Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thought of the Day

Three things about heaven:
The popcorn will taste as good as it smells.
The coffee will taste as good as it smells.
The pizza will taste as good as it always has.

But who made God?

This post is based on a thread I started at the Quodlibeta forum. Many cosmological arguments (not all) argue that everything that begins to exist must have a cause -- this is basically the principle of causality. But this chain of causality cannot be extended infinitely into the past for two reasons: 1) an infinite amount cannot exist in reality; therefore there must be a first cause that by definition is not the effect of a previous cause itself. 2) We have empirical evidence that the universe itself began to exist (Big Bang cosmology) and is therefore finite; therefore there must be something that exists independently of the universe that brought it into existence. In both cases we end up with something that sounds an awful lot like God.

The objection of some atheists is to ask, "Well then who created God? If everything requires a cause, then God would require a cause too right?"

The response to this should be obvious. Cosmological arguments do not claim that everything that exists requires a cause because there's simply nothing about sheer existence that would require a cause. What philosophers have claimed is that everything that begins to exist requires a cause. It's the "beginning" part that brings causality into play, not the "existing" part. So when we say that "Being does not arise from non-being," the focus is not on the "being" but on the "arising"; it's the latter that necessitates a cause, not the former.

The objection may then be put the other way around: "If God doesn't require a cause, why does the universe? Why couldn't the universe be this first cause?" Again, the response should be obvious: because it began to exist. That's the argument. Of course, you could claim that the argument fails or present an argument of your own that the universe didn't really begin to exist. But to simply say, "Well if God doesn't require a cause, why does the universe?" just ignores the argument that has been presented. It certainly doesn't answer it.

Thus, this objection is a complete straw man. It's a misstatement of the claims being made, a misstatement made in order to raise a bogus objection to certain cosmological arguments. The fact that otherwise brilliant people (such as Bertrand Russell) think this is a good objection only demonstrates that they didn't even hear the argument in the first place.

The reason "Who then created God?" is not a good objection is because the cosmological argument already addresses that issue. The whole point of these arguments is that there must be a cause that is not an effect of a previous cause itself. To ask why this first cause is this way is to ignore the argument that has just been made that this first cause is this way. Of course, showing that something is the case is not the same thing as showing why it is the case. (I would argue that one can answer the "why" question, but that's another issue.) But the atheist is claiming -- at least with this objection -- that unless the argument proves why something is the case, it doesn't prove that it's the case. This is obviously false.

So, for example, I could say that the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter equals pi (in Euclidean space). I could then prove this mathematically. The atheist objection would be "Why should this ratio equal pi?" The answer would be, "It does. Here's the proof again." The atheist would then object "Your mathematical proof doesn't explain why this ratio equals pi." And again, the answer would be, "It does equal pi. Here's the proof again." "But why should it be this way?" "It is this way. Here's the proof again." Etc. It reminds me of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin balks at his math homework. You put two numbers together and they magically become some third number. No one can say how or why it happens, you just have to accept it on faith. "As a math atheist, I should be excused from this."

So when an atheist asks why God should be excused from having to have a cause, the answer is simply to repeat the argument, which (allegedly) demonstrates that there must be a first cause that does not have a cause itself. Perhaps the argument fails to demonstrate this, but the objection that God would then require a cause doesn't even address it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Pre-Darwinian Evolution

Humphrey has a great post up on creationism and evolution. One of his points is something that I've mentioned on this blog before: the doctrine of rationes seminales. This was a position that apparently originated with the ancient Stoics and was picked up by many Christian writers. The idea, at least as the Christians understood it, is that God created the world in seed-form, or with certain potentialities, which then developed or unfolded accordingly. Obviously this is very similar to evolution. Rationes seminales was accepted by such ancient and medieval Christian writers as Athenagoras, Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, and Roger Bacon. Since such Christian luminaries accepted that the world and its elements developed over time, it becomes obvious that evolution is not at all incompatible with Christianity.

Another point I've made before is something C. S. Lewis brings up in his book The Discarded Image and some essays like "The Funeral of a Great Myth." Lewis argues that, prior to Darwin, there was widespread belief in a sort of developmentalism, according to which the universe and life in particular were progressively becoming "better." Wagner's Ring Cycle is an example of this. This view permeated 18th and 19th century culture, so that when the theory of evolution came along, it was perceived by many as proof of it (although, obviously, this view -- as well as that of rationes seminales -- is teleological whereas Darwinian evolution is not). This developmentalism didn't have a specifically Christian connotation to it, as it tended to disparage the ancients and medievals as intellectually inferior. Lewis's point is that evolution wasn't accepted in Western society purely because of the scientific evidence for it, but because it accorded with the already accepted view of progress or improvement. He doesn't intend this to challenge the validity of evolution, but simply to point out that there was more in play than scientific evidence.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Why I Love the Internet, part 4

The Practice of the Presence of God. A spiritual classic by Brother Lawrence. I have to admit, it makes me a little uncomfortable because it could easily be seen as inventing an imaginary friend. I don't want to pretend that God is with me, I want him to actually be with me, and for me to be aware of it. But then I remember what Dallas Willard wrote in Hearing God:

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.

