Sunday, November 30, 2008

Please pray

for those who have suffered from the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. I was going to hold off posting on it until we learned more; however the more I learn the less I want to post on it. It's just an atrocity and it reminds me that we need to continue taking the fight to the terrorists. There really is evil in the world and those who choose to align themselves with it must be stopped.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Anthropic Principle for Misanthropes, part 2

In part 1 I explained what the Anthropic Principle is and gave some examples to illustrate it. Basically, the idea is that certain conditions must be met in order for life to be possible anywhere in the universe at any time in its history. These conditions are so numerous and so unlikely that, when added together, they make it virtually impossible for there to be a planet capable of supporting life -- at least advanced life -- anywhere in the universe if left to chance. Since there is a planet capable of supporting life (Earth in case you were wondering) it suggests that it wasn't left to chance, that someone intended that the universe would be hospitable to life.

However, while the basic facts are not disputed by scientists in the relevant disciplines, the theistic conclusion is a matter of controversy; some scientists accept it, others don't (here's an interesting sample). In this post I'll go over some of the most common objections made against this inference. I'm saving two objections that require lengthier responses for the next post.

1. "We would not be here to observe the universe unless the very unlikely did happen, so of course we're going to notice how the universe 'just happens' to have the necessary conditions for life." This was my first thought when I heard about the Anthropic Principle for the first time. However, it really doesn't hold any water if you think about it for more than a few seconds. The fact that we are here of course proves that the necessary conditions for life's existence have been met, regardless of how unlikely it is; but the question is not whether these conditions have been met but how they've been met. And the fact that they are unlikely to the point of being impossible shows that they were not met by chance.

The common analogy I've seen in the philosophical literature is the firing squad. If a man were sent to be executed by a hundred sharpshooters and he survives the experience, he could draw two conclusions: they all missed by chance, or they intended him to live (by missing on purpose or filling the guns with blanks for instance). But he would not take the fact that he was alive as evidence that it happened by chance. He would not say, "I wouldn't be here to observe the fact that I'm alive unless I survived -- therefore they must have missed accidentally." In fact the more unlikely his "being alive" was, the more rational it would be for him to conclude that someone decided he should live. In the same way the rational conclusion to draw from the incredible degree of fine-tuning we find in the universe is that someone decided we should live.

2. "We don't have enough information to warrant drawing any conclusions, much less theistic ones." There is certainly some truth to this; the Anthropic Principle is a relatively young field of study, and we should bear this in mind. However, it should also be borne in mind that all of the research has consistently pointed in the same direction: that the prerequisites for life's existence are very specific. Perhaps future scientific discoveries will overturn this evidence, but this could be said of virtually any scientific claim (although it's less implausible for younger fields of study than older ones). At any rate, this isn't really an objection to the theistic conclusion, but to the data itself, and virtually all scientists in the relevant disciplines acknowledge the data.

I also have to say I find it interesting that when scientific discoveries can be seen as going against belief in God, this objection is rarely given. It's only when science seems to point to God that people start suggesting that we can't really draw any conclusions.

3. "We don't have any other universes to compare this one with, so we can't say how likely or unlikely it is for these conditions to be what they are." In the first post I stated that there are two levels to the Anthropic Principle: the conditions that have to be met within the universe, and the conditions that have to be met in the universe as a whole. The conditions that fall into the latter category are initial conditions that are simply given in the Big Bang itself. Since they are initial conditions, there are no prior physical conditions that force them to be the way they are, by definition. There are only two possible conclusions from this: first, that these initial conditions could have been different. Or second, that there were non-physical conditions forcing the universe's physical conditions to be what they are. The first leads to the problem the Anthropic Principle poses: that the universe simply shouldn't be able to support life if left to its own resources, and yet it does. The second leads to the conclusion that there is some non-physical reality, external to the universe, that is able to exert some degree of power over the universe. Thus, both of these conclusions have theistic repercussions.

As for the the conditions that have to be met within the universe, some of them are indeed speculative. For example, while we have no reason to think that planets inherently form with exactly the same surface gravity or axial tilt as Earth, we have not discovered enough extra-solar planets to test it directly. However, many of these conditions are not speculative, but are easily calculable. For example, in order for a planet to be able to support life it must be in a certain type of galaxy, in a certain part of the galaxy, orbiting a certain type of star, etc. It is easily observable and demonstrable how common these conditions are.

Moreover, the fact that we have a sample size of one actually supports the theistic conclusion. This will be demonstrated in the response to one of the objections in the next post.

