Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Science vs Intelligent Design

If you've read my last few posts, you'll know that I got pretty fed up with some Intelligent Design (ID) arguments in a book I've been reading. What I want to discuss here is how ID relates to 'science' in general.

Science is:
"a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe"
(from Wikipedia, paraphrasing Webster's Dictionary)
I would like to tighten that definition up slightly. I would argue (perhaps controversially) that science is a method of testing and explaining how the universe works, in the current moment. Science is fundamentally based on a (usually unstated) presupposition that the way the universe works now is the same as the way it has always worked. "Ye canna change the laws o' physics" as a great man once said. Or, more importantly, the laws of physics don't change. (Whether an agent can change them is a discussion for another day.)

When I do experiments in the lab, I assume that, given the same environmental conditions, the experiment would work in exactly the same way in Beijing as in Edinburgh, and in exactly the same way in 1812 as in 2012. Experience bears this out. When we find discrepancies between experiments carried out in one place and time from results obtained in another place and time, we always find that it is the environmental conditions that are different, not the laws of physics.

Fundamentally, science is the study of the ways things work now, assuming that this will not change in the future and would have been the same in the past.

Science works by proposing a hypothesis (or a range of hypotheses), then carrying out experiments or observations to collect data, which can be used to either confirm or refute the hypothesis.

If a hypothesis has gone through this cycle of experimentation and analysis sufficiently many times, has not been refuted but has been confirmed many times over, then the hypothesis gets upgraded to the rank of 'Theory'. Like the theory of evolution or the theory of gravitation.

In common parlance (particularly in the minds of anti-evolutionists) there is no distinction between a hypothesis and a theory. "It is only a theory" is used to scoff at evolution. The phrase "It is only an experimentally validated hypothesis" should be equivalent, yet this doesn't sound so dismissive, so isn't generally used...

When we come to evolution, we have a problem as far as science goes. In an ideal world we'd simply set up an experiment, wait a couple of hundred thousand years, then examine the data. If we could do that, I have little doubt that the theory of evolution would be validated. Then, evolution would be what I can real science - we'd have proof that evolution is how the world works now.

In the absence of that data (which our descendents will get eventually!) we have to rely on observations rather than experiments. (OK, yes, we can do experiments with bacteria and the like and observe 'micro-evolution' over many hundreds of generations, but we still don't have the timescale to observe 'macro-evolution' whereby those bacteria evolve into non-bacteria.) We can observe the fossil record and we can study the DNA of living (and preserved) animals and make inferences from that. In essence, we can construct an 'experiment' where we take the evidence at the start of the trial (i.e. fossils from a particular early stratum) and compare these with evidence midway through the experiment (i.e. fossils in a more recent stratum) and also with evidence at the end of the experiment (i.e. animals now) and see if the evidence supports or refutes the theory. Much of the evidence examined in this way does indeed support the theory of evolution.

Thus, from a scientific viewpoint, the theory of evolution is validated. Micro-evolution is observed at the micro-scale, and has been shown to have predictive capabilities - predictions have been made regarding bacteria evolution (or adaptation, if you would rather) and these have been demonstrated by experiment.

But evolution only goes so far. It is, by definition, a theory which shows how a population of organisms can change over many thousands of generations. What it can't do is explain how the original population came to be. This is where ID likes to jump in.

The basic point of ID is that because science has no explanation how the original population of organisms came to be, it is plausible to suppose that perhaps an Intelligent Designer started the whole ball rolling. To be honest, I don't have an issue with that line of reasoning, but it is philosophy, not science.

The ID hypothesis has no predictive power. It tells us nothing about how organisms in the present day will react, adapt, evolve, or otherwise change with subsequent generations. Given this, it is not and should not be regarded as science.

ID also pre-supposes the actions of an agent from outside of science effecting change inside science. This basically constitutes a discontinuity in reality, whereby we must (if we accept ID) assume that science changed at the time of the action. In other words, there was a change in the laws of physics. Once again, this is not science, based on the fundamental assumptions of what science is.

ID should only be discussed in the philosophy class, not the science class.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Evidence for God: Arguments 27-41 (Jesus)

See the previous three posts on this book before reading this one [1,2,3]. Reading the last post on the evidence of the Gospels might help too.

This post covers the 'Jesus' section of the book "Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science" edited by William Dembski and Mike Licona.

In some ways, this section is both the most interesting bit of the book (for me) and the most frustrating.

Interesting in that, for me, all of Christianity stands or falls on the question of who Jesus is (or was) and what are the facts we can know about him.

Frustrating, in that every chapter in this section of the book is fundamentally based on the assumption that the gospels contain accurate reportage about Jesus, with no editorial bias. Basically, it is assumed that all the NT writings are true. Furthermore, they assume that the gospel accounts are fully harmonious and speak with a single voice (i.e. they assume that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would agree with everything that each of the others said, which is an assumption I have already discounted). They also assume that Paul wrote all the letters attributed to him (and Hebrews), and so on. No attempt is made to defend the (unstated) claim that the NT writings are true. Maybe that comes in the final section of the book (on 'The Bible'; which I haven't read yet) but if that's the case, it is a very odd editorial decision to address that assumption after all the chapters which rely on it. Maybe its only unintentional slight of hand, or maybe it is leaving the weakest link until the end, in the hope that the reader is utterly convinced before they get there.