So, basically, I see The Practice of the Presence of God as a spiritual discipline: something that prepares me to receive God. He still has to act in order for me to receive him.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Spiral car jump

Here's a scene from the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. It's not a very good movie (I never liked Roger Moore's Bond) and it's completely absurd to try to pretend that a jump like this could have been done off the cuff. But it's the most amazing car stunt I've ever seen.

The ridiculous slide whistle almost ruins it. Here's another shot of the jump without it.

And here's a clip of a few other cars doing the same thing. The head-on shot from 0:18 to 0:44 just blows me away.

There are a few articles and blogposts online that have some interesting detail about this stunt and the people who did it. See here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Related to evil

The mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the killers at Columbine High School, has written an essay about it that will appear in the next Oprah magazine. Here's an article about the article. I can't imagine going through what she has. When I hear about some atrocity like this, I always pray for the families of the perpetrators as well as the victims. To hear about a shooting taking place where your child is, hoping and praying that he or she is safe, and then being told that your child was the murderer is just ... "unimaginable" is not a strong enough word. The child you bore, nursed, taught how to catch a ball and ride a bicycle -- that child chose to commit one of the most evil acts a human being can commit. That he or she became a monster. To know that if there is a hell, the child you cradled and comforted is near the front of the line.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Evolution and Atheism

Here's something else I wrote about a month ago and then forgot about. Jim Manzi has two posts (on two different sites) on whether evolution requires atheism. Short answer: no. See here and here.


Posting may be spotty, I'm having some 'puter problems. I have two computers, and they both crashed at the same time.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The perception of violence

Living in Europe, I'm very familiar with the perception that America is violent. So I found this article interesting. I was going to post it a few months ago, but I got sidetracked and forgot about it. Here are the stats they report on violent crimes per 100,000 residents, focusing primarily on Western Europe (it isn't exhaustive):

UK: 2034
Austria: 1677
South Africa: 1609
Sweden: 1123
Belgium: 1006
Canada: 935
Finland: 738
Netherlands: 676
Luxembourg: 575
France: 504
USA: 466
So, if these numbers are correct, the United States has a violent crime rate lower than a fourth of Great Britain's, lower than half of Belgium's (where I live), and almost exactly half of Canada's.

Two caveats: 1) I want to know how each of these countries defines "violent crime" before accepting these statistics. I wouldn't be surprised if the definitions varied significantly from country to country. I've heard that the USA has a higher murder rate than Canada, so it would be very unusual if Canada has an overall rate of violent crime that's double that of the States. 2) To accept these statistics would be to trust a) government and b) the popular press. I'm a little suspicious.

If these numbers are correct, though, I can think of several causes for the (alleged) misperception that America is more violent: 1) America has a population of over 300 million people, so it has a larger number of violent crimes than countries with significantly smaller populations. But this is obviously not a fair measure of how violent America is, because all of these other countries have (according to the article) a higher rate of violent crime. If their populations were equal to America's, their number of violent crimes would be much higher. 2) It may be (I really have no idea) that America has a higher rate of particular types of violent crimes that most people consider the most violent. So maybe the US has a higher rate of murder, but a lower rate of armed robbery. However, this is just speculation on my part. 3) America is founded on the complete rejection of the proverb "Don't air your dirty laundry in public." When something bad happens in the States, I hear about it over here. When something comparably bad happens over here, it generally does not receive as much attention. Not even close. 4) Movies, TV, and the mainstream media portray the US as extremely violent, and for many non-Americans, these media are their only exposure to the US. 5) Simple, pure, unadulterated anti-Americanism.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A new crater

I've mentioned NASA's plans to crash a probe onto the Moon in order to analyze the dust cloud it kicks up for water a few times. Today they did it. No news yet on the water, but has a bunch of articles and videos on it. Start here.

Update (12 Oct): No word on whether the probe kicked up any water, but they have found water ice on an asteroid. It looks like water is everywhere. Now I'm all thirsty.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Christianity, Islam, and Science

Here are a couple of important books available online that contrast the Bible and the Qur'an. The first is The Bible, the Qur'an and Science by Maurice Bucaille, a medical doctor, who argues that while the Bible has numerous scientific and historical mistakes, the Qur'an is free of such errors. Originally written in French, it has been translated into many languages.

