Saturday, December 05, 2009

Evangelicals And Neglect Of The Poor

I think Justin Taylor's description of this sermon ("The Gospel Demands Radical Generosity") is better than the sermon itself. There's an element of truth that David Platt is getting at in his sermon. I suspect that most Christians should be more concerned about, and should be doing more to help, the poor. But that conclusion isn't the same as equating conservative Evangelical Christians in America, Platt's primary audience, with the rich man of Luke 16. This subject could be approached from so many different angles, and there's a lot I'm ignorant about on this issue, but here are several qualifications I would add to Platt's sermon, qualifications he doesn't mention much or at all:

- The main problem with the rich man in Luke 16 is unbelief (Luke 16:31). Neglect of the poor is one symptom among others, but a symptom particularly relevant to the materialistic Pharisees mentioned in the nearby context (16:14).

- I doubt that the way the rich man dressed and ate (16:19) is comparable to what the average attender of a church like Platt's does. Yes, Americans generally have better and more clothing than a lot of other people in the world. But you can have better and more clothing without being excessive or going to the extent of excess described in Luke 16. The same is true of food, for example. Excessive and wasteful use of food is a significant problem in America, including among conservative Evangelicals, but the degree of the problem varies a lot from one individual to another, and I doubt that more than a small percentage of America lives the way the rich man in Luke 16 lived. There's a large gray area between poverty and the rich man of Luke 16. Americans are closer to the rich man. (And we're even better off than him in some ways.) But saying that Luke 16 has a secondary, significantly qualified application to people like those who attend Platt's church is different than saying that those people are the rich man. Some of Platt's comments would be more appropriate if directed at leaders of third-world nations or the executives at some corporations, not the average American Evangelical.

- Is Lazarus literally at our gate, as he was for the rich man? When Platt refers to people in other nations, sometimes thousands of miles away from us, as people at our gate, he's defining "at our gate" significantly differently than it's defined in Luke 16. The rich man didn't have to get past corrupt government officials, a corrupt military, language barriers, significant differences in cultural customs, etc. in order to get to Lazarus. Even when a Christian ministry or American government program has been set up to do such work, while being funded by the American people, much of the time and money involved has to go into getting those ministries and programs in place and keeping them going. It's not as easy as giving crumbs to a man who's literally at your gate (Luke 16:21) or helping him in some other manner.

- If Luke 16:21 is meant to suggest that the rich man didn't even give crumbs to Lazarus, then is such behavior comparable to what the average conservative Evangelical in America does? My understanding is that while Americans don't give as much money away as they should, they do give away some. And conservative Evangelicals seem to be among the most generous. Ministries to the poor are common, and they often receive a lot of attention from churches, businesses, the media, etc. Think, for example, of Salvation Army or the many radio and web ads you see for ministries helping the poor around the world. Are we truly refusing to even give away crumbs? We don't have to exaggerate a problem in order to address it. Hyperbole is acceptable at times, but let's be sure that people understand when a particular comment, like one of David Platt's, is hyperbolic at best.

- Even Americans who don't know much about politics tend to be aware of government programs like welfare. Our government spends a large amount of money on the poor, and we know it. Americans knowingly, and to some extent approvingly, provide for the poor through government programs.

- Part of the work done by our military involves helping the poor. We often provide food and water, build schools, and help with other such work in other nations, whether through our military or by other means. We don't just give financially. We also give our time, energy, and, in some cases, the lives of our soldiers in the process. Our concern for the poor often involves investing large amounts of money in rebuilding their nations and sometimes laying down our lives in service to them. This year, there will be American families who will be celebrating their first Christmas since losing a child, parent, or sibling in Afghanistan or Iraq, for example. Much of the work done by our military in those regions of the world constitutes helping the poor. What would a family of such a soldier think if you told them they were equivalent to the rich man of Luke 16?

- We're surrounded with many appeals to help the poor. How often do you see television, radio, and web ads for such ministries? How often do local Evangelical radio stations have fund raisers for such things? Even when the fund raiser is for something like the Bible League, so many of the people who receive the Bibles are poor people. Why do organizations seeking to help the poor set up stations outside of popular stores or in other such locations? Why keep setting up in such locations if nobody is even giving away their crumbs? Even if Americans don't give as much as they should, which I think is the case, I doubt that these organizations would be so numerous and would keep operating the way they do if the average American or the average Evangelical were behaving like the rich man in Luke 16.

- How many conservative Evangelical churches don't do anything to help the poor? From what I've heard from my church's leadership, it seems that they frequently are involved in things pertaining to the poor. We work with local ministries to the poor, we gather food for the poor, poor people come to us for help, etc. I suspect that the average conservative Evangelical church is frequently involved in helping the poor. Maybe we should do some things more or differently, but we are doing some things already.

- When poor people want help, do they usually go looking for a local group of atheists? They probably look for a religious or government organization to help them. They know that any help they're going to get is likely to come from professing Christian ministries or a government set up by professing Christians, one that largely reflects Christian priorities. Given how many shelters, hospitals, etc. there are that have been founded or operated by Christians, and given how widespread such things are, isn't it highly inaccurate to suggest that we refuse to even give away crumbs?

- Old Testament passages about the oppression of the poor or passages about using dishonest scales in order to steal from the poor, for example, can't be applied without qualification to Evangelicals who are only guilty of not giving as much as they should to the poor. Not helping the poor as much as you should isn't the same as oppressing the poor or stealing from them in an unqualified sense.

- Scripture distinguishes between different types of poor people. As Proverbs and Paul tell us, some poor people don't eat because they refuse to work. And many poor people, particularly in a nation like the United States, are poor partially because of something like mental illness, drugs, or alcohol. They sometimes don't want help or resist it, and they're sometimes largely blameworthy for their poverty.

- As Platt acknowledges, the poor can be helped in more ways than giving money. Giving them knowledge of important truths, developing their skills so that they can provide for themselves, spending time with them, and other such things are important. Giving to them financially is important, but so are other things. That includes apologetics, I would add. Ideas have consequences, including for the poor, both directly and indirectly.

- In some parts of a nation like the United States, you can live for many years without knowingly coming into face-to-face contact with somebody who's poor. You may know or walk or drive past people who have a relatively low income, but still have multiple pairs of clothing, a car, a television, housing, etc. They aren't in the same category as Lazarus. You could go many years, maybe even a lifetime, without meeting somebody like Lazarus face-to-face.

- We shouldn't assume that every commendable act of giving to the poor in scripture is meant to be taken as a universal commandment. Must everybody give 50% of their possessions to the poor upon their conversion to Christ (Luke 19:8-10)? Sometimes people are commended for giving their resources elsewhere instead of to the poor (Luke 21:1-4, John 12:3-8, Acts 6:1-4). Helping the poor is one good work among others, and different people are called to different fields of labor. Yes, poverty is common in the world and a frequent subject of discussion in scripture, and we should act accordingly. It should be relatively high on our list of priorities. Even those who don't do something like working for a ministry to the homeless should be helping the poor to some extent in some manner. You'd have to be unusually corrupt or unusually incompetent to avoid helping the poor altogether in a society like ours, where there are so many opportunities to help them and so many reminders to do so.

- Much of what our society has in place to help the poor, through non-governmental agencies or government programs, is a result of our Christian heritage. Those who went before us established a society in which we would be surrounded with reminders of the importance of caring for the poor and would have many opportunities available to do so. To refer to such a society, and particularly the portion of that society that most serves as salt and light, as the rich man of Luke 16 is inaccurate and slanderous.

Having said all of that, I want to repeat what I said at the beginning of this post. There is an element of truth to David Platt's sermon. And I'm glad that he's highly concerned about the poor. But qualifications like the ones above have to be kept in mind.

Does The Lengthening Of Daylight Have Only Pagan Significance?

Something I posted in a recent Stand To Reason thread, which some of you may find helpful:

March 25 was being used by Christians, in multiple contexts, in the ante-Nicene church. Some Christians assigned Jesus' death to March 25. Some assigned His conception or birth to that date. It was often believed that some men, such as prophets, were conceived or born on the same day they died. Thus, if Jesus was crucified on March 25, some people would estimate His conception or birth at March 25. For those who estimated His conception at March 25, His birth would be estimated at December 25. A December 25 birthdate for Christ was just one date among others that was circulating, but it does seem to have been one of the early dates proposed, largely or entirely independent of pagan influences. It later became popularized as the mainstream estimate for Jesus' birth. It seems that paganism had more of a role in the popularization of the Christian use of December 25 than it had in the origination of it. And even that popularizing role seems to have been less than people often suggest. Some Christians were partially motivated to choose December 25 in order to compete with paganism by using a day that already had Christian significance and natural significance (the lengthening of daylight) that was independent of paganism. Notice the italicized words in my last sentence. Those qualifiers are often neglected in discussions of this issue.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Last Enemy

John von Neumann was a polymathic genius. He was also an atheist. And therein lay his dilemma:

Eugene Wigner wrote of von Neumann's death [18]:

When von Neumann realised he was incurably ill, his logic forced him to realise that he would cease to exist, and hence cease to have thoughts ... It was heartbreaking to watch the frustration of his mind, when all hope was gone, in its struggle with the fate which appeared to him unavoidable but unacceptable.

