Cultural Belief

USA_EarthThere’s a common atheist objection to Christian belief that goes like this: “You just accept Christianity because you were born in America. If you’d been born in India, you’d likely be Hindu.” Well, statistically, that’s a strong possibility. But do you see any problems with this as an objection to the tenets of Christianity? First and foremost, it doesn’t address the truth claim of Christianity. Regardless of statistics, is Christianity true or not? Well, the atheist assumption here is that all religions are equally false, so they don’t actually address the only question that really matters. But if we’re trying to see if one of those religions isn’t false, then that’s a bad assumption from which to start. Secondly, the origin of our beliefs does not refute the truth of the proposition. The idea that it does is called the genetic fallacy. We can believe a true statement for bad reasons, and we can believe a false statement for what appeared to be very good reasons. Moreover, let’s turn the scenario around for a moment. The Soviets and Red China mandated atheistic education in their schools. We could just as easily say that a Chinese or Russian atheist is such only because of the culture he grew up in. Again, there would be a statistically higher probability of a person being an atheist in a country where that’s all that was taught in the schools, but it is certainly not a foregone conclusion. Clearly, it does not follow that the American Christian, the Indian Hindu, or the Russian atheist hold those beliefs only because of where they were raised. In fact, the atheists typically saying this are western, having grown up in the US where atheism is a minority view among the general population. So by their own existence as atheists, they show that the predominant culture does not determine what we believe.

Let’s look at this a little more in a different light. Suppose two people live in two different cultures that each have a certain belief about the roundness or flatness of the earth. Suppose the “Flatters” culture instructs their citizens from their youth up that the earth is flat, while the “Rounders” culture likewise instructs their citizens that the earth is – you guessed it – round. However, regardless of what either culture tells their eager young students, the earth actually is a certain shape, objectively. It may be flat, or a sphere, or some completely different shape that neither culture had considered (Ringworld, anyone?). Even if one’s culture consistently said the world is flat, you could still freely reject that false knowledge, right? Meanwhile,¬† if that young citizen of our imaginary realm of Rounder only believed the earth is round simply because of his culture, he doesn’t have an issue with knowledge, but with epistemology. The knowledge (i.e. “the earth is round”) is correct. It’s his epistemology – the justification for his belief – that may be lacking (i.e. “I believe the earth is round because my culture told me so and I’ve never looked for any supporting evidence”). This is why the apostle Peter tells us Christians to be able to give the reason for the hope that we have.[1] Knowing the “what” is great (for the one in the know), but understanding the “why” behind it is how you help others accept the truth you already know.

Now, if I grow up in a Christian culture, I have been given a “shortcut” to true knowledge that someone growing up in another culture might not have. This is similar to knowing that the earth is round when they think it’s flat. I have a head start compared to them, but my having a shortcut or head start doesn’t invalidate the knowledge I have a shortcut to. This brings a significant responsibility, though. Will I leave others to grope in the dark for the truth, as Paul described,[2] while I relax, content in my knowledge? To quote Paul again, “May it never be!” My friend, if you are a skeptic that’s used that objection leading off today’s post, I encourage you to set aside this shallow objection and dig deeper. And if you talk to Christians who can’t answer your question, don’t be content with that. Keep asking. Relentlessly pursue truth. If you’re a Christian reading this, know that you’ve been given a blessing not to be wasted or taken lightly. You, too, must dig deep to be ready to answer the tough questions when they come. I can’t say I’ve worked out all the answers myself, but I welcome the company of both skeptic and fellow believer on this expedition as we dig for gems of truth. ūüôā

“And Jesus said, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; nobody comes to the Father but through Me.” – John 14:6

[1] 1 Peter 3:15, ESV.
[2] Acts 17:26-27, NASB.

Portraits of Christians – Leonhard Euler

Leonhard_Euler - portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.
Leonhard_Euler – portrait by Jakob Emanuel Handmann, 1753.

In a time when our culture wants to denigrate Christians as stupid, backwards, anti-intellectual cretins opposed to science, I’d like to refresh our culture’s¬† memory with some portraits of some of the phenomenal, ground-breaking people who helped our science – and our society – advance. Not only did these people happen to be Christians, their beliefs were quite often foundational to their achievements.