In response to Bucaille's book, William Campbell, also a medical doctor, wrote The Qur'an and the Bible in the Light of History and Science where he argues that precisely the opposite is the case: the Bible not only contains no scientific errors, it actually predicts scientific discoveries. He references Hugh Ross a few times in defense of this. The Qur'an, however, makes many claims that have been disproved by contemporary science. It can be read online in several languages, including Arabic, French, Indonesian, and (fortunately) English.

I have both books on my shelf, and find Bucaille to be reading things into the Bible and the Qur'an that aren't there; and the things he reads into the Bible just happen to be falsehoods while the things he reads into the Qur'an just happen to be truths. If he applied the same standards to the Bible that he does to the Qur'an it would pass with flying colors; conversely if he applied the same standards to the Qur'an that he does to the Bible he would dismiss it as riddled with error. Campbell eviscerates Bucaille. Even though his book has a very particular target -- not only is it focused on contrasting the two holy books and religions, but it is a point-by-point response to another book -- I think it's one of the best books on Christian apologetics that I've ever read. Anyway, I recommend reading both books before drawing your own conclusions.

Let me make two caveats: first, both Bucaille and Campbell are skeptical of biological evolution, however I don't think this affects their respective cases. Campbell only mentions it briefly in a "short chapter without a number" and Bucaille discusses it in another book L'Homme D'Ou Vient-il? Les Reponses de la Science et des Écritures Saintes. Other than this, they both accept the findings of contemporary science.

Second, it should be noted that in comparing these two religions both books tend to take the easy route by applying a sort of one-to-one correspondence between their respective elements. So the Qur'an is contrasted with the Bible, and Muhammad is contrasted with Jesus. This is certainly understandable; it's just easier to compare their holy books with each other and ditto for their founders. But this inevitably applies categories of one of them to the other that do not hold, resulting in inappropriate comparisons.

For example, Christianity believes that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. But no Muslim would say this of Muhammad; rather, they would say this of the Qur'an itself. So in contrasting these two religions, we should be comparing Jesus with the Qur'an, not Jesus with Muhammad. Obviously this creates even worse problems, because now we have to compare two unlike things (a person and a book).

So if Muhammad is not to Islam what Christ is to Christianity, how does Islam depict Muhammad? In Islamic theology, Muhammad is the means through which God's ultimate revelation comes. So any comparison of these two religions should look for something in Christianity to which such a description could apply. I've seen two possibilities suggested.

The first is the Bible, since it is, in a sense, the "messenger" through which we hear about Jesus. However, it should also be noted that the Bible is often called God's Word, although in a different sense than Jesus is (we shouldn't worship the Bible, for example). This has some interesting consequences. My wife and I know a young lady from Turkey who was raised a Muslim but rejected it after reading the Qur'an. Once, when the three of us were discussing the nature of Islam and Christianity, I pointed out to her that there are plenty of Christians who do not accept the inerrancy of the Bible (that is, that the Bible's original manuscripts were completely true in everything that they actually affirmed). In fact, I told her that C. S. Lewis, one of the 20th century's most-read Christian authors, rejected biblical inerrancy, and not only was he still a Christian, he was a fairly traditional Christian. And not only was he a traditional Christian, he was a champion for Christianity. I told her that I didn't think a Muslim could believe that the Qur'an may have errors and still be a traditional Muslim. She responded that such a person couldn't be a Muslim in any sense (although some people, like Irshad Manji, might disagree).

The other Christian parallel to Islam's Muhammad that I've seen suggested is Jesus' mother Mary. Christianity has always had a very high view of Mary, since she was considered worthy of such an incredible blessing (and curse) of being the mother of the Messiah. Sometimes respect for Mary has led to her being venerated. This is similar (to some extent) to the Islamic veneration of Muhammad.

I don't think it's inappropriate to try to understand other religions in light of one's own religion. But we have to first understand other religions on their own terms before we can compare them to our own. Otherwise, we will inevitably end up critiquing a straw man.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The best chocolatier in Belgium

is Tartufo in Leuven (Fr: Louvain). Louis Melsensstraat 14, off the Bondgenotenlaan. Just in case you were wondering. Here's a map. The man is an artist.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Some Issues in NT Historiography, part 1

While many positive arguments can be (and are) made to support the general reliability of New Testament history, many of the arguments put forth by Christianity’s detractors are more concerned with a priori reasons why we should be suspicious of its historical claims. Probably the most obvious example of this is the question of whether miracles can be upheld as historical explanations, or even more basically, whether miracles can ever happen at all. A lot of modern historical scholarship is based on the assumption that they cannot.

