequence-free is to swallow poison instead of medicine, and it is making our society very sick.


1. Isaiah 5:20
2. The state of California, with the largest student population in the U.S., is a good example of this standard. The legal requirements for sexual education in California public schools comes from The California Department of Education, who published The California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act (Education Code [EC] sections 51930-51939). They write that the Act "has two primary purposes:
  • To provide a pupil with the knowledge and skills necessary to protect his or her sexual and reproductive health from unintended pregnancy and STDs;
  • To encourage a pupil to develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender roles, sexual orientation, dating, marriage, and family
The statute goes on to say "Abstinence shall be taught within the context of HIV/AIDS prevention education (EC 51934 (3), however, abstinence-only education is not permitted in California public schools" (emphasis theirs).

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Truth-Value of the Resurrection

Jim Wallace had a job they make TV shows out of: he was a cold-case detective in Southern California. Wallace had spent most of his career as an avowed atheist, and by relying on forensics and science in his job he naturally elevated them in the rest of his worldview. But after some fifteen years, his views changed. In his book, Cold-Case Christianity, he tells of how he began believing that Jesus' teachings could hold some merit to the full realization that Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead. The amazing this is that it wasn't in spite of his trust in forensics and the dispassionate weighing of testimony that that he believed, it was because of those techniques. Wallace writes, "I began to use FSA (Forensic Statement Analysis) as I studied the Gospel of Mark. Within a month, in spite of my deep skepticism and hesitation, I concluded that Mark's gospel was the eyewitness account of the apostle Peter."

But Cold-Case Christianity isn't the first book that documents an atheist who becomes a believer using his professional skills in a different context. Most people are familiar with Lee Strobel and his best-selling book The Case for Christ. Lee has told his story many times. He was a journalist with the Chicago Tribune and an atheist who began to use investigative journalistic techniques to find out the truth about Jesus. Like any good journalist, he interviewed experts, and sought to make sense of the accounts as they were presented. After two years of studying the evidence, Strobel became a Christian within five years of that, he became a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Church.

Even before Strobel, though, these kinds of events would happen. Frank Morison would get my vote for the Less Strobel of the Al Capone era.  Morison regarded Jesus highly, but he also loved the physical sciences and 20th century how something like a resurrection could never happen. Morison decided to write a book debunking the resurrection, "to strip it of its overgrown and primitive beliefs and dogmatic suppositions." But, as Morison puts it, that book refused to be written. Instead, after years of thought and investigation, Morison's book, Who Moved the Stone?, became a testimony for the truthfulness of the resurrection.

Of course, we can go back farther and we see similar stories with similar results. Most people may not know that every court case in the United States bears the fingerprints of Simon Greenleaf. A legal scholar in the early 1800's who helped establish the Harvard School of Law, his three volume Treatise on the Law of Evidence set the standard for what counts as evidence in legal trials and became the standard textbook for most law schools up until the 20th century. Greenleaf was challenged at one point by some Christian students to apply those same rules of evidence to the gospels and see what he found. The result was Greenleaf's book Testimony of the Evangelists, Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice.

There are probably many more examples but these four are accessible enough to make my point. Why do such stories exist and why do they become so popular? Certainly, every Christian has some kind of testimony so why do these stick out and why to people buy the books that hold their stories? I think the answer is simple. As we have developed as a society, we've come up with some pretty good tools to weigh the truth value of testimony. Reporters, jurists, and criminal investigators use these tools in their perspective professions because they have found that the tools serve them better than anything else to date. When those professionals then use that same trustworthy approach on the gospels, they find that the gospel accounts are in fact what they claim to be: true accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The only reason that one would reject such a claim is if one rejected the supernatural aspect of the accounts ahead of time. But that's an assumption that isn't warranted by the evidence. In fact, the resurrection of Jesus is the only explanation that accounts for all the facts of the New Testament. No other explanation fits the bill.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Evolution's Problem of Plagiarism

The name Jayson Blair sends shivers down the spine of editors in the New York Times. It isn't that Jayson was some mass-murderer or terrorist that makes the editorial staff of the nation's largest newspaper tremble. It was the fact that Jayson Blair was a Times reporter who plagiarized stories and then the Times published them. Macarena Hernandez, a reporter from the Antonio Express-News first contacted the Times and said that Blair's story had copied “major chunks” of her story and passed them off as his own. Jayson Blair resigned and is considered to be disgraced as a journalist for stealing other people's work.

