Good Reasons to Believe

January 14, 2013

I enjoyed this recent clip from a discussion at a Cornell forum titled The Finite and the Infinite: Two Scientists discuss Nature, Knowledge, and Faith with MIT nuclear physicist Ian Hutchinson and  Cornell theoretical chemist Roald Hoffmann. In it Ian Hutchinson briefly gives five types reasons for believing in God, which include arguments, evidences, immediate personal experiences, organization and utility.  I think it is important that he highlights all five because understanding what is true requires not only that we find some evidence to justify our belief, but that the claims we are considering are inherently consistent across a range of thought processes – that is that the logic is consistent with the evidence, which is consistent with one’s personal experience as well as with history and the ability to apply the knowledge.

This explains in large part why I am a Christian – I have found the truth claims for Christianity to be consistent when considered from several different angles. It is a holistic thought process. That is why I came to eventually abandon materialism and naturalism as viable philosophies. A clip from the discussion is below:

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Bad is Bad

December 3, 2012

There is an excellent article on the Huffington Post (it’s not often you will hear me say that) called Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion which compares the bad thought processes that go into bad religion and bad science. As biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake notes:

Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions. The details still need working out, but in principle the answers are known.

Here Sheldrake describes one of the most common thought processes I encounter in New Atheists. As I point out in our conversations the number of beliefs materialists hold as articles of faith, i.e. the naturalistic origin of the universe, our planet, life and consciousness, atheists often respond with the claim that they have confidence that science will explain these phenomena eventually because, well, science has already explained other phenomena. Sheldrake cites a term by science philosopher Karl Popper to describe this kind of thinking – he calls it promissory materialism:

Since the 19th century, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, nature is purposeless, and minds are nothing but brain activity. Believers are sustained by the implicit faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance “promissory materialism” because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Many promises have been issued, but few redeemed. Materialism is now facing a credibility crunch unimaginable in the 20th century.

The effect of this dogma is to cause a replacement of experimental science which yields observable and testable results with highly theoretical science which sucks up time, money and minds with no tangible results. Atheists are attracted to this kind of science because they are desperate to justify their beliefs in the materialism which underpins their metaphysical beliefs. I can’t count the number of times I have seen highly theoretical theories presented as ‘evidence’ by atheists that life can spring from non-life or universes can originate from nothing, or morals can evolve from animal brains. They do this because to not do so would open up the possibility that fully explaining the nature of the universe requires something more than the mindless phenomena we observe inside the universe.

And as more scientists adopt a hardened metaphysical materialism, they are increasingly wedded to these scientific dogmas. It is a rapid downward spiral.

As a Christian, I agree with Shledrake that there can be a bad sort of religious thinking that is unwilling to be revised in light of new evidence – but I also recognize that this same sort of fundamentalism exists in atheism as well, and that it is in fact New Atheism’s raison d’être.


Observations

November 26, 2012

“MODERN masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin — a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or not man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing.” ~ GK Chesterton:  ‘Orthodoxy.’


A Primer on Intelligent Design

July 16, 2012

*This post was originally published June 8th, 2006*

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had long been interested in the science of life and its origins and I have spent a number of years exploring the intersection between science and faith. In recent years the conversation has centered primarily on Intelligent Design, a theory much talked about in the media, courts, schools and scientific circles. To that end I wanted to give those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the issue an overview of the discussion to date.

Below are a series of questions and answers about Intelligent Design. I attempted to be as even-handed as possible though I readily acknowledge that in general I support intelligent design as a scientific theory.

What is Intelligent Design (ID)?

Intelligent Design is the scientific theory that states that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause not an undirected process such as mutation and natural selection. It is a theory promulgated to answer this question, posed by William Dembski, an originator of the theory of ID, and one of its primary proponents:

Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause?

That question can be asked by anybody regardless of metaphysical belief; and the answer, presumably, wouldn’t require a particular belief either.

To that end, two main criteria have been proposed to determine the earmarks of intelligent activity in the formation of an object (or organism) – they are irreducible complexity, and specified complexity.

Irreducible complexity is drawn from a statement by Charles Darwin:

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”
–Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition, Harvard University Press, 1964, p. 189

Thus Michael Behe describes an irreducibly complex system this way:

“A single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning”
–Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, p. 9

In simpler terms if you have a mechanism (for example, a mousetrap) you can only reduce that mechanism down to a certain number of parts before it ceases to function in any useful way. In biological terms all the parts to a irreducibly complex biological system must be in place at once in order for it to function in any useful way and confer a survival advantage to the organism. Thus, such systems could not be formed by a series of gradual modifications as required by Darwinian evolution.

In the case of specified complexity, developed by William Dembski, the idea really centers on information patterns. If a pattern is both specified (that is fits a defined arrangement) and complex it is a reliable marker of intelligent activity. Thus a mountain side may be complex, that is made up of a variety of materials, but it isn’t specific in its arrangement. A crystalline structure like a diamond might be specific because its structure is organized in uniform a pattern but they aren’t complex.