The problem here is that for almost all of the chapters in this section, the argument runs along these lines:
  1. The bible says A, B and C are true.
  2. Because A, B and C are true, we can deduce that big claim D is also true.
  3. Furthermore, the bible says big claim D is true, validating our belief.
This is very, very, very circular reasoning. The claimed thing (Jesus, the resurrection, the trinity, whatever) is true because we assume it is true beforehand.

Anyway, here are a few comments on the chapters, one by one:

27. Did Jesus really exist by Paul L. Maier
This chapter aims at tackling a serious question, but doesn't take it seriously. The overall approach is very much one in the style of 'of course Jesus existed, Herod didn't attempt to kill a baby ghost'. I've dealt with this reasoning above, and this chapter doesn't really use any other method, other than an appeal to the majority: most Christian scholars believe in Jesus, so he must have existed. It does consider the evidence of the Jewish Talmud (written long after the time of Jesus) and the secular evidence of Josephus, et al. - which (as I've said before) only shows that there were Christians, not that the beliefs of Christians are necessarily based on real events, several decades previously.

28. The credibility of Jesus's miracles by Craig L. Blomberg
This is more of the same, although it turns the thing around and ends up concluding that if you discount the miracles as historical, then you have to discount the non-miraculous stories of Jesus, and of course we're not going to do that...

29. The Son of Man by Darrell Bock
A short chapter that boils down to saying 'the bible says that Jesus called himself the Son of Man, so he must have done this', with a few paragraphs suggesting what is meant by this.

30. The Son of God by Ben Witherington III
More of the same. Certainly no evidence or good arguments in favour of God here.

31. Jesus as God by Ben Witherington III
More of the same.

32. Did Jesus predict his violent death and resurrection by Craig A. Evans
Oddly enough, this chapter ignores the sort of reasoning used in the last few chapters and basically assumes that Jesus was human, but could see the way the wind was blowing, and knew he would die because of his convictions.

33. Can we be certain that Jesus died on a cross? A look at the ancient practice of crucifixion by Michael R. Licona
It is shown that there are comments in the gospel accounts which correlate with facts we know about crucifixion from other sources. From this the conclusion is drawn that Jesus must have been crucified, whereas all I can see from that is that the authors of the stories knew how Romans did crucifixions - something not very surprising as Romans crucified people all the time.

34. The empty tomb of Jesus by Gary R. Habermas
This is a perfect demonstration of the circular reasoning above. In this case it is basically, the bible says that B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, and K are true, so we conclude that big claim A of the empty tomb is demonstrated. Its all part of the one story, and we can't use parts of the story independently as evidence.

35. The resurrection appearances of Jesus by Gary R. Habermas
Same again. Habermas says he only uses evidence that is accepted by 'non-evangelical' bible scholars, as if that matters. Non-evangelical Christians are still Christians and still, by definition, believe in the death and resurrection of Christ. How about only using evidence that is agreed upon by atheist scholars? (of whom there are very few, and they don't agree on much)

36. Were the resurrection appearances of Jesus hallucinations? by Michael R. Licona

37. The Trinity by Bill Gordon
This is no evidence for anything. It is an attempt to show that the doctrine of the Trinity is consistent with the NT writings. OK, maybe it is, but how is this evidence for anything other than that some Christians believe what the bible says. I hadn't thought that that was in any doubt.

38. Is Jesus superior to all other religious leaders? by Tal Davis
Up until this point, the chapters have been presented as if they were written for a non-Christian audience, but the curtain slips here and it becomes evident that the intent of this book is to reinforce the beliefs of those who already believe. As evidence, it fails. The reasoning basically goes: Buddhism doesn't claim the Buddha was divine, Christianity claims that Jesus was, so Christianity is better... and so on.

39. Is Jesus the only way? by Michael R. Licona
More of the same, clearly written for already-convinced Christians.

40. What about those who have never heard the gospel? by Michael R. Licona
This chapter uses an amazingly placed 'apparently' as the central part of its reasoning. This is just there to say to Christians ' don't worry about this issue, its OK...' with poor reasoning and no evidence.

41. Did Paul invent Christianity? by Ben Witherington III
This chapter, like the 'Jesus didn't exist' chapter simply doesn't treat the question seriously.

To he honest, I found all of Ben Witherington III's chapters very simplistic and therefore frustrating. He is the most blinkered of all the writers in this section, unable to see past his own (big) assumptions. At least Licona pretends to see things from both sides, although the 'both' sides he seems to have looked from are both theistic - he appears to have considered other religions, but not to have considered that there might simply be no god.

And there we have it. 15 chapters on Jesus, all based on the same unstated assumptions, and therefore all flawed in the same way... unless of course the final section of the book can make a strong case for the reliability of the bible.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Jesus: his death, resurrection, and the evidence from the gospels

Originally I was going to write a few blog posts, on related issues, but they seem to have coalesced into one. So this post addresses the issues "Did Jesus die on the cross?" and "The Gospels as history"...

Everything we know about the facts of Jesus's life death and resurrection comes from the four canonical gospels.

