Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Creation Museum

I'm frequently asked--both by believers and unbelievers--about the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum that opened in May of 2007 across the river from where I grew up in Cincinnati. So I thought I'd share a post that I wrote back nearer that time. It included three apt quotes. The first, from an essay by Michael Patrick Leahy titled The Trouble with Fred and Wilma, specifically addresses the museum.
The trouble with the $27 million Creation Museum, which replaces the scientific method with word for word Christian Biblical literalist theology, is that it makes all Christians who don’t accept evolution look stupid. In doing so in such a publicly visible way it undermines the credibility of all Christians, especially those who are researching alternatives to Darwinian evolution using the tools of the scientific method. It also gives the growing movement of militant atheism, as exemplified by the works of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, an easy opportunity to misrepresent all Christians as “irrational”. The mainstream media, including the Los Angeles Times itself, are only too happy to lend assistance to this misrepresentation.

Owned by the “Young Earth Creationist” organization Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum claims that the universe, earth, and man are only 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs co-existed with man. The premise worked well for the Flintstones cartoon show, but has zero credibility within the scientific community in general and the Christian scientific community in particular.
The rest of the essay is well worth reading. Leahy is a theistic evolutionist, and I hope my regular readers will by now recognize that I find extremely little evidential support for that position. Nonetheless, I agree with most of what Leahy writes in this article.

The second and third quotes, by Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine, respectively, were not written specifically about the Creation Museum (obviously), but I take Ham's ministry in general and the museum in particular to be perfect examples of what these church fathers had in mind. First, Aquinas...
The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Christian, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.
Now Augustine, from The Literal Meaning of Genesis...
Usually, even a new Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world...and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. [Be prepared for a good deal of this in the months to come with regard to the Museum.] The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Star of Bethlehem

One of the questions that comes up at this time of year is "What was the star of Bethlehem?" That is, "How should we understand the phenomenon referred to in Matthew 2 as a 'star' that guided wise men out of the east to the place of the young Messiah?"

The modern scientific materialist has a couple of options. He may discount the account altogether, or he may seek some strictly natural explanation that explains the event and explains away the idea that it had anything to do with the appearance of God in human form.

We'll talk about strictly natural explanations in a moment (since it is an option available to the theist as well). But we can dismiss the materialist view itself, because it is an inaccurate understanding of the world in which we actually live. The term 'scientific materialist' frequently misleads folks; it is not a scientific view, one arrived at by consideration of the scientific evidence. Instead, it is a metaphysical view (a religious one), involving belief a priori (that is, 'before the evidence') that nature is the whole show and that there is no God.

But both the evidence and reason lead away from that view, confirming instead the Judeo-Christian understanding of the universe. To put it another way, scientific discoveries--and especially the biggest discoveries of the past century--powerfully confirm the metaphysical claims contained in the Bible, many of which anticipated those dicoveries by thousands of years.

This Bible--unique among the world's holy books in this scientific accuracy--tells us several important things. Besides the fact of the existence of a Creator/Sustainer that is transcendent to (outside of the time and space of) the creation, Scripture tells us to study the creation itself to learn about that God. And both that study of the creation and the Scriptures themselves tell us that God is not merely transcendent but also immanent. By immanence is meant that He actual enters in to, supernaturally intervenes in, that creation. Such supernatural intervention is usually given the term 'miracle,' and the star over Bethlehem is generally considered to fall into that category.

[By now, some of my readers are becoming exasperated by my taking the long way around to answer the question. "Just tell me what you think the star was!" they are saying. But I'm hopelessly big-picture, and feel the need to put that answer in its larger context, and, well, it's my blog, so they'll just have to hang in there while I do that, or move on in their impatience.]

Now, given all that--that we live in a world accurately described by the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, one created and sustained by a transcendent yet immanent God--we can rightly go on to distinguish between two categories of miracles.

First, there are those miracles in which God uses strictly material things (that He previously created) and purely physical laws (that He already put into place). In such instances, the only supernatural aspect of the event is the fine-tuning, the timing and/or location, of it. The evidence (from science and Scripture) indicates that many of God's miracles have been of this type.

Generally, the question "What was the star of Bethlehem?" has in view this category of miracle. The person posing the question usually means, "Is there some well-documented physical phenomenon, some understood physical laws, that can be invoked to explain the account in Matthew 2?"

And for the person looking for such an answer, many options exist. This is in part because the Greek word aster, which is translated 'star' in the gospel account, has a broad range of potential meanings. That is, objects and events that in English are distinguished among by the terms star, planet, conjunction of planets, meteor, comet, and supernova all would be covered by the single Greek word translated star. And each of these things has been proposed as the explanation for the star of Bethlehem. Most can be quickly dismissed for a variety of reasons, each presenting problems even for the scant textual evidence that is given us.

In my opinion, the most likely explanation (from within this category of miracle) is that the star may have been a recurring nova. Novae are the explosions of stars as they die. And a small percentage of such explosions occur in stages, such that the initial explosion (resulting in a period of great brightness that may last weeks or even months) may be followed (after a period of dimness) by a second explosion. Such an event could be reconciled with the star seen (according to Matthew 2) in the east, and later as the wise men neared Bethlehem.

But there's a second category of miracle that should be mentioned. This category encompasses those cases where God does not limit Himself to already-created material and established physical laws, instances where (as is His perogative) He actually suspends those laws for His good purposes.

Take, for example, the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale. There have been those Christian apologists who have sought to allay the incredibility of this miracle by finding similar, natural examples. They posit a baleen whale (the large species without teeth that filter krill and other tiny organisms from the water), and look for records of such a whale engulfing, say, a sea otter, which was subsequently released unharmed when the whale once again opened its jaws. I consider this approach misguided. It seems to miss the main point, which is that however much natural material was involved there was something very supernatural that went on.

Or take a more obvious example, the account of Yahweh speaking to the false prophet Balaam through the mouth of an ass. Is it clear that I would be wasting my time if I searched for a race of donkeys with a wider vocal repertoire than the ones with which we are familiar, in order to try to make this Old Testament account more palatable to folks in a modern scientific age? If we really take this account seriously, we acknowledge that in this one instance God suspended the natural laws that He put in place (those governing the vocal capacities of equines), and did something supernatural.

The same could easily be true of the star of Bethlehem. Perhaps the light guiding the shepherds cannot be understood as a natural phenomenon (even with supernatural timing) of this universe. It could be that God provided a supernatural, other-worldly light on this one occasion for His own purposes.

We may never be able to answer this question with any certainty, to avow that the star in question was a recurring nova (or some other natural event with miraculous timing and location) or, on the other hand, that it was almost certainly entirely supernatural. But while it is God Himself who gives us our native curiosity about such issues, the important thing is that we recognize and acknowledge that it is He who is sovereign over this world, and He who can intervene when and how He chooses, that it was He who, about 2000 years ago, made a way of reconciling the world to Himself through the Baby born at the other end of that star-guided journey.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Next Semester

The schedule of classes is out for the spring semester at Kilns College (where I teach in Bend, Oregon). There's a great lineup of courses being offered, and you can go here to check them out, and to register. I'm most excited about the History and Philosophy of Atheism course, which will be taught by Ken Wytsma (I'll guest lecture on the night on which we discuss science and atheism and then evolution and atheism).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Making Sense of the World

In my last series of posts (on the faulty analogy central to the arguments of New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), I mentioned in passing that atheism (in the form of scientific naturalism) does not provide a logical justification for doing science, whereas Christian theism does. I want in this post to flesh that out just a bit.

The fact of the matter is that modern science arose and flourished within a Christian understanding of the world. And this was not mere historical coincidence but precisely because Judeo-Christianity uniquely provides the set of assumptions that make science a worthwhile endeavor.

A short list of such assumptions includes... the existence of the universe, the order in the universe, the fact that the laws of mathematics apply to the universe, the fact that the laws of logic apply to the universe, the reliability of our senses in discovering the order in the universe, the reliability of human reasoning in drawing accurate conclusions about the universe, the necessity of honesty and integrity in conducting and reporting research...

Science depends upon these assumptions, and Christianity has a reasonable explanation for each and every one. Naturalism, not so much. In the case of most of these assumptions, scientific naturalism does not deny them, but accepts them as unexplained, unexplainable, brute (and fortuitous) facts. For others, naturalism would seem to fare even more poorly. As just one example, if naturalistic evolution is true, and human consciousness and reason are merely the purposeless results of undirected interactions of biochemicals, there seems no reason to accept that human reasoning should lead to meaningful and accurate conclusions about the world.

