Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lunar News

Nine more teams have entered the Google Lunar X-Prize, which offers $30 million to the first team to successfully send an unmanned spacecraft to the Moon and return before the end of 2012.

In other Lunar news, NASA has just released the sharpest maps of the Moon's south polar region.

William F. Buckley Jr. on Jesus' Resurrection

William F. Buckley, Jr. has just died. Most people loved or loathed him because of his conservative politics, but my interest in him was primarily because he moderated two debates with William Lane Craig, a Christian philosopher. One was between Craig and Peter Atkins, a chemist, and you can watch it online: What is the Evidence For/Against the Existence of God?

The other debate is between Craig and John Dominic Crossan on the historicity of Jesus' resurrection. This debate was later transcribed and published in book form with four other scholars commenting on it, and with final comments by Crossan and Craig, under the title Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

However, I have the Craig/Crossan debate on audiotape, and it includes something not in the book: an interview with Buckley that occurred afterwards. It was a little disappointing this wasn't included in the book, since I find the interview very intriguing. So I transcribed this interview between Buckley and Dick Staub, who introduced the debate.

Since the interview is about the debate which had just taken place, it's necessary to go over the aspects of the debate which are brought up in the interview. Craig presented his argument for the resurrection upon which his second doctoral dissertation was based (and which I've written about here). He argued that the consensus of scholarship today acknowledges that Jesus presumed to have God's position and authority, and this is precisely what led to his execution for blasphemy. In other words, if Jesus was not God, he was a blasphemer, and as such, should not be an object of respect, much less worship.

He goes on to argue that the resurrection amounts to a divine vindication of Jesus' claims to divinity, and gives four facts which are also accepted by the consensus of scholarship as established, demonstrable, provable historical facts:

1. Jesus was interred in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb.
2. The tomb was found empty on the following Sunday by a group of Jesus' women followers.
3. "On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead".
4. The earliest Christian belief was that Jesus was literally, bodily, physically raised from the dead.

Craig argues that these four facts provide "adequate inductive grounds for inferring Jesus' resurrection." Crossan, however, has denied these facts in his writings. But, Craig argues, his denial of these facts is not based on the historical evidence. Rather, it is based on his presuppositions, and these presuppositions are extremely dubious. Craig goes over several of Crossan's presuppositions, but the only one raised in the interview with Buckley is that Crossan does not believe that miracles can ever take place under any circumstances, and as such, Jesus could not possibly have been raised from the dead. In other words, Crossan's position is completely question-begging: he starts by assuming that miracles can't take place, and then concludes that Jesus' resurrection (a miracle) didn't take place.

Part of the problem with this debate is that Crossan never really defends himself. He never explains why he disbelieves in the four facts Craig gives, nor does he defend any of his presuppositions. He does deny being a naturalist, but upon further questioning states that miracles are impossible -- which is of course the definition of naturalism.

Crossan also questions whether a majority of scholars really accept that the historical Jesus said he was God. But Craig's claim was not that Jesus said he was God, but that he put himself in God's place by doing things which in Judaism only God could do (such as forgiving sins). Crossan obviously denies that Jesus ever claimed, either explicitly or implicitly, to be God. So he avoids the dichotomy which Craig produces: Christ is either God or a blasphemer. But, again, Crossan never explains why he denies this, despite the fact that it is accepted by the vast majority of scholars. He doesn't give any argument or evidence for it. He simply assumes it.

So Crossan believes that it is possible to be a Christian while rejecting the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. He does this by making a distinction between the "Christ of faith" -- that is, the Christ that Christians have historically worshipped -- and the "Jesus of history". Needless to say, this is not a new idea of Crossan's: such a distinction goes back 150 years. But it certainly leads to significant problems, and some of these problems are mentioned in the interview.

So with that, here is the interview between Dick Staub (DS) and Buckley (WFB).

DS: I'm interested, first of all, in why you agreed to do this debate. What was it about the subject or the players in this debate that made this worth your time?

WFB: I agreed to do it because I'm writing a book on Christianity, and I wanted to hear live the tone, the feel of a modern skeptic. In many senses Dr. Crossan wasn't that -- he kept saying that he believed in God, he believed in Christianity -- so that in that sense I didn't quite get what I came looking for.

DS: What is it at stake in the issues that were being dealt with tonight?

WFB: Well, what is at stake, really, is the continuation of the Christian commitment. Put it this way: if it were absolutely certain in everybody's mind that Christ was divine, wouldn't they simply need -- for self-protection, if only that -- to behave differently? And under the circumstances, since people behave as they do, what they manage to do is simply rule out the Christian alternative. Now a nice way to rule it out is to say that it wasn't really there in the first place. And Dr. Crossan is there to reassure people who are skeptical at that distance.

DS: If Dr. Crossan was here I'm sure he would argue that he starts with a certain literary criticism, an approach, a methodology, that has led him to certain conclusions. Certainly, I don't think he would say that he has started trying to provide an excuse for ill behavior in society.

WFB: No, no, I'm not saying that's his motive, I'm saying that's the motive of his followers.

DS: That's why people are enthused by his conclusions.

WFB: Sure. Put it this way: anybody who says, "I have here a very concrete analysis that disproves the validity of the Christian religion," you get a lot of disciples, do you not? Because a lot of people have a personal, and also an ideological, and even a religious stake for disbelief in Christianity. So it generates its own constituency.

DS: He said near the end of the debate that he doesn't know how you can win a debate like this. Did you sense that there was a clear winner in this debate tonight?

WFB: No, there wasn't, except that the "tug" of modern knowledge about Christianity sides with Craig, not with Crossan. That is to say, if it were established that Christ didn't rise, that would be a front page story. As it is, it gets occasional mention in odd news magazines -- the "Jesus Seminar" people. So, in that sense, he couldn't hope to prevail. The most that he could hope to do is to stir it out. Except to the extent that people sometimes, as I said tonight, yielding to a restive intelligence, entertain doubts that are not always hygienic, he would not have made any headway.

