Thursday, February 26, 2009

Darwin's Proof

I'm reading Darwin's Proof, subtitled The Triumph of Religion over Science. It's by Cornelius G. Hunter, molecular biophysicist and science historian. Like me, he has a biologist's--an insider's, if you will--understanding of how meagre is the evidence in favor of neo-Darwinian evolution. And his contribution (in this and two other books) is to show how the vast majority of arguments offered in support of evolution are not scientific ones but religious ones, ones that presuppose a caricature of God that is little like the biblical portrayal.

I long ago came to see the modern acceptance of Darwinism as the real-life equivalent of the people in Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Emperor's New Clothes." I cannot remember whether I came to that realization independently, or whether I once heard an evolution skeptic draw the comparison. But now I've come across it again in Hunter's book (which I haven't read before), and so thought it worthwhile to share his version of the analogy.
The story is about an emperor who is fooled into wearing no clothes and the mob mentality that overtakes his subjects as they too are led to go along with the charade. All the people in the kingdom are told that the emperor has beautiful new clothes, and the emperor is convinced as well. When the people see the smiling emperor with no clothes, no one wants to point out the obvious.
More accurately, the people are told that only sophisticated people can appreciate the splendour of the new clothes, and so each of the onlooking mob dares not say that he sees nothing for fear of being labelled a rustic. Hunter continues...
When I first read the story, I was unimpressed. What was the point? The story certainly had no bearing on the real events of the world. Such an obviously false and absurd charade could never actually take place, and if it did, large numbers of people would never go along with it.

But now I appreciate Andersen's tale. It is indeed possible for people to go along with bizarre explanations. The problems with evolution are evident in nature itself. Biology is full of amazing designs whose evolution would apparently constitute nothing less than a miracle.
Yes, indeed. And those who look closely at the evidence will conclude--unless that have lost all use of a healthy 'baloney detector'--that the emperor is stark naked.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Centrality of Miracles

In the last post, I tried to make two main points regarding miracle accounts in the Bible. The first is that, whatever else we do with them, it is illegitimate to explain them away as the naive, uncritical acceptance of the unnatural by the unsophisticated people of Bible times. The second is that the issue (of the possibility of miracles) really boils down to the metaphysical question of whether naturalism or supernaturalism (Christian theism) is a more accurate understanding of reality.

Today, I want to take on another modern claim made against the biblical miracle accounts. It goes like this...
There are miracle stories not only in the Bible but also in the sacred texts of other world religions, many of the latter of which you Christians would say did not actually happen. So isn't there a sense in which the miracle stories of all the world religions--including Christianity--cancel one another out? Or, to put it another way, if there's good reason to disbelieve the miracle claims of other holy books, aren't we equally justified in disbelieving the miracle claims of the Bible?
First, let me point out that this objection is not an argument. The move from the premises (such as "miracle claims of other religions are probably false") to the conclusion ("we are justified in dismissing biblical miracles") is not sufficiently supported. That is, the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. So what we are dealing with here is mere opinion or conjecture, not logical reasoning of the sort that my regular readers like to see.

But let me also point out a couple of things that distinguish biblical miracles from those of other world religions. The first is this... whereas miracles are somewhat tangential or secondary to the truth claims of other religions, they are central and primary in Christianity. One can be a faithful follower of other religions while remaining skeptical of any of the specific supernatural elements in their scriptures. But miracles--especially the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ--are foundational and necessary parts of the entire Christian claim. As the apostle Paul has it (in I Cor. 15:17, my paraphrase)
If Jesus was not bodily raised from the dead, then Christianity is a worthless undertaking.
This truth makes all the more incomprehensible the position of so many (in the past 100 years or more), those who claim to be Christian but who at the same time seek to divest the Bible of anything supernatural. They seek to find natural explanations for all biblical miracles, so that they can hold their heads high in a sophisticated, scientific age and culture. With Paul, I ask, "Then what's the point?"

