Monday, September 19, 2011

Response to E____

(Thought I'd share--because of its apologetic content that ought to be of general interest--an email I just sent to a young atheist with whom I share a mutual friend...)

Hi E____

I'm writing you at the request of K_____. She indicates that you consider yourself an atheist, either because you see no reason to believe in God, because in your experience God is a crutch for people with a need to believe in Him, or both. The perspective I will share with you is that of a biologist who is also a philosopher and historian of science.

As I see it, my need is not to believe in God, but to align my beliefs with reality. This is, of course, what is meant by truth--when things really are the way we believe them to be. Were there any reason to disbelieve in God (or to believe in some other god or gods), were there any evidence on the side of atheism or polytheism (or Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam), I would pursue such reasons and evidence in search of the truth.

There is no question in my mind that the Christian worldview uniquely matches the reality of the universe in which we live. While I could take the time to identify fatal logical, scientific, or historical flaws in any of a number of other worldviews, I'll make the case that Christianity much better matches reality than does scientific naturalism/atheism. And I'll do this for two reasons, first because I suspect the latter is the view that you espouse (rather than, say, Hinduism), and second because it's the alternate worldview I've researched the most. It is, after all, the great cosmogenic myth of our time (though, despite its present popularity, its tenure among the great ideas is astonishingly short) and what was uncritically offered as indoctrination throughout much of my formal educational experience.

To repeat, as a scientist and philosopher of science, I see Christianity as the accurate understanding of the world in which we live, and far superior in its explanatory power to scientific naturalism. The issue is not at all close. That is, whereas you ask "How can any well-educated scientist believe in God?" I have exactly the opposite query: "How can any but the most superficially educated scientist embrace the belief that there is no God?"

In other words, while the content of our beliefs--yours and mine--are exactly opposite on this issue, the strength of our respective beliefs is equally great. The difference is that I have spent a lifetime (and much longer than your lifetime) examing the evidence for both sides of the argument. I have been intentional in reading the works of atheists (ancient and modern), and have critically examined the reasoning and evidence offered by them. Have you done the same for Christianity? Have you read, for example, The Case for a Creator (Strobel) or Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis), The Creator and the Cosmos (Hugh Ross) or The Design of Life (Dembski and Wells)? I have read The God Delusion and The Greatest Show on Earth (both by Richard Dawkins), A Letter to a Christian Nation (Sam Harris), etc. (So flawed are some of the arguments therein that they provide abundant examples of both formal and informal fallacies for the college course I teach in Critical Thinking.) The point is, if you really want to understand a different worldview or belief system, read, comprehend, and wrestle with the very best books by proponents of that system.

Although I see a plethora of problems with scientific naturalism and the failed evolutionary theory that (for many) makes it plausible, I will have to limit my remarks to a few. (I'll be happy to interact with you, take questions or comments, and keep a dialogue going, but for an opening salvo I'll try not to be too lengthy. For one thing, the more I write, the more I run the danger of addressing a belief you don't actually hold. I'll address some misconceptions very common in our culture today, and you'll have to forgive me if you don't share some of these misconceptions.)

Most scientists spend all of their time studying phenomena within the ongoing processes of our world, and can happily do so without reference to God. But no matter how well we come to understand the movements of the starry heavens, the behavior of quarks, or the ecological relationships of a particular biome, there are bigger, more fundamental questions the answers to which science (if properly understood) can contribute. Of some 9 or 10 of these that come immediately to mind, let me briefly discuss two: the existence of the universe and the design of the universe for advanced life. (Other big questions include the existence of order in the universe, the origin of life, the diversity of life, the origin of the information in the genetic code, the origin of irreducibly complex biological systems, the existence of human consciousness...)

Note at the outset that theism (and particularly Christian theism) has been the default understanding--the view with adequate explanatory power--for each and all of these big questions throughout the history of Western thought. Note also that the very modern idea that atheism/scientific naturalism is somehow reaonable arose because Darwin offered a naturalistic explanation for just one of these big questions--the diversity of life. To put it another way, scientific naturalism has singularly failed to offer adequate explanations for these other big questions (and its attempts to do so lead to naturalism's most embarrassing errors in reasoning, ignoring of evidence, and such).