The crime of plagiarism isn't only found in the written word though. Musical acts have been accused of stealing a melody or a hook from another artist. Graphic designers will copy from well-known pieces. Students will plagiarize from the Internet to get their homework assignments finished. In each medium, the plagiarized content is identified by comparing the new work to the original. If there are enough points of similarity, then one can assume that the work in question is a derivative of the original, that is the original creation was used a second time without crediting the original author. It also implies that without Hernandez's article in the Antonio Express-News, Blair's New York Times piece would read radically different than it did.

The reason I bring all this up is that when we look at the claims of the neo-Darwinists, they face a problem very similar to that of the editors of the Times. The current Darwinian model holds to a form of common descent, where all species diverged and differentiated from a very simple single ancestor millions and millions of years in the past. As the progeny of that ancestor experienced genetic mutations, some proved beneficial within the specific environment in which they found themselves and thus became more prominent. So, the Darwinian model seeks to explain the diversity of biological systems such as why some animals have gills, fins, and scales while others have lungs, wings, and feathers. Different created systems came to be through different avenues.

Because the mutations are random and the environment that bestows that mutation an advantage is different, so the story goes, the variations can be incredibly diverse. In fact, those two features are why paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould remarked that any replay of the tape of evolutionary development “would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the one taken.” But there's problem with this picture: we don't see radical divergence in all biological structures. There are structures, such as the eye, that have the same components in animals as diverse as mammals, octopi, and jellyfish, even though those branches were supposed to have split from one another well before the animal's sight apparatus evolved.

Jonathan Morrow, writing for the Discovery Institute, gives one great example of this type of duplication in the echolocation chemistry of dolphins and porpoises, an ability they share with the bat. The aquatic mammals and the bats share at least 14 amino acid sites that are needed for echolocation. That's fourteen points of similarity on a molecular level, even though these lines would have split when their ancestors were ground-dwellers, long before echolocation became an advantage for them. Morrow goes on to list other examples, but the point is made: how does one account for such similarities when evolution can take so many divergent paths? One may wave off one or two instances, but as more and more of these convergent evolutionary systems are being discovered, it becomes harder to ignore.

With all of the data showing independent, complex systems having multiple points of similarity, what should we conclude? It would be unreasonable to think that so many systems were developed independently over and over and over again just as it is unlikely that Jayson Blair just happened to have the same thoughts and phrasing in his story as Macarena Hernandez. No, it is much more reasonable to conclude that there is a single creative source for this kind of repeating structure across divergent lines.

The simple story of evolution suffers from acts of plagiarism, and as such it simply doesn't ring true.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why Evolution Cannot Produce a Mind

Yesterday, I posted an article declaring how the mind is a fundamentally different kind of thing than the brain. I wanted to follow up with a couple of possible objections to the mind/brain distinction that people offer today. The first objection is known as emergence and its proponents claim that the mind, while different from the brain, emerges as the brain grows in complexity. Thus the mind is distinct from the brain but it is the evolution of the brain, growing more and more complex, that eventually produced the first mind.

Emergent properties are familiar in both science and philosophy and they basically mean that the whole cannot be described solely by describing its parts. For example, we can talk about a snowflake by its chemical composition. A snowflake is comprised of nothing more than H2O in a solid state. However, describing the chemical bonds that create H2O does not describe a snowflake. The snowflake is something more specific than the chemical reactions of H2O, and thus a snowflake is an emergent property of H2O. Flocks of birds, molds, even societies are used as examples of emergence, where these things are different than the sum of the parts. 1

Materialists will then use this kind of description to say that the mind may be an emergent property of the brain. It exists because the brain's chemistry and electrical pathways are arranged in a specifically complex fashion. Just as the molecules of water or the grouping of people to form a city emerges as a new property that didn't exist in that entity's building blocks, so the mind emerges as a new property of the brain's makeup. Thus, they claim, the mind is a real property but it comes from the physical structure and function of the brain. No soul is required.