This problem has been recognized in recent years by a variety of thinkers from across the theological spectrum. Agnostic physicist Paul Davies, for example, wrote
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.
Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it this way:
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.
Some of my readers will be familiar with a famous sentence of C.S. Lewis':
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.
What some may not realize, however, is the context of this quote. It is the final statement of a paper titled "Is theology poetry?" (which can be found in the compilation of essays The Weight of Glory). And what Lewis is dealing with is exactly what I've been writing about, how scientific naturalism (what Lewis calls the "mythical cosmology derived from science") cannot explain things nearly so well as Christian theism can. So, although it's lengthy, here's the final paragraph of Lewis' argument:
I was taught at school, when I had done a sum, to "prove my answer." The proof or verification of my Christian answer to the cosmic sum is this. When I accept Theology I may find difficulties, at this point or that, in harmonising it with some particular truths which are imbedded in the mythical cosmology derived from science. But I can get in, or allow for, science as a whole. Granted that Reason is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. And this is to me the final test. This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know that there are such things as dreams; I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner; I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the nightmare I could not have fitted in my waking experience. 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 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.

Friday, November 27, 2009

God and the Tooth Fairy, Pt. 3

We've been examining the claim, central to Richard Dawkins' and Christopher Hitchens' attack against Christianity, that belief in God is like belief in the Tooth Fairy. We have seen that any supposed similarity between the two is extremely superficial.

Though we have not discussed whole sets of evidence (historical, existential, philosophical, and others), we have seen that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the existence of the personal, self-existent God described in the Bible. The most obvious such evidence comes from the disciplines of astronomy and physics, but it is nonetheless hard to believe that Dawkins is unaware of those greatest discoveries of the last century. It seems inexcusable, though, that he is unaware of some other evidences--which come from his own discipline of biology--such as the recognition that all living things share the same information code in their DNA and that that code is (and has been since the first life appeared) extremely well designed.

But the point of this post is to leave behind the alleged superficial similarities between belief in God and belief in the Tooth Fairy, and to look instead at the significant differences between the two. As we do, we will see not only that Dawkins and Hitchens are guilty of a faulty analogy but that, in fact, it is belief in no God--atheism--that has significant similarities to belief in the Tooth Fairy.

Belief in the Tooth Fairy--like belief in atheism--has not led to the establishment of a single hospital or orphanage. Belief in God has led to the founding of hospitals and orphanages on every continent.

Belief in the Tooth Fairy--like belief in atheism--has not resulted in the establishment of any universities. Belief in a transcendent God was behind the founding of all the institutions of higher learning, at least until the late 19th century, when the first secular (theology-neutral) school was founded.

It was belief in the God described in the Old and New Testaments that led to the founding of modern science, not belief in the Tooth Fairy or belief in naturalism.

Belief in God--unlike belief in atheism or the Tooth Fairy--provides the logical justification that makes science a worthwhile endeavor. Theism justifies (among other things) the expectation of finding order in the universe and the expectation that our senses and reasoning should be relaible in discovering that order.

Neither belief in the Tooth Fairy or belief in atheism provide an explanation for the existence/origin of the universe--monotheism does.

Theism offers a satisfactory explanation for the fact that mathematics and logic apply to this universe; naturalism and ToothFairyanism cannot.

Theism explains the existence of morality, of the universal sense of oughtness, and of the human experience of guilt. Atheism does not.

Indeed, all of the big questions that science addresses are satisfactorily explained by Christian theism and not by atheism or belief in the Tooth Fairy. These include (not only the existence of and the order in the universe already mentioned, but) the anthropic principle (the recognition that the universe, galaxy, and solar system are extremely, exquisitely designed for intelligent life on Earth), the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, and the origin of human consciousness.

Dawkins' and Hitchens' claim seems really silly when you get past the sound bite and spend a little time considering it. In truth, it takes a whole lot of blind faith to believe in no God, whereas all of the evidence and reason lead to the conclusion that God exists.

But other differences abound. No one has seen their life transformed by coming to believe in the Tooth Fairy or in atheism. But thousands, even millions of people credit their coming to believe in God for saving their marriage, turning them from alcohol, or drugs, or a life of crime, for transforming their children and families. Whole tribes, villages, regions, and even nations trace life-altering positive change to the power of the living God at work in their midst. No one so credits the Tooth Fairy, evolution, or no God with improving or transforming their lives.

This has been just a short list, and I've missed many of the ways in which belief in God is different from belief in the Tooth Fairy. But it should be obvious that in all these important ways and more, it is belief in no God that has a great deal in common with belief in the Tooth Fairy. So the next time you read or hear this vacuous faulty analogy, I hope you'll be prepared to refute it with the truth about the world in which we live.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

God and the Tooth Fairy, Pt. 2

So, we're discussing the argument made by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that belief in God is like belief in the Tooth Fairy. I have made the claim that it is fallacious, that despite its centrality to what Hitchens and Dawkins are trying to do, it commits the informal logical fallacy called the faulty analogy.

We have dismissed several of the possible similarities between belief in God and belief in the Tooth Fairy--the shared word 'belief,' that fact that both are invisible, the fact that both are immaterial. But before I discuss (in the next post) the significant and central differences between the two, I need to deal with one other alleged similarity--the epistemological one.

Probably what Dawkins and Hitchens are really claiming here is that the similarity between belief in God and belief in the Tooth Fairy is that there is no evidence for either one.

Now, it should be obvious, right out of the gate, that there's a huge difference on this score. And that is that while no one over the age of 6 has ever seriously argued that there is evidence for the Tooth Fairy, millions of people have argued and continue to argue that there is overwhelming evidence for God. Indeed, universities and nations have been founded based on belief that there is sufficient evidence for the existence of God to make following Him one's life work.

So making the grand claim that there is no evidence for God is to deny virtually all of human history, much of the philosophy of Western thought, and some of the most important scientific discoveries of the last few decades. Dawkins does mention some of these evidences, but his dismissal of them invariably depends upon other fallacies, mischaracterization, deliberate dishonesty, or just plain ignorance. While I could camp on all sorts of different types of evidence--historical, experiential, and others, I'll just briefly mention two sets of scientific evidence.

The first powerful set of evidence for the existence of a transcendent Creator-God is the universe itself. Philosophers recognize only four options for explaining the universe. The first, that the universe is entirely illusory, is not held by many in Western culture, and Dawkins would also reject it. The second is that the universe created itself, and this is easily seen to be illogical. That leaves two options, both involving something existing eternally.

The view that was most popular (at least among non-religious people) in Darwin's day was that the universe itself was eternal and static. (This view flowed out of Newtonian physics and Kantian philosophy.) It gave to Darwin's theory a nearly infinite amount of time in order to work the wonders of diversity exhibited by extinct and extant life. Monotheists--and many philosophers--nonetheless maintained that this was unlikely. They argued for the 4th option, that there exists an uncreated, eternal Being (what we call God) who created the universe.

The philosophical debate has long since been answered by science. Einstein's general relativity has replaced Newtonian physics, and we now know that the universe is not eternal, that its personal Cause exists outside the matter, energy, space, and time of the universe. This conclusion (known as the space-time theorem of relativity) follows necessarily if only two things are true: 1) the universe contains mass and 2) general relativity accurately describes the universe.

Because of the obvious theological implications of the expansion of the universe (and big bang cosmology and the space-time theorem), the history of astrophysics in the 20th century is a long litany of attempts to disprove these ideas. The result is that general relativity--and the consequent finitude of the entire universe--are the most rigorously tested and proven law of physics.

But a further set of startling scientific evidence for God's existence has accumulated within the last three decades. It is the recognition that the laws of nature (of physics and chemistry) are extremely fine-tuned to make life possible in even one location in the universe. Further, we now know that the characteristics of the Milky Way Galaxy, of our solar system, and of the Earth-moon system likewise fall within an extremely narrow range of possible values that makes life on Earth possible. Known as the 'anthropic principle,' this evidence of design is recognized as powerful scientific support for the philosophical postion known as the teleological (design) argument.

Together, these two recent scientific discoveries provide strong, quantitative evidential support for the existence of God previously unavailable, support sufficient (in the eyes of reasonable people) to refute the atheism that became popular in the late 19th century. Here's what a few modern physicists and astronomers familiar with the evidence have to say...
Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say "supernatural") plan. (Arno Penzias, Nobel Prize-winning physicist)

The exquisite order displayed by our scientific understanding of the physical world calls for the divine. (Vera Kistiakowsky, MIT physicist)

As we survey all the evidence, the thought insistently arises that some supernatural agency--or, rather, Agency--must be involved. Is it possible that suddenly, without intending to, we have stumbled upon scientific proof of the existence of a Supreme Being? Was it God who stepped in and so providentially crafted the cosmos for our benefit? (George Greenstein, astronomer)

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. (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)
Dawkins admits (in The God Delusion) that he has been accused of having a 19th-century worldview, and his subsequent discussion makes it clear that he doesn't understand what such critics are alluding to. Well, it's just this... that in his very small world of philosophically naive, like-minded atheist scientists, he seems blissfully unaware of the most important scientific discoveries of the century that followed his adored Darwin, evidence that has largely refuted the assumptions of the evolutionary theory to which he (Dawkins) gives God-like creative powers.*

* The modern intelligent design movement began in 1966 at a conference at Wistar, convened by mathematicians and probability theorists who tried to apprise Darwinists that the finitude of the universe (and the now-recognized complexity of even the simplest living cell) provided serious problems to evolutionary theory. More than 40 years later, Darwinists (like Dawkins) have yet to respond to the evidences that modern science has brought to bear against their favorite theory.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

God and the Tooth Fairy

Central to the 'argumentation' of New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is the claim that belief in God is no different than belief in the Tooth Fairy. The logic here is so sophmoric (and so embarrassing to clear-thinking atheists) that it seems silly to have to address it. But we live in a culture in which edgy sound bites and nonsense that panders to our self-centeredness seem to trump reason every time. So I guess it would be worthwhile to spell out what's wrong with this popular claim, for the sake of the few out there who still care about truth.