A related distinction is this... The miracle accounts in the Bible (unlike those of other world religions) have a great deal of evidential value. They serve a purpose (or, in many cases, multiple purposes). Let's look particularly at the miracles Jesus performed--walking on water, multiplying loaves and fish, calming wind and waves, healing blindness, and raising people from the dead. For the Jews of the second-temple period (Jesus' day), the thing that distinguished the one true God from all other beings (real or imaginary, including humans, angels, demons, idols, and the false gods of the Greeks, Romans, and Canaanites) was His unique role as Creator and Sustainer of the universe. And what caused these strict monotheists (including the authors of every New Testament book) to make room in their concept of God for this man Jesus was his demonstrated power (in the miracles mentioned above) over the creation itself. The apostle John explains his reason for writing his gospel and, more particularly, for recording some of the miracles (signs and wonders) that Jesus performed (John 20:30-31)...
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Bit About Miracles

What are we to make of biblical miracle accounts? Take, for instance, the one about Balaam's Ass. You know, the one that in Numbers 22 speaks to its master, bringing to his attention the fact that a sword-toting angel was barring the path. The question is...
What's up with a talking donkey? What are we to make of stories like this one in the Old Testament that ask us to believe that an ass actually spoke?
It's a perfectly reasonable question, and I'd like to offer a reasonable answer. Though focusing on this particular miracle-story, perhaps we can learn something of how to approach the Bible's miraculous claims generally. After all, the greatest miracles--Incarnation and Resurrection--are the very heart of the Christian faith. So what we do with Balaam's Ass has far-reaching implications.

We need to recognize that many moderns attempt to divest the Bible of anything smacking of the supernatural. That is, it is fashionable to take a naturalistic approach to understanding the Scriptures. I find this unreasonable on at least two counts.

The first is that naturalism is a much poorer worldview than Christian theism. Though I cannot summarize it all here, let me just note that the latest scientific understanding from such diverse fields as astronomy, physics, biochemistry, and genomics has presented overwhelming problems for naturalism while comporting perfectly with the Biblical understanding. Naturalism does not provide the rational foundation for conducting science, has no explanation for the order in the universe, and provides no reasonable basis for trusting our reasoning capacities or our senses. (That is, reasoning one's way to naturalism is a self-refuting enterprise.) Naturalism cannot adequately account for the laws of logic or of mathematics, the existence of the universe, the design of the universe, the origin of life, the Cambrian Explosion, the origin of information (in the genetic code), the existence of irreducibly complex molecular machines, or the existence of consciousness.

Secondly, I wonder why those who take a naturalistic approach to Scripture would even bother. The Bible claims to be the Word of God, and this is what has always made it a runaway bestseller. If naturalism is true--if there is no God--than why would anyone read such a book? Those who approach the Bible naturalistically have failed to ask the most interesting question of all--is there a God? Or (perhaps I should say) they have answered it in their own minds a priori (before examining the evidence), and that in the negative. The reasonable position would be to be open to discovering the truth on this issue, rather than to rule out one of the possible answers beforehand.

You see, if there is a God--and by this I mean the exact sort of God of which the Bible speaks, one who both created the universe and acts in human history--then none of the miracle claims contained in His revelation to us can be rightly deemed unreasonable.

But for the sake of argument, let me be more open here. Let's neither assume that there is (or is not) a God nor that the Bible is His revelation to us. What is the most reasonable explanation for why this particular story is imbedded in this larger book?

One option is that the author (I'll call him Moses) intended it as fiction. But this doesn't cut it. The larger narrative reads like history, not like The Chronicles of Narnia (where talking animals were the norm). More importantly, wherever the accuracy of this (larger) historical narrative can be tested, it has been verified.

A second option (perhaps the most popular among naturalists) is that the author did not possess the discernment to recognize the silliness of the idea of a talking donkey. It is likely, they say, that this story simply shows that the people of Moses' day were not as sophisticated as we are, and therefore were not taken aback by the insertion of this outlandish tale. While Moses' overall credibility did not suffer during his (and subsequent) generations, surely this particular gaff (that is, including such a story) is proof against our believing any of it.

But again, this explanation doesn't deal honestly with the available evidence. We have absolutely no reason to believe that Moses or his contemporaries were any less startled than we at the thought of a donkey talking. This is the only record in the Pentateuch (or, indeed, in the entire Bible) of an animal speaking. To suggest that the author or his readers accepted this any more uncritically than we would is unsubstantiated inference. To be sure, Moses (on his own account) was privy to other instances of this same Creator-God intervening in human history, and so was predisposed to accept a supernatural explanation for this particularly odd event. But that only leads us to a third--and most reasonable--explanation.

It could just be--as the whole Bible claims, and as a great deal of reason and scientific evidence can be shown to support--that there is a God who is both transcendent to and immanent in this universe. If this is admitted as plausible, then the most straightforward explanation for why Moses included the story of a talking ass in an otherwise historical narrative is that--in this one instance in all of human history--God chose to reveal Himself through the medium of the voice of an otherwise dumb animal.