In [5] von Neumann's death is described in these terms:

... his mind, the amulet on which he had always been able to rely, was becoming less dependable. Then came complete psychological breakdown; panic, screams of uncontrollable terror every night. His friend Edward Teller said, "I think that von Neumann suffered more when his mind would no longer function, than I have ever seen any human being suffer."

Von Neumann's sense of invulnerability, or simply the desire to live, was struggling with unalterable facts. He seemed to have a great fear of death until the last... No achievements and no amount of influence could save him now, as they always had in the past. Johnny von Neumann, who knew how to live so fully, did not know how to die.

On Scientific Method

Continuing my look into the ongoing goings on involving AGW (Alarmist Global Warming), I present the second shot in my opening salvo. Here is a slightly edited version of a paper I wrote a couple of years ago, On Scientific Method. And I think for this version, the subtitle: Why Should Steve Hays Have All The Really Long Posts on Triablogue? is apropos.

On Scientific Method

Scientists are some of the highest regarded people in Western society. Virtually everyone looks up to scientists as being discoverers and defenders of Truth (with a capital T). To a large extent, this is because as far as the public is concerned, science works. We wake up in the morning to the sounds of our alarm clocks, we get our coffee from the electrically powered pot that automatically turns on for us, and we drive cars full of sophisticated gadgetry in to our jobs, where we sit at a desk under the glow of fluorescent light bulbs and type information into a complex computer network. All of this is made possible due to the extent of technology driven by science.

It is no wonder that scientists are highly regarded then. Imagine how different the world would be if we were unable to get our coffee in the morning!

Despite the fact that scientists are so highly regarded, it is a rare individual who is actually able to determine what, by definition, science actually is. To many, the word “science” tends to bring to mind images of scrawny geeks in white lab coats playing with beakers, or possibly someone of Germanic descent sporting a wild hairdo. But these stereotypes tell us absolutely nothing about what science is.

If we were to ask someone who has just completed a scientific course, such as a high school class on biology or a college course in geology, we would get a better answer. The typical response would go something like this: Science is defined by following the scientific method [1], which begins with a scientist observing something. From this observation, the scientist makes certain predictions in the form of a hypothesis. The hypothesis is then tested via experimentation. If the results do not match the hypothesis, the scientist revises his hypothesis. This process continues until the results of the experiments confirm the hypothesis, at which point the scientist can publish his paper in a peer-reviewed journal and wait for other scientists to repeat the process. If enough scientists are able to duplicate the experiment, the hypothesis eventually becomes a well-established theory; and if the theory is confirmed over time, eventually the theory may become a scientific law.

The above process is roughly equivalent to what Moti Ben-Ari called the naïve inductive-deductive method (Ben-Ari, 2005, p. 5). In its most basic form, there are four critical steps to this method: 1. observation of something or some event; 2. induction (i.e., making a theory); 3. deduction (i.e., making predictions based off the theory); and 4. experimentation (i.e., testing the predictions to see if they conform to the theory). This four-step process ends up making a loop because the scientist observes the experiments and then uses those observations to form new theories, etc.

Naturally, the above definition requires us to define some other terms as well, the most important of which being the definition of a scientific theory. This, too, is a term that is quite often defined incorrectly by the general public. Ironically, there are some slight variations within the realm of science as well. For instance, Stephen Hawking writes:

In order to talk about the nature of the universe and to discuss questions such as whether it has a beginning or an end, you have to be clear about what a scientific theory is. I shall take the simple-minded view that a theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that might mean). A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations (Hawking, 1988, p. 9).
Under this definition, a scientific theory is nothing more than a mathematical model that cannot be confused with reality. This is seen even more clearly in Victor J. Stenger’s statement:

The exact relationship between the elements of scientific models and whatever true reality lies out there is not of major concern. When scientists have a model that describes the data, that is consistent with other established models, and that can be put to practical use, what else do they need? (Stenger, 2007, pp. 228-229)
Still, there are guidelines for appropriate models. The key elements to this kind of model theory is that there must be a minimum amount of arbitrary requirements for the theory, it must be widespread and not confined to a specific, ad hoc arena, and it must have the ability to make predictions.

As I said, there is some minor variation among scientists as to what constitutes a theory. An example of such a variation is:

A scientific theory is a concise and coherent set of concepts, claims, and laws (frequently expressed mathematically) that can be used to precisely and accurately explain and predict natural phenomena (Ben-Ari, 2005, p. 24).
We see in the above that this definition disagrees slightly with the definition provided by Hawking, and also comes against Stenger’s view, in that scientific theories are used to “explain and predict natural phenomena” rather than being only mathematical models that don’t need to relate to the natural world. In agreement, however, the new definition stipulates theories should be concise and coherent, which means that the theories should be short (the shorter the better) and should cohere to as much of reality as possible (with the ideal being a universal theory with absolutely no exceptions requiring arbitrary additions to the theory).

Adding to Hawking, this definition maintains that a theory should be precise and accurate. While these two terms are sometimes used synonymously in the vernacular, there is a difference between being precise and being accurate. Accuracy refers to how “correct” a theory is. This often can only be judged by viewing whether the theory successfully predicted or explained some event. Precision, on the other hand, deals with the exactness of a measurement. Suppose that the distance between a man’s house and the curb at the end of his driveway is exactly 43 feet 3 inches. If the man measures the distance using a stick that’s exactly one yard long, he gets the result of 14 yards (42 feet) plus a little bit more. If he measures the same distance with a stick that’s one foot long, he can tell what some of that “little bit more” is and gets the result of 43 feet, with just a small fraction left over now. The second measurement is more precise than the first because it is closer to the actual distance of 43 feet 3 inches, so a foot-long stick is more precise than a yard-long stick. While the first measurement was off by a foot and three inches, the second is only off by three inches.[2]

Finally, a scientific theory should be able to make explanations and/or predictions. These two concepts are actually fairly closely linked. If one is able to explain an event, one ought to be able to predict when the event will occur. However, it is important to note that simply because a theory accurately predicts an event does not mean the theory is actually true. The theory could have accidentally predicted something accurately. As Hawking notes:

Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory. As philosopher of science Karl Popper has emphasized, a good theory is characterized by the fact that it makes a number of predictions that could in principle be disproved or falsified by observation. Each time new experiments are observed to agree with the predictions the theory survives, and our confidence in it is increased; but if ever a new observation is found to disagree, we have to abandon or modify the theory. At least that is what is supposed to happen, but you can always question the competence of the person who carried out the observation (Hawking, 1988, p. 10).
The provisional nature of scientific theories cannot be overstated. In fact, the history of science is filled with theories that have been discarded, from phlogiston to Ptolemy’s view of the solar system. Ironically, even some of the theories that we still use today have been shown wrong (or at least incomplete). The greatest example of this is Newton’s Law of Gravity, which was replaced by Einstein’s General Relativity, yet which is still used in physics today because Newton’s calculations are easier to handle and the discrepancies are not that great at small speeds and low mass. Still, Newton’s theory, no matter how useful, has been discarded in the ultimate sense. Science has moved on to other theories, each of them likewise held provisionally.

Unfortunately, the provisional nature of scientific theories is sometimes lost on scientists. Sometimes, a scientist can “fall in love” with his theory to such an extent that he will refuse to abandon it even after the theory has been demonstrated wrong. This result is what Thomas Kuhn documented when he showed that paradigm shifts are necessary in science. In essence, new theories do not take over until after the vast majority of practitioners with the old theories pass away. Only then do the new theories, held by new scientists who did not have the investment in the old theory, come to play. Even Einstein fell into this trap when he refused to acknowledge the validity of Quantum Mechanics despite the fact that a large portion of quantum theory came as a direct result of Einstein’s own theories!

So, to summarize what we have discussed so far, scientists begin with observations, they move on to making theories (which are concise and coherent, accurate and precise methods of explaining or predicting physical phenomena, the truth of which is held provisionally), then scientists focus on a prediction from the theory, conduct an experiment on that prediction, and observe the results, which leads us back into the loop.

All of this seems perfectly satisfactory for providing an explanation for what science is. But if you are a student of logic, you might not be as satisfied with the above. After all, the loop from observation to theory to prediction to experiment and back again seems like it could easily fall prey to circular reasoning. And indeed, this is the very reason why Ben-Moti called this method the naïve inductive-deductive method. The word “naïve” at the front of the description gives us warning to the problem.

