The Invisible Things

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Science and Faith, Part 3 (What Are the Limits?)

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In my last post, I mentioned some specific scientific advances in an effort to illustrate the limits of the conclusions that can be made through scientific inquiry. The idea of the limits of science is one that merits a bit more discussion.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that macroevolution is somehow verified empirically. One could then safely conclude that man is the result of genetic change over the span of millions of years. However, many of the descriptive terms often used to describe the process of evolution would still not necessarily apply. The key issue is that of purpose. One often hears the mechanism of evolution described as ‘blind chance,’ or ‘random processes,’ yet we have no basis upon which to assume that it is, in fact, a purposeless phenomenon. It is in this case that the non-teleological assumption is imported, rather than legitimately inferred by the evidence. In other words, even the unlikely confirmation of evolution would not legitimately lead to the conclusion of atheism.

A simple example might help to illustrate this point: Suppose that you walked into your kitchen to find a kettle of water coming to a boil on the stove. You could rightly conclude that the water was boiling because it had been placed in a vessel which had been heated to the point that the water molecules are activated. However, without speaking to the person responsible, you would have no means of determining why the kettle had been placed on the stove in the first place. Yet it would be ridiculous to conclude that the kettle had been filled and heated by random and purposeless chance. (While I am not trying to make a strict analogy between the kettle scenario and evolution, as the properties of the kettle scenario are within the context of human decision making, I am suggesting that the conclusion regarding purpose is equally unmerited in both.)

Neither can the notion of the value of human life (not to mention the value of all life) be discussed in scientific terms. Value is a moral assessment that has little to do with empirical facts. Take, for example, the process of adoption. For any family considering or going through this process, the issue of cost will inevitably factor into the decision. Often, the process can cost well over $20,000. Yet, many would agree that suggesting that this new member of the family’s value could be accurately assessed in terms of a dollar amount is not only in poor taste, but quite incorrect. This is because value is not an empirical measurement, but a moral one. I would even dare to suggest that the entire concept of adoption is an adequate proof of the general agreement on the part of humanity that life is of high moral value. Otherwise, why would anyone desire to extend the family non-biologically, either for his or her own benefit or for the benefit of the parentless child?

Evolutionary scientists might argue that value should be a factor of cognitive function. Perhaps this is what causes scientists like Richard Dawkins, among others, to advocate for the extension of human rights upon primates. However, this seems wholly capricious for several reasons. First, on what basis is cognition evaluated? Though primate behavior appears quite similar (though primitively) to human behavior in many ways, many behaviors also indicative to high cognitive ability are found in other animals as well. For example, some species of birds exhibit sophisticated vocal ability (though I do concede that there may be more mimicry in this case than linguistic ability). Other animals, such as dolphins and pigs, are often extolled for their intelligence. But in all cases, the level of intelligence is often explained in terms of instinct and stimulus response, which provides the key to discerning between human and animal behavior.

For example, ant communities are quite complex and use communicative behavior far different from our own. A ‘scout’ will venture out for food, and will send a ‘radio’ signal out when it is found. The others will follow that signal (and the exact path of the ‘scout’) to retrieve the food. We humans require roads with rules, large colored signs, and even maps and directions to navigate. Yet, human behavior far surpasses the stimulus response of ants. Education is a prime example, as the educated become educators. One might spend years endeavoring to teach sophisticated behavior to a primate, yet I strongly suspect that expecting that primate to, in turn, teach others would be futile.

These issues do not lead to the scientific conclusion that humans have inherently more value than animals. However, they do confirm that pioneering for primate rights is scientifically arbitrary. Value is a non-scientific factor that can inform scientific investigation but cannot be determined by it.

Finally, if value and purpose cannot be scientifically determined, neither can behavior. To clarify, behavior can be observed scientifically, but to suggest how one aught to behave is another matter. Like it or not, mankind expects a certain kind of behavior of itself. I need only to point to the local courthouse or penitentiary to prove this point. Consider this: If a bird sets up shop and builds a nest in your garage, it would be absurd to haul the creature into court and charge it with trespassing. Clearly, the bird has no idea about such concepts and is merely following its instinct toward survival. However, if a human did the same thing (minus, perhaps, the nest), it would be another matter! This is because we believe in the rights and responsibilities of mankind. We may have the ‘golden rule,’ however I would challenge any scientist to produce convincing empirical data explaining the origin of it.

