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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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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Unhinging the Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence Mantra



As it is Easter season, skeptic Michael Shermer has an article in appearing in Scientific American entitled, "What Would It Take to Prove the Resurrection?" Shermer writes that as a skeptic, there are propositions he can accept as true, such as the number of pages in a magazine, the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the origin of the universe by a big bang. Unsurprisingly however, Shermer can think of nothing that would count as enough evidence for the resurrection for that particular proposition to be considered true. He claims this is due to the "principle of proportionality," something that "demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. Of the approximately 100 billion people who have lived before us, all have died and none have returned, so the claim that one (or more) of them rose from the dead is about as extraordinary as one will ever find." 1

So, Shermer has fallen back to the old canard that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But what does he mean "extraordinary evidence?" The phrase sounds good, but is truly fuzzy when one thinks about it. As I've stated before, evidence is either strong or weak; categories like extraordinary don't really fit here. But it isn't as though we have no evidence. Shermer himself brings up eyewitness testimony, quickly dismissing them as possibly being superstitious or seeing "what they wanted to see." But what evidence has Shermer offered for those motivations? He's offered nothing except the claims "The principle of proportionality also means we should prefer the more probable explanation over less probable ones, which these alternatives surely are."2

Extraordinary claims don't only deal with miracles

One problem with Shermer's use of the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" trope is he is inconsistent in using it himself. Remember I said that Shermer holds to the universe as having a beginning. But ask him who was ultimately responsible for that beginning, and Shermer dismisses the idea of God out of hand. In a previous article, he wrote, "For millennia humans simply said, ‘God did it': a creator existed before the universe and brought it into existence out of nothing. But this just begs the question of what created God—and if God does not need a creator, logic dictates that neither does the universe."3

Here Shermer makes an obvious category error, one that has been brought to his attention several times in debates with Christians. Yet, he persists in believing the universe (or possibly some kind of universe-generating machine) has come into existence from nothing. But isn't this an equally extraordinary claim? If his statement "Of the approximately 100 billion people who have lived before us, all have died and none have returned, so the claim that one (or more) of them rose from the dead is about as extraordinary as one will ever find" is the criteria for an extraordinary claim, then the universe beginning from nothing is surely even more extraordinary. In all of human history, there has never even once been anyone who has observed something coming into existence from nothing at all. Not once. Even quantum fluctuation/quantum foam is not nothing, for it has specific attributes and potentials. None of those 100 billion people Shermer points to will bolster his claim for an uncaused universe. Yet, he isn't skeptical about that proposition. In fact, he prefers it.

If the principle of proportionality were to be applied consistently, Shermer would have to admit that the evidence for a personal cause for the origin of the universe is much more probable than an uncaused universe popping into existence out of nothing. Is Shermer guilty of what he claims about the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus? Is he only seeing what he wants to see or perhaps superstitious or credulous? I don't think he would admit to any of these. But if Shermer's principle of proportionality fails here, then perhaps it isn't the last word on how to discern the truth for events like the resurrection, either.

References

1. Shermer, Michael. "What Would It Take to Prove the Resurrection?" Scientific American. Scientific American, 08 Mar. 2017. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-would-it-take-to-prove-the-resurrection/.
2. Shermer, 2017.
3. Shermer, Michael. "Much Ado about Nothing." Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer, May 2012. Web. 11 Apr. 2017. http://www.michaelshermer.com/2012/05/much-ado-about-nothing/.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Pornography, Cannibalism, and Debasing Humanity through Non-Belief



In the early 1970s, there was a concerted effort to mainstream pornography. Not only did several mainstream studio/high production value films choose to feature nudity and overt sex scenes, but the pornographic film Deep Throat became the center of attention across the nation. Even trusted middle American publication Time magazine produced a feature on Deep Throat,1 giving a smut film the air of credibility.2 The New York Times writer Ralph Blumenthal commented that the film had "become a premier topic of cocktail‐party and dinner‐table conversation in Manhattan drawing rooms, Long Island beach cottages and ski country A‐frames. It has, in short, engendered a kind of porno chic."3 Not discussed were the countless number of victims in pornography's wake. Linda Boreman, billed as Lovelace in the film, has said "When you see the movie Deep Throat you are watching me being raped. It is a crime that movie is still showing; there was a gun to my head the entire time."

The trend towards porno-chic should have served as a caution. Sexual freedom advocates claimed licentiousness as liberation, arguing that old-fashioned morals were repressive and holding society back. However, the opposite has proven true. Today, one doesn't even have to look at naked people to see it.

Reza Aslan's interaction with a small extremist Hindu group of Aghori nomads where his face is smeared with the cremated ashes of the dead and he actually joins them in eating brains from the deceased and drinking from a human skull4 is as offensive and pornographic as any sexually explicit scene ever filmed. Aslan's choosing to capture the grotesque rituals of this tiny sect, not even representative of Hindus, is offered for shock value and to titillate. It reminds me of citizen spectators who stretch to view mangled bodies after an automobile accident: they feign horror as they struggle to see the carnage up close.

Robbing Human Worth for Ratings

Christianity has always held that human beings are intrinsically valuable. Human bodies are not a tool separate from the person, but part of what makes a person complete. Therefore the human body has intrinsic worth. Aslan's participation in eating brains is like a news reporter decrying the tragedy of the accident while zooming in for a close-up of the corpse. The very act itself is defiling and debases the value of the deceased. The Aztecs were noted for their human sacrifices, but we certainly don't need to recreate that today in order to understand their faith. Neither does any civilized person need to participate in cannibalism to understand the faith of this sect.

Here's the point: as our society abandons its Judeo-Christian ethic, it becomes more uncivilized by tolerating more and more acts of degradation. Pornography was previously seen as a vice that caters to man's animal instincts rather than his higher nature as a rational, civilized being. Newspapers wouldn't run pornography advertisements and "smut" carried a strong social stigma. Now, we have the most popular sit-coms writing full episodes about how the protagonists get to obsessively watch the free porn channel on their television set for a week.

Atheists are quick to charge that religion poisons everything and the world would be better without its constraints. They're wrong. No one would like to see their beloved parent or grandparent's body used as food for ritual or for ratings. It robs them of their dignity. Aslan is a secularist and he isn't behaving any better than these Aghori. CNN, in airing the piece, is also culpable. Porno-chic now includes mainstreaming cannibalism. What will be next?

References

1. "The Sexes: Wonder Woman." Time. Time Inc., 15 Jan. 1973. Web. 04 Apr. 2017. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,906765,00.html.
2. See this quote from Carolyn Bronstein: "The editors of the Los Angeles Times decided to stop bowdlerizing the Pussycat copy, figuring if small-town America could tolerate exposure to Deep Throat in the pages of its hallowed news weekly, then Californians could surely handle some movie ads." in Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-pornography Movement; 1976 - 1986. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. 63. Print.
3. Blumenthal, Ralph. ""Hard‐core" Grows Fashionable—and Very Profitable." The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Jan. 1973. Web. 04 Apr. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1973/01/21/archives/pornochic-hardcore-grows-fashionableand-very-profitable.html.
4. Safi, Michael. "Reza Aslan Outrages Hindus by Eating Human Brains in CNN Documentary." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 10 Mar. 2017. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/10/reza-aslan-criticised-for-documentary-on-cannibalistic-hindus.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Why the Gospels are History (podcast)



As we approach Easter, Christians will get inundated with media specials trying to proclaim the "lost" story of the real Jesus. But they have it wrong. Listen in to all four parts of this new podcast series  as we examine why the Gospel accounts are completely trustworthy as reliable sources of ancient history.

