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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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Monday, January 06, 2014

Can You Get a Something from a Nothing?

In my debate against Richard Carrier, I argued that the beginning of the universe pointed toward the existence of God. I had said, "The most fundamental law of science is 'Out of nothing, nothing comes.' We simply do not see things popping into existence for no reason. Every parent understands this axiom when they find crayon marks on the wall or mud scraped across the floor. A child's response of 'no one did it, it just appeared' would be rightly rejected as silly."

This seems pretty common-sensical to me. One cannot get a something from a nothing. In fact, the word "nothing" can be broken apart to show that it means "no-thing." But Carrier replied to my point with this statement:
Oh yes, "out of nothing, nothing comes" is another one. If there is absolutely nothing, then there are no rules governing what will happen. So the idea that "only nothing can come from nothing" is a rule. That's something; that's not nothing. If you really have absolutely nothing then anything can happen. Nothing governs what's going to happen. If we start with nothing, we have no idea what could occur. As physicists will tell you, like Victor J. Stenger in The Fallacy of Fine Tuning, nothing is inherently unstable. So if we did start the universe with nothing, we could actually expect something to come out of it because the probability of nothing remaining nothing is rather low and because there is nothing governing what will happen.
There are a lot of problems here. First, let's look at what we mean when we use the word "nothing." When I say the universe began to exist, I mean that all matter, energy, space, and time came into being where they had previously not existed at all. In fact, when philosophers talk about the concept of nothing, it is generally understood to mean a state that is devoid of all properties. If there is nothing, then there are no physical things that can act and there are no laws of nature by which the non-existent entities would be able to act.

But Carrier seems confused on this. He first states, "The idea that 'only nothing can come from nothing' is a rule. That's something; that's not nothing." Well, that's not really accurate. The idea isn't a rule, but a description. It is another way of saying there are no laws and nothing upon which actions could even take place. But then, he goes on to say, "If there is absolutely nothing, then there are no rules governing what will happen… If you have absolutely nothing, then anything can happen!" Well, using Richard's own criteria, that would be a rule. That means you haven't started with nothing!

The idea that nothing is inherently unstable is a real science-stopper. Imagine people saying, "Well, I we had nothing and now we have this new chemical because anything can happen!" or "We don't know how that came into existence. It must've simply popped into existence because nothing can produce anything!" This is not a reasonable answer. It sounds more like magic than anything else.

So, I find this response problematic on several levels. First, Carrier argues that nothing is a great way to get something. I think that is a terrible answer and he needs to explain why we should accept it for the beginning of the universe then turn around and reject it for any other scientific question. Secondly, if "out of nothing, nothing comes" is considered something, then 'If you have absolutely nothing, then anything can happen" should also be considered something. As such, Carrier hasn't started with nothing and he needs to explain how his "rule" came into existence.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

80% of the World's Poor Better Because of Free Enterprise

As Christians, what should our attitude be toward economics? Should our religion inform our economic model or are those two areas distinct? I believe that our Christianity should inform our entire understanding of how we live. Obviously, economic systems like capitalism, socialism, and communism have a moral component because they affect the common man. If unbridled capitalism causes the many to remain poor at the expense of a few who become super wealthy, then it may be that such a system is wrong. If, however, communism offers more suffering by knocking down any one who seeks to better him or herself, then that model is antithetical to the Christian worldview.

The reason I bring this up is not because of some partisan squabble within the United States. I try to keep this blog focused on issues of worldview, not partisan politics. This topic is larger than any one country, and Mark J. Perry, professor of economics at the University of Michigan, Flint has released some astounding findings. In the last 36 years, the overall level of world poverty has declined by 80%. That means that while 1 out of four people subsisted on $1 a day or less in 1970 (using 1987 dollars), now only one out of 20 people fall below that poverty line. In a world of seven billion people, that translates to about 1.4 billion people who are better off than they would have been had the decrease not happened.

At the same page, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute emphasized, "It's the greatest achievement in human history, and you never hear about it. 80 percent of the world's worst poverty has been eradicated in less than 40 years. That has never, ever happened before. In short, it was the free enterprise system, American style, which is our gift to the world."

