All posts by Jason

I am a Christian engineer with a desire to help people understand the rational basis of Christianity.

“For Such a Time as This….”

Claude_Vignon_1593-1670_E_before_A_1624
Esther before King Ahasuerus

The word “apologetics” refers to presenting evidence and making a reasoned defense of the Christian faith and comes from one of the Apostle Peter’s letters where he tells his readers to “…sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence….”[1] The word “defense” there is ἀπολογίαν (apologian), and refers to a verbal legal defense offered in court. Emotional pleas will not suffice in court. Rather, compelling evidence is required. J. Warner Wallace has pointed out the contrast between Paul’s statements that “some were called as evangelists, and some as teachers”, and so forth[2], and Peter’s statement here that we are all obligated to know not only what we believe, but also why we believe it, and be able to explain the truth to those who ask.

But today, I want to show the connection between this verse and a different one. The book of Esther tells of a young Jewish girl named Esther, who is picked by King Ahasuerus of the Medo-Persian empire to be queen. A decree is issued by one of the king’s advisers to have all of the Jews throughout the empire massacred, although it’s not known at that point that the queen is Jewish. Now, it was a death sentence for anyone, even the queen, to approach the king unsummoned unless he granted clemency. And so we come to this somber warning from her uncle Mordecai: “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” Esther replied “thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.”[3] I think we can take away 3 lessons from Mordecai ‘s warning, and a fourth from Esther’s response.

  1. There are many that will not listen to any preacher, but they they will listen to you. As Queen Esther had the ear of the king, you have the ear of people that might never step foot in a church, might scoff at any TV or radio sermon, and might be highly suspicious of those they consider “professional Christians” (i.e. preachers, missionaries). You as their friend/colleague/teammate have a bigger impact than you might imagine. You put a face to Christ that may be the only counter to the Christian stereotype they may have created in their mind.
  2. Preachers can’t go where you can go. For better or worse, we spend a lot of our time at our jobs. Even if a workplace isn’t hostile to Christianity, there’s still a job to do, and chatty visitors interfere with that. But you’re already at the right place when the right time hits to make the case for Christ. For me, it’s sometimes been talking to a colleague in the parking lot after we closed up for the day. Other times, it’s just been a simple question regarding a sarcastic remark of theirs, and it was enough to give them pause, and see a different perspective briefly. Preachers can’t be the needed light in every dark corner, but we can.
  3. If you don’t make the case, God will still accomplish His will, but there are consequences in our lives. Just as God didn’t need Esther, He can bring other people into someone’s life to deliver the message you could have, but that may mean years of unnecessary hardship in that person’s life. It also  won’t be the blessing in your life that it would’ve been, or contribute to your spiritual growth. On the contrary, repeatedly turning away from opportunity hardens our hearts against future occasions to serve God.
  4. Finally, know the cost on the front end, and be prepared to pay it. For Esther, it was possible death. For you, it may be ridicule or job loss. For Christians in other countries, it’s still sometimes  imprisonment, beatings, and even death.  But Jesus never told us it’d be an easy life; a rewarding life, a life of joy in spite of trials, a life of peace through storms, but not an “easy” life. But remember, even a long life on earth is vanishingly insignificant compared to eternity. Can we be so selfish as to rest in our assurance of an eternal home with Jesus while other people’s eternal lives are at stake?

We Christians have had an easy time of it in America for several generations. Most of us (myself included) have never had to sacrifice much to be a Christ-follower. I can’t say I look forward to persecution, but I also have to acknowledge that almost every book in the New Testament tells me to expect it… if I’m fully living out what I say I believe. But in trials God reveals incredible opportunities. And so I’m yet hopeful for those of us who live in such times such as these.


[1] 1 Peter 3:15, NASB
[2] Ephesians 4:11, NASB
[3] Esther 4:14-16, NASB

A Moment with Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard KiplingWe sometimes find gems in the most unusual places. I’ve always enjoyed Rudyard Kipling’s writings, but never expected to find a theodicy (a defense of God against the “problem of evil”) in his treasured works until a friend shared this. And so, this week, I pass this gem from 1919 on to you. May it give you something to think on this week.

“Natural Theology”

Primitive

I ate my fill of a whale that died
And stranded after a month at sea. . . .
There is a pain in my inside.
Why have the Gods afflicted me?
Ow! I am purged till I am a wraith!
Wow! I am sick till I cannot see!
What is the sense of Religion and Faith:
Look how the Gods have afflicted me!

