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

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Evolution and the Indian Rope Trick

Last month, I was privileged to be a part of the Great God Debate II: The Origin of Life, which pit atheist Michael Ruse against intelligent design advocate Fazale Rana. In Dr. Ruse's opening statement, he made an argument on what he has labeled the "fallacy of selective attention or illicit focus." It was probably Ruse's most powerful point and he admitted it carried the bulk of his reasoning for why the idea of intelligent design can be dismissed.

Ruse showed a picture of an Indian guru climbing a rope suspended into the sky. This is a well-known illusion called the Indian rope trick. He then states:

"You look at this and you say 'Oh my God! Newton was wrong! Gravity doesn't work.' Hang on a minute, hang on a minute. Of course gravity works. We don't just look at the Indian rope trick in isolation. We take it in context. We ask ourselves, 'Why would we say that the Indian rope trick must be a trick and not magic?' Why do we think that Newton's laws do hold in a case like this? Why do we think that there's something fishy going on here? And the answer of course is that we're not just judging the Indian rope trick on its own, but against the background knowledge that magic simply doesn't work and that Newton's laws do."
(You can see Ruse make this argument here.)

Ruse follows up this analogy by summarizing his argument thusly:
  • We don't just look at it (the cell) and say "Oh my goodness, it is so complex and works so well. It must be designed in a hands-on fashion."
  • We judge the cell against all our knowledge, and that includes our knowledge of evolution through natural selection at the macro level.
Now, I think Ruse is onto something here. He's right that we cannot take the cell in isolation. However, I think when studied carefully his argument actually works against him.

Ruse assumes that when judging the Indian rope trick, all we need to do is appeal to Newton's laws. That's not exactly true. We appeal to our past experience of the world and we find that we never experience a violation of gravity. It is our experience that things, without any external force, will fall to the earth. However, that is exactly the argument that intelligent design proponents are making! In our experience, when we see very complex, information -bearing systems, we understand that an intelligent agent is the cause of those systems. It would be the extraordinary thing to find an information-carrying code that is complex but arose naturally. Cryptographers and archaeologists base their vocations on this principle.

If we expand Ruse's level of examination beyond the cell, we have the same issues. If we look to life, we never see life arising spontaneously from non-living material. Louis Pasteur proved this and we bank on it every time we go to the grocery store. I don't know about you, but I don't want to find new life in my peanut butter jar!

If we judge the cell against ALL knowledge, then our past knowledge of life coming from life and complex information-bearing systems coming from minds are the equivalent of our experience of our past knowledge of how gravity affects ropes and people. It is the evolutionist that seems to be seeking an Indian rope trick explanation for what we now know to be true. And I, for one, am not buying it.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Worldview Definitions: The Problem with Postmodernism

Last time I discussed rationalism and naturalism, two worldviews that changed much of how we perceive our modern world. But naturalism is not the end of the story, even though there are many who hold those views today.

photo courtesy Ben Terrett

Out of the assumptions of naturalism, a new idea began to take hold in the late 19th century and early 20th century, known as the modernist movement. Modernists wanted to not only abandon belief in God, but felt that religious faith was just one of many traditional ideas that were slowing down the advancement of man.

The modernists held that if you don't break from the traditions of the past you will never grow beyond them. This made sense to them; if religion was hindering science, then all past traditions are suspect.  God was no longer a factor in the modernist's day-to-day thinking, so holding onto traditions were at best silly and at worst debilitating. They considered nothing as established or sacred. Social organization and daily life had become outdated and it was essential to sweep them aside and reinvent culture forever. The goal for modernists was to find that which was "holding back" progress, and replacing it with new, and therefore better, ways of reaching the same end.

Postmodernism – "It's all about me"

Modernism  failed to bring the next advancement in human evolution some of its adherents thought it would. Wars were still fought:World War II was the largest conflict in history and originated in Europe, the birthplace of modernism. People still took advantage of each other. Cruelty and crime continued to flourish no matter what advancements science and technology brought about.

Rationalists and modernists hadn't realized the impact  factoring God out of the equation would have on society. In factoring out God, they also factored out the concept of sin. They thought human beings had it within themselves to make themselves better. But the Bible teaches that we are inescapably corrupted by a sin nature. We cannot live perfect lives, it's simply impossible. Since modernists had already excluded God from any explanation as to why their utopia was failing to materialize they had to come up with another way of looking at the world. Their proposed solution is Postmodernism.

Modernism held that in order to advance one must throw out past traditions. However, one thing that modernism did hold onto, like all previous worldviews, was the concept that there was a truth to be known. In other words, each worldview may have differed in their beliefs on how to find truth, but they all believed that truth was something separate from and independent of themselves. It could be known.

