Friday, February 29, 2008

Deconstruction in Law

Just a side note to our thread on textual deconstruction and the Grammatico-Historical method of interpretation...

Modern analysts worry that the system of checks and balances established by the U.S. Constitution has been eroded, and specifically that the judicial branch has usurped power meant to be wielded by the legislative branch. Those who see it this way trace the problem back to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. a Supreme Court Justice from 1902 to 1932. Though it was much later that postmodernism was to become a formal system, Holmes was a moral relativist. But more importantly, he was the first person (in a position of such influence) to apply a postmodern approach to interpreting the Constitution.

Up until his tenure, the Grammatico-Historical method was what was used to interpret this most important legal document. That is, judges attempted to discover what the framers of the Constitution meant when they wrote it. But Holmes thought it would be more practical to ignore the authors' intent and to reinterpret it in light of his own days' problems and beliefs. He brought to legal interpretation a subjectivism that hadn't been seen before, and one that continues to change the legal landscape.

Almost no one would deny that the judicial branch now wields more power than ever since the Constitution went into effect, or that Holmes' tenure on the Supreme Court was instrumental in getting us to that state. There is perhaps more dispute about whether this is a bad or a good state of affairs. My point here, however, is simply this.. like so much of postmodern thought, this approach to textual criticism is illogical, being based ultimately on claims that are self-referentially absurd.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Christians and Textual Deconstruction

A couple of posts ago, I demonstrated why textual deconstruction is a failed philosophy. And as Christians, we are told (through Paul, in Colossians 2:8),
Do not be taken captive by empty philosophy...
But despite the absurdity of textual deconstruction, this postmodern idea has infiltrated all aspects of our culture, including the church.

Up until 100 years ago, when we analyzed, say, a novel, what we were concerned with was determining what meaning the author intended to convey. It was his or her meaning that mattered. Gradually, literary critics began to move from this position and begin to see the novel itself as the meaning-maker. Thus, it no longer mattered, say, what Herman Melville meant in Moby Dick; instead, the story's meaning was somehow inherent to the text itself, completely apart from the author's intent. But now, the view has progressed even further. Today, the book itself isn't even the holder of meaning. Rather, each reader provides the meaning as he or she interacts with the text. This is the subjective view of postmodernism. And it is logically absurd.

But don't we hear this same sort of thing in Bible study? Most of us have experienced it in a small group; the leader reads a Bible passage and then asks, "What does this mean to you?" We go around the circle, each one sharing his or her own idea of the passage's meaning. We all (especially those of us who are the products of the Protestant Reformation) acknowledge the importance of personal Bible study. But when we take a subjective approach to interpreting the Bible's meaning, we have abandoned proper interpretation for the sort dictated by our postmodern culture.

A Bible passage means only one thing. And that is what the original author (and the Holy Spirit through him) intended to convey to the original audience. (There are, of course, prophecies--including those with multiple fulfillments--that complicate this issue. Nonetheless,) proper biblical interpretation has been held to involve (at least since the Reformation) use of the grammatico-historical method. This method is meant to focus our attention on the original meaning of the text, and by doing so we avoid "reading into Scripture" our own ideas of what it ought to say.

When we abandon this method, we have conformed to the empty philosophy of our present age and culture.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Signs of Spring

A couple of signs of the onset of Spring from the bird world, one of them obvious (if you know where to look), and the other rather subtle...

The subtle one is the behavior of Western Meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta). In the open grasslands and shrub-steppe of the western Great Basin where I spend a good deal of time, this species is a year-round resident. But all winter long, they are secretive and mostly silent, remaining on the ground where they are hidden by shrubs and grass. Rarely do they sing or call, and they fly only if a close approach requires them to flush. But within the past week, all that has changed. Now, they are conspicuous, and they intend to be so. These days, they seek out a fence post, phone wire, or the top of the tallest shrub or juniper tree, that their territorial and courtship songs might broadcast further. It is also now that their brilliant yellow breast with its contrasting black bib is displayed to greatest advantage in the rays of the morning sun. Spring is just around the corner when the Meadowlarks eschew their winter-long anonymity and proclaim to all the world their readiness to stake a claim and win a mate.

But around here the earliest nester in the bird world is the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), and some of these large birds have already been incubating for a week or more. They don't make their own nests, but use stick nests originally built by hawks, magpies, or even pack rats, or just platforms formed by the branching of a tree or an indentation in a cliff. I know of a number of such places frequently used by Great Horned Owls, and I'm looking forward to taking a couple of hours in the next few days to see how many are nesting this year.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Textual Deconstruction

Another aspect of postmodern philosophy that faces the fatal logical problem of self-refutation is textual deconstruction. This is an idea that comes originally from Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). According to his theory, meaning is not determined by the text itself but comes only as the reader interacts with the text. The text has no inherent meaning, and no single meaning. In fact, the text has as many different valid interpretations as there are readers of it.