Subscribe to Come Reason's Podcast via iTunes or RSS feed.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Jesus Didn't Become God; the Earliest Christians Believed Him to Be Divine



In his excellent new book, God Among Sages, Kenneth Samples has done a wonderful job in combining an apologetic showing the Gospel accounts reflect the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth and how the Jesus of the Gospels is markedly different from the founders of Eastern religions, such as Krishna, who was also thought to be a god taking on human form.

The comparison is interesting, especially considering the charge made by many modern skeptics that the Christian belief of Jesus as God incarnate was foreign to Jesus's first followers and only grew as a later addition to the new religion. Bart Ehrman's book How Jesus Became God is one such challenge. Samples answers it well when he writes:
But just what did the earliest Christians believe about the nature and person of Jesus Christ? A major textual breakthrough over the last couple of decades has al1owed scholars to see more dearly what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus Christ, particularly as expressed in their church services.

Biblical scholarship (in this case, a type of form criticism) has discovered primitive Jewish-Christian creeds, confessions, and hymns woven into Scripture. The early Christians in their worship services used these compact confessions of faith long before the New Testament was written. As New Testament scholar Ralph Martin explains, "The church of the New Testament is already a believing, preaching, and confessing community of men and women. This implies the existence and influence of a body of authoritative doctrine ... which was the given and shared possession of those who formed the nascent Christian communities in the world of the Roman Empire."1
I've written before on the creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and how it shows the resurrection account existed as a foundational belief from the earliest moments of Christianity. Here, Samples is arguing that there are other early creeds recorded within the pages of the New Testament showing a very early belief in the divinity of Jesus. Some of these passages are actually central to the case of understanding Jesus as the God-man.

Philippians 2:6-11, a key passage discussing how Jesus existed in the form of God, but humbled himself and became man, is the first example. Because of differences in its language and its poetic approach separate it from the rest of the epistle lead scholars to believe this was an early Christian hymn.2 Paul wrote the epistle to the Philippians around AD 62, which means a hymn exalting the incarnation of God in the man of Jesus was well established within thirty years of Jesus's crucifixion.

Jesus Seen As God Very Early

Pointing to Craig Blomberg's work, Samples highlights two other passages (Colossians 1:15-20 and 1 Peter 3:18-22), also written around AD 62. He then notes "the hymnal and creedal portions of those letters date much earlier, possibly back to the Jewish expressions of Christianity in the 40s or even earlier in the 30s."3 These early dates make it impossible for the deity of Christ to be ascribed to either later legend or Gentile influence. It places the central theology of the Trinity at the very beginning of Christianity itself! This is all the more remarkable given that as Jesus first followers were Jews, they would've strongly resisted any claims to divinity that would impeach Yahweh as the one and only God. Remember, this is exactly why Paul sought to kill Christians to begin with.

The early creedal statements within the epistles written by both Peter and Paul—two key founders of the Christian church—show that the incarnation, like the resurrection, was a formative doctrine of Christianity. Jesus didn't "become God" as Ehrman puts it, but was always seen as God. What could have made such a scandalous claim seem palatable to the first Jewish Christians? Nothing other than a resurrection, I believe.

I highly recommend you grab a copy of God Among Sages for yourself. There are so many good things here Samples has given us, this being just one nugget. It's a fresh approach to the question of the historical Jesus and how he compares to other religions' founders.

References

1. Samples, Kenneth Richard. God Among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017. 71. Print.
2. Samples, 2017. 72.
3. Samples, 2017. 73.
Image courtesy Lawrence OP and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Why the Supreme Court's Decision Doesn't Change the Concept of Marriage



Is the question of same-sex marriage over? The Supreme Court has ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage is legal and must be recognized across the United States. Does that settle the matter? Actually, no. The Supreme Court has made other definitive decisions which have been later overturned because the assumptions from which those decisions were made were false. Last Monday marked the 160th anniversary of Dred Scott v. Stanford, a seven to two decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that African-Americans whose ancestors were slavers were ineligible to be considered people of the United States. This May will mark the 90th anniversary of the famed Buck v. Bell decision by the Court, where they authorized the forced sterilization of people.

So, what are the assumptions underlying the Obergefell decision? One is that the state has a role in defining marriage.1 Certainly, governments have traditionally recognized marriage and crafted legislation that affects its citizens on the basis of their marriage status, but do governments have the authority to define the very essence of what constitutes marriage? Just what is marriage and who gets to define its terms?

How Do We Begin to Understand Marriage in Relation to Law?

In the debate over same-sex unions, it has been popular to place the "what is marriage" question into a dichotomy. Most people ask whether marriage is something invented by the state or something that stands objectively outside the state. In reality, though, there are three categories societies rely upon to understand and help in the civil interaction between its individuals: societal creations, societal conventions, and natural laws.

Societal creations are those things that are invented by the state. Examples include which is the "right" side of the road to drive on, the legal recognition of corporations as individuals for legal contracts, and the postal system. Each of these are creations of the state and each can be redefined or even abolished through legislation.

Natural laws, on the other hand, are recognized by the state but sit above the state. The right to life, the right practice one's religious beliefs without undue government interference, the right to not be enslaved, and the right to the fruits of one's labor are things that government doesn't give us; we hold them inherently as a result of being human. While governments can pass legislation that denies us our rights, the rights themselves don't go away. They are simply being infringed upon. Just as the slavery issue proved, even if the law states slavery is legal, that doesn't eliminate the right to freedom for the slave. It just means the law is corrupt.

Societal Conventions Differ from Societal Creations

But there's a third aspect to societal interactions: societal conventions. These are things that naturally come out of civil human interaction. David Hume defined convention as "a sense of common interest; which sense each man feels in his own breast, which he remarks in his fellows, and which carries him, in concurrence with others into a general plan or system of actions, which tends to public utility."2I think that's right. Shows of respect, for example, are ubiquitous across all cultures. However, what counts as a sign of respect can differ widely, like bowing before a company president versus simply shaking his hand.

The wedding ring is another convention we use to communicate marriage. Not taking another person's spouse would fall into natural law, but the way to recognize a person as married can and has differed in different societies, with the wedding ring serving as a societal convention that is recognized across Western culture.

Is Marriage a Creation, a Convention, or a Reflection of Nature?

Justice Kennedy in his majority opinion seems to place marriage in the category of a societal convention. He said, "The ancient origins of marriage confirm its centrality, but it has not stood in isolation from developments in law and society." Here, Kennedy is I think purposely obtuse. What does he mean by "the ancient origins of marriage?" The coupling of men and women to produce children is older than human history itself. It's ingrained into our biology. Does that mean every sexual encounter is tantamount to marriage? Of course not. However, marriage has always been seen as the intentional joining of two people of the opposite sex presumably for life, whether or not any government exists to recognize it as such.

Kennedy is also right to say that marriage has not stood "in isolation from developments in law and society." But that doesn't mean marriage itself is a societal convention. While the ring that helps people recognize marriage is a convention, the marriage that it symbolizes existed before rings. It existed before marriage certificates. Marriage is actually a reflection of nature, and to degrade it to a social convention that can be changed or redefined undercuts the essence of what marriage actually is.