To state the problem, let’s ask a few questions. How is it that a scientist knows what to observe in the first place? How does he know whether the experiment itself will be affected by what he is trying to discover? To use a specific example:

In 1888 when Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894) was attempting to produce the first radio waves, he did not think that the size of his lab or the color of the paint on its walls were relevant to his experiments; he knew from James Clerk Maxwell's (1831-1879) theory of electromagnetism that radio waves were likely to exist, but he could not know that—while the color of the paint was not significant—the size of the lab was because of echoes from the walls (Ben-Ari, 2005, pp. 6-7).
It is impossible for the scientist to know these things in advance. However, he can make assumptions—and indeed, he must do so. Because of this, scientific observations are heavily theory-laden. This means that a framework for interpreting observations must exist before the scientist can begin to know if he has even observed something in the first place. But the immediate question is: how do we know if what the scientist observes is accurate anyway instead of (to use the phrase of Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart) mere “brain puns”?

The danger is that what we think of as laws may be just patterns that we somehow impose upon nature, like the animal shapes we can choose to see in clouds. Our treasured fundamental laws may just be odd features of nature that happen to appeal to the human mind. If so, then much of nature may be functioning according to processes that we cannot comprehend, and consequences derived from our imaginary laws may bear no resemblance to nature at all (Cohen & Stewart, 1994, p. 22).

So are the patterns that we profess to detect in nature brain puns or genuine laws? The verdict is not yet in, but they could be puns. In recent years a fecund mathematics has generated innumerable “new” mental images, such as catastrophes, chaos, fractals, that might be advance warning of new simplicities in the world. Each extends the list of patterns that we can name, recognize, and manipulate. It is not clear that all such patterns must necessarily prove operationally congruent to reality. They may describe games that mathematicians play, but that have nothing to do with the world outside human brains (Cohen & Stewart, 1994, p. 26).
Given only the scientific method to go with, it is impossible to know whether our observations really are reflective of reality, or if they are brain puns. Instead, we must assume that our observations are correct, which leads us into circular reasoning:

Clearly, science must start with observation, but once some initial observations have been made, a circular process takes place. Observations lead to theories, which guide further observations, which influence the theories. The presentation of the process of science as initially and primarily inductive is so oversimplified as to be useless. There are serendipitous discoveries in science, in which observations truly instigate the development of theories, but they inevitably occur to those who have the necessary framework within which to understand the importance of what they are observing (Ben-Ari, 2005, p. 8).
While Ben-Ari in the above does not dwell in great detail on the fact that science contains “a circular process” in the methodology, it is important for us now. Circular reasoning is a logical fallacy rendering arguments invalid [3]. Because of this, it might be tempting to say that the conclusions of science are illogical and therefore we shouldn’t trust the scientific method at all. However, it is important to note that all arguments assume their axioms, and therefore all arguments are equally circular at the foundational level. This is due to the fact that axioms must be assumed; they cannot be proven for if they could be proven they would not be axioms.

It is foolish, therefore, to arbitrarily decree that since the scientific method employs a degree of circularity it is completely invalid. However, the fact that the method has this circularity in it (as well as the fact that theories are always held provisionally) requires us to pause before asserting that things discovered by science are synonymous with truth. In fact, Larry Laudan maintains that science cannot actually know truth since

[t]he classical sceptic argument against science, repeated by Laudan (1984a), is that knowing the truth is a utopian task. Kant’s answer to this argument was to regard truth as a regulative principle for science. Charles S. Peirce, the founder of American pragmatism, argued that the access to the truth as the ideal limit of scientific inquiry is “destined” or guaranteed in an “indefinite” community of investigators…. However, there does not seem to be any reason to think that truth is generally accessible in this strong sense (Niiniluoto, 2007).
The upshot is that if there is no actual way to determine the truth via science then logically a scientific theory can be completely valid scientifically and yet still be false. Conversely, a theory can be completely invalid from a scientific perspective yet be true. The scientific method thus becomes all the more reliant on a supporting framework to do the “grunt work” of establishing the truth-value of science. If the framework brings us to the truth, then the circularity employed by the scientific method is harmless. But if the framework brings us to error, the fact that the scientific method is chained to this framework means that the scientific method will lead us to error every single time it is used. Naturally, the question arises: what is the framework that science uses?

If you remember in the definition of a scientific theory that we provided earlier, the theory is required to be about “natural phenomena.” This provides us with the framework used by the vast majority of scientists: philosophical naturalism. Sometimes, naturalism is also referred to as materialism since both naturalism and materialism teach that only the natural (or material) is knowable; the supernatural (or immaterial) is not. While some maintain differences between naturalism and materialism, such do not concern us here and we can treat both words synonymously.

One might first be tempted to ask whether science itself requires a naturalistic or materialistic framework to rest upon. Because naturalism has been included in the very definition of a “scientific theory,” many scientists believe that it is a requirement of science. That is, they claim it is impossible for science to exist as science in any realm other than the naturalistic realm.

But simply defining naturalism into science isn’t very appealing. Furthermore, occasionally some scientists address the philosophical issues in a more realistic manner. One such scientist was Richard Lewontin who, in a review of Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World, wrote the following:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen (Lewontin, 1997).
Lewontin almost certainly regretted penning this paragraph once it was seized upon by several Christian apologetics organizations and repeated widely around the Internet. However, the validity of Lewontin’s statements cannot be denied. If we are to define science as primarily materialistic or naturalistic, it is only because our presupposed framework compels us to create science in that manner. Science itself does not require a materialistic framework. Instead, the materialistic framework creates the scientific apparatus.

It is important to keep this order in mind. If a scientist argues that science cannot deal with the supernatural, that it is limited to examining only the natural, this statement is correct but only in a trivial sense. It is limited to that extent because the framework presupposes materialism, not because the scientific method could not be extended to include supernatural frameworks too.

Naturally, Lewontin would disagree that science could extend to the supernatural, for he states quite forcefully that “anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything.” It is somewhat ironic, however, to read that line immediately after reading how one must accept the “extravagant”, “counter-intuitive”, and “mystifying” claims of materialistic science. In what sense is it that the theist is the one who “could believe in anything” when compared to this?

But Lewontin is not the only scientist to make this claim about supernaturalism. Indeed, it is common amongst many scientists (although primarily atheistic scientists) to claim that an appeal to the supernatural is an appeal to “anything.” For instance, Ben-Ari writes:

The variety of supernatural explanations is immense and they can be used to explain the occurrence of any phenomenon. A drought must have been caused by the anger of a god disillusioned with the evil actions of the residents of a region, and a disease must have been caused by the sins of the individual. The problem with supernatural explanations is that they are vacuous. A supernatural entity can be used to explain anything, both a phenomenon and its absence, so it lacks any explanatory or predictive content (Ben-Ari, 2005, p. 29).
Naturally, this is only so if one ignores the framework of each individual supernatural position. That there are a multitude of supernatural beliefs does not mean that each supernatural belief would result in the above characterization. In fact, it is most likely (given the pluralistic and omnibenevolent nature of most supernatural religious beliefs) that there are more supernatural views that would disagree with Ben-Ari’s claims that one could attribute a drought to the anger of a disillusioned god then there are supernatural views that would agree with his example. Furthermore, this characterization of the supernatural ignores the ability of a believer in the supernatural to hold to God as a “prime cause” using “secondary causes” throughout nature.

However, this particular detail of the philosophy of science is not very relevant to our current work. For the purposes of this work, we will agree for the sake of argument that science is naturalistic. This is not to agree that it actually is, of course; the agreement is simply due to the fact that there are more pressing concerns at this point.

Because science is considered naturalistic, it is important to bring up another qualification of what science is. Or in this case, what science is not. Science declares that nature is not teleological. This rather ominous looking word is actually a very simple one to define. Teleology is the study of design (literally “purpose”, from the Greek telos), and a teleological realm would be a designed realm. It is important that we remember that naturalistic science is explicitly not teleological, and this importance is not lost upon naturalistic scientists either, as demonstrated below:

Modern science explicitly and emphatically rejects teleology. Physics can describe the trajectory of a falling stone in great detail, but it never attempts to attribute desire or purpose to stones. Biology can describe the evolutionary processes that brought our species Homo sapiens onto the face of the Earth, but it has nothing to say about why we are here, nor even if our existence has any purpose whatsoever. Nevertheless, evocative teleological terminology is often used, deepening the confusion of what science is all about. For example, a biologist might say that a species has adapted to an environmental niche, implying that the species decided to adapt or strove to adapt. Of course, science claims nothing of the sort. Adaptation is simply the outcome of a process of reproduction amid competition and does not require a decision or intention on the part of any member of the species (Ben-Ari, 2005, p. 24).

Teleological explanations have also been rejected by modern science, which seeks to describe the structure and functioning of the universe, without attributing purpose or volition to natural objects (Ben-Ari, 2005, p. 29).
The rejection of teleology goes hand-in-hand with a naturalistic worldview, one that does not view the universe as having been created with a purpose or designed in any manner. It is therefore not surprising that science is so adamant in its rejection of teleological explanations. What is not quite so easy to understand, however, is why scientists continually slip into teleological claims, as we shall see later on in this work, despite their vehemence against teleology.