Advocates for post-modernism said that even these ideas needed to be jettisoned. They argued that all communication is colored and molded by the biases and beliefs of the communicator. This means that no one can discover a raw truth, since he or she will read into it those biases and then reinforce them when communicating to others. The problem, they believe, is these assumed grand stories were ignoring the fact that no raw truth could exist, when in reality they are discounting one bias and favoring another. Therefore, there really shouldn't be any grand stories but we should allow each person to experience truth in his or her own way and there is no real right or wrong to it at all.

Postmodernism, in losing the meta-narrative, caused man to lose his moorings and purpose for himself in the world. God had already been dismissed as non-existent. Rationalists and modernists felt that man had it within himself to find the meaning of life. But now, the postmodernist strips even that away and says there is no real meaning of life. You can make anything mean whatever you want.

Think About it

Postmodernism’s "Grand Story" is to reject all Grand Stories. But if that true, they must reject their own – which means that they should accept others. The position is hopelessly self-contradictory.
But think about the implications of this. Imagine if you lived in a country where they had no values printed on their money, only animals. You walk into a store and try to purchase something. The shopkeeper tells you that the bill with the eagle is worth ten of the bill with the bear, whereas another shopkeeper says the bear is worth twice as much as the eagle. You can quickly see how in such as system that money becomes valueless. I would not want to be paid in bills that have no set value accepted across all areas of the economy. I would want to be paid in tender that everyone agrees is valued the same. Similarly, when there is no real meaning to life, then any meaning you try to create is simply a fraud. Therefore, by trying to make meaning malleable, postmodernists really strip meaning of any value at all.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Worldview Definitions: Rationalism and Naturalism

The worldview of theism powered humanity for much of its existence.  Even in primitive cultures, people looked to their gods as well as the world around them and tried to make sense out of both. But without divine revelation, they often got things wrong (expecting rain after performing a certain dance or something of that sort.) Christianity, with its foundations in the Jewish faith, taught strongly that God revealed Himself in two ways: through His creation and through His Word.1

Something happened, though, as Christians began to investigate God's world.  They started to discover more and more things in nature they had assumed were a result of a divine agency were really responding to laws of nature and biology and by altering the circumstances or the variables they could change the outcome of those processes. At the same time, they made great advancements in mathematics and they reawakened to the philosophy of Plato and the Greeks, which emphasized logic being the ultimate guiding force of knowledge.

Because so many achievements were coming from men thinking hard about their world, philosophers began to conclude that the ability to reason was all they needed in order to know everything there is to know about the world. Many believed God existed, but they felt that God's revelation was unnecessary for discovering truth.  They assumed that given enough time and thought, man would figure it all out on his own.  God was removed from being the primary source of truth as people became convinced that they were smart enough to discover anything with enough thought and analysis.

Naturalism: "God Doesn't Count as Knowledge"

The removal of God as the primary source of truth was a huge shift in thinking for the world. If all people need to discover truth is to identify facts and reason through them with a good mind, then focusing on nature becomes more important and focusing on God less so. Thus the Grand Story in western society shifted from God to Nature itself, just as Romans 1:25 warned. Therefore, since God wasn't needed to understand the ways of the world, many educated people took the next step and denied Him altogether.  If God doesn't offer any explanations to the ways of the world, why assume one needs to worry about Him? The worldview adopted by those who think this way is called "naturalism". The world is seen in purely mechanistic terms: this causes that just because the laws of the universe work that way. 

Naturalists, because of their worldview, now seek to explain everything without pointing to God at all.  Even in big issues, such as the origin of life on the earth, God cannot be accepted as a cause, because it violates their notion of "really" explaining things. Therefore, Darwinian evolution becomes the capstone in the search for a purely mechanistic way to explain how the diversity of life arose on the planet.  In fact, to say "God did it" is seen as a cheat; naturalists would object to anyone claiming the involvement of a divine being saying the person hasn't thought hard enough about the problem. They define knowledge of God as false knowledge.

You can see how important it is to understand worldviews!  Since naturalists are committed to not accepting explanations that involve God, their minds are closed to the existence of God before you even give evidence. The bias of naturalism is plainly seen everywhere today, even in popular culture.  Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, held to this view, and one of Star Trek's recurring themes is the evolution of man to his betterment.2 No religious belief system is  ever in view for the show's protagonists. Roddenberry believed reason alone would catapult mankind into this new utopia and his popular franchise has continued to preach his message ever since.


1. This idea of dual revelation is taught explicitly in Scripture.  Psalm 19 and Romans 1 declare how God reveals Himself thorough His creation, an idea known as "general revelation". But since all of creation is warped by the fall of man (Genesis 3:16, Romans8:22), it is an imperfect revelation. Therefore, God provides us with the more clear word of Scripture "for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness." (2 Timothy 3:16)
2. See Bronislaus B. Kush' article "‘Star Trek' franchise an homage to humanist philosophy" in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Wordview Definitions: Theism

Yesterday, I discussed the importance of understanding what a worldview is and the fact that everyone has one. There are many diverse worldviews that exist today, and we can see that even within the different ideas about how the world works, there are common threads that run through each.