The name Leonhard Euler (pronounced “oiler”) may not be a household name, but it is one familiar to many engineers. The Euler-Bernoulli Beam theory he developed with his friend Daniel Bernoulli became a cornerstone of structural engineering, and we still use the “Euler buckling stress” in column compression calculations 2 centuries after he died.¬† But his contributions to engineering were only a small part of his amazing r√©sum√©. Besides being considered one of the greatest mathematicians of all time and the top mathematician of the 1700’s, he also advanced the fields of physics, astronomy, and logic. If you’ve ever seen the symbol “e” (the base of the natural logarithm) on a calculator, you’ve seen one of 2 mathematical constants named after him (the only mathematician with that distinction). In math, he contributed to the fields of calculus, geometry, algebra, graph theory, and number theory. Science historian Carl Boyer compared the impact of his book on mathematical functions to Euclid’s Elements; Euclid’s being the foremost textbook of ancient times, and Euler’s the foremost of modern times. He won the Paris Academy’s Prize Problem (an international problem-solving competition of the 1700’s) 12 times. He extended Newton’s laws of particle motion to include rigid bodies. In logic, he came up with the graphical representation of a syllogism now known as an Euler diagram. Much of our math notation (such as the Greek letter ő£ for summation) is due to him. If you’ve taken a math class anywhere between junior high and grad school, any general physics class, or any of several different engineering courses, you’ve been helped by (or, depending on your perspective, been tortured by) Euler’s analytical brilliance. Although the term isn’t used much anymore, Euler was a true “polymath” – one with expertise in a wide variety of subjects.

His credentials as a genius are unquestionable. And yet, he was also a devout Christian. He pushed the boundaries of math and science, and yet never felt that science had led him away from God.¬† In fact, he wrote an impassioned “Defense of the Revelation Against the Objections of Freethinkers”, a treatise against the atheists of his day. This is a roughly 14 page work laid out in 53 paragraph-length points to build a case that true happiness is only achieved through knowing and obeying God, and that the Bible is God’s gift to us to show us how to achieve that. He postulates that the human soul is exemplified by the exercise of understanding and will; that happiness consists in the “perfection”, or betterment, of a situation; that for humans,¬† the complete happiness of their soul depends on perfecting these two faculties of the soul – understanding and will. With regard to the first, Euler proposes, “The perfection of understanding consists of the knowledge of truth, from which is simultaneously born the knowledge of good.¬† The principal aim of this knowledge is God and His works, since all other truths to which reflection can lead mankind end with the Supreme Being and His works.” Regarding the second, he says that “the will of man should submit to the will of God in all respects and with the greatest exactitude.¬† Since God is the source of all good, it is obvious that the man who wishes to bend his will in this way must necessarily be in the happiest state.”[1] He goes on to (briefly) answer a wide range of objections to why the Bible is God’s road map to lead us to Himself.

After being asked to tutor Frederick the Great’s niece, he wrote 200 letters to her explaining physics and philosophy, but also delving into his Christian knowledge as foundational premises to his understanding of the world. Note, these are not compartmentalized statements of personal faith separate from his science and philosophy lessons. For instance, in explaining about the marvels of the eye to her, which was only then just beginning to be studied in detail, he wrote, “Though we are very far short of a perfect knowledge of the subject, the little we do know of it is more than sufficient to convince us of the power and wisdom of the Creator. We discover in the structure of the eye perfections which the most exalted genius could never have imagined.”[2] This coming from a genuine genius! Ironically, two centuries after Euler recognized it, we are still learning more about the complexity and amazing design demonstrated in the human eye (see my previous post on that topic here). I could go on with several other examples of the faith of this intellectual giant, but I’ll stop here and just say that Euler was one of many great scientists through the centuries who delighted in the study of God’s creation, and clearly recognized it as such. Do you?

[1]Leonhard Euler, “Defense of the Revelation Against the Objections of Freethinkers”, c.1740’s.
[2] Leonhard Euler, Letters to a German Princess on Diverse Subjects of Natural Philosophy, “Letter XLI”, written 1768-1772.