So, what about those "developments in law and society" to which Kennedy refers? He rightly raises the point that arranged marriages are no longer the norm for Western societies. More importantly, he points out law of coverture are no longer recognized, either. Is this an example showing how legal recognition changed marriage itself? Do these changes show that marriage itself can evolve? No, for these do nothing to change the essence of marriage, which is the only recognized institution humanity has ever had to properly rear the next generation. Let me state that again. There exists no other institution that human beings recognize for the proper creation and rearing of children than man-woman marriage.

Governments cannot define marriage because governments didn't create marriage. Governments can only recognize marriage as the institution rooted in nature that it is. Like other natural laws, governments can choose to ignore what marriage is or choose to abuse or withhold it from its citizens. Just because the Supreme Court said that Dred Scott had no inalienable rights because his ancestors were slaves or Carrie Buck had no right to protest her forced sterilization, doesn't mean those rights didn't exist. It just meant the Court was in grievous error.

In my next article, I'll go a little further into the distinction between creations, conventions, and natural laws, demonstrating that even though governments may pass laws with respect to aspects of marriage, it in no way proves that marriage itself can be defined by law.

References

1. In the decision, Justice Kennedy wrote, "Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations."
2. Hume, David. "Appendix III. Some farther considerations with regard to Justice." An Enquiry into the Principles of Morals. The University of Adelaide Library. 26 Feb. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2017. https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/david/h92pm/appendix3.html.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Progressives: Please Help Me Understand International Women's Day


Today is marked as International Women's Day, described as "a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity."1 The Women's March, among other progressive women's rights groups, decided to mark the day by creating "A Day without a Woman" campaign, instructing women to:
  1. Take the day off, from paid and unpaid labor
  2. Avoid shopping for one day (with exceptions for small, women- and minority-owned businesses)
  3. And Wear RED in solidarity with A Day Without A Woman
As a heterosexual white male living in the 21st century, I definitely want to highlight the crucial contributions women have made to our society. But I need some help in understanding just how to go about doing this. Lest I be accused of "mansplaining" or bias because of my sex, I want to ask my progressive friends to help me make better sense of this day and just what it is I'm recognizing.

Question 1: How Do We Mark Achievements Today?

As noted above, this date is set aside to celebrate "the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women," yet women are being instructed to take the day off from labor—to go on strike. Fox News reports that "Several schools in at least four states were closed Wednesday so teachers can participate in ‘A Day Without a Woman' strike in which organizers are urging female workers to stay home."2How does this celebrate achievement? What happens to the female students who are supposed to be taught today? Does losing one day's instruction give them an advantage?

Question 2: How Do We Accelerate Economic Gender Parity?

Perhaps the strike is meant to accelerate gender parity. After all, the day is to be marked with calls to action. Does the fact that these schools closed mean the school districts need to hire more men so the ratio of genders is equal? Should we put quotas in place to ensure parity? What about other jobs where men are in the vast majority, like sanitation engineers or coal miners? Business insider lists these as two of the fifteen most deadly occupations with fatalities per 100,000 workers at 22.8 and 38.9 respectively.3 Christina Hoff Sommers documents how in the top ten highest paying college majors, men overwhelmingly outnumber women in all but one while in the ten least remunerative majors women outnumber the men in all but one. So, how do we accelerate gender parity economically here?

Question 3: How Do We Accelerate Cultural Gender Parity?

Perhaps economic parity isn't the only kind of parity we should strive for. Perhaps we can recognize that women as women offer unique and worthwhile contributions to our society that cannot be measured (or are undervalued) economically. But this seems to get sticky pretty fast. Can I say that women as a gender have a unique view on society and its problems? When the city of Los Angeles was in danger of having an all-male city council, former councilwoman Laura Chick decried the possibility, saying "Shame, shame. Absolutely it makes a difference. Our brains are different. We have different perspectives.... There's something terribly wrong with this."4

But how can this be true if a family requires two loving adults, no matter what their gender? Progressives have been telling me for a long time that children don't need women as mothers, they simply need loving individuals. Gender doesn't matter at all. To create a situation where children are intentionally denied the opportunity for a mother is so inconsequential that it shouldn't even be up for discussion. It certainly shouldn't be considered as a factor when adopting, as Catholic Charites were told, forcing them to shut down their adoption services in Massachusetts.

Question 4: What do You Mean by Woman?

Perhaps the fact that women bear children and are responsible for the lion's share of rearing them is a point to be underscored. But that would mean that the very concept of being a woman is rooted in biology. But according to my progressive friends, that isn't true at all. They say the very idea of gender is simply a social construct. All that is required to be a woman is to identify as a woman. Is that right? But that means I can be celebrated if I choose to identify as a woman today.

The big question in all this is how do we celebrate the achievements of women and rally to gain parity for women when the concept of what a woman is isn't defined? This is probably where I need the most help, as I can't make sense of it at all. If the very definition of what constitutes a woman is up for grabs, then what happens to those gender parity issues? I mean, there are those who deeply identify as football fans or basketball fans. I'm in the minority as a hockey fan. Should I seek a day for celebration of achievement and a call to parity since hockey fans are so underrepresented in society?

I would really love to celebrate women. However, in today's world with all the different messaging going on, I can't figure out just who it is we're celebrating or what kind of achievements qualify to be celebrated. If anyone can help me out, I'd be really appreciative.

References

1. "About International Women's Day." International Women's Day. Aurora Ventures (Europe) Limited., n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. https://www.internationalwomensday.com/About.
2. "'Day Without a Woman' Strike Shuts down Schools as Teachers Bolt." Fox News. FOX News Network, 08 Mar. 2017. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2017/03/08/day-without-woman-strike-shuts-schools-down-as-teachers-bolt.html.
3. Lubin Gus and Kevin Lincoln. "The 15 Most Dangerous Jobs In America." Business Insider. Business Insider, 21 Sept. 2011. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. http://www.businessinsider.com/most-dangerous-jobs-2011-9.
4. Newton, Jim. "An All-male City Council?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 1 Apr. 2013. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. http://www.latimes.com/la-oe-newton-column-women-in-los-angeles-politics-20130401-column.html.

Friday, March 03, 2017

A Big, Dangerous Universe is NOT Evidence Against God



The recent discovery of the seven planets orbiting the TRAPPIST star has a lot of folks talking. As I wrote last week, even though they're labeled as "earth-like" and reside in what astronomers call the habitable zone, the idea that life could exist on them is remote in the extreme. The fact that our planet is so uniquely situated in just the right spot with just the right conditions around just the right kind of star provides strong evidence for design, like finding a cabin in the middle of an unpopulated forest.

Of course, others won't admit that our world shows marks of design. Some even offer the uniqueness of the earth as evidence against its design. I had one such interaction on Facebook where a gentleman names Simeon responded to my article by saying, "The rarity of habitable planets in the universe is actually evidence for a universe not designed for human habitation." After some interaction, he went on to claim "An all-powerful deity would not need to create an entire universe to support a single planet. He could have just made a single flat Earth with a dome over it, like some of the ancients believed." He finally summarized his position by writing "I think you are demonstrably wrong that the entire universe, as is, is required to support a single life-bearing planet. There is no way for planets around a distant star to have any bearing on Earth's habitability."

What Does it Take to Make a Biosphere?

I don't know if Simeon holds is a theist or not; we never discussed that issue. However, I've met many atheists who argue along similar lines, holding the vastness of space as evidence against a universe created to sustain human life. Couldn't God create any old kind of universe he wanted? Why would he need to make the universe so big just for one "pale blue dot" as Carl Sagan put it?