DS: You asked him a question, somewhat in humor, but I think somewhat seriously, "Why are you here?" I'm reminded of the political phrase that we're both accustomed to "the big tent," "is the tent big enough?" And in looking at Roman Catholicism and a Dominic Crossan and asking how big is the tent of Roman Catholicism, and how does Dominic Crossan fit?

WFB: That was very curious because you'll remember that in his closing statement he said that the end of the world, as far as he was concerned -- meaning of what he would most approve -- is a situation in which liberal Christians can speak to conservative Christians. Well, my answer to that is I don't think the word "Christian" can be contained in a definition that excludes Christ as divine. The ethical culture people or the Unitarians don't consider themselves Christians. Nor are they. Now this doesn't mean that they're not very nice people and that we don't welcome the fact that they have faith in their particular doctrines -- but they're not Christians! The trouble with welcoming an amalgamation of the kind that would include Crossan and Craig is it becomes meaningless. There is nothing in between Christ's divinity or non-divinity. He is either divine or he is not divine.

DS: Crossan would argue, I think, that he, again, is committed to a certain literary criticism, a certain methodology. It's the type that I was exposed to at Harvard Divinity School, and anybody in the major liberal divinity schools today is being exposed to this. And that he has simply followed the logic of that methodology. As a matter of fact, in his concluding comments tonight he said "I have simply applied this methodology fully. I have applied it not only to the words of Jesus and to the deeds of Jesus, but to the resurrection of Jesus and to the articles of faith..."

WFB: But he can't get away with it. Look, "methodology" is simply a structural method by which one proceeds. But Craig nailed him on that, because he said there is no structural method by which Crossan has proceeded -- except that he is a naturalist and that he disbelieves the four principal historical validations of the resurrection of Christ. Having rejected those, all he becomes is a romancer. He gives us a way to acknowledge the existence of Christ, non-divine, and do away with the resurrection. Well, that's playing games, however gifted one is and however resourceful one's imagination, it's simply playing games.

Now, games are there to be played. If you want to write another book saying that Kennedy was in fact not assassinated by Oswald, go ahead and do it. But spare me any sense of obligation to hear you out again.

DS: When we look at the issue of miracles, did you agree with Craig's assessment that Crossan in fact was a naturalist? Crossan's own definition that the spiritual only works through the natural seemed to me to be a difficult way of describing the supernatural.

WFB: He really tried to have it both ways. What he said was that God exists, however God confines himself to working through the natural order, i.e., he does not intervene. I asked him is God capable of intervening? He had a tough time with that. Because if he said yes, he was capable, then he would have to tell us why he never chose to intervene. So as I say, there again, if you define God as "that which exists, whatever it is," then we all believe in God. Because something exists. Winds and stars and the Aurora Borealis are all there. And simply to affirm a belief in God because of that doesn't really get us very far theologically, does it?

DS: I'd like to get to the issue of certitude which is one of the issues that you were raising tonight as well. It's almost as if you are saying that if a person wandered off the street and heard this debate tonight, and they were a reasonable and reasonably intelligent person, they would be compelled by the nature of this debate, anyway, to believe that Jesus was a historical person, he did rise from the dead.

WFB: No, no they wouldn't. Because tonight simply wasn't comprehensive enough. There's no way in which you can say to somebody, listen in for three hours to anything, and become a Christian.

DS: But is it your belief that, in fact, if given enough time, that we are concluding based on the fact that the majority of scholars agree that Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea's grave, that there was an empty tomb -- we went through the line of argument that William Lane Craig raised. Would we then start concluding that we are reaching a point where the resurrection is verifiable and provable in such a way that it ought to be compelling to any reasonable person to believe it?

WFB: Well, yes, except that human nature sets up certain resistances which aren't necessarily rational. If we take the four statements of Craig -- we know where he was buried, we know that he wasn't there the next day, he was seen by other people, and the whole experience was validated by his apostles -- then you say, "Well I've got problems if I don't believe in Christ." However, a lot of people don't: the Jews don't believe in him, Islam doesn't believe in him, pagans don't believe in him. So therefore, we can't simply say, by pointing to these historical data, you can verify the resurrection. There is an element there of whatever you want to call it. But now are you dealing in natural theology or sacred theology? Well, there's that admixture of the two. Mortimer Adler has written very interestingly on this question.

DS: When we look at one of the major issues really tonight, which was in the nature of Christianity itself, can one separate the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith? What did you make of that dynamic in tonight's discussion?

WFB: I made of that that Crossan is urging the position that the Christ of Christianity, the risen Christ, the divine Christ, he doesn't necessarily want to impeach. But he wants to tell us as a scholar that there are certain sundering differences between that Christ and the Christ that he as a theological historian has identified. Because that particular one didn't rise from the dead, didn't perform miracles, etc., etc.

Now one is entitled to ask the question, why does he not confront the notion that Christians don't want to persevere with a religion, the foundations of which have been overturned? Paul said it, "if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain." But he seems to be saying, "It's a cozy and useful faith, inspires a lot of people. So other than revealing to them that there is no reason to believe in Christ, I urge them to continue."

DS: Did you feel that Crossan raised any serious questions that do demand a better response than they received tonight?

WFB: No.

DS: You didn't.

WFB: No, I didn't, no. Now I'm not a theologian, but Craig mentioned, what, half a dozen -- eight, nine, or ten -- scholars, who surveying the same evidence come to different conclusions from Crossan. So I have no reason at all to suppose that his is other than an idiosyncratic reading of the gospel and of the historical evidence.

DS: Was there any sense in which you thought that what we had tonight was someone who is by nature, gift, temperament, and experience, a debater in William Lane Craig...

WFB: No.

DS: ...and someone who is by nature a scholar, a researcher, a student, and not a debater in Crossan, and therefore we had a lopsided debate by virtue of the skills of the debaters themselves?