4. "Chance and intent are not the only two explanations possible. There's also natural law. If there's a law which makes the universe and planets capable of supporting life, the odds of there being other possible life-sites in the universe would be very likely." Well, as pointed out above, the conditions necessary for the universe as a whole are initial conditions. As such, there is no preceding natural law forcing them to be they way they are by definition. The necessary conditions within the universe could, theoretically, be shown to be the result of as-yet-undiscovered natural laws. But in the absence of any evidence for such laws, this suggestion is completely ad hoc, since virtually anything could be explained as the result of some natural law we just haven't discovered yet. Besides, this would only push the problem back to the level of the universe as a whole: any law that makes the universe hospitable to life would have to be exactly what it is in order to ensure that the specific properties necessary for the existence of life are met. The universe would still be fine-tuned for the existence of life, and we'd still need an explanation for why this is the case.

5. "If you change one physical constant it may throw everything off-kilter, but then you can change the other physical constants to compensate for it, and bring it back to being a universe hospitable to life." Incredibly enough, scientists already thought of that. The obvious problem is that changing the other constants does not merely compensate for changing the first one; it would also have dramatic effects which would require us to change more constants, which would have their own effects requiring further changes, etc. There are a few cases where you could do this and end up with a life-permitting universe, but they would be extremely rare. It's like taking a medication that has significant side effects. You then have to take other medications to regulate these side effects, but then these medications also have side effects, so you need to take more medications...

Of course, this analogy only goes so far: taking more medications may actually bring some degree of health to the body. With the universe's physical constants, however, it is almost impossible to alter them and still end up with a life-permitting universe.

6. "Someone wins the lottery, and it would be irrational for that person to think that the extreme improbabilities involved in her winning would demonstrate that someone set it up for her to win. Similarly, life is the result of this universe. This doesn't allow us to think it was set up intentionally to be this way." To illustrate this objection, say you had, for some ungodly reason, billions of ping pong balls and inscribed each one with someone's name until you had one for every person in the world. Also say you had a big enough basket to hold all of them. You then mix them all up and pull one out while blindfolded. Obviously someone's name will be drawn, even though the odds were one in several billion that you would select that particular ball. Similarly, the fact that we have a universe with the specific properties it has may have been improbable, but that does not allow us to draw any conclusions about whether it was "arranged."

But this is a bad analogy. A better one would be if, every time you tweak the universe's properties, you paint a ping pong ball black if it permits the existence of life, and just leave it white if it does not. What you would end up with is an ocean of white ping pong balls with only a handful of black ones scattered throughout. Now of course the odds that you would pull any particular ping pong ball out is equally improbable; but the odds that you would pull out a white ping pong ball is enormously more probable than the odds that you would pull out a black one. Similarly, the odds that the universe would be life-prohibiting is vastly more probable than for it to be life-permitting -- unless someone decided to make it hospitable to life.

This objection seems to be suggesting that life -- the result of this universe -- is arbitrary. Any other universe would have had results too. The problem with this is that all the other possible universes would have had essentially the same result: just matter and energy in motion, and often not even the motion. Ours has something on a whole different level, and the universe must be balanced on a razor's edge in order for it to be that way.

Update (13 Feb): See also part 1, part 3, and part 4.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Quote of the Day

The visible world daily bludgeons us with its things and events. They pinch and pull and hammer away at our bodies. Few people arise in the morning as hungry for God as they are for cornflakes or toast and eggs. But instead of shouting and shoving, the spiritual world whispers at us ever so gently. And it appears both at the edges and in the middle of events and things in the so-called real world of the visible.

God's spiritual invasions into human life seem by their very gentleness almost to invite us to explain them away, even while soberly reminding us that to be obsessed and ruled by the visible is death but that to give one's self over to the spiritual is life and peace (Rom 8:6).

We are hindered in our progress toward becoming spiritually competent people by how easily we can explain away the movements of God toward us. They go meekly, without much protest. Of course his day will come, but for now he cooperates with the desires and inclinations that make up our character, as we are gradually becoming the kind of people we will forever be. That should send a chill down our spine.

God wants to be wanted, to be wanted enough that we are ready, predisposed, to find him present with us. And if, by contrast, we are ready and set to find ways of explaining away his gentle overtures, he will rarely respond with fire from heaven. More likely he will simply leave us alone; and we shall have the satisfaction of thinking ourselves not to be gullible.

The test of character posed by the gentleness of God's approach to us is especially dangerous for those formed by the ideas that dominate our modern world. We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt. The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character. Only a very hardy individualist or social rebel -- or one desperate for another life -- therefore stands any chance of discovering the substantiality of the spiritual life today. Today it is the skeptics who are the social conformists, though because of powerful intellectual propaganda they continue to enjoy thinking of themselves as wildly individualistic and unbearably bright.