The Problems with Emergence

The explanation sounds good, but there are several problems with the claim that the mind is emergent. First, in a complex system where new properties emerge, those new properties fall into the same domain as the system's constituent parts. In other words, any physical emergent system will produce emergent properties that can be described physically. Water may have properties that hydrogen and oxygen lack such as the ability to crystallize into a snowflake. However, a snowflake is still describable by using the chemical language of solid/liquid/gaseous states and crystalline structures. The components are physical and the new property is also physical. Likewise, cities emerge from groups of people getting together and choosing to live a certain way. People are sociological and cities are described sociologically.

The mind however produces mental properties. As we've said, mental properties are non-physical. Therefore there is still a difference in kind in the property one is trying to account for. How does one account for non-physical properties from purely physical substances?

Secondly, emergence runs into the problem of impotence. J.P. Moreland notes that if the complexity of the brain produces a mind "like fire produces smoke or the structure of hydrogen and oxygen I water 'produce' wetness," then the mind is nothing more than an effect of the brain and it therefore has no causal powers. J.P. writes that if this was the case, "mental states are byproducts of the brain, but they are causally impotent. Mental states merely 'ride' on top of the events in the brain." 2

If this is true, then we cannot change our minds, really. We can only dance to the electro-chemical reactions that are happening in our heads. In other words, we have no free will whatsoever! We are simply victims to whatever processes our body and any outside events that we come in contact with cause. We are not making decisions, but our brains, like so many dominoes falling in a row, are just following the rules of chemistry and physics. The mind is simply the smoke, but it's the fire of neurons in the brain that's doing all the work.

The self-refuting nature of a material view of self

Because a purely material origin for the mind leads to determinism, such a description can be seen as contradictory. J.P. quotes from H.P. Owen who says:
Determinism is self-stultifying. If my mental processes are totally determined, I am totally determined either to accept or reject determinism. But if the sole reason for my believing or not believing X is that I am causally determined to believe it I have no ground for holding that my judgment is true or false.3
I think Owen and Moreland are right here. Much like the argument from reason, trying to relegate our conscious awareness to the physical becomes a fool's errand of determinism and contradiction. Such suggestions really don't explain why unique properties of the mind exist and it leads us to conclude that no one really makes any free choices. That's an awful lot to give away in order to escape the necessity of the soul.


1 For examples of emergence as used popularly today, see this slideshow provided by the PBS science show Nova.
2. Moreland, J.P. and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downer's Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 2003.240.

3. Ibid. 241.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Why Your Mind Cannot Be Your Brain

When I was a child, my mother used to look in at the clutter of room and exclaim, "How in the world can you leave your room in such a mess? Have you lost your mind?!" My mom's statement was hyperbole. She was expressing both disapproval with my living in a way that contradicts appropriate practice and bewilderment at why I would even want live in such a state of disarray. It simply made no sense to her how a teenage boy could say he cared for his things while treating them as such. Of course a lot of this was simply immaturity expressing itself through laziness. Today, it does not take a pole vault to get from my door to my bed.

However, I fear that our today culture is in danger of losing our collective minds. As I've stated before, we live in an age where science is lauded above all else. With the overemphasis on science comes a presumption of materialism—that is that the material aspects of ourselves are the only things that are real or they are the only things that really describe us and our actions. Neuroscientists scan the brains of serial killers, looking for some physical trace as to why those individuals would commit such heinous acts, even if the findings show that they themselves have the same physical traits as the killers!

The problem is that while modern scientists assume that brain scans are all we need to understand the mind, no one should make the mistake that the mind is the brain. The mind is something completely different than the brain and one can see that in several ways.

Mental states are fundamentally different than physical states.

First off, when we talk about the mind, we are referring to things called mental states. These include thoughts about something, experience, will or desire, intentions and things of this sort. A serial killer has intent to hunt and kill a victim even before he does so. After News Year's Day, many of us change our eating habits because we have an intent to lose weight, so we conform our actions to our intent. Notice that biologically, the drive to eat would make sense. We feel hunger. But our intention overrides that natural feeling and we curb our eating anyway.

Things like thoughts, ideas, desire, intention, and will are qualitatively different from brain states. A thought contains content that is not physical at all. Think of the sentence "I think, therefore I am." That sentence holds an idea, a concept that doesn't exist physically. If you are reading this on a computer right now, you cannot understand the sentence in the least bit if you were to measure its length and width on your screen. Neither will it help you if I explained the inner workings of my computer and told you how electrons traveled from my keyboard through my CPU, how data is stored on servers on the Internet and how it's delivered to your device. None of this tells you anything about the sentence, what it means, or whether its true. The idea is independent of the mechanism by which it is delivered. The idea is understood by the mind, regardless of how it was perceived by the senses and brain.