WFB: No, no I didn't, I didn't feel that. I think that the situation called for the exercise of polemical skills. Polemical skills, making war on your position. But since Craig was talking from an established understanding, he had a more destructive role than Crossan, who was telling people in many cases things they had never heard before. He therefore had a different mandate: his mandate was to explain odd conclusions that he has reached. And the mission of Craig was to say "Here's what you're about to hear, and here's why it's not so."

DS: You were saying earlier that, when I had said it was kind of an interesting debate, you said there was really no thunder.

WFB: No.

DS: What would you have thought might have happened in a debate of this sort on this subject?

WFB: Well, anybody who has read some of the great exchanges, even in this century, involving people like Henry Mencken, or William Lloyd Garrison, or Mark Twain, they put an awful lot of fire into what they said. Not only thunder in the sense of brimstone, but thunder in the sense of a total devotion and commitment to your position. Fulton Sheen would have used a certain amount of thunder; civil thunder, but thunderous...

DS: Nevertheless.

WFB: Yes.

DS: But you know, when you look at Crossan, one of the reasons I think we didn't see that kind of thunder, was while he has taken a radical position which for most of us leads us to a conclusion that would put us outside the faith, he is taking that radical position and then concluding by saying "I'm a Christian, you're a Christian; I'm liberal, you're conservative; and we can all get along and it's good that we do." So by his own kind of predisposition, he's arguing that this is really important stuff, but not so important that it keeps us all from fellowshipping as Christians.

WFB: It doesn't work! Because -- Craig is correct -- either Christ was a blasphemer or he was divine. And I don't want to worship a blasphemer. And I think it unreasonable for Crossan to expect that I should want to do so. So to the extent that he sustains his thesis, he excommunicates the entire Christian community.

DS: I still go back to my impression tonight, and I predicted this going into this on the way here. We just had a guest from Germany and a guest from France. They were both in our home at the same time, and watching the two of them communicate was very interesting, as you can imagine. And I said to my wife, "I feel like what we're going to see tonight is one person who speaks German, and the other speaks French." Crossan is essentially in a very narrow field of New Testament scholarship using a certain methodology. Craig, on the other hand, is a philosopher and a theologian. They really do speak different languages, they're on different playing fields, and in a certain sense we never connected the fields tonight.

WFB: Well, I don't think that's true. For instance, how to interpret the resurrection in the light of Jewish thought. There was a very interesting and, I thought, valuable exchange between the two. They were both talking there as theological historians. But it is true that there wasn't an engagement in the sense that you speak of. This is, in part, because the contributions of Dr. Crossan are, as I say, modernist and unfamiliar.

Suppose I said to you now "OK, we're going to have a debate tomorrow for two hours on the question of 'Was Lincoln killed?'" You say "What?" I say, "Yes, I know somebody, a scholar, who thinks that Lincoln's death was faked. He was taken out of the way and then he went to Brazil," or whatever. Now, it would be hard to have a debate on that subject, because the person who upheld the fact that Lincoln was not assassinated would be simply postulating a whole series of connections and coincidences and this, that, and the other, which people listen to and don't have really a chance to comprehend in the sense that they might comprehend the question "Who killed Kennedy?" Since books are written about that, and movies, still. So you can study that question, and then have a debate.

DS: But you could have had an evangelical who uses the literary-critical method debating Crossan. And that evangelical New Testament scholar -- a Raymond Brown from the Catholic tradition -- could have, using the same methodology as Crossan, demonstrated why his conclusions are incorrect based on the text itself. And what we had tonight was theological and philosophical argumentation on the one hand, and on the other hand some conclusions without much understanding of the methodology that reached those conclusions. And Craig strategically chose to keep the issue on these theological presuppositions that he started the debate with, and really not to get into the methodological issues that were driving Crossan's argument.

WFB: Well, he gave the reasons for not doing so, but didn't do so. That's correct. But there was only a touch towards the end of the Craig final statement of a straight-forward appeal to the importance of the faith. When he said as a young man, he beheld Christ and became a Christian, and that has been the dominant influence in his life. He let that out. But there was no sense this evening of the preacher, the evangelist, who wants to communicate his faith, rather than maybe to show you how to cope with the skeptic.

DS: Thank you for being with us.

WFB: Nice to talk to you.

(reposted from OregonLive and Dick Staub's site)

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Best Thing on YouTube

One of the reasons I started this blog is that my other blog is about religion and I sometimes want to blog about something that has no religious component to it. Here is one example. I first saw this video about a year ago, and think it's one of the sweetest and saddest things I've ever seen.

This, on the other hand, is the worst thing on YouTube; and this is a close second.

Friday, February 22, 2008


Ben Stein is coming out with a documentary about evolution versus intelligent design entitled Expelled this spring. Here's the trailer.

For the record, I have no problem with evolution being true. Nor do I have a problem with evolution being false. However it works out is fine for me. When I was in my mid-20s and was struggling to avoid Christianity, one of my reasons was that I believed in evolution. Somehow or other, I started reading C. S. Lewis, and discovered that this man -- widely considered a paragon of Christian orthodoxy -- accepted evolution himself. Once this stumbling block (along with a few others) was revealed to be merely a smoke screen, I very reluctantly became a Christian.

After a few years, I read two books defending evolution (Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution and The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design) and two books critiquing it (Evolution: A Theory in Crisis and Darwin on Trial), and was more impressed by the latter. Perhaps this was partially because Blind Watchmaker wasn't so much a defense of evolution as it was a defense of atheism using evolution as its linchpin. Since then, however, I've thought that I should give evolution a second hearing, but haven't had the opportunity to do so; so I'm agnostic about it.

The books against it made the argument that the evidence for evolution was only convincing within the framework of naturalism, the presupposition that the natural world is all that exists, which is obviously at odds with nearly all religions. If one does not accept naturalism, then the evidence (allegedly) simply melts away.

I think this is an interesting claim, and it is certainly true that it is commonly asserted that there is a connection between naturalism and science. I contested this in the conclusion of my Master's thesis. I argued that science can only be valid within a supernatural framework. If naturalism is true, science cannot be valid.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Merits of Dualism

Here is a fascinating article by William Lycan, a materialist, who grudgingly acknowledges the philosophical value of dualism (via DI2).

