Saturday, November 05, 2005

Math in Tennessee

I'll be leaving tomorrow for Murfreesboro, TN, home of Middle Tennessee State University. On Monday I will be speaking to the Math Department on the subject of “Cheeger Constants in Combinatorics and Geometry.” It promises to be a scintillating, edge-of-your-seat affair, so feel free to drop by.

I'll arrive back in Harrisonburg on Tuesday afternoon, at which time I will go down to my local polling station and vote for Tim Kaine for Governor. He's the Democrat - surprise! Regular blogging will then resume.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Heddle on Apologetics

Over at He Lives, David Heddle offers this creepy post about Christian apologetics. Apologetics is the branch of theology devoted to proving the various truth claims of Christianity.

Heddle writes:

Apologetics is the discipline of defending your faith, using logic and reason. It is helping people know what they believe and why they believe it. It is an intellectual defense of the truth of the claims of the Christian faith. However, as a defense, it is not merely defensive, it is also offensive; the proactive construction of a case for Christianity, not just a reactive defense against assaults.

For the average Christian it means this: learn sound doctrine, and learn how to support it biblically. It can be viewed this way:

  1. Have a way to defend biblical inerrancy. It won’t (and can’t) convince someone who has not been moved by the Spirit (1 Cor. 1:18). Nevertheless, we should be able to do more than simply say “I just believe it.”

  2. Be able to defend and demonstrate that the bible does in fact teach what we claim to hold as our beliefs. Does the bible teach that if homosexuals are born that way, God would surely never punish them for it? Prove it. Does it, instead, teach that God will in fact punish not only homosexuals but everyone else, not in spite of but because of how they are born (unless they are saved)?, prove it.

My exposure to Christian apologetics came during the years I spent in Kansas. While there I listened to the local Christian radio station on virtually a daily basis, often for several hours at a time. Defending Christianity was one of the most popular sermon topics (bashing evolution was not far behind). Their preachers were constantly offering litanies of arguments for how we can be sure that Jesus was God, that He died on the cross for our sins and was resurrected three days later and all the rest.

The phrase “... helping people know what they believe and why they believe it,” was one I heard over and over again on the radio. Personally, I wouldn't know how to believe something without also knowing why I believe it. The prevalence of this phrase in discussions of apologetics paints a dim view of a large segment of modern Christianity. The implication is that large numbers of people are describing themselves as Christians without really understanding Christianity, and without having any basis in logic or reason for accepting its claims as accurate.

Equally creepy is Heddle's first numbered point above. He instructs his readers to have a way to defend Biblical inerrancy, but then says no such argument will convince a person who has not been moved by the Spirit. That's a pretty stark admission that there is no good argument for Biblical inerrancy. The fact is that if Christians had any good arguments to make in defense of Biblical inerrancy, those arguments would be persuasive to an open-minded person.

What role are these arguments playing if they must be supplemented with divine intervention before they seem persuasive? If I am moved by the Spirit to accept Christianity, why would I need a logical argument to go along with it? Apparently, Heddle is concerned simply with his readers having talking points to spew when confronted by a skeptic. How is simply saying “I just believe it,” different from saying, “The Spirit has moved me to believe these things, and here's an unperusasive argument I learned how to say.”

Heddle closes his essay with this:

Spurgeon’s lion—is it then just a paper lion? Profoundly no. Spurgeon was wrong in assuming that scripture was its own apologetic. Scripture’s power comes not in proving that God exists, but in its revelation about the God it assumes. Once God is proven to be true, independent of scripture, and scripture is proven to be the word of God, then the Spirit makes the word come to life in the hearts of men.

The reference here is to preacher Charles Spurgeon, who, Heddle informs us, took a dim view of apologetics.

This seems to contradict what Heddle said previously. There we heard that before you can be persuaded by rational arguments you must first be moved by the Spirit. Here he is saying that after you are convinced by “proof” that God exists and that the Bible is His word, then the Spirit will start working in your life.

The Christian radio station I listened to never said anything about having to be moved by the Spirit before being convinced by the arguments of Christian apologists. Their attitude was quite the opposite. The arguments they were making were supposed to be persuasive to everyone independent of their starting point.

One of their heroes was Lee Strobel, who seemed to be on every other day. In books like The Case for Faith and The Case for Christ, Strobel was fond of telling people about how he was an atheist for much of his life. He worked as a journalist, and was moved by his Christian wife to take a journalist's approach to the evidence for Christianity. Strobel recounts how he began the project with the intention of refuting Christianity, only to find the evidence was simply too convincing the other way.

If Christianity will only seem plausible to you if you first put yourself in a highly suggestive state of mind, then I would suggest that apologetics is, indeed, a waste of time.

Incidentally, have a look at this article about Strobel, from Hour of Power ministries:

Lee Strobel wasn’t always a believer. As an investigative journalist specializing in legal issues at the Chicago Tribune, he said he was an atheist living a not so wonderful life. Then, in the fall of 1979, his wife became a Christian after being invited by a friend to a church.

