August 2008

Last Friday Obama announced Joe Biden as his VP.  That was somewhat of a shocker for me.  But I guess the only thing better than one egomaniac on the ticket is two egomaniacs! (Clearly, I’m showing my political hand here!) 

Today, McCain has announced his VP pick: Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska.  I haven’t exactly been thrilled over John McCain, but his VP choice isn’t going to make it much easier for me to vote for him (but I will, as I am much much less thrilled over Obama).  

Why am I not excited over Mrs. Palin?  After all, from what I know of her so far, she seems pretty conservative, both morally and fiscally.  What more could one ask for in a candidate?  Experience!  Substantive ideology needs to be matched with experience, particularly when they job they are “applying” for is the second highest position of power in this country (with a chance of taking the top spot if their boss kicks the bucket or behaves illegally).  Not only is Mrs. Palin very young, but she has very little political experience.  She has only been governor for a little over a year and a half.  Sure, she was a two-term mayor as well, but she was mayor of a city with a population of less than 10,000.  Running a small town, and running the most powerful country in the world aren’t exactly the same.  I don’t have any reason to believe Mrs. Palin is prepared to be president of this country. 

I’m also disappointed that McCain picked a woman.  No, it’s not because I am a chauvinist.  It’s because McCain seems to have picked a woman for strategic reasons, rather than because Mrs. Palin was the most qualified for the job.  Surely, there were other Republicans more qualified.  Why didn’t McCain pick one of them?  Dare I say it’s because he’s hoping to women voters, particularly those who were Hillary supporters?  It’s not a bad strategy when you think about it.  A lot of women vote Democrat, and many were rooting for Hillary as the first woman president.  Well, we all know that boat didn’t float.  So McCain comes along and gives women another chance at getting one of their own into the White House.  The hitch is that they have to vote for the other party.  Brilliant!  

In one sense I love it, because it gives McCain better odds at beating Obama, and I want nothing more than to see that happen.  An Obama presidency would be a disaster in my opinion.  But in another sense, I am not at all thrilled with the prospect of “President Palin” in the event John McCain dies in office.  But who knows.  Maybe my initial judgment of Mrs. Palin is wrong.  Maybe she has wisdom beyond her years, and beyond her political experience that will make her a good vice president, and possibly a good president.  We’ll see.

Chronobiologist Bora Zivkovic, who is the online community manager for the Public Library of Science (PLoS), had some interesting things to say about the teaching of evolution.  Zivkovic recognizes that teaching evolutionary theory to those who have religious objections to it can be difficult.  Zivkovic also recognizes that some of the “proofs” for evolution are not accurate.  Is he advocating that those proofs be abandoned?  Not at all.  So long as they are useful in converting creationists to the cause of evolution, he is all for it: 

You cannot bludgeon kids with truth (or insult their religion, i.e., their parents and friends) and hope they will smile and believe you. Yes, NOMA [Non-Overlapping Magasterium, which means science and religion are in two entirely different spheres of thought that have no bearing on one another] is wrong, but is a good first tool for gaining trust. You have to bring them over to your side, gain their trust, and then hold their hands and help them step by step. And on that slow journey, which will be painful for many of them, it is OK to use some inaccuracies temporarily if they help you reach the students. If a student…goes on to study biology, then he or she will unlearn the inaccuracies in time. If most of the students do not, but those cutesy examples help them accept evolution, then it is OK if they keep some of those little inaccuracies for the rest of their lives. It is perfectly fine if they keep thinking that Mickey Mouse evolved as long as they think evolution is fine and dandy overall. Without Mickey, they may have become Creationist activists instead. Without belief in NOMA they would have never accepted anything, and well, so be it. Better NOMA-believers than Creationists, don’t you think?

 It’s scary to realize that some evolutionists are so intent on spreading their scientific dogma, that they are willing to deceive their students to accomplish their goal.  ‘Tell them whatever you need to tell them so they’ll join us,’ appears to be the motto.  Very sad. 


HT: Evolution News & Views

In my former post, I liked to an article by Rob Stein of the Washington Post.  While the article was well-written, and very informative, I was troubled by one line in particular.  Richard Doerflinger, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been a prominent feature in the stem cell debates.  He is critical of embryonic stem cell research, but supportive of adult stem cell research.  Here is how Stein prefaced Doerflinger’s response to the news of this breakthrough: “Even the harshest critics of embryonic stem cell research hailed the development as a major, welcome development.”  He then goes on to quote Doerflinger. 

It seems to me that Stein’s emphasis is entirely misplaced given the subject at hand.  Embryonic stem cell research was not the topic at hand, so why bring up Doerflinger’s position on that research?  How is it relevant?  

Furthermore, by prefacing Doerflinger’s quote by saying “even the harshest critics…”, it conveys the idea that Doerflinger would normally be opposed to something like this, but even he thinks it’s great.  The fact of the matter is that Doerflinger is a strong proponent of the very kind of research Stein was writing about.  A more proper and fitting preface would have been, “The strongest proponents of adult stem cell research could not have been more pleased with this breakthrough.  As Richard Doerflinger has said….”  