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My Blogroll

I greatly appreciate extensive blogrolls. Nevertheless, I lack the patience and fortitude to make one myself. So my blogroll consists of blogs I like, people I have virtually met, that kind of thing. The fact that I have them on my blogroll does not necessarily mean I agree with them, especially regarding politics. I am not including personal blogs, those that are generally just someone writing about their life and family. My reason for this is that I think personal blogs are...well...personal, and should only be shared with close family and friends. If I add more blogs after a while, I'll try to update this post accordingly.

So, first, Bede's Library. You definitely should check this out. Written by James Hannam, who's in the last throes of earning his Ph.D., and who has written a book entitled God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. Click on over to read the introduction and first chapter of the book, and register your interest in seeing it published. [Update (13 Sep.): James has made Bede's Library into a group blog, renamed it Quodlibeta, and invited yours truly to participate. Yay!]

Claw of the Conciliator is a blog dedicated mostly to science-fiction and the religious elements therein. It's a great source, and is partially responsible for rekindling my interest in SF after abandoning it for nonfiction in my early adulthood. Check out the important posts on his sidebar. Written by Elliot, who I have met online via my other blog. The name is the title of a novel by Christian SF writer Gene Wolfe, which is part of The Book of the New Sun series. Elliot also writes A Mixture of Gravity and Waggery, which is more general.

Cosmic Log is written by Alan Boyle. He focuses on science, especially space science (something I'm very interested in), but also comments on other issues. It's a good starting place for scientific news and discoveries. I'm linking to him in lieu of having a long list of science blogs.

Victor Reppert is a philosopher who recently wrote the book C. S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea, which defends the "Argument from Reason" (link updated 18 June 2008). I've corresponded with him, because my Master's thesis was on this subject. Dangerous Idea 1 is his main blog, where he writes about philosophy, theology, Lewis, politics, etc. His brief description of his blog is very similar to mine, so I can only conclude that he read mine, invented time-travel, and went back a couple of years to beat me to the punch. Dangerous Idea 2 is dedicated exclusively to the argument from reason. To learn more about it, read Reppert's book and C. S. Lewis's book Miracles.

On the Vig is written by my friend Chris Snethen who got me into blogging in the first place. It's about sports, politics, and anything else he wants it to be about.

I found Raskolnikov, Lost in the Cosmos by doing a Technorati search to see if anyone links to my other blog. After reading him a few times, I was hooked. Besides, how can you not like a guy who names himself after a Dostoyevsky character?

Wayfaring Stranger is written by Tyson, who I met him online a few years ago, after he linked to me. He's a father and a pastor, and has prayed for me during some hard times. Very nice guy. His blog is mostly concerned with religious issues from a specifically Christian perspective.

Jacob Longshore writes the Wordverter blog. We know each other face to face, because we study at the same school (although he's finishing up his Ph.D. while I'm just starting mine). Also a very nice guy, and an expert on C. S. Peirce (pronounced "purse"). His blog's appearance is very similar to mine. Again: time-travel.

Update (3 Sep 2009): I've added Culture, Ideas and Comic Books, David Thompson's blog, and Just Thomism by James Chastek. See here.

Update (20 Mar 2010): I've added Friendly Humanist, Laodicea, Maverick Philosopher, Mike Flynn's Journal, and the Prosblogion.

Thought of the Day

The difference between Europeans and Americans:
Europeans think 100 miles is a long way.
Americans think 100 years is a long time.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Man on Fire

Denzel Washington's movies have increasingly had religious, and specifically Christian, elements in them. A few years ago, I saw Man on Fire, and it demonstrated this point well. Washington stars as a former assassin named Creasy. At the beginning, he asks an old friend (also a former assassin, played by Christopher Walken) if he thinks God could ever forgive them for what they’ve done. Walken says no, and Creasy agrees.

Walken gets him a job as a bodyguard for a little girl named Pita (played by Dakota Fanning). She’s a complete charmer, but Creasy resists for fear of caring for someone. Further events with religious or spiritual aspects take place: he describes himself to the mother superior at Pita’s school as the "sheep who got lost". Pita’s mother walks into Creasy’s room and sees an open Bible. "You read the Bible?" "Yeah, sometimes". "Does it help?" Yeah, sometimes". He tries to commit suicide, but the bullet has some flaw and doesn’t go off. Divine intervention?

Eventually, Pita wins Creasy over and shows him "it’s all right to live again" as Walken’s character puts it. Not long after, as he reaches for his nightly bottle of Jack Daniels, he pauses, puts it back, and then opens his Bible instead.

If it had ended here, it would have been an uplifting story about how none of us are beyond the pale, beyond the hope of redemption. It also would have been an after school special instead of a Hollywood action movie. Spiritual growth is boring.

Of course you already know what happens. They never have characters like Pita in movies unless they are put in mortal danger in order to tweak our emotions. The truly good person, the one who doesn’t deserve to suffer, suffers. The little girl is kidnapped. So Creasy goes back into assassination mode and starts torturing and killing -- in very artistic ways as Walken’s character again puts it -- everybody involved in the kidnapping.

Revenge movies like this usually employ a sense of divine justice -- that is, the protagonist has suffered at the hands of others, and so wreaks his wrath upon them mightily. The bad guys have exerted their wills against the good guy: "If you love your son/daughter/ husband/wife/mother/father/whatever, you’ll do what I say". But then the good guy exerts his will against the bad guys, so they get what’s coming to them. Thus you have the miracle of payback.

Ultimately this type of movie is about people exerting power over others. But nobody can actually live this way. As long as we encounter other people, we are faced with other egos who have as much free will, as much value and worth, and as much right to live as we do. It may make you sound tough to say that you will never give an inch, and that nothing and no one can stop you. But it’s false. This is why Sartre said that "Hell is other people". This is why Nietzsche wrote that his philosophy was more aesthetically pleasing than the "traditional" ideas of love and respect.