Because ideas are fundamentally different, we must recognize that they are not physical, and the same is true for thoughts, desires and other mental actions. It makes as much sense to say that my intent to lose weight rests 4.5cm from my right ear near my cerebellum as it does to measure the letters on your screen to understand a sentence. Mental states simply cannot be described using physical descriptors. That should be a tip off that mental states are fundamentally non-physical. The working of the mind, therefore, is not the same thing as the working of the brain. The mind is an immaterial aspect of a person. Thus, a person must be made up of material and immaterial components. That part of a man that is immaterial is the part Christians identify as the soul and the mind is one part of a man's soul.

In the rush of science to reduce knowledge to those things that are physical, they have run roughshod over the idea that the mind is distinct from the brain. Brain scans are supposed to tell you your thoughts, even though such a process is completely incapable of so doing. Such a concept bewilders me as much as my messy room confused my mother. It shouldn't be considered appropriate practice and I believe it reflects a level of ignorance and immaturity among its adherents.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Don't lose yours in the hype.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Answering Arguments for Abortion: "We'd Mess Up Three Lives"

Recently, a media commentator talked about how he and his girlfriend at that time had decided to have an abortion after she found out she was pregnant. He claimed that "abortion saved my life." Many times we hear that an abortion is necessary not only for the mother, but for the child and the father, too. It is said that all three lives would be destroyed if the pregnancy were to continue. Here's why such a claim fails.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Science is founded on faith as much as religion

Dr. Paul Davies, Regents' Professor and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University is a very well-known name in astrophysics. His contributions to his specialty have resulted in him being awarded the Templeton prize, the Kelvin Medal from the UK Institute of Physics, and the 2002 Michael Faraday Prize from the Royal Society. He's a scientist's scientist.

Below is a quote from Davies from an article he wrote for the New York Times where he comments that science has as much a faith component as religious belief. Davies states:
The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn't so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.
Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence. 
This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships. 
And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.
Read his whole article here. For more on science versus scientism, see my series of articles here.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Moral Argument in a Nutshell

Morality is a key component of what it means to be human. The fact that there are at least some standards to which all human beings should adhere is well-recognized across all cultures. Morality is real and must be rooted in an objective reality beyond our natural world.

First, we know that morality cannot be merely a human convention where people agree to behave a certain way.

It differs from other types of societal norms, such as understanding which side of the road to drive on. While driving on the wrong side of the road is illegal, what makes it the "wrong side" is simply a social construct, an agreement between people to ensure safety and a smooth flow of traffic. It makes no sense to say Americans are immoral when we drive on the right side of the road while those in the UK and Australia are behaving morally upright by driving on the left. Those are simply societal norms that help us get about our business.

Therefore, morality cannot be derived from nature or natural law. It cannot be thought of as only stemming from some evolutionary framework to benefit our survival as a species.

The atheist philosopher Michael Ruse clearly understood this when he said that if evolution is true, then morality doesn't really exist. Ruse argued that morality:
"simply does not work unless we believe it is objective. Darwinian theory shows that, in fact, morality is a function of (subjective) feelings; but it shows also that we have (and must have) the illusion of objectivity."1
Ruse goes on to argue that morality is "an illusion foisted upon us by our genes" and that the illusion is the objectivity of moral values. According to Ruse, if morality stems from an evolutionary framework, it is not real, but only a useful fiction. And if it's not real, then it cannot be considered binding for all humanity.

No, morality is a completely different kind of thing. We recognize that a heinous act such as torturing a weaker individual only for pleasure is an objectively evil thing to do—it is wrong for all people across all ages, regardless of whether they thought so or not. Thus, moral laws are considered prescriptive—they are how anyone at any place and any time should behave given a specific set of circumstances. And we can recognize such laws as real, not simply made up to propagate the race.

In order for moral laws to be prescriptive in this way, they must be grounded in something other than a social agreement. Therefore, moral laws must have a source that transcends humanity, that is, God.

So, if there is no God, then there are no real moral values and duties. But, we know moral values and duties do exist. Torturing babies for the fun of it is really wrong. So it stands to reason that God does exist.