The central informal logical fallacy being committed here is the faulty analogy.* When one argues by analogy, he points to similarities between two things, and then argues that on the basis of those similarities, we ought to draw the same conclusion about the one that we have already drawn about the other.

There are ways in which, claim Dawkins and Hitchens, belief in God and belief in the Tooth Fairy are quite similar. And since we all realize that belief in the Tooth Fairy is silly, we ought to come to realize that belief in God is also silly.

Such an argument is deemed faulty (and fallacious) when the similarities between the two things are insignificant and unimportant relative to their differences. And such is clearly the case here.

What similarities are there between belief in God and belief in the Tooth Fairy?

Well, first of all, there's the word 'belief.' But that can't be argued as a similarity, since that word apllies to everything we might discuss. That is, atheism shares the same thing, in that it is belief in no God.

To put it another way, every truth claim (every statement) is the expression of belief. And knowledge is a particular kind of belief, namely justified, true belief. And where no one ever argues that belief in the Tooth Fairy is either true or justified, there are millions throughout human history who have argued persuasively that belief in God is both justified and true. (Indeed, it is much more difficult to make a case for atheism as justified or true, and that is partly why that belief has always been a minority belief.)

Second, both God and the Tooth Fairy can't be seen. But here again, this similarity seems rather trivial. We take as justified, true belief, a host of beliefs about things that can't be seen. Scientists claim knowledge of such things as protons and electrons, quarks (and even Higgs' boson), and dark matter, none of which can be seen. So invisiblity is not a worthwhile criterion for accepting or rejecting the existence of something.

Perhaps what Dawkins and Hitchens have in mind is that both God and the Tooth Fairy are immaterial. But this is unsatisfactory as well. There exist a great number of things that are likewise immaterial, things such as thoughts, emotions, memories, desires, and yes, even minds and souls. And if the claim is made that these things do not exist or are in fact (somehow) material, that claim itself involves circular reasoning
(the conclusion can only be reached by first denying even the possibility of the existence of immaterial things, that is, by first adopting a naturalistic, materialistic worldview).

The list of possible, significant similarities (between belief in God and belief in the Tooth Fairy) has dwindled to nearly nil. There remains one other possibility.

Perhaps the similarity that would make this analogy meaningful is that neither the existence of God nor the existence of the Tooth Fairy can be proved. Unfortunately, this idea also has a number of problems. In fact, so many are the problems with this claim, that they warrant a separate post.

For now, though, we have seen that there is no meaningful and significant similarity between belief in God and belief in the Tooth Fairy (with the possible exception of the idea--to be addressed next--that the existence of each is similarly unprovable). It remains to examine the important and significant differences between the two things. We'll address those in the second post following, and will see that Dawkins' and Hitchens' claim here is a glaring and absurd example of the fallacy of the faulty analogy.

* It's also, of course, a straw-man argument, in which the God being argued against is not (as the claimants imply) the God of the Bible but a gross mischaracterization of that God, one that is easy to knock down.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

More about Slippery Slopes

A reader commented on my last post, in which I asserted that those--like John MacArthur--who claim that belief in an old Earth and universe leads invariably to loss of faith are guilty of committing a fallacy, the slippery slope fallacy. This reader suggested (if I understood him aright) that such a slippery slope does, in fact, exist, not as a logical necessity but as a pattern of occurrence:
In reality for most young people who take science courses, the slippery slope of Bible interpretation about creation slides from doubt about a 6,000-year-old earth, to doubt about Josiah's long day, to doubt about Jesus walking on water, to doubt His miraculously feeding the 5,000 and the 4,000 to doubting Jesus' bodily resurrection.
Perhaps such a path of doubt does occur. But if so, it has almost nothing to do with any logical link between an old Earth and denial of Resurrection. Rather, it has everything to do with poor hermeneutics, poor Bible teaching, and poor training in critical thinking.

Creation, walking on water, feeding 5,000, and rising from the dead are all miracles. The possibility or probability of miracles (and more particularly of the miracles recorded in Scripture) depends entirely upon whether we live in a world accurately described by Christian theism or one more accurately described by scientific naturalism ('the universe is the whole show; no god exists'). For the purposes of this argument, I'm talking about and to only those people who acknowledge God and the accuracy of the Bible's accounts of miracles.

Now, one possible problem--for those many young people taking science courses--is that they have never been taught to recognize worldview differences. That is, they go into science class expecting their professor to teach them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth without any worldview bias when, in fact, that professor begins by adopting a naturalistic worldview and discounting the possibility of a Creator. Worse, if the Christian young person has wrongly been taught that the Bible somewhere claims that the universe is only 6,000 years old, then the naive young person's doom is sealed because the professor has overwhelming evidence from virtually every scientific discipline to demonstrate the absurdity of that view.

Let me spell it out as simply as possible...

Scripture claims that Jesus walked on water.

Scripture claims that Jesus fed 5,000 people by multiplying a small number of loaves and fishes.

Scripture claims that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.

Scripture claims that God (through Jesus) created the entire universe and everything in it.

Scripture nowhere claims that the Earth and universe were created only thousands of years ago. This is merely one interpretation of how to understand Genesis 1 and the other relevant passages. By my count, there are at least 13 different interpretations of Genesis 1 that are held or that have been held by Christians committed to the inerrancy and reliability of the Bible. Only two of these 13 interpretations lead to the view that the Earth is only thousands of years old. To put it the other way around, the vast majority of the interpretive positions about Genesis 1 held by committed Christians now and throughout church history either allow for or demand the vast age of the universe and Earth that the creation itself indicates.

The young-earth interpretation does not--as its very vocal modern proponents claim--involve a straightforward reading of the text. It involves at least 5 assumptions, each of which is either quite controversial among Hebrew linguists and Bible scholars or even demonstrably false.

What's more, while Christians throughout the ages have wrestled with the proper understanding of the creation accounts, belief in a young Earth and universe simply has never been a part of historical Christian belief. It is not found in any creeds, and has never (except by those in the last 60 years who have spent their careers promoting this young-earth interpretation) been seen as necessary to salvation or to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.

There is a very clear logical link between belief in the miracle of Resurrection and belief in the miracle of creation. And belief in the latter is more reasonable today than it ever has been,* as the latest evidence from nearly every scientific discipline overwhelmingly supports the Biblical understanding of the universe in which we live. Unfortunately (for some), none of that evidence supports the view made popular only last century, that the Earth and universe are only thousands of years old.

If our young people begin to doubt the truth of historic Christianity when faced with evidence from science, then the main problem is that they have not been taught to think well, not been taught to interpret Scripture well, or--worst of all--been taught a modern mischaracterization of historical Christianity and what the Bible teaches (and doesn't teach) about creation.

By the way, it was Joshua--not Josiah--for whom "the sun stood still."

*That is, for the person who hasn't already had a personal, life-transforming encounter with the living, risen Lord and Creator.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Slippery Slope

One of the intramural arguments popular among young-earth creationists goes like this...
If you dare to entertain the possibility that Genesis does not explicitly teach a young universe and Earth, the next thing you know you'll be doubting the Resurrection of Christ.
Sometimes (as by Ken Ham) it is even suggested that belief in an old Earth is at the top of a slippery slope to denying the faith altogether. I wonder, when I hear the words slippery slope, whether the person making the claim realizes that there is an informal logical fallacy that goes by this very name. When someone wrongly claims that there is a necessary logical connection between belief in Idea A and subsequent belief in Idea B, he has committed the Slippery Slope Fallacy.

Another young-earth creationist, John MacArthur, commits this fallacy as follows, both in the text and on the dust jacket of his 2000 book Battle for the Beginning...
Evangelicals who accept an old-earth interpretation of Genesis have embraced a hermeneutic that is hostile to a high view of Scripture. Those who adopt this approach have already embarked on a process that invariably overthrows faith.
MacArthur is much more widely respected (than Ham), but his argument here is every bit as fallacious. This is really an emotional appeal, by which he hopes to scare young Christians away from exploring the issue (from seeking truth on the basis of reason and evidence). But MacArthur later refuted himself on this (though I'm not sure whether he ever realized it).