We now have a very stable understanding of how the scientific method is defined. However, if you read the dialogue between Achilles and Tortoise, there were two other aspects that need to be looked at. The first is the argument from authority, and the second is the argument from consensus.

Arguments from authority are often the easiest of arguments to fall in to. This occurs whenever an individual person becomes the arbiter of truth for science. A simple example of this fallacy might be to say that because Einstein rejected quantum theory, we ought to reject it too.

Science however has always been anti-authoritative. For instance, Henry Gee, a British paleontologist, wrote the following describing his attitude when he first began to conduct research:

[M]y summer work in the Fossil Fish Section often forced me, a complete beginner, to make decisions about taxonomy: I had to reclassify specimens of pteraspid fishes, renaming them according to my reading of Alain Blieck’s thesis. I had to write out new labels and shuffle the entries that each fossil had in the museum card index. On one occasion I had a crisis of confidence. What right had I, a novice who had done no serious work on fossils, to rearrange the national collection? I took my worries to Peter Forey. ‘Don’t worry about it’, he counseled: ‘taxonomy is only a matter of opinion’. The implication was that my opinion counted; it was as valid as the opinion of qualified scientists such as Patterson, Rosen, Gardiner, or Forey (Gee, 1999, p. 154).
Further, we read from Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (the work that Lewontin reviewed):

One of the great commandments of science is, “Mistrust arguments from authority.” (Scientists, being primates, and thus given to dominance hierarchies, of course do not always follow this commandment.) Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else. This independence of science, its occasional unwillingness to accept conventional wisdom, makes it dangerous to doctrines less self-critical, or with pretensions to certitude (Sagan, 1996, p. 28).
Consensus is a slightly different issue than authority, however. While every scientist will strive to reject arguments from authority (except when they “do not always follow this commandment” as Sagan points out), many scientists flock toward the idea of consensus. This is due in part to the arguments that Tortoise used: there is a statistical advantage in presenting your work to as wide a body as possible, and because individuals can err more easily than a group, consensus will tend toward the truth.

However, this concept is likewise disputed. In fact, one of the biggest problems with consensus is that it has the capability of enforcing the perceived dogmas rather than leading one toward the truth. Instead of errors being corrected, consensus can often force errors to remain firmly entrenched because it is “unscientific” to question these errors.

Michael Crichton, in a speech at Caltech, said:

Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period (Crichton, 2003).
Crichton then listed some of the many times that scientific consensus has been wrong. This includes germ theory, which saved literally millions of lives but only after several hundred years of dispute before overturning the consensus, and the like. To add to Crichton, we can include the following observations by Leslie Alan Horvitz:

Something similar happened when Alfred Wegener, an astronomer and meteorologist, proposed his theory of continental drift—the idea that the continents were once all joined together and, over the eons, drifted slowly apart until they reached their present locations—was greeted with derision from geologists in the early twentieth century; today, however, his theory is the foundation of contemporary geology. Einstein’s groundbreaking theories of gravity and light also received a skeptical reception when he proposed them, but both have been confirmed repeatedly in rigorous scientific studies in the years since. Any physics textbook that doesn’t include them would be next to useless (Horvitz, 2002, pp. 4-5).
Crichton concluded the section of his speech dealing with consensus by pointing out the obvious: claims of consensus are only invoked when the science is not solid enough to stand on its own. No one argues, for example, that the sun is 93 million miles away on the basis of consensus. As Crichton says: “It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.” Furthermore, no one argues that Einstein’s claims are right due to consensus. As Horvitz pointed out above, Einstein’s theories “have been confirmed repeatedly in rigorous scientific studies.” Why appeal to consensus when you have scientific studies to fall back on?

Furthermore, to claim that science is consensus is to paint yourself into a circular corner. The consensus of scientists defines what science is, yet the science they define is what is supposed to define the scientists as scientists too. (This vicious circle was pointed out by Achilles, rendering Tortoises’ claims void.)

So while consensus sounds nice at first glance, it is indeed unnecessary to science. Science only requires adherence to reality, and that can be done by a single person even if the consensus is wrong.

Finally, suppose that we use the methods we’ve described above and we come to two competing theories that are both valid under the scientific method, yet are contradictory to each other. How do we decide between these two competing theories? Scientists have a simple rule for this sort of thing. It’s called parsimony, which is a rather non-parsimonious word to describe the process of picking the simplest theory. For example, Gee writes of cladograms:

By convention, cladists choose, as a provisional hypothesis, the most parsimonious solution: the cladogram that requires the fewest evolutionary events to support its topology—in other words, the one that assumes the smallest amount of convergence. Of course, there is no law that says that evolution is always parsimonious. However, in a world in which it is very difficult, and often impossible, to decide whether similarity reflects common ancestry or convergence, it is pragmatic to adopt solutions in which convergence is minimal and start from there. Such solutions are no more than working hypotheses, subject to test, revision—even upset—in the light of subsequent evidence (Gee, 1999, p. 185).
What is true for Gee and his cladograms is also true for the rest of science. The concept of parsimony (often described as using Occam’s Razor) is a shortcut for scientists when weighing two competing theories. It should be noted, as Gee does, that our acceptance of the most parsimonious theory does not mean that this is, in fact, the way things happened [4].

Indeed, common experience tells us that sometimes events occur that are not parsimonious. When a parent comes home and finds a broken lamp next to her son (who is conveniently holding a baseball bat), the simplest explanation would be that her son broke the lamp; but the reality is that the plumber who had come over to fix the leaky sink had accidentally broken the lamp, and his explanation (along with the payment for the damages) demonstrates the truth. Similarly, when it comes to some specific scientific theories, the most parsimonious theory (the theory that is supposedly more likely) may in fact be the theory that is rejected because we observe an event occur more complexly than the simplest explanation would have it.

It is most certainly true that when there are two competing theories, the simplest theory is the likelier of the two to be accurate. But the theory that is not the simplest still has a chance, however slight, to be correct. When we add up the sheer number of these theories, statistics tells us that there must be some instances of the non-parsimonious theory being the correct one. In fact, it is much more likely that at least some of the non-parsimonious theories are correct than it is that every single one of them is, in fact, wrong.

Yet science, by convention, always chooses the parsimonious theory over the complex theory (and only violates this for specific reasons). This means that statistically speaking, we know for a fact that scientists will sometimes choose the wrong theory. Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to determine which time this occurs. After all, the reason we need to use the concept of parsimony in the first place is because there is no other way to tell which of two competing theories is correct. They both fit the current evidence, and this is why we need something outside that evidence to determine which one we should accept.

As a result, we know that science will err at some point when it always chooses the parsimonious path, but we are unable to tell when those errors occur. We know that they must be there, but it is impossible for us to tell where they are or to rid us of them.

So let us summarize what we have discovered about the science. Science is a method of investigation based on a framework of naturalism wherein theory-laden observations are made, theories are composed based on these observations (along with the rules we discussed for scientific theories), experiments are conducted to test these theories, and the results are repeated. These results can never be known for certain, but must only be held provisionally. Any individual can do science, for there are no appeals to authority within science. Likewise, while consensus might be nice, it is certainly not necessary for science, and in fact can sometimes enforce an erroneous orthodoxy rather than allow new, truthful ideas to come into play. Finally, because there can often be competing theories that are both equally supported by the evidence, science always comes down on the side of the simplest theory. This is usually correct, but we also know that there will be times picking in this manner will be wrong.

Seen in this light, science doesn’t seem quite as “perfect” as it was imagined to be. Science has limitations, not the least of which is the circularity of important aspects and the necessity of science to rely upon a specific, unproven framework. However, given the fact that science has produced many tangible results (especially in the form of technology), there must be some aspect to the method that works despite these shortcomings. Science, while flawed, is still incredibly useful, and it would be wrong for even the most extreme of supernatural fundamentalists to wage all-out war against science.


1. Although Richard Morris disagrees, stating: “There is no scientific method. Scientists, and especially physicists, make use of any method that will work (Morris, 1999, p. 7)” (emphasis added).

2. In scientific measurements, you can tell the precision of the measurement by the number of digits after the decimal point (including exponential notation). For example, if we have a measurement of 10 meters, we do not know if it’s really 10.3 meters rounded to the nearest 10. If a measurement is 10.0, we have a more exact measurement (although, of course, now we do not know if the measurement was rounded from 10.04, etc.). Thus, every number after the decimal gives us more precision. Finally, when using measurements in a scientific formula, the answer can only be as precise as the least-precise answer. Thus, a simple measurement of velocity (defined as distance divided by time) where the distance is measured is 10.0000 meters in 10.0 seconds, the velocity is 1.0 meters per second instead of 1.0000 meters per second, because the precision of time is only to the first decimal place.