When we come to explaining the existence of the universe, we arrive at big problems both for naturalism generally and for evolutionary theory in particular. Darwin proposed his theory--which, according to Richard Dawkins, made it possible to be "an intellectually fulfilled atheist"--under the assumption that the universe itself was eternal (thus offering natural selection a nearly infinite amount of time to work its wonders). We now know this necessary assumption to be wrong; the universe had a beginning a mere 13.6 billion years ago, and the Cause of that beginning is outside the matter, energy, space, and time of the universe.

For statisticians and mathematicians, the realization that the universe had such a recent beginning is fatal not only for neo-Darwinism but for any naturalistic explanation for life's diversity. But more fundamentally, this 20th-century discovery represents powerful support for the Cosmological Argument for God's existence (that is, in philosophical terms, that the universe is contingent and its cause a necessary, eternal Being) and for the claims of Judeo-Christian scriptures written 3500 years ago. Indeed, general relativity and big bang cosmology are the most rigorously tested ideas in physics precisely because physicists and astronomers recognized (and found distastful) their theological implications and sought to refute them (through steady-state, oscillating-universe, and other alternate theories).

The past several decades have also yielded (primarily among physicists and astronomers) the discovery that the universe itself and our location in it are incredibly fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life and of intelligent life. This recognition has been dubbed the "Anthropic Principle," and rarely does a week go by without there being discovered yet another parameter of the entire universe or of a more local aspect of it whose value is set in the extremely narrow range (among the broad range of possible values) that makes human life possible. Ignoring for the time being the separate (huge) question of how life originated, the probability of even one life-support planet in the universe (even given the existence of 100 billion trillion stars and the possibility that there are planets associated with many of them) is zero. Astrophysicists Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinge put it this way:
The speculations of The Origin of Species turned out to be wrong... It is ironic that the scientific facts throw Darwin out but leave William Paley, a figure of fun to the scientific world for more than a century, still in the tournament with a chance of being the ultimate winner.
In the words of Stephen Hawking,
It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.
The currently popular way of trying to get around the clearly theistic implications of big bang cosmology and the anthropic principle is to postulate an infinite number of other universes, each with different parameter values, such that we just happened to have won the lottery to end all lotteries. Besides there being absolutely no evidence (and no possibility of there ever being evidence) for such a situation, this metaphysical view does not do away with the need for a Creator, but only pushes that problem up a level. Moreover, while such a view might address the fundamental anthropic parameters (those that apply to our universe as a whole), it does nothing to explain the much greater number of local fine-tuned parameters (the crafting of our galaxy and solar system for life support).

Again, I could address each of the other big questions of metaphysics in turn, and we would see that all of the latest scientific discoveries powerfully support the Christian worldview and leave the naturalistic worldview without explanations. But there are more basic--logical--problems for scientific naturalism.

Modern science--the continuous, progressive endeavor that has cured many diseases, landed humans on the moon, and mapped the human genome--arose only once in human history, and that from within a Christian worldview. And this is not merely an historical oddity. Rather, Christian theism provides the logical grounding that makes science a worthwhile endeavor. Scientific naturalism does not. To be sure, today's well-trained (but poorly-educated) atheist scientist can engage in scientific research, but he cannot logically justify it. Among some two dozen assumptions that logically ground science (which come from Judeo-Christianity and for which atheism cannot account), two of the most important are that the physical universe is orderly and that our senses and reasoning are reliable in discerning that order. Christian men of the 16th and 17th centuries found in Scripture that the universe is the product of the mind of the caring, transcendent Creator, and so expected that the universe would be ordered, reflecting God's intelligence and rationality. Similarly, they discovered in the Bible that we humans are created in God's image, which they took to include sharing at least in part in His rationality.