I actually believe that by delineating the limits of science, science is now free to proceed undeterred by extraneous considerations and will be more effective. Philosophy is suited to governing science such that it is calibrated to gather information successfully and without harm to society. Yet, clearly science has no ability to govern philosophy in the same way.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 27, 2006 at 10:04 am

Science and Faith, Part 2 (Are they Incompatible?)

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I have often encountered opinions of skeptics along the lines of 'one cannot be a Christian and maintain intellectual integrity.' Such an attitude seems to revel in intellectual 'class distinctions' and support the animosity that some skeptics have for believers. Fortunately, this idea is obviously false. One need only acknowledge the many scientists who confess belief in God to show that faith and science are not mutually exclusive.

But there is clearly more to the issue than this. I would argue that skeptics who hold the opinion that science makes faith irrational are not necessarily speaking on behalf of what is, but what should be. They are likely to argue that a proper understanding of science should lead to skepticism towards faith, though it does not for many, or that one should not believe anything that is not empirically proven (note that in my last post I discussed how science is founded upon ideas that themselves cannot be empirically proven). I suppose a logical deduction from this might be the implication that the faithful must not really understand science. Try telling that to the many distinguished PhD's in church on Sunday! In fact, surveys generally show that a person holding the degree of PhD is just as likely to believe in a personal God as the general population.

Perhaps the skeptic has allowed the conclusions of science to extend beyond their true capabilities. There is certainly no scientific conclusion that has proven in the affirmative that God does not nor cannot exist. To the contrary, our current scientific theories are quite limited in their metaphysical reach. For instance, the Big Bang theory lays out a possible sequence and timeline for the beginning of the universe, yet it does not provide an empirically verifiable conclusion regarding the catalyst of the ‘bang’ itself. Prior to this theory, many postulated that the universe has eternally existed. Though many philosophical objections were provided to refute the idea, the discovery of red shift by Edwin Hubble provided the empirical basis for understanding the universe as having begun at a point in the past. But the question remains, what do we make of the point prior to the Big Bang? Does it even make sense to call it a point in time (this is another article in and of itself!)? Clearly, the unknown elements here are vast enough to allow for many philosophical possibilities- God, not the least of which, included!

The theory of evolution is often cited as an empirically proven scientific basis for rejecting belief in God. However, I would argue that this theory has not even begun to approach warrant for such a conclusion. Rather than examining the much refuted holes in the theory, I simply want to point out that the naturalistic conclusion that some evolutionists make is not warranted by the facts themselves. To date, and assuming the theory is accurate (and I am not convinced that it is), we still have yet to discern the mechanism by which the process of evolution occurs. We have made a conclusion based upon observations around us, but we cannot adequately test those observations as they are contingent upon an almost inconceivably large timescale. Without the affirmation of testing, there is no reason to begin applying evolutionary conclusions. Let me make one point clear however: I am not advocating that a gap in knowledge should lead us to give up our search or capriciously insert God to account for the unknown. Where the real problem lies, I believe, is in that many have allowed the philosophical presupposition of naturalism to guide their interpretation of observations and prematurely close the case. Thus the conclusion is that evolution is a non-teleological (without purpose) process. This way, discovering the mechanism of evolution is no longer so crucial, because the purpose is already prescribed. But we have no basis upon which to build such an idea! It is a conclusion which has been imported philosophically, not factually.

For the many scientists who believe that faith should not even approach scientific thinking, I would make a simple challenge: If such a pronouncement is going to be made, it cannot be a street on which the skeptic has right of way. In other words, if scientists should not make conclusions which correlate with their theistic worldview, neither should scientists make conclusions based upon observations that correlate with their non-theistic worldview. This would certainly be a difficult rule to impose upon science in general, since the practice is meant to be used to answer questions that are not necessarily scientific.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 23, 2006 at 11:10 am