This is also why movies such as Terminator are so popular, especially with guys. Arnie played the ultimate male fantasy: he gets whatever he wants, he can’t be stopped, and anyone who gets in his way is eliminated without any remorse. Did you catch that? Not only does he kill anyone for any reason, he is free from any sense of recognizing others as individuals, as sacred, as having any existential value. It’s why Brad Pitt said in Fight Club "It’s only after you’ve lost everything" (i.e. your sense of self-worth and value) "that you’re free to do anything" (i.e. reject the worth and value of others as well). Once you reject the value of other people, you are no longer enslaved by the idea that you should take them into account as you live your life. You're free to live life on your own terms.

But again, this is all an illusion. As long as there are other beings in existence -- and you have to figure that the odds for that are at least 2 to 1 -- their rights, their needs, their wants and desires have to be taken into account. The only alternative to this is psychopathy.

(reposted from OregonLive)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Speed of Light and the Age of the Universe

Many Christians believe that the Bible obligates them to believe in a universe that is only several thousand years old. Since the discoveries of science show it to be several billion years old, they consider this to be an example of conflict between the Bible and science. I disagree. I believe that the biblical text can easily accommodate a universe billions of years old, and in fact a universe of any finite age. I would only consider science to be in conflict with the Bible on this point if the former showed the universe to be infinitely old.

Some Christians who think the scientific claims contradict the Bible's seek to find loopholes in the arguments that supposedly demonstrate that the universe is billions of years old. I think their motives for this are very honorable: they are trying to be faithful to what they believe the Bible teaches. Nevertheless, this feeds into the claim that science and Christianity are at war with each other, and so we supposedly have to choose one or the other. It's also intellectually irresponsible. Such tactics could be used to criticize virtually any position. It's the stock and trade of conspiracy theories for example.

In this post, I'm going to defend what I think is the simplest scientific argument demonstrating the universe to be billions of years old: the travel time of light from distant objects.

Starlight travel time
While light travels very fast (about 186,000 miles or 300,000 kilometers per second), it still has to traverse the distance between an object and our eyes in order for us to see the object. Thus, when we observe things, we’re seeing them as they were when the light left or reflected off of them. This results in the paradox that we can never actually observe anything as it is in the present, but can only observe things as they were in the past. Since most of the things we look at in our everyday lives are nearby, this distance is traversed, for all practical purposes, instantaneously. But when we observe astronomical objects the distances are huge, and there is a lag between the time the light leaves the object we’re observing and the time that the light reaches our eyes. For example, when we look at the sun (which I try never to do), the light took about eight minutes to travel to us. Thus, we are directly observing the sun as it was eight minutes ago, but we can never observe it as it is in the present. When we look at Jupiter, the sunlight reflecting off of it took 40 to 60 minutes to reach us, depending on our respective positions, so we are directly observing Jupiter as it was about an hour ago.

When we look beyond our solar system, the distances become much more vast. The dog star (Sirius) is one of the closest and brightest stars in the sky. It’s about 8.6 light years away, which means that the light from it took 8.6 years -- about eight years and seven months -- to reach us. Thus, when we look at the dog star we are directly observing it as it was eight years and seven months ago. The Crab Nebula is about 6,000 light years away, so its light took 6,000 years to reach us. This means that today we are directly observing the Crab Nebula as it was 6,000 years ago in 4,000 BC.

But we can’t stop here. With regards to intergalactic distances, the Crab Nebula is ridiculously close to us. The Large Magellanic Cloud is a small galaxy that orbits our own (the Milky Way), and is about 160,000 light years away. In 1987, astronomers observed a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Since the light from this event took 160,000 years to reach us, these astronomers directly observed a supernova which took place 160,000 years ago. The Andromeda galaxy is the nearest full-size galaxy to us and can actually be seen with the naked eye under the right conditions. Since it’s about 2 million light years away, this means that we are directly observing it today as it was 2 million years ago. Astronomers regularly observe supernovae in galaxies millions and billions of light years away.

The incomprehensible vastness of space and the speed of light combine to form an argument demonstrating that the universe is ancient. In order for us to see an object, the light from it has to traverse the distance between the object and us at the speed of light. Since the light from objects literally billions of light years away can be seen, the universe must be billions of years old. In order to escape this argument we would have to either deny that the objects are really that distant, deny that the speed of light is constant, deny that time is constant, or deny that the light actually traverses the distance between the object and ourselves.

Reliable distances
In an attempt to argue the first of these, some have suggested that perhaps the methods of measuring these distances are faulty. But the distances of objects can be measured by several independent methods which all reveal similar results; therefore, these distances are very certain, and can’t just be dismissed (Ross 1, 161-2; Stoner, 61-2). Moreover, if these objects were close enough for their light to have reached us in just a few thousand years, it would create obvious problems. “If all stars really are near rather than distant, their faintness would indicate that many are tiny, much tinier than the minimum size necessary for stars to burn. If stars were not distant and yet large enough to burn, another problem would be evident: a ‘night’ sky as bright as day -- fine for angelic creatures, perhaps, but deadly for earthly ones and certainly not the condition of Earth’s sky” (Ross 1, 162). Besides which, to try to maintain that the huge number of stars and galaxies that we observe all occupy only the space of a few thousand light years on all sides of us would put them so close to each other that they would be constantly moving and colliding with each other because of the gravitational attraction between them, something we simply don’t see.

The constancy of the speed of light
The second option is to argue that the speed of light may not be constant. This was suggested several years ago by some young-earth proponents when they noticed that our methods for measuring the speed of light today allow us to do so with greater precision than the methods used a few hundred years ago. However, instead of recognizing this as a byproduct of our technology advancing, they interpreted this greater precision as evidence that the speed of light itself was changing (Norman and Setterfield).