You see, I later heard a tape of MacArthur speaking on the subject of biblical inerrancy. And he prefaced his remarks by lamenting the passing away of James Montgomery Boice, whom he called 'the greatest defender of inerrancy of our generation.'

Can we agree that someone considered the greatest defender of biblical inerrancy of our generation would be someone with a high view of Scripture? Can I suggest to you that Boice died without ever renouncing his faith in Christ, an event that 'invariably' follows acceptance of an old earth, according to MacArthur?

And yet here's what Boice believed about the age issue, taken from his Volume 1 expository commentary on Genesis 1-11 (of which my hardback copy runs to 464 pages)...
...we have suggested that any view that makes the earth a relatively new thing (on the order of twelve thousand to twenty thousand years old) flies in the face of too much varied and independent evidence to be tenable. Some would dispute this, of course. But in my judgment the earth and universe are indeed billions of years old.
Of course, there are--and have been throughout church history--many, many others who maintain an extremely high view of Scripture and who have a strong Christian faith and yet deny that Genesis teaches a universe and earth only thousands of years old. And so MacArthur's argument is shown to be a classic example of the slippery slope fallacy.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Harris On Beetles

In the last post, I quoted Sam Harris (in Letter to a Christian Nation) as follows...
Over 99 percent of the species that ever walked, flew, or slithered upon this earth are now extinct. This fact alone appears to rule out intelligent design.
I tried to help him out, tried to turn this into an argument, by supplying the missing premise. That missing premise, however, turned out to be pretty silly when articulated... "Persistence is the test of whether or not something is designed." One can think of any number of things that were clearly designed but which are no longer used or in existence.

But perhaps this is not what Harris was driving at. The alternatives (as we saw) are no better, however. He may have been making a very subjective and straw-man argument... "If I were God, I'd have created once and once only, and had every species last forever." This, too, is hard to take seriously. The Judeo-Christian God is more creative than that, and reserves the right to create and destroy life as He wills. Moreover, the 99% of living things that have died and gone extinct have served innumerable purposes, including becoming the fossil fuels upon which modern technology depends. More importantly, much of previous life played critical roles in preparing the Earth for later life. But taking into account such things as evidence (especially when it goes against his view) seems beyond Harris.

The remaining alternative is that Harris simply wasn't making an argument at all, but merely stating his own opinion. In this case, one wonders why anyone would really consider it. Another example of Harris' 'reasoning,' and in this instance I have to assume it's mere opinion (because I cannot begin to fill in the missing but necessary premises), is the following...
The biologist J.B.S. Haldane is reported to have said that, if there is a God, He has "an inordinate fondness for beetles." One would have hoped that an observation this devastating would have closed the book on creationism for all time.
Let me first point out that, while arguments can be devastating, mere observations cannot. But Harris' choice of the word 'observation' tells me that (at least subconsciously) he recognizes that Haldane's remark does not constitute an argument or even the conclusion of an argument.

I cannot imagine how the existence of 350,000 species of beetles counts as evidence against God having created living things. Recounting all the ways in which coleopterans are useful and important to their various ecosystems is a task of which no one (but the Creator Himself) is capable. Beetles are found in virtually every ecosystem where any living things are found. They are prey, predator, parasite, symbiont, decomposer, scavenger, garbageman. Open up a rotting log, a decomposing carcass, or a week-old cowpie and you'll find beetles busy at work, in greater numbers and variety than flies or any other creature. Forests, deserts, ponds, tidal flats, arctic tundra, mountain streams, and every other life zone on Earth (with the exception of deep oceans) are home to beetles, every species of which is perfectly adapted for its time and place and role.

Maybe Haldane and Harris don't like beetles. They certainly don't speak as experts who understand (or have given even a moment's thought to) them or their place in the amazing pageant of life that makes Earth such a fascinating--indeed, unique--place. As with the rest of Letter, Harris' rhetoric here turns out to be nothing but empty, ignorant opinion, completely irrelevant to the thesis he is supposed to be supporting.

While we're on the subject, I was thrilled yesterday to discover a species of beetle I had never seen before. It was a largish scarabid beetle, and one would have been tempted to call it a "June Beetle" but for the fact that adults appear to take wing with the first snows of October.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Harris on Extinction

As you may recall, I'm teaching a class right now in Critical Thinking, which is mostly an introductory logic course. As we get to the point of identifying fallacies and other errors in reasoning, I expect to lean heavily on the writings of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the other 'New Atheists.' And this is simply because their reasoning is so sophomoric (which is also why more thoughtful atheists are so embarrassed by their books). Here's an example from Harris' best-selling book, Letter to a Christian Nation...
Over 99 percent of the species that ever walked, flew, or slithered upon this earth are now extinct. This fact alone appears to rule out intelligent design.
I don't really know where to begin in critiquing such nonsense. Perhaps I should start by saying that it doesn't even come close to being an argument, but is nothing but bald, unsubstantiated opinion. To get from the single premise ('99% of species that have lived are now extinct') to the conclusion ('living things cannot have been designed') requires so many intermediate premises, each of which would require support the likes of which Harris' book is entirely devoid, that it's difficult to imagine that anyone would be persuaded by such claims.

Another thing that might be pointed out is that this pseudo-argument is not scientific, but metaphysical (religious). (This true, by the way, of most of Darwin's arguments and most of those made by his modern defenders.) Harris has here placed himself in the role of designer of life (God), and determined that he wouldn't have done it that way. Apparently, Harris' concept of a supreme, self-existent Being who created the entire universe includes the requirement that He be satisfied with creating life once and once only, and not allowing any such creations to die out. We do not, of course, require the same of either human artists or human designers, giving them instead the freedom to shelve or discard some of their works.

More importantly, this is not a claim about God from the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, which state quite the opposite (in Psalm 104, for example)--that the Creator God reserves the right to give life and to take it away, to create and to re-create. And since the Judeo-Christian God is the one toward which most of Harris' illogical venom is directed, the rules of argumentation would require that he address that God and not a straw-man of his own imagination.

But to see just how ludicrous Harris' claim here is, consider a comparable one...
Over 99% of all dialing telephones are no longer in use. This fact alone appears to rule out the idea that they were designed in the first place.
Like living things, some early telephones are still extant, and many of the extinct ones can be found in museums. Far more are buried or lost, never again to see the light of day. And like extinct living things, one possible refutation of the silly claim about phones is that their designer didn't intend that they would last forever, or even remain the most advanced iteration for all of time.

As with most of the subjects Harris has the audacity to address, he's way in over his head with regard to the history of life on earth. What scientists are beginning to understand is that early life forms were perfectly suited for the conditions on earth at the time in which they lived, that later forms could not have survived those quite different earlier conditions, and that the earlier forms played key roles in making earth (including its atmosphere, oceans, crust, and other aspects) suitable for the later forms. In short, the entire history of life on earth--including the many extinction events--absolutely demands the very conclusion of design that Harris' weak pseudo-argument seeks to deny.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

More on Scientism

I received a couple of questions regarding my last post on scientism. The first was what my definition of science is. The second was what my particular complaint about Chris Mooney's article is, whether I see him as claiming that science is the only source of knowledge, or whether I perceive him as arriving at a wrong conclusion in the particular case of the autism-vaccination link.

The answer to the second question is 'both.' My primary problem with Mooney is that he seems to believe (indeed, the whole context of the article is) that science is the only source of knowledge. This is scientism; indeed, this is what's known as 'strong' scientism, as opposed to a weaker, slightly more reasonable (but still flawed) epistemology. And in the particular case of whether vaccination can trigger autism, this demonstrably illogical view leads him to an unfounded (and wrong) conclusion. In both his epistemology--scientism--and the wrong conclusions to which it leads, Mooney's basic problem is a lack of understanding of science itself.

Now, to be sure, if the question were, 'what percentage of autism diagnoses appear to be associated with (triggered by) vaccination?', that would require some sort of 'scientific' testing, whether that were a questionnaire or actually some sort of experimentation. But Mooney's claim is that since 'science' stepped in and hasn't discovered a link, we can dismiss as goofy the claims of those parents who believe (on the basis of mere eyewitness evidence) that vaccination triggered autism in their child.

