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

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Falsifiability and Intelligent Design

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

Because of this power to confirm or disprove theories about the way the natural world works, falsification is taken very seriously by the science community. In fact, some scientists hold that without the ability to falsify a theory, you are simply not doing science. 1 Indeed, this charge is very often leveled against those who resist the idea of Neo-Darwinian evolution2, but instead hold that life displays in its existence and construction an underlying intelligence. Wishing to dismiss any idea that a source other than a natural one could produce life, those who claim science as thier gude will simply dismiss any claims or evidence for intelligent design with a wave of a hand.  "It's not falsifiable" they charge and quickly dismisses any evidence the theory provides.3 But they aren't being consistent in the application of their citeria! In making such an objection, the objector has undercut his own view that evolution is science.

If the criteria of falsification is the determining factor of what separates science from non-science, then evolution should be falsifiable; it should be able to be proven incorrect.  But just what does that look like? With Galileo, we know that there's a positive result for his theory (both balls hitting the ground simultaneously) and a negative result (the heavier hitting the ground before the lighter). So, if we speak of evolution as a process NOT created or guided by an intelligence, and such a definition is considered science, the what should we look for to show that the theory is falsified?  Isn't it the fact that life shows intelligence in its creation instead of randomness?

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

References

1. Karl Popper was the leading proponent of using falsification to distinguishing which theories are scientific and which are not.  He believed the concept that Hume had stated where one cannot universally prove a claim, but he saw that one can easily disprove a claim if it fails only one time.  Therefore, to falsify a claim is the heart of science.  See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/popper/#SciKnoHisPre for more.
2. Neo-Darwinian evolution may be defined as a belief that all life has arisen from a single source through unguided mutations coupled with natural selection.
3. Tammy Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District. No. 04cv2688 United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. December 2005. p22.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ritual and Christian Tradition

Today is Maundy Thursday, or the celebration of the Last Supper before the Lord's crucifixion. The term Maundy seems strange to Protestant ears, but it basically means "a new commandment" and is derived from the first word of the Latin version of John 13:34 that reads "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." It was before the Last Supper that Jesus demonstrated His servant approach to love by washing the disciples' feet. He also establishes the sacrament of communion and stated "do this in remembrance of me."


In reflecting on all this, it strikes me that ritual played an important role in the early church. Today, many evangelicals tend to shy away from ritual as some kind of remnant of the old, staid way of the denominational churches. They feel that expressions of faith should be free and heart-felt instead of scripted and that ritual became an empty substitute for a true relational interaction with God.

To some extent I understand this. I've seen more than my share of people who would go through the motions each church service thinking that's all they had to do to remain a "good Catholic" or a "good Episcopalian" or something else. There is a temptation to reduce worship to a series of movements and responses that are just as empty as any script reading.  But I think we overact when we think that ritual has no import in the life of the believer.

Human beings have always marked the most significant changes in their lives with ceremony. Think about the marriage ceremony for a moment. A wedding is one of the most important events in one's life, as it signals the bonding of two persons into a single unit, and we show this through the ritual of exchanging vows and exchanging rings. It makes a difference when you can point to that ceremony, that day, and say "here is when I entered into my new life with my spouse." Marriage is a public profession of love and a public promise of fidelity.

Similarly, Christ gave us the rituals like baptism to also mark the transition into the community of the church. He established communion for reflection on His sacrifice, so we don't forget why we follow Jesus. And He gave us the example of the foot washing to teach us how to treat one another. While many churches will perform a foot washing ceremony today, I believe that Jesus didn't want this to be only a ritual performed once a year. I think that just as our celebration of communion sharpens our focus on His death and sacrifice for us that we can then we carry with us daily, the foot washing needs to help us focus on our service to others that we may perform such on a daily basis as well.

Of communion, Spurgeon said, "Never mind that bread and wine unless you can use them as poor old folks often use their spectacles. What do they use them for? To look at? No, to look through them. So, use the bread and wine as a pair of spectacles—look through them and do not be satisfied until you can say, 'Yes, yes, I can see the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!' Then shall the Communion be really what it ought to be to you." While one would be amiss in only staring at his spectacles, one would be equally amiss in shunning them and having his viewpoint fall out of focus.