The first thing to note in response is that, “When astronomers measure wavelength positions of certain spectral lines in a distant star or galaxy, they are determining the value of the fine-structure constant when the light left that star or galaxy. The fine-structure constant value depends inversely on the value of light’s velocity” (Ross 1, 164). In other words, when we observe light from a distant object, we can determine what the speed of light was when the light left that object. Since we observe stars and galaxies over ten billion light years away and all points between, we can determine what the speed of light has been ever since the light first left these objects. What we discover is that the speed of light has been completely consistent during this time, therefore it has been the same for the last ten billion-plus years.

Moreover the speed of light is directly related to the amount of mass and energy. In Einstein’s equation E = mc2, E stands for energy, m for mass, and c2 for the speed of light multiplied by itself. Any change in the value of c for a particular light source would entail a change in its mass and/or energy output (or luminosity) as well. But everywhere we look -- up to over ten billion light years away -- we observe these ratios in accordance with the same value for c as it is now.

In fact, the speed of light is one of the examples of how the universe has been fine-tuned for life. If it was ever faster or slower, even to a slight degree, biological life could not exist. For example, as just mentioned, it would radically alter the luminosity (and hence heat dispersion) of stars, including our sun, a characteristic that has to be extremely precise for life to survive (Ross 2, 152). Moreover, the speed of light has quite a bit to do with body chemistry. “Certain life-essential proteins depend upon incorporating copper and vanadium, and the process by which these elements are incorporated depends on the stability of light’s velocity” (Ross 1, 165). Both of these considerations lead to the conclusion that if the speed of light was different when the first human beings walked the earth, they would have died instantly upon being created. Thus the constancy of the speed of light is an incredible example of how the universe has been designed by an intelligent agent, but those who argue that it has changed do not have access to it (Ross 1, 163-6; Stoner, 62-76).

The constancy of time
Another attempt along these lines is to argue that time moves at different rates in different parts of the universe. Thus, while seven calendar days transpired in one place, several billion years transpired in another. As such, these positions are sometimes presented as reconciliatory between the old-earth and young-earth positions, since they attempt to argue that both sides are correct. It has been defended recently by two authors.

The first is Gerald Schroeder in his books Genesis and the Big Bang and The Science of God. Schroeder, an Orthodox Jew, argues that from the perspective of a being outside of the universe, it’s possible that only seven calendar days would have passed while billions of years transpired in the universe. My response to this is that Genesis 1:2 clearly defines the perspective, the standpoint from which the events are being described, as the surface of the earth, not outside the universe. In fact, it states this as God’s perspective: “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

The position that most young-earth ministries have advocated is that of Russell Humphreys in his book Starlight and Time. In this view, there was once a giant ball of water two light-years in diameter which contained the entire mass of the universe. This water ball then collapsed on itself and formed a black hole, a gravity well from which even light cannot escape. After a few thousand years, this black hole “evaporated” into a white hole, “the aftermath of a black hole so collapsed that all its trapped energy begins to escape via quantum tunneling” (Ross 1, 167).

This white hole is the universe we know. We live in it. Humphreys speculates that, because of Einstein’s discovery that the passage of time is related to velocity and gravity, if the earth were at the center of the white hole, the gravitational effects would cause time to pass much more slowly there than it passes in other parts of it. Six calendar days may have transpired on Earth while billions of years transpired elsewhere in our white hole/universe (Humphreys 1). Specifically, Humphreys argues that our galaxy is at the center of the universe, and so the earth is just approximately at the center. As such, this model is galacto-centric or neo-geocentric.

The problems with this view are many and manifest. “Such a scenario violates nearly every law of physics God established for the cosmos” (Ross 1, 167). First of all, a ball of water two light-years in diameter is physically impossible. The pressure and temperature at its center would ignite nuclear fusion. Second, a black hole takes much, much longer to evaporate into a white hole than Humphreys’s view permits. Hugh Ross points out that the very smallest black hole that the laws of physics would allow would take 15 billion years to become a white hole. The very smallest black holes that have actually been detected (a few times larger than the sun) would take 1066 years to become white holes. Humphreys is arguing that a black hole the size of the entire universe became a white hole. It simply wouldn’t happen in a few thousand years (Ross 1, 167).

Third, black holes get their name because the gravitational forces within them are so powerful that even light cannot escape from them. A white hole has everything so crushed that the energy escapes via quantum tunnelling. Obviously, such gravitational forces would crush anything that existed anywhere within it, and especially anything at its center. This would obviously preclude the possibility of life, and it’s certainly not the situation we find ourselves in.

Fourth, the temporal distortion between the center of the white hole and the rest of it do not add up to the temporal distortion Humphreys is claiming for it. It does not yield a universe billions of years old and an Earth thousands of years old. It yields a universe and Earth both billions of years old, but the earth less so.

Fifth, we simply do not observe time passing at such massively accelerated rates in different parts of the universe. Everywhere we look we see events (such as supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, galaxy rotations, etc.) transpiring at about the same speed. There is the relationship between velocity and time that Einstein discovered, and this does result in the behavior of the most distant objects, which are moving away from us at the highest speed, appearing slightly slower than those nearby. But, as I say, it is slight. Not to mention the fact that in Humphreys’s view distant events would not appear slower but faster; up to a million times faster. We just do not see anything like this.

In support of his theory, Humphreys has argued that “quantized” redshifts show that the earth is at the center of the universe (Humphreys 2). Redshift refers to the wavelength of a light wave being elongated or stretched. This elongation means that the light wave’s frequency is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. When we observe a light wave’s wavelength being stretched like this, it shows that the object the light wave is coming from is moving away from us; the more elongated the wavelength, the faster away from us it’s moving.

Quantized redshifts (or redshift periodicities) refer to the claim that redshift values are clumped together into groups, that galaxies in certain parts of the universe are all moving away from us at the same speed. Humphreys claims that this proves that all of these galaxies are rotating around our own galaxy.

Again, there are some major problems with this. First, it doesn’t even address the problems mentioned above, and so does not constitute a significant enough argument for Humphreys’s views. Merely being at the center of the universe does not demonstrate that the universe is an exploding white hole with all of the temporal distortions that Humphreys maintains.