All of this underscores a basic problem with the degree of authority with which we invest scientists. (And this gets back to the first question, 'what is the definition of science?') It turns out that scientists like Mooney are not the experts on what constitutes science, and he betrays his naivete by talking as though scientism is true. Further, the mistake he makes with regard to the specific case of vaccination-induced autism is rather a freshman error. That is, he seems unaware of a basic understanding in the philosophy of science. Let me explain. Jordan wrote,
In the case of the Autism-Vaccine link, do you think science can say conclusively one way or the other? I would think that given the right experiment(s) science should be able to detect a correlation if it exists.
The correct answer, according to philosophers of science (and scientists with some basic understanding of same) is that science should be able to say conclusively one way, but not the other. In other words, if there is a link, science might (or perhaps should) be able to discover it. But if science fails to discover such a link, it is illegitimate to claim (as Mooney does) that no such link exists.

Put simply, it's impossible to prove a universal negative. To prove the claim that there is no extraterrestrial life anywhere in the universe would require searching every inch of it. Likewise, science can prove a link between vaccination and autism but cannot prove that no such link exists. And what we have here is a scientist (Mooney) who lacks philosophical understanding basic to his science claiming that science has proved a universal negative. What's worse, he makes this absurd claim in spite of a good deal of counterevidence, evidence he dismisses because of his mistaken belief in scientism.

So what is science? Well, that's a profound question that really requires years of study (in philosophy and history, not in any science discipline per se). Let me just say this for now... While we often know science when we see it, there is no line of demarcation--no set of necessary and sufficient criteria--that separates science from non-science. And whereas it has thus far proved impossible to adequately define science, it is quite simple to demonstrate that the view known as scientism--the idea that so-called science is the only true source of knowledge--is logically absurd.

(A common mistake is to equate any knowledge gained through our senses with scientific knowledge. Such a definition of science is recognized as much too broad to have any value. People have always used, and continue to use, their senses at every moment of their lives, yet we do not think of ourselves as continually engaged in science.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Besides postmodernism, there's a second theory about knowledge--held by many in our culture--that (again like postmodernism) cannot withstand even a cursory scrutiny. I'm talking about scientism, the view that the only things we can really know are those things that have been shown to be true through scientific testing.

I come across this view frequently, especially in newspaper articles about science. (There seems to be a whole subculture within journalists of those who--while not scientists themselves--are sophisticated enough to agree wholeheartedly with everything scientists tell us.) The following articulation of scientism comes from an article in the L.A. Times, in which journalist Lori Kozlowski interviews Chris Mooney, coauthor of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future." The context and implication of the entire article is that whenever the public disbelieves or is skeptical of what scientists say, the public is wrong...
Q: What about the vaccine skeptic movement?

A: It bubbled up originally for legitimate reasons. The mercury preservative thimerosal probably shouldn't have been in vaccines. [Blogger's note: Ya think?] It was taken out for precautionary reasons. Since then, science has come in and we can't detect the correlation between a rise in autism diagnoses and use of childhood vaccines...

So, at some point you have to let go. But that hasn't happened. Instead, there's a conspiracy theory and people have appointed themselves as experts on this.

The people who try to avoid vaccination, who believe this, are not stupid. They're not disadvantaged... So the distrust of science--this is not something a better high school education would have saved them from. (ellipses in original article]
In other words, science tells us that there is no link between autism and childhood vaccinations, and that's the end of the story. People--that is parents--who don't believe science on this one are wrong (though not necessarily stupid). Even those parents who have personal, firsthand experience of their normal child suddenly displaying the behaviors of autism following their being vaccinated are wrong. Because, you see, on the view of scientism, no amount of eyewitness testimony can be brought to bear against science.

Mooney's view here is, of course, absurd, and I'll just give two reasons for now.

The first is that it is self-refuting. The claim "we can only know that which has been tested scientifically" is itself a knowledge claim, and one for which there is no scientific test. It's not a scientific claim at all, but a philosophical claim, and it falsifies itself. It is self-referentially absurd, and necessarily false. No amount of further discovery will make the claim of scientism true. (The people who make this claim--like Chris Mooney--are not stupid; they just don't think very clearly in certain areas. A better high school education--one that taught introductory logic, for example--might have saved them from this basic mistake.)

The second reason for rejecting scientism involves basic common sense. Just think about it--you know many, many things the evidence and reasons for which are not at all scientific. This includes a host of things for which you have firsthand (or even unique) knowledge; you were there and saw it happen. It includes many other things for which your justification for believing it (knowledge is "justified true belief") is sound. Do you know that George Washington was the first president of the United States, that we fought a war in VietNam, that the Romanian revolution took place in 1989? There's nothing scientific about any of that; so history involves a great deal of knowledge that refutes scientism. But so does geography, mathematics, your knowldege of current events. Indeed, unless you happen to be a scientist, most of the things you know how to do at work and at play you learned without scientific testing. Indeed, though there is increasingly DNA testing or other forensic science involved in criminal cases, most trials are decided primarily on eyewitness testimony and other non-scientific evidence and reasoning. I could go on and on, but have probably already belabored the point.

So Mooney's epistemology is demonstrably flawed, and it is this illogical epistemology that is at the heart of his conclusions about vaccination and autism. In other words, those parents who are skeptical of science's claim that there is no link are not involved in making conspiracy theories. Instead they are thinking more clearly about the issue--and with more at stake, since it's their kids' health on the line--than the scientists who have gotten involved. Though these parents may not consciously recognize the self-refutation involved in the scientist's claim, they are right to recognize that negative results from scientific testing do not serve to negate the abundant counter evidence from firsthand experience.

It is our right and duty as parents to carefully scrutinize the claims of science. This is especially true when the scientists involved betray their own failures in thinking clearly, as whenever they articulate the view described in this post as scientism.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Beginning next Monday, I'll be teaching a class at Kilns College on Critical Thinking.

I intend to spend some time in the first class on epistemology--truth and knowledge. In particular, I will discuss--and demonstrate the absurdity of--two very flawed epistemological views that are rampant in our culture. That is, most of your neighbors, relatives, and friends subscribe to one or the other--or more illogically still, both--of these ideas. I mean, of course, scientism and postmodernism.

I want to blog on scientism in the next post. And I have blogged on postmodernism in the past, and will again in the future. For now, I just want to point out one of the many absurdities of it.

Postmodernism, which is taught in the humanities departments of our colleges and universities, holds that truth--if it exists at all--is unknowable. But if this is true, er, I mean, well, let's just say if this is so, it makes the ideas of learning and education nonsensical. What person in their right mind would pay good money (and at most universities nowadays, heaps of it) to listen to the mere opinions of stuffy old--or flashy young--professors?

The reason we go to institutions of higher learning, and encourage our children to do the same, is that--no matter what we say--we all know that truth exists, that one can grow in knowledge and conform their ideas more and more to truth, especially by sitting under learned men and women, those who have the greatest knowledge about their respective fields. If parents really believed the postmodern epistemology, be certain that they wouldn't be helping their children to take four years out of their life just to party and play games.

Come to think of it, since the epistemology of postmodernism so clearly undercuts the ideas of knowledge and learning upon which the university system is based, why do college presidents and deans allow their humanities departments to teach it?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Walton Game 2

(7th post in a series)

In the last post, we began a game of "What he said/What he should have said" as a way of identifiying misconceptions about science reflected in the new book by Old Testament professor John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One. Today, we have a few more to deal with, so here we go...

What he said:
Biological evolution is an empirically derived model...
What he should have said:
Modern biological evolution is a paradigm that runs counter to all of the relevant empirical evidence. It survives nonetheless because it offered a speculation that allowed science to break free from the theism that provided the assumptions that make science worthwhile. Darwin's empirical predictions failed, and whereas there was plenty of evidence against his theory then, matters have only gotten worse. As such, biological evolution is not an empirically derived model so much as a metaphysical claim with no basis in fact.
What he said:
If public education is committed to the idea that science courses should reflect only empirical science...
What he should have said:
Public education is not committed to the idea that science courses should reflect only empirical science. Hence biological evolution is allowed to be taught as fact despite its utter lack of empirical support (see "what he should have said" responses both above and below).
What he said:
Evolution represents the current scientific consensus to explain the many observations that have been made in paleontology, genetics, zoology, biochemistry, ecology, and so on.
What he should have said:
Evolutionary theory depends upon ignoring or trying to explain away the observations from virtually every field of science. These include the following fields:

Paleontology, in which the fossil record argues against Darwin's theory. This was true in his day, but he thought further digging would change that. Instead, we now know that every life form in the fossil record appears suddenly and fully formed, and does not change throughout its tenure on Earth. We also know that the "inconceivably great" number of transitional forms postulated by Darwin remain missing after 150 years of searching for them.

Genetics, which has singularly failed to explain what Darwin meant to explain--the difference between living things. Given this failure, scientists committed to evolution have sought to use genetic similarity as evidence for their theory. This is either disingenuous or ignorant on their part, since the similarities among groups of living things have been known and understood since long before Darwin (and are just as easily explained by a monotheistic understanding of the world).

Zoology, in which (as Philip Skell points out), "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."