I know that I can forget about Jesus washing His disciples' feet all too easily. It's in my nature. To have a bit of ritual as a reminder can do me much good. Let's not be too hasty in throwing out such practices as so much dirty water. For in so doing, we may be tossing the thing that helps us see our relationship with God and our relationships with others more clearly.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Does Easter have Pagan Origins?

This week is known as Holy Week, since it marks the events in Jesus' life between Palm Sunday and Easter morning.  Millions of Christians will be observing the pivotal events of the death of the Savior and celebrating His resurrection on that glorious Sunday morning. I've had people challenge me on the origin of Easter, claiming that its roots are not found in Christianity. 


Here's a fairly typical example sent to me by a skeptic who Google-searched for an objection and copied the page whole. The essay, entitled "Christian Feast Days and Their Relationship to Pagan Holidays," was written by Donna-Lynn Riley for an Intro to World Religions class at North Virginia Community College. The professor liked it so much she reproduced it on the course's page as a resource.

Discussing the origin of Easter, Riley writes:
"For Christians it is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the very name of this holiday shows pagan origin. The term "Easter" has been said to be derived from Estre or Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and dawn. The festival for Eostre was celebrated on the day of the Vernal Equinox, the first day of spring."1
So, Riley claims here that Easter has its origins not in the resurrection of Jesus, but the holiday's very name "shows pagan origin." Really?  Then how did Christianity get started at all? Riley doesn't seem to take into account that Christianity relies on the resurrection for its origin.

Let's first look at the historical context of the events that lead to the beginning of Christianity. As has been clearly shown by the research of Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, the vast majority of New Testaments scholars hold at the very least:
  • Jesus died by crucifixion
  • Very shortly after Jesus' death, His disciples had experiences that led them to believe that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.
  • The Christian persecutor Paul dramatically converted to Christianity. Paul stated the reason for his conversion is because he too experienced the risen Jesus.2
These three facts are held as historical bedrock by scholars who run from the very conservative to the very liberal.  Even atheists who are New Testament scholars will admit these facts. Going one step further, Jesus' death and resurrection are clearly tied to the timeline of the Jewish celebration of Passover. Jesus' last supper (on Holy Thursday) was the Passover meal. Therefore, the celebration of Easter would naturally also be found to be in close proximity to the Jewish Passover feast, which is in the spring.

In writing her paper, Riley took the name of Easter and said the holiday pulls its origins from the "Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and dawn." But even this isn't quite right.  First, Easter existed long before Christianity was introduced to the people of ancient England.  In most of the world the word used for Easter is "Pascha", which is a derivation from the Hebrew word for Passover.3 So if the Anglo-Saxons tried to link Easter celebrations to their spring festival, the pagan origin is a late-comer and the word not found within the majority of Christendom.

But even the existence of the goddess Eostre has been questioned by British history scholars such as Ronald Hutton.  He writes that all the accounts of the label of Easter originating with a goddess are stemming from the monk Bede's writings, published in the eighth century. Hutton writes that the idea of Easter referencing a goddess celebration "falls into that category of interpretations which Bede admitted to be his own, rather than generally agreed or proven fact."4 He goes on to write:
"It is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon 'Estor-monath' simply meant 'the month of opening' or 'the month of beginnings', and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all, or was never associated with a particular season but merely, like Eos and Aurora, with the dawn itself.

"With the removal of this shadowy deity from the canon of historical certainty, there evaporates any reliable evidence for a pre-Christian festival in the British Isles during the time which became March and April. It may be that there was none, the ancient inhabitants being wholly taken up with ploughing, sowing, and caring for young livestock." 5
So, we have the possibility that Easter refers not to a pagan goddess at all, but to the season in which its marked.  And if there was a goddess Eostre, the holiday may not be referring directly to her, but to the name of the month instead. However, we do know that the Pascha celebration dated hundreds of years before the Christianization of the British Isles.