The fact that his comments were prefaced with a negative tone, related to a different topic, makes me think Stein might have a bias against those who oppose embryonic stem cell research–a bias so strong, that he cannot help but to express it, even in an article that celebrates the success of the very kind of research his ideological opponents have championed.  

Or maybe it was his way of trying to tie this breakthrough into the larger debate over embryonic vs. adult stem cells.  I don’t know, but either way, he seemed to poison the well before letting Doerflinger have his say, and it wasn’t fair.  After all, he never prefaced the comments of embryonic stem cell supporters with, “Even those most critical of the ultimate value of adult stem cell research hailed the breakthrough as a welcome development.”  What else are we to conclude? 

I emailed Mr. Stein these questions.  We’ll see if he responds.

In a major breakthrough, Harvard scientists have been able to reprogram adult pancreatic stem cells into beta cells capable of producing insulin, simply by flipping three genetic switches.  That is cool enough in itself, but the real kicker is that they did this in vivo.  

Last year it was shown that an adult stem cell could be reverted back to an embryonic-like state (induced pluripontent stem cells).  But this process is one that takes place in vitro.  Not only do the stem cells need to be removed from the body, but then they need to be reverted to an embryonic state, then coaxed into differentiating into the desired cell type, and finally be placed back in the body for therapeutic purposes.  The Harvard team skipped all but the third step.  They have shown that adult stem cells can be transformed into other types of cells without being removed from the body, and without having to be retovertered into embryonic form.  Not only does this make for a less invasive procedure, but it would also avoid the current problem facing embryonic and embryonic-like stem cells: tumor formation.  

While this is definitely a big breakthrough, only time will tell whether it can be safely used in humans, and how many conditions can be treated with this procedure.  One thing seems certain, however: this is just one more nail in the coffin for embryonic stem cell research.  It is becoming both impractical, and irrelevant.

This is how Nancy Pelosi answered Tom Brokaw’s question about when life begins: “I would say that as an ardent practicing Catholic this is an issue that I have studied for a long time, and what I know is over the centuries the doctors of the Church have not been able to make that definition. And St. Augustine said three months. We don’t know. The point is it that it shouldn’t have an impact on a woman’s right to chose.”

Does she really mean to say that if we did know when life begins (which we do), and it turns out life begins prior to the time abortions are allowed, that this should not impact a woman’s right to have an abortion?  Is Pelosi so pro-abortion, that even in when the evidence is clear that what is being aborted is a living human being, that the right to an abortion trumps the life guaranteed to that human being in the Constitution?  Talk about a radical position!

HT: Justin Taylor

According to David Berlinski, Thomas Aquinas argued the universe must have begun at a finite time in the past by appealing to Diodorus’s (1st cent. B.C. Greek philosopher) view of possibility: if it is possible that something not exist, then it is certain that at some time or another it did not exist.  Only that which has a necessary existence can be, and must be eternal. [1]


Aquinas argued that while our universe does exist, it does not have to exist.  It is contingent, not necessary.  This much seems reasonable.  After all, it is possible to conceive of our universe not existing.  There is nothing about the physical constituents of the universe that demands they exist.  Using Diodorus’s principle, Aquinas concluded that since it is possible that our universe not exist, then it is certain that at some time in the past it did not exist. 


Berlinksi thinks Aquinas’ argument commits the fallacy of composition (e.g. just because every part of an elephant is light, does not mean the elephant as a whole is light).  He argues that while Diodorus’s principle might be true of things in the universe, it is not necessarily true of the universe as a whole.  But I think Berlinski misses the point.  The point is that only necessary things must exist eternally.  Nothing else needs to, or can for that matter.  Contingent things have causes, and hence beginnings.


What do you think of Aquinas’s argument, Berlinski’s criticism, or my response?  I tend to think this is a decent argument for the finitude of the universe.  What do you think?


 [1]David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Crown Forum, 2008), 85. 

David Berlinksi, an agnostic philosopher and mathematician, summarizes one of the philosophical arguments for a past-finite universe as follows:

“If a series of causes do not start, it cannot get going, and if it does not get going, then there will be no intermediate causes, and if there are no intermediate causes, then over here, where we have just noticed that a blow has caused a bruise, there is no explanation for what is before our eyes.[1] Either there is a first cause or there is no cause at all, and since there are causes at work in nature, there must be a first.[2]

Essentially, the argument is that the universe must have a finite past because we experience intermediate causes, and intermediate causes would not be possible if they were not preceded by a first cause that began the whole series.