Building Arguments, Houses, and the Universe

Home ConstructionA while back, we looked at the Teleological Argument (the argument for the existence of God from the design observed in the natural world). You can click here to review that, but today I want to unpack a one-sentence version of this case presented in the Bible. Yes, one sentence. But first, we need some background on different ways of building logical arguments. Typically, these are put forward as a deductive argument called a syllogism: two premises and a conclusion that should necessarily follow from the premises. If it does, and the terms in the premises are unambiguous, and the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Here’s a common version of the design argument in syllogistic form:

  1. Every design has a designer. (Major Premise)
  2. The universe was designed. (Minor Premise)
  3. Therefore, the universe had a designer. (Conclusion)

The typical design argument described above is called a deductive argument. Deduction uses the essential nature of something¬† to state a universal proposition and apply that with certainty to a particular case. The major premise that every design has a designer is the universal statement in the syllogism above. That is just part of the nature of design, so that will also apply to any particular object exhibiting design, even if that object is the entire universe. Because an essential characteristic applies to all members of a set, well-formed deductive arguments provide us with certainty about the conclusion. But deduction typically arrives at these universal propositions on the basis of a prior induction.[1] What’s that? Glad you asked…

Inductive arguments typically use sense perception to examine particular instances of a set of specimens and infer a general characteristic about the set. However, the inductive argument’s dependence on observing particulars means that its conclusion is never certain until we understand the essence common to all the particulars that explains why the conclusion must be so. Without that additional step of reasoning, the inductive conclusion can never be certain, only probable. [2]

Typically (for better or worse), we don’t take the time to organize our thoughts into formal inductive or deductive arguments. We take shortcuts. One very common shortcut is called argument by analogy. This is actually the most common form of inductive argument as everyone draws analogies at some point. Analogies actually combine four steps into one. That’s OK as long as the reasoning behind the shortcut is still valid. I came across a verse in the Bible that uses the analogy shortcut to condense the teleological argument into one sentence. Hebrews 3:4 tells us that “every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.” Let’s walk through the four steps together.[3]

  1.  Observation. The author observes that every particular instance of a house is the result of a builder.
  2. Induction. The author infers the universal principle that all houses require a builder.
  3. Understanding. The author understands why the universal principle is an essential and necessary part of the instances observed rather than just a coincidence. Anything which is built entails selection and assembly of parts by an agent so as to achieve an end-goal. That agent is the builder.
  4. Deduction. The author deduces an application to another instance from this universal principle. In this case, the principle of a required builder (agency), applies to “all things”, for we recognize assembly, and contingency, and purpose¬† – the signature of a builder – everywhere we look.

As in the modern teleological argument, it does not explicitly follow that God is the builder, but the author of Hebrews includes that credit in the conclusion based on the attributes of God that make Him the only possible option. While omnipotence and omniscience would be virtually required to build all things, it’s His immateriality and eternality that really make God the only logical possibility. These are the two attributes that would allow a potential builder to exist prior to the existence of space and time. For instance, even if a super-powerful, super-smart alien had the ability to design and construct a universe, as a material being, it would still require the existence of space in order to itself exist. Suppose that same alien were a truly immaterial, but non-eternal,¬† “ghost”. That might get around the dependence on space, but as best as we can determine scientifically, the universe had a definite beginning where space and time both came into existence together. Whatever begins to exist has a cause, and any potential designer constrained by time would therefore have to have a beginning along with the universe supposedly being designed by it. Shortening that law of causality to “whatever exists has a cause” is responsible for the typical misunderstanding of atheists like Richard Dawkins when they ask “Who made God?” They’re trying to demonstrate an infinite regress of causes, but forget that causality is predicated on something having a beginning. Eternality stops the infinite regress of causal events by allowing a first uncaused cause. That attribute can only be possessed by a necessary being, and there can only exist one necessary being. Therefore, God has to be the “builder” (or “designer”).

[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, Edition 3.1 (South Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2010), p.314.
[2] One exception to this is the “complete induction”, where we have examined every member of a set, and can draw an inductive¬† conclusion with certainty without recognizing the common essence.
[3] ibid., p.329-331.

Essence vs Accident

The School of Athens - Raphael (1511)
The School of Athens – Raphael (1511)

A friend hosts a video conference call of sorts each week where a guest speaker presents on a certain topic, and other participants can just listen in, submit questions or comments via a chat function, or dialogue via video with the guest speaker.[1] The guest speakers represent many different views, from Christian to atheist to Muslim, from supporting evolution to intelligent design, from pro-abortion to pro-life. It’s an interesting chance to hear a representative of an opposing view make their best case, and then open up to questions from anyone who agrees, disagrees, or is still trying to decide.