Pagan

How can the skin of rat or mouse hold
Anything more than a harmless flea?. . .
The burning plague has taken my household.
Why have my Gods afflicted me?
All my kith and kin are deceased,
Though they were as good as good could be,
I will out and batter the family priest,
Because my Gods have afflicted me!

Medieval

My privy and well drain into each other
After the custom of Christendie. . . .
Fevers and fluxes are wasting my mother.
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
The Saints are helpless for all I offer–
So are the clergy I used to fee.
Henceforward I keep my cash in my coffer,
Because the Lord has afflicted me.

Material

I run eight hundred hens to the acre
They die by dozens mysteriously. . . .
I am more than doubtful concerning my Maker,
Why has the Lord afflicted me?
What a return for all my endeavour–
Not to mention the L. S. D![1]
I am an atheist now and for ever,
Because this God has afflicted me!

Progressive

Money spent on an Army or Fleet
Is homicidal lunacy. . . .
My son has been killed in the Mons retreat,
Why is the Lord afflicting me?
Why are murder, pillage and arson
And rape allowed by the Deity?
I will write to the Times, deriding our parson
Because my God has afflicted me.

Chorus

We had a kettle: we let it leak:
Our not repairing it made it worse.
We haven’t had any tea for a week. . .
The bottom is out of the Universe!

Conclusion

This was none of the good Lord’s pleasure,
For the Spirit He breathed in Man is free;
But what comes after is measure for measure,
And not a God that afflicteth thee.
As was the sowing so the reaping
Is now and evermore shall be.
Thou art delivered to thine own keeping.
Only Thyself hath afflicted thee!

– Rudyard Kipling


Notes.
[1] L. S. D. the abbreviation for the Latin Libræ solidi denarii ‘Pounds, shillings and pence’ (not the drug).

Inconvenient Verses

Scripture Reading in Park_smallThis week, I want to address a potential temptation for Christians: using God’s Word simply as an emotional crutch, as a kind of spiritual “motivational poster”. Friends, don’t relegate the Bible to such a low position! The Bible is one consistent story, from beginning to end, of God’s restorative grace. What it is not is a vault of feel-good pick-me-ups to pull out whenever you’re feeling down. Certainly,there is a lot of encouragement in there, but more importantly, there is truth. And sometimes the truth is harsh and doesn’t fit very well in a picture frame with inspirational pictures of eagles and waterfalls and sunsets and such. So what do you do with those uncomfortable, challenging verses? If your Bible is an emotional crutch, you ignore them. You skip over to the passages you like. But be warned, you do so at your own risk. So what should you do?

Continue reading Inconvenient Verses

Chasing the Fountain of Youth

Surgeon Close-up SmallMy wife and I were talking about celebrities that have more or less ruined their appearance through plastic surgery. It seems crazy for people generally acknowledged as exceptionally beautiful to feel the need to undergo these cosmetic procedures that, honestly, can make them look a little freakish. You’ve seen the results: the “perpetually surprised” look, the “always squinting” look, the “I can’t stop smiling” look, and the “my face is a plastic shell incapable of emotion now” look. Granted, those are the cases we would say went badly, but why this obsession with erasing any signs of aging, real or imagined?

Maybe this surgical insanity has a spiritual root cause – a rejection of God. I say this a lot, but it bears repeating: ideas have consequences. When we reject God, there are very real consequences in our lives. One is a prioritization of holding on to this life for as long as possible. In particular, we want to stay in the “sweet spot” of the prime of life forever. After all, if this is all we have, then we better enjoy it to the fullest while we can. Those signs of aging are all reminders of the unstoppable march of time. Wrinkles and gray hair are seen not as a sign of experience and wisdom, but rather as the growing undeniability of our own approaching death. Each wrinkle is an insult to the one without God, each gray hair a reminder that in a short time, they will be no more; they will cease to exist but as a memory, soon to be forgotten. I have to wonder if this isn’t the root cause of a lot of the sometimes disturbing obsession with vainly trying to hold on to our youth forever. But many of these attempts to retain youthful beauty seem to backfire and steal what these celebrities already had. In recent years, this has taken a more radical turn as people seek to change ever more fundamental aspects of themselves, and remake themselves as they feel they should’ve been made.

