Friday Fun-ness

February 15, 2013

I was perusing the Oscar nominees for Best Short Animation and I ran across this little gem by animator Minkyu Lee called Adam and Dog. It’s gorgeously rendered – the style evokes that of the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. It is a reminder that what is often missed in all the wrangling over the history and scientific accuracy of Genesis is that it is ultimately a portrait of humanity’s relationship with our Creator and his creation.

This is totally worth 15 minutes of your time.

 

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The Advent of Teleology

February 4, 2013

I was recently watching an interview with theoretical physicist Alexander Vilenkin that was conducted as part of the Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s PBS series, Closer to Truth. A couple of things struck me about the interview. The first is Vilenkin’s humility. While he is certainly no believer and at most holds a Spinoza-esque view of an impersonal God, Vilenkin is certainly humble with regard to the idea of God. This is refreshing in light of the arrogance one typically sees amongst those scientists who are advocates of New Atheism. As a Christian I am never offended that someone doesn’t share my belief in God – in fact in a world where God allows men to choose their responses to Him, I would expect a certain number of people not to believe in God. But there is no reason for epistemic arrogance displayed by New Atheists, who have no warrant for the certainty they invest in scientism, materialism, and naturalism. So to see measured responses of the sort Vilenkin gives is refreshing.

But the other thing that strikes me about the interview is Vilenkin’s references to the underlying laws of physics which exist independent of the universe itself, as he calls it, a Platonic existence. For those who aren’t familiar with Plato, he imagined our universe was a reflection of a deeper reality, an ideal reality. To that end Vilenkin expresses the notion that mathematics itself isn’t merely a human a construct, but an underlying reality waiting to be discovered by us.

Vilenkin’s view here comport on some levels with those of another thinker, philosopher Thomas Nagel who recently wrote the book, Mind and Cosmos, which is a critique of the reductionist view of the universe suggested by Neo-Darwinism. Lest you take Nagel to be a creationist, he is in fact an atheist, though again a thinker of the sort Vilenkin is – thoughtful, epistemically humble and willing to be skeptical of things other atheists seem certain of. He suggests in his book that the universe has an inherent ‘mindfulness’, a tendency that inclines it to follow a path that eventually leads to us. In this he channels another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who believed the ends to which nature tends were inherent in nature itself.

Where both men seem to be arriving, albeit through different means, is at teleological view of the universe. For those not familiar with the term, generally speaking it means that processes bear attributes indicating they are being shaped toward an end – or that those processes have a purpose.

For most of human history humans have understood nature to be essentially teleological. Only in the 20th century did the reductionist notions of materialism and naturalism really begin to predominate in the sciences. But as Nagel points out, such reductionism essentially fails to explain certain aspects of nature – particularly the minds ability to explore the universe. More generally materialism fails to explain many aspects of the universe – it’s fine-tuning, the origin of the information driven machinery of life as well as human consciousness – or consciousness generally.

Of course Christianity has and continues to offer an inherently consistent answer to the question of the teleology we see in the universe. When Genesis describes God speaking the universe into existence it provides the bridge between the underlying principles, the forms that exist in the eternal mind of God and the reality that we experience as the universe. We see not only the receptacle of the natural laws that govern nature, a place both outside the universe and consistent with it, but we see how such laws could be invested in the fabric of the universe itself. A Christian view of the universe encompasses both Plato and Aristotle.

It also aids us in understanding why our minds comprehend the universe at all. If it is true that we are ‘created in the image of God’ then we derive from God the ability to conceptualize the principles that underlay the structure of nature – we are both the product of the mind of God, and we share with it the ability to comprehend its works.

That modern thinkers are beginning to see the underlying purpose of the universe is no surprise. If men are honest observers, whatever winding roads they might follow they arrive back at the same place despite their desires to end up somewhere else.

As a Christian I believe the universe was structured so that, as Romans says, “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” If that is true, then the simplest man or the most sophisticated thinker should be able to observe nature and have some notion that it exists for a purpose – and that certainly appears to be the case.


Designed to be Married

May 26, 2012

In a recent article on CNN Albert Mohler responds to complaints that conservative Christians have an unwarranted focus on homosexuality. He aptly parses the difference between the laws that governed ancient Israelite society and the principles that govern the lives of Christians, and provides a solid basis for Christians to maintain strong opposition to normalizing homosexual behavior.

What I find lacking in Mohler’s argument as well as most Christian’s discussion of homosexuality is the fact that human sexuality is firmly rooted in our design. In Scripture our sexuality doesn’t emanate from Old Testament law or even the teachings of Jesus, but in our very natures. Christians find this in Genesis 1 commanding the first humans to “be fruitful and multiply” and also in the description of a monogamous life-long marriage in Genesis 2 that pronounces that a man “be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” This is the understanding of marriage that was later reiterated by Jesus.