That's not to say that the other NT writings don't mention these events, but Paul is much more concerned about the theological implications of the events rather than the details of what actually happened. For example, you'll never find from reading Paul anything about where Jesus was crucified, when this happened, who witnessed it, etc. Nothing that Paul says about the earthly Jesus is not mirrored and expanded in the gospels. Paul says that Jesus was 'born of a woman', but not which woman. For those details we need to turn to the gospels.

Apologists often make a great deal of the secular writings about Jesus, such as Tacitus, Seutonius and Josephus, but all of these date to times several decades after Jesus, and all of the information in them merely confirms that there were "Christians" at the time of writing, and don't really tell us anything about Jesus himself.

So. Everything comes back to the gospels. How reliable are the gospel documents? Can we trust them to contain history? Who wrote them and when? These are all important questions, and we may never know the answers to them all. I've already discussed the Synoptic Problem at length, so I don't need to go into that here. But here I'll go into a couple of other questions:

1. Did Jesus die on the cross?

The first thing to say about this is that all four canonical gospels agree on this point - Jesus was crucified and died. The problem faced by anyone trying to defend the theory that Jesus was crucified but survived is that they have to show that the gospel writers were correct in some facts and wrong in others. If the gospels got the plain fact that Jesus died wrong, then how can we believe anything else in the entire story? Jesus death is the central event in all four gospels, if he hadn't died, then there is no gospel. To the writers of these stories, Jesus life only makes sense in the context of his death. If we assume that the gospels are in any way reliable, then that leads us to the conclusion that the authors of these documents were utterly convinced that Jesus died on the cross.

I have to say that if you want to doubt the gospel writers belief in Jesus's death on the cross, you also have to doubt everything else they say about Jesus's life as well.

Did Jesus die on the cross?
  • If we accept the testimony of the gospels, then yes.
  • If we don't accept the testimony of the gospels, then we don't know.
  • I'd say that there is no way to conclude 'no' based on the available evidence.

There is really no way to honestly use the gospels to conclude that Jesus - the man who taught in Galilee, had 12 disciples, performed miracles, and so on - did anything other than die on the cross.

Of course, using the same reasoning, we must conclude that - if the gospels are trustworthy - that Jesus also was raised from the dead (as attested in all four gospels) and appeared in physical form to his disciples after this (as attested in 3 out of the 4).

Its an all or nothing thing, as far as I can tell. And it probably works the other way around for most people - those who presuppose the death and resurrection of Jesus regard the gospels as trustworthy, those who presuppose the non-resurrection of Jesus must therefore regard all the information in the gospels as potentially untrustworthy. I can't really see a good case for the middle ground of accepting that the gospels got some details (such as the main topics in them!) wrong, but were otherwise accurate in terms of what they say about Jesus (his teaching, healings, etc.).

Now, I've come to the conclusion - in other posts - that the gospels do contain errors and misinformation, which - using the reasoning above - must lead me to the conclusion that we simply can't know whether or not Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected a few days afterwards.

The best I can conclude is that IF Jesus was crucified by the Romans, then there is an exceptionally high likelihood that he died on the cross, as history (Josephus) only records one survivor of crucifixion, and that only after being quickly taken down from the cross - a very rare event indeed.

The only thing we can really say with any certainty is that Christians in the late 1st or early 2nd century believed that Jesus was crucified, died and rose again, several decades before their time. This doesn't count as evidence one way or the other, I'm afraid.

2. The Gospels as History

I'm about to make the same point again, but in a different way.

As I see it, there are really only two options, and they don't start with the historicity of the gospels, they either end up there, or they don't. The starting point is the resurrection of Jesus.

IF Jesus was resurrected (raised from death in a physical and 'super-human' body) then the central beliefs of the Gospel writers are fundamentally true, and there is a good chance that the biographies of Christ that they wrote are grounded in reality and may contain useful historical details.

IF Jesus was not resurrected, then the apparent central beliefs of the Gospel writers are false and the Gospel writings are, at best, the writings of honest but gullible people who had been told a bunch of myths and believed them, or, at worst, complete and intentional fiction. In this case, there is no reason to suppose that any of the material in the gospels is good historical data.

Yes, I know that the gospels contain at least four secularly attested historical characters - Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas the high priest. I would argue that these characters, while they do feature in the plot of the story, are more part of the setting of the gospels than integral to the story. In much the same way, Jerusalem and Galilee are part of the setting of the stories, the fact that we know there was a Jerusalem does not in any way provide evidence that the stories in the gospels which are recorded as happening in Jerusalem actually happened. There are numerous historically verifiable locations and characters in the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but that doesn't imply that Sherlock Holmes was a real person, only that the stories about him were set in a real historical setting.

So where does this leave us? I think it means we can't use the internal evidence of the gospels to prove the resurrection of Jesus. Or the death of Jesus. Or even the life of Jesus.

Without external 'secular' evidence for the person of Jesus, not merely evidence that there were believers in Christ Jesus a generation or two after the alleged events, we really cannot be sure of anything to do with Jesus in history. Anything you want to claim about him (for example that he claimed to be the 'Son of God' or that he was an apocalyptic prophet, or that he was born of a virgin, or that he had 12 disciples) relies, primarily, on the assumption that he was resurrected from the dead. Without that fundamental assumption, we cannot 'know' anything at all about Jesus.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Evidence for God: Arguments 17-26 (Science, part 2)

See the previous two posts on this book before reading this one [1,2].