Second, I don't understand how the claim that galaxies are moving away from us leads to the conclusion that they are all rotating around us. Indeed, it seems to me that if they are moving away from us, they are not rotating around us. When an object orbits another, it is sometimes closer, sometimes further from the object (unless its orbit is a perfect circle, and the object being orbited is at the exact center). When it is moving further from the object, it is indeed obliquely moving away from it. But that’s only half the picture: it will also move closer to the object during the second half of its orbit. Humphreys’s claim would require that nearly all of the galaxies just happen to be in that stage where they are moving away from the object (us) it is orbiting.

Third, there are other, much stronger scientific evidences that we are not at the center of the universe (Ross 1, 170). In fact it’s worse than this: there is no center of the universe. The universe is an expanding three-dimensional surface on a four-dimensional background. Just as no point on the surface of a sphere is in the middle of it -- just as no point on the surface of the earth is at the center of the earth -- so no point in the universe is at its center.

Finally, the hypothesis of quantized redshifts was very speculative when it was first suggested, was rejected by the consensus of astronomers, and has since been refuted. There is no such phenomenon (Ross 1, 170). Thus, while this view may look impressive because it’s somewhat technical, it just has no basis in fact (Ross 1, 166-70).

Another problem with the claim that the earth is at the center of the universe is that it plays into the science vs. religion metanarrative. We are told that, prior to Copernicus and Galileo, people thought the earth was the center of the universe because they thought that the Earth and its inhabitants must be the most important thing in it. When geocentrism was abandoned for heliocentrism, it demonstrated that humanity must not be as important as Christianity claims. Science is often viewed as progressively demonstrating the insignificance of human beings, and thus contradicting the Christian worldview.

But this story falsely equates geocentrism with anthropocentrism. It assumes that since people thought human beings were at the center of the universe literally, they must have thought we were at the center metaphorically as well. But this is simply not the case. In fact, it was quite the opposite: in the medieval model, the closer you were to the center of the universe, the less significant and valuable, the less esteemed and privileged you were (Danielson 1 and 2). So while they thought the earth to be at the center of the universe, they thought hell was at the center of the earth, and Satan was at the center of hell. Rather than seeing the issue as heliocentrism vs. geocentrism, we should see it as heliocentrism vs. hell-ocentrism, or "diabolocentrism" (Lovejoy, 102).

Yet instead of pointing this out, some Christians have let the secularists dictate their own faith to them: today there are several Christian ministries (here's one) devoted to defending the proposition that the earth is at the center of the universe. And most young-earth ministries are actively promoting Humphreys’s neo-geocentric model in order to get around the problem of starlight travel time. In fact, Humphreys states explicitly that our location in the universe is directly related to how important we are to God, accepting the geocentrism = anthropocentrism equation (Humphreys 2, 102-3). But this is a revisionist history that opponents of Christianity invented in order to discredit it. I submit that we should not let those who deprecate our faith define it for us.

Traversing the distance
So if we can’t deny the vast distances between certain objects and ourselves, and we can’t deny the constancy of the speed of light or the progression of time, the only option left open is to challenge the idea that the light actually traverses the distance between the objects and ourselves. This has been suggested in two different ways, the first of which is the suggestion that light takes some kind of “shortcut” through space. One young-earth proponent argued this by noting the work of two scientists in the 1950s (Slusher, 33-7). These scientists tried to overthrow Einstein’s theory of relativity because it implies that there was a creation event and, hence, a Creator -- a conclusion they were loathe to accept. They came up with a bizarre hypothesis in which the light from distant galaxies would arrive on earth within a few years, and from two different directions. Unfortunately (at least for some), we don’t observe light arriving on earth from two different directions, and the fact that these two scientists were unable to support their theory mathematically, combined with the overwhelming amount of evidence in support of relativity that has become available since they wrote their article, completely repudiates their hypothesis (Ross 1, 166).

The second, and more common, way to argue that the light from distant objects does not actually traverse the distance between the objects and ourselves is the idea that God created the light “in transit” between us and the objects. That is, the light we observe didn’t actually come from the object itself, but is a beam of light God created in a line between us and the object.

This suggestion is an example of the claim that God may create things with a false “appearance of age”. Thus, it is claimed that God created trees with annual rings, polar ice sheets with annual layers, and coral atolls with daily band deposits for days, years, and millennia that never happened. This is a subject in and of itself, but the most obvious point to make against it is that it ascribes deception to God. This is obviously inconsistent with the Bible, which states 1) God cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18), and 2) he reveals himself through the universe he created (Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:18-20). To suggest that he made the universe in such a way that it looks differently than it actually is would contradict both of these claims.

To return to the case in point, starlight travel, let me just make a few points. First, when light travels through space, it passes through gas clouds, and this results in the light’s spectral lines being broadened, and the continuum (the radiation between spectral lines) becoming redder. The more gas clouds the light passes through, the greater this broadening and reddening will be. When we observe distant objects we observe these effects occurring in direct proportion to how far away the object is. So God wouldn’t have just created beams of light, but would have had to supernaturally alter their spectral lines to make it appear as if they had actually passed through a large number of gas clouds when they really hadn’t. Again, I don’t see how this wouldn’t be ascribing deception to God.

Second, when we observe light from distant objects, they don’t reveal the objects to be just sitting there, immobile. They reveal them to be moving, rotating, undergoing certain chemical and nuclear reactions, etc. In other words, we don’t just observe objects, we observe events. So again, God would be making it appear as if particular events were transpiring when they really weren’t. This can best be illustrated by dramatic events such as supernovae. Take for example the supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud 160,000 light-years away mentioned earlier. If God created the light from this event in transit to appear as if it happened 160,000 years ago, and the universe is less than 160,000 years old, when did this event take place? The answer is, it didn’t. God would be, in effect, putting scenes in the sky which never really happened. This option is obviously incompatible with the claim that God is trustworthy, and reveals himself through his creation (Ross 1, 162-3; Stoner, 76-80).