Does the Bible offer any perspective on any of this? Actually, quite a bit, but here’s a sampling:

  • “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”[1]
  • A gray head is a crown of glory“[2]
  • “The glory of young men is their strength, and the honor of old men is their gray hair.”[3]
  • “Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.”[4]
  • “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well.”[5]
  • “Now the word of the LORD came to me {Jeremiah} saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.'”[6]
  • “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”[7]

We humans have intrinsic worth because we are created in the image of God. This doesn’t mean that we look like God, but rather that we are similar to Him and represent Him. We have intellect, creative free will, and moral capacity. We have an immaterial (spiritual) component of our being that is also immortal.[8] This reflection of God’s nature establishes a foundation for us and gives our lives perspective in 4 ways.

  1. It means that changes in our appearance, or social status, or skills, or anything else, don’t change our value. This allows for enormous emotional security and self-confidence as our worth as humans isn’t grounded in the ever-changing opinions of others.
  2. We can take comfort in the knowledge that we are not an accident. The God who sees the end from the beginning and knows each of us before we were even born, was not surprised by things like our race, our gender, our imperfections, or the time and place and culture we’re born into. They are all ways for us to live out His purpose for us if we only acknowledge Him.
  3. Understanding the inherent value of each person leads us to love every person, whether they are our family, friends, strangers, or even our enemies. This is a selfless love that seeks the good of others more than ourselves. When we take the focus off of ourselves, wrinkles and age spots don’t bother us anymore.
  4. Finally, we can face death with dignity, knowing that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”[9] Or as Shakespeare wrote, “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”[10] Death comes to us all, but it is only a doorway to eternity.

For the Christian, we can delight in the security of God’s perfect plan. The passing years are only the passing mile markers in our travels in the service of the King, and thoughts of approaching death are not fearsome, but rather a homecoming after a short (but seemingly long) journey. With our self-worth grounded in God, we need not chase after the fountain of youth.


[1] Proverbs 31:30 (NIV)
[2] Proverbs 16:31a (NASB)
[3] Proverbs 20:29 (NASB)
[4] 1 Peter 3:3-4 (NASB)
[5] Psalm 139:14 (NASB)
[6] Jeremiah 1:4-5 (NASB)
[7] Genesis 1:26-27 (NASB), see also James 3:9.
[8] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994), pp 442-4. Grudem makes an interesting comparison between Gen 1:26 and Gen 5:3.
[9] Hebrews 9:27 (ESV)
[10] Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2.

Get the Ump! (The Axiological Argument)

AP Photo by Butch Dill
AP Photo by Butch Dill

We’ve looked at several lines of reasoning justifying a warranted belief in God this last month. Today, we turn to what can be called the Moral Argument, or the Axiological Argument (axia = “value” in Greek).

Here is a common formulation of the argument[1]:
Premise 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

That first premise may seem like a big jump, so let’s dig into that  deeper by first defining our terms clearly.

  • “Values” are the moral worth of something; its goodness or badness. For example, helping the sick or the poor is generally recognized as “good”, while murdering them is generally recognized as “bad”.[2]
  • “Duties” are moral obligations or prohibitions; the rightness or wrongness of something. Something may be morally good without being an obligation. Moving to India to care for lepers may be a morally good action, but it’s not an obligation anyone has to do.
  • “Objective” means independent of opinion or perception of the subject, and is intrinsic to the object discussed. It’s the same for all subjects observing that object. Contrast this with subjective, which is based on a subject’s opinion or perception of an object and can vary between different subjects.
  • “Moral” refers to standards of right conduct.[3]

And therein lies the rub; standards are enforceable, while opinions aren’t. Morality is defined as a standard, but standards come from independent authorities. When two teams think the other one cheated, what do they do? They call for a decision from the umpire, the referee, the judge – whatever that sport calls their independent rule-enforcer. But the umpire has to be independent of either team, and he can’t make up the rules as he goes. He applies a defined standard impartially (we hope). What if each of the 2 teams comprised half the world? Who would be left to be an independent judge? The Axiological Argument highlights this need for a “third party”to define the standards we as humans abide by. Now, to clarify, this premise does not say that those who don’t believe in God can’t live ethical lives, understanding moral duties and making morally good decisions each day. Premise 1 is an ontological statement – a statement of existence; namely, that if God doesn’t exist, there would be no objective moral standards for us (atheist or theist) to recognize and live by. They would not exist without God, because He is the only one in the position to be truly independent and objective. Anything we come up with is just one person’s idea versus another’s.