3. Note that by arguments we do not refer to verbal disagreements between individuals. Rather, we use the term “argument” to refer to one (or more) statement(s) that can be examined logically. As such, scientific statements would qualify as logical arguments.

4. Or, as David M. Raup said: “In my experience, about as many people say, ‘Scientific problems rarely have simple answers,’ as say, ‘Where there is a choice, simple explanations are most likely to be correct.’ Both statements are rhetorical rather than analytical, and one hates to see them used as arguments for or against a theory (Raup, 1991, pp. 92-93)”.


Ben-Ari, M. (2005). Just A Theory: Exploring the Nature of Science. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Cohen, J., & Stewart, I. (1994). The Collapse of Chaos. New York, NY, USA: Viking.

Crichton, M. (2003, January 17). Aliens Cause Global Warming. Retrieved August 16, 2007, from Michael Crichton: The Official Site:

Gee, H. (1999). In Search of Deep Time. Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates.

Hawking, S. (1988). A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantaam Books.

Horvitz, L. A. (2002). The Complete Idiots Guide to Evolution. Indianapolis: Alpha Books.

Lewontin, R. (1997). "Billions and billions of demons". The New York Book Review .

Morris, R. (1999). The Universe, the Eleventh Dimension, and Everything: What We Know and How We Know It. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

Niiniluoto, I. (2007, Spring). Scientific Progress. (E. N. Zalta, Editor) Retrieved 2007, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Raup, D. M. (1991). Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Sagan, C. (1996). The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Ballantine Books.

Stenger, V. J. (2007). God, The Failed Hypothesis. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

A Bird's-eye view of Easter

Some observations by Michael Bird on the Resurrection:

“Was belief in Jesus’ resurrection a way of compensating for his shameful and unexpected death? Probably not:

1 If Jesus predicted his death and relatively immediate resurrection then these resurrection hopes precede the disciples’ disappointment at his death.

2 Reinterpretation fostered by dissonance depends on a degree of temporal distance between the prophecy and its failure in order to allow hopes to fade and to force the mental cogs to click over to provide a reinterpretation of that failure. But belief in Jesus’ resurrection was immediately after his death–within days not months or years,” M. Bird & J. Crossley, How did Christianity Begin? (Hendrickson 2008), 44-45.

“But the biggest problem is why would the early Christian interpreters refer to a vision as a ‘resurrection’? They could have said that they witnessed Jesus either as a ghost or as an apparition or as an angel, or claimed that his spirit had been exalted to heaven, all of which were tenable options. If the appearances were visions why did the disciples think that Jesus had been resurrected when ‘resurrection’ would have generated a whole host of confusing corollaries in what was already a really bad week? The general resurrection was meant to be physical, it was supposed to include everyone (or at least the righteous/wise), and was programmed to occur at the end of the age. The Jewish and Christian language of resurrection does not fit well as a visionary experience,” ibid. 45.

“It has become increasingly common to regard these visions as projections of grief- and guilt-stricken persons experiences the presence of someone after death. I have three problems with the claim that the resurrection appearances were visions borne out of bereavement.

1 I never ceased to be amazed that scholars who take a minimalist approach to history in the Gospels, who believe that the stories are so overlaid with theology, who urge the utmost caution before pronouncing any story or saying as authentic, appear to suspend their skepticism as they make claims to know the interior mental events and psychological states of the disciples. I submit that it is these mental processes, if anything, that are inaccessible to us. I don’t have a problem with skepticism, as long as it is consistent skepticism.

2 I do not think that visions, appearances or a sense of personal presence during bereavement would have led to an instantaneous belief that a crucified man had been physically raised by God. There was a range of simpler options that would commend themselves for describing such visions during a time of grief. For instance, the disciples may have thought that Jesus had been transformed into an angel and visited them. Oddly enough, in Acts 10:1 during the imprisonment of Peter a group of Christians who had anticipated the worst were already beginning to experience emotional bereavement before Peter had even died. When Peter did turn up (quite unexpectedly) their grief at his apparent death led them to think that he had appeared to them as an angel, but no one thought that the resurrected Peter was at the door.

3 On the safe assumption that many people died in antiquity and their loved ones experienced the associated grief and loss, and people during this time would have had postmortem experiences of the deceased as they do now, why didn’t other mourners regard their loved one as resurrected? Why were the disciples the first, as far as we know, to claim that their recently departed friend had been resurrected? Again, why didn’t the family of every Tobias, Dinah and Hershel killed on a Roman cross proclaim the resurrection of the deceased? Most probably because resurrection was known to be a physical, eschatological, corporate and single event, and whatever feelings, emotions, thoughts, and hopes that grief-induced visions evoked they did not feel or look anything like a resurrection,” ibid. 46-47.

“So we are still stuck with the problem of why the disciples believed that their crucified leader was resurrected–not merely assumed into heaven, not translated to the bosom of Abraham, not morphed into an astral being, not transported to God’s throne on a fiery chariot–but resurrected. I suspect that those who think it is easy to pigeonhole the resurrection narratives into the category of bereavement visions are trying to force a square peg into a round whole. The terminology of resurrection is a clear mismatch for the phenomenon of bereavement visions,” ibid. 47.

“As for Mark inventing the story of the empty tomb, I confess that I do not understand why Mark would do it to begin with. If one can believe in resurrection without a physical appearance, as Crossley proposes, why is an empty tomb needed to prove a physical appearance? Other forms of Christianity did not need an empty tomb to find a living voice for Jesus in their own day (e.g. that form of Christianity represented by the Gospel of Thomas),” ibid. 66.

“Now Crossley argues that the content of visions of deceased persons is provided by culturally specific ways of understanding the vision itself. He also asserts that visionary experiences can be interpreted in any number of ways in different cultures. Let us grant as much. So what were the options for interpreting a vision: meeting a ghost, an angel, a spirit, an astral being, appearance of a person from heaven, &c.? Why didn’t the disciples and the Evangelists regard the appearance of Jesus in one of these categories? Why resurrection? Crossley states that resurrection was one of the culturally specific ways of interpreting a vision and he cites 2 Maccabees 7 as an example. But therein lies the problem. In 2 Maccabees the event envisaged is physical (i.e. receiving back maimed limbs), it is corporate and involves ‘all’ martyrs, and it happens at the end of history. Yet Crossley tells us that what happened to Jesus was non-physical, it happened to an individual and in the middle of history. While there are culturally specific ways of interpreting a vision surely there has to be some correlation between the event and its accompanying description,” ibid. 68.

The Disenchanted Naturalist

The Disenchanted Naturalist's Guide to Reality

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

“You don't have to be responsible for the world you're in!"

Since Reppert has decided to broach the hackneyed issue of how Calvinism and evangelism interrelate, and since Reppert has often declared his sympathies for open theism, I’ll take the opportunity to explore the issue of how evangelism and neotheism interrelate.

Let’s begin by asking why Christians should feel at all responsible for the fate of the lost. The question of responsibility is, of course, often thought to be a problem for Calvinism. Since I and others have dealt with that objection on many occasions, I won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I’ll redirect the question.

To put the question in a larger perspective, let’s ask how an atheist would address the question of our social responsibilities. On a Sunday walk with John von Neumann, Richard Feyman once got into a conversation with him about our social responsibilities. He was startled to hear Neumann exclaim that “you don't have to be responsible for the
world you're in!”

Neumann’s remark draws attention to the implicitly reciprocal dynamic of responsibility. I’m responsible for others if, directly or indirectly, I’m responsible to others. Neumann didn’t feel responsible for the world at large because he didn’t feel responsible to the world at large.

That’s in part because, as an atheist, he had nothing to do with the world in which he found himself. He didn’t choose to be born here. Or to be born at all.

Of course, a Christian can say the same thing. But there’s a world of difference. As an atheist, Neumann had no sense of gratitude to the world, for the world didn’t intend that he exist. If he did well for himself, he didn’t have the world to thank for that. The world was indifferent to his existence. It didn’t mean him good or ill. It didn’t care. He was simply a fleeting link in a chain of physical contingencies. So the world was in no position to obligate him. It did him to conscious favors. It was a thing–like the air your breathe.

By contrast, an orthodox Christian has a sense of social obligations because God had obligated him. And God is in a position to obligate him because God is his Creator and Redeemer.

Each individual Christian exists because God made him. Chose to make that unique individual. Had him specifically in mind. If he is blessed, that’s because God intended to bless him. To bless him in particular. It’s directed at him, for his personal benefit.

But, in that respect, open theism isn’t much different from atheism. In open theism, God doesn’t foreknow the counterfactuals of freedom.

If you exist, that’s the byproduct of God’s creative fiat. But God didn’t know that he was making you. In open theism, God is said (arbitrarily, I might add) to know all possibilities. But that’s like a gambler who knows all possible combinations in a deck of cards. What he doesn’t know is which card will be the next card. He can only guess.