1.Ruse, Michael. Taking Darwin Seriously. (New York: Prometheus Books, 1988. 253.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Has Science Found Consciousness in the Brain?

Yesterday, I talked about how brain imaging techniques could not read your thoughts. I said that it is not really possible to know which areas of the brain are responsible for discreet thoughts. Some may say, "Sure, we can't know exactly what thoughts people think, but we can certainly identify consciousness." It turns out that the brain doesn't have a true sign of consciousness. It has normal patterns that we see in most people, but as Dr Alva Nöe states, simply because there is a deviation from that pattern does not mean that the person is not conscious. He writes (The emphasis is mine):
Here what confronts us is not so much direct evidence of the lack of consciousness as the absence of normal brain-imaging findings. Does the absence of normal brain profiles in patients in the persistent vegetative state help us decide whether they are sentient or not? Would the mere absence of normal patterns of neural activity as modeled by functional imaging technologies such as fMRI or PET satisfy you that your loved one was now little more than a vegetable?

Actually, things are more complicated. Although patients in the persistent vegetative state show markedly reduced global brain metabolism, so do people in slow-wave sleep and patients under general anesthesia. But sleepers and surgery patients wake up and resume normal consciousness, whereas patients in the persistent vegetative state rarely do. Remarkably, in the small number of cases in which brain imaging has been attempted in patients who have recovered from the persistent vege­tative state, regaining full consciousness, it would appear that global metabolic levels remain low even after full recovery. Moreover, external stimuli such as sounds or pinpricks produced. Significant increases in neuronal activity in primary perceptual cortices. Interesting new work by Steven Laureys and his col­leagues in Belgium indicates that vegetative patients show strik­ingly impaired functional connections between distant cortical areas and between cortical and subcortical structures. In addi­tion, they show that in cases where consciousness is recovered, even if overall metabolic activity stays low, these functional con­nections between brain regions are restored. These findings are important and point in the direction of a deeper understanding of what is happening in the brain in the persistent vegetative state.

But this doesn't change the fact that at present we are not even close to being able to use brain imaging to get a look inside the head to find out whether there is consciousness or not. Consider these simple questions: Does a patient in the persistent vegetative state feel physical pain—for example, the pain of thirst or hunger, or the prick of a pin? Does she hear the sound of the door slamming? We know she turns her head in response to the sound, and we know she withdraws her hand from the pin­prick. We also know that there is some Significant neural activity produced in primary perceptual cortices by these stimuli. Is the patient in the persistent vegetative state a robot, responding reflexively to stimulation, but without actually feeling anything? And, more important, is this something that brain imaging could ever help us decide?

We don't know how to answer these questions. It is disturbing to learn that so far there are no theoretically satisfying or practically reliable criteria for deciding when a person with brain injury is conscious or not. At present, doctors and relatives have to deal with these questions without guidance from science or medicine. For example, the press tended to treat the widely discussed case of Terri Schiavo as one in which science, armed with cold hard facts about the nature of Schiavo's brain damage, did battle with family members who were blinded at once by their love for their daughter and their religious fundamentalism. Sadly, science doesn't have the hard facts.1
It's interesting that we don't hear these kinds of nuanced explanations from the press when they cover such stories. We're led to believe that science will always have all the answers and that because the brain-imaging scanners make multi-colored maps we can really see inside the head. I appreciate Dr. Nöe's explanation and I think that it shows how cautious we must be when dealing with issues like consciousness. Tomorrow, I will talk more directly about what consciousness is and why it cannot be based on something physical. But for now, let us take some care before assuming that we've already got everything worked out. Such sentiments are more a sign of hubris than knowledge


1. Nöe, Alva  Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons of Consciousness.
New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. 19

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Can Neuroscientists Use MRI Imaging to See Thoughts?

Is it possible to see someone think? Can a machine ever capture the thoughts of another person, their dreams or imaginations? A lot of people think that science is almost to that point, but they really don't realize just how different thoughts are from brain activity.