Rousseau in Chains

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Philosopher Jacques Rousseau famously wrote, ‘Man was born free; and everywhere is in chains (The Social Contract, 1762).’ He begins his treatise with this point very specifically to establish his notion that man, at his core, is good, and that he is inevitably corrupted by society. Interestingly, Rousseau’s pre-Darwinian take on human origins suggested that humankind began as a simian breed separated from the animal kingdom by free will and his potential for education and growth, but ultimately corrupted by developments in agriculture, metallurgy, and labor. Rousseau argued that a mandated social contract was the only hope for mankind, one in which man submits to the authority and the general will of society.It doesn’t take very long to realize the fundamental problem with this theory. If mankind has reached such a nadir of individual decadence, on what basis can a general will be established that is trustworthy and suitable to which to submit? In other words, if society is the product of man, how can man be the product of society? Webster defines society as ‘an enduring or cooperating group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.’ Society is a concept contingent upon not just mankind, but the collective conscious of individuals. Yet, rather than simply debunking Rousseau through my own semantic manipulation, I would like to suggest a revision of his initial premise.

I believe it is more accurately stated that ‘Man is born in chains, his freedom found not in an idea, but in a person.’ The chains I have in mind are those of the spiritual bondage to sin, which as the Apostle Paul reminds us, entered the world through one man, rather than the temporal oppression we may face at the hands of our fellow man (Romans 5:12). The issue depends on how the nature of man is understood, which in turn cannot be comprehended apart from a scenario of origins from which our character must emerge. That said, I might backtrack a bit and add that Rousseau’s theory depends on a naturalistic framework that would be rejected by even the most serious contemporary evolutionist. His concept of the ‘noble savage,’ though similar to at least one stage of an evolutionary framework, was terminally connected to some imposition of morality and the ability to comprehend it. Even the word ‘noble’ itself is qualitative. From where did this separation come? Who decided that a certain group of primitive ape-like creatures would be set apart for nobility from the rest of the animal kingdom? Roussau could not escape morality, yet it is society that he blames for the corruption of man. If man was by nature good, how could the society which he created corrupt him? The corruption must have come from him, or in other words, man has brought chains to himself and society. Psalm 51 reads, ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ If the release from these chains cannot be found in man, then where do we turn for hope? The Bible tells the story of mankind by book-ending the narrative between two men. Adam, the first man, brought sin into the world by sacrificing intimacy with God for rebellion. But Jesus Christ was sacrificed for the sake of man, that he might be justified to God. He says to those who follow Him, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live (John 11:25).’ Contrary to Rousseau’s understanding of the nature of man, he is not everywhere in chains, but God is everywhere providing freedom to the bound; it is God’s Word that accounts for the separation of man from the animal kingdom, which Rousseau himself counted as a non-negotiable.

David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, however, brought a strong objection to this view when he said, ‘the Christian religion not only at first was attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, let us ask this question: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter-of-fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames for it can be nothing but sophistry or illusion.’ In other words, Hume says, ask of the Bible, is it mathematically reasoned, or does it make scientific claims? If not, throw it out. His claim is that the Bible has no explanatory power without these characteristics. The obvious problem is that his own statement satisfies neither constraint, thus, according to Hume himself, we must discard it. Edward John Carnell explains, ‘What one appeals to as a controlling presupposition in his system is not what determines the validity of the act; rather, granted the starting point, does it produce a system which is horizontally self-consistent and which vertically fits the facts? (The Problem of Evil, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, pg. 298)’ Hume may reject God as a logical ultimate, but he appeals to an ultimate himself that is horizontally inconsistent and vertically unfitting of the facts. Hume failed to recognize the very relationship between man and philosophy, thereby misjudging the very nature of man.

The failure of Rousseau’s appeal for a social contract reflects also its misinterpretation of the nature of man, and the horizontally inconsistent logic by which the argument itself was formulated. I appeal to the wisdom of God to identify the nature of man, for how else can an objective truth emerge but from an objective source?