I think there's hubris in assuming that God can just create some kind of terrarium that holds the Earth but doesn't impact our biology and our experience. I remember being particularly intrigued at an extensive experiment to try and create a self-supporting environment that mimics the earth's in the 1980s. A group of scientists and investors built a large, airtight facility in the Arizona desert called Biosphere 2. Within it, they created a wetlands area, a desert, a rainforest, a savannah, and an "ocean" and then populated it with plants, insects, and animals. The goal was to create a mini-self-sustaining environment where people could live. If it worked here, it may have been possible to build a similar structure on another planet, making human habitation possible.

I loved the idea of biosphere 2. Unfortunately, creating a self-sustaining habitat on a smaller scale than the earth itself proved to be incredibly difficult. The New York Times reported that the results of a two year experiment in sustained living were a disaster: "The would-be Eden became a nightmare, its atmosphere gone sour, its sea acidic, its crops failing, and many of its species dying off. Among the survivors are crazy ants, millions of them."1 The paper reported how the facility was then sold to Columbia University who used it to model environmental catastrophes, instead of running tests on how to create sustainable environments.

Making Claims is Easy; Building Life-Supporting Universes is Hard

My point here is simple. It's easy to claim "God could have just made a smaller system" but that claim has no evidence behind it. Dr. Hugh Ross in his new book Improbable Planet discusses many of the factors of our universe that had to be just right in order for a livable earth to exist, using as one example its massiveness. He writes:
If the universe contained slightly lower mass density of protons and neutrons, then nuclear fusion in stellar furnaces would have yielded no elements as heavy as carbon or heavier; if a slightly greater mass density, then star burning would have yielded only elements as heavy as iron or heavier. Either way, the universe would have lacked the elements most critical for our planet and its life—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and more. For life to be possible, the universe must be no more or less massive than it is.2
The fact that the universe, as massive as it is, still proves to be delicately set up for life on earth is a fact that hasn't escaped even secular scientists. Physicist Paul Davies, when he won his Templeton Prize, confidently proclaimed:
You might be tempted to suppose that any old rag-bag of laws would produce a complex universe of some sort, with attendant inhabitants convinced of their own specialness. Not so. It turns out that randomly-selected laws lead almost inevitably either to unrelieved chaos or boring and uneventful simplicity. Our own universe is poised exquisitely between these unpalatable alternatives.3
So, no, God couldn't have just made it smaller. Even if we discover there are no other truly habitable planets in any of the billions star systems across the billions of galaxies we know exist, it still wouldn't prove the universe wasn't designed for life. The interplay and complexity of the created world is a marvel to behold, and it clearly points to a Designer.

References

1. Broad, William J. "Paradise Lost: Biosphere Retooled as Atmospheric Nightmare." The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Nov. 1996. Web. 03 Mar. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1996/11/19/science/paradise-lost-biosphere-retooled-as-atmospheric-nightmare.html.
2. Ross, Hugh. Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity's Home. S.L.: Baker Book House, 2017. 24. Print.
3. Davies, Paul M. "Templeton Prize Address." Paul Davies Web Site. Arizona State University. 23 January 2010 http://cosmos.asu.edu/prize_address.htm.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

What to Make of the New Seven Earth-Like Planets Discovered



The headlines were spectacular. Time Magazine pronounced "NASA Announces a Single Star Is Home to At Least 7 Earthlike Planets."1 Vox exclaimed "NASA has discovered 7 Earth-like planets orbiting a star just 40 light-years away."2 Even the official press release from NASA offered some tantalizing tidbits, noting that all seven planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system reside in the habitable zone necessary for life and it included artists' rendering of what the view may look like from one of these newly discovered sisters of earth.3

Certainly, the discovery of planets orbiting another star is an exciting one. The fact that the TRAPPIST-1 star is relatively close in astronomical terms (40 light years away) means the system is more easily observed by our telescopes; we can gather more data on the planets themselves. To find seven of them ups the chances that we may find water on them, too. But does this mean we've uncovered a bunch of earth-twins that are just ready to be populated by living organisms? Not by a long shot.

What do you mean "Earth-like"?

Since capturing eyeballs and clicks are the driving force behind both news organizations and sites like Vox, one should be a bit cautious before jumping to conclusions by just a screaming headline. When I saw this story, I was intrigued, but upon reading the details, certain terms don't carry the weight one may assume at first.

For example, both the Vox and the Time article called these planets "Earth-like" in their headlines. That will certainly evoke a picture in the minds of most casual readers, but what does Earth-like really mean? Both articles did unpack the term to mean a planet whose size is within a certain percentage of Earth's and is not too hot or too cold for water to exist somewhere on its surface without it being boiled away or perpetually frozen. Mars is within our solar system's habitable zone, while experts disagree about whether Venus qualifies or not.

But just having the ability for water to exist really isn't enough for life. The TRAPPIST-1 star is a much weaker star than our sun. As Hugh Ross explains, TRAPPIST-1 is very small and very weak, not putting out much heat at all. Thus, the planets are a whole lot closer to their star than the Earth is to the Sun, which locks them into a non-rotational position – one side always light and extremely hot while the other is perpetually dark and continually freezing cold.

According to Ross, only the "twilight areas" of each planet would be able to support liquid water. Ross then states "Only in the twilight zone boundary between perpetual light and perpetual darkness will surface liquid water be possible. This possibility presumes that for each planet the twilight edge will not move. Given how close the planets are to one another, it is inevitable that the twilight edge on each planet will move. Thus, realistically none of TRAPPIST-1's planets are likely to ever possess any surface liquid water."4 Of course, it hasn't even been proven the planets have an atmosphere yet.

Also, since these planets must be very close to their weak sun, their years are very short: it takes only about twenty days for the furthest of the seven planets to complete an orbit and only one and a half days for the closest! Knowing how crucial seasonal changes are to life on Earth, there's absolutely no chance of seasons for any of these planets. What's worse, the planets orbits and close proximity mean their gravitational pull will affect each other. The moon's gravity causes the tides on Earth and it is only one sixth the pull of the earth's gravity.* Imagine how an equally sized planet's gravity orbiting close by would affect the Earth. Ross concludes, "These periodic gravitational influences rule out the possibility of life on these planets."

Selling the Sizzle, not the Steak

The "earth-like" description of these planets in the articles is I believe a little misleading. All the outlets I read hyped the possibility of finding life on these planets while never mentioning the incredible difficulties any life would face on them. The Vox story is a good example:
The more Earth-like exoplanets astronomers find in the galaxy, the more they update their estimates of how many Earth-like planets could be out there. "For every transiting planet found, there should be a multitude of similar planets (20–100 times more) that, seen from Earth, never pass in front of their host star," Nature reporter Ignas Snellen explains in a feature article. And the more exoplanets there are, the more likely it is that life exists on at least one of them.5 (Emphasis added).
I highlighted that last line to make a point. While it is true mathematically that finding more planets can make the odds of finding life lower, it's a bit like claiming your odds for dealing four perfect bridge hands are lower the more shuffled decks you use. It's true but still beyond any reasonable explanation that someone will do so, whether you use a hundred, a thousand or a million decks. By obscuring the difficulties these planet offer for life and only highlighting the two or three possible similarities, these reports are selling the sizzle instead of the steak. There's much we can learn from this new discovery. Learning about extra-terrestrial life forming isn't really one of them.