Some of this confusion stems from the fact that the media are not really good at nuancing their stories when they report on things like brain scanning techniques. One such example is the reports that began to circulate when scientist used an fMRI scanner to measure blood flow through the visual cortex of the brain while people were looking at a specific image. They then built a computer to map the blood flow and they reproduced a kind of silhouette of the image itself. This isn't surprising, really, since blood flow to the visual cortex is a chemical response to stimulus from the optic nerve, kind of the same way film has a chemical reaction to light exposure. However, UC Berkeley's newsroom carried the story with the headline "Scientists use brain imaging to reveal the movies in our mind" and  wrote, "Imagine tapping into the mind of a coma patient, or watching one’s own dream on YouTube. With a cutting-edge blend of brain imaging and computer simulation, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, are bringing these futuristic scenarios within reach."

This makes for great sharing on the Internet, but fMRI imaging is nothing like understanding what someone dreams or imagines. In fact, it has a really hard time telling scientists what is even going on when they can see activity in the brain. Alva Nöe, another professor at UC Berkeley and a member of the Institute for Cognitive Brain Sciences does a great job describing just how crude tools like fMRI really are. In his book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons of Consciousness, he explains:
"PET and fMRI yield multicolored images. The colors are meant to correspond to levels of neural activity: the pattern of the colors indicates the brain areas where activity is believed to occur; brighter colors indicate higher levels of activity. It is easy to overlook the fact that images of this sort made by fMRI and PET are not actually pictures of the brain in action. The scanner and the scientist perform a task that is less like gathering a photographic or X-ray image than it is like the process whereby a police sketch artist produces a drawing of a suspect based on interviews with a number of different witnesses. Such drawings carry valuable information about the criminal, to be sure, but they are not direct records of the criminal's face; they are, rather, graphical renderings based on perhaps conflicting reports of what different individuals claim to have seen. Such a composite sketch reflects a conjecture or hypothesis about, rather than a recording of, the perpetrator. Indeed, there is nothing in the process that even guarantees that there is a single perpetrator, let alone that the sketch is a good likeness.

"In a similar way, images produced by PET and fMRI are not in any straightforward way traces of the psychological or mental phenomena. Rather, they represent a conjecture or hypothesis about what we think is going on in the brains of subjects. To appreciate this, consider that we face a problem from the very beginning about how to decide what neural activity is relevant to a mental phenomenon we want to understand. Scientists start from the assumption that to every mental task—say, the judgment that two given words rhyme—there corresponds a neural process. But how do we decide which neural activity going on inside you when you make a rhyming judgment is the neural activity associated with the mental act? To do that, we need to have an idea about how things would have been in the brain if you hadn't performed the rhyming judgment; that is, we need a baseline against which to judge whether or not the deviation from the baseline corresponds to the mental act. One way to do this is by comparing the image of the brain at rest with the image of the brain making a rhyming judgment. The rhyming judgment presumably depends on the neural activity by virtue of which these two images differ. But how do we decide what the brain at rest looks like? After all, the brain is never at rest. For example, there are stages of sleep when your brain is working harder than it does at most times during the day!" (Emphasis added)1
So, to see things like thoughts that exist only in your conscious mind and are not produced by external stimulus are nothing like the images that MRIs produce. You may say, "But at least we can see what happens when someone is looking or talking, right?" Nope. You still have to ask the patient what he or she is experiencing. Nöe goes on:
"Comparison provides the best method available for uncovering the areas of the brain that are critically involved in the performance of a cognitive function. For example, suppose you were to produce a bunch of PET images of people listening to recordings of spoken words and then making judgments about whether given pairs of words rhyme. To isolate the activation responsible for the rhyming judgment, as distinct from that responsible for the auditory perception of the spoken words, a standard procedure would be to compare these images with a second set of images of people listening to recordings of spoken words but not making rhyming judgments. Whatever areas are active in the first set of images, but not the second, would be plausible candidates for the place in the brain where the rhyming judgment takes place.

"This method of comparison is cogent and it holds promise. But it is worth stressing that its reliability depends on a number of background assumptions, not all of which are unproblematic, as Guy C. Van Orden and Kenneth R. Paap have convincingly argued. For one thing, sticking to our example, the comparison method assumes that there is no feedback between what the brain is doing when we make a rhyming judgment and what the brain is doing when we perceive the words. If there is indeed feedback, then it would follow that overlapping regions in the images do not necessarily correspond to a common neural factor."2
Because there is so much activity in the brain, it becomes really difficult to construct an objective model of even which areas of the brain are involved in which discreet process. And even that makes an assumption that thoughts can be relegated to a single area of the brain. We don't know that to be true. What we do know is that consciousness is something completely different than brain activity. I'll talk more about that in an upcoming post. Just don't let news reports or popular movies lead you to believe otherwise.


