Monday, September 27, 2010

Compassion at its Limits

Today I'm going to talk about something that my wife and I have been going through recently. I want to share our experience as well as some of the questions it has raised for us. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on these issues.

About a year ago, my wife and I decided to take someone into our home. She is an older woman who attends our weekly Bible study. She was kicked out of the house she had been living in and had no place else to go. We decided to take her in at least until she could get back on her feet.

Since that time we've made ourselves available to her. We've looked into more affordable housing options, programs to help people get back on their feet, and programs to help elderly and disabled people find work. For the most part she ignored our help, and when she did follow up it was only after we had both insisted that she make the call.

We have also tried to support her in other ways, especially by talking with her and praying for her. It has been good, but far from adequate. This woman has suffered from abuse, and she probably needs to see a professional. Unfortunately, she has been reluctant to speak with a therapist about her situation.

Recently, my wife and I both decided that we weren't willing to let this woman stay with us any longer. We have tried everything we could think of to help this woman turn her life around. Unfortunately it seems clear to both of us that the kind of help she needs isn't something we are able to give.

However, the process of arriving at that decision raised a number of interesting questions for us.

1) What is our responsibility toward people in need? How do we help people who are unable to help themselves? What about people who are merely unwilling to help themselves? How do we ensure that everyone is being cared for and everyone is being treated fairly?

2) What do we do when we've reached the limits of compassion? How do we react when we're doing everything we can to help, but things still aren't getting any better? Do we continue caring for others even when we know that it won't make a difference?

3) How do we decide that we've done all we can? When and where do we draw the line, and say that we're not going to continue helping the person? How do we determine if our attempts to "help" are doing more harm than good?

These are just some of the questions we've been thinking about as my wife and I have come to this decision. We've talked about these issues write a bit, but I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on these issues. Please share them with me in the comments.

Friday, September 24, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - The Anthropic Principle and Faith

The next two sections of chapter four both deal with different versions of the anthropic principle. Simply put, the anthropic principle states that any universe (or world) in which intelligent life exists must have the right conditions to allow intelligent life to exist. Therefore the fact that our world and our universe have the right conditions for intelligent life is unremarkable.

On the one hand, it is hard to argue against the anthropic principle, because it is self evidently true (ie it is a tautology). Obviously if the conditions on the earth or in the universe were different, such that intelligent life could not exist, then there wouldn't be any scientists to study it. From this, we can safely conclude that no scientists will ever be able to demonstrate that it is impossible for intelligent life to exist in our universe.

So, in a sense, it is completely unremarkable that our planet and our universe are "just right" for us. Indeed, they could not possibly be anything else. Of course, it is only unremarkable that our universe allows intelligent life to form if intelligent life itself is unremarkable. I do not believe that to be true. Instead I think our existence is very remarkable.

Now, the funny thing about the anthropic principle is that there are a couple of different versions of it. Different people use this principle to make different conclusions. Some people use it to argue for the existence of God, while others use it to argue for the existence of multiple universes.

Dawkins uses the anthropic principle to support the idea that there must be a complete scientific explanation for the emergence of intelligent life. He interprets the anthropic principle as, "Intelligent life exists, therefore there must be a scientific explanation for how intelligent life came to exist." This is only true if we assume that the origin of intelligent life has a scientific explanation.

Dawkins holds the assumption, along with many scientists, that anything that exists (or has existed) has a scientific explanation for its existence. This belief is not based on evidence, or at least not direct evidence. It is a kind of faith, although it is rarely acknowledged as such.

All too often this faith gets a free pass. People who believe in God, or in the resurrection of Jesus, are often ridiculed for believing in something that can't be proven. On the other hand, people who believe that everything that exists has a scientific explanation rarely face ridicule, even though their own beliefs are just as unprovable.

Many scientists, including Dawkins, operate under the assumption that there is ultimately a scientific explanation for everything. The problem (at least in Dawkins' case) is that they seem to think that their own beliefs are indisputably true. That simply isn't the case. There is no guarantee that every problem that scientists attempt to solve has a scientific solution. The scientists believe that a solution exists but until they find it, they can't be sure.

Before I finish this post I want to make something clear. I don't have a problem with scientists who believe that what they're studying has a scientific explanation. In fact, I think it's a good thing. Science wouldn't advance if scientists didn't believe in what they were doing. I just want to point out that the scientist's belief is an act of faith, in much the same way that a religious person's belief in God is an act of faith.

Next week I'll take a closer look at these final sections of chapter four. I'll talk more about how well the anthropic principle works on the planetary and universal scale.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Science and Faith: Explanation vs. Justification

Since I've been reviewing The God Delusion I have been thinking quite a lot about the role of science and religion and how the two relate. It isn't always easy to separate scientific and religious truth claims. There isn't a simple bright line that neatly divides the two fields. Still, it is important to understand what divides the two fields, and how to reasonably draw a line between them.