References

1. Kluger, Jeffrey. "NASA Announces Trappist-1 Star Is Home to Earthlike Planets." Time. Time, 22 Feb. 2017. Web. 23 Feb. 2017. http://time.com/4677103/nasa-announcement-new-solar-system/.
2. Resnick, Brian. "NASA Has Discovered 7 Earth-like Planets Orbiting a Star Just 40 Light-years Away." Vox. Vox, 22 Feb. 2017. Web. 23 Feb. 2017. http://www.vox.com/2017/2/22/14698030/nasa-seven-exoplanet-discovery-trappist-1.
3. "NASA Telescope Reveals Record-Breaking Exoplanet Discovery." NASA. NASA, 22 Feb. 2017. Web. 23 Feb. 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-telescope-reveals-largest-batch-of-earth-size-habitable-zone-planets-around.
4. Ross, Hugh. "Earth's Seven Sisters: Are They Really Similar?" Reasons to Believe. Reasons to Believe, 23 Feb. 2017. Web. 23 Feb. 2017. http://www.reasons.org/blogs/todays-new-reason-to-believe/earths-seven-sisters--are-they-really-similar.
5. Resnick, 2017.
* This sentence has been corrected. It originally read "The moon's gravity causes the tides on Earth and it is only one sixth the mass of the earth."

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The One Sexual Orientation No One Advocates For



I recently wrote that today's western culture has become so craven we have elevated our sexual appetites above our desire for a civilized society. And I'm not simply talking about suggestive advertisements or sexual references in our entertainment. As I noted there, the "pelvic issues," (homosexuality, transgenderism, abortion) have consumed an inordinate amount of our politics and popular discussion.

The proponents of LGBT rights frame their demands as issues of civil rights.1 In so doing, they make the claim that sexual attraction is considered a viable way of understanding another individual, something that is "inherent and immutable."2 Such language implies sexual desires and preferences are what define you. They constitute an essential part of who you are.

Inherent and Immutable Sexual Desires

If sexual orientation and desire are crucial to understanding who an individual is and if it is true that such desires are inherent and immutable as the HRC's definition states, then all sexual orientations should be accepted and championed equally. But there's one sexual orientation I've not heard any of the pro-LGBT groups bolster and that is the occuposexual.

What is an occuposexual? You won't find it by Googling the word, since I just coined the term myself, but the orientation has a long history and is well-represented online. An occuposexual is someone who is sexually attracted to those already committed to another in a relationship. They are drawn to people who are already relationally occupied.

Before you dismiss this as not a real sexual orientation, you should look at the facts. Occuposexual orientation is real. Dr. Valerie Golden wrote in Psychology Today how recent studies have found "90 percent of single women were interested in a man who they believed was taken, while a mere 59 percent wanted him when told he was single." Certainly, the attraction would differ in degree and not all those women would act on their desires, but Alfred Kinsey's heterosexual/homosexual scale makes the same distinctions.3 This scale was also used to justify the "normalcy" of homosexual desires.

The Desire of Occuposexuals is Like Any Other Sexual Desire

Occuposexuals themselves have written about their desires, using language that sounds just the same as other sexual orientations. In this article entitled "I am Dating a Married Man", a twenty-something woman admits that she is simply attracted to married men. She explains her attraction is because "he's already involved with somebody else. In many cases, the Other Woman wouldn't be turned on by the guy if he wasn't. The fact that he's ‘taken' is proof of his desirability. The fact that another woman's husband wants her is proof of hers."4 Everyone from news outlets to Women's' Health Magazine has articles on the subject.

You may be quick to dismiss such an orientation as regular people who just aren't in control of their predilections. But how can you make that judgment? We know occuposexuality occurs in nature, as the article Infidelity Common Among Birds and Mammals, Experts Say clearly proves. Like the lady in the ‘I am Dating a Married Man" article explains, she knows that what she's doing isn't right, but she can't help herself. She's gone from one married man to another even though she knows it's wrong and it's trouble. In fact, in any type of objection that occuposexuality is somehow different from other sexual orientations fails by using the very same arguments the pro-homosexual community has used for decades in their advocacy.

So Why Is No One Championing the Occuposexual?

You may notice something unique, though, about their occuposexual. While groups like GLAAD and HRC are quick to demand rights for their constituencies, who they classify as "sexual minorities," no one is championing the occuposexual's rights to come out of the closet, to express their sexuality as they feel it, or really to even exist. Why not? The answer is easy. No one wants their significant other snatched from them by an occuposexual. They believe even though this is a sexual desire, one that's real, it is ultimately a desire and the occuposexual doesn't have to act upon it. They believe the person who holds that desire is responsible for his or her actions, even if that means seeking out help to properly deal with those inherent desires. Plus, occuposexuality will never be a big winner in the public's opinion.

But all of this makes my point. It's easy to justify desires when others cannot see the serious impact they have on a society. It's easy to assert the idea that sexual orientation is a fundamental function of who you are and not a secondary function. I say the human being is not whatever his or her sexual attractions may be. Human beings are too valuable to be reduced to their sexual desires. That's true for the occuposexual as well as any other form of sexual orientation. By elevating sexual identity to something inherent and immutable, one must make room for the occuposexual to find his or her fulfillment in sexual expression, too. Are you willing to give up your mate or are you just a bigoted occupophobe?

References

1. Becker, John. "LGBT Rights Are Civil Rights." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 23 Mar. 2012. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-becker/lgbt-rights-are-civil-rights_b_1368381.html.
2. "Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Definitions." Human Rights Campaign. Human Rights Campaign, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. http://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-orientation-and-gender-identity-terminology-and-definitions.
3. "The Kinsey Scale." The Kinsey Institute. The Trustees of Indiana University, 2017. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
4. DOLCE84. " I Am Dating a Married Man Story & Experience." The Experience Project. The Experience Project, 5 Sept. 2007. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. http://www.experienceproject.com/stories/Am-Dating-A-Married-Man/54661.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Problem of Living in a Crotch-Driven Culture



One can tell a lot about the value of a society by what occupies its attention and effort. The Greeks were thinkers, who spent a significant amount of time developing philosophy and logic. They saw value in the mind, believing that clear thinking was the key to understanding the wider world.

In the 21st century, it's obvious that our culture emphasizes the crotch over the mind. What are the "hot topics" glut our headlines and dominate our conversations? It's sex. Sex is inescapable today. Our media choices are drenched with it and our politics are obsessed with it. That's why the "pelvic issues" are getting so much attention. Homosexuality, transsexuality, abortion, birth control are the focii of recent political protests, where adults will actually dress up as genitals—dress up as genitals!—in order to demand… what exactly? More availability for consequence-free sexual experiences?

Decivilizing Civilization

What does it mean to be civilized? It isn't our infrastructure or our technology that civilizes us. It isn't creating new ways to manufacture things or making it easier to do the mundane tasks life requires. For when we talk of someone being civil, we are commenting on the character of the individual in question. If someone is insulting or brutish, that person is uncivil. They would rather lash out with their feelings than recognize the humanity of the other individual. The three R's of reason, regard, and reverence are what make us human and distinguish us from animals.

Thus, civilization is predicated on the fact that human beings are not slaves to their natural impulses. Just because one feels an urge to copulate doesn't mean one should immediately attempt to do so any more than just because one passes by some delectable morsel one should immediately attempt to eat it. It may not be yours. It may not be the right time, perhaps a business meeting where the food is laid out for the meeting's conclusion or a wedding where the bride and groom should be served first. To give license to on one's base desires is to show contempt for others and to be uncivil.