The problem is that Derrida put his theory into writing (as do most of those who have followed him). But Derrida (like all authors) had a clear intent in writing down his theory. He wanted to convey a particular meaning to each and every one of his readers, and he likely wrote as clearly and persuasively as he could in order to convey that meaning. And yet the message he sought to convey was that any meaning an author intends is inconsequential, that whatever the reader chooses to interpret from a text is what matters.

So Derrida was in the self-contradictory position of hoping that his readers would in this one instance suspend their belief in textual deconstruction long enough to apprehend his meaning and accept his theory of textual deconstruction.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Eclipse Tonight

Here in Central Oregon, we're expecting good views of a total lunar eclipse tonight. The forecast was for clouds, and we had some this morning, but it's quite clear now, and we should have great looks. The best part is that the whole show is first thing in the evening. So, no need to set the alarm for the wee hours.

If you're in our part of the world, I hope that when the sun goes down tonight you'll be able to watch the moon rise and then be eaten by the Earth's shadow. We'll all be watching it.

Death Tolls

The so-called New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, maintain that religion in all its forms is bad. They cite the acts of terrorism being perpetrated today by extremist Muslims, and then assert that all religions lead inevitably to violence and killing. With specific regard to Christianity, they point to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and witch trials as proof of their assertions.

There is much to be brought to bear against these claims, but I won't spend the time here. The reason for this post is to once again bring your attention to a thoughtful post by my friend Bob Perry. Go here for a clear comparison of the deaths for which professing Christians can be blamed and those for which an atheist worldview (like that of Dawkins) is responsible.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Problem with Postmodernism

I'm slated to give a talk to the Bend (Oregon) Apologetics Guild toward the beginning of next month. My topic is "Postmodernism," which is the spirit of the age in our culture. I hope to address postmodernism as a worldview and philosophy, dealing with its distinctive facets such as...

Denial of objective or absolute truth

Suspicion/rejection of metanarratives

Textual deconstruction

Since not all of my readers will be able to attend that March 5 luncheon lecture, I thought I'd process some of what I'll say here.

As a philosophical system, postmodernism has largely failed the test of close scrutiny by critical thinkers. That is, philosophers have nearly unanimously found postmodernism's central claims to suffer basic fatal flaws. For the most part, they are self-refuting or self-referentially absurd. I've discussed this type of problem before, particularly in relation to scientism and empiricism. But here let me give a couple of examples of the self-refuting nature of postmodernism's epistemological (truth/knowledge) claims. To say that
There is no such thing as truth
is to make a truth claim. The easy rejoinder is, "Oh! Is that true?" If the statement itself were deemed true, then it provides a glaring exception (right out of the gate) to the claim being made. Of course, today's postmodernist has caught on to this, and I hope you don't hear anyone in your particular circle making such a silly statement. But my bringing it up does not represent a straw-man argument, a caricature of the postmodern position. Because no matter how much more rhetorical complexity is added to the claim, it always remains self-refuting. How about this one?
If there does exist objective truth out there, we are prevented from ascertaining it by the vagaries and biases of our culture and language.
Sound better? Unfortunately, this statement suffers the same problem. It is, after all, a claim about objective truth--truth out there. And the obvious question now becomes, 'How did this particular person (the one making the claim) cut through the vagaries and biases of his own culture and language to discover this truth about the truth out there?'

I could go on--and it's really rather fun to spot the absurdity of these sorts of claims. But I'll leave some of the fun for you. So be watching and listening for postmodern claims about the nature of truth and knowledge. They all share a common fatal flaw...they are self-referentially absurd. Though postmodernism is alive and well on the street, it has already reached the dustbin of failed philosophies as far as philosophers themselves are concerned.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Students in Science

(This post continues thoughts from the last post.)

