January 2009

Christian “apologist” Rob Bowman had some interesting things to say about the connotation “apologist” evokes among many non-Christians: 

Although some of us actually consider the role of a Christian apologist to be an honorable vocation and ministry, the term apologist is now largely used as a pejorative. The Jerusalem Post, for example, refers to Jimmy Carter as “Hamas’s apologist.” Similarly, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch calls John Esposito, a Western scholar on Islam funded by Saudi royalty, an Islamic “apologist.” Salon.com refers to Holocaust denier David Irving as “Hitler’s apologist.” Various scholars and critics of groups commonly called “cults” have referred to those scholars whose treatment of these groups was more sympathetic or exculpatory as “cult apologists.”

The connotation of apologist in this usage is pretty clear: an apologist is someone who defends the indefensible, for whatever reason (prejudice, power, and money are among the most common accusations). In popular usage, apologists are not truth-seekers but rather truth-benders, sophisticates skilled at making the irrational seem reasonable, the immoral seem moral, and the false seem true. Their intention is simply to defend the position they have chosen to take, come what may, facts and evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

I think Bowman’s assessment is dead-on.  I’m just not so sure what I should call myself now.  Saying “I am a man who presents rational arguments in support of the veracity of Christianity” to everyone who asks me what I do seems a bit much!

In the UK, grandparents have had their grandchildren forcibly removed from the home by social services because they were deemed too old and too sick to care for them.  They are only 59 and 46 years old, and suffer from angina and diabetes.  Unless there is more to the story, I fail to see how this warrants the children being removed from the home, and being put up for adoption.  There are times to remove children from a home, but this doesn’t seem to be one of them.  It scares me to know that a democratic government can wield this kind of power and get away with it.  I hope the people of the UK rise up against it.  


HT: Melinda Penner

silenceA U.S. District judge ruled that an Illinois law requiring a moment of silence is unconstitutional because it “is a subtle effort to force students at impressionable ages to contemplate religion.”  While I do not think the Constitution requires the elimination of prayer from schools, neither am I an advocate of having school-led prayer.  But a moment of silence is hardly a prayer, and hardly constitutes religion.

Basically this ruling says people cannot even be afforded a few seconds by school officials to offer up their own silent prayers to the god of their choice, if they so choose.  This is militant secularism.  And of course, the lawsuit was filed by a militant atheist.  And they think it’s the Christians who are intolerant.  Nothing says tolerance like “you can’t pray at school in silence if you want to.”

LiveScience reported on a new “breakthrough” in origin-of-life (OOL) research.  Robert Roy Britt began the article by describing the current state of OOL research: “One of life’s greatest mysteries is how it began.  Scientists have pinned it down to roughly this: Some chemical reactions occurred about 4 billion years ago – perhaps in a primordial tidal soup or maybe with help of volcanoes or possibly at the bottom of the sea or between the mica sheets – to create biology.” 

I like how Britt “pinned it down” to chemical reactions in a soup, or maybe volcanoes, or maybe the sea, or maybe between mica sheets.  The specificity is overwhelming.  Can you imagine if homicide detectives worked like this?: “Captain, we haven’t caught the killer yet, but we’ve pinned it down to a human being, living on some continent, on this planet.”  Good work guys.  I’m glad you narrowed it down for us.  Now I can check outer-space off my list as a possible location for the origin of life.  Oh wait, some scientists think life did originate in outer-space!  Maybe the killer isn’t living on this planet after all.  Someone better alert the detectives to broaden their search.  End of sarcasm.

So what was the big breakthrough?: a self-replicating RNA molecule.  Some background information will be helpful.  One theory of how life originated from inorganic material by purely chance, natural processes is the RNA-world hypothesis.  According to this hypothesis, RNA strands formed from nucleotides, which later gave rise to DNA, proteins, and the basic cell.  Among its many problems, however, is the fact that no RNA strand has ever self-replicated in the lab.  But Gerald Joyce and his team at the Scripps Research Institute was able to get RNA to do just that.  This isn’t much of a breakthrough, however, at least not as it concerns OOL research. 

Joyce was able to get RNA to replicate only by engineering the RNA molecules to copy “word-by-word” rather than letter-by-letter (nucleotide by nucleotide).  But that is not how RNA replicates in natural conditions, so why think this experiment tells us anything about how RNA might have been able to self-replicate on the early Earth, and how life got started?  If anything, it seems to demonstrate that for RNA to replicate apart from the cell requires an intelligent agent to manipulate it into behaving in ways it does not behave in nature.  And if that’s what we’re doing, then the results of the experiment don’t tell us anything about the chance, physical process by which life emerged. 