Identity from a Crotch-Driven Culture

However, in our crotch-driven culture, we now seek to celebrate the base desires. In fact, people use their base desires as their primary form of identity. A person will say he or she identifies as homosexual heterosexual, bisexual, transsexual, or whatever the most recently vogue sexual predilection may be. My question is why in the world would anyone want to have their bedroom activities be highlighted as their primary attribute? How is that a good thing for elevating the understanding of ourselves as human beings?

All of this doesn't mean I am taking some kind of "don't ask, don't tell" approach. What I'm saying is that previous generations saw sexual drives and desires as things people did, not who people were. The concept of homosexuality as it is used today is actually very new. It shifts the focus from the act to the attraction itself. But doing so tells us nothing of the rightness or wrongness of homosexual acts. There are base desires that people have where it may be sometimes wrong to act upon them (such as above) and other desires where it is always wrong to act upon them. Placing the emphasis upon the fact that one has the desire gives us no information as to whether one should act upon them or not. But we know that to be civilized would mean that one must be able to control oneself in spite of those desires.

To identify as homosexual or heterosexual or whatever strikes me as elevating the base instincts one has to a status they shouldn't occupy. Yet, that seems to be exactly what Pride parades, genital costumes, and such are seeking to promote. Why would you want me to think of the primary driver of your life as satiating an urge that most people accomplish in half an hour once or twice a week? It is decivilizing. (And if your first reaction to that prior sentence is to mock the frequency or duration, then you're proving my point—that's the reaction of pre-pubescent boys, not thoughtful adults.)

I don't identify as heterosexual; I'm simply attracted to people of the opposite sex. I identify as a rational, civilized human being who will reserve the details of my most intimate moments for personal rather than public consumption. I seek to view other people in the same way. Those campaigning for the pelvic issues aren't advancing civilization, they're regressing from it.

Image courtesy Gnhn. Licensed via the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Share-Alike CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Does Religion "Fly You Into Buildings"?


Physicist and anti-theist Victor Stenger famously claimed "Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings." This kind of throwaway line is standard fare for the new atheist types and is often repeated via memes shared on social media sites. Stenger isn't the only one who thinks religion is a way to manipulate others into doing immoral acts. Sam Harris claimed "One of the most pernicious effects of religion is that it tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not."1

I'm not sure how Harris concluded that religion divorces morality from suffering. If he were a true student of world religions he would recognize that the question of human suffering is the primary focus of most faiths. Hindus seek to be come closer to the divine, eliminating the suffering associated with the cycle of reincarnation. Buddhists teach balance to avoid pain and suffering. Islam holds suffering as Christianity focuses on eliminating suffering by eliminating sin and its consequences. While I don't agree with the underlying assumptions of other faiths, it is disingenuous to say that religion divorces morality from suffering. The problem of human suffering is front and center in religious faith.

What about Jihadists?

 So how do we explain the ISIS or Al Qaeda suicide bombers then? Isn't it obvious that such horrendous acts are religiously motivated? I would say it's true only in part. Islam is a faith that offers Muhammad as its exemplar—the model Muslim to which all others should aspire. Muhammad was a warrior who slaughtered innocents and the famous "sword verses" of the Qur'an commands the faithful to "slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush." (Sura 9:5) and "When you encounter the unbeliever, strike off their heads until you have made a great slaughter among them" (Sura 47:4). Also, the Qur'an promises a reward to the warrior who dies in his fight for Islam: "So let them fight in the way of God who sell the present life for the world to come; and whosoever fights in the way of God and is slain, or conquers, We shall bring him a mighty wage" (Sura 4:74).

Because Islam offers both the commands of the Qur'an and the example of Muhammad, it allows for jihadists to kill themselves while killing the enemy in the name of martyrdom. But that doesn't mean suicide terrorism is the first resort of Muslims. In fact, it turns out that suicide terrorism isn't a historically popular strategy for followers of Islam. Robert Pape in his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism notes that there were no suicide attacks by Muslims or any other groups from 1945 to 1980. From 1980 through 2003, Pape catalogued 315 suicide terrorism campaigns around the world with 462 individual suicide terrorists.2 Pape notes that "every suicide campaign from 1980 to 2003 has had as a major objective –or as its central objective—coercing a foreign government that has military forces in what they see as their homeland to take those forces out." 3Pape concludes, "The bottom line, then, is that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation."4 So, politics and power are the real motivation for terrorist campaigns. It thrives in Islam because the belief system doesn't contradict its use.

What about the Destructive Power of Science?

The biggest problem with Stenger's quip is it is so self-selective. It gives a rosy picture of science by the example of one of our greate3st achievements and then contrasts it with one of our greatest horrors. But it isn't "science" that flies us to the moon. It's human beings who do that. Science allows human beings to understand thrust and gravity. It is a tool to help us accomplish whatever goals we have. Humans used science to develop the planes that Stenger seems to be so worried about, but he doesn't mention that. We use science to construct better weapons, too, producing some of them most incredible destructive powers on earth. Without science, we would never have had a Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  And without religion, we would never have a Mother Theresa or a Father Damien.

The Golden Rule and the concept of the Good Samaritan find their origin in Christianity.  Dr. Alvin J. Schmidt explains that it was the teachings of Jesus that "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."5

Harris and Stenger's comments not only show their bias, but they are demonstrably wrong. They have simply created straw men in order to easily knock them down. Perhaps if they showed a little more Christian charity toward those with whom they disagree, they wouldn't be so nasty and could see things a bit more clearly.

References

1. Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.
2. Pape, Robert Anthony. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House, 2005. Print. 14-16.
3. Pape, 2005. 42.
4. Pape, 2005. 23.
5. Schmidt, Alvin J. How Christianity Changed the World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. 8.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Atheists: Thor is not a Rational Substitute for God



Yesterday, I responded to a common atheist claim that one cannot prove a universal negative. But can one really prove that something does not exist, especially when that thing is mystical or other-worldly? For example, one atheist responded to the idea that a personal God was the best explanation for the beginning of the universe with "I think Thor is the best explanation. My claim isn't falsifiable." He seems to think that by invoking the name of a Norse god instead of the Christian God he has made an equally valid claim, but he hasn't. Of course the claim that Thor is responsible for the creation of the universe is falsifiable. Let's see how.

The Properties and Attributes of Thor

How do you identify a person? If you send your spouse to pick up your old friend at the airport, whom they've never met, you will describe that person to them. You may say, "My friend's name is Dan. He's 5'9", dark hair, mustache, and will be wearing a black coat carrying a green suitcase. These attributes help identify Dan. Certainly, they aren't exhaustive, but by providing a description to your spouse, you are helping your spouse eliminate a great number of other individuals coming out of the airport. The right person to place in your car must have at least these attributes.

When our atheist invokes the name Thor instead of God, what does he mean? Is he pointing to the same being under a different name? No, because the Thor and Yahweh, the God of the Bible, have different attributes. For one thing, Thor is not eternal. He is the son of Odin and Jord, other Norse gods.1 Norse gods can and do die and Thor is capable of dying. Thor also must experience the passage of time.  As Tolkien states, "In Norse, at any rate, the gods are within Time, doomed with their allies to death. Their battle is with the monsters and the outer darkness. They gather heroes for the last defence."2  Notably, Thor isn't all powerful. In "The Lay of Thrym" from the Poetic Edda, Thor loses his hammer to the lord of the giants who has hidden it from him and Thor is forced to pretend to be a bride in order to retrieve it.3 In the poem, Thor is presented as an exaggerated human, who eats and drinks, but is a material entity.