Dallas Willard
Hearing God

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Favorite Movie Scenes

Below are a few of my favorite movie scenes. They aren't necessarily scenes from my favorite movies; some of the movies they come from suck. But I love these scenes. I have a lot more, but I'm afraid of using up my bandwidth for the month. Feel free to leave one of your own in the comments, either embedded (I'm not sure you can do that though) or with a link.

Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Fight Club:


Full Metal Jacket:

The Hunt for Red October:

First Strike:




The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension:

Monday, November 17, 2008


-- Here's a great article about Tor, one of the largest SF publishers around. It's primarily about how Libertarianism is very common among SF authors. As I read it, I can't help but think that Christians need to write more SF.

-- Fascinating article on what appears to be a temple from about 10,000 BC. That's before written language, before metal tools, before animals were domesticated, before agriculture.

-- India has landed a spacecraft on the Moon. That puts them in very select company. Congratulations to them, and I'm looking forward to a new space race with them.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Anthropic Principle for Misanthropes, part 1

One of the ways in which contemporary science has appeared to undergird religious belief is the Anthropic Principle. This is the investigation of the necessary conditions for the existence of life. It's an entire field of study, so obviously my treatment here is not even remotely exhaustive. There could easily be a blog entirely devoted to this subject reporting on new discoveries and studies on an almost daily basis.

The Anthropic Principle has its origins in the 1960s with scientists trying to determine the likelihood of other possible life-sites in the universe. It was thought at the time that the universe is so huge, there must be plenty of habitable planets, potentially with life and advanced civilizations already present.

What they have discovered is that the number of conditions that have to be met in order for a planet to be capable of supporting life are so numerous and so unlikely that, even when factoring the size of the universe into the equation, the odds of there being any planet anywhere in the universe that would meet all of the necessary conditions by chance is essentially zero. But this raised an obvious problem: there is a planet that meets all of these conditions. You're sitting on it. Since the Anthropic Principle demonstrates that it's improbable to the point of being impossible for this to have come about by chance, it suggests that these conditions are the way they are because someone intended that Earth should be able to support life.

There is debate as to whether the Anthropic Principle applies to all life or only to complex life. Many scientists argue that simple, unicellular life might be able to survive outside of the severe parameters necessary for advanced life, and could even be widespread. Probably the most popular book arguing this point is Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. If we grant this for the sake of argument, we're still left with a universe in which advanced life simply shouldn't exist, if left to its own resources. And yet, as you may have noticed, it does.

There are really two levels to the Anthropic Principle. The first is what has already been mentioned: the necessary conditions that must be met within the universe. For example, the planet must be in a particular part of a particular type of galaxy -- in a spiral galaxy and in between spiral arms. It must also have a particular interstellar history, such as nearby white dwarf binary stars that have lost some of their surface material to interstellar space in order to provide flourine. It must orbit a particular type of star with particular types of outer planets. The planet must have a particular axial tilt, a particular magnetic field, have a moon of a particular size and distance, etc., ad infinitum. Again, it's not an issue of individual criteria being met -- the universe is so big that there will be other places that meet even extremely improbable conditions. The point is that it has to meet them all, and when the conditions are combined it shows, even given the unfathomable size of the universe, that the odds are absurdly improbable that there would be a place that would be able to support life.

One of the properties on this level that has impressed me the most involves the Kuiper Belt. This is an asteroid belt outside the orbit of Neptune. A few years ago, scientists decided (ex cathedra) that Pluto isn't actually a planet, but is just a fairly large and fairly close Kuiper Belt Object.

The gravitational effects from the Kuiper Belt stabilize Neptune's orbit. If the Kuiper Belt's mass were any different (either less or greater), it would start a domino effect, throwing off Neptune's orbit, which would in turn throw off Uranus', then Saturn's, and then Jupiter's. Then the orbits of the inner planets, including Earth, would be disrupted to the extent that none of them would have an orbit stable enough to permit life. It just blows me away that life on Earth is dependent on an asteroid belt outside the orbit of Neptune.

Recently, astronomers have found that our dependence on the Kuiper Belt is even greater than was previously thought (see here, here, and here). Using computer modeling of our solar system's development, they discovered that early on, Uranus and Neptune were much closer to the sun (as was the Kuiper Belt) and possessed much more eccentric orbits. The gravitational effects between the Kuiper Belt Objects and Neptune and Uranus had to be very specific in order for all of them to drift further away from the Sun and then establish the stable orbits they have today.

The second level of the Anthropic Principle is the universe as a whole. Scientists have formed mathematical models with the laws of nature slightly tweaked, and used this to investigate what must be necessary for the existence of life. What they've discovered is that if most of the laws were different by very slight amounts -- if gravity was slightly weaker or stronger for example -- it would prevent any kind of life from existing anywhere in the entire history of the universe. This implies, again, that whatever Agency brought the universe into existence did so in such a way that it could support the existence of life.