“It was really the positive changes I saw in her character and values that prompted me to start intensively investigating the evidence for Jesus,” Strobel says. In January of 1980, he began what would become a nine-month investigation of the evidence proving that Jesus is the Son of God.

I mention this because in the comments to this previous post I wrote:

In fact, as I understand Christiantiy, one of the ways I, as an nonbeliever, am supposed to come around to the belief that Chrisitanity is true is by observing Christians. I'm supposed to be able to see that they have something I want, and currently lack. Call it contentment, or inner peace, or whatever.

Heddle replied with:

No, that is not true. You have to be born again. That is, first you have to be regenerated, and then you will begin to seek God; It is never the other way around. You will never, ever become a Christian by observing Christians. You don't talk yourself into Christianity. You don't “come around” to Christianity, You are “drawn” in by God (John 6:44), not by other Christians (the Greek word translated as “drawn” is translated elsewhere as “dragged” and means “compelled by irresistible force.”

In Strobel's case it seems that my description of things was accurate.

And if the only way I will ever become a Christian is if God draws me in to it, then I can only ask why He has not chosen to so draw me thus far. It is not as if I haven't been doing my part. I have sought Him in every way I know how, and with every ounce of sincerity I possess. Apparently, it's not enough.

There seem to be some theological problems with Heddle's position. It implies that the enormous number of lost people in the world are in that state because of some lack of action on God's part. I don't htink any of my Christian friends would take Heddle's side in this.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Happy Birthday!

I'm sure the name Mark Perakh will be familiar to anyone interested in the evolution/ID issue. He is a contributor to The Panda's Thumb and author of Unintelligent Design, which is required reading for anyone interested in this issue. He is a retired physics professor living in California.

Mark turns 81 today, and I'd like to wish him a very happy birthday. Ed Brayton provides some further details of his remarkable life:

He was born in the Soviet Union shortly after the revolution that swept the communists into power. He fought in World War 2, finished his PhD, refused to work on the Soviet nuclear weapons project and was put in prison, and later managed to escape his homeland and come to the US. Is it any wonder that he gets a little miffed when he sees the likes of Dembski casually throwing around comparisons of pro-evolution scientists as "Stalinists", having lived through the Stalinist purges and languished in a gulag?

In an email to the PT contributors (a couple of them just finishing their PhD programs) yesterday, he recounted how he wrote the dissertation for his first PhD while sitting on a bench in a public garden on Odessa, still wearing his WWII army uniform. I think it reminds us all of how good we have it. Most of the greatest traumas of our lives are the result of our own bad decisions. Yet here is a man who endured unimaginable tyranny, spent time in a gulag, fought in a war that killed 20 million of his countrymen, and somehow managed to remain hopeful and sane. This is a life to be celebrated and admired. Happy Birthday, Mark. May there be many more to come.


Ed points out in an update that, actually, Mark was imprisoned in Khrushchev's gulag, not Stalin's. Hardly changes the principle, though.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Franken States it Plain

I just finished reading Al Franken's excellent new book The Truth - With Jokes. I especially liked this paragraph:

This war cannot be about partisan politics. But for George W. Bush and Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, nothing but partisan politics exists. Man's genetic relationship to apes is a partisan political issue. The effect of atmospheric carbon on the Earth's absorption of heat from the sun is, to them, a partisan political issue. The likelihood of Terri Schiavo joining the Rockettes is a partisan political issue. And on this, the most solemn duty of a commander in chief, war, they still can't reach past politics and touch reality. They will not die in battle. Their children will not die in battle. Short of a Congress with a backbone, there is nothing that will shake them from the fantasy that they're winning this war. And that the only battle that requires attention is the battle of perception. As we lose the hearts and minds of Iraqis day after day, the White House's obsession remains the hearts and minds and future votes of Americans. (Page 263)

Well said.

There are many people in this country who think they are clever and above it all for saying that the two parties are equally bad. Those people are wrong. The Republicans are worse. Much, much worse.

I'll be interested in reading reviews of Franken's book in conservative media outlets. My prediction is that they will spend a lot of time smearing Franken as a partisan, without actually addressing any of his arguments. They will not find any significant errors of fact, though they will probably find some nits to pick. Finally, they will spend much of their space bashing Clinton.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Rolling Stone on the Dover Trial

From Rolling Stone comes this snarky take, by Matt Taibbi, on the Dover trial. The article is well worth reading, but I take issue with certain things as well.

Muise was part of the legal team donated to the defense by a group bearing the impressively pretentious name of the Thomas More Law Center, a sort of Christian version of the ACLU. The group considers itself the vanguard of the anti-Darwinist movement -- its understated slogan is “The Sword and Shield of People of Faith.”

The lawyer had come to Harrisburg with these fellow knights-errant of the anti-evolution movement to defend one of the very stupidest concepts ever to get a hearing in an American courtroom: an alternative to evolution called Intelligent Design.