Then there is the matter of the nucleotide strings Joyce and his team put in the beaker with the RNA.  These raw materials are necessary for RNA replication, but why think they would have been available in the early Earth, and/or available in the quantities and locations needed?  If an ancient RNA molecule needed thousands of nucleotides at location X for replication to occur, but only 50 were present at location Y, there would be no replication.  As Stuart Kauffman wrote:

The rate of chemical reactions depends on how rapidly the reacting molecular species encounter one another-and that depends on how high their concentrations are. If the concentration of each is low, the chance that they will collide is very much lower. In a dilute prebiotic soup, reactions would be very slow indeed. A wonderful cartoon I recently saw captures this. It was entitled ‘The Origin of Life.’ Dateline 3.874 billion years ago. Two amino acids drift close together at the base of a bleak rocky cliff; three seconds later, the two amino acids drift apart. About 4.12 million years later, two amino acids drift close to each other at the base of a primeval cliff…. Well Rome wasn’t built in a day.[1]

Is it any surprise that if you provide the right kind of “RNA food” in the right quantities, in the right location, and re-program the RNA so that it is able to join itself to those nucleotides, that it does so?  No.  Because it is not surprising that when an intelligent agent involves itself in the process, what is naturally impossible becomes possible.  Take away that intelligent agent, however, and you are left with the impossible.  Joyce’s work was not a breakthrough for OOL research, but a reaffirmation of what we already know: intelligent agents can do things nature cannot do on its own.

[1]Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, [1995] (Penguin: London, 1996, reprint), 34-35.

“Don’t believe everything you think.”–Anonymous

Most Christians are under the assumption that it took Noah 120 years to build the ark, because God said “My spirit will not remain in humankind indefinitely, since they are mortal. They will remain for 120 more years” (Genesis 6:3).  Since this verse appears prior to God’s command to Noah to build the ark, it is reasoned that it must have taken Noah 120 years to finish the project.  A careful reading of the text, however, will demonstrate that the ark was built in 80 years or less.

Genesis 5:32 says Noah became the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth after he was 500 years old.  If it took Noah 120 years to build the ark, the flood would have come when Noah was 620 years old.  And yet Genesis 8:13 says Noah was 601 when the flood waters dried up.  Given that the flood lasted about a year, Noah would have been 600 when he “set sail.” (see also Genesis 9:28)  At best, that leaves 100 years to build the ark.

We can be more specific, however.  According to Genesis 11:10, Shem was 100 years old when he fathered Arphaxad two years after the flood.  That means Shem was 98 when the flood ended, and thus 97 when the flood began.  If Noah was 600 when the flood began, then Noah must have fathered Shem when he was 503.  We know from Genesis 6:18 that God did not instruct Noah to build the ark until after his sons were born, and after they had wives of their own.  If we assume Noah fathered his three sons in three consecutive years, his last son would be born when Noah was 505 years old.  And if we assume that his youngest son married at the age of 15, Noah would be no younger than 520 years old when God instructed him to build the ark.  If he was 600 when the flood came, then the building of the ark could not have taken more than 80 years.

What, then, is the meaning of Genesis 6:3?  I think we are right to understand it to refer to the amount of time before which God would destroy the Earth.  What we are wrong to assume, however, is that God instructed Noah to build the ark immediately after making this decision.  There is nothing in the text to warrant this conclusion, as there are no temporal indicators suggesting that God revealed Himself to Noah immediately afterward.  We are told of God’s decision to destroy the Earth in 120 years in a separate narrative describing men’s wickedness.  That narrative ends at 6:8, and a new narrative about Noah begins at 6:9.  It is here that we read of God’s interaction with Noah, and His instructions to him to build the ark.  Given what we know from other passages about the length of time it took Noah to build the ark, there must be at least a 40 year gap between Genesis 6:3 and 6:13-21.

Last month Amanda Gefter opined in New Scientist that when it comes to explaining the fine-tuning of the universe “It Isn’t as Simple as God vs the Multiverse.”  She was referring to recent comments made by Steven Weinberg and Tim Folger to the effect that cosmic fine-tuning can only be explained by a supernatural cosmic designer or a multiverse.  While Gefter thinks the multiverse hypothesis is a good one, she takes exception with this dichotomy as being unscientific:

There are plenty of reasons to take the multiverse seriously. Three key theories – quantum mechanics, cosmic inflation and string theory – all converge on the idea. But the reason physicists talk about the multiverse as an alternative to God is because it helps explain why the universe is so bio-friendly. From the strength of gravity to the mass of a proton, it’s as if the universe were designed just for us. If, however, there are an infinite number of universes – with physical constants that vary from one to the next – our cosy neighbourhood isn’t only possible, it’s inevitable.  But to suggest that if this theory doesn’t pan out our only other option is a supernatural one is to abandon science itself.