In open theism, God doesn’t know, when he chooses to create one possible world rather than another, which world contains you. And he doesn’t know your fate. He can’t know what will happen to you–for better or worse.

So, logically speaking, I’d expect an open theist to have the same thankless, loveless attitude as John von Neumann. Don’t get involved! That’s none of my business!

The God of open theism is a cosmic sperm donor. He doesn’t know where his donated sperm will end up. It may stay frozen. It may be used in cloning to create organ farms. It may wind up in the womb of some women the donor never knew. The God of neotheism is a donor, not a father.

If you were the fortuitous offspring of a sperm donor, would you feel any sense of filial duty or gratitude to your biological father? I can’t imagine why.

Because open theism logically undercuts any sense of social obligation in general, it undercuts any motive to evangelize in particular.

Why evangelize?

“Arminians like John Wesley have sometimes charged that Calvinism undercuts the motivation to evangelize. I think this charge is half true. It seems to me that evangelism is motivated both by Christ's command to evangelize, and out desire that others be saved.”

Actually, it’s dubious whether Arminianism can consistently insist that explicit faith in the Gospel is a prerequisite for salvation. After all, if God wants to save everyone, if Christ died for everyone, and if the Holy Spirit gives everyone sufficient grace to be saved, then why would anyone be damned due to the historical accident of having been born in the Congo before the arrival of European missionaries?

So, before we ever get around to Calvinism, we must turn the same objection back on Arminianism. The objection has different grounds when directed at Arminianism, but Arminianism has to deal with the same on its own terms. So does Arminianism logically undercut the motivation to evangelize?

Or, to put a sharper point on the question, does Reppert think that God automatically damns every man and woman who never heard the Gospel?

“I see the point of evangelism based on obeying a commandment, predestination or no predestination. What I don't see is why our evangelizing makes any difference with respect to the outcome. If I preach the gospel, then God, before the foundation of the world, sovereignly chose that I would do so. If I fail to preach, then God, before the foundation of the world, sovereignly chose that I would not preach.”

i) What a bizarre statement! In the very way he frames the statement, he is specifically presenting two different outcomes. If I preach the gospel, then that, of itself, is a different outcome than if I fail to preach the gospel. If one or the other…represents two different outcomes, yes?

Even more to the point, if I preach the gospel, then that will have one set of outcomes whereas, if I fail to preach the gospel, then that will have a different set of outcomes.

So it clearly makes a difference with respect to the outcome. And Reppert’s own formulation differentiates between two alternate outcomes.

ii) Perhaps what Reppert is trying to get at, in his fuzz-brained formulation, is that what I do or fail to do makes no difference to what God intends. If that’s what he means, then that, too, is terribly confused:

a) He’d have to treat God’s prior choice as though it were an “outcome”–such that whether I do one thing or another has no affect on the outcome (i.e. “God’s sovereign choice”). But there’s no sense in which Calvinism treats the decree as an outcome. Rather, the timeless decree is a necessary condition of resultant outcome. Outcomes are events. The decree is not, itself, an outcome.

b) Moreover, in Calvinism, if the end-result were different, then that would be because the decree was different.

c) Perhaps what Reppert is angling at is that unless human agents have the retrocausal power to change God’s mind or choice, then there’s no incentive to do what we do. If that’s his point, then his contention is so counterintuitive that I’d like to see the supporting argument before I even respond.

Does he really mean that it robs us of motivation unless we can retrocausally affect or alter God’s choice?

If so, then not only does that strike me as a very eccentric notion of what motivates human behavior, but it will also sink under the metaphysical weight of retrocausation.

If not, that I don’t know what he’s even talking about.

“So I think the motivation based on outcome is dissipated once you accept the idea that you can't change who is and who is not elect.”

i) How in the world does that conclusion follow? How would the incentive to evangelize depend on being able to change who is or is not elect?

Isn’t there a tradeoff? Sure, evangelism will be futile when directed at the reprobate. But the compensatory benefit is that evangelism will be invariably successful when directed at the reprobate.

ii) Moreover, the evangelist or missionary doesn’t have to sort them out. In God’s “preestablished harmony” (i.e. predestination and providence), there are always just enough preachers and missionaries to go around. No one whom God intended to save will miss out for lack of the Gospel.

“Thank God I'm not a Calvinist, so I can accept the outcome-based motivation as well as the command-based motivation.”

To the contrary, Reformed evangelism is outcome-based in a way that Arminian evangelism Thank God I'm not a Calvinist, so I can accept the outcome-based motivation as well as the command-based motivation. If libertarianism is true, then there’s no guarantee that anyone who’s evangelized will receive the Gospel.

In Calvinism, by contrast, God has already decreed the harvest before the seed hits the ground. There’s a guaranteed yield. “Presold,” if you will.

Of course, only God knows who will respond. But in consistent libertarianism (e.g. open theism), both God and the evangelist are equally in the dark regarding the outcome.

The Orthodox Uroborus

Perry Robinson has done a post on the criteria for an ecumenical council. I’ll quote what I take to be the highlights, then make some comments:

When I was first seriously considering becoming Orthodox, how the Orthodox understood church authority was an important area to map out. In discussing the matter with Catholics that I knew, they often objected that Orthodox ecclesiology falls prey to the same problems as Protestantism. There was no locus of authority in the offices of the church, but the source of normativity was ultimately to reside in the judgment of the people.

The second line of evidence that is proffered is that for the Orthodox an ecumenical council is either known to be such or becomes such when it has been accepted by the “whole church.” There is no shortage of Catholic apologetic materials that go down this path. (I suspect they do because they rely on pop-Orthodox works or some distinctly Russian theological works.)

The position usually isn’t stated very clearly. Usually it begins with a claim regarding what the sufficient conditions are for a council to be ecumenical, which is a metaphysical claim and then slides into a claim regarding how one can know that a council is ecumenical. This is apparent for example in the above cited source. I take the metaphysical claim to be the more significant. So the idea is that a council can only be ecumenical if the “whole church” assents to it. This is obviously problematic since no council could ever meet such conditions where every professing Christian agreed. There is no council that I know of, even the Apostolic council in Acts 15 that didn’t result in some measure of dissent. I think Catholics are right to object to this idea as untenable. But I don’t think it is Orthodox teaching as such either.

Now one might object that the Orthodox are not in a position to know which of these two groups is correctly and normatively representing Orthodox teaching since the Orthodox have no way of putting forth official teaching.

Now what I have not done is spell out in detail what conditions are necessary and sufficient for a council to be ecumenical and normative. That I am largely leaving for another post. But the answers to that question are not in the main that hard to discover and sort out. Take Henry Chadwick’s description of the judgments of 2nd Nicea in 787 for instance.

”The question of what constitutes a council as ecumenical rather than merely regional or local had been debated at the sixth session of the second Council of Nicea in 787, where it was urgent to rebut the claims made on behalf of the iconoclast Council of Hiereia in 754 at which the emperor himself had presided. In 787 the answer given was in terms of representation and assent by all the patriarchs of the pentarchy, each giving ratification on behalf of all churches under his jurisdiction.” East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church, Oxford (2003), p. 143.

So an ecumenical council accepted by East and West teaches that what constitutes the ecumenical nature of the council is pentarchial ratification, rather than papal ratification.

1.Perry begins by framing the issue in terms of authority. And, indeed, that seems to be the primary reason that some Evangelicals convert to Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

As Perry states the issue: “they often objected that Orthodox ecclesiology falls prey to the same problems as Protestantism. There was no locus of authority in the offices of the church, but the source of normativity was ultimately to reside in the judgment of the people.”

2.Apropos (1), Orthodoxy must be able to solve the problem that Perry found problematic in Protestantism. If it can’t solve the problem it posed for itself, then it fails to measure up to its own yardstick.

3.Perry also admits that this goes to the question of who speaks for Orthodoxy:

“Now one might object that the Orthodox are not in a position to know which of these two groups is correctly and normatively representing Orthodox teaching since the Orthodox have no way of putting forth official teaching.”

4.Finally, he answers his own question by lodging the following appeal:

“So an ecumenical council accepted by East and West teaches that what constitutes the ecumenical nature of the council is pentarchial ratification, rather than papal ratification.”

Having set the stage, what do we make of his answer?

It suffers from two basic problems:

1.He mentioned the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. In my experience, the Orthodox treat this council as the prototype and archetype of ecumenical councils.

However, it wasn’t ratified by “all the patriarchs of the pentarchy.”

Therefore, the Orthodox paradigm of ecumenical counciliarity fails to meet the sufficient conditions of an ecumenical council!

2.If that weren’t bad enough, Perry’s criterion is vicious circular. He says an ecumenical council (2nd Nicea) laid down the sufficient conditions for an ecumenical council.


To know, on the one hand, that 2nd Nicea is ecumenical, you’d need to know that it satisfies the ecumenical criteria.

But to know, on the other hand, that your criteria are reliable, they’d need to be promulgated by an ecumenical council.