1. Nöe, Alva  Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons of Consciousness.
New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. 20.
2. Ibid. 21.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Science vs. Scientism: Scientism Refuses to Have Its Authority Challenged

In recent blog posts, I've been outlining the difference between science and scientism. As I noted at the start, scientism is like the evil twin of science in some B-grade Hollywood movie, it looks like science, but it ultimately leads to a different outcome.

Up to this point in watching our movie, the signs of the evil twin replacing the good scientist have been subtle. Many who aren't personally close to the goodly scientist don't notice a thing. But friends and family are beginning to have their doubts. Now the plot turns and suddenly the evil scientism does something completely contradictory to the good Doctor—he demands that his way must be obeyed. Only his ideas count. He has the brilliance and training and therefore no one should question his pronouncements! In our society today, we see certain leaders in the scientific community doing the exact same thing . We see it whenever someone mentions the theory of intelligent design.

Because scientism views faith as an enemy, those who follow scientism will seek to shut down any evidence that points towards the existence of God. The intelligent design debate is a primary example. Our understanding of the origin of the universe and the origin of the diversity of life on this planet are big questions. They have become flashpoints of argument and debate, precisely because they put the question of God's existence on the table. But if the question of God's existence is allowed as a viable option, it would mean that there are things that science cannot tell us. Worse, for those who see science as the only way to gain knowledge, it would prove that there are other sources of knowledge out there, sources that fall outside the domain of science itself.

To the person clinging to scientism, this is completely unacceptable. Therefore, such possibilities are dismissed as not even worthy of considering. Note that this dismissal is not because of the strength or weakness of the scientific content. It is simply because the answer to the question would show that science does not have the ultimate authority in all questions of life. But, here's where the evil twin of scientism has given himself away: in order to reject views that are counter to his understanding of the origin of life and the universe, he must also give up a key tenet of science. He must reject the concept of falsification.

Falsifiability and Intelligent Design1

The scientific method is grounded in the concept of falsification. Experiments are attempts to see if the scientist's hypothesis will break under certain circumstances. Basically, the scientist is trying to falsify his hypothesis, his description of how natural laws will behave given a set of conditions. This is exactly what Galileo did when he wanted to test the idea that gravity pulls on everything with the same acceleration. By dropping two cannonballs of different weight from the Leaning Tower of Pisa and demonstrating that they landed simultaneously, Galileo showed that his theory was correct. If the heavier ball were to have hit the ground first, Galileo's theory would have been falsified and therefore abandoned for some other explanation.

Because of this power to confirm or disprove theories about the way the natural world works, falsification is taken very seriously by the science community. In fact, some scientists hold that without the ability to falsify a theory, you are simply not doing science. 2 Indeed, this charge is very often leveled against those who resist the idea of Neo-Darwinian evolution3, but instead hold that life displays in its existence and construction an underlying intelligence. Wishing to dismiss any idea that a source other than a natural one could produce life, our villain will simply dismiss any claims or evidence for intelligent design with a wave of his hand. "It's not falsifiable" he charges and quickly dismisses any evidence the theory provides.4 But again, he's made a crucial mistake! In using such criteria, our evil twin has undercut his own view that evolution is science.

Intelligent design and Neo-Darwinian evolution are two sides of the same coin, the coin of origins. To choose one side means the other doesn't show itself. But both sides must exist for the coin to exist! Those who hold to scientism would tell you that you must choose your scientific theory on the development of life from a coin that has only one side—there is no other side that's a legitimate choice. If the concept of falsification excludes intelligent design from being considered science, then by extension, it must also exclude it opposite, the theory of evolution. This criterion applies to both equally, which means they are either both considered such or neither are. Scientism would have you believe in one-sided coins, but thoughtful people should never fall for such ridiculousness.


