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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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Showing posts with label existence of God. Show all posts
Showing posts with label existence of God. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The Objective Nature of Beauty



In my last article, I said that we live in a beauty-starved culture and one overlooked aspect of sharing our faith is appealing to the beauty of God and the beauty of the Christian story. Beauty is one of the three primary virtues, along with Goodness and Truth. Each of these is grounded in God's existence. When we talk about what is moral or immoral, we necessarily assert an objective starting point. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, one cannot call something crooked unless one knows what a straight line is.

Is beauty something objective like morality or truth? Most people have been taught to think it isn't. We've heard phrases like "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and assumed that it means there is no objective standard, no "Straight line" against which to judge something as beautiful. We've assumed that the statement "that is beautiful" is the same as "I derive pleasure from experiencing that."

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is an objective nature to beauty and it is common to all humanity. Can you even picture anyone across time who would gaze at a prismatic sunset and be revolted? Is anyone of the people who come from around the world to take in the vistas of the Grand Canyon repulsed at the sight? All cultures have approached pattern, color, and art to beautify their lives in common ways.

Disinterested Interest

The primary difference between personal pleasure and beauty is that the beauty of a thing lies in the existence of beauty in itself, instead of just what we can get out of that thing. Roger Scruton makes this distinction well. He points to Immanuel Kant's use of the idea of an "interested approach" versus a "disinterested approach." An "interested approach" is when we are interested in a thing when we use that thing to satisfy our own desires. For example, we are interested in a roller coaster because of the thrill it conveys when we ride in it.

But a disinterested interest is something different. That's when we are interested in the thing for nothing more than the thing itself. Scruton explains:
Animals have only 'interested' attitudes: in everything they are driven by their desires, needs and appetites, and treat objects and other animals as instruments to fulfill those things. We, however, make a distinction in our thinking and behavior, between those things that means to us, and those things that are ends in themselves. Towards some things we take an interest that is not governed by interest but which is, so to speak, entirely devoted to the object. (Emphasis in original).1
No one looks to a sunset as a means to another end. To experience a glorious sunset is to experience the beautiful. Even though the experience itself gives one pleasure, it isn't the fact that looking at the sunset is pleasurable that makes it beautiful. Imagine a man who has just been fired from his job. His wife calls him outside to look at the beautiful sunset and he obliges, even though he doesn't feel like doing so. Staring at the sky, he doesn't experience the joy that she does. He's too depressed. However, no one in such a position could honestly define the sunset as ugly. One may not be able to experience the transcendence of beauty because of one's emotional state, but even in this situation, one recognizes that it is a beautiful site.

That's what I mean when I say there is a disinterested interest in beauty. The beauty of the sunset didn't change subjective to the man's experience of it; the man simply missed the joy that comes with appreciating the beautiful, just has if he stayed inside. If pressed, he would admit the sunset is beautiful but he can't "get into" it right now.

Beauty is objective. It is not a means to an end; it is to be enjoyed for its own sake. That makes the pursuit of the beautiful, like the pursuit of the good and the true valuable. As human beings, we know this intuitively, which is why beauty permeates all cultures.

In my next article, I will show how the fact that beauty is objectively real points to the existence of God.

References

1. Roger Scruton. Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 22. Print.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Demanding Scientific Proof for the Soul is Like Valuing a Sunset by Its Price Tag



I recently had a discussion with an atheist on where we debated the reality of the soul. During a Twitter exchange, I had mentioned the soul as a real entity. Here’s the first part of that exchange:

@comereason: Never discount the witness of the soul.

@chipsalonna: True. One should discount the soul itself until such time as its existence is proven.

@comereason: Just what do you mean when you say "proof"?

@chipsalonna: Actual evidence. Hard data. Good, peer-reviewed scientific efforts. That kind of thing. Not anecdotes. Not stories. Not feelings.

@comereason: So you want to only use materialistic tests to prove the existence of an immaterial object. And you think that's rational?

@chipsalonna: If you have verified procedures/tests for proving immaterial things exist, I'm all ears. If you don't, why should I believe the soul exists?