The theory, called “ID” for short, posits that life on earth was simply too complex to be explained by the random and undirected natural processes described in Darwin's theories. The chief innovation of ID was that it did not call God by the name “God” but instead referred vaguely to an “intelligent designer.”

The essence of its scientific claims was that biology was just too intense, dude, to be an accident. A local columnist mocked the theory as resembling a teenage stoner looking at the back of his hand and being too amazed to deal.

Well, it doesn't get much better than that.

But I didn't care for this part:

But Muise wasn't here to win. He was here to make a point, and he made it when he started asking Alters about statements made by certain prominent scientists.

“Dr. Alters,” he said, “were you aware that Professor Steven Weinberg once said that 'I personally feel that the teaching of modern science is corrosive to religious belief, and I'm all for that!'”

“An unfortunate remark,” said Alters, shaking his head and squirming. The look on his face said, “Can we move on?”

But Muise didn't: He rattled off more quotes from prominent scientists, including one from Gould (“Before Darwin, we thought that a benevolent God had created us”) -- who, Muise noted with obvious pleasure, had once written a foreword to one of Alters' books. Alters shrugged it off, calmly sticking to his contention that evolution was not an indictment of religion.

As Alters gave his denials, Muise turned to the gallery and, for the first time that afternoon, evinced a small smile. That smile spoke volumes. It said, “At least my clients know when they're full of shit. But these eggheads . . .”

Muise had a point. His defendants and their ID theory had come under attack for an obvious reason: Just because you say in a court of law that you're not creationists doesn't make it true.

Now Muise got to say the same thing to those superior-sounding intellectuals who flew into God's country and insisted, under oath, that they weren't enemies of religion. You can yell it at us till you're blue in the face, the lawyer seemed to be saying, but we who really believe know better.

There's rather a lot wrong with that excerpt. First, Muise's clients do not know they are full of shit. They think they are wise and learned and well-informed.

More importantly, it is certainly true that some people draw anti-theistic conclusions from science. I am one of those people. But it is not evolution in particular that leads to atheism. It is a willingness to accept science as a route to reliable knowledge that does that. Science does not make it logically impossible that God exists, but it certainly makes Him seem superfluous.

But it is equally true that a great many people do not agree with me on that point. There are rather a lot of people who find their faith strengthened by their understanding of modern science. Two such people are Ken Miller and John Haught, both of whom testified at the Dover trial. For some reason Taibbi didn't mention them.

Anyway, go read the whole thing. I think there are places where Taibbi is more interested in being clever than being right, but he has a lot of interesting things to say as well.

Paulos on ID

Last week I mentioned meeting John Allen Paulos when he spoke at the University of Virginia. Now he weighs in on ID with this excellent column from the British newspaper The Guardian.

But the theory of evolution does explain the evolution of complex biological organisms and phenomena, and the argument from design, which dates from the 18th century, has been decisively refuted. Rehashing the refutation is not my goal. Those who reject evolution are usually immune to such arguments.

Rather, my intention here is to develop some loose analogies between these biological issues and related economic ones and to show that these analogies point to a surprising crossing of political lines. Let me begin by asking how it is that modern free market economies are as complex as they are, boasting amazingly elaborate production, distribution and communication systems? Go into almost any drug store and you can find your favourite candy bar. And what's true at the personal level is true at the industrial level. Somehow there are enough ball bearings and computer chips in just the right places in factories all over the country. The physical infrastructure and communication networks are also marvels of integrated complexity. Fuel supplies are, by and large, where they're needed. Email reaches you in Miami as well as in Milwaukee, not to mention Barcelona and Bangkok.

The natural question, discussed first by Adam Smith and later by Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper among others, is who designed this marvel of complexity? Which commissar decreed the number of packets of dental floss for each retail outlet? The answer, of course, is that no economic god designed this system. It emerged and grew by itself. No one argues that all the components of the candy bar distribution system must have been put into place at once, or else there would be no Snickers at the corner store.

So far, so good. What is more than a bit odd, however, is that some of the most ardent opponents of Darwinian evolution - for example, many fundamentalist Christians - are among the most ardent supporters of the free market. They accept the market's complexity without qualm, yet insist the complexity of biological phenomena requires a designer.

And later

These analogies prompt two final questions. What would you think of someone who studied economic entities and their interactions in a modern free market economy and insisted that they were, despite a perfectly reasonable and empirically supported Smithian account of their development, the consequence of some all-powerful, detail-obsessed economic law-giver? You might deem such a person a conspiracy theorist.

And what would you think of someone who studied biological processes and organisms and insisted that they were, despite an perfectly reasonable and empirically supported Darwinian account of their development, the consequence of some all-powerful, detail-obsessed biological law-giver?

Exactly right, and there's an important theological point in that last paragraph. The scientific fallacies of ID are enough to reject it, but the theological problems are even worse. Portraying God as a micromanager constantly fiddling with his creation to bring abou His desired ends is not a view of the Almighty that fits comfortably within a Christian worldview.