Are there any reasons to accept premise 2’s claim that objective values and duties really do exist? J. Budziszewski has noted that “There is no land where murder is virtue and gratitude vice.”[4] Even in Nazi Germany, the Nazis dehumanized their victims (so it wasn’t murder) in an attempt to justify what they did. While extenuating circumstances can seem to relativize morality, the “fun test” confirms morality’s objectivity. “What’s that?”, you say? It’s a simple way to eliminate the effect of extenuating circumstances in justifying decisions. To see if circumstances would change the moral value of something, add “for fun” to the end of it. Lying to protect Jews from Nazis may be morally better than being an accomplice to their murder, but lying “for fun” is never considered morally good. Murdering Hitler to save millions may be justified, but murdering even Hitler “for fun” is not. Justifiable circumstances can be found for other deeds like stealing, arson, lying, etc, where the bad deed is the lesser of two evils. In dilemmas where the only options are all bad, a person may be justified in choosing the “least worst” choice. But murdering for fun, stealing for fun, etc, are never condoned or viewed as “good”. In an extreme example, the unacceptability of torturing innocent babies “for fun” would reveal that we really do consider there to be objective standards that shouldn’t be violated in any situation.

Therefore, God exists. Too simple? True premises and valid logic leave no other alternative but a true conclusion. We have defined our terms to avoid ambiguity and have provided support for the premises, and the syllogism that makes up this argument is logically valid (i.e. no logical fallacies present).  What characteristics about God can be inferred from this? First, His nature is intrinsic perfect goodness that is the standard for moral values. Second, His will establishes the standard for moral duties. What are some consequences of this conclusion? Simply this: we are accountable for our actions, but thankfully, it is a level playing field and we can know the game rules if we choose to learn them. We have an infallible Umpire who, unlike humans, will never make a bad call.


[1] See William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, (Colorado Springs, David C Cook, 2010), Ch. 6 for a much more detailed study of this argument.
[2] Evolutionary bioethicists like Peter Singer would disagree as this disrupts “survival of the fittest” by not killing off weak members of society. It’s more than a little disturbing that the New Yorker called Singer the planet’s “most influential living philosopher”. See why here.
[2] “Morality”, American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Ed., 2014.
[4]J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 208-20, as quoted in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, by Frank Turek, p. 171.

Divine Design (The Teleological Argument)

London Museum Roof SmallWe’ve been looking at different explanations for the existence of God, and this week we have one that resonates with me as an engineer: the teleological argument, or argument from design comes from the Greek word “telos” meaning end purpose or goal. The argument is as follows:
Premise 1: Every design has a designer.
Premise 2: The universe was designed.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe had a Designer.

Now let’s unpack those tidy little premises. Does every design have to have a designer? Design can be defined as: “a specification of an object (or process), manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.” Though a bit dry, this actually describes my daily tasks as an engineer pretty well. But notice that design is defined as being “manifested by an agent”. It appears that designs have designers by definition. But even without the word “agent” in there, we can see that design requires intent – an end purpose, a goal. But goals require consciousness to make choices between alternatives. Processes like natural selection, unguided by conscious agents, can only “choose” alternatives that confer immediate advantage. For example, chess moves that sacrifice an immediate advantage for a long-term gain are not possible without the foresight of design. Chance and physical necessity also can’t explain evidence of design such as intent. Therefore, the indication of long-range intent is confirmation of a designer.

The second premise is perhaps more controversial. But let’s follow the evidence along 3 lines: terrestrial, cosmic, and biological design. First, many parameters on earth appear to be fine-tuned for life to exist, and not just any life, but large, complex life. Things like atmospheric transparency, oxygen content, the polarity of the water molecule, and the temperature of max density of water, among a variety of other dispersed parameters, appear to all be set to values in very narrow ranges that allow for our level of life to exist (and flourish). Second, although these values all fall in narrow ranges, we find in the universe parameters that are even more precisely balanced in favor of life. But these parameters are fine-tuned not just for life anywhere in the universe, but specifically for life on earth. Properties such as the speed of light, the ratio of proton to electron mass, the mass density, expansion rate, homogeneity, and entropy level of the universe, the  uniformity of radiation, the values of the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), and the location of earth both in our galaxy and the Milky Way’s location in the universe, are some of the roughly 100 interdependent parameters that have to be what they are for us to exist.[1] Interestingly, we also happen to be in a unique position in the universe to even be able to see the evidence of this design.