Berlinksi thinks this is a weak, but not an absurd argument. Personally, I am conflicted about its cogency. On the one hand, it does appear weak. It rests on a tautology, and begs the question. To see how, let’s put the argument in deductive form:

P1 The universe consists of a causal series of events
P2 If a causal series does not begin, it cannot get going
P3 If a causal series cannot get going, there will be no intermediate causes
P4 We experience intermediate causes
P5 Therefore a causal chain got going
P6 Therefore a causal chain began
P7 Therefore the universe began to exist in the finite past

Premise 2 is clearly a tautology. It could be restated as “only that which begins, starts,” or “only that which begins, begins.” Not only is this an unhelpful truism, but it begs the question. In saying a causal series cannot “get going” unless it “begins” is to assume from the start what needs to be proved: that the universe “got going” as opposed to “has always been going.”[3] Says who? If the universe is eternal, nothing ever “got going,” and yet, clearly, there exists a causal series that “is going.” One cannot just stipulate that a causal series cannot exist unless it had a beginning, and then conclude that since a causal series does exist, it must have begun. One must demonstrate why it is that a causal series that did not begin cannot be.[4] I think this can be done.

A causal chain must begin with a first cause to avoid the problem of the impossibility of traversing an infinite. Just as it would be impossible to reach the top step of an infinite staircase, it is impossible to traverse an infinite number of past moments to reach the present. An endless series of events, by definition, has no end, and yet today would mark the end of that series. The concept of an infinite past, then, is incoherent. The past cannot consist of an infinite number of causal events. There had to be a first cause in the finite past that caused all subsequent, intermediate causes. In other words, it is impossible for there to be intermediate causes unless they find their origin in a first cause.

While this vindicates the conclusion of the original argument, it rests on premises that are so different that it can hardly be said to be a modification of the original argument. It seems to be a separate argument altogether. In deductive form the “modified” argument would appear as follows:

P1 The universe consists of a causal series of events
P2 If the causal series is infinite, today would mark the completion of that series
P3 It is impossible to complete an infinite series of events
P4 Therefore the causal series of events had a beginning
P5 Therefore the universe began to exist in the finite past

Does this mean, then, that the original argument should be discarded? Is the tautological nature of premise 2 beyond repair, dooming the entire argument? What do you think of my criticism of the argument? What about my logic? I have been thinking and writing on this for about five hours now. The more I think about it, and the more I write about it, the murkier it gets in my mind. I would appreciate the input of someone who is taking a fresh look at this argument for their insights. Thanks!

[1]Berlinski seems to have made a mental slip in saying the “blow has caused a bruise,” for this assumes a casually-connected chain of at least two events. But according to the argument, no causal relationship can be established between any events unless there is a first cause. As the argument goes, not only would we be unable to explain the cause of the blow, but we would be unable even to say the blow was causally related to the bruise.
[2]David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Crown Forum, 2008), 68-69.
[3]Not only does premise 2 beg the question, but it stacks the deck in favor of a past-finite universe by declaring that a causal series of events, to be an actual causal series of events, must have a beginning event. This is little short of definitional fiat.
[4]It should be pointed out that the defender of an eternal universe has no explanation for the causal series. If only that which has a beginning needs a cause, and the causal series has no beginning because the universe has no beginning, then there can’t be any cause or reason for it. It’s just been going on forever, inexplicably. This is not an intellectually satisfying answer, for it goes against our causal intuitions that everything has a cause, and an infinite regression of causes is impossible. Our causal intuitions tell us the regress must stop at some ultimate cause.

These days, it is common to hear that we are living in a post-modern society. I have echoed this many times myself. William Lane Craig, however, argues that this is serious a misdiagnosis of culture. According to Craig, not only is post-modernism unlivable, but it is not the cause of the religious and moral relativism of our day. Craig argues that these phenomena are outgrowths of modernism, particularly the mid-20th century philosophy of Verificationism. Rather than living in a post-modern culture, we are living in a post-Christian culture.


It has become quite common for people to assert that we cannot know anything about God, or that anything we ascribe to Him is neither true nor false, but simply meaningless. God is said to be ineffable. This assertion is often offered in the context of evangelism. In our attempt to persuade someone to become a Christian, we make certain truth-claims about God, and are met by the “God is ineffable” response, effectively shutting down the conversation. What can you say to such a person? I would suggest you ask a simple question: why? Why should we think God is ineffable? Typically, the reasons proffered will include “Because God is wholly other,” “Because God transcends language,” or “Because God surpasses human categories of thought.”

Do you notice something amiss about these responses?: They all ascribe certain characteristics to God’s nature, and these characteristics are thought to be true descriptions of God. In essence they are saying it is true that God is wholly other, and transcends human language and categories of thought, and this is why nothing can be true of God. Or similarly, they know God is wholly other, and transcends human language and categories of thought, and this is why nothing can be known of God.

This is self-refuting. They are claiming to know certain truths about God, that make it impossible to know truths about God. The advocate of an ineffable deity is left in the strange situation where he is unable to provide any reason for thinking God to be ineffable, without having to claim to know something true about Him. If the “ineffabalist” cannot provide a reason for thinking God to be ineffable without giving us true knowledge about Him, there is no reason to think God is ineffable.