The question now becomes what was the primary component that allowed so many more people to escape conditions pf poverty? Brooks states, "It was globalization, free trade, the boom in international entrepreneurship." As the Mackinac Center for Public Policy reports, "Much of this is the result of formerly Communist and Socialist economies becoming more market based. China, India and most of South America have been embracing capitalism for decades, while Africa also is moving toward freer markets in more recent years, according to the ‘Economic Freedom of the World' reports."

It is easy to take such an accomplishment for granted in our modern societies today, but we shouldn't. Such an achievement marks a fundamental change in the way all of humanity lives. As Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, wrote:
Throughout the vast scope of human history, most societies have lived at the subsistence level, with some 90 percent of the people's labor being required just to produce food for the community. This gave rise to an organic view of society, focusing on the survival of the whole rather than the liberty of the individual. With little defense against bad weather and poor harvests, "the survival of the whole was clearly linked to the diligence of each member," says one historian. And "with so many lives always at risk, concern for the public good predominated." The precariousness of life justified authoritarian control of economic relations.

With the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, however, for the first time many people were freed from the fear of want and hunger—a truly historic benchmark. What's more, the new economic network crisscrossing the country was being created by ordinary men and women: farmers, craftsmen, traders, merchants, shopkeepers, cattle drovers. It began to seem that ordinary people were quite capable of making rational choices to advance their own interests. And when they did, lo, they created wealth all around. (Pearcey, Total Truth, 285)

Friday, January 03, 2014

Christians Cannot be Intellectual Slackers

C. S. Lewis had a great quote when talking about the followers of Christ. He said, "God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of being a Christian, I warn you: you are embarking on something that is going to take the whole of you, brains and all."

I completely agree. Christians today have accepted the secular world's idea that somehow faith and reason inhabit separate spheres. The two are sitting on opposite ends of a spectrum and the more one applies tools such as logic and philosophy to his or her beliefs, the less and less they will be considered faithful or pleasing to God. A bumper sticker that used to be fairly popular summed up this kind of attitude: "God said it, I believe it, that settles it."

But nowhere in scripture are we commanded to approach our beliefs blindly. In fact, we are commanded to do just the opposite. When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was he replied, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30). Tellingly, although Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, He added the phrase "and with all your mind." Jesus said that loving God must include developing the life of the mind.

This makes a lot of sense, given how Jesus identified Himself. In John 14:6 He said, "I am the Way the truth and the Life." Well, if we think about Jesus as truth, then we should be applying reason and logic to our beliefs. Logic is simply a tool that we use to find truth.

Part of our difficulty in seeing logic and critical thinking as ways we can better love God may be because we think that such tasks are only human enterprises, while Jesus is divine. Logic means works, while He is grace. But if Jesus is truth and we can use logic to discern truth, then we can use logic to see the reality of Jesus.

You may be surprised to find that out that the implementation of logic is actually found throughout the Bible and especially in the New Testament. Jesus used logic and argumentation many times. For example, just before He gave the command to love God with your mind, the Sadducees tried to test Him with a question about a woman who was married and widowed seven times. They used a technique in logic known as reductio ad absurdum to show that their views on the afterlife were correct. However, Jesus capably destroyed their argument and chided them, saying "Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?" He then give the command that we must love God with all our minds.

The Sadducees were unprepared. They hadn't done their homework and as a result had a mistaken view of God. As faithful followers of Christ, let us not shy away from some of the harder work of learning and developing our minds so we can more completely love our God with all that we are.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

If We're Only Our Bodies, Life Is Meaningless

What is the thing that makes me me? I found an interesting comic on the Internet the other day that does a great job in unpacking one of the problems of the materialist position that all we are is the sum total of our physical makeup. You can read the whole thing here, (it's rather long) but I will summarize.