There is, however, one area in which there seems to be a troubling trend with regard to American students and science. And that is that our own young people are eschewing pursuing degrees in the sciences. Indeed, a large proportion of opportunities for graduate and postgraduate science positions in the U.S. are increasingly being filled by students from foreign countries. But this again points to conclusions opposite to those at which evolution activists would have us arrive. The problem is not the failure of American students to understand or accept macroevolution; rather, the problem is the heavy-handedness and close-mindedness with which the teaching of science in America is linked to metaphysical materialism. I have argued this before, so this time let me allow someone else to make my point. Here's Mark Mathis, who is the line producer for Expelled, the documentary (to be in theaters in April) about the denial of academic freedom in science in America...
Young people going into the physical and biological sciences are greeted with an atmosphere of great hostility toward the design proposition; not just by their professors but by fellow students, so many students choose to change what it is that they’re going to do—who wants to live their life working in an area where they are going to be a pariah if they actually speak their mind? And so you’ve got a lot of students who are choosing to do other things, and not go into the sciences. This is a mechanism by which you can control and make sure that you have a singular point of view that’s running the show.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Circular Reasoning for Darwin Day

Today is Darwin Day, so I'll take the opportunity to point out another example of very poor reasoning on the part of evolution activists...

You've probably heard it, evolutionists decrying the fact that the U.S. is falling behind other nations in science, where we've traditionally led the way. And the reason, they say, is our failure to accept the fact of neo-Darwinian macroevolution. Let's examine this a bit further.

First of all, on virtually every measure, the U.S. not only continues to lead the rest of the world but to do so by a wide margin. From aerospace to nanotechnology, through medicine and every science in between, the U.S. remains supreme and the place where the rest of the world comes to learn. So how is it that claims about our flagging abilities and knowledge arise? Here's how.

On tests covering scientific knowledge, American students fare more poorly than students from other industrialized nations. But here's the catch. Those tests include large sections that assess whether neo-Darwinian macroevolution is understood and affirmed, and it is this section that Americans tend to 'fail.' That is, Americans remain (much to the chagrin of evolution educators and activists) more skeptical of metaphysical naturalism than foreigners.

Objective appraisal of these tests leads to conclusions exactly opposite those of the evolution activists. For one, it could be inferred that the Americans taking these tests are more aware of the latest discoveries from a variety of scientific disciplines (which tend to undermine materialist assumptions), are better critical thinkers, or both. In addition, when one combines the continued prowess of American science on the more practical measures (like space exploration, medical technology, and such) with the finding that U.S. scientists understand evolution relatively poorly, one must face the possibility that the negative correlation is real. That is, belief in the theory of evolution actually impedes scientific progress. This would be easy to explain, since modern science depends upon a host of assumptions--including order and purpose in the universe and the reliability of our senses and reasoning to perceive and explain that order--that fit in well with a theistic worldview and are unfounded within (or, in the case of purpose, directly contrary to) the worldview of metaphysical naturalism.

But the case is even worse for the evolution activists, and that's because this exercise is a classic example of circular reasoning. The explanation for our (America's) sliding science status is our failure to embrace evolution. But our failure to embrace evolution is also the only evidence that can be offered to show that we are indeed sliding. The circularity here should be obvious to any clear thinker, but seems to escape the most articulate proponents of the fast-failing theory of evolution.

Happy Darwin Day!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

First Marmot

Today was one of those harbingers-of-spring days... I saw my first marmot of the year. Go here for last year's post that tells a bit about these mammals. I think today's first sighting of the year came almost two weeks earlier than last year, and that despite some recent snows and cold weather. It has been up near 50 degrees the last two days, though, and that must be enough to signal spring to the 'rockchucks.'

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Evolution Sunday

This weekend has been declared--by some liberal Protestant churches--"Evolution Weekend." Formerly "Evolution Sunday," this is the fourth annual celebration (on the weekend closest to "Darwin Day") of... whatever. (I'm not sure what there is to celebrate about evolution at all, much less in the setting of a nominally Christian church.)

But on that theme, I thought I'd share a snippet from an article by Kevin Padian ("Darwin's enduring legacy") in today's Nature,
One might well ask how [people skeptical of macroevolution] can accept the benefits of medical research, inoculations, pharmacology, crop improvement and so much more that depends on an understanding of evolution.
As will always be the case in such promotional tirades, there is no effort made to support the claim that medicine, agricultural improvements, and such depend in any way on understanding evolutionary theory. As I have shared before, the claim is simply false.

I've previously quoted A.S. Wilkins discussing how superfluous evolutionary theory is to the conducting of science. He wrote...
While the great majority of biologists would agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky's dictum that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas. Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.
In a similar vein are the findings of Philip Skell, a member of the National Academy of Science. Skell polled 70 scientists about whether they would have approached their research any differently if they had thought that Darwinian theory was wrong. All said "No." Skell's conclusion?
From my conversations with leading researchers it had become clear that modern experimental biology gains its strength from the availablity of new instruments and methodologies, not from an immersion in historical biology [evolutionary theory].
Skell received (as you might imagine) a number of letters from fellow scientists critical of his claim. This induced him to write a response to these letters:
My essay about Darwinism and modern experimental biology has stirred up a lively discussion, but the responses still provide no evidence that evolutionary theory is the cornerstone of experimental biology. Comparative physiology and comparative genomics have certainly been fruitful, but comparative biology originated before Darwin and owes nothing to his theory. Before the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, comparative biology focused mainly on morphology because physiology and biochemistry were in their infancy and genomics lay in the future; but the extension of a comparative approach to these subdisciplines depended on the development of new methodologies and instruments, not on evolutionary theory and immersion in historical biology.