However, this is not a historical claim about what has happened, it is a philosophical claim about what can happen and what can be allowed into our theories. Unfortunately, most scholars in this field have little to no philosophical training, so this assumption against miracles is more of a reflection of modern academic culture than the result of philosophical analysis. It is, essentially, a bias, dating back to Hume, that any naturalistic explanation is more likely than a supernatural one. A few points should be made about this.

First, why are miracles so improbable? As Kreeft and Tacelli (two philosophers) put it in Handbook of Christian Apologetics, "They are certainly unusual, but how do we know whether they are likely to happen or not? Only if we have already decided whether or not it is likely that God exists -- or that he would ever work a miracle. In that case, calling miracles ‘maximally improbable’ is not a neutral description: it stacks the deck against them." No one has ever produced a reason why, if God exists, he would be unwilling or unable to perform a miracle. So unless we can be absolutely certain that God does not exist, miracles are possible. And if miracles are possible it’s neither valid nor honest to blindly assume a priori that they’ve never occurred.

Moreover, a miracle can be perceived by the senses like any other event and thus can be supported by historical testimony. Because of this, testimony to a miracle is not nullified by the regular order of events. As William Lane Craig, another philosopher, writes in Reasonable Faith,

Of course, a historian could be so deeply prejudiced in favor of naturalism that he resolutely refuses to accept any miraculous hypothesis. But that is just a fact of psychology, which does not undermine the objectivity of history, any more than does the case of a Marxist historian who shuts his eyes to un-economic causes of historical development or a Confederate historian who refuses to acknowledge any responsibility of the South in bringing on the Civil War.

As a result of this bias, when certain scholars examine the historical evidence with regard to the resurrection of Jesus, some of them start by presupposing it couldn’t possibly have happened. As such, their conclusions that "therefore, it didn’t happen" are hopelessly circular. In Jesus Under Siege philosopher Gregory Boyd writes,

The obvious question that we must be asking ourselves through all of this is, why do these scholars assume that God could not have become a human being and that divinely inspired miracles cannot occur? On what basis can they be so confident about what can and cannot happen in history? By what means do they come to know so much about God and the nature of the world that they can confidently pronounce, prior to any investigation of the evidence, that God has never intervened into the world!? Wouldn’t you have to be God Himself to know this?

I think that part of the problem is that any miraculous explanation of an event is automatically considered to be ad hoc. The more a theory goes beyond what is known, the more ad hoc, or contrived, it is. But "miraculous" and "ad hoc" are not synonyms.

This was demonstrated to me in a debate between Craig and Robert Greg Cavin on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Cavin acknowledges that the historical evidence proves that Jesus was killed and buried, that the tomb was found empty a few days later, and that many people experienced what they understood to be appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. However, Cavin doesn’t accept the resurrection of Jesus as the best explanation of these facts: rather, he believes it’s more plausible that Jesus had an evil twin (no joke). They were separated at birth when one of the identical twins was switched with the baby to which Mary had given birth. Immediately after Jesus was killed, the twin just happened to arrive in Jerusalem and, learning of the events, decided to steal Jesus’ body and impersonate his long lost brother. This theory is ridiculously ad hoc in that there is virtually no evidence in support of it, and Cavin has to suggest more and more outrageous tidbits in order to plug all of the holes in it. There is no reason to think that Jesus had an identical twin brother; there is no reason to think that Mary wasn’t Jesus’ biological mother; there is no reason to think that Jesus and his twin would have grown up and lived geographically separated from each other; there is no reason to think that Jesus’ twin would have arrived in Jerusalem at exactly the time when Jesus was crucified; etc. There’s also blatant inconsistencies in this scenario: the twin would have to be ethical enough to want to continue Jesus’ work and teaching, but unethical enough to want to hoax the resurrection. He would have to be brilliant enough to have the idea occur to him (Jesus’ resurrection contradicted fundamental Jewish categories of thought) and moronic enough to want to impersonate someone who had just been condemned by the Jews as a blasphemer, and executed by the Romans for treason. Obviously, Cavin’s theory is completely contrived and ad hoc. By way of contrast, the only extra supposition we have to make to accept the resurrection is that a God capable of doing it exists -- and since most people already believe in God, this wouldn’t be an additional supposition.

Some also get nervous that any miraculous event would demonstrate that we live in a capricious universe, since any miracle would supposedly be an entirely arbitrary act of God. But, of course, this is false. With regards to Jesus’ resurrection, for example, the Messianic expectation of the Jewish people, the uniqueness of Jesus’ life, and the relevance that it has for one of the most fundamental aspects of human experience (death) makes it about as far removed from caprice and arbitrariness as anything could be.

Update (15 Feb 2010): See also part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.