As you can see, my interlocutor didn’t see the inherent problem with his criteria for proof of the soul. If the soul is an immaterial entity, asking for material proof helps you in no way at all. He wants "verified procedures/tests" as proof. But what does that mean? The phrase implies that he’s still looking for some kind of scientific way to prove the soul’s existence. But science is a discipline that only informs us about the material universe. It can never test for things like good and evil, whether someone is in love, what the experience of the color blue is, or whether immaterial entities exist.

One way to think about this is to remember the premise of the film The Matrix. There, people were unknowingly trapped inside what would be considered an incredible virtual reality world. They believed they were free, experiencing the sun on their faces or walking down the street when in reality electrodes were feeding their brains with stimulus from a computer program to make them believe their experiences were real.

If we were to see the scientists trapped in the Matrix, we’d see them doing experiments and obtaining results. They would be drawing conclusions from these verified procedures and tests. But the tests themselves weren’t real because the world the scientists believe they inhabit isn’t real. The test results are part of that virtual reality program, and as anyone who has played video games can attest, the laws written in the program can violate those of the real world but still make sense within the program itself.

This does not mean there are not convincing forms of evidence for the existence of the soul. The fact that we have thoughts prove that immaterial things like minds exist and we can know that our minds are not our brains. We can show the soul’s existence through both logical argument and direct experience. Asking for scientific proof for the soul or for other immaterial things like God’s existence is a clear category error, akin to asking for the monetary value of a sunset. The sublime experience of a sunset is not something one can measure in financial terms. Economics is simply not the right discipline regarding the nature of beauty. If your criteria for believing in the immaterial is to be shown material proof, then your criteria is irrational.

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.

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

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.

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.

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 give 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.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Intellectual Cowardice behind 'Agnostic Atheists'



For certain questions, the answer seems so obvious they feel ridiculous to ask. Questions like: "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" Or (usually asked after you've rammed into something and are doubled over in pain) did that hurt? The answers for each are pretty evident.

What about the question "How Just how much meat do vegetarians eat?" This question strikes one to be much like the others, with the answer being "None, of course!" But in reality that isn't the case. A 2003 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that two thirds of those who self-identified as vegetarians ate meat, fish, or poultry on at least one of the two specific days they were polled on.1A Daily Beast article cites other studies with similar findings.2

It may seem bizarre those who eat meat on a semi-regular basis would identify themselves as vegetarians or vegans, but as the author of the Daily Beast article, himself a vegan , states: "some vegetarians like the taste of meat, and we sometimes do things we want to do even when we know we shouldn't."3



This is all nonsense. As I've explained before, the term agnostic atheist is self-contradictory. The theist believes in some type of God, the atheist does not believe in some type of God, and the agnostic makes no claim either way; he neither believes nor denies God's existence. His answer is a simple "I don't know." The so-called agnostic atheists try to claim that while the term atheist describes the beliefs of a person, the term agnostic describes the knowledge claim of the person. They do this by abusing the term agnostic by breaking it down to its Greek gnosis which translates into the English knowledge. I've explained all of this in my article.

I bring this up to prove a point; sometimes people will use labels for themselves that are not true to reality but as a way of expressing what they would like the facts to be. That's what I'm finding with a relatively recent movement with the atheist community. Within the last five years or so there has been a growing number of people who define themselves as "agnostic atheists." They claim to be agnostic in that they don't know if a God exists but an atheist because they don't believe a God exists. They even use cute little drawings to demonstrate their point.

Dodging the Need to Support a Belief

So, why would atheists begin to try and change the meaning of agnosticism and atheism to be somehow compatible? What is the advantage? Simply put, the so-called agnostic atheists don't want to bear the burden of proving what they believe. By claiming that they believe in no God but they don't know whether or not He exists, they think they have removed themselves from having to justify their non-belief. "I can lack a belief in God, but I don't claim to have any knowledge of a god or Gods' existence" is the way many would frame it.

Such statements are intellectually cowardly. If anyone claims any kind of believe and also claims he or she has no basis for that belief is to say the belief is entirely ungrounded and may be disregarded. The so-called agnostic atheist will quickly respond "I didn't claim a belief, I said I lacked belief." Ah, but that's a poor attempt at dodging the question. As I argue here, any reasonable aware person understands the concept of God, the concept of ultimate beginnings, and the fact that effects have causes. By claiming to be an atheist, they are negating the claim that God does exist. They aren't neutral but they are saying "I have heard of this concept of God and my belief holds it isn't true." Thus they are making a claim of their own and they need to provide evidence for why they disbelieve the theist's claim.