So I've now read 26 chapters (that's just over half the book) of "Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science" edited by William Dembski and Mike Licona, and I'm still fed up by all the ID nonsense. At least this now brings us to the end of the Intelligent Design section, or "Science" as the book calls it.

In this chunk of the book are the following chapters:

17. Evolutionary Computation: A perpetual motion machine for design information by Robert J Marks II
This chapter had a point to make, but I have pretty much forgotten it now. I think it was something to do with how 'evolutionary computing' software actually requires an intelligent user, and without that it wouldn't work. But I may just be making that up. It didn't offer any evidence for God anyway.

18. Science, Eugenics an Bioethics by Richard Weikart
An odd title for this chapter, in that it doesn't really talk about science or bioethics. All this sets out to say is that Eugenics is a direct descendent of Darwinism. And by implication Darwinism is bad. Again, no evidence for God.

19. Designed for discovery by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards
This is an odd piece of 'evidence'. The point it makes is that our planet appears to be particularly well placed for observing the universe around us. If we'd been further inside a galaxy, we'd never see out, if we'd been inside a dust cloud, we'd never see out, etc. The case being made is that the planet we live on is 'fine tuned' for observation of the universe and this implies design.

I'm not so sure. Its a very now-centric view of the state of things. Its as if the writers of the chapter are assuming that the whole reason for creation is not just humans, but humans at this point in history. We've learned more about the universe around us in the past 100 years than in the hundred centuries before that. And it won't be too many decades in the future before we are sending probes and ships to explore distant parts of the galaxy, in other words, in not too long our view of the universe won't be limited by our place in the cosmos. The authors are basically saying that God placed us here (within the universe) so that humans (at our stage in development) can investigate the universe. Sorry guys, its not all about us.

For thousands of years, the visible universe has been a mystery to humans and has actually been the source of many, if not most, of the superstitious and pagan beliefs which have rivaled the worship of the 'true God' for most of human history. By placing us here, God promoted astrology and superstition? Not sure this reasoning works.

While it may be an argument for God, I'm not sure its a very compelling one.

20. Intelligent Design: A brief introduction by William A. Dembski
So finally, after six chapters that were devoted to ID and another five or six which were linked to ID, we finally get an 'introduction' to it. This is totally out of place, but compared to the rest is quite refreshing. It says:
"As a theory of biological origins and development, ID's central claim ins that only intelligent causes can adequately explain the complex, information-rich structures of biology and that these causes are empirically detectable."
Which is fair enough. I agree that ID is a valid hypothesis. It may not be a truly scientific hypothesis (see another post I'll write soon), but it is valid. Of course, it explains nothing about how the world works now, it is purely a matter of deistic origin belief, but at present there is no good scientific explanation for the origin of life, so I don't have a problem with people believing it or defending it.

But ID is not a rival to Darwinian evolution - ID is a hypothesis about how things got started, evolution is a theory (i.e. a tested and validated hypothesis) of how things have progressed since then. Evolution theory has no origin explanation, ID has no development explanation.

The main issue I have with ID is that it is a science stopper. Science asks 'How?' ID answers 'No, the question is Who?' - even if it can be demonstrated that there was an original intelligent designer, I still want to ask "How did the designer do it?", ID doesn't seem to even want to ask that question.

21. Intelligent, optimal and Divine design by Richard Spencer
This chapter addresses the criticism of ID which basically says 'if we are designed, why are we not perfect?' and spends a few pages explaining why imperfect things may be desirable. Not an argument for God, rather a defence from attack.

22. Molecuar Biology's New Paradigm: Nanoengineering inside the cell by Bill Wilberforce
Another pointless ID chapter. Its basically the 'life is too complicated to be a product of chance' argument again. Sigh.

23. Panning God: Darwinism's Defective Argument against Bad Design by Jonathan Witt
This seems a rerun of chapter 21. It is a defence of God creating imperfect things. But this time the argument is that God made things imperfect because he wants to have to intervene and 'meddle' with his creation in order to keep it going. The problem this chapter faces is that there is simply no evidence - at all - that God's intervention is necessary to keep the universe running properly. God's intervention is assumed by certain theistic belief structures, but is not demonstrated. If anything, this chapter is evidence against God rather than for him.

24. The role of agency in science by Angus Menuge
This is another defence of ID. Does science assume that the universe works in an entirely materialistic way, or can the involvement of an 'agent' be considered as a hypothesis. Generally no agents are assumed. This chapter argues that by assuming no agents are active, science restricts itself and is therefore not truly 'scientific'.

25. The scientific status of design inferences by Bruce L. Gordon
This chapter aims to blind the non-science literate reader with science. It uses conditional probability as a smokescreen to cover up the fact that it is treading the same ground as the previous chapter.

26. The Vise Strategy: Squeezing the truth out of Darwinists by William A. Dembski
As I've said several times before on this blog, I do not believe there is any such thing as a perfect argument. That is, all arguments have holes in them, and if you pick at the holes the arguments will eventually unravel.

This chapter is not an argument for ID, but rather an unnecessarily detailed description of how to pick holes in the arguments of Darwinists, if you happen to get a chance to cross-examine a Darwinist in the witness box. In other words, its ammunition for ID proponents.