The God of the Bible holds none of those limitations. He is eternal and everlasting, sitting outside of time. He is all powerful. He cannot be killed and he cannot be forced to do something or have a foe who overpowers him. Yahweh is definitely not Thor.

Why Thor cannot create the universe

While it's clear that Yahweh and Thor are different beings, it is also because of Thor's limitations that we can falsify the claim that Thor is responsible for creating the universe. When we seek to answer the question of the universe's beginning, we are trying to explain the origin of all material existence, of space itself, and of time. Why there is space-time and matter are what needs explaining. However, Thor cannot be the explanation for all matter space and time since Thor himself is material, is subject to time, and has a beginning. He sits within a spacial dimension, as the loss of his hammer (hidden "eight leagues deep in the earth") indicates. Therefore, Thor cannot be the explanation of the universe for Thor, if he exists, is part of the universe that needs explaining! The atheist's claim is clearly falsifiable using the basic rules of logic. Any attempt to change Thor's attributes b the atheist would mean that we are no longer talking about Thor, just as any attempt by my spouse to look for a clean-shaven man who is 5'11" would mean she's no longer searching for my friend.

It is reasonable to ask the questions "Why is there something rather than nothing?" It is reasonable to ask "How did all this get here?" It is not reasonable to think invoking Thor is an equally viable explanation to the Christian God. To answer such questions with "Thor" is clearly to not answer them at all and those who wish to be taken seriously should think a little harder before doing so.

References

1. "Thor." Encyclopedia Mythica. 2017. Encyclopedia Mythica Online. 08 Feb. 2017 http://www.pantheon.org/articles/t/thor.html.
2. Tolkien, J. R. R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Library Editions, 1936. Print. 26.
3. "The Lay of Thrym." translated by D. L. Ashliman. Professor D. L. Ashliman. University of Pittsburgh, 2009. Web. 08 Feb. 2017. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/thrym.html.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

How to Prove the Nonexistence of Something



Atheists commonly claim that they bear no burden of proof since one cannot prove a negative. A couple of years ago, I debated Richard Carrier on the question "Does God Exist?" Given this was a question and not a proposition, each party bears an equal burden of proof in asserting his claim; I must provide evidence for why I believe God exists and Carrier must provide evidence for why he believes God does not. Yet, a lot of atheists felt that I should shoulder the burden is such a debate. "How do you prove the non-existence of something? That's ridiculous" exclaimed one commenter. In fact, proving universal negatives is important, and something we do all the time in other contexts.

The idea that a universal negative is unprovable is what Steven D. Hales calls "a principle of folk logic," not rigorous thinking. Hale writes:
Among professional logicians, guess how many think that you can't prove a negative? That's right: zero. Yes, Virginia, you can prove a negative, and it's easy, too. For one thing, a real, actual law of logic is a negative, namely the law of non-contradiction. This law states that that a proposition cannot be both true and not true. Nothing is both true and false. Furthermore, you can prove this law. It can be formally derived from the empty set using provably valid rules of inference. (I'll spare you the boring details). One of the laws of logic is a provable negative. Wait… this means we've just proven that it is not the case that one of the laws of logic is that you can't prove a negative. So we've proven yet another negative! In fact, ‘you can't prove a negative' is a negative—so if you could prove it true, it wouldn't be true! Uh-oh.1
Hale goes on to explain that any proposition that is stated as a positive (i.e. "God exists") can also be restated as a negative ("it is not true that God doesn't exist.")

Understanding What We Mean by Prove

I agree with Hale that a lot of misunderstanding isn't in what counts for or against evidence, but a misunderstanding of what the word prove actually means. It seems that a lot of atheists mean prove in an incontrovertible sense, meaning something that is 100% certain. But assuming one must provide complete certainty before believing a proposition is itself illogical. Imagine you have a nasty infection but refuse to receive penicillin because no one can prove with 100% certainty it will be effective for you. Is such a stance rational? Of course not.

Hale offers the example that when we eat our lunch, we assume it will be nourishing and not deadly. We use our inductive reasoning to make that conclusion and we are justified in calling it knowledge, even if there are outlier examples of people being poisoned.

Because Christians argue inductively for God, this is the kind of proof they offer. One can similarly argue inductively for the non-existence of God, just as one can for the non-existence of invisible pink unicorns, like I've done here. So, asking for proof of God's non-existence is not ridiculous. It is actually very rational.


References

1. Hales, Steven D. "Thinking Tools: You Can Prove a Negative." Think 4.10 (2005): 109. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.  https://departments.bloomu.edu/philosophy/pages/content/hales/articlepdf/proveanegative.pdf

Monday, January 30, 2017

Scientists Have Created Human-Pig Hybrids. So Now What?



It can happen during busy news cycles that some of the more important stories are missed. That may have been the case last week as scientists announced they had successfully created a human-pig chimera embryos in what was called a "first proof" of concept by the BBC. According to the report, scientists were able to inject human stem cells into a newly-formed pig embryo and then implanted the embryo into a sow, allowing it to grow for 28 days. They then looked to see whether the human cells were growing before destroying the embryo.

The ultimate goal in these tests is not to develop some kind of hybrid monster, but to be able to grow human organs in animals for eventual transplant to patients whose organs are failing. In this specific experiment, the embryos would be considered less than one-ten thousandth human. Still, it marks the first time functioning human cells have been observed growing inside a large animal, according to Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte of the Salk Institute, causing other researchers to describe the published findings as "exciting."

More Questions than Answers

I think this report is important for some very specific reasons. First, the idea of a human-pig chimera is shocking. It opens a lot of questions about humanity and our technical abilities. The report made it clear that this research is highly inefficient and would take many years to develop more fully. But the BBC report also noted this kind of research is "ethically charged" and offered a one-sentence disclaimer stating "There was no evidence that human cells were integrating into the early form of brain tissue." 1

The fact that our technology is progressing faster than our ability to place it in its ethical context is the biggest takeaway from the story. For those who hold to moral pragmatism—meaning the ends justify the means—then it makes sense to do whatever one wants in order to achieve a desired goal. Burt pragmatism isn’t real morality; it simply says the ends justify the means, which is a position used by tyrants.

How Science Cannot Account for Morality

More interestingly to me is the fact that the chimera research is a clear example of how science cannot answer all the important questions. Prof. Belmonte, who was o0ne of the researchers on the project was clear that at this time they were not allowing the embryos to grow longer than one month, as that’s all they needed to confirm development t of human cells in the pigs:
One possibility is to let these animals be born, but that is not something we should allow to happen at this point.

Not everything that science can do we should do, we are not living in a niche in lab, we live with other people - and society needs to decide what can be done.2
I’m glad to see a bit of caution in Belmonte’s words. He’s right to say not everything science can do it should. The statement really rebuts new atheists like Sam Harris, who famously argued in his book The Moral Landscape that science itself can be the foundation of morality. Well, here’s the science. Where does the morality come from? How would Harris ground any kind of moral reasoning as to whether we should do what we can do in this instance? Should we mix human and pig cells even more? What if human and pig brain cells were combined?