Third, the structure and information content of DNA points to extremely information-centric design. Four DNA bases are the optimum number for speed of replication.[2] From a data storage standpoint, the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” used by DNA for synthesizing proteins are the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking.[3] DNA exhibits nested encoding where the same stored data is used to convey meaningful information when read one way, and different meaningful information when read a different way.[4] To understand the significance of this coding accomplishment, try writing a book that tells one story when read in order, and a different, but still intelligible, story when reading only every third word. This increases the storage capacity of DNA immensely. Even so, DNA does not have all of the information needed to assemble an organism in it.[5] Some of the information is stored outside the DNA, which leads to a chicken-and-egg problem of how the cell is built by plans stored in the DNA, but with instructions stored in the cell that’s being built using the DNA plans. Our planet, our universe, and even our own bodies appear to all show signs of design, making the second premise true.

If these 2 premises are true, then the conclusion is true that the universe had to have a designer. What characteristics could we infer about this designer from the conclusion?

  • Intelligence – far beyond that of any human designer to understand complex and interdependent “systems of systems” comprising the universe.
  • Foreknowledge – far beyond any human ability to anticipate highly complex interactions and plan for those contingencies.
  • Power – far beyond any human capacity to alter our surroundings (we celebrate when we figure out how to copy something in nature successfully; making all of nature from scratch is in a whole other league of accomplishment).
  • Intemporality and immateriality – no design precedes it’s designer. If the universe (and therefore all of space and time) had a designer, then that designer had to precede the universe. Therefore the designer would have to exist outside of space and time.
  • Benevolence – It’s relatively easy to imagine many ways our universe could be organized that would result in life being a much harder, more miserable, existence for us. Also, the fact of our unique position in the universe to be able to see so much of it could be an example of a deliberately placed trail leading us back to this designer.

These correspond well with the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal, loving God of the Christian Bible. So then, how do we respond to this? We could a) accept the evidence left for us by this God, and seek after Him, b) deny the evidence having honest doubts, but attempt to offer an alternative that explains the evidence as well, or c) simply refuse to consider the evidence. Please, don’t be content with this last option.


[1] Hugh Ross, “Fine Tuning for Life in the Universe”, http://www.reasons.org/articles/fine-tuning-for-life-in-the-universe, accessed 2014/08/03.
[2] “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
[3] Werner Gitt, Without Excuse (Atlanta: Creation Book Publishers, 2011), p. 162-166.
[4] Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), p. 466.
[5]  ibid., p. 473-474.

The Cosmological Argument

Spiral Galaxy NGC 1566, courtesy www.nasa.govThe Cosmological Argument is not one argument, but rather a group of several arguments for the existence of God proposed by different thinkers over the centuries. Here is one relatively simple form of it –  just 2 premises and the conclusion – but with a lot packed in those 2 premises, and a serious implication inferred by the seemingly modest conclusion. Whole books can be written on each point[1], but in a nutshell, it goes like this:

Premise 1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
Premise 2) The universe began to exist.
Conclusion) Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Premise 1 is simply the law of causality, (i.e. cause and effect): the effect (beginning to exist) has a cause. This law is not only fundamental to science, but also verifiable by anyone through our everyday observations. Nobody walks into a room and, seeing a ball rolling across the room, assumes the ball has always been in motion. We instinctively look in the direction the ball rolled from to see who or what caused it to roll. Notice that this premise does not say that whatever exists has a cause, but that whatever begins to exist does. If either the theist’s God or the atheist’s universe is eternal, then neither would require a cause. Hence the atheist’s question of “Who made God?” is as irrelevant as asking them who made the universe in their view. No one needed to. That’s the nature of anything being eternal.

But Premise 2 then eliminates the option of an eternal universe through three independent lines of reasoning: one scientific and two philosophical. First, a host of scientific evidence points to the universe having a definite beginning. The Standard Cosmological Model (the “Big Bang”), whether you agree with the specifics of it or not, has withstood decades of attempted refutation and points to a unique beginning to all space and time at a single point in history, a singularity where space and time cease to exist prior to that point. Another insurmountable obstacle is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This is the most universally accepted physical law, so much so that it forms the basis of the US Patent Office refusing to grant patents for perpetual motion machines without a working model. As Sir Arthur Eddington said, “if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”[2] The universe is only winding down. But if it is only winding down, that means it had be wound up.

Attacking the possibility of an eternal universe philosophically, we have two more abstract, but nevertheless valid, approaches. First, an eternal universe would require an infinite regress, but there can be no actual infinite regress because an actually infinite number of things cannot exist. A beginningless series of events in time entails an actually infinite number of things (events in this case). Therefore, a beginningless series of events in time cannot actually exist.