The best way to do that is to look at the goals of science and religion. Although at times they both tackle the same subjects, both fields have very different goals. Simply put, the goal of science is to provide an explanation, and the goal of religion is to provide a justification.

What do I mean by that? Well, first of all, an explanation is a descriptive model. The goal of an explanation is to provide an understanding of what is happening in a given situation. If our understanding is very good, we should even be able to predict what will happen in certain situations.

Scientific explanations also tend to be reductionist in nature. They explain complex phenomena in relatively simple terms. For explanations, the goal is always to make things as simple as possible, so they can be more easily understood. If the explanation is more complex than the thing you're trying to explain, then it's not a very good explanation.

Justification, on the other hand, works differently. Instead of trying to understand the universe in terms of simpler things like particles and forces, a justification seeks to understand how the universe relates to more complex things, typically God. A justification is able to explain, not just how the universe operates, but how it came to exist, why it is the way it is, and what purpose it has.

Unsurprisingly, most atheists don't think the universe needs any justification. The famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russel once said, "The universe is just there." To put it another way, the atheist position is that the universe is self justifying. I have my issues with this, which I've been over many times before. For now I will just conclude with one of my favorite xkcd quotes, "If the question of what it all means doesn't mean anything, then why do I keep coming back to it?"

In any case, I hope this helps you to understand the difference between scientific and religious theories. It may also shed light on many of the conflicts between science and religion. I think it's also helpful for anyone who wants to try to separate out scientific ideas from religious ones. This is useful for anyone who struggles to see how scientific and religious ideas can operate together without one trampling all over the other.

Friday, September 17, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - In Which I Agree With Richard Dawkins Wholeheartedly

The next two sections of Dawkins' book, Irreducible Complexity and The Worship of Gaps, are mostly devoted to explaining the theory of evolution and pointing out the flaws in the so-called theory of intelligent design. As you may have gathered from what I've written so far, I don't have any problems with evolution and I'm not a big fan of intelligent design. As such, I don't have much to write about these sections.

His basic argument is that the success of evolution and the failure of intelligent design should make us suspicious of any attempt to explain the universe in terms of design. I've already discussed the problems with that argument last week and the week before, so I'm not going to do that again. Instead, I'll take the opportunity to point out some of the things Dawkins and I can agree on.

First and foremost, we can agree that the Intelligent Design theory isn't science. It doesn't provide any useful explanations or make any testable predictions. It doesn't give scientists a framework to help them organize their findings or suggest new areas of research.

This is because intelligent design isn't trying to be science. The theory wasn't created by scientists interested in discovering how the natural world works. It was created by religious people interested in controlling what textbooks said about how the natural world works.

It is unfortunate, for many reasons, that so many Christians are so heavily invested in controlling science education in the United States. The most obvious reason is that a large number of people are actively trying to sabotage science education. Every success the movement wins makes our children more ignorant about the biological sciences.

The second problem is that this kind of polarization has a chilling effect on scientific research. Researchers normally seek out problems and potential challenges to a theory. They do this so that they can conduct further research and see if the problem or challenge can be resolved. When you have a group like the ID movement latching on to such problem areas as "proof" that evolution doesn't work it makes it difficult for researchers to do their job.

The last problem I'm going to talk about is one that Dawkins isn't concerned with. The biggest problem I have with the intelligent design movement is that it directly harms Christianity's reputation. It creates the false impression that Christianity and evolution are mutually incompatible, an impression that Dawkins seems to think is correct.

Moreover, it creates the impression, among educated people, that Christians are either backwards, uneducated, or simply unconcerned with the truth. This creates an obvious credibility problem for Christians everywhere.

There, I've now written an entire post about something Dawkins and I agree on. I apologize if your pet pig sprouts wings and flies away, but I'm afraid it couldn't be helped.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Science and the Miraculous

About a month ago I talked about miracles. I explained that miracles don't have to be big, flashy displays that defy the laws of science. As I explained a miracle is anything that reveals God's character to us.

This is why many bizarre phenomena, such as ball lightning, that defy scientific explanation aren't considered miraculous. They don't reveal anything about God's character.

Of course, there are some miracles that illustrate God's character as well as his power over nature. Things that seem impossible, or at least very improbable. Many people struggle to believe in Christianity because of the accounts miracles in scripture. They aren't sure how to reconcile a belief in supernatural miracles with a scientific worldview.

It is a problem. If we believe that scientific knowledge provides a complete and accurate understanding of the universe, then we have to concede that these kinds of miracles are impossible. Of course, our present scientific understanding is far from complete. More to the point, I don't believe that the scientific method can ever give us a complete understanding of the universe in which we live.