The chapter tells how to get a Darwinist to admit (a) that they don't know everything, (b) that evolution might not fit into a very tight definition of 'science', and that (c) ID might fit into a broad definition of science. That is all it sets out to do, and by doing so, this chapter thinks it proves its case. Maybe it does, but it is very annoying and makes me very angry while it does this. Aaaaargh!

I'm so annoyed that I now feel the need to address ID in a future blog post. So watch this space for details.

In the meantime, finally, the 'Science' section is over. Whew. We move on to 'Jesus' next.

I have to say that in the first 26 chapters of 'evidence' for God, there have only really been about five half-decent arguments for a deistic God, and none completely compelling. I had hoped for more. Is this really the best that Christianity has to offer in its defence?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Evidence for God: Arguments 8-16 (Science, part 1)

See previous post on this book before reading this one.

I'm now 16 chapters into "Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science" edited by William Dembski and Mike Licona, and I'm beginning to regret buying and reading the book. I had thought that the book was going to offer good and well reasoned apologetics arguments for the existence of God. And some of the time it does. But section 2 of the book, which deals with 'Science' and which I am not even halfway through, is getting quite repetitive and is relying heavily on 'Intelligent Design' arguments, which I have little time for. If I'd noticed that Phillip E. Johnson had a chapter in here before I'd bought it, I might not have bothered. But I've spent my money now, and started this blog series, so I might as well continue. Maybe there will be some gems later in the book.

But for now, here are my comments:

Section 2: The Question of Science

8. Creator and sustainer: God's essential role in the universe by Robert Kaita
This chapter has one basic point to make and it makes it several times. The point is this:
Everything humans make eventually breaks and needs fixed or maintained, why should we expect the universe to run without the need for ongoing maintenance?
I'm afraid I don't think this reasoning is very compelling. Why should we expect the universe to be anything like the things we make? Why should something natural behave like something manufactured? Of course, the point being made here is that the 'natural' universe is actually created, but the implication of this reasoning is that if God created everything, he wouldn't be able to do it perfectly, so his ongoing maintenance would be required. Viewed from that perspective, I'm not sure many theists would agree.

9. The pale blue dot revisited by Jay W. Richards and Guillermo Gonzalez
This chapter concerns our place in the universe. It also concerns the paradigm shift that was brought in when Copernicus and others demonstrated that the earth wasn't the centre of the cosmos. The chapter challenges the assumption that the Copernican revolution somehow demoted our place in the universe, in that we're no longer the centre of things, rather it shows that the paradigm shift actually elevated us into the heavens.

All well and good, but this is no argument for or against God in any way. So why is this even in this book? There is definitely an attempt here to muddy the waters of the debate here, to show that things are complicated and not clear cut. But really, this contributes nothing at all to the debate.

10. Oxygen, water and light, Oh My! The toxicity of life's basic necessities by Joe W. Francis
This chapter has a simple point to make. The three things that life relies on: oxygen, water and light, are all - in various ways - toxic. And all living things have very complicated ways of dealing with the toxic effects in order to maintain life. The implied question is 'how could such a complicated system have evolved?' And that is a tricky question, but so is the counter question which is not asked here 'why would an intelligent designer make living systems in this crazy way?' Of course, there is no answer to either of these questions in this book.

11. The origin of life by Walter Bradley
So here it is. The Intelligent Design (ID) defence begins. In summary: life is complicated and couldn't have occurred by chance. To be honest, the previous chapter makes this case better, without actually making this case at all. This one is just padding.

12. What every high school student should know about science by Michael Newton Keas
This is not an argument for God. This is an argument for redefining 'science'. This chapter made me angry. Most of what is said in it is kind of true, but truth with a spin. It redefines science in a way that doesn't include evolution. This chapter, which is longer than most here, annoyed me intensely.

13. Darwin's battleship: Status report on the leaks this ship has sprung by Phillip E. Johnson
Groan. I don't care about the ID vs. Darwinian Evolution debate. One of the things that annoys me the most is the constant over use of the word 'Darwinian'. There's a definite attempt to bias the debate by implying that this is all the fault of only one man.

Darwin made observations, he proposed a hypothesis, then he identified evidence which supported this hypothesis, such that it has now become an established theory. Since Darwin died, so much more evidence has been uncovered which supports the theory, that the theory is not really in question within the realms of science.

Up against this comes 'Intelligent Design', a hypothesis which is not derived by observation or experiment. As a hypothesis it has yet to be adequately refuted. True. But as a theory, it has no predictive power. You can take the theory of evolution, apply it to a certain scenario and make predictions about the outcome. The theory is frequently validated in this way. But what predictive power does ID have? None.

I could rant more, but I can't be bothered.

14. Debunking the Scopes 'Monkey Trial' Stereotype by Edward Sisson
Sigh. Another chapter that is about the ID vs. evolution 'debate' without actually presenting any evidence at all on either side of the debate. This is not an argument for God. This book is not doing what it says on the cover. I am getting really quite annoyed now.

If I'd borrowed the book from someone else or from a library I'd have given up by now, but because I paid the best part of a tenner on this I'm persevering.

