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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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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.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Atheists Assuming Too Much from Neuroscience


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

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

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

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

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

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

Assumptions Come Crashing Down

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

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

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

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

References

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

Image courtesy Gengiskanhg, CC BY-SA 3.0

Friday, January 13, 2017

Our Concept of Superheroes Comes from Christianity



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Clarifying Objections against Bible Reliability



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

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

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

Two Types of Charges against Scripture

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

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

Accuracy of the Text

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

Fidelity of the Accounts

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

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Why a Beautiful Sunset Argues for God's Existence



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

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

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

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

The objective nature of the beautiful

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

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

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

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

Beauty grounded in God

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

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

References

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

Monday, January 09, 2017

What's the Alternative to the Problem of Suffering?



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

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

Real Natural Evils Do Exist

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

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

The only way to avoid suffering

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

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

Genesis and General Zod

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

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

References

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

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Bioethics in the 21st Century (podcast)



We live in a confusing time. Sex is seen as recreational, while pregnancies are disposable. Then, infertile women will pay thousands of dollars for the latest treatments just to have a child. How should Christians make sense of all the new technologies out there? In this four-part series, Lenny reviews the various challenges in this Brave New World of bioethics.

You can subscribe to the Come Reason podcast via iTunes or through our RSS feed.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Testing for God with Invisible Dragons


In a recent debate between David Wood and Michael Shermer, Shermer put forth Carl Sagan's invisible dragon analogy to try and claim that the idea of an immaterial being is nonsensical. You can read the entire analogy here, but the basic rundown is Sagan proposes that he hears a dragon in his garage that is invisible so you can't see it, it is incorporeal so you can't spray paint it, it is cold-blooded and spews heartless fire, so you can't detect it thermodynamically, and so on. Sagan ends his analogy by asking "Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?"

Sagan and Shermer both think this is some kind of killer analogy. In the debate, Shermer asks, "If it's supernatural, if it's not measurable, then how do you know it's there? You can't just say 'I feel it in my heart' or 'it seems like it should be' or one of these logical sequences of infinite regress. No, no. We need actual empirical evidence." But it's Shermer's last statement that gives him and his position away. Why must the evidence be empirical?

By claiming something must be empirically measurable, Shermer stacks the deck. Only material things can be measured in this way. But there are a lot of things we know that exist that are completely incapable of being empirically measured. The concept of the color yellow, for instance. If I ask you to think about the color yellow, you have a real thought. That thought isn't material, though. It doesn't live in my brain. If one were to be placed in an fMRI machine, the machine may give a very coarse picture of the physical result of thinking of the color yellow, but the thought itself is immaterial.

Love, right and wrong, the number 2, and the laws of logic are all immaterial, but does that mean they are the same, as Sagan would put it, as nothing at all? Of course not! These are real concepts that cannot be measured materially.

However, there exist even certain material entities that cannot be measured empirically. Take electrons or quarks for instance. These are thought to be the fundamental particles of matter, but they are invisible by definition. Similarly, no microscope no matter how powerful will ever be able to photograph an electron, since to "see" one, it must grove off a photon, which causes the electron itself to move to a different orbital. Physicists infer electrons and quarks from other observable effects.

But this is exactly what Christians do with respect to God. They don't just say "there's a God" like Sagan claims of his dragon. They recognize the fact that anything exists at all needs an explanation. (And for Shermer to really avoid an infinite regress, that something must necessarily be eternal by nature.  Dragons don't fit here.) They understand that quantum vacuums are not nothing and these vacuums themselves need an explanation. They see the emergence of consciousness accidentally from non-conscious material as inexplicable. They understand concepts like love and right and wrong are real and in order to be real they need to be grounded in something that transcends people's personal opinion. They know moral laws must come from a moral lawgiver to be prescriptive. Basically, they infer God from the creation He has made and the rational working out of ideas that they recognize.

While God may not be empirically directly measurable, it doesn't mean he isn't detectable. Anyone who is open to the evidence of reason and the created cosmos can see the evidence for God. Shermer would rather build straw men out of invisible dragons. Frankly, I can't see the difference between that and him offering no reasons at all.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Need for Justice and the Problem of Evil



The search for justice runs through all of storytelling. We watch some nefarious villain executing his evil ploy and we hang on the edge of our seats hoping our hero will be victorious. There's something fundamental in the human spirit that wants to see good triumph.

This desire for justice is what attracts us to the adventure quest, like Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. There, Frodo Baggins is given a ring that holds the power of the evil Sauron, who seeks to wield it and rule Middle Earth. Because he bears this ring, Frodo assumes the dangerous responsibility of finding the path to destroy it. Frodo never asked for this assignment; circumstances thrust it upon him. Yet, he knows the quest is vital even if he may lose his life in the process.