First and foremost, scientists can only study phenomena and events that are repeatable. Repeatable, in this case, meaning that the events can be reproduced in some sort of predictable fashion. If there are any events or phenomena that cannot be reproduced in this fashion, then science is unable to explain them. Supernatural miracles fall into this category, because God causes them when and where he choses. Since we cannot reproduce the event, we are unable to study it scientifically.

Some people might argue that, if supernatural miracles do occur, we should see more evidence of them. Specifically, one might argue that if such miracles were commonplace, then it would be difficult for scientists to produce such elegant theories that explain so much about our universe.

This only shows us that such miracles are rare, and that God prefers to work through natural laws, rather than against them. The only way we can conclude that supernatural miracles never occur is if we assume that the laws of nature are absolutely true at all times. We can accept scientific knowledge without coming to this conclusion.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - When All You Have is a Hammer

I have a confession to make. I think Dawkins is probably quite a bit smarter than I am. I know he is much more well educated than I am. So why don't I defer to his superior intellect and expertise?

The simple answer is that I do, when it comes to evolutionary biology. The man knows a lot more than I do about that subject, having studied it for most of his adult life, and I trust his opinions in that field.

The problem is that even when he's discussing radically different fields of knowledge, he still thinks like an evolutionary biologist. He has this strange idea that the understanding he's gained in his field, the knowledge and information he's acquired through many long hours of studying, can be just as easily applied in any other discipline.

Or at least, I assume that's what's going on. It's the only way I can explain the content of this next section. He writes that the theory of natural selection should make us suspicious of any sort of design hypothesis. He says that it should raise our awareness to the fact that there may be other possible explanations whenever a design explanation seems necessary.

The problem with this approach is that it fails to consider how other scientific disciplines differ from biology. A biologist can rely on the laws of physics and chemistry to explain how DNA and RNA works, how mutations happen, how environments change, and how creatures survive and reproduce, all of which goes into explaining how complex life evolved.

A physicist or cosmologist trying to come up with an explanation for the origin of the universe doesn't have that advantage. As I discussed last week, such discussions really fall outside the realm of pure science and into philosophy and metaphysics.

Still, let us suppose for a moment that the complex and wonderful universe we find ourselves isn't the result of design, but instead is the result of some kind of emergent complexity. Emergent complexity happens when a simple initial state, governed by simple rules, is able to produce complex, interesting results.

As an example, let us look at Conway's Game of Life. The rules to the Game of Life are very simple, and given certain initial conditions it can produce complex, interesting results. It is a tool meant to illustrate the power of emergent complexity.

If we assume that the universe works like a more sophisticated version of the Game of Life, then we have to consider the fact that the rules for the Game of Life weren't arbitrarily selected. Those rules were chosen specifically to allow for emergent complexity. Additionally, not every initial state in the Game of Life produces emergent complexity. Most of them fizzle out or fall into a stable, repeating pattern after a few generations.

If anything, the Game of Life illustrates the problem of trying to use emergent complexity to explain the universe's origins without appealing to some cosmic designer. Emergent complexity only works under very specific conditions. It's extremely unlikely that those conditions would come about by pure chance.

So emergent complexity, as an explanation, doesn't eliminate the need for a designer. It just gives the designer a new job description.

Coming back to the point I made earlier, the reason Dawkins doesn't see this flaw is because he studies evolutionary biology. He's used to studying emergent complexity. He doesn't give much thought to the conditions that make emergent complexity possible.

He takes those conditions for granted. The conditions that make life possible in the universe, and specifically on earth, aren't of much interest to biologists. The laws that govern the formation of complex matter, that govern the formation of stars and planets, that describe the orbit of a planet around a star, all fall outside of Dawkins' area of expertise.

As a biologist, he takes it for granted that our universe, and the earth, are able to support life, as well he should. However, as someone seeking to understand the nature of the universe, he needs to think about these issues. Otherwise he might miss out on the answer to one of mankind's most important questions, "Does God exist and if so what is he like?"

If Dawkins is going to convince people that God doesn't exist, he's going to have to learn to take this question a little more seriously.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Holy Spirit and the Kingdom of God

Hello everyone, I'm sorry this post is so late. I've had a rough week. Anyway, I'm back on track now and with any luck I should have my next post about The God Delusion up later today.

In my original post about the Kingdom of God, I talked about five different ways of thinking about the subject. So far I have talked about how the Kingdom of God relates to politics, religion, society and morality. Today I'm going to talk about the role of the Holy Spirit. I'd also like to tie these ideas together.

Let me begin by quickly recapping what we've discussed so far.