1. A version of this portion of the article originally was post to the blog last. year. You can access it here.
2. Karl Popper was the leading proponent of using falsification to distinguishing which theories are scientific and which are not. He believed the concept that Hume had stated where one cannot universally prove a claim, but he saw that one can easily disprove a claim if it fails only one time. Therefore, to falsify a claim is the heart of science. See for more.
3. Neo-Darwinian evolution may be defined as a belief that all life has arisen from a single source through unguided mutations coupled with natural selection. See Chapter 10 for more details on this.
4. Tammy Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. No. 04cv2688 United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. December 2005. p22.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Science owes a debt to theology

Although we hear a lot today about faith and science being enemies, the scientific enterprise as we know it today wouldn't exist without Christianity and how it saw the world. This may seem surprising to you, but when you think about it, you can see how it makes perfect sense. Prior to the modern era, the primary view of how we can know things was based on the thinking of Aristotle, who believed that we can only start with things we know and simply reason to an outcome. This "First Principles" idea infiltrated much of science since Aristotle, until the 13th century, when a couple of Franciscan monks began to challenge the idea.1 What ultimately fuelled their investigation was the idea that the Christian God was a rational being, and therefore we could uncover His ways if we investigated his creation in a rational manner.

Asking a question about the function of the world

Is the world discoverable? Before we can begin any scientific enterprise, we must first know if it is ever possible to find the answer to certain questions we are asking. This is no trivial point. If you were to have all the latest brain scanning and most sensitive neurological equipment, you could tell a person is dreaming, but you could never tell what that dream is about. The question of content is outside of science altogether and must be reported by the dreamer. However, Christians such as Robert Grosseteste, Roger and Francis Bacon, and others knew they could begin to investigate the world scientifically, because God would create a world to work in a specific order.2 And since the Christian God isn't capricious, he wouldn't "change the rules" so to speak and change the laws of nature from one day to the next.

So today, when a scientist builds a hypothesis, he or she has already assumed that the world is really the way we experience it. But why is he or she justified in such an assumption? Remembering the hit movie The Matrix may help you get a clearer picture of my point. In The Matrix, most people believed they were living normal lives in a well-developed world when in reality they were simply being fed a computer simulation straight into their brains. The things they experienced weren't real, but a forgery. However, science assumes that we can talk about the real world and find out new things about it. Grosseteste and other Christians answered such objections by appealing to their theological framework: that God is the kind of God that wouldn't lie or change the rules on us. Science needs this grounding in theology to justify its assumption of consistency in experimental results.

Scientism dismisses theology as a fairytale

Of course, science's evil twin scientism would never acknowledge that Christian theism is the basis for the modern scientific enterprise. In fact, you many times hear scientism's claim that theistic beliefs are the enemy of science3; they hold back the true advancement and if we would only throw off the shackles of belief in God, we could somehow progress to a new era of scientific discovery.

Physicist Paul Davies, who is by no means Christian, reflected on why scientists should believe the laws of nature exist at all and why they're rational. He questioned his colleagues about them. Davies writes, "Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from 'that's not a scientific question' to 'nobody knows.' The favorite reply is, 'There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.' Davies goes on:

"All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn't be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed… The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science."4(emphasis added)
As Christians, we believe that God orders the universe and makes it discoverable. It offers reasons why we can trust our senses as reporting reality, and trust the fact that there are certain laws undergirding specific interactions in the world. Scientists assume a framework that theology grounds. This is why historian Lynn T. White writes:
"The preaching of a monk in the fastnesses of the German forests may seem far removed from the modern laboratory; yet the monk was an intellectual ancestor of the scientist. As the triumphant chant, 'I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,' rang through the new churches of the northern frontier, another foundation stone of the modern world was laid, the concept of an orderly and intelligible universe."5
To read the previous articles in this series, click here and here.

For the next article, click here.


1. For a good overview of this point, see Schmidt, Alvin J. How Christianity Changed the World.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004 218-219.
2. Schmidt. Ibid.
3. See MacKenzie, Richard "Is Faith the Enemy of Science?" where MacKenzie argues that it is. Lawrence Krauss responded affirminigly to MacKenzie and commented, "I have asked Richard if his recent purpose is to destroy faith or teach science, and he has indicated that destroying faith at the moment is a higher priority. I accept that argument, however for me the latter purpose, teaching science, is higher priority."
4. Davies, Paul. "Taking Science on Faith" The New York Times. 24 November 2007.
5. White, Jr., Lynn T. "The Significance of Medieval Christianity". The Vitality of the Christian Tradition, 3d ed., edited by George F. Thomas New York: Harper & Bros, 1944. 97.
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