It takes a council to ratify the criteria while it takes the criteria to ratify a council.

I do want take this opportunity to thank Perry for exposing the vacuity of his authority-source. At the end of the day, Orthodox authority resembles a snake consuming itself, tail-first.

Hither & dither


I’ve used the phrase “causal determinism” quite a lot recently when talking about the doctrine of Middle Knowledge/Molinism and one of it’s chief competitors, the Calvinistic notion of soverigenty which posits God as being the one who “decrees all that comes to pass”...Simply put, causal determinism is the notion that every event is directly caused or decreed either by an impersonal force like the Fates or destiny, a natural series of causes and effects1 constrained within a causally closed system2, or a personal deity like Allah or, as some suppose, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.Indeed, I would argue (elsewhere of course) that the abandonment of causal determinism is one of the defining characteristics of Christianity.

Et non:

I don't see how you have drawn this conclusion given that Molinism does hold to a predetermined outcome of all events in this world making not only prophecy, but the effects thereof (the whole observer changing the observation rationale) foreknown and predetermined.

The cosmic casino

I’ve used the phrase “causal determinism” quite a lot recently when talking about the doctrine of Middle Knowledge/Molinism and one of it’s chief competitors, the Calvinistic notion of soverigenty which posits God as being the one who “decrees all that comes to pass”.

It’s true that, according to Calvinism, God decrees every event. Since Wes disagrees with that position, how does his own position stand in contrast to the opposing position?

Is it his position that God is not the only one who decrees what happens? Does he think God decrees some events, while creatures decree other events?

Or is it his position that God decrees nothing whatsoever?

Is so, does this mean that every event is an unplanned event? Or that some events are divinely planned events while other events are unplanned events?

Since this isn’t a phrase that isn’t often used outside of philosophical circles, I figured it would be helpful to take a minute and define this term…

Two problems:

i) All but one of his links take us to Wikipedia articles. But if he’s defining philosophical usage, he needs something more reputable than Wikipedia articles.

ii) According to the footnotes, one of his targets is Turretin Fan. But if he’s taking aim at Turretin Fan (among others), then isn’t the relevant question how Turretin Fan defines “causal determinism” rather than Wes?

…and how it has a significant bearing on the philosophical presuppositions we filter everything, including our interpretation of Scripture, through.

i) Does this mean he thinks that all of us filter the Bible through some theory causation? What about pretheoretical notions of causality?

ii) Likewise, does he think Scripture can rule out certain theories of causality. Or does the filter prevent Scripture from getting through?

Simply put, causal determinism is the notion that every event is directly caused or decreed either by an impersonal force like the Fates or destiny, a natural series of causes and effects1 constrained within a causally closed system2, or a personal deity like Allah or, as some suppose, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Problems proliferate:

i) His multiple-choice definition combines a number of unrelated or mutually contradictory definitions. If, however, he’s targeting Calvinism, then shouldn’t he isolate a definition which corresponds to the Reformed view of divine agency?

ii) According to maintream Calvinism (e.g. WCF), every event is not “directly” caused. Apart from events like creation, regeneration, and miracles, most events are produced by ordinary providential second-causes. For some reason, Wes is confusing determinism with occasionalism. Does he know the difference?

iii) In addition, to say an event is “directly” caused by a “series” of causes and effects is nonsensical. If the effect is the outcome of causal chain, then that would be mediate rather than immediate (direct) causation.

iv) Likewise, to say an event is “decreed” by an “impersonal force” is also nonsensical. In the nature of the case, what is “decreed” is planned. That requires a personal agent. Mental causation.

v) He defines causal closure as “the notion that there are no non-material influences or causes. No souls or wills.” But that’s clearly irrelevant to Calvinism.

vi) Does Allah either “decree” or “directly” cause every event? Do Muslims think rain doesn’t come from rain clouds?

Does Allah have a master plan (“decree”) for the world? Determinism and predeterminism are not synonymous. Doesn’t Wes know the difference?

vii) Why does he limit his definition to Yahweh (“the God of the Hebrew Scriptures”)? Does he think Calvinists have one model of divine agency for the OT, but a different model of divine agency for the NT?

vii) There is also the problem of how his “simple” definition correlates with the Stanford article he links to, as well as Calvinism. For example, here’s how the article defines “determinism”:

Determinism: The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.

Needless to say, that definition is inapplicable to Calvinism since Calvinism doesn’t think every event is fixed by natural law. So if Wes is targeting Calvinism, then that definition is a nonstarter.

And here’s how the article defines “causal determinism”:

Causal determinism: The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.

But, for the same reason, this general definition is inapplicable to Calvinism.

viii) Moreover, the Stanford article draws a number of disjunctions. For example:

In most of what follows, I will speak simply of determinism, rather than of causal determinism. This follows recent philosophical practice of sharply distinguishing views and theories of what causation is from any conclusions about the success or failure of determinism.

As a general matter, we can imagine that certain things are fated to happen, without this being the result of deterministic natural laws alone; and we can imagine the world being governed by deterministic laws, without anything at all being fated to occur (perhaps because there are no gods, nor mystical forces deserving the titles fate or destiny, and in particular no intentional determination of the “initial conditions” of the world).

So how does Wes sort out the pertinent elements in reference to Calvinism?

ix) Furthermore, the article says:

Laplace probably had God in mind as the powerful intelligence to whose gaze the whole future is open. If not, he should have: 19th and 20th century mathematical studies have shown convincingly that neither a finite, nor an infinite but embedded-in-the-world intelligence can have the computing power necessary to predict the actual future, in any world remotely like ours.

In rejecting “determinism” or “causal determinism,” does Wes also jettison divine foreknowledge? Is an indeterminate world unpredictable, even for God?

Likewise, the article goes on to say:

Predictability does however make vivid what is at stake in determinism: our fears about our own status as free agents in the world. In Laplace's story, a sufficiently bright demon who knew how things stood in the world 100 years before my birth could predict every action, every emotion, every belief in the course of my life. Were she then to watch me live through it, she might smile condescendingly, as one who watches a marionette dance to the tugs of strings that it knows nothing about. We can't stand the thought that we are (in some sense) marionettes. Nor does it matter whether any demon (or even God) can, or cares to, actually predict what we will do

Does Wes also share Laplace’s view that divine foreknowledge makes us marionettes? Should we espouse open theism to avoid that consequence?

x) Finally, the article says:

The roots of the notion of determinism surely lie in a very common philosophical idea: the idea that everything can, in principle, be explained, or that everything that is, has a sufficient reason for being and being as it is, and not otherwise. In other words, the roots of determinism lie in what Leibniz named the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

In rejecting causal determinism, does Wes thereby reject the principle of sufficient reason? Does Wes think some events are intrinsically inexplicable? Does he think God did not have sufficient reason for choosing to instantiate this possible world rather than some other? Does God play dice?

Back to Wes:

My intention here is to merely present the term for edification and clarification in the future as we explore what I believe to be one of the most significant divisions within all of Christendom. Indeed, I would argue (elsewhere of course) that the abandonment of causal determinism is one of the defining characteristics of Christianity.

Does Wes think that Molinism is indeterministic? If the abandonment of causal determinism is a defining feature of Christianity, then shouldn’t he adopt a more thoroughgoing indeterminism? A cosmic casino? Playing the odds. Wouldn’t that be more consistent?

A Look Inside The American Heart

Here's a remarkable reflection of the false priorities of modern society.

"I am constantly astonished at people who say they believe in God but live as though happiness were to be found by giving him 2 percent of their attention." (John Piper, Desiring God [Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books, 1996], p. 268)

"Where is God in your daily newspaper or in your talk radio show or the network TV programming or Time and Newsweek or the theater or the public school classroom? God is the most important reality in the universe. But he is almost totally ignored. And if not, he is as likely belittled as reverenced....Disregard for God is the greatest evil in the West today. It is as though an ant on his anthill should disbelieve in the earth." (John Piper, A Godward Life, Book Two [Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 1999], p. 19)

"The truth is that, despite the statistics on churchgoing, etc., the United States is a very secular nation that, for the most part, does not take religion seriously. Not only may the statistics overstate the religious reality - people may be telling pollsters what they think makes a good impression - but statistics say nothing of the quality or depth of American religious belief. It is increasingly clear that very few people who claim a religion could truthfully say that it informs their attitudes and significantly affects their behavior." (Robert Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah [New York, New York: ReganBooks/HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1997], pp. 279-280)

"It is one of the defining marks of Our Time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable. He has lost his saliency for human life. Those who assure the pollsters of their belief in God's existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgment no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and his truth less compelling than the advertisers' sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness. It is a condition we have assigned him after having nudged him out to the periphery of our secularized life....Weightlessness tells us nothing about God but everything about ourselves, about our condition, about our psychological disposition to exclude God from our reality." (David Wells, God In The Wasteland [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995], pp. 88, 90)

"Oh I would not have it said of any of you, 'Well, he may be somewhat Christian, but he is far more a keen money-getting tradesman.' I would not have it said, 'Well, he may be a believer in Christ, but he is a good deal more a politician.' Perhaps he is a Christian, but he is most at home when he is talking about science, farming, engineering, horses, mining, navigation, or pleasure-taking. No, no, you will never know the fullness of the joy which Jesus brings to the soul, unless under the power of the Holy Spirit you take the Lord your Master to be your All in all, and make him the fountain of your intensest delight. 'He is my Saviour, my Christ, my Lord,' be this your loudest boast." (Charles Spurgeon)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Methodical Dialogue

In light of the ongoing goings on in the wonderful world of AGW (Alarmist Global Warming), I thought it might be beneficial to remind scientists what science is supposed to consist of. As opposed to, say, alchemy. Which is when you put a bunch of random numbers in a computer program written by a failed botanist to produce hockey-stick shaped graphs before you hide the decline and throw out the raw data, because what kind of scientist could possibly look at raw data? That's right: the kind who would write sentence fragments followed by run-on sentences switching from a declarative statement to an interrogative in the middle.