Intelligence allows for patterns that are both specified (organized in discernible pattern) and complex, like written languages, computers codes and machines. In short, it allows us to discern the degree to which intelligence played a part in the formation of Mount Rushmore versus the natural formation of a cliff wall.

These two criteria form the basis of intelligent design theory.

Does ID disprove evolution?

ID is primarily a criticism of evolution on one specific point; primarily that undirected causes such as mutation and natural selection aren’t sufficient alone to account for the current genetic diversity we see in biological systems. Beyond that it allows for other evolutionary concepts such as common descent, adaptive radiation and natural selection.

Intelligent Design also acts as a critique of the natural origin of life and the universe though this is not a criticism of evolutionary theory per se  because evolutionary theory isn’t an attempt to explain the origin of life and the universe.

Is ID Creationism?

No – ID and Creationism have fundamentally different goals; creationism attempts to reconcile the narrative of Genesis with scientific theory while ID simply attempts to answer this simple question – Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? Of course, creationists often find the information ID provides as useful (just as they sometimes find the information provided by other sciences as useful) but this doesn’t make ID and creationism the same thing.

Is ID science?

This depends how one defines science. If the standard definition is used that science is any idea arrived at through hypothesis, repatable observation, investigation and testing  then yes, ID qualifies as science.

If one adds the current addendum that all explanations must be the product of wholly natural phenomenon (that is, non-intelligent, or non-directed forces) as does methodological naturalism, then ID wouldn’t qualify as science. If methodological naturalism is a required assumption of science, then science itself conceivably prevents us from answering fundamental questions about the origin of the universe, life and the origin of species by dismissing viable explanations.

Didn’t the court rule ID wasn’t science?

In the Kitzmiller v. Dover case Judge John E. Jones III ruled that ID was not science and as such could not be taught in the science classroom. If one holds that courtrooms are where science is conducted, then yes, at least in the Middle District of Pennsylvania ID is not science,; though of course the court also ruled ID may be true.

It should be noted that to this day, evolution is the only scientific theory which requires court protection from detractors in order to maintain viability.

Aren’t all supporters of intelligent design Christians?

No, actually a number of them aren’t; among non-Christian ID supporters we have Anthony Flew (Agnostic), Michael Denton (agnostic), Mustafa Akyol (Muslim), Slade Gorton (Jewish). Of course, whether or not they are Christian is rather irrelevant; one could safely say 95% of atheists are evolutionists of one stripe or another, but that doesn’t really say anything about whether or not evolution is the best explanation for the existence and variety of life on earth.

Does ID hurt science or science education?

I have always been perplexed by this idea; that somehow if ID were accepted as a viable alternative to evolution that all critical thinking would end. This runs counter to two obvious facts, the first being that historically science in large part is the product of a Christian culture that had no problem reconciling the existence of a Creator with natural exploration. In fact many great scientists among them Newton, Kepler, Bacon, and Pascal were notable commentators on theology as well as scientific icons.

The second obvious fact is that the debate between evolution and intelligent design is perhaps one of the most vibrant scientific discussions of the twenty-first century. It has driven an interest and exploration into origins and genetic capability, and the very structure of life. There is really only one side who wants to shut down discussion in the debate, and that side isn’t supporters of intelligent design.

I hope this helps further the discussion now going on about Intelligent Design both for supporters, critics and the casual observer.


Fides Scientia

July 9, 2012

*  This month is our yearly ‘No Media Month’ where our family gives up television, the internet, video games and the like to devote out time to spending time together, reading, travelling and generally enjoying the brief warmth of a Minnesota summer. As a result I won’t be writing this month, but decided to republish some previous posts that I think have stood the test of time. This one first appeared May 5, 2006*

I have been, for as long as I can remember, a science geek.

I don’t know if I was born that way or if I am just the product of  some unique environmental factors but I am certain it was a tendency encouraged by my parents. One of my earliest memories is of my father calling excitedly for my mother so she could hear me spell zoology. Another time, when I was still quite young, our wonderful neighbor Mrs. Schaeffer had a party for the neighborhood kids (she was known for having fun little parties for no particular reason) where kids could come dressed according to what they wanted to be when they grew up. I came as a pterodactyl.

Of particular interest to me was paleontology and biology. I was an avid reader early on and my parents fed my habit with sets of encyclopedias – first the popular World Book Encyclopedia, then later a 20 volume set of the Encyclopedia of Animal life (written, interestingly, in the King’s English – which to this day will still occasionally causes me to give certain words their British spelling like colour and labour), as well as the entire Time-Life Nature library. 

One of my particular favorites in the Time-Life set was the volume Early Man. The volume included the obligatory multi-page centerfold timeline of the march of human evolution from a small ape-like ancestor to modern humans, as well as numerous illustrations of the same ancestors struggling for survival against hyenas, other proto-humans and starvation causing them to develop tools to hunt mammoths and protect themselves against predators. It was all so…convincing.