The naturalist scientist depends upon there being order in the universe, but can only accept it as a fortunate brute fact--he cannot offer an explanation for it. As for the reliability of human senses and reasoning (in discerning that order), the situation is even worse. If--as on the evolutionary view--the human brain is simply the end-product of a designless, purposeless evolutionary process, there is no reason to expect its beliefs to be reliable in discerning reality. As astronomer and popular science writer Paul Davies has it,
People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature--the laws of physics--are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they came from; at least not in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as law-like order in nature that is at least partly comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.
The early evolutionist J.B.S. Haldane also saw the problem:
If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of the atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga sums it up thus,
Modern science was conceived, and born, and flourished in the matrix of Christian theism. Only liberal doses of self-deception and double-think, I believe, will permit it to flourish in the context of Darwinian naturalism.
C.S. Lewis made the analogy to dreaming and waking. While awake, we can account for our dreaming, but while dreaming, we cannot fit in the waking world.
The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world. The dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific points of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view [here he has specifically in mind the evolutionary-based naturalism of the past several decades] cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
Why, as a scientist, do I believe in the God of Christianity? I have so far given only a very partial answer, but one I hope that addresses some of your most central issues. In part, I am a Christian because all of the scientific evidence (regarding the big-picture questions) falls squarely on the side of Christianity and is opposite the evidences required for the success of a naturalistic project. More basically, Christianity makes science a worthwhile endeavor, by providing the necessary logical grounding; naturalism can neither logically justify nor defend the scientific enterprise.*

My hope, E______, is that you are really open to the truth on this central question of human existence (otherwise I've wasted a good deal of my valuable time already). I realize that there is powerful motivation for seeking to deny the existence of God, since the idea of a transcendent, all-powerful, all-knowing, and holy God who might concern himself with our human affairs and behavior can be terrifying. But reality is impervious to our wishes, and so (at least for me) finding the truth trumps my desires.

If you are open to continued dialogue, I could share (in separate emails) any or all of the following:

How the scientific evidence supports the Christian worldview regarding the other big questions (that I alluded to earlier),

Why neo-Darwinian evolution is a dying theory that will no longer be defended by anyone once tenured dinosaurs like Richard Dawkins pass away, (how the fossil record, genetic evidence, etc. support the idea of creative interventions and refute evolutionary claims),

How Christianity grounds--and naturalism fails to logically justify--morality,

How archaeology vindicates the historical reliability of the Old and New Testaments,

How fulfilled prophecy points to the supernatural character of the Bible,

How the history of Western civilization and all of the available evidence powerfully support the historicity of the rising of Jesus of Nazareth from the grave,


Let me know...

Rick Gerhardt
Biologist and Christ-follower

* Two of the really ludicrous notions that in our day get much popular press out of the scientific community are 1) that scientists are the experts in defing science, and 2) that the definition of science involves an exclusive appeal to physical or natural laws and phenomenon. In truth, we scientists--unless we have embarked on intentional separate study--receive no education in the history and philosophy of science. It is, therefore, not scientists, but philosophers of science who are the experts in what science is. And philosophers of science are unanimous in declaring that no one has successfully defended the claim that science is restricted to material, physical, or natural explanations. To put it another way, to the extent that scientists artificially limit themselves to studying only natural phenomena, they have disqualified themselves from making any larger metaphysical claims (as about the non-existence of immaterial or supernatural things). So in yet another way, scientific naturalism can be seen as a grand effort in fallacious self-delusion.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New Semester

A new semester starts this week at Kilns College (in Bend, Oregon), and the course I'll be teaching starts this evening. That course is Critical Thinking, and it's apparently full.

In Critical Thinking, I hope to be able to accomplish several things.

For one, we'll consider the biblical foundation for nurturing the life of the mind, and examine the historical union of Christian theology and the promotion of literacy, Christianity's founding of schools and universities and of modern science, and it's traditional role at the forefront of political and social discourse. We'll touch upon the less positive situation of the last 100 years, where evangelicalism largely abandoned its tradition of recognizing the importance of cultivating the mind.

We'll take a little time to talk about how to get the most out of reading.

And then the remainder of the course will serve as an introductory logic class, in which we'll discuss what constitutes a sound argument and how to recognize an unsound one. As we examine formal and informal logical fallacies, we'll use as our examples actual fallacious arguments that impinge upon issues that ought to be meaningful to anyone seeking to know the truth about the world in which we live.

While it's too late to get into this class, there are ten other courses being offered at Kilns this semester, and most of them still have room. But don't wait--it's already the last minute to sign up and start attending. Go here to check those classes out.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Stewards of the King

Here's a Vimeo of the sermon I delivered at Antioch this past Sunday:

Rick Gerhardt :: Stewards of the King from Antioch Church on Vimeo.