An intellectually honest person who has no knowledge of something would say he doesn't believe one way or another. For example, I don't follow baseball, so if two baseball fans who disagreed asked me who I think was going to win the World Series next season, I would be agnostic on the question; I have no belief on the subject. But if they both provided me with relevant information and their reasoning, I can make a decision based on that knowledge. It may not be a great decision due to my lack of experience, but I can at least tell them which in my mind is the more likely conclusion based on what I now know. At that point, I am no longer agnostic. I have reasons upon which to base my belief. This is all explained in my article "If You Want to be Reasonable, Then You May Have to Believe."

To be a true vegan and shun the consumption of all animal products is really tough. It requires dedication and sacrifice. You can't honestly call yourself a vegan if once a week you indulge in a juicy In-n-Out Double Double. Similarly, the person who uses the term "agnostic atheist" is trying to have it both ways. He or she wants to deny God's existence, but doesn't want to bear any burden for the justification of that disbelief. The so-called agnostic atheist is hoping push all of the work onto the theist. But that isn't reasonable. Any moderately intelligent person understands the concept of God and at least some of the reasons for why people believe he exists. They should have the intellectual honesty to at least stand up for their own non-belief.

References

1. And, Ella H Haddad. " What Do Vegetarians in the United States Eat?" American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. American Society for Clinical Nutrition. 01 Sept. 2003. Web. 01 Dec. 2016. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/626S.full.
2. Chituc, Vlad. "Why Drunk Vegetarians Eat Meat." The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, 10 Oct. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2016. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/10/11/why-drunk-vegetarians-eat-meat.html.
3. Chituc, Vlad. 2015.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Five Reasons Why God's Hiddenness is a Good Thing



"If God exists, why doesn't he make himself more obvious?" I've heard this question countless times from atheists and skeptics of Christianity. They seem to think that what is known as the hiddenness of God is an argument against his existence. Many claim one should only accept what they have evidence to believe. Of course, you may then ask what evidence they've examined which proves that criteria is true, the lack of which highlights the arbitrariness of applying their own principle.

However, God's hiddenness is an important point to consider for even Christians struggle with God feeling distant at times causing believers to become unsure of what God's will could be for this or that particular situation. If God wants his faithful to follow him, why doesn't he make himself and his desires more obvious?

The hiddenness of God is actually important. God doesn't simply want us to believe he exists. James tells us even the demons believe and tremble. He wants us to trust him and form a deep bond with him. I can think of five ways God's hiddenness benefits us through trust:

1. In order for love to be real, one must have some trust in the beloved.

First, because we recognize that God is the creator of humanity, it doesn't do for humans to demand evidence from him. It would be as inappropriate for us, as children of God, to demand proof of God's actions as it would be a young child demanding proof that her parents are not torturing her because of their demand to have her eat her vegetables or to not cross the street alone. Such a child is self-centered and spoiled.

Human nature is such that disobedience will manifest itself in all children. Human beings in their fallen state naturally become selfish and demanding. Maturity may be measured in deferring one's current desires for a better outcome down the road. God knows trust must be practiced to become mature, and trusting God helps us develop that virtue.

2. Trust allows us to develop an honest relationship with God

Imagine a man who marries an attractive woman, one who seems to be hit upon by almost every man she meets. Right after marriage, he continually tracks her whereabouts via her cell phone's GPS, he places hidden cameras in her car and in the home, and makes her prove that she hasn't had an affair.

What kind of relationship would they have? Does such a man truly love this woman, or does he simply want to control her? Surely she can provide evidence to her husband that she hasn't been unfaithful, but that isn't a loving relationship. His love for her is better reflected I his trust that she is devoted to him. Similarly, trust is the key to faith for the Christian. It shows that we are committed to him in a loving relationship, one where he has made himself real through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, in his written word, and in the witness of the Spirit in our hearts. As we devote ourselves to him, trusting him more and more, our relationship with him grows more deeply.