How so?  According to Gefter it is because “science never boils down to a choice between two alternative explanations.  It is always plausible that both are wrong and a third or fourth or fifth will turn out to be correct.”  While I would object to an absolutist interpretation of “never,” in general I would agree that in principle, at least, there could be explanations of the cosmic fine-tuning other than a supernatural creator or the multiverse.

But what might they be?  After all, the reason folks like Weinberg and Folger have reduced the debate to a dichotomy between a supernatural creator and the multiverse is because to-date, no other explanations fit the data.  Gefter postulates that maybe we “endow the universe with certain features by the mere act of observation. … [O]bservers are creating the universe and its entire history right now.  If we in some sense create the universe, it is not surprising that the universe is well suited to us.”  What is surprising, however, is the fact that Gefter entertains this wild and incoherent speculation as a rational, scientific possibility (in her own words, “That’s speculative, but at least it’s science.”).

To say we create the universe through our observation is to say we cause the universe (including its past and present forms) to exist, and to exist in a certain way.  But this is absurd for several reasons:

  1. It would require backward-causation, in which present causes (our observations) produce historical effects.  What philosophical or scientific reason is there to believe this is plausible, yet alone possible?
  2. If our act of observation is the sufficient cause of the universe’s existence, then prior to our observation (the cause) there was no universe (effect).  If there was no universe, what were we observing?  Nothing.  If there was nothing to observe, there was no effect to affect.
  3. Where did observers come from?  If, for observers to exist, the universe must be finely-tuned to produce them, then the universe must precede its observers both causally, logically, and temporally.  If a finely-tuned universe must precede its observers, then it is the cause of us-we are not the cause of it.
  4. If observers cause the universe to exist, and the universe in turn causes observers to exist, then we must exist prior to existing, which is incoherent.
  5. If observers endow the universe with certain features by the act of observation, and observers observe different (and sometimes conflicting) things, why isn’t the universe endowed with different laws, and a different history simultaneously?  Why doesn’t the universe have an eternal past when observed by a proponent of the Steady-State model, and a finite past when observed by a proponent of the Big Bang model?  If the universe is a real existent, it cannot be both eternal and past-finite simultaneously.  One of the observers must be mistaken.  If that observer cannot alter reality by his observation, then it follows that our observing the universe has no causal relationship to the universe.

Far from demonstrating the inadequacy of the creator-multiverse dichotomy, Gefter confirms it.  If the dichotomy can only be avoided by postulating something so absurd as the notion that we create the universe by observing it, surely it is more rational to stick with the dichotomy.

HT: Colliding Universes

443909a-i10Many attempts have been made to ground morality outside of a personal God, but all fall miserably short.  At best, non-theistic ethical systems offer a rationale, or principle by which one can justify a system of prescriptions and proscriptions, but in what do they ground the rationale?  The guiding principle may provide for a consistent system of ethical thought, but just because a system is consistent does not mean it is true, or that anyone is obliged to adopt it.  Offering a rationale for saying one ought to do X is very different from grounding that moral imperative itself.

The only way to ground a moral imperative is to anchor it in some transcendent source.  Any system that is grounded on principles created by man cannot transcend man because it has no objective value.  It is entirely subjective; a social convention; morality by the people, of the people, and for the people.  Society could choose to adopt a totally different rationale that supports a totally different set of prescriptions and proscriptions without violating any moral truths, because non-theistic moral systems are not representations of moral reality.  Indeed, there is no such thing as moral reality (moral anti-realism).  In the end, non-theistic moral systems provide no ontological basis on which to hang objective moral rules, and thus offer no compelling reason to abide by the rules of the system.

Some atheists believe objective moral rules exist as part of the fabric of the universe (they are moral realists).  These moral laws are said to exist as inexplicably as the laws of nature itself.  If so, the grounding problem would be solved, because there would be an objective basis for moral prescriptions and proscriptions.  But why think we are obliged to align our lives with these moral rules?  Obligations are grounded in relationships, and relationships entail personal agents.  If moral rules are not grounded in a transcendent moral being, it makes no sense to think we are obligated to follow them.  They can be safely ignored without enduring consequence.

But what if we chose to follow them anyway?  Would it matter?  No.  Our moral choices would be insignificant because the finality of the grave allows for no moral accountability.  I will not be rewarded for having obeyed the natural moral laws, and you will not be punished for having ignored them.  The outcome is the same.  In the end, it becomes meaningless.  A moral realism that is meaningless is no better than a moral anti-realism that is meaningless.  Only theism can ground objective moral values, our duty to submit to those values, and supply us with a rational reason to fulfill our moral obligations.

I should make it clear that the question is not whether non-theists can recognize objective moral laws apart from belief in God, or even keep them apart from belief in God.  They can, and do.  The question is how they can make sense of that which they recognize, and make sense of that which they do.  Apart from theism, I think the answer is negative.