The second philosophical rationale is that one cannot traverse an infinite series. The series of events in time is a collection formed by adding one member (or event) after another. A collection formed by adding one member after another cannot be actually infinite.  So then, the series of events in time cannot be actually infinite.

Therefore, the universe has a cause. If this argument seemed fairly noncontroversial to you right from the beginning, then you might be surprised at the resistance to it. That’s because of the implications the conclusion leads us to. This cause cannot be material or temporal as space and time both had a beginning, and this first uncaused cause would necessarily have to exist before the effect it caused (the universe). This cause must be extremely powerful to cause everything observable (and probably more that we haven’t observed). The incredibly detailed precision observed in the universe would require an intellect far beyond the greatest human minds to orchestrate the intimately interrelated web of cause and effect detected so far. For comparison, we routinely fail to predict the consequences of even simple actions over periods of days or weeks (i.e. weather prediction). This cause is necessarily a free agent capable of making choices. An impersonal force like gravity cannot choose to act at a particular time on an object. A ball does not simply float in the air until gravity decides to act on it and make it fall to the ground. If this cause were simply a force like gravity, acting from all eternity, then the effect (the universe) would be eternal as well, which contradicts the observed evidence and our reasoning. This cause is therefore a person, in the general sense of a being possessing rationality. This first cause, or uncaused cause, then appears to be, for all practical purposes: eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and personal. As with the Ontological Argument from last week, this correlates well with the description of God in the Bible and forces us to face the possibility of a sovereign Maker who might very well hold us accountable for our actions. Hence, the determined resistance to this line of reasoning.


[1] See “Reasonable Faith”, 3rd Ed., chapters 3 & 4, by William Lane Craig for a much more detailed treatment of this and other arguments for the existence of God.
[2] Sir Arthur Eddington, “The Nature of the Physical World”, 1927.

The Ontological Argument

The ThinkerLast week, I reviewed some key terms in logic as a prelude to looking at logical arguments for the existence of God. This first one is a philosophical rationale called the ontological argument. Ontology is simply the study of existence, or reality. And so the ontological argument is a line of reasoning based on the very nature of existence.

The first premise, or basis for this argument, is that it is at least possible that a maximally great being exists. This isn’t about what’s probable at this point – just what’s possible. It’s also not about whether we can know whether this being exists or not (epistemology), but simply about whether it could exist (ontology) . Now let’s define some terms. A “maximally great being” can be defined as a being possessing omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. Omniscience is knowing all truth and only truth. Omnipotence is the ability to cause any effect not logically impossible. It is necessary, or noncontingent, existence. Moral perfection is the highest degree of moral attributes such as love, mercy, justice, etc. Where attributes conflict (i.e. mercy vs. justice), this being possesses the greatest compatible degree of each, such that any more of either trait could be considered an introduction of imperfection (i.e. the best possible combination). There is nothing self-contradictory about this concept. It is not like a square circle or a married bachelor. It is simply the spectrum of characteristics we observe in human beings extrapolated to a maximum value.

Premise 2 is that if it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world. By “possible world”, we do not simply mean another planet, but rather any alternate reality with its own forms of matter & energy, laws of physics, existence or nonexistence of life, and even existence or nonexistence of space-time itself. The set of all possible worlds would be a set of all possible versions of reality; each with one, and only one, variable different from all others. For instance, one possible world may have a slightly different gravitational constant that results in the collapse of any conceivable universe, or the impossibility of the universe ever forming. Another might have every physical variable identical to the reality we are familiar with, but with a history where Hitler won WWII. This set of possible realities is necessarily immense (practically infinite) to address every possible physical and historical alternative.

Premise 3 proposes that if a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world. This one isn’t a very intuitive step, so let’s look at it a little closer. If a maximally great being in a possible world is indeed omnipotent, then all else in that possible world is contingent, or dependent on its existence. If it is morally perfect, then it is capable of making conscious decisions, of exercising free will. In that case, this being could’ve chosen not to create anything, but simply to exist, alone. So if a maximally great being exists, there is a possible world such that only that being exists. This would then be the minimum qualification for a possible world. This being is then the one variable in common to all, that cannot be negated without eliminating that world from the set of all possible worlds. Therefore, Premise 3 logically follows, and the maximally great being exists in all possible worlds.

Premise 4 states that if a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world. What applies to the set as a whole applies to all members of the set. In logic, this is called “dictum de omni”, or the law about all – whatever is universally true of a subject must be true of everything contained in that subject. The actual world is contained in the set of all possible worlds. Therefore, premise 4 logically follows.

Premise 5 