Biochemistry, a discipline undreamed of in Darwin's day. At that time, the cell was considered a simple blob of jelly, and thus the gap between non-living chemistry and the first cell was thought to be a simple thing to bridge. We now know that every single living cell is an inconceivably complex entity and that the simplest free-living cell contains a minimum of 1000 different proteins or gene products. It is extremely unlikely that Darwin would have advanced his theory had he had any inkling of the complexity revealed by modern biochemical evidence.

Astronomy, which has demonstrated that--contrary to Darwin's understanding of an eternal, static universe--the universe began a mere 13.7 billion years ago. Mathematicians recognize this finding as fatal to Darwin's theory (or any other naturalistic theory for life's diversity).

Physics, which has demonstrated a level of design (for life) in the universe that makes all naturalistic explanations--for life support, let alone the origin and diversity of life--ludicrous.

Here's the problem... Thirty (maybe even just twenty) years from now, no one but a few professors emeritus will still believe in any kind of Darwinian evolution. There is far too much evidence against it, and people--even biologists--are starting to realize it. The manner of its defense betrays evolution as a paradigm in its death throes. Its defenders spend their time seeking to silence opposing views rather than appealing to evidence or engaging the theory's detractors in honest, open discussion.

Given all that, neither the church nor the culture at large needs well-meaning Bible scholars making uninformed apologetic overtures on behalf of a scientific view that lacks any real merit. I believe that there is some validity in Walton's thesis that we should better understand the functional way in which Genesis 1's original readers might have viewed the world. But rather than write page after page of absurdity about science and science education, he would have done well to make a much stronger case (if it could be done, which I doubt) for his radical idea that there is no material component to the Genesis 1 account.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Science Misconceptions

(6th post in a series about John Walton's new book, The Lost World of Genesis One)

An important outcome of--but not motivation for--Walton's radical new thesis that there is no account of material creation in Genesis 1 is that this first chapter of the Bible is made impervious to scientific critique. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the account in this chapter, if read in the traditional fashion, is somehow at odds with modern science. Nothing could be further from the truth,* and the Judeo-Christian claim of creation out of nothing has more evidence in its favor than ever. Indeed, adopting Walton's view involves the abandoning of a wealth of science apologetic material that is being used today to help many scientists and educated lay people recognize the Bible as the uniquely accurate understanding of the universe in which we live.

At any rate, believing that his new interpretation is scientifically neutral, Walton proceeds to write at length about intelligent design, evolution, science, and science education. His misunderstandings about these issues are deep and wide, and it amazes me that he had the audacity to write about subjects on which he is so naive and illiterate. So many are his faux-pas here that it is difficult to decide how to address them. The method I have settled on for this post is a little game of "What he said/What he should have said." This will allow me to critique misstatements briefly and in isolation. Let's give it a whirl... What he said:
Science, by current definition... concerns itself with only that which is physical and material.
What he should have said:
Though many modern scientists--especially among biologists--have chosen to adopt a materialist approach to science, there is no historical, logical, or even pragmatic justification for such an approach. Indeed, artificially limiting science in such a way constrains science from discovering truth about the universe.
What he said:
Mainstream science contends that dysteleology [no design, purposeless]must be retained in its self-definition.
What he should have said:
Scientists are not themselves adequately trained or qualified to define science. The experts in what science is are (primarily) philosophers and historians of science and (secondarily) sociologists and psychologists of science. To the extent that some mainstream scientists see dysteleology as a necessary aspect of science, they are dead wrong, as any philosopher of science could tell them.
What he said (In a critique of intelligent design theory):
If scientists simply threw up their hands and admitted that a metaphysical... explanation was necessary, they would be departing from that which is scientific.
What he should have said:
It is impossible to remain metaphysically neutral. The opposite of a theistic view of the universe is not a physical view, much less a scientific view, but an atheistic one. All scientific explanations (including intelligent design and evolution alike) involve fundamental metaphysical assumptions. It is ludicrous and self-serving to seek to disqualify one scientific idea as metaphysical in order to buffer your own theory (which has equally basic metaphysical assumptions) from critique.
What he said:
[Intelligent Design theory offers] an understanding of the world that is ultimately teleological--purposeful--in which sense it departs from the realm of scientific investigation and theorization.
What he should have said:
Teleology is at the heart of science. Modern science was uniquely birthed within a Christian worldview, by men who understood that, as the creation of the rational mind of God, the universe could be expected to display order and law-like processes. Those modern scientists who deny design nonetheless depend (for doing science) upon that order, though they are unable to explain where it comes from or why it should be a feature of the universe.

Again, teleological understanding led the founders of modern science to the conclusion that our senses and reasoning are reliable for discovering the order in the universe (since we are made in the image of God). Those (like most evolutionists) who deny design cannot logically justify the reliability of human reasoning and senses. In short, defense of most of the basic assumptions that make science a worthwhile endeavor depend upon a teleological understanding and become absurd within a dysteleological view.
What he said:
...evolutionary theory requires long periods of time.
What he should have said:
All naturalistic evolutionary theories--including neo-Darwinism--require nearly infinite time. This is why mathematicians recognize the 20th-century discovery of a beginning to the universe only 14 billion years ago as fatal to evolutionary theory. Darwin's theory was proposed within the framework of an eternal, static universe; we now know that this basic and necessary assumption of Darwinian theory is wrong. (Sir Arthur Eddington, one such mathematician, spent his life seeking an explanation that could replace big bang cosmology; he frankly admitted that his motivation was to "allow evolution an infinite time to get started.") Modern evolutionists are either ignorant of or disingenuous with regard to this straightforward problem; they generally invest time with magical properties or ignore it altogether when there's clearly too little of it to allow for their theories.
This has been so much fun (at least for me) that I think I'll save a few of Walton's misunderstandings for another post, and another round of "What he said/What he should have said." Thanks for playing!

* To be sure, some interpretations of Genesis 1 are quite at odds with virtually all of the findings of science. Among these are the very popular 'young-earth' interpretation. But this is just one of many ways of understanding Genesis 1, and not (as its proponents claim) a doctrine of historical Christianity.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New Semester at Kilns College

Well, we're only a couple of weeks away from a new semester at Kilns College. Go here to check out the brand new vimeo plug for the college. I'll be teaching a class in Critical Thinking on Monday evenings.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Creation Out of Nothing

(This post is the 5th in a series discussing John Walton's new book, The Lost World of Genesis One.)

A good friend of mine (and I mean that both in the ordinary sense and in the Proverbs 27:17 sense) interacted with my last post. He said he found some support for Walton's interpretation in the fact that his English version of the Jewish Torah reads (in Gen. 1:1)
When God began to create heaven and earth...
In other words, maybe Genesis 1:1 is not an independent clause discussing an absolute beginning but part and parcel of verse 2 (and following) that warrants a construct reading.

The issue my friend raises can be used to demonstrate some of my problem with Walton's arguments... There is a debate among scholars as to whether Gen. 1:1 should be understood as a construct (as my friend's "Jewish Torah" renders it) or as an absolute (and independent of verse 2, 3, and following). Walton, who is about to advance a radical new theory all about Genesis 1, doesn't interact with this debate at all. Rather, he assumes the interpretation that will support his new view. By contrast, Copan and Craig (in their book, Creation Out of Nothing, which can only spare one chapter for the entire Old Testament) devote 13 pages to this issue, acknowledging and responding to the arguments for a construct view, and then giving half a dozen different lines of reasoning for rejecting that interpretation. Along the way, they quote other scholars who have investigated this at a level at which (at least as far as the evidence available to us in his book) Walton has not...
After surveying the relevant scholarship, Gordon Wenham asserts that 'the majority of recent writers reject [the construct] interpretation.'

Commentators Keil and Delitzsch declare that the phrase translated 'in the beginning is used 'absolutely,' and a translation such as 'In the beginning, when...' simply cannot be a reasonable treatment of the text.'

James Barr, arguing that there is no grammatical evidence that 'beginning' is construct in Genesis 1:1, calls such a reading 'intrinsically unlikely.'
Gordon Wenham writes: "Most modern commentators agree that verse 1 is an independent clause to be translated, 'In the beginning God created...'"
Copan and Craig go on to address other exegetical issues, issues in which Walton's thesis depends upon one particular rendering when scholars disagree that that rendering is correct. You see my point... In almost every case, Walton does not even do an ordinary job of addressing the relevant issues, whereas the radical conclusion to which he comes would seem to warrant an extraordinary level of support.

One exception--one exegetical issue to which Walton gives some attention--is the meaning of the Hebrew word bara, used in Genesis 1:1, 21, and 27. His third proposition (chapter) is "'Create' (Hebrew bara) Concerns Function." He looks at the 50 times in which this verb is used in the Old Testament (always with God as the subject), and concludes that
grammatical objects of the verb are not easily identified in material terms, and even when they are, it is questionable that the context is objectifying them.
I have at least two problems with this line of argument. The first is that he seems to be unable to see this issue from the other side. If one does not begin by rejecting a material understanding of these objects, it is really rather easy to find such an understanding in many of these verses.