3. Trust allows us to survive the dark times

We live in a fallen world where each of us will face difficulties. The person who trusts God and his word has confidence that such difficulties are able to be overcome. A believer can more bravely face his trials knowing that God is sovereign over them and that "the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom 8:18).

Without trust, one is faced with desperation and despair. Dark times test the trust one has in God and can steel their hearts to trust him.

4. Trust allows us to be more effective in our walk with God

Trust allows us to be effective Christians in the world. As a hockey fan, I know that a team needs trust to succeed. The forwards must trust their defense in order to be aggressive enough to rush the net. The defense, in order to block the player coming down the center, must trust their goalie to stop the outside shots. Everyone on the team has to trust their training and coaching to execute plays properly.

Likewise, Christians who are the most effective for the kingdom are those who trust that God will help them with the tasks he has called them to do. They can take some risks, they can work through the difficult times with the hope of better days and they can see how much God has done for them to this point.

5. Trust allows us to be blessed by God's faithfulness

To look back over your life and see God's hand working through the tough times and the times of blessing draw us ever closer to our Lord. Jesus said as much to Thomas who, after missing the Lord's first appearing, wanted to see the evidence of his crucifixion before he would believe. Thomas asked for no evidence that Jesus hadn't already provided the other disciples. Yet, when Jesus then appeared again he drew a distinction between the demand for evidence and the exercise of faith: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

One final point: only those who trust God have the blessing of seeing their trust rewarded.

When God answers prayer, delivers one from a trial, or provides success in ministry, the one who trusted him can look back and glorify the God who keeps his promises. The blessing of seeing God work to the good of his people is impossible for someone who would never trust that God would make good on his word.

God's hiddenness allows each of us to trust him and grow as human beings. The atheist, like the insolent child, demands that evidence must be presented. But meeting that demand would stultify the person, lessening his ability to grow his relationship with God.

Image courtesy PiccoloNamek and licensed via the Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why God Doesn't Create a World with Less Suffering



Probably one of the most difficult objections a Christian faces to his or her faith is how an all-powerful, all loving God can allow so much suffering in the world. I've talked at length about the Free Will Defense (see the short video here), which is the most common response to the problem of evil.

This means in order for human beings to be free, we must be free to do what is wrong as well as what is right. As I've explained, God cannot do what is logically impossible. That means he cannot make a square circle or a light-filled darkness. To have the ability to freely love God and obey him, an individual must also have the ability to reject God and disobey his laws. If I grant my son the freedom to drive my car while I lock him in his room to prevent him from crashing it, I've certainly not given him freedom. That means if God wants to create free creatures, they simply must be able to do evil acts as well as good ones.

Alvin Plantinga argues in a similar way, arguing if God wanted to create creatures that are significantly free, he must give them the ability to do things that are morally evil. Thus, Planting concludes "The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God's omnipotence nor against His goodness."1

Why Can't an All Powerful God Make People Only Hurt Themselves?

While the Free Will Defense has convinced philosophers that there is no logical contradiction between an all loving, all powerful God and the fact that evil exists in the world, many atheists still object to what they perceive as too much evil or the wrong kinds of evil in the world today. Of course, explaining just how that would play out is a much more daunting task, one the atheist is usually incapable of so doing.

Richard Norman feels that God should have created a world where people are still free, yet if they do evil things, they will only inflict suffering upon themselves.2 In the abstract, this sounds reasonable, but it really isn't. It strikes me that in order for God to create a world where evil acts hurt only the perpetrator, one of three scenarios must exist. The first is that the perpetrator lives in a world where his or her actions have no significant consequence to any other being. Think of a person taking a sword and slicing another in two but when he does so the sword passes through the other person's body like an apparition. We have a good model for this kind of world in the video game area; you may lose your lives and lose the game, but you harm no one else.

But we know that any virtual world isn't as valuable as the real world. We are appalled by those who would shun actual relationships so as to only seek sexual gratification only through virtual reality apparatus. It is because video games don't provide real world consequences for one's actions that we understand them as an occasional pastime activity and not what should be driving and informing our humanity.