The best examples of this are the universe's mass density and its space-energy density (or "dark energy"). The former essentially refers to how much matter the universe contains. As the universe expanded outward from the Big Bang, the amount of matter affected the speed, since the more mass there was, the greater gravity would slow it down. If the mass density was any greater by even a tiny amount, it would have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, causing the universe to collapse back on itself. If it was any weaker, then the expansion would overwhelm gravity enough that galaxies would never form, and without galaxies you don't have enough nearby stars to provide the heavier elements on which life depends. Specifically, the mass density has to be exactly what it is to within one part in 1060 in order for life to exist in the universe.

The second factor mentioned above is dark energy. This refers to the "stretchiness" of the space-time fabric. This concept has its origins in Einstein's cosmological constant (symbolized by the Greek letter lambda), a force that counteracts gravity which he posited in order to escape the Big Bang singularity. He suggested that the further away two objects were, the more they would repel each other. However, no such force could be detected, much less at the strength required for Einstein's scenario. In the past several years however, scientists have managed to detect this force. It's far, far too weak to be used in the way Einstein intended -- to avoid a beginning of the universe -- but it does have a positive value. This force accounts for a very unusual phenomenon: that as the universe expands, it actually seems to be speeding up. The further the universe stretches, the more quickly it stretches. The reason this is called "stretching" is because it's not just a matter of stars and galaxies moving away from each other: the fabric of space-time is actually stretching out further. You yourself are getting slightly bigger each year as the universe expands. And you thought it was the donuts.

If the properties of dark energy were slightly different, it would affect the rate at which the universe expands, and this leads to the same problem as the mass density: either the universe would collapse upon itself (if it wasn't stretchy enough) or it would not form stars and galaxies and the heavier elements upon which life depends would not be available (if it was too stretchy). In fact, dark energy has to be fine-tuned to an even greater degree than the mass density is. It has to be exact to within one part in 10120.

As far as I know, the fact that the universe is balanced on a knife's edge -- that if dozens of its properties were different in the slightest degrees, life (or at least advanced life) could never exist at any time and any place in its history -- is recognized by all scientists in the relevant disciplines. Accounting for this is a different matter. As I've suggested above, many scientists have thought that the fine-tuning of the universe demonstrates that, in Fred Hoyle's terms, "a superintellect monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology." But of course there have been many objections made against this inference. I'll deal with a few of the more common ones in future installments.

Update (13 Feb): See also part 2, part 3, and part 4.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I really don't know what to think about this. It's just...well...hmmm.

My Exodus

I often tell people that I argued myself into Christianity. This is true, but it leaves enough out that it could be misleading. So here is a rough sketch of how I became a Christian. Please forgive the vanity and the length.

I was baptized Catholic. My mother was a Catholic and my father was a devout agnostic, as far as I could tell. I have no memory of going to church as a child. They divorced when I was about eight years old, and it absolutely devastated me. Not that they were good together -- they fought like cats and dogs. But for kids (I think) parents are their foundation. When you take that away, they don't have any solid ground to stand on.

After the divorce, my mother started taking me to an Episcopalian church (which I sometimes refer to as "Catholic Lite" or "Catholicism for divorcées"). I only attended for a few years and it didn't take. I remember taking umbrage at a song that asked God to mould, fill, and use us, and refusing to sing it. I did learn how to smoke in Sunday school, however.

As an adult I suffered from depression and low self-esteem. Ignoring the fact that I suffered from these as a child too, even before my parents' divorce, I assumed it was due to my few years of church-going; that the sermons I never listened to and the songs I didn't remember must have made me feel guilty -- thinking guilt was what Christianity is all about. I would have described myself at this point as an agnostic: I suspected God existed, but I wouldn't have bet on it, and I certainly didn't think it was the God of Christianity. To combat my psychological problems, I read self-help books. They would work for a short while, but eventually I would fall back into depression and low self-esteem.

After a couple of years of college I enlisted in the Marine Corps. I figured if I did the toughest thing I could think of, my self-esteem would rise, and the depression would go away. If I buried myself in manure for a few years, I'd come out smelling like roses. In fact, it did help to some extent, but not nearly enough. After boot camp they sent me to language school to become an Arabic linguist -- if they had asked me, I would have told them that I suck at languages. The course was a year long, and it was one of the most stressful times of my life, much more so than boot camp. This was largely self-imposed: I kept telling myself that I would fail and imagined the very worst possible outcomes. I very nearly had a nervous breakdown. My refusal to give up these destructive thought patterns ruined what might have been a very good friendship with one of the sailors in my class. But that was how I thought about everything: I was a pessimist and thought about the worst things I could. It was the pattern I had trained myself to think in, and while it wasn't pleasant, it was familiar.