More importantly, Walton's reasoning in this particular case highlights a problem found more generally throughout his book. He repeatedly sets up the dichotomy between a functional understanding and a material view. But those who find creation ex nihilo in Genesis 1 need not find there a material understanding but instead an ontological claim. To be sure, verse 1 has always been understood to apply to the creation of the matter, energy, space, and time of the universe--the totality of the creation, which certainly includes matter. But most understand the use of create/bara in verse 21 to refer to soulishness, an entirely new, albeit immaterial, thing. Likewise, those who find creation out of nothing revealed in Genesis 1 find the bara in verse 27 to have as its object creaturely spirit, again an immaterial thing.

So a significant portion of Walton's argument--for a functional and against a material understanding--is misguided. Moreover, Walton betrays (early on, in his Proposition 1) general misunderstanding about the material/immaterial issue. His claim here is that God did not correct the 'scientific understanding' of the ancient Israelites to whom Genesis 1 was addressed:
For example, in the ancient world people believed that the seat of intelligence, emotion, and personhood was in the internal organs, particularly the heart, but also the liver, kidneys, and intestines. Many Bible translations use the English word "mind" when the Hebrew text refers to the entrails, showing the ways in which language and culture are interrelated. In modern language we still refer to the heart metaphorically as the seat of emotion. In the ancient world this was not metaphor, but physiology. Yet we must notice that when God wanted to talk to the Israelites about their intellect, emotions and will, he did not revise their ideas of physiology and feel compelled to reveal the function of the brain.
Here's the problem: unless we have accepted an inaccurate metaphysical view (materialism) from some modern science (as Walton seems to have), then refering to the brain as the seat of intelligence, will, and emotion is likewise metaphorical. That is, in actual fact, thoughts, beliefs, desires, will, and emotion are mental--and thus immaterial--events, and not material or physical ones. As such, they--and our personhood--are no more accurately described (in our day) as residing in the brain than they were (in Moses' day) as residing in the liver.

This realization, of course, causes Walton's argument here to fall apart, but it also gives us some insight to the fact that his concern with "scientific consensus" (evidenced by the number of chapters of his book devoted to it) is fraught with fundamental problems. I'll turn my attention to some of those problems in the next post.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cosmic Temple Inauguration

(This is the 4th post in a series.)

In his new book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, John Walton offers what he calls the "cosmic temple inauguration" interpretation of Genesis 1. As Walton sees it, the original readers of Genesis, like the people of other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) civilizations, saw the world in functional--and not in material--terms. Therefore, when reading the first chapter of Genesis, we ought to understand it not as describing the material origin of the universe and earth (as has always been done), but rather as God's giving function to an already-existent matter during a concrete (solar or human) 7-day week.

Some of what Walton has to share about God's purposes for the creation, about the universe as God's temple, and about God's role in creating and sustaining the universe is very good. I believe that consideration of this facet of the creation account adds a further level of depth and richness to an already rich and wonderful account. In fact, were his proposal simply that we understand functionality as an important aspect of what God sought to convey in this passage, I would agree. At some points, Walton himself seems to temporarily soften his stance, and limit his claims in this way. For example, he ends proposition 17 (which I discussed in an earlier post as the best chapter in the book) this way...
So what affirmations does the proposed interpretation of Genesis 1 expect of us?

1) The world operates by Yahweh's design and under his supervision to accomplish his purposes.

2) The cosmos is his temple.

3) Everything in the cosmos was given its role and function by God.

4) Everything in the cosmos functions on behalf of people who are in his image.
You'll get no argument from me on any of that. I agree wholeheartedly. The problem is that Walton elsewhere claims that his functional interpretation is the exclusively accurate understanding of Genesis 1, that this account makes no reference to the material creation of the universe (that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is not found in Genesis 1), and that God did not reveal to Israel any new scientific content. Walton:
This creation account did not concern the material shape of the cosmos, but rather its functions.
Again (the italics are Walton's),
At this point a very clear statement must be made: Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins--it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story.
As mentioned in chapter one, there is not a single instance in the Old Testament of God giving scientific information that transcended the understanding of the Israelite audience.
I strongly (but respectfully) disagree with each of these three claims. Here's an outline of my response (I'll be happy to support these contentions in a future post)...

1) The truth of God's revelation transcends the understanding of its original readers (and even of the rest of us).

2) Jews, Christians, and Muslims have throughout the ages found in Genesis 1 the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

2a) In fact, historians recognize a view of time as having a beginning and proceeding linearly as one of the most important contributions of early Judaism to civilization.

2b) Ironically, it was partly their finding creation ex nihilo in Genesis 1 that gave the founders of modern science the logical justification for doing science in the first place.

3) A good deal of effective apologetic material is lost if one denies that Genesis 1 claims a material beginning to the universe. With the discovery of evidence for that beginning (the empirical validation of Einstein's theories of relativity and of a big bang model for the origin of the universe), many astronomers, physicists, and others have turned to Christ, recognizing in the conclusions of their science support for the opening claim (understood in a material sense) of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

4) Walton's thesis depends upon downplaying the much greater differences between Genesis 1 and other ANE cosmologies and focusing only on the rather superficial similarities between them.

5) If creation ex nihilo is found in Scripture at all (and Walton grants that it is), it would necessarily have involved revelation of scientific truth that falsifies Walton's exegetical claims. That is, scientific evidence for a beginning to the material universe did not come until the past century, though monotheists have continued to proclaim it all along by appealing to God's revelation in Genesis 1.

6) Given all this, Walton's denial of a material component to the Genesis account is a radical view. Such a radical view warrants an extraordinary level of supporting argumentation. Instead, Walton's argumentation is brief and superficial relative to the arguments offered by those with opposing interpretations.

Walton's position is further undermined by gross misunderstandings that surface in his subsequent propositions. These include...

7) Walton is wrongly concerned (in his attacks on what he calls 'concordism') with 'scientific consensus.' In my understanding, concordists (and anyone seeking to defend Scripture's inspiration and inerrancy) are concerned with reconciling Scripture with the unchanging reality of the universe--not with the admittedly changing consensus among scientists.

8) Walton betrays himself as completely unqualified to discuss the issues that make up his propositions 13, 15, 16, and 18. That is, he is wrong in his understanding of what science is and of who is qualified to define science. As a result, he misses the point at every turn, whether discussing science per se, intelligent design theory, evolution, or public science education. (I suspect I'll take the time to flesh this problem out in a future post, as this is the sort of thing that really gets my blood boiling.)

Again, I appreciate Walton's understanding of the Genesis 1 account as having a distinctly functional component to it. This view adds richness to an understanding of what God has revealed to us in this creation account. As such, the 'cosmic temple inauguration' view is not incompatible with other interpretations of Genesis 1. That is, one can find simultaneous validity to, say, this view and the framework interpretation and the progressive (or old-earth) creation view; they are not mutually exclusive. But I part company with Walton at the point at which he seeks to claim the contrary--that any view that finds in Genesis 1 an account of the origin of the matter of the universe is wrong.

We now have overwhelming evidence from the creation itself ('scientific' evidence, if you will) that the matter, energy, space, and time of this universe had a finite beginning whose Cause transcends that universe. Lacking that evidence, monotheists throughout the ages have nonetheless proclaimed it to be true, having found in Genesis 1 a clear declaration that God created everything out of nothing. Walton's repudiation of that idea (that Gen. 1 declares creation ex nihilo) is a radical view, acceptance of which would require a much greater set of supporting arguments than that which he offers.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Walton's Theology

(This is the third post in a series about John Walton's new book The Lost World of Genesis One.)

Before critiquing (in a subsequent post) John Walton's main theses about Genesis 1, I want to further affirm some of the conclusions to which his way of viewing creation has led him.

For me, the best chapter in Walton's book is "Proposition 17: Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 is Stronger, Not Weaker." In it, he discusses God's power, sovereignty, and goodness, and how one's interpretation of Genesis 1 affects one's understanding of these things. Please note that while I agree with the theological conclusions Walton shares here, I arrive at them quite independently of his interpretation of Genesis 1. That is, I largely reject his main theses and yet agree with him on these points that he finds flowing out of them. That we can arrive at this theology with different interpretations of Genesis 1 is acknowledged by Walton (in the most humble passage in the book, which comes toward the end of the chapter in view):
...even if the reader is not inclined to adopt the proposed interpretation of Genesis 1, his or her theology could still be greatly enhanced by the observations offered here by embracing a renewed and informed commitment to God's intimate involvement in the operation of the cosmos from its incipience and into eternity. We all need to strengthen our theology of creation and Creator whatever our view of the Genesis account of origins.
Amen to that!