In one poignant scene, Frodo is feeling the weight of his choice and laments to Gandalf about the evil Gollum, who is threatening their quest:

Frodo: It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him when he had the chance!
Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo?

Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over.

The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.
Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

In Frodo's complaint, we see a particular instance of the problem of evil. You may have heard someone complain about how a loving God could allow so much evil in the world. Frodo believes the world would be better if Gollum had been killed. It's easy to make the charge that there's too much evil in the world, but we don't know how the story of this world plays out. However, fans know that Gandalf is right; Gollum's existence does figure into the ultimate salvation of the Middle Earth.

Evil Gollum must exist in order for Frodo's quest to succeed and a greater evil vanquished. The Roman executioner's cruelty must also exist for the sacrifice of Jesus to succeed. It isn't a contradiction to say God exists and is in control even if evil hasn't been eliminated. We just haven't gotten to the end of the story.

*This article comes from my chapter entitled "Using Hollywood Blockbusters to Share Your Faith" in Sean McDowell's A New Kind of Apologist. You may purchase a copy here.

Image courtesy bandita and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

Monday, January 02, 2017

The silliness of claiming we were all atheists at birth



There has been a lot of talk in the past few months about "fake news." Fake news stories are those purported by some web site as real and shared by people who want them to be true, but have no basis in fact. They simply help confirm the bias of some group. Usually, the story gets repeated and simply because it appeared "in print" or from a semi-authoritative site it is accepted without question.

But, the phenomenon of believing outlandish claims because they conform to what we want to be true is not new. The Internet just helps to spread them more quickly. For example, take the idea that all people are born atheist. I saw a meme recently picturing a group of babies and a caption that reads "Atheists. Can't you just feel the evil of their ways?" Several show a baby being baptized while exclaiming, "Stop, I'm an atheist!" EvolveFish offers a bumper sticker for sale reading, "You don't become an atheist. You go back to being one." The most popular version takes a more negative tone in claiming "We are all born atheist until someone starts telling us lies."


With all their talk of being rational and "brights," I wonder how anyone in the atheist movement could buy into such a silly charge. No, we are not all atheists at birth. Newborns haven't yet developed the rational capacity for abstract belief. They are only concerned with their immediate needs: eating, discomfort, feeling safe, and the like. To claim that because they lack the capacity to understand the idea of God somehow makes them an atheist is akin to saying because they cannot yet understand the concept of round they must be considered flat-earthers. After all, flat earth believers only reject what they cannot see.

Desperately trying to bear no burden

Of course, one reason for the recent popularity of the claim that babies are born atheist is the desire by a lot of atheists to redefine the term atheism as something that is neutral; a term that makes no claims. But atheism does make claims, just as one who holds to a flat earth is making a claim. The earth must have some shape to it and as a person becomes aware of shapes he or she will no longer be neutral as to what they believe the shape of the earth is. They hold a position.

Similarly, as one becomes aware of the concepts like other minds exist, effects have causes, things that show evidence of design will have a designer, we must be able to explain our own origin, etc., then one will no longer be neutral as to the question of God. The person may not be "all in," that is 100% certain either for or against God's existence, but that doesn't mean he or she isn't making a judgment.

That's why it's impossible to take a position that says "We aren't going to teach our kids about any religion, but we'll let them make up their own minds." By modeling a life where God is meaningless, they are taking a position and they're teaching it to their kids. By claiming all children are atheists "until someone starts telling us lies," one is making a truth claim about God. It isn't neutral!

Atheism makes a knowledge claim about God's existence; therefore, one must teach his or her children there is no God. If atheism were the default position, then history would be littered with civilizations and cultures that were atheistic. But those don't exist. The entire record of human existence clearly shows that human beings have held to the belief there is some kind of divine power to which we owe our ultimate origin. Certainly, many have gotten things wrong—that's another argument. But to claim that all babies are atheists is silly and actually embarrassing for the movement.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Jesus: The Smartest Man Who Ever Lived (podcast)



If you were asked to choose the most intelligent person in history, who would it be? Einstein? Newton? Socrates? What about Jesus? We often think of Jesus as many things, but rarely do we think of him as an intellectual, using reason and logic skillfully. Yet, he did so frequently. In this four-part podcast, you'll hear Lenny explain just how Jesus out-thought his detractors and you'll learn about a underappreciated aspect of his ministry: how he wants us to engage our minds as much as much as our hearts.

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