The Inescapability of Purpose

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In early 2005, a group of MIT graduate students submitted a paper entitled, ‘Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy,’ for peer review at a conference dealing with computer science. After its acceptance, the students gleefully announced the absurdity of the paper’s recognition as it had been randomly generated by a computer program designed to arrange ‘scholarly-sounding’ content in proper structure but without regard to actually making sense (you can generate one of your own at http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/). While this has been used to ridicule both the evaluation process of such scholarly work as well as to point out the robotic quality and low standards of much scholarly writing, it provides an excellent analogy to deriving meaning from life itself: Meaning on the ‘micro’ scale rationally implies meaning on the ‘macro’ scale. Clearly, something went wrong in the evaluation process, most likely due to the lack of integrity on the part of the evaluators themselves. But the point lies more in the shock we might feel upon hearing about this ‘prank.’ While the source of this paper merely arranged words, implicit in our outrage is the assumption that a paper receiving peer review aught to be meaningful, and its meaning should be tied to its source.Is this not very much like the outrage many feel in regards to the evolutionary conclusion that we are the meaningless product of time, chance and random processes? In one of his many defenses of evolution, Stephen Jay Gould stated, ‘The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so- roughly .0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time- and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan…We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves- from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way. (as quoted by Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God)’ Ironically, Gould made the case for the meaninglessness of human existence relative to the massively meaningful (at least to him, anyway) existence of life in general, yet claims that it must be we in our ‘wisdom’ that assign meaning to existence. What is the purpose of meaning if it is created by that which is meaningless? What can be value of meaning as Gould understands it if it is rooted in a temporal ‘blip’ on the evolutionary timeline? I use these two examples to show the illogical way in which meaning is discarded from answering questions of ultimate origins, but clung to when validating the purpose of individuals and ideas, or in other words, how many are willing to accept meaning on the ‘micro’ scale while jettisoning reason on the ‘macro’ scale.

I would argue that our notions of truth, thought, the mind, laws of logic, and meaning make no sense without the presupposition of the existence of God. If this is true, then, as Christian apologist and philosopher Greg Bahnsen was fond of saying, evolutionists and atheists are ‘borrowing from my worldview’ in their efforts to debunk it. For the moment, let’s go back to the evolutionary model as suggested by Gould. If we are materially reliant upon our observations in order to develop arguments for any worldview, atheism/evolutionary included, then we must adhere to the logical implications of our arguments. How do we argue for the meaningless of humanity using minds that were the process of random evolutionary processes? Philosopher William Lane Craig explains, ‘according to naturalism, our cognitive faculties are aimed at survival, not truth. Thus, we can have no confidence in the truth of their deliverances- including the conclusion that naturalism is true! (William Lane Craig, Response to Presuppositional Apologetics, Five Views on Apologetics)’ If we have no meaning due to the randomness from which we ‘evolved,’ then how can we be sure of our capabilities? How do we know that we are not operating with dysfunctional minds? After all, as frequently as a theist points to design in his teleological (Webster: exhibiting or relating to design or purpose especially in nature) argument for God, the atheist is quick to point out the so-called flawed elements or imperfections of our biology. Many a theist has pointed to the complexity of the human eye as an example of design in the universe- that intelligence must be the source of this design. Yet, here’s how evolutionist Kenneth Miller describes the eye: ‘An intelligent designer working with the components of this wiring would choose the orientation that produces the highest degree of visual quality. No one, for example, would suggest that the neural connectors should be placed in front of the photoreceptor cells- thus blocking the light from reaching them- rather than behind the retina. Incredibly, this is how the human retina is constructed. Visual quality is degraded because light scatters as it passes through several layers of cellular wiring before reaching the retina. Granted, this scattering has been minimized because of the design flaw. (Kenneth Miller, Life’s Grand Design)’ Clearly, Miller is missing the point of the teleological argument, which, by the way, does not argue for the perfection of biological design. There is not much question as to the imperfection of our physical bodies. Were they perfect, mortality, pain, growth, intake, output, and reproduction would all be meaningless, or at least experienced and discussed in a very different manner. Even the Biblical narrative assumes the imperfection of the body when it is declared by the Apostle Paul that those who believe in Christ will be resurrected to glory (Romans, ch8).

The purpose of the argument is to show that at the root of our construction is information- information that must have a source. In addition, and more importantly, Miller assumes that the flawed design of the eye is due to the physiological and structural inadequacies of our biology in general. How, then, does he avoid making the same conclusions about the brain, and the biological processes of it that aided in the formulation of his conclusion? If we affirm that our existence is merely the product of chance and random biological processes, and that our sense of unity and morality is merely a preferential attitude developed out of necessity for survival, then we have no means of defending our expressions as in any way meaningful. In this sense, an evolutionary scheme for our existence is much closer to the MIT students’ paper-generator than any teleological scheme (yet, ironically, the analogy won’t completely sustain as the creation of the random paper-generator was from the intelligence of the students, with a clear teleological base for debunking the scholarly standards in their field)! No matter how we come at it, intelligence and purpose are inescapable.