It is evident that Ridley is unfounded in trying to link Easter to any kind of pagan celebration. What's more troubling is that her professor was so enamored with her paper, that she keeps it as a published resource on her Intro to World Religions web page. She should know better.

References

1. Ridley, Donna-Lynn. "Christian Feast Days and Their Relationship to Pagan Holidays." Written Feb. 9, 2003.<http://www.nvcc.edu/home/lshulman/rel232/resource/RileyPaper.htm>.Accessed March 25, 2013.
2. Licona, Michael. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. (Downers Grove, Il.: IVP Academic, 2010). 463.
3. "Pascha" Wiktionary Entry. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Pascha Accessed 3/26/2013.
4. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun:A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). 181.
5. Ibid. 182.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Is Science Against Homosexuality?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
We all know that smoking is hazardous to one's health.  In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put out data showing that when looking as smokers versus non-smokers, smoking is estimated to increase the risk of:
  • coronary heart disease by 2 to 4 times,
  • stroke by 2 to 4 times,
  • men developing lung cancer by 23 times,
  •  women developing lung cancer by 13 times, and
  • dying from chronic obstructive lung diseases (such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema) by 12 to 13 times.[1]
These are pretty compelling numbers and they are enough to cause the U.S. government to require warning labels on every pack of cigarettes sold, the state of California to spend taxpayer dollars on a long-running anti-smoking ad campaign, and folks like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to actively try and dissuade people from taking up smoking.

What if smoking didn't increase the risk of lung cancer by 23 times, but 150 times? Do you think that public health organizations would put forth even more effort to try and curtail the act of smoking? What if it wasn't smoking, but some other act? Would we react just as strongly?

Many people would immediately say either "Yes" or "some may not, but they should!"  After all, the science is on their side, right?  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is one of the pre-eminent health institutions of the world, and they are using the latest in scientific findings to try and promote healthier lifestyles for our citizens. Therefore, we should heed their findings. That's the theory in the abstract, but it doesn't work out that way when the activity under question is one that is politically popular to support.

MercatorNet  recently published an article (h/t WinteryKinght) where they culled several stats from the CDC on how susceptible people are to contracting HIV. The CDC reports that men who have sex with men (MSM as the CDC labels them) are 150 times more likely to contract HIV than the heterosexual male population at large. That means that MSM are engaging in a behavior that is astronomically more likely to cause HIV than smoking is to cause lung cancer, heart disease, or stroke. It's an incredibly serious find.

Do I think that because of the CDC finding that various federal and local governments will immediately generate campaigns and advertisements to dissuade people from even casual same sex intercourse?  Of course it won't, because such a statement is politically incorrect. Correcting the actions to lower the risk are a secondary concern to protecting their reputations as being tolerant of others' lifestyles. I guess tolerance takes on a different meaning when it's a smoker's activity that is being questioned.

I'm sure I will hear simple-minded rebuttals to this post such as "well, no one is born a smoker!" True, but so what? I'm talking about actions, not orientation. We can each control our actions. What about those who claim to be bisexual? Should we try to dissuade them? Should we try to dissuade heterosexual men who are just experimenting? If the answer is "no" then my question is "why not?"

It seems to me that quitting smoking is a very hard thing to do, especially if someone was raised in a household where smoking was ubiquitous, where all their peers expected them to smoke, and they have been smoking for some twenty years now.  We still ask them to quit, and we do so because of the science that shows the risks to themselves as well as the wider society. Why can't we say to the vast majority of men out there that the science shows having homosexual relations is in itself proven to be a high-risk behavior and it should be avoided if at all possible?

In my discussions with atheists, I have many encounters with those who wave the flag of "science ├╝ber alles!" They feel that science is the only way to the future and science is the only thing that is authoritative.  They claim it is only through science that we've left the superstitions of the past behind and we should follow its findings if we want to progress as a species. So here I want to challenge them.  If we should follow science wherever it leads, then let's discourage men having sex with men.  If there are factors other than just the science that mitigate this, then you must admit that and give up on the claim that science is the only guiding principle for the betterment of humanity. Which choice would you like to take?