The second scenario is to reduce the choices people can make to those that are non-meaningful, save self-destruction. In this case, a person would have no choices available to him or her regarding others. We could not choose who we love, if we love, if we walk, if we work. Everything would be run off a program. The only choice we would have is a "harm thyself" button on our chests. That one we can push, knowing that if one did decide to blow himself up, the machine-maker would immediately replace him with another so no other cog in the wheel would fail. This obviously denies the significant portion of creating a significantly free being, which doesn't make it much of a choice.

We Need Suffering to Be Human

The last option available in order for no one to harm another is a world that I think God could actually construct. That is simply to create a world where every single human being is isolated from one another. If one has no relationship with others, it becomes impossible for any emotional attachments to develop and for one's actions to produce any suffering upon another. In such a world, we would perceive ourselves to be alone. God would basically be creating billions of worlds of single individuals. But again, this robs humanity of one of its distinguishing features—the ability to develop meaningful relationships, empathy, and love for one another.

The fact that people suffer in this world is difficult to understand. However, the fact that it bothers us is hugely valuable. Empathy is part of what makes us human and it is part of what it means to be made in God's image. To be human means to understand that suffering is a bad thing, which requires us to be relational beings who can make free choices. Take away our freedom to choose to do evil and you are left with beings who are less than human.

References

1. Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977. Print. 30.
2. Dr. Norman explained his position on the Unbelievable? radio program "Why does God allow Evil? Clay Jones vs Richard Norman." 21 June, 2014. https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Why-does-God-allow-Evil-Clay-Jones-vs-Richard-Norman
Image courtesy Tripwire Interactive - , CC BY 3.0

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Is Rejecting God a Sign of Rationality or Resentment?



It is natural to believe in God. The vast majority of people throughout most of history and across all cultures have had some kind of belief in the divine. Yet, atheism and agnosticism seem to be on the rise, especially in Western culture. What motivations are causing more and more people to dismiss God as a real option? Is it really a mark of rationality to dismiss the idea of God?

Many atheists I speak with will say that they've come to the conclusion there is no God simply from rational reflection. This is a possibility, but it begs the question as to why throughout the annals of history where we have the writings of so many highly rational people, there haven't been more atheists. It also doesn't explain all the rational people today who do believe in God. Finally, it sounds a bit pretentious to say that one can turn off one's experiences, feelings, and biases and use reason alone to come to such a profound conclusion.

In his book Faith of the Fatherless, Paul C. Vitz claims that people reject God for willful reasons as much as rational ones. Vitz sees their unbelief rooted in part or in whole on their will and attitudes of who God is and how they perceive him. He explains:
Some people reject God and religion because of the awful things that have sometimes been done in the name of God or religion. This unbelief has a basis in reality and can be quite rational. Believers have debated these criticisms, but these criticisms certainly cannot be rejected out of hand. Others reject God and religion because of experiences with pain and suffering or because all they know are very simple-minded teachings about Scripture. Such responses for the unbeliever in question are not irrational, but from the perspective of a serious believer such responses are unjustified by a deeper understanding of the issues.

But, sometimes the various arguments about bad religion disguise or cover up a deeper reason for rejecting God and religion. Some people have an intense hatred and fear of the Good, of the True, and of the Beautiful. All of these are attributed to God and are rather often found in holy, religious people. But why would anyone have such motives? How can this be? Such individuals resent goodness because by comparison they know they are not good, perhaps even quite bad; they resent truth because they prefer lies over the restrictions that follow accepting truth. Many even prefer their own ugliness to others who present or create beauty. They take pleasure in destroying or deconstructing what is good or beautiful or true out of envy and personal resentment.

Finally, there is a most important personal factor, which is perhaps best described as free will. After all, the individual, whatever the cultural and personal pressures favoring or opposing atheism, must ultimately decide which way to go. At any given moment, or at least at many times, every person can choose to move toward, away from, or against God.1
In my experience, factors of resentment and will powerfully motivate a lot of atheists in their unbelief. It explains so many visceral reactions I've encountered with unbelievers who don't simply disbelieve in a divinity, but seem to actually hate the Christian God.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel, who is an atheist, succinctly summarizes the problem in discussing his own non-belief. After drawing distinctions about rejecting religious beliefs and institutions, Nagel confesses it isn't these things that alarm him about atheism:
I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.2
Nagel himself admits it isn't only rationality that undergirds his  atheism. He is honest enough to say he has some emotional motivation as well. He doesn't want there to be a God to whom he is answerable.