The comic depicts a day where science has finally invented a machine to transport objects instantly from one location to the other. Think Star Trek. Of course, everyone hails this great technological feat, but at least one man, the protagonist of the strip, is disturbed. The comic states:
The machines did more than transport people. They also killed them. Since the machines didn't use exactly the same atoms in exactly the same position, what arrived on the other side wasn't the original but only a copy. However, because the copy had the memory of the original's past, it believed it was the same person.
The man is disgusted at the wholesale death that people were accepting for the sake of convenience, which he deems immoral. He eventually meets the inventor of the machine and confronts him on such wanton disregard for human life. The inventor counters by answering, "My boy, surely you don't think that 'you' are the individual atoms of your body, do you? One carbon atom is the same as the next! And your body itself flushes out and replaces atoms all the time, yet you say nothing of copies. 'You' are not the atoms in your body but the pattern of the atoms." The man realizes now that every day he awakes his atoms are different. He dies every night as he loses consciousness and a copy wakes in the morning with the memories of the past. The man goes into an existential crisis.

The question of identity that the strip portrays is one that has a long history in philosophy, going back to ancient Greece. Known as Theseus' Paradox, it is usually represented as a ship piloted by Theseus whose weather-worn components are replaced one at a time until eventually there are no original parts. Is this still Theseus' ship? What if one were to take all those original pieces and reassemble them right next to the repaired ship? Which would properly be Theseus' ship now?

What is the Essential Element?

Both the transporter machine and Theseus' paradox ask the question of what makes up the essential element of a thing. If we are only a pattern of atoms arranged in a certain way, then can two specific identical patterns of atoms both claim to be the same person? The comic assumes that our material nature is really all there is to us. Our consciousness and our memories are what inevitably come from a specific arrangement of those atoms. That means the mental reduces to the material, and you can recreate a consciousness by duplicating the specific material components.

As the comic shows, if this is true then life can be seen to be meaningless. What one does doesn't matter since a real you doesn't continue through life, but a bunch of copies. When viewed through a materialist lens, there is really no meaning to life at all. However, Christianity offers an answer to this dilemma. The Christian view of humanity teaches that we are not merely the assembly of atoms. Human beings have not only a body but a soul, an immaterial aspect of ourselves that stays the same throughout our existence. The soul is not replaced bit by bit. It is fundamentally the same thing. The soul is our essential self. While humans are made to be both body and soul, it is in our souls where our conscious selves reside. Even when we sleep, our souls continue and we don't cease to be.

Implications of a Soul

The idea that each of us possesses a soul has incredible implications. It not only provides continuity in this life (I am the same person tomorrow when I awake and I am today), but it gives us an understanding that people who are born without things like arms and legs are still fully valuable as human beings because they do not have less of a soul. It helps us understand why unborn human beings are valuable individuals. It also helps us to understand that what we do in this life matters because even if our material elements are destroyed in death, our souls will continue on.

J. P. Moreland has quoted J. Gresham Machen who said, "I think we ought to hold not only that man has a soul, but that it is important that he should know that he has a soul." We can clearly see why it is so important. If we are to take the materialist position, we are entirely consistent to believe there is no meaning to anything at all and there's really nothing to live for. But because we are body and soul, God has given us real meaning for this life as well as for the next.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Top Ten Apologetics Tweets

One of the ways I leverage social media is to expose people to the wider views and issues that are being written about online.  So, I use my Twitter and Facebook accounts to post interesting links or to start conversations about things that matter. (Not exclusively, mind you. If you follow me you may also get some personal updates or a proud photo of a family member.)

Below are the top ten read articles I linked to with an apologetic or cultural focus. It's interesting to see just what resonates with folks out there as well as what was hot in the news this year. Some of both are reflected below.
  1. Why do they always ask about rape and incest?
  2. Roger Ebert Reviews a Tragedy: His Search for God
  3. Supreme Court Decisions Cannot Define Morality
  4. The knockout game: reporting more hype than truth.
  5. Triumph of the vulgarians
  6. A Tale of Two Hitchens
  7. The Culture of Memes and Why It’s Ruining the World
  8. Family Says They Did Tip Gay Server, Didn't Leave Note
  9. A Whole New Meaning to Sex-Crazed
  10. Devastating Arguments Against Christianity (Courtesy of the Internet)
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