One letter mentions directed molecular evolution as a technique to discover antibodies, enzymes, and drugs. Like comparative biology, this has certainly been fruitful, but it is not an application of Darwinian evolution--it is the modern molecular equivalent of classical breeding. Long before Darwin, breeders used artificial selection to develop improved strains of crops and livestock. Darwin extrapolated this in an attempt to explain the origin of new species, but he did not invent the process of artificial selection itself.

It is noteworthy that not one of these critics has detailed an example where Darwin's Grand Paradigm Theory guided researchers to their goals. In fact, most innovations are not guided by grand paradigms but by far more modest, testable hypotheses. Recognizing this, neither medical schools nor pharmaceutical firms maintain divisions of evolutionary science. The fabulous advances in experimental biology over the past century have had a core dependence on the development of new methodologies and instruments, not on intensive immersion in historical biology and Darwin's theory, which attempted to historicize the meager documentation.

Evolution is not an observable characteristic of living organisms. What modern experimental biologists study are the mechanisms by which living organisms maintain their stability, without evolving. Organisms oscillate about a median state; and if they deviate significantly from that state, they die. It has been research on these mechanisms of stability, not research guided by Darwin's theory, which has produced the major fruits of modern biology and medicine. And so I ask again: Why do we invoke Darwin?
And I would ask, Why would anyone invoke Darwin in church?

Monday, February 4, 2008

PoE (Reprise)

In my look at historical responses to the problem of evil, pain, and suffering (see my last post for Part 1), I want to discuss just two more Christian thinkers.

The first is C.S. Lewis, medievalist scholar, author, and apologist. His book The Problem of Pain is recognized as a classic on this subject, and in it he provides what many consider to be excellent arguments in defense of the God of Judeo-Christianity in light of the existence of evil and suffering in the world.

More recently, Roman Catholic philosopher Eleanor Stump has provided what I find to be one of the most insightful analyses of this issue of suffering. She categorizes most of such arguments—those from The Problem of Pain and of Augustine, Pascal, and Plantinga—as coming from the “third-person” perspective. These are philosophical arguments about the evil “out there.” An entirely different facet of the problem of evil is the “first-person” perspective. This encompasses the sufferings, doubts, and questions (as about God’s existence and goodness) that are experienced by the person currently living in grief, pain, or fear. And the person going through such an experience has little use for the arguments given from a third-person perspective.

Indeed, later in life, Lewis experienced firsthand the depths of grief associated with the untimely death of his wife (after only four years of marriage). His doubts (about the very existence and goodness of God, about his own Christian worldview) are chronicled in A Grief Observed. A reading of this makes it clear that the arguments he gave in his earlier book (which were third-person arguments) would have been ill-received if offered to him during his first-person experience of grief.

To return to the book of Job… his so-called friends offer Job third-person arguments for what he is going through, and provide him no comfort. (This is exacerbated by the fact that their arguments fall along the lines of the Deuteronomic view… “You must have done something grievously wrong for Yahweh to be punishing you like this.”) At the end of the book, God Himself visits and speaks with Job. And part of what God offers is third-person arguments. In essence, He tells Job that His ways and purposes are ultimately beyond Job’s finite understanding. But, according to Stump, we are wrong if we think that this is sufficient to account for the change in Job’s attitude.

Rather, says Stump, what made the difference is that Job had had a “second-person” encounter with God. He could no longer doubt God’s existence (as might be our situation from either a first- or third-person perspective), because he had now spoken with Him face to face.

By analogy, consider the 6-year-old boy with an otherwise fatal condition that is about to face corrective surgery. He has been in pain, and what he has heard (from the doctors, nurses, and others) has given him reason to fear even greater pain. Obviously, he does not need his mother to inundate him with medical terms and a thorough explanation about the procedure and its expected consequences. All he needs is to see her loving and concerned face, to feel the squeeze of her hand, to know (without understanding) that the pain through which he is about to go is what his loving mother considers best for him.

That, says Eleanor Stump, is what the book of Job offers us. Job’s attitude changes because he encounters God again, remembers the great love He has shown for Job, and trusts (without full understanding) that God can redeem whatever earthly suffering Job is called to face.