To be sure, Christians can believe in God for opposite but reflective motivations. It may not be rationally based reasons why they came to faith but a desire to satisfy an emotional relationship. The rational justification of belief may come afterward. But labeling non-believers as "free thinkers," "brights," or "rationalists" is disingenuous as it is clear non-belief can easily have its origins in emotion and bias.

References

1. Vitz, Paul C. Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. Dallas: Spence Pub., 1999. Kindle. (Kindle Locations 2351-2358).
2 Nagel, Thomas. The Last Word. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print. 130.
Image courtesy Bradley Gordon and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Demanding Evidence for God While Denying Evidence for God



"Not enough evidence!" That's the claim I hear over and over when asking atheists why they don't believe in God. Even when famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he were to come face to face with God after his death, Russell famously replied, "I probably would ask, 'Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?"1

The demand for evidence can seem like reasonable request, but it can also serve as a smokescreen for those who are unwilling to believe. For example, developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert stated he rejected God fairly early in his life because he could find no evidence for God at all. In a radio show where he debated intelligent design with William Dembski, Wolpert said over and over again there is nothing he could see by studying the molecular machinery required for living cells to function that could serve as evidence for any kind of intelligence. Dembski asked "Is there nothing that biological systems can exhibit that would point you to a designer?" Wolpert emphatically replied, "Absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing." 2 This corresponded with his previous statement that "What we know about biology can all be explained in terms of the behaviors of cells."3

Intelligent Messages Hidden in DNA

Is Wolpert's claim true? Is anything one finds in the cell able to be explained by cellular behavior? Earlier in their conversation Dembski alluded to the work of cellular biologist J. Craig Venter. Venter and his team made the headlines at that same time by assembling the DNA for a replicating synthetic bacteria (M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0) one base pair at a time using computers. Singularity University reported, "To verify that they had synthesized a new organism and not assembled the DNA from another natural bacteria, scientists encoded a series of 'watermarks' into the genes" of Venter's bacterial DNA. He coded his own name, a URL address, and other messages.4

Let's now imagine a scenario where in 50 or 100 years, people are catching a strange new disease. Scientists have narrowed the illness to a foreign bacteria that doesn't behave like anything they've ever seen before. Wolpert's students isolate the bacteria in the lab and map its DNA structure to try and find a way to figure out where it came from. There, they find Venter's name encoded in the nucleotide, but because they have adopted Wolpert's standard that nothing inside the cell can count as evidence, they cannot assume there was an initial intelligence behind the origin of this bacteria. Venter's work cannot be counted as evidence because it appears inside the cell, and appealing to an intelligence as the origin of this new bacterial strain is supposedly the science-stopper.

Wolpert's dogmatic stance shows his incredible bias and demonstrates why complaints like his demand for evidence are structured to never succeed. It's a shell game. If the complexity of something like a researcher's name or a URL is sufficient enough to show intelligence behind the genome, then why wouldn't other complex, specific coding sequences also serve as evidence for a designer? Certainly other factors must be considered. However, Wolpert rules out the possibility of finding evidence for design at all within biological systems. To me, that sounds to be the much more unreasonable position to take.

References

1. Rosten, Leo. "Bertrand Russell and God: A Memoir." The Saturday Review. Feb 23, 1974. 25.
2. Brierley, Justiin, William Dembski, and Lewis Wolpert. "2 Jan 2010 - Intelligent Design - William Dembski Debates Lewis Wolpert: Saturday 02 January 2010." Unbelievable? Premier Christian Radio, 2 Jan. 2010. Web. 09 May 2016. At about the 19:30 minute mark. http://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/2-Jan-2010-Intelligent-Design-William-Dembski-debates-Lewis-Wolpert.
3. Brierley, Justin. 2010.
4. "Secret Messages Coded Into DNA Of Venter Synthetic Bacteria." Singularity HUB. Singularity Education Group, 25 May 2010. Web. 09 May 2016. .
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