Last week’s speaker was Dr. Michael Behe, biochemistry professor at Lehigh University, and one of the more famous intelligent design proponents. In the Q&A, an atheist chemist questioned Behe at length on how to avoid false positives and false negatives when deciding something is the result of design.[2] I think that’s a fair question. For instance, if diagnosed with cancer, you wouldn’t want a false positive (being told you have cancer and going through an expensive and often painful treatment regimen unnecessarily), but you really wouldn’t want a false negative (being told the cancer was gone when it really wasn’t). Yet what I found particularly interesting was that in the course of the dialogue, the atheist revealed a determined adherence to the idea that design was only a human activity. So reluctant was he to admit even the possibility of a supernatural designer of nature, that he seemed unable to bring himself to admit the possibility of a completely natural, but alien, designer. Now, I’ve discussed design on this blog before (like here), and I used a rather cumbersome, but accurate, definition for “design”. Behe chose to use the following concise definition from “the purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details.” However one defines design, human involvement actually isn’t a specified requirement. That brings me to this week’s topic.

Why is design not necessarily limited to humans? What is it at the heart of design that helps us recognize it, regardless of source? To answer this, we need to understand a more basic question: what is required to classify something, to see different objects and recognize commonalities between them and assign them to the same universal categories? For instance, why do we put Chihuahuas and Saint Bernards in the same category of “dog”? Why group¬† pretty little redbud trees and rugged Joshua trees and majestic Giant Sequoias as “trees”? What is this abstract trait of “dogness” or “treeness” that allows us to make these groupings? In philosophy, there is the idea of essence and accident. Something’s essence (like forming branches) is that which a thing must have to be what it is (i.e. a tree). An accident is that which a thing can gain or lose and still remain what it is (i.e. greenness or redness of leaves). For example, skin color, ethnicity, physical appearance, level of intelligence, and so on are all accidental traits of humans, but none of those are what set one apart as human.

At the heart of the atheist’s objection seems to be a confusion between what is essential and what is accidental. In the case of design, there are two essential factors: choice,¬† and purpose (or a goal). A designer is one who makes choices between alternatives in order to achieve an end-goal. Whether that designer is human, alien, angel, demon, ghost, or God, the essential requirement for design is the presence of a mind capable of determining a goal and making choices to realize that goal. Notice I did not say “brain”, but rather “mind”. While a brain is a physical container and interface for a mind, an unembodied mind is certainly possible. The requirement for a mind still does not limit design to humans.

As Peter Kreeft highlights in his logic textbook, “the most important act of abstraction is the one by which we abstract the essential from the accidental.”[3] But the atheist in this case is only seeing the accidentals, the particular instances of design carried out by humans, and failing to abstract that out to the universal aspects of design that make it design regardless of who’s doing it. In saying that we can only infer human design from seeing something that appears designed, he is effectively hamstringing science. By the same logic, he could say that because he has only ever seen Bob design something, the claim that John also designed something is unsubstantiated. Yet the goal of science is to expand our knowledge beyond what we are already familiar with. We do that by observation of particulars, abstraction to universals, and application of those universals to new particulars. In this case, rather than saying that we can only infer human design from having observed humans designing, we proceed as follows: a) we observe humans designing many things, b) every case observed involved an agent making choices to achieve a goal, c) therefore, a Martian artifact exhibiting these traits could indicate the presence of a Martian designer at some point. Likewise, the presence of these essential design traits in biological systems in humans would justify the idea that a necessarily non-human designer was the cause of any design found in humans. Does that have implications that run contrary to atheist preferences? It does. But we must follow the evidence wherever it leads, even – no, especially – if that leads to our Creator.

[1] Jonathan McLatchie’s Apologetics Academy. Click here for archived videos of past presentations on his Youtube channel.
[2] Click here for the Behe Presentation. The dialogue with the atheist begins at about 54 minutes in & goes for 26 minutes.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, IN, edition 3.1), pp. 34-43, 110.

Ex Nihilo

Hubble Telescope - Cluster of massive stars in Tarantula Nebula
Hubble Telescope – Cluster of massive stars in Tarantula Nebula

When we speak of God’s act of creation, we speak of “ex nihilo” creation. If you’re Latin’s a little rusty, “ex nihilo” means “out of nothing”; so we are talking about God creating the universe out of nothing. But is that just nonsense? What about the idea that “out of nothing, nothing comes”? You might remember Julie Andrews singing something similar in The Sound of Music, (“…Nothing comes from nothing / Nothing ever could…”), but that’s actually a much older idea that dates back to the ancient Greeks, who believed in an eternal universe. Were they right? Let’s investigate that.