Ultimately, this shows that science can only tell us what is possible, not whether it should be. Moral reasoning must come a moral lawgiver, not from the fact that something can be done. Otherwise, we’ll all be left with a real Frankenstein’s monster of moral values.

References

1. Gallagher, James. "Human-pig 'chimera Embryos' Detailed." BBC News. BBC, 26 Jan. 2017. Web. 27 Jan. 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38717930.
2. Gallagher, James. 2017.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Can Evolution Produce Objective Morality?



For the most part, people intuitively understand that moral concepts are real and they produce certain duties and obligations for each of us. For example, torturing small children for the fun of it is objectively wrong. It doesn't matter in what culture or time one is living, to inflict pain for one's own pleasure is simply evil. Each person has an obligation to a) not act in such a way himself and b) to do all that's in his power to stop someone else from so doing. This is what I mean by morality being objective and carrying obligations.

But who is that obligation to? An obligation implies one is beholden to another, and if there is no God to whom I must offer an account of my actions, then how does that obligation attach itself to my actions? As I've argued before, objective moral values only make sense if God exists. There must be a lawgiver to whom we are accountable if the laws of right and wrong are to hold any force, otherwise the very concepts of good and evil make no sense.

As you can imagine, grounding morality in God becomes a problem for the atheist. When confronted with the dilemma, those who don't believe in God will choose one of two paths. Some reject the idea that morality is objective. They believe that morality is simply cultural and relative. However this kind of thinking, when pushed to its logical conclusion, produces really scary results, such as the one girl I spoke with who ultimately said it would be OK for someone to rape her sister.

Others recognize that torturing babies for fun is objectively wrong, but deny that God is necessary for objective right and wrong to exist. Usually, they claim objective moral values can arise from evolutionary means to advance the human species. Such an argument is offered by Ronald A. Lindsey here. While Lindsey is pretty careful to unpack the various issues involved and generally fair, I think he ultimately fails to make his case.

The Products of Morality

Lindsey defers to tackle the "Why should I be moral?" question initially. Instead, he ask "What is it that morality allows us to do?" then answers, "Broadly speaking, morality appears to serve these related purposes: it creates stability, provides security, ameliorates harmful conditions, fosters trust, and facilitates cooperation in achieving shared and complementary goals. In other words, morality enables us to live together and, while doing so, to improve the conditions under which we live."1

The claim that being moral improves our living in community is true. But that doesn't make moral values objective. A potentate who slays his enemies while criminalizing murder by his subjects can get a lot done. One can live just fine in a world where one set of laws applies to a small privileged class while the majority of the populous must abide by a different set of laws, such as ancient Rome where infanticide and gladiatorial games did not hinder them from becoming the most advanced civilization of their day.

The Thorny Issues of Morality

Of course, Lindsey has limited himself to the easiest aspects of moral obligation: theft, murder, and such. What he fails to tackle are the more complex aspects of moral obligation. For example, if the evolutionary survival of the human species is the primary function of morality, then homosexual unions are a detriment to that goal. Homosexual unions reduce the number of capable individuals who can reproduce. How does Lindsey's definition answer the question "should we clone human beings?" How does it answer the question of whether we should forcibly take organs from death row inmates to help the innocent? Here is where an outcomes-based morality shows its weaknesses.

Even if it may be shown that the survival value of humanity increases as our currently understood, who is to say that humanity should survive at all? I've often asked those who point to evolution as the answer to moral grounding "why do you think humanity should continue? That may be your preference It may be what you'd like, but I'm not obligated to act in accord with your desires. Maybe humanity had its run. Maybe we should detonate the nuclear bombs and let the cockroaches have their shot." The whole problem here is when one uses worlds like "should" or "improves the quality," that person is already ascribing some objective value to the proposition. It becomes question-begging.

At the close of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities stands the famous quote spoken by Sydney Carton, awaiting his death: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." Being moral can sometimes mean outcomes that are not better. The outcome could be worse in terms of survival, economic impact, or by any other cultural measure. Sometimes, acting rightly is done for its own sake. If there is a God to whom we find ourselves accountable, this makes sense. But evolutionary advantage is simply incapable of giving those actions any meaning at all.

References

1. Lindsey, Ronald A. "How Morality Has the Objectivity That Matters-Without God." Council for Secular Humanism. Council for Secular Humanism, 14 July 2014. Web. 25 Jan. 2017. https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/5640.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why Believing in Miracles is Not Illogical



When Christians believe in miracles, are they being irrational? A recent Pew Research article entitled "Why America's 'nones' left religion behind" held this interesting quote:
About half of current religious "nones" who were raised in a religion (49%) indicate that a lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many respondents who mention "science" as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said "I'm a scientist now, and I don't believe in miracles." Others reference "common sense," "logic" or a "lack of evidence" – or simply say they do not believe in God.1
There's a whole lot in that paragraph to unpack. However, the claim that faith is somehow against logic caught my eye. Just how would Christianity be illogical? One claim made by atheists is that believing in miracle accounts like those presented in the Bible is itself illogical.

The charge that believing in miracles is illogical as a long history, and most will point to David Hume's famous essay "On Miracles" in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, he makes this charge:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle.2

What is a Miracle?

I think Hume makes two mistakes in his assertion above. First, his definition of a miracle, while widely repeated, is simply wrong. It isn't what Christians believe. Miracles are not violations of the laws of nature, but God's direct interaction to suspend his natural laws, which is a big difference.

To clarify, one must understand what we mean when we use the term natural law to begin with. A natural law is simply the way certain portions of the material world work. For example, any two objects will be attracted to one another and that attraction multiplies based on how much mass the objects have and is inversely proportionate to how far away they are. The bigger the objects and the closer they are, the greater the attraction. This is what is known as the law of gravity. If I drop a rock, it will fall towards the earth, because the mass of the earth is so big it pulls on the rock more than the rock pulls on it.

To violate the law of gravity, one should see a rock not fall to the earth even though there is nothing impeding its fall. A violation means all things were the same, but the outcome is different. But that isn't what's happening in a miracle, because with miracles we have an additional actor: God. It isn't the case that all things are the same.

This is why miracles shouldn't be considered a violation of a natural law, but God suspending natural law by his power. God is in some way defeating the natural outcome by inserting himself into the mix, just as I can defeat the natural outcome of the falling rock by sticking out my hand and catching it before it hits the ground. Philosopher Richard Purtill agrees. He defines a miracle as "an event in which God temporarily makes an exception to the natural order of things."3 

Given that understanding of what a miracle is, we can create the following argument:

P1: Miracles are not violations of nature's law, but suspensions of nature's laws.
P2: If God created nature's laws, God can suspend nature's laws.
P3: God created nature's laws.

C1: Therefore, God can suspend nature's laws.
C2: Therefore, God can perform miracles.
So, miracles are not in themselves illogical if God exists and he created the universe with its natural laws. For miracles to be illogical, the premise that such a God exists must be shown to be false. That means those who reject God because of the illogic of miracles are actually begging the question! They are assuming God doesn't exist to prove God doesn't exist. That's the truly illogical position to take.

References

1. Lipka, Michael. "Why America's 'nones' Left Religion behind." Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 24 Aug. 2016. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/.
2. Hume, David. "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding." The Harvard Classics: English Philosophers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. New York: P.F. Collier & Sons, 1910. 1909–14
3. Purtrill, Richard L. "Defining Miracles." In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Action in History. By R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1997. 62. Print.
Image courtesy Ghost of Kuji and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

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