References

[1] See "Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/effects_cig_smoking/index.htm Accessed 3/26/2013.

Monday, March 25, 2013

What the Kalam Tells Us About God's Existence

From the earliest days of philosophy, it has been noted that you can't get a something from a nothing. Now this is pretty intuitive, right? How can you get a thing out of nothing? Nothing by its very nature is a no-thing. The universe is a created thing. It would seem then that the universe couldn't come from nothing, but had to come from something else. This concept didn't escape a brilliant Catholic philosopher named Thomas Aquinas who lived in the 13th century. He used the idea to build his argument for the existence of God. Aquinas argued that God must be the ultimate cause five different ways, but the biggest one, the one that draws the most attention, is what we call the First Cause.

Aquinas noticed that no matter what you look at, no matter what you see or experience, it is tied to some kind of an event; something happened. A baby is born or a person dies; whatever the event, it will have a cause associated with it. So for example, the fact that I'm alive means there's a cause for the existence of my life. Like our questioner above, Aquinas started working his way backwards. Well, if that had a cause, then this had a cause, and this had a cause… And all of these things we see simultaneously have causes. It may be a single cause, it may be a complex set of causes, but they all have a cause someplace. So there's this huge chain of events that have to lead back somewhere. What was the first cause? So Thomas Aquinas argued that God would be the First Cause. He would be the un-caused cause. And that was his big push for the five ways; God is this un-caused cause.

As I've shown in a previous blog post, the idea that the universe is infinitely old doesn't make sense anymore. Because we can show the universe had a beginning, I want to restate the argument from existence in a way that gives more clarity to what we're really trying to prove.

Given that we can show the universe had a beginning, I want to restate the argument from existence in a slightly different way, one that gives more clarity to what we're really trying to prove. We have already agreed that a thing cannot come from nothing. In saying such, we are also claiming that the "thing" in question has a beginning. So a better way to state our argument is, "Whatever begins to exist has a cause." Put into a formal logical structure, the argument from existence can be framed this way:
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
This is known in logic as a syllogism, which means that if the first two claims are true, then the third sentence must be true. Either the universe began to exist, or it didn't. And if the universe began to exist, it couldn't be caused by nothing (since there's nothing there to make it happen) and it couldn't have caused itself (since it doesn't yet exist). Whatever begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore the universe began had a cause. This specific argument for creation has been known for some time by philosophers, and it even has a name: the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The name may sound daunting, but all we really need to know is the simplicity of the argument.

What we can deduce from the Kalam

Although the argument seems simple, if we unpack it a little bit, you can see how strong the argument really is. Something can either be eternal (no beginning) or it can have a beginning. I think it's pretty clear from the evidence above that the universe had a beginning. If the universe had a beginning, it either began an infinite amount of time ago, or it began some specific amount of time ago. It can only be one or the other. We've already shown that the universe beginning an infinite amount of time ago doesn't make any sense. So the universe had to begin some specific time ago. Therefore, the universe must have a cause.

But we can learn more as we reflect on our understanding of the universe. We can see the cause for the universe can't be material, because all matter is included within what we call the universe. Also, the cause must be outside of time, because according to Einstein, time, space, and matter are all joined together within our universe. That also means that the cause can't have any kind of a spatial dimension either. So we have a cause that's outside time, outside space, and without mass; a cause that is something that may be classified as an eternal spirit. 

We can continue to draw certain inferences about such a cause the more we think about it, and although these are not proofs I think they are interesting in that they do follow logically from what we've already discovered. First, the cause would have to be a mind, not a mere force. I say this because the cause for creation must have some type of will or desire to create; the mechanical laws of nature don't yet exist so a brute force doesn't make sense. In other words, there was a point at which this cause decided, "The universe should be." And the universe was. So although the Kalam Cosmological Argument doesn't necessarily prove the Christian God, it comes pretty close to showing a Creator that is basically an all-powerful mind choosing to act upon nothing who then creates everything.
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