There are some prerequisite propositions that need to be understood. We propose first that God exists “necessarily”, and second, that nothing else does. This then requires creation out of nothing. What do these propositions mean, and what warrant do we have for them? Necessary existence means that God is not contingent, that there is no possible time or place, no “possible world” or alternate dimension, where God does not exist. Even in a scenario where there were no universe, God would still exist. You and I, however, are contingent. The world was moving along fine before we arrived and will keep right on going long after we’re gone. In fact, all of humanity – all of life – is contingent. On this, Christians and atheists can agree. While we claim to know how life first arose (based on the revelation from God, the author of life, in the Bible), atheists continue to search for a naturalistic mechanism to explain abiogenesis (life arising from nonlife). So we agree that life didn’t always exist. But matter, energy, space, and time are a different story.

That brings us to our second proposition: there can only be one necessary existence, whether that’s a being, or a force, or an object. Everything else is contingent on that one, whether directly or indirectly through a long chain of dependencies. If a second something could necessarily exist, then the first necessary existence wouldn’t really be… well, necessary. For both the Christian and the atheist, there is ultimately no escape from the Law of Causality. Cause and effect invariably has to lead back to a necessary, uncaused first cause – that is, something without beginning, or eternal. For everything that has a beginning must have a cause. For the Christian, that first cause is obviously God. God has power, knowledge, the ability to choose, and transcends space and time. God is therefore easily eligible to be considered a first cause.

For the atheist, however, there are some serious complications. If “out of nothing, nothing comes,” then something has to be eternal. Before the Big Bang was proposed, this was assumed to be the universe. But now we have roughly a century of scientific confirmation that the universe can’t fulfill that role.¬† Whatever your thoughts on the Big Bang theory and the age of the universe currently assigned to it, one thing it won’t let us say is that the universe is static, and therefore eternal. The universe is a material thing – planets, comets, asteroids, stars, interstellar dust, and so forth. These things exist in space and time. But now we understand that space and time are tied together and both had a definite beginning point. It’s not that matter came into existence in an eternal empty universe; it’s that there was no space for matter to occupy until that singularity called the Big Bang (or Creation).¬† It’s hard to have a materialistic origin of the universe when it’s impossible for material to exist. More recent attempts to postulate a “multiverse” of universes are ultimately only semantics that simply kick the proverbial can down the road. Likewise, appeals to matter coming into existence from “fluctuations in quantum vacuum fields” assume there is still some space for these fields to exist, but at the origin of the universe, space doesn’t exist yet.

Despite the varied confirmations that the universe had a beginning at some kind of singularity, scientists have struggled to postulate a purely materialistic origin scenario for that singularity. The laws of physics appear to break down at that point. Any potential traces of prior material existence (like a cyclical universe) are completely obliterated in the singularity. Even if a purely natural origin of the universe were true, it could never be scientifically proven because there’s no way to observe any evidence of what led up to that moment. This puts the atheist in the awkward position of having to trust in the hope that science will “someday” find evidence for what appears to be an untestable, unfalsifiable¬† gamble against God as Creator. This sounds like the “blind faith” that atheists often accuse Christians of having….

But what of the alternative? Does God, as described in the Bible, match what we see in nature? We see from science that time and space had to be caused by something outside of time and space. The Bible tells us that God is both immaterial and eternal.[1] Science tells us that time and space both had a beginning. The Bible tells us that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”[2] Why does it just say “in the beginning”? Because time did not exist prior to that; it really was the beginning of time. So, can something come from nothing? Yes, science points us to this conclusion as the time-space continuum comes into existence at the cosmic singularity commonly known as the Big Bang. The Bible tells us that God is He who “calls into being that which does not exist.“[3] The critical distinction here is that while something can come into existence from nothing, it can’t come into existence by nothing. Everything that has a beginning must have a cause, including the universe. And the only answer that makes sense of what we observe is God.

[1] John 4:24, NASB; Titus 1:2, NIV.
[2] Genesis 1:1, NASB.
[3] Romans 4:17, NASB.