As it turns out the Christian argument for the preeminence of heterosexual relationships transects the secular one. There is no doubt about the importance of the reproductive aspect of heterosexual relationship, from the aspect of maintaining the human species. Marriage however is equally important in this respect. As I have noted elsewhere the long term relationship between men and women who parent children together has physiological impacts on adults and children which facilitate the investment necessary to raise a child.

And on a societal level a healthy nuclear family is perhaps the greatest indicator of success in one’s life in terms of education, employment and later relationships. The income and education gaps in our society often fall along the lines of marriage success.

And the failure of the traditional family has notably pernicious effects. As Steven Pinker details in his recent book on the history of violence The Better Angels of Our Nature, the Free Love and anti-authority 60’s had a dramatic impact on the American family, and a corresponding dramatic increase in violence in the following decades. A diminished commitment to the marriages and families had a decivilizing impact. In many ways this explains why older adults oppose gay marriage in higher numbers than younger do. These people were the free-loving hippies of yesteryear – and they remember the damage such social experimentation did to our society.

In his letter to the Romans Paul employed the argument from design when he described what happens when we move away from the purposes of marriage for which we are created:

For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

Romans 1:26-27

In this sense law and morality are merely descriptions of our ‘natural functions’. The laws in Scripture governing sexuality then aren’t arbitrary at all but flow from understanding the behaviors that allow for human flourishing. Thus we can no more confer marriage on homosexuals than we can confer the ability to breastfeed on men. And attempts to pretend men can breastfeed would be as harmful to child rearing as ignoring the importance of traditional marriage was in the 60s – or today.

So while there is certainly warrant for a Christian to oppose homosexual behaviors and the idea of homosexual marriage from Scripture, we also have an appeal to nature and to the benefits of supporting monogamous, committed heterosexual relationships as a basis for healthy parenting and human flourishing, an idea which is well supported by data and history.


The Necessity of Fathers

September 20, 2011

One of the stances secular leftists regularly attack Christians on is their belief in the importance of the traditional family. That is, a family centered on the committed relationship of a man and a woman through which children are produced and nurtured. Secularists attack them both for the rigidity of the arrangement with regard to the necessity of marriage between a man and a woman, and the fact that Christians derive this belief primarily from teachings in Scripture. For the secularists, relationships are fungible, driven by desire rather than design.

As science is coming to find out, the Scriptural proscription for the family is rooted in our physical make-up. And of course, like most truths in Scripture, this reality anticipated scientific findings by millennia.

Two recent studies demonstrate the importance of a committed father in the raising of children, both from the physiological changes the presence of a father has on children, and the physiological impact being in such a relationship has on fathers.

In the first case, a study titled Fathers’ influence on children’s cognitive and behavioral functioning: A longitudinal study of Canadian families chronicles the important impact fathers have on the intellect and behavior of their children. A ScienceDaily article quotes one of the authors regarding the results:

“Fathers make important contributions in the development of their children’s behavior and intelligence,” says Erin Pougnet, a PhD candidate in the Concordia University Department of Psychology and a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development (CRDH).

“Compared with other children with absentee dads, kids whose fathers were active parents in early and middle childhood had fewer behavior problems and higher intellectual abilities as they grew older — even among socio-economically at-risk families.”

In a more surprising 2nd study, researchers determined that children have physiological effects on a committed father. Specifically they found that there was a significant drop in testosterone in committed and involved fathers. This change corresponds with the necessity of fathers to be available to help raise children. The takeaway, according to anthropologist Carol Worthman is that it demonstrates how we were designed to be in long-term committed relationships. From the NYTs:

“This is part of the guy being invested in the marriage,” said Carol Worthman, an anthropologist at Emory University who also was not involved in the study. Lower testosterone, she said, is the father’s way of saying, ” ‘I’m here, I’m not looking around, I’m really toning things down so I can have good relationships.’ What’s great about this study is it lays it on the table that more is not always better. Faster, bigger, stronger — no, not always.”

And such a change is not only beneficial for relationships, but it has added health benefits as well:

Experts say the new testosterone study could offer insight into men’s medical conditions, particularly prostate cancer. Higher lifetime testosterone levels increase the risk of prostate cancer, just as higher estrogen exposure increases breast cancer risk.

“Fathers who spend a lot of time in fathering roles might have lower long-term exposure to testosterone,” reducing their risk, Dr. Ellison said.

As a Christian who believes humans were designed for such relationships, such results come as no surprise. If it is true God made us to be in a bonded relationship for the purpose of producing families or as Genesis puts it, that a man and woman become “one flesh” then one would expect that relationships would incite significant biological changes in addition to the emotional and social changes which are so evident.

So while these results aren’t particularly surprising to knowledgeable Christians they are important supporting evidence for those who contend our beliefs about the family are merely religious considerations. Often these studies amount to proving the obvious, but in our skeptical age we are apparently required to empirically prove that which was up until recently a matter of common wisdom.