When Balaam's Ass talked, it got the attention of Balaam, and reminded him that there is a God to whom he was accountable. It also got the attention of Moses, who was every bit as aware as we are that donkeys don't normally speak, and who nonetheless faithfully recorded the event. It got the attention of Moses' contemporaries, of readers throughout the ages, and of readers today. But even today, it is only reasonable to reject this story if the larger claim--that there is a Creator God who acts in human history--is demonstrably false. But that is not the case.

(I originally published a version of this post on March 17, 2007.)

Friday, February 13, 2009

More Snow

We had a rather large, wet snow today, one of those after which every branch and twig remains etched in white. The result was truly lovely, and we still need all the moisture we can get. The photo above was taken during a similar event, that one when Dawn and I were living at Silver Creek Nature Preserve near Picabo, Idaho.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Kuhn and Truth

A few posts ago (here), I cited Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) as testimony against Francis Collins (The Language of God). In today's post, I want to identify a significant problem (elsewhere) in Kuhn's thinking.

In his cutting-edge treatment of paradigm shifts in science, Kuhn ends up denying the correspondence view of truth. That is, he cannot bring himself to say that a more recent scientific pardigm (say, oxygen chemistry) is more correct than the paradigm it replaced (phlogiston theory). For Kuhn, the newer paradigm is merely more practical, better at making predictions, or simply more popular, than the older one--it is not a truer understanding of the world in which we live.

Such a denial is not a necessary part of Kuhn's thesis, but an unnecessary addition. And I am not the first to notice and be troubled by this Kuhnian aspect. In fact, he apparently caught a lot of flack for this position, since scientists and philosophers alike think that correspondence to reality is a pretty important part of learning generally and of scientific advance in particular.

In response to criticism, Kuhn attempts (in the postscript to the second edition) to defend this quasi-relativism, in what I find to be a bizarre and illogical way... he draws the analogy of an evolutionary tree, this one containing not living things but scientific theories. (The idea that living things can be represented by an evolutionary tree has fallen upon hard times, even among committed naturalists, but that's beside the present point.) If we can come up with criteria that would enable us to distinguish a more recent theory from an earlier one--without appeal to correspondence to truth--
then scientific development is, like biological, a unidirectional and irreversible process.
In other words, if we can accept a non-teleological view of life, than it ought to be a simple task to accept that what makes a scientific theory better than a previous one has little to do with the reality of the universe it describes.

This will, of course, be unsatisfactory to those of us who do not accept a non-teleological view of the world, who--when faced with overwhelming evidence for design in the universe in general and in living things in particular--cannot kid themeselves into thinking of design as only apparent or illusion. But many non-theists (among scientists and philosophers) are likewise unsatisfied by Kuhn's reasoning here. There just doesn't seem to be any logical link (a link apparently assumed by Kuhn, since never spelled out) between a speculative (and now rejected) biological tree and the epistemological tree he would plant in the path of a serious question, to wit, "Why shouldn't we expect a scientific theory to better approximate reality than the theory it supplants?"

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


So, I was rooting (mildly) for the Arizona Cardinals in last Sunday's Superbowl. What's more, I know a lot of folks who, if it's not their favorite team playing, will cheer for the team--or the athlete--that is not given much of a chance. Sure, we get excited about Olympic champions, but all the more if their's is a rags-to-riches tale. We enjoy stories--and movies (many of them, for some reason, set in Indiana)--in which the Cinderella team overcomes all odds to find success.

And what I want to suggest is that this is at odds with the tendencies of most people in most cultures throughout most of human history. That is, cultures from time immemorial have glorified the strong and the powerful, sometimes to the point of worship.

My further point is that it is in Judeo-Christianity that we find the foundation for this heart for the underdog. When Yahweh chose the nation of Israel to be His people, He made it clear that it was in part because they were a small and insignificant people. And He charged them with taking good care of the downtrodden, the widows, the orphans, the stranger, and the oppressed. Through the prophet Isaiah, God rebukes His people...
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause. (Is. 1:16-17)
And this theme runs throughout the Scriptures, Old Testament and New. Jesus Himself says (in Matthew 25) that what will separate those who will enjoy eternal fellowship with the Father from those who will not is whether they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the prisoner, in short, had compassion on the "least of these."

In our age, God continues to call His people to act out that same compassion on His behalf to the least of these in our own communities and around the world. And His people are answering the call in amazing and creative ways. Overwhelmed by the grace by which He has reconciled us to Himself, we cannot but want that same reconciliation for others, particularly those who have no one else to care. Are you being caught up in God's grace and compassion in a way that changes lives? I pray that it is so; it's the most exciting game going!