15. How Darwinism Dumbs us Down: Evolution and Postmodernism by Nancy Pearcey
Finally, an ID chapter that actually has a point to make! The point is an old one, but a reasonably valid one, which is this:
"If all ideas are products of evolution, and thus not really true but only useful for survival, then evolution itself is not true either - and why should the rest of us pay any attention to it?
Indeed, the theory undercuts itself. For if evolution is true, then it is not true, but only useful."
What the chapter does not do is demonstrate why an evolved theory cannot be true. I suppose this is a kind of 'genetic fallacy'. It may be only an accident that evolution has brought about rationality, but to say that evolution could not result in rationality is false.

16. Limits to evolvability by Ray Bohlin
While I am completely bored by the ID arguments now, I'll acknowledge that this one is also valid. It does appear that selective breeding can only strengthen certain characteristics of an animal so much. Perhaps this is also the case in natural selection?

The problem with this line of reasoning is that selective breeding (i.e. intentional selection) does not involve mutation as one of its steps. Evolution by natural selection does. So the author is not comparing like with like. Its not a perfect argument, but after the nonsense of the last few chapters, it certainly feels like one.

The impression given by all the ID chapters (of which there are still more to come) is not 'here is some evidence for God and/or compelling arguments for God' but rather 'look, there are problems with evolution, look, look, a problem we can't explain... must be God then'. This does not make a compelling case or a good argument.

So nothing really to sum up here, as there's more to come. Assuming I don't smash my Kindle out of frustration at all the ID chapters...

Friday, January 13, 2012

Jesus didn't die on the cross? (Part 1)

Someone posted this as a comment on one of my other posts, it was off topic there, but I thought I'd start a new thread with it here. I'll comment on the topic in a future blog post. (On 27th Jan: Click Here)

Have you guys ever heard of Shabir Ally? He is the best Muslim debater and is able to cast doubt that Jesus even died

Ok,that is something,if you doubt he died on the cross then Christianity is false.


Most Muslims believe that Jesus was never crucified,it was made to look that way.

But some accept the swoon theory of Ahmed Deedat and Shabir Ally then there is a problem.

Shabir Ally's argument

He is the most famous Muslim debater.

It is that according to the Gospel details:

1.We can not be 1OO% sure Jesus really died

2.So in that case you can not convince me,Shabir Ally,that Christianity is true.

Here are 2 articles about why scholars disagree with the Swoon Theory.It has answers to 5 of Shabir Ally's arguments about it.They are:

Reason 1

"“The centurion was a Believer in Jesus"

Reason 2

"Pilate was surprised Jesus died so soon"

Reason 3

"A Friend of Josephus survived Crucifixion"

Reason Four

"Crucifixion does not pierce any Vital Organs.”(to thus cause death)"

Reason 5

"In Antiquity there were Case of the Dead Waking from a Coma"

Read these pages: [this one] and [this other one]

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Evidence for God: Arguments 1-7 (Philosophy)

I've started reading "Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science" edited by William Dembski and Mike Licona. This is (as you might gather from the title) a Christian apologetic defence of God.

So I'll comment (briefly, I hope) on each of the 50 arguments presented, and let you know how compelling, or otherwise, I find them. Please comment, if you want. Here's section one: The Question of Philosophy...

1. The Cosmological Argument by David Beck
I've commented on this argument several times recently in the posts relating to the William Lane Craig debates (e.g. here). The argument is stated slightly differently here from how WLC says it, and it doesn't go as far in its implications as WLC's version. Here the argument is:
  1. What we observe and experience in our universe is contingent
  2. A network of causally dependent contingent things cannot be infinite
  3. A network of causally dependent contingent things must be finite
  4. Therefore, there must be a first cause.
The book doesn't really go on to try and demonstrate that the first cause must be personal, etc., that is left implied. The more I think about this argument, the more I realise it should have the clause 'in time and space' in all four points, thus:
  1. What we observe and experience in our universe in time and space is contingent
  2. A network of causally dependent contingent things in time and space cannot be infinite
  3. A network of causally dependent contingent things in time and space must be finite
  4. Therefore, there must be a first cause in time and space.
Points 1-3 cannot be applied to anything outside of time and space as it relies on our experience and observations, and it relies on the assumption of a temporal chain of events, which by definition must happen within time. So the conclusions of this argument must only apply within time and space. Thus, if he is the first cause, God must be within the temporal universe, not external to it, or the creator of it. This, I am sure, is not the point the apologists using this argument want to prove.

Having reflected on WLC's version of the argument for a few months now, I think there is another flaw in the argument which I hadn't got to grips with before. It assumes time and space are independent. Einstein explained how time and space are connected. It is only our perspective that puts the arrow of time onto reality. Viewed from other perspectives, there is not necessarily a time 'origin'.

Imagine all of 4D space-time as a bubble or a sphere (in much the same way as a 3D sphere can be drawn on paper as a 2D circle). The south-north axis is our 'arrow of time' as we perceive it. What we have at the pole is not a 'beginning' as WLC would have it, but only a boundary - the edge of the space-time bubble. Not everything that has a boundary requires a cause...