Much to my amazement -- and that of some of my teachers as well -- I passed. After the course in Modern Standard Arabic was over, I had to take a course in Syrian dialect, but that didn't start for several weeks. In the meantime, I was on some kind of duty (I forget what it was called) which was basically sitting around and sometimes mowing a lawn somewhere. I remember I had some new dogtags made about this time, and under religious preference I put "Druid."

About ten days (I think) after I finished the first Arabic course, I was sitting in the chow hall eating. I experienced a flash: it was like I had been squinting my whole life, and for just a moment my eyes were open. Information had been directly downloaded into my mind. The information was: "I exist, and I carried you for the last year." It impressed itself upon me more than the physical world does when I experience pain.

This absolutely blew me away. Now I was no longer an agnostic in the strict sense: I was very confident that God exists. However, I didn't know which, if any, religion was true. I was pretty confident that it wasn't Christianity, but that was all. It was also extremely humbling: as I said above, my overwhelming stress of the previous year had been largely self-imposed. My intense sorrow wasn't caused by the actual experiences I went through, I caused it myself. It was my own fault, my own demand to expect the very worst outcome I could imagine. And yet, here was God telling me that he had carried me through this self-imposed misery. He wasn't just willing to carry me through hard times, but through times that I chose to make hard and forced upon myself. I also found it interesting that I had no sense of his presence during that year, and yet he was powerfully present nonetheless.

The only religious activity I began to participate in at that point was saying a short grace before meals. I had some friends suggest that I go to a church, but I told them I couldn't, because I was waiting for more information from God. Think about that for a minute.

After I finished the Syrian dialect course, I was shipped to an Air Force base to learn the "top secret" portion of my job (which was a joke, by the way). While there, a friend of mine who was permanently stationed there and I talked about getting together every Sunday to have our own private "church" meeting, since we both agreed that God exists but Christianity is false. We talked about it a lot, in fact, but we never actually did it. When I finished my training there, I was sent to Hawaii.

I was still reading self-help books, and in a used bookstore in Honolulu I bought a couple by Norman Vincent Peale. When I read them, however, I was very disappointed that he tied "positive thinking" to Christianity, as several of the other self-help books I'd read did. Beyond my reading those two books, Peale had no influence on me. I'm mentioning it because I remember it, probably because it happened not long before a significant event.

A friend of mine named Troy had invited me to church a few times, but I kept telling him that I couldn't go because I was waiting for a sign from God. Finally, I relented; largely because I was willing to go anywhere there would be a lot of women. In a school gymnasium they gave a sermon, and then started doing communion. As they were handing out the bread and juice, I experienced another flash, another direct download. This time the information was: "I want you to participate in this." It was just as powerful as the first one, it imposed itself on me in the same way, much stronger than the physical world does via my senses.

Instead of participating, I got up and walked out.

Troy followed me out. I told him what happened, and he said I should stay, since God was obviously telling me something. I refused. The gymnasium was a few miles away from where I lived (off-base), but I walked home anyway. The whole way I was apologizing to God. "I'm sorry, I'm not ready." I just could not bring myself to believe Christianity. I thought Christianity was on the same intellectual level as believing that the earth is flat. Literally. I thought I had just received the equivalent of a divine revelation telling me that the earth is flat. I simply couldn't believe it. I couldn't deny the experience; if I did, I'd have to deny the physical world and my daily life as well, since they impose themselves upon me to a much lesser extent. But how could I seriously believe the equivalent of a flat earth? Of course, I could have drawn the conclusion that my assessment of Christianity was faulty, but that simply didn't occur to me.

After that, however, I started calling myself a Christian, even though I really wasn't. I looked for a way that I could do this (call myself a Christian) without believing the insane things I assumed Christianity taught. I didn't really look actively -- that would have taken effort on my part -- but that's what I was hoping I would find. In retrospect, I was looking for liberal theology. Fortunately, I didn't find it.

I got out of the Marines and returned to school to study. For most of the time I spent finishing up my first Bachelors degree, I continued to call myself a Christian, even though I got drunk a lot and cavorted with as many women as would let me (which was awfully close to zero). I felt I should do something with Christianity though, so I looked up non-denominational churches in the phone book, and started attending one. One thing I hated, and still hate, is when a church has the congregants stand up and greet each other. This seems to me to be the pinnacle of phoniness. "Stand up and pretend you give a crap about the people sitting around you." I couldn't have told you what I was hoping to get out of church, but I absolutely did not want to meet people or socialize. So I would wait outside the church until I heard the music starting up, and then go inside and sit in the back pew, away from everyone else. When they had the "greet your neighbor" ritual, I would lie down in the pew so no one could see me. Then when the service was winding up, I'd leave while they were playing the last song.