Therefore, I present...

Methodical Dialogue

TORTOISE enters ACHILLES’ room. The mythical Greek god is listening to his WalkGod CD player and is oblivious to TORTOISE.

TORTOISE: Achilles? Achilles? (He touches Achilles)

ACHILLES: Egad! What is it?

TORTOISE: Aren’t you worried you’ll ruin your hearing listening to all that noisy racket?

ACHILLES: “Noisy racket”? How can you call this noisy racket! This is none other than the Beegles compilation album, Won.

TORTOISE: Beagles?

ACHILLES: Not beagles, Beegles.

TORTOISE: It’s the same word.

ACHILLES: Almost, but not quite. Beagles are dogs. Beegles is the world’s greatest band ever.

TORTOISE: It still sounds like noise to me. In fact, maybe that’s why they’re called Beegles. They sound like braying dogs!

ACHILLES: (In disgust) They are called Beegles after the great ship HMS Beagle, which St. Darwin rode to the Galapagos Islands.

TORTOISE: St. Darwin! I know about him. He’s the patron saint of selections.

ACHILLES: The very same, only now he’s slightly more advanced.

TORTOISE: That’s somewhat handy. But why haven’t I heard any of this “Beegles” music before?

ACHILLES: Why, you probably have. You just don’t realize it. But I bet if I played a few of their tunes you would recognize them. They’re practically universal. In fact, listen to this song originally from The Scientific Misery Tour.

WALKGOD CD PLAYER: (Singing) I am the apeman, they are the apemen, I am the walnut.

ACHILLES: Surely you must know this song!

TORTOISE: Not at all.

ACHILLES: Linen would be ashamed of you.


ACHILLES: The singer. But he’s dead now. (Sadly) Just like Paul.

TORTOISE: I have no idea what you are talking about.

ACHILLES: Never mind that. I’m quite sure you did not enter my room for the sole purpose of telling me that I should not listen to loud music.

TORTOISE: You are correct. I am here to propose an experiment.

ACHILLES: Hold it right there! You haven’t been talking to Zeno again, have you?

TORTOISE: Of course not.

ACHILLES: Are you sure? Sometimes he masquerades as physicist named Douglas Hofstadter.

TORTOISE: I’m positive this has nothing to do with Zeno in any alias.

ACHILLES: So this has absolutely nothing to do with one of his paradoxes?

TORTOISE: No, no. Nothing like that.

ACHILLES: Good, because last time he made me race you and I could never pass you even though I was so much faster than you are. And then he made it impossible for me to move at all because I could never get more than halfway to anywhere. It was all disconcerting for a mythical god to be bound like that.

TORTOISE: I imagine so. But this experiment is nothing like that.

ACHILLES: Okay, fine. What is your experiment?

TORTOISE: I can’t tell you.

ACHILLES: You came in here to tell me you’re going to do an experiment but you can’t tell me what it is?


ACHILLES: Why should I care about that?

TORTOISE: Well, you’re the subject of the experiment.


TORTOISE: Calm down, it’s nothing preposterous.

ACHILLES: How can I trust the word of a turtle?

TORTOISE: You can’t. But I am a tortoise, not a turtle.

ACHILLES: (Scoffing) As if there’s a difference.

TORTOISE: There is a big difference! But that’s not for our current discussion.

ACHILLES: What’s to discuss? You’re conducting an experiment on me. How do I even know you’re licensed to do that?

TORTOISE: You don’t need a license to do science.

ACHILLES: Egad! They let just anyone conduct science now?

TORTOISE: Pretty much. But there are rules to it.

ACHILLES: Rules are good. Who enforces them?

TORTOISE: Scientific consensus.

ACHILLES: You take a census to determine which rules to obey?

TORTOISE: No, I said “consensus” not “census.” Silly mythical Greek god. Consensus is when a bunch of scientists get together and agree on something.

ACHILLES: I don’t know. That doesn’t sound very legit. There was a time a bunch of Persians got together and decided to attack Thermopylae, you know.

TORTOISE: True, but that was only a Persian consensus, not a scientific consensus.

ACHILLES: Oh. (Thinks about it for a minute) Wait, why does that matter?

TORTOISE: Scientific consensus is when scientists, not just Persians, get together and agree on something.

ACHILLES: I see. So no Persians are allowed.

TORTOISE: Persians are allowed, as long as they’re scientists. These scientists determine scientific consensus regardless of what ethnicity they are.

ACHILLES: So you’re saying that scientific consensus can only be determined by scientists.

TORTOISE: Indeed, I am.

ACHILLES: And scientific consensus determines who is a scientist in the first place?

TORTOISE: Again, you are correct.

ACHILLES: (Scratching his mythical chin) So scientific consensus is determined by scientists who are determined by scientific consensus, which is determined by scientists who are determined by scientific…

TORTOISE: Knock it off.

ACHILLES: Seriously, Tortoise, I think you have a problem here. It’s much better if you stick with my method.

TORTOISE: And what method is that?

ACHILLES: I am a mythical Greek god. Therefore, what I say is right.

TORTOISE: But that is an argument from authority!

ACHILLES: No less so than the authority of scientists who invent scientific consensus, I say. Besides, they’re not gods. I am.

TORTOISE: Science is not based on authority though. It’s based on consensus!

ACHILLES: Consensus is itself an authority, isn’t it?

TORTOISE: No, not at all. You’ve got it all backwards. No one person can know whether he or she is right or not. You have to have agreement between more than one person. There is no “authority” involved, because anyone can disagree with anyone else.

ACHILLES: But if they disagree with the consensus, their disagreement is by definition unscientific, isn’t it? And that means it doesn’t “count” so in what manner are they able to disagree?

TORTOISE: Look, you’re trying to make this too complicated.

ACHILLES: It is complicated. My view is much simpler, and one of the rules of science is to do that which is simplest. In my case: I said it, ergo, it’s so. You can’t get any more parsimonious than that!

TORTOISE: Egad! (Realizes what he just said) You made me use one of your words!

ACHILLES: It’s a good word.

TORTOISE: That’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is this: Each individual person has the potential to be wrong, right?

ACHILLES: “Wrong, right” has a nice ring to it.

TORTOISE: Now you’re being obtuse.

ACHILLES: It’s more fun than being abstruse.

TORTOISE: Argh, silly Greek pseudo-god. Do you agree that each individual person has the potential to be wrong?

ACHILLES: Of course. You are, ahem…”wrong right” now. See?

TORTOISE: (Ignoring the comment) If an individual person is wrong, couldn’t that error be pointed out by another person?

ACHILLES: I suppose, so long as the other person wasn’t wrong too. In that case, they would just be reinforcing the error.

TORTOISE: But isn’t it more likely that a group of people will be able to point out the errors in other people’s positions than single people working alone?

ACHILLES: “Single people”? Are you saying scientists have to be married now?

TORTOISE: Argh! You aren’t listening at all!

ACHILLES: Only because you’re not making any sense.

TORTOISE: (Fed up). Look. When you have a group of people, on the whole, the group becomes corrective. Can’t you see that a group consensus is more likely to be right than any individual’s authoritative decree?

ACHILLES: Fine. What you are saying is that you have to listen to everyone else in order to make a valid decision because you might be wrong by yourself.

TORTOISE: That’s close enough.

ACHILLES: Look around the room then. Who is in here?

TORTOISE: (Confused) Me and you. Why?

ACHILLES: You are you, and I am everyone else. Therefore, you have to listen to me.

TORTOISE: Bah, this experiment isn’t getting anywhere now.

ACHILLES: Perhaps it is because it lacks proper method?

TORTOISE glares at ACHILLES for a moment and then leaves. ACHILLES puts his WalkGod back on and presses the Play button.

WALKGOD CD PLAYER: (Singing) I am the apeman, they are the apemen, I am the walnut.