In the sphere of politics, Jesus taught us to change the world through love and service, rather than through force. In the area of religion, we see that Jesus' teachings allowed his followers to enjoy fellowship outside their traditional religious divides. In the area of society, Jesus gave us a vision of radical social and economic equality. Finally, in the area of morality, Jesus taught about the centrality and importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.

If I were to choose one word to summarize everything that we've gone over so far, it would be impractical. It is impractical to try to govern people through love and service. It is impractical to expect deeply religious people to embrace people from other religions. It is impractical to ask people to give away their possessions to feed the poor. It is impractical to set up a moral system that insists that even the most wretchedly immoral people should be forgiven.

So far all we have is a collection of high ideals and noble ambitions. We have a beautiful vision, but we have no way to turn that vision into a reality.

This is where the Holy Spirit enters the picture. The Holy Spirit is God's presence with us and around us, helping us to make God's Kingdom a reality.

Without the Holy Spirit, what you have is a Kingdom without a King. There is no source of power; no punishment or threat of coercion; no way to force people to do what they should. This is because God's Kingdom is not built using traditional means. Instead it is the power of the Holy Spirit which forms the Kingdom of God. A power that loves us, guides us, and shows us the way, instead of using force to make us act against our will.

It is the power of the Spirit that inspires people to love and serve, rather than ruling through fear. It is the Holy Spirit that convinces us of the truth of Jesus' death and resurrection, as well as showing us what that means in our lives. It is the Holy Spirit that inspires us to give generously, allowing us to build a more just society. Finally, it is the Holy Spirit that transforms us so that we follow the moral example and teachings of Jesus.

This is the crucial work of the Holy Spirit. It prepares and enables us to live in God's Kingdom and to make God's Kingdom a reality here on earth.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

TGD: Chapter Four - The Probability of the Necessity of the Impossibility of God’s Existence

Today we begin chapter four and, at long last, we finally come to Dawkins' main argument against the existence of God.

He begins by sharing an old argument that may be familiar to some of you. It is the argument that the probability of life originating on earth is no greater than the odds that a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard would, by sheer luck, put together a working Boeing 747. Dawkins makes the point that, however unlikely it is that life first appeared on earth without divine intervention, it is even more unlikely that such a divine being would exist in order to intervene in the first place. In his words, God is the ultimate Boeing 747.

The problem with the argument is that there is a big difference between God and living creatures. Simple organisms are made up of tiny pieces that can be taken apart and put together. In this sense theories of how the first life form emerged are similar to explanations of how a jet airplane might be put together out of a random collection of parts.

This argument only works as an argument against God's existence if we assume that God is made up of tiny pieces that were, at some point in time, randomly assembled. This is very different from the traditional Christian view that God consists of one substance and has always existed.

Comparing the existence of God to the emergence of life is a poor analogy. It is more appropriate to compare the existence of God to the existence of the universe itself. To that end, let us talk about the existence of the universe.

We don't know how the universe came to exist, but we can safely say that there are three possibilities.

First of all, the universe may have always existed. As I've already mentioned, what we know from science makes this unlikely, if not impossible. According to the big bang theory, the universe has a discrete beginning in time. Also, if the universe were eternally old, then the entropy of the universe would have maxed out a long time ago.

Second, the universe may have created itself. The universe may have simply blinked into existence without any assistance from an outside force. It seems absurd to me that anything should be able to create itself, let alone a universe which has no mental faculties or decision making abilities, but some people consider it a possibility.

Finally, the universe may have been created by something else. Whether that something else is God or a prior universe or some kind of universe factory. Of course, whatever created the universe will need a similar account of it's own existence. It either has always existed, created itself, or was created by something else. (This leads to a potential infinite regress, which also seems absurd.)

Given the possibilities, I think that the most likely one, by far, is the claim that the universe was created by something else. Furthermore I consider it most likely that that something else, unlike the universe, does not suffer from entropy and is therefore able to exist eternally.

I realize that some people, like Dawkins, consider the existence of a creator God absurd, but is it any less absurd than the claim that the universe created itself, or that our universe was created by something that was created by something that was created by something, going back forever?

In any case, probabilistic arguments rooted in science can't weigh in on the issue. Scientific arguments have no place in this debate. Scientifically speaking, each of these ideas is impossible. It is impossible for something to create itself, it is impossible for something to exist forever, and it is impossible that the universe was created by something else, that was created by something else, ad infinitum. Each of these things is impossible, and yet one of them must have occurred.

Dawkins claims that the existence of God is extremely unlikely. Even if that's the case, I would argue that it isn't any less likely than the alternatives. Besides, Dawkins' whole argument that God's existence is extremely unlikely hinges on the assumption that God is similar to an amoeba.

If there is any similarity between God and an amoeba, it is that they both exist. Aside from that, they don't have very much in common.