Implicit to the discussion in this chapter of God's power, sovereignty, and goodness is the fact that Walton's new and different interpretation of Genesis 1 does not demand the conclusion that the universe and earth are only thousands of years old. But while that (young earth) conclusion has become quite popular within the conservative American church in the last 60 years, there are at least 10 other interpretations of Genesis 1 (each of them more traditional and with a greater historical record than Walton's) that likewise allow for the ancient universe attested to by the creation itself. Nonetheless, Walton is correct when he writes,
...the suggestion that some of God's work of creation may have taken place over a long period of time rather than instantaneously does not reduce God's power. God can create any way he sees fit, and it is no less an act of his sovereign power if he chooses to do it over extended billions of years. It is still accomplished by his word. Some would see the great span of time as further indication of God's majesty. If nothing is taken away from God's works and his sovereignty is not reduced, then there is no theological threat regarding God's person or deeds.
Absolutely. But I was even happier to read the following regarding God's sovereignty in His work of sustaining creation...
If God's work of creation is considered only a historical act that took place in the past, it is easy to imagine how people might not think in terms of God being active today. We have lost the view that nature does not operate independently from God. He is still creating with each baby that is born, with each plant that grows, with each cell that divides, with each nebula that forms. We might find it easy to look at some majestic view like a glorious sunset or the grandeur of the mountains and ponder the magnificence of God's handiwork. But this sense needs to extend beyond the "wow" moments to encompass all of our experience of his world. We have the same problem when we only recognize God in some incredible occurrence in our lives and forget that he provides for us, cares for us and protects us moment by moment, day after day. God did not just create at some time in the past; he is the Creator--past, present, and future.
Wholehearted agreement from this quarter. But then comes the issue of God's goodness. For most conservative American Christians, the idea that creation took place billions of years ago impinges upon God's moral character, since that means millions of years of animal death, something we in our modern, urban comfort find unpalatable. And so Walton addresses this issue as well. He doesn't necessarily do a great job of this (the best treatment of this of which I am aware is the book-length response by Mark Whorton, Peril in Paradise, which I highly recommend), but he is correct when he writes that
...we don't have to explain how predation can be a part of a morally good world.
(As an ecologist with a biblical worldview, I find it rather easy to explain predation, but we can do that another time.)

Again, I am unconvinced of Walton's new interpretation of Genesis 1, but find important areas of agreement in our respective theologies. And so I find reading--and thinking about-- his perspectives a worthwhile endeavor. More importantly, I believe God is honored when we have these sorts of thoughtful discussions--even when we disagree in some of our conclusions.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Walton's New Thesis

(This is the second post in a series discussing John Walton's new book The Lost World of Genesis One.)

Walton's book is a series of propositions--eighteen of them in fact--with each one given a chapter. The number of propositions is a problem: in order to get to the implications of his theses, he does a rather poor and hurried job of supporting those main theses. Moreover, he ventures far outside his area of expertise (Old Testament) in the later chapters, and this becomes quite obvious (especially) when he discusses science and public education.

In this post, let me just tell you what Walton's main theses are (without further comment) and then highlight one of the tangential points about which I agree with him. His main theses are:

1) That Genesis 1 is an ancient cosmology and that we can better understand it by looking at other cosmologies contemporaneous to it.

2) That Genesis 1 is function-oriented and not an account of the material creation of the universe. What God is doing during the seven 'days' of creation is inaugurating the cosmos (already in existence) as His functional temple.

One of the propositions with which I agree--and which I think is a discussion that needs to be had--is this... "God's Roles as Creator and Sustainer Are Less Different Than We Have Thought" (Proposition--and thus chapter--14). In this chapter, Walton seeks to avoid two extremes, seeing creation as a finished act of the past (on the one hand) and a form of micromanagement that denies God's use of natural process at all (on the other). His contention is that
The Bible to some extent offers the idea that creation is ongoing and dynamic.
The chapter itself bogs down a bit, but Walton elsewhere makes important points that relate to this proposition. In particular,
In chapter one we pointed out that the common dichotomy drawn today between "natural" and "supernatural" did not exist in the ancient world. I would also propose that it is not theologically sound. God cannot be removed or distanced from those occurrences that we so glibly label "natural." When we so label phenomena, it is an indication that we understand (at least to some extent) the laws and causes that explain it. Be that as it may, that does not mean that God does not control that process. What we identify as natural laws only take on their law-like quality because God acts so consistently in the operations of the cosmos. He has made the cosmos intelligible and has given us minds that can penetrate some of its mysteries.
He is, of course, right about this, and his subsequent illustration and discussion constitute some of the best writing in the book. Earlier (in Proposition 1), he appeals to Richard Bube (The Human Quest) for an explicit statement that I frequently make myself, that...
if God were to unplug himself in that way from the cosmos, we and everything else in the cosmos would simply cease to exist.
I agree. We understand (in part) what gravity is, but we cannot explain why it works. Nor can we expect it (or the strong nuclear force, for that matter) to continue its operations were God to cease His work of sustaining creation. Indeed, on a biblical understanding, we would expect everything to cease without God's continuing sustaining of it.

The problem--for Walton's more central theses--is that it does not require acceptance of his view of Genesis 1 (that the account concerns function only and does not treat material creation) to arrive at this conclusion. I--along with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers throughout history--see Genesis 1 as dealing with the material creation of the universe (which is what Walton denies), and yet am in lock-step with him that God's creative activity is ongoing and that natural laws do not operate independently of His sustaining work. He is wrong, then, when he claims that (italics mine)
In the position of this book, the idea that Genesis 1 deals with functional origins opens up a new possibility for seeing both continuity and a dynamic aspect in God's work as Creator...
So, I disagree that one need accept Walton's more radical thesis about Genesis 1 to arrive at a biblical understanding of God's work as Creator/Sustainer. Nonetheless, I appreciated his statement and discussion of this understanding.

In the next post, I'll highlight another area in which I find Walton's thinking accurate in important ways.

Friday, August 7, 2009

New Interpretation of Genesis One

So there's a new book out, one proposing what I take to be a new interpretation of the creation narrative in Genesis one. It's by John H. Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and is titled The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. I'll probably take a few posts to blog on it, since it provides fodder for good discussion.

Not counting this one, I'm aware of about a dozen different views on the correct interpretation of Genesis one. A couple of those are no longer live options: I don't know of anyone today who holds the view (believed by some to be that of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus) that each of the creation days was a period of 1000 years. Likewise, you'd have difficulty finding anyone today defending the view of Augustine and Origen that the creation 'days' are merely figurative (that is, that they do not involve any time at all), but that the account conveys spiritual truths. [Of the existing views, Walton's new interpretation is perhaps closest to this one, though he would almost surely deny it.]

Of the remaining 10 views, perhaps the rarest now is the Gap Theory, which was popularized by Scofield in his study Bible, and enjoyed a good following for some time. Most folks today recognize overwhelming exegetical and scientific problems with this view.

Another fringe idea (that is, one without a vocal defense today) is that the six days are merely a theological statement, a polemic against the pagan cosmologies of Moses' time. This idea was advanced by Karl Barth and others, and if it has proponents today, they don't seem to take a very active part in the discussion. Walton seeks to distance himself from this view, but it is (as I see it) the next nearest idea to that which he is himself advocating.

Walton's interpretation has this in common with most (at least 10) of the other views... acceptance of it makes it possible to reconcile Genesis one with the findings of modern astronomy, physics, geology, and chemistry. Only the two young-earth approaches lead to the rejection of virtually all of science, those being the plain-day view (defended by the late Henry Morris and by Ken Ham and others, and taught as "what the Bible says" in the majority of conservative American churches) and the Relativity-Day view (of Derek Humphreys and Gerald Schroeder), which at least seeks to come to grips with the plain evidence from astronomy that the stars have been around a good deal longer than 6,000 years.

But whereas this new interpretation allows for the ancient universe and earth attested to by the creation itself, Walton makes it clear that this was not a consideration for him--that instead he had only the goal of doing justice to the text itself in light of the cosmology of the Israelites and other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Indeed, he has nasty things to say about concordists (or his straw-man version of them)--those who seek to reconcile Genesis one with modern scientific understanding.

I think there is a good deal of merit to some of what is argued in this new book, and I'll hope to highlight those points in coming posts. But I also see significant problems with important parts of Walton's theses, and I'll be happy to discuss those as well. Stay tuned for those posts, but better yet, pick up a copy and read it, so that you, too, can be in on the discussion. (It's really a rather small book, the chapters are short, and it's easily read in a few short sittings.)

Though I ultimately disagree strongly with some of Walton's conclusions (and with some of his starting points as well), I welcome this new infusion into the discussion. I believe that God is honored when we take His Word seriously, especially if our disputations are carried out with humility and respect, as befitting Christ-followers.