All worldviews start with what philosophers call a "meta-narrative" or "Grand Story". These are beliefs or ideas about God and truth. Meta-narratives are the foundation and basis of what shapes one's worldview, they inform and color all our other beliefs. They deal with how we got here, why we're here, and how to discover truth about the world around us. I want to spend some time looking at four of the most widely accepted meta-narratives by people throughout history. To be sure, all of these worldviews exist today and studying them a bit will give us a better grasp of how others ground their concept of truth.

"We Need God to Understand His Creation"

Traditional theism is the position taken by most people historically. Theism holds that there is a God (or perhaps gods) who is responsible for creating the world. It further implies that the world was created with some type of order to it; there are laws that govern how the world works. Judaism and Christianity especially hold to the idea that God has created the universe with certain features or laws that are orderly and reliable. If one were to create the same set of circumstances today (such as dropping a cannon ball off the Tower of Pisa) that he had set up a year ago, he should be able to achieve the same result.

This idea of purpose shows up everywhere. A seed that is planted and watered should grow into a tree. Introduce a fungus or virus into that tree and it can die. The traditional view holds that God created the world in a rational, predictable way. It therefore means the world is predictable and laws of physics we discover today will allow us to predict outcomes tomorrow or millennia from now.

Theism and Human Exceptionalism

Of course, physical laws like gravity are not the only things that are predictable. When God created human beings, He created them with some unique differences from all other creatures on earth. For example, animals are aware of their environment, but only humans are aware of ourselves. No matter how smart a chip or a dolphin may be, they will never wonder when they will die, or what it would be like to be another species. They are not self-aware.

People have the capability to be aware of more than just themselves, though. We can take that awareness and apply it to others. We can sympathize with another person who's suffered a loss or tragedy. We can project what it would be like if we were in the same situation and perhaps try to prevent such a situation from occurring. We can also gain awareness of God and comprehend the concept of a divine being who would have us relate to Him and to others in particular ways.

All this means that we can have moral awareness. We have the ability to understand that there are certain things we should or shouldn't do. And if God creates with an order to things, then it follows that there is an order to the way beings with awareness of God and each other should act. Certain moral laws exist that are always true just as certain physical laws exist that are always true. If the circumstances are the same, then God expects us to behave in a specific way. Ultimately, it means that anyone who holds to traditional theism believes there are certain moral precepts that are absolutely true—true at all times for all people in all locations.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Why Worldview is Important

Photo courtesy Franz Schuier
It seems that Hollywood has fallen back in love with the 3-D movie. A big draw in the 1950s, they faded to obscurity until after the start of the new millennium. Now, some of the biggest movie titles are filmed and marketed in 3-D, even though the cost to make and show such movies is significantly higher. The reason for the cost increase is because it takes special equipment to make a movie look like it's popping off the screen.

In order to achieve the 3-D effect, two images of each scene are superimposed on the screen, each shot with a slightly different perspective. The 3-D glasses have two different lenses with a filter tuned to each of the different images. That way, when you watch the movie with the glasses, they block one image from one eye and the other image from the other. Since you look at the real world with two eyes, each having a slightly different perspective on an object because they are spaced apart, your brain automatically tries to put the images back together and assumes that the difference it sees between the images is because of depth and you therefore see the images jump from the screen and feel like they're right in front of you.

I've personally never been a big fan of the format, and that's mainly because of the glasses you're required to wear in order to see the 3-D effect. The effect isn't perfect (it still feels forced in many places) and the glasses affect the hue and clarity of the picture. Wear the wrong kind of glasses and you get a distorted picture, one that's out of focus and off color.

Looking at the world through our own set of glasses

It's not only the imaginary world of movies where this kind of distortion can occur, though. Every person on the planet receives information about how the world works from innumerable sources. All of your experiences, interactions, movies, books music and more feed you with information on how the world works and how we should understand reality. As each of us receives this information, we process it and try to relate it to other experiences in order to make sense out of all that we've received. The sum total of how we suppose God, life, the world and all of reality work is known as our "worldview". These are our "glasses" so to speak; the ideas that shape our thinking about what is true and what isn't. Its how we anticipate what may happen or what should happen. It is, you might say, our biases about the world.1

It's important to note that everyone has a worldview. Everyone has some type of bias. There's just no way to live your life with any degree of sanity without being able to associate some cause (such as reaching towards a flame) with an effect (such as the pain from a burned hand). Even though people may have never heard the term "worldview", they still have beliefs on how the world works so they hold to some type of world view. The "glasses" of their worldview can be quite different from yours or mine and it colors the world quite differently for them. Different glasses affect their understanding and they will approach situations with a different attitude.

Understanding worldview is important in apologetics. If we are presenting ideas or arguments that are tuned to a different set of glasses, the person we are speaking to will only see a distortion, and one that is probably not pleasant to look at. So think about how you can adjust your discussion to take worldview into account. By so doing, your arguments will seem anything but two-dimensional.


1. Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 1999) 16-20

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