Several weeks later, while walking away from the church, I heard the sound of someone running after me. The pastor, still in his robes, had followed me out, and caught up to me about a block away. He had seen me in church for weeks, and had wanted to welcome me, but hadn't been able to because of the way I came and left.

I really have no idea, but I suspect that at some point in this period of church-going, someone suggested to me that I start reading C. S. Lewis. I did, and was absolutely amazed by him. It wasn't the specific arguments he gave for Christianity that impressed me, it was just that he made it sound so reasonable. I finally started thinking that maybe Christianity wasn't as ridiculous as I'd assumed. I read and re-read as many of his books as I could get a hold of. This was a little weird on my part, since I very strongly did not want to be a Christian, if that referred to the position Lewis was defending. But I was drawn to his writing.

In many ways, I grew into my acceptance of Christianity. When I was a young Christian, I would tell people that I couldn't give a date that I accepted Christ, or even a year. It was a gradual process. Since then, however, a moment has stood out in my memory, but this might just be me remembering wrong, or trying to fit my experience into a more standard pattern.

First, some background. After I graduated, I went to Japan to be an English teacher. My primary motivation was that I'd been told Japanese women found Western men attractive, and so I wanted to take as much advantage of this as possible. I stayed at first with the brother of a friend from the Marines, an ex-Christian who was very hostile towards it, and who I didn't really know that well. While there, I sent a letter to a Christian friend of mine where I detailed multiple errors, contradictions, etc. in the Bible. He never wrote back. However, this was really an attempt to lash out at Christianity with him as its unfortunate mediator. C. S. Lewis had argued that the Bible had errors in it, and even (in The Problem of Pain) that Jesus probably held false beliefs. So I knew this wasn't a good enough reason to reject Christianity.

One night, while laying in bed, I was thinking about C. S. Lewis's books, and was just overwhelmed with how reasonable Christianity appeared. He hadn't necessarily convinced me that Christianity was true, but I was no longer able to say that it was stupid. However, since my only real reason for rejecting Christianity was that it was stupid, this took away my only justification for rejecting Christianity. The barrier preventing me from becoming a Christian revealed itself to be a smoke screen.

So I prayed to God. Specifically I told him that he could have me, but he'd have to keep the women away from me, because I had no resistance in that area. Again, in retrospect, this was me turning toward God and turning away from the idol I had been worshiping up till then: sex. This is proof, by the way, that a poor person can be just as infatuated with money as a rich person. I had always lived in abject poverty in terms of sex, but my every thought was bent in that direction.

After praying this, what followed was the longest dry spell of my life. I couldn't get a woman to look at me for two years. I was only in Japan for three months, having achieved the distinction of being the first native English speaker in Japan's history to be unable to get a job teaching English. I returned to the States and began attending what would become my home church. I was definitely a Christian at this point, but I still desperately wanted it not to be true. I would tell people openly that becoming a Christian was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I fanatically (religiously?) read atheist and anti-Christian literature trying to find a way out. Actually, I had been doing this ever since discovering C. S. Lewis. But their arguments just didn't hold a candle to the pro-Christian literature I was reading. I remember finding a book in the church's library (who knows how it got there) arguing that Jesus' disciples had stolen his corpse and made up the resurrection. I was frustrated that I was able to refute this silly conspiracy theory so easily. Everything in me was screaming, "Christianity is insane! It's not true! It can't be true!" but I could not find any wiggle room to deny it. I believed in Christianity in the same way that someone believes their political views, even if they don't like them. It was purely intellectual.

Several months later, maybe a year or more, I'm not sure, I discovered that I was actually getting excited about reading books and articles that defended Christianity. I was starting to like them. Of course, I read plenty of books that I thought defended Christianity poorly, giving bogus arguments that I could refute, like Bible codes or young-earth creationism. This disturbed me (and still does) but didn't dissuade me for two reasons. First, a bad argument for a position doesn't do anything to negate the good arguments for that position. Second, there are plenty of people who will use bad arguments to defend a valid position. This is true for virtually everything.

After a couple of years, I reached another point. I had accepted that the Bible had contradictions and errors in it, but over and over again I found resolutions to these problems. Of course, I didn't find resolutions to all of them, and plenty of the resolutions seemed completely ad hoc to me. But this was not the case for the majority of them. Essentially, I reached a point where I was willing to give the Bible the benefit of doubt. The problems I found in the Bible were more likely a problem with me rather than it.