I think it was around that time science, in particular, the study of evolution became something more to me than a science theory; it became a faith. By faith I mean it became something that I held to be fundamentally and inherently true about life. It became more to me than a mere biological process; it was a worldview that explained why mankind was here and where we might be going.

As I got older, and increasingly discouraged about the state of humanity – the destruction of the environment, the potential for cataclysmic war and the greed and hatred I saw around me evolution also gave me hope. Buoyed by science popularizers like SaganAsimov and Clarke, as well as the science fiction they wrote like Childhood’s End and the movie that shared it’s themes, 2001 a Space Odyssey, I began to see evolutionary theory as the great hope of mankind. Just as we were once primordial ooze and became human so to we might overcome our earthly troubles and inherit the stars.

As a result what little faith I might have had in God was relegated to agnosticism; I wasn’t particularly hostile to the idea a god might exist, it just didn’t seem to matter all that much.

Occasionally I would run into a backward thinking person who still held to the idea that God created the world and that some evidence for this existed; if I didn’t automatically dismiss the person as uneducated or hopelessly wedded to some outlandish religious notions, I might attempt to dialogue. It usually wasn’t long before it became a debate – and I loved to debate; particularly when my faith was being called into question. I rarely found it difficult however to knock down most of their ideas.

In 1982 I began my University career as a biology major, with plans to go on to veterinary school. It just so happened that around the same time a rather radical proposal had been made on campus; a professor of engineering, Dr. John Patterson, had proposed at a department meeting that any student who proclaimed a belief that God created the world should be denied a science degree. In addition to his teaching job Prof. Patterson was also a widely known and very outspoken atheist – and his proposal was made in response to what he saw as the threat of creationism invading campus. Of course the proposal, once made public, created a furor on campus with debates going on in the student paper and among the faculty and staff. I was rather amazed that even at the University level some still questioned evolution until I became friends with someone who did, a fact I attributed to his small town upbringing.

But something else was happening that year; I was beginning to realize that whatever faith I had in nature it wasn’t sufficient to satisfy deep personal longings for meaning and purpose and change. While evolution might hold out some hope for the future of mankind it held little hope for me personally. We might grow as a species but I continued to fail even my own standards and expectations. I was as greedy and selfish as anyone else and change seemed beyond me.

The same friend whose science I dismissed had an answer when it came to purpose and change and that answer was Jesus Christ. Though I had early on dismissed Christianity I couldn’t deny my friend’s life – or the joy, love and peace I saw in it. After nearly a year of wrangling with myself and with a growing sense that Christ was real and present I surrendered my life to Him. I transferred my faith from a belief in the power of nature and myself to a faith in Christ.

That surrender while it brought about dramatic changes in me, didn’t alleviate all the questions I had. I still had a niggling feeling about the accuracy of Scripture, at least as much as it seemed to contradict my understanding of science. Thus, a lot of my twenty-plus years as a Christian has been involved with considering the intersection of science and Scripture and as a result, a lot of what I consider here concerns that as well – my science geekdom remains unabated, so my apologies to those whose interests lie elsewhere; you will have to endure the occasional technical discussion.


Science, Faith, and the Multiverse

December 24, 2011

Good bit from Alan P. Lightman in Harpers on the overlap of theoretical physics and faith. He shares what I think is an apt analogy about where we are currently as observers of the universe:

If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is because we are here. The situation could be likened to a school of intelligent fish who one day began wondering why their world is completely filled with water. Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the entire cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water. For years, they put their minds to the task but can never quite seem to prove their assertion. Then, a wizened group of fish postulates that maybe they are fooling themselves. Maybe there are, they suggest, many other worlds, some of them completely dry, and everything in between…


The wizened old fish conjecture that there are many other worlds, some with dry land and some with water. Some of the fish grudgingly accept this explanation. Some feel relieved. Some feel like their lifelong ruminations have been pointless. And some remain deeply concerned. Because there is no way they can prove this conjecture. That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Atheists often point to science as the methodology that will free us from reliance on faith – but as I have pointed out previously, atheists have to take a number of aspects of reality by faith or simply as ‘brute facts’. And as our knowledge of the universe expands so to do the number aspects of it that must simply be accepted, since they cannot be explored through observation or experimentation. The ‘multiverse’ appears to be one of those aspects of reality.

While it is undoubtedly true that science has many advantages over other methods of exploring the natural world; it appears certain though that the elimination of the need for faith isn’t one of them.


Observations

December 13, 2011

One of the insights I had as a skeptical agnostic that eventuated in my serious consideration of Christianity was the self-realization that despite the fact that I believed God to be unknowable and irrelevant I was constantly discussing and debating and considering His existence. I see the same thing regularly happening with New Atheists. Though they purport to derive their atheism as a result of scientific knowledge which they consider to be the ‘best way of knowing’, in practice they primarily use science as a reactionary bulwark against the possibility of God’s existence. Science isn’t the locus of their beliefs; it is in fact peripheral to their consideration of God.

The fact that their main use of what they consider the “best way of knowing” is to discuss and debate the existence of God verifies the Anselm’s notion that God is the ‘greatest conceivable being’ rather than diminishing it.