Another of my many (and varied) thoughts on this is that the cosmological argument assumes that the cause of an event must come before the effect in time. And yet, if we accept the argument of a timeless agent, this isn't necessarily the case. Many apologists, I'm sure, would accept the claim that the death and resurrection of Jesus is the central event in history. Now, consider the salvation of Godly people who lived in Old Testament times. Did Christ's saving act on the cross influence their salvation? Many would say 'yes' - so the cause of some effect does not necessarily happen before the effect in time. Similarly, what about OT prophecy regarding Jesus - surely Jesus was the cause and the prophecy the effect, even though the effect came first?

So in arguing that there was a first cause, we do not need to argue that the first cause was before the first effect, or indeed, has even happened yet. We could still be waiting for the 'first' cause to come around. Now if the first cause hasn't necessarily happened yet, why can't it be part of a cause and effect chain itself? Maybe something we do in the future will have cosmological effects which start the whole thing off in 'the past'?

I'm not saying that this is what I believe, I just think that there are holes in the cosmological argument, such that it isn't strong enough to stand alone. More evidence is needed. Maybe the other 49 bits of evidence will make a strong case...

2. The Moral Argument for God's Existence by Paul Copan
I've been over this ground in other posts recently, so I'll keep this brief. In my opinion, this line of reasoning only leads to the conclusion that there is something greater than the individual. Morality is defined relative to the greater 'entity' not to the individual. As far as I can tell, the argument cannot take us to conclude that the greater thing is God. In my opinion, it could be simply 'human society' - the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. Things that are beneficial for society as a whole are deemed moral, things which are detrimental to society as a whole are deemed immoral.

Copan's argument is clearly aimed at bible-believing Christians and probably won't wash with unbelieving skeptics. He quotes bible verses all over the place. Once again, this confirms the suspicion that apologetics is not about winning new converts, but rather about boosting the confidence of already committed believers.

3. Near Death Experiences by Gary Habermas
This is an odd piece of 'evidence'. At no point does Habermas demonstrate that the existence of NDEs requires there to be a God. He seems to take it as read that any evidence for the 'supernatural' implies there must be a God.

I've heard Habermas in debate on this topic before. His 'killer' piece of evidence concerns 'Katie' an eleven year old girl who had an NDE and during this, amongst other things, saw an angel called 'Elizabeth' and a glimpse of her family many miles away - she was able to accurately state what it was her mother cooked for dinner and what toys her brother was playing with.

Having just Googled this, the odd thing is I can find no evidence for this story outside of apologetics. The only people who discuss or mention the case are using it as evidence for God, with no further citations. For me, that raises an alarm warning bell. But even if the story is true and accurately presented, what does it tell us? Only that weird and unexplainable things happen. Nothing at all about NDEs says anything about the existence (or otherwise) of God. I'm not even sure that NDEs are evidence for 'the supernatural' - at present, all we can say is that there is some weird psychology going on near death and NDEs have not yet managed to demonstrate any extra sensory perception to anyone who is not pre-inclined to believe in it anyway.

4. Naturalism by L. Russ Bush III
Another odd one. This offers no evidence for God, but only an argument why Naturalism isn't a coherent worldview. The chapter assumes there are only two possibilities: (i) there is a God, or, (ii) there is only Naturalism. It then assumes if it can pick holes in (ii) that (i) wins by default.

The author seems to think that the naturalist's reason for reason is basically chemical reactions in the brain, and if he says that often enough he will discredit naturalism. The main point here is that the human ability to think and reason is (in the naturalistic view) the result of a non-rational process of evolution and rests entirely on chemical processes and psychological processes which we have no reason to trust. Whereas the theist view starts off with rationality and reason, so it is only in the theistic worldview that we can actually trust our own reasoning.

The problem with this is that the author's case boils down to the belief that the pre-supposition of reason at the start of the process of creation is better than the evidence based observation that reason only came late on in the process of evolution. In other words, he asserts that "reason just is" has more explanatory power than "reason evolved". He also seems to assume that humans are reasonable and rational beings, rather than just appearing that way, but offers no evidence that we actually are reasonable. Many psychologists would disagree and point out that you actually can't trust your own reasoning, much of the time. Which actually makes the naturalist case more compelling.

5. Suffering for what? by Bruce A. Little
This is the first piece of 'evidence' in this book which actually provides no evidence at all, for anything. The author contends that the Christian experiences three different types of suffering:
  1. Suffering for righteousness
  2. Suffering in the same way as everyone else
  3. Suffering because of willful disobedience to God
He quotes many bible verses to explain why this should be. What he doesn't do at any point is demonstrate that Christians actually suffer in ways that are demonstrably different from non-Christians. Yes, Christians at times are persecuted because of their beliefs. But then again, so are Sikhs, so are Jews, so are Sunni Muslims, etc. Basically any group has, at times, suffered at the hands of another group who are different and more powerful than them. So point 1 is no evidence of anything. Neither is point 2, because it says there is no difference between Christians and anyone else, which is no evidence, once again. So we are left with point 3. He gives no testable examples. Certainly, some Christians interpret certain types of suffering as a punishment from God at various times in their lives. But, once again, so do Muslims, Jews, etc. Given there is nothing quantifiable about the difference between Christian suffering and the suffering experienced by anyone else, this is no evidence for any God, let alone the Christian God.

The thing I don't understand about this chapter is why it is even here? It doesn't even attempt to give evidence for God. The reasoning 'there is suffering, therefore there is God' is counter intuitive to the max, and would need some unpacking - which isn't even attempted. Literally pointless.