Third, if we say God creates beams of light between objects and ourselves, we have opened a door we definitely do not want to go through. Most of our access to special revelation -- that is, reading the Bible -- is dependent on the properties of light. In order for us to see the letters on the page, light has to bounce off the page, and then traverse the very short distance between the page and our eyes. (Obviously, this isn’t the whole story, since the Holy Spirit illuminates the text for us by helping us to understand it. Of course, the Holy Spirit could just communicate to our minds directly all the time if he wanted to, but the fact that he had a few things written down suggests that he chose a more objective way as being more appropriate.)

But if God were creating beams of light between distant objects to make it appear that certain events were happening which really weren't, how do you know he isn't doing the same thing here? That is to say, maybe every time you try to read the Bible, God creates a beam of light (fiat lux!) between you and the page, and alters it to make it seem that the text says something it actually doesn't. If it's a real possibility that God would be doing this with distant objects, it's just as possible that he could be deceiving us about what the Bible says.

Obviously this is absurd. No one could seriously believe this, and especially not someone who believes that God is trustworthy. Indeed, this is a better description of the devil than God. But if God creates things with a false appearance of age, such a situation would be equally plausible. Since it's not, we know that God did not create the beams of light from distant objects in transit. Therefore, the light we observe from them actually traversed the distance between the objects and ourselves.

Therefore, since the light from objects billions of light-years away has traversed the distance between them and us at the speed of light, the universe must be billions of years old.

Works cited
Danielson 1 = Dennis Danielson, "Copernicus and the Tale of the Pale Blue Dot". Unpublished paper. Link.

Danielson 2 = Dennis Danielson, "The Great Copernican Cliché", in The American Journal of Physics 69/10 (2001): 1029-35.

Humphreys 1 = D. Russell Humphreys, Starlight and Time: Solving the Puzzle of Distant Starlight in a Young Universe (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1994).

Humphreys 2 = D. Russell Humphreys, "Our Galaxy is the Centre of the Universe, ‘Quantized’ Red Shifts Show", in TJ 16/2 (2002): 95-104. Link.

Lovejoy = Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1964).

Norman and Setterfield = Trevor Norman and Barry Setterfield, “The Atomic Constants, Light, and Time,” in Stanford Research Institute International, Technical Report (August, 1987). Link.

Ross 1 = Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004).

Ross 2 = Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God, 3rd ed. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001).

Gerald Schroeder, Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science And The Bible (New York: Bantam, 1990).

Gerald Schroeder, The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom (New York: Broadway, 1998).

Slusher = Harold Slusher, Age of the Cosmos (Santee, CA: Institute for Creation Research, 1980).

Stoner = Don Stoner, A New Look at an Old Earth: Resolving the Conflict Between the Bible and Science (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1997). Link.

Friday, February 8, 2008


Via TigerHawk comes today's dose of perspective:

A nation in which the poor are defined by an income level that in most countries would make them prosperous is a nation that has all but forgotten the true meaning of poverty. A nation in which obesity is largely a problem of the poor (and anorexia of the upper-middle class) does not understand the word "hunger." A nation in which the most celebrated recent cases of racism, at Duke University or in Jena, La., are wholly or mostly contrived is not a racist nation. A nation in which our "division" is defined by the vitriol of Ann Coulter or James Carville is not a truly divided one -- at least while Mr. Carville is married to Republican operative Mary Matalin and Ms. Coulter is romantically linked with New York City Democrat Andrew Stein.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


The Wayfaring Stranger is planning to post some essays on issues he has rethought recently "on church, politics, and evolution". Here's his first one on church growth. I'm looking forward to it the rest.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Evolution and Islam

Here's an interesting article that points out that many scientific, medical, and philosophical advances were made in the Middle Ages by the Islamic world. This is something that needs to be pointed out, since some people don't want to see anything valuable coming out of Islam.

I have a minor point of contention with the author, namely that he slightly exaggerates the advances and insights of the Muslim scientists and philosophers. I find this understandable, but unfortunate, since when such exaggerated claims are debunked, it makes one suspicious of all such claims. I've written about this before. For example, there was an article a couple of years ago about 20 Muslim inventions that Western civilization used. When you look at it, however, it turns out that almost none of the inventions were actually made by Muslims. After this, one could be forgiven for taking similar claims with a grain of salt.

The article in particular begins with a foreshadowing of Darwin's theory of evolution on the part of a fairly obscure 9th-century author named al-Jahith, who wrote

Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring.

I think this is an interesting passage, but it's not as impressive as the article implies. For one thing, any agrarian society knows that animals compete in a struggle for existence, and that they vary in ways that make their individual survival less or more likely. I'm more impressed by al-Jahith's claim that "new characteristics" arise; but Jews and Christians had already been claiming for centuries that the various differences among human ethnic groups arose after humanity's creation. So it doesn't strike me as a revolutionary claim.

Darwin's genius did not lie in pointing to a struggle for existence (natural selection); rather, it was his application of it. Others had looked at this struggle as something that accounted for the diversity within a species (or natural group). Darwin used it to account for the diversity across species as well; in fact, it accounts for the origin of the species in the first place. Al-Jahith's quote simply doesn't address this.

A view that strikes me as being closer to Darwin than al-Jahith's comments is the doctrine of rationes seminales, or seminal principles, that was conceived by the ancient Stoic philosophers, and was accepted by many early Christian philosophers before the advent of Islam, such as Athenagoras, Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. This position held that God created the world in "seed form" or with certain potentialities which then unfolded or developed.

This may sound harsher than I intend it; the article is very good overall, and his exaggeration is slight. He even points out that al-Jahith's comments seem to be derived from folklore rather than scientific observation. So I recommend it.

(cross-posted at OregonLive)

Friday, February 1, 2008

50 Years

Rand Simberg notes the 50th anniversary of the initiation of the USA's space program with all the triumphs and tragedies it entailed.