I tried to get my friends and family to read the good pro-Christian books I was reading, but they weren't interested. I eventually realized that if I wrote a book for them myself, explaining the arguments and evidences that convinced me, they would be more willing to read it. I put it off for a while, because it seemed to me that there was much more that I'd want to study before undertaking such an endeavor. However, I eventually received a very strong impression that I should start it. In retrospect (again) I realize that these impressions -- to write the book and then to start it sooner than I wanted to -- were from God. They weren't, however, like the flashes I had experienced previously; it was just a strong impression.

So I started writing the book. I organized it into three chapters: logic (i.e. philosophy), science, and history. I also included two appendices on Bible prophecy and Bible inerrancy, the latter of which went over many of the alleged contradictions in the Bible. I would write the book by hand and then go to my dad's house to type up what I'd written that day on his computer. I told him what I was doing, but apparently he just assumed I was playing video games or something.

I had also told my boss, a Christian, what I was doing, and he offered to print up all the copies I needed and bind them. So when I finished, I gave him the book on a floppy disc, and he printed up 30 copies, complete with a cover and everything. The book was over 150 pages long, so this was a considerable expense for him. He kept one himself, and the guy who had made all the copies and bound them (and designed the cover), who wasn't a Christian, asked if he could have one too.

I really had less than ten people that I had planned to give the book to: my immediate family and several friends. Their responses were not what I expected. My dad, who was immensely impressed that I had been writing a book on his computer all this time, read the whole thing, but didn't want to talk about it. One person said she couldn't understand it. Another insisted that the cosmological argument was completely moronic. When I told her that Plato and Aristotle had defended versions of it, as did many of the greatest thinkers in human history, she said she was going to rip up the book with her notes proving it false and send them back to me.

One friend e-mailed me and said he was also very impressed with it and suggested I try publishing it. We started going through it in detail, and I was very pleased with this response. Unfortunately, a common friend of ours immediately skipped to the appendix on errors and contradictions in the Bible, and convinced the first friend to focus on this instead of the main body of the book. They found some of those lists online that give dozens of contradictions in the Bible and sent it to me, challenging me to resolve them. I e-mailed them back on a Friday and told them I was writing a refutation of all of them, and would e-mail it to them on Sunday; but I encouraged them to do it themselves as well. It was a pretty silly list, taking verses completely out of context in order to conjure up contradictions between them. So I told them to read the entire chapter of each verse that was given on the list, and see how the verses in question weren't really contradictory at all. I only remember a few of them; the best was, "Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6), but he says 'I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.' (Matt. 10:34-36)" The obvious resolution to this is that the second text clearly refers to the fact that Jesus creates hostility between people who accept him and people who don't -- something not only made clear by the context, but also by what was going on with the three of us at that moment. The first text does not have this context, so it obviously doesn't mean the same thing: Jesus brings peace in one sense, and brings a sword in a completely different sense. Another one was, "After his baptism, the Gospels of Matthew (4:1-2), Mark (1:9-13), and Luke (4:1-2) say Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, but the Gospel of John (2:1) says he went to the wedding in Cana on the third day after his baptism." Again, anyone who reads the texts will immediately be able to resolve this: John's Gospel never mentions Jesus' baptism. Obviously it's not referring to the third day after an event that it never narrates. Most of the list was on this level, with completely contrived problems.

Before Sunday, they wrote back saying that I was stalling for time, that I was engaging in fallacies by telling them to try to resolve the "contradictions" themselves, that the list they had sent me was obviously valid and I wasn't taking it seriously enough, etc. I had, after all, suggested in the book I wrote that my readers try to find problems in the Bible and send them to me so we could try to resolve them. This was very true; I also wrote that I wasn't claiming that I would be able to resolve them, at least not right away, but that I was confident there would be a resolution.

I now think that by putting this appendix on Bible problems in the book, I made it possible for them to take an issue that wasn't really central and inflate it into the main point. After all, I hadn't accepted inerrancy when I first became a Christian, and C. S. Lewis apparently never did. It's not a good enough reason to not be a Christian. But I had assumed that other people's problems would be the same as mine, and therefore that their journeys would be as well. I assumed that by going over numerous contradictions and finding them not to be contradictions after all, other people would eventually come to the same point I did, where they would be willing to give the Bible the benefit of doubt.

What disturbed me the most, however, was the vitriol of their e-mails. They were accusing me of some really nasty things, things I would never say to a friend. It seemed to me that if I continued going over this issue with them it would destroy our friendships, although I may very well have been mistaken. So on Sunday I e-mailed them the resolutions of their list, but also said that they were very close friends of mine and I didn't want this to ruin it. I was perfectly willing to go over alleged contradictions like this, but not if it got in the way of our friendships. So we stayed friends, but we did not continue the discussion.