6. Responding to the argument from evil by David Wood
This chapter isn't evidence for God, but rather it gives a response to one of the stronger atheist arguments. The reasoning being that if it can be shown that an argument is flawed, the conclusions are therefore also flawed. Of course that is a fallacy, you can use a poor argument to try and defend a truth. Indeed, the whole point of this blog post is not to demonstrate that there is no God, but only to demonstrate that these apologetics arguments are flawed, whether or not there is a God. As this chapter points out, some of the atheist arguments have holes in them too.

The Argument from Evil (AE) is not perfect. To be honest, I've never come across a perfect argument for anything. All arguments have holes. Arguments are not the same as mathematical proofs. Mathematical proofs demonstrate that their conclusion must be the case. The best an argument can do is conclude something beyond reasonable doubt. Of course, what constitutes reasonable doubt is another debate...

So this chapter does, essentially, what I am doing to the other chapters in this book. Picks holes. It picks at the hole that assumes God wants a world free from suffering, it picks at the hole (which isn't there) that misunderstands what the Christian means by the word "faith". It also picks at the hole that misunderstands what the Christian means by the word "good", which is actually a rerun of the first hole picking, expressed in different words. The strongest part of this hole picking is the 'awareness assumption' that assumes that if God has reasons for allowing suffering that we must necessarily be able to comprehend these reasons. This is the hardest point for the atheist to defend.

But having made this point, the author basically says the best defence against the AE is to use the offence of the cosmological and moral arguments. Basically he admits he can't refute the AE, he can only cast some doubt on it and then change the subject by using multiple other arguments. I'm not sure this is good enough. I don't think this is sufficient to go 'beyond reasonable doubt'. But anyway, the author gets to say more in the next chapter...

7. God, Suffering and Santa Claus by David Wood
This chapter presents a direct contest between theism and atheism. Which worldview has the better explanatory power? The chapter uses the example of Santa. Where do the presents come from on Chrismas morning? When a child dismisses the notion that it was Santa who put them there, they don't jump to assuming 'the presents just are' but rather attribute the present giving to another agent, namely their parents. In doing this, he seems to be assuming that 'agency' as the best explanation for almost everything, which may be flawed thinking.

He asserts that if a theory can explain multiple observations, but not all observations, that the theory should not necessarily be dismissed. He explains that theism can explain: (a) the fact of existence, (b) the fine-tuning of the universe, (c) the origin of life, (d) the rise of consciousness, (e) moral values, and (f) miracles. The claim that theism can't explain (g) suffering shouldn't, by itself, be enough to dismiss theism. He then asserts that atheism can't explain any of the points (a) to (f) above, so theism shown to be a better explanation of reality than atheism.

The problem with this, is that it is a highly 'cherry picked' list of things. If there are only six things that theism can explain that atheism can't, then theism is in serious trouble. I'm sure that if I put my mind to it, I could find six things that atheism can explain which theism can't.

And I'm not sure theism actually does have a better answer to all of the above than atheism. (a) theism pre-supposes existence (the existence of God), it doesn't explain it. (b) the apparent fine-tuning of the universe is a necessary condition for our existence - the fact that we are able to ask the question pre-supposes the fine-tuning. It doesn't pre-suppose a fine-tuner. We have no idea how many universes with different tuning have been and gone with no life, or how many lifeless universes there currently are in the multiverse. All solutions to this question, whether theist or non-theist require the invocation of an unseen infinite, and so all arguments are equally flawed. (c) as with (a) this is a pre-supposition of theism, that God lives at the outset, so life is not explained, it is merely asserted. (d) is much like (a) and (c) a pre-supposition. (e) moral values - I've dealt with that above. And finally (f) miracles. The funny thing about this is that the author of the chapter claims that the resurrection of Jesus is more believable than the 'absurd phenomena' of mass hallucinations. Despite the fact that we have good hard evidence for mass hallucinations in recent history, and no hard evidence for resurrection.

The thing is, 'atheism' isn't a single explanatory theory, it is basically a rejection of the 'theism' theory which pre-supposes most of its own conclusions. So we're running around in circles here.

So that's the first selection of 'evidence' for God in this book. I must say that all the arguments presented either do not really pertain to the subject at hand, or have holes in them. Once again, that's not to say that there is no God, only to say that none of these arguments is good enough evidence to conclude his existence. The next section deals with science, so we'll see how I get on with that in a few days time...

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Who do you say I am...?

Much of my recent doubting (not necessarily all put on this blog) boils down to this question:

Who was Jesus?

(Some of you will say that the question should be asked in the present tense, but before we get to the question of who Jesus is now, let's look back into history and ask who Jesus was when he walked this earth, in the first few decades of the 'common era'.)

Its hard to ask this question without throwing some theological baggage into the mix from the outset, but I'm going to try and avoid that, wherever possible. So let's ask that question of the people who should know:
  • Who did Matthew think Jesus was?
  • Who did Mark think Jesus was?
  • Who did Luke think Jesus was?
  • Who did John think Jesus was?
  • Who did Paul think Jesus was?
  • Who did the other early Christians think Jesus was?
I'll be asking these questions again and again, over a series of posts. There may be long gaps between posts... don't hold your breath.

Given that most people think Mark wrote first, let's ask him first...