I think I'll stop here. You can see how it is very true that I argued myself into Christianity: I didn't want it to be true, I read quite a bit of material trying to prove it false, etc. But saying "I argued myself into it" could suggest to some people that I approached it from a completely neutral standpoint with no bias one way or the other. This is obviously not the case. I had experienced the two flashes or downloads that showed me that God exists and that he wanted me to accept Jesus Christ. Admittedly, I rebelled against them, but regardless I didn't approach the issue in a disinterested manner. I was trying to reconcile my experiences of God with my belief that Christianity could not really be true. Ultimately, I argued myself out of this belief and into the belief that it is true.

I haven't had any more divine downloads since those first two. This has two consequences for me. First, I compared those experiences to my experience of the physical world, and stated that the former imposed themselves on me much more powerfully than the latter does through my senses. However, it has to be taken into account that the flashes were both momentary experiences, while my experience of the physical world is constant. I'm not really sure if the two can ultimately be compared: brief experiences that impose themselves powerfully vs. constant experiences that impose themselves (comparatively) weakly. Fortunately, I don't have to compare them, since I accept the testimony of both.

The second point is that I sometimes worry about the fact that I haven't had further flashes from God. I'm afraid that by rejecting the second one I turned away from his grace in a final way. A friend recently comforted me by saying that I didn't turn away from him, I wrestled with him, and that puts me in very good company. I also remind myself that the year that he was carrying me through my self-imposed hell, I had no sense that he was there at all. So even though I haven't had other experiences, I nevertheless have very good reasons to think that he's there, carrying me still. Plus, he has blessed me with a wife who teaches me who God is every day. I call her my own personal theistic argument.

Despite this, I want a close interactive relationship with God, not just the knowledge that he exists because of some experiences I had in the past. To this end, I have read many times (and will continue to read) Hearing God by Dallas Willard. Willard isn't really addressing the divine flashes I experienced, but of how God is with us in our own minds, closer to us than we are to ourselves. Our inner monologue is actually a dialogue; some of the thoughts we have do not originate with us, but with him, and the point is to develop an awareness of when it's God and when it's our own subconscious. I find it difficult to put into action, but I'm trying.

Incidentally, that song that asks God to mould, fill, and use us -- now that's one of my favorites.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Other Blogrolls

Update (6 Dec 2009): I've expanded this list to include carnivals. See here.

In my post on my blogroll I stated that I limit it to a large extent, which is why it's so short. To compensate for this I have some links to more extensive blogrolls on the sidebar. The Christian blogs link takes you to which upkeeps a very extensive blogroll that I couldn't do without quitting my job (oops, I'm a student, I don't have one). Nevertheless, it is selective insofar as he only includes blogs that he has encountered. For some reason, it is arranged by location.

The More Christian blogs link takes you to a site in which people enter their blogs into a pool and select which criteria they want it associated with. As such, it's much more extensive, but it also means that anyone who writes a blog can sign it up for the list even if they don't write on Christian subjects. That doesn't work too badly though, since it just amounts to a list of bloggers who consider themselves Christian. But when I looked up the website's blogrolls for particular subjects -- blogs listed under science or philosophy or religion in general -- they were all over the place. Many of them didn't seem to have any connection to these subjects; the blogger in question just put (for example) "science" down as a description of their blog. So I had to look elsewhere to find blogrolls for these subjects.

Thus, the Philosophy blogs link takes you to a collection of actual blogs about philosophy or written by philosophers, although sometimes this means philosophers who write about non-philosophical topics. I consider it a good overall list, although it's limited to analytic, as opposed to continental, thought.

Finally, the Science blogs link takes you to a group blog that has a list of about 80 blogs on it. That's not much, but it's the largest science blogroll I could find.

If you know of better blogrolls for these subjects, please leave them in the comments. If you know of a good blogroll for religion blogs (not just Christian) or academic blogs (not just philosophy) I'd be interested in them as well. Remember, I'm not interested here in an individual blog per se, but to a blogroll that is exclusive to these topics.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Whoever you voted for, this is just glorious. Via Instapundit.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Thought of the Day

"Blind faith" is not redundant.

From the undead to the resurrected Lord

Anne Rice has just published her spiritual memoir, Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, timed apparently to come out at Halloween. In case you don't know, she made her mark writing books about vampires and the occult, the most famous being Interview with the Vampire. A few years ago, however, she returned to the Christian faith she was raised in (Catholic in particular), and has published two books in a four book project which will comprise an extended biography of Jesus. This article quotes her as saying, "My objective is simple: It's to write books about our Lord living on Earth that make him real to people who don't believe in him; or people who have never really tried to believe in him." Here's a podcast interview with her about her memoir.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The heavens declare

The Cassini spacecraft, in orbit around Saturn, recently took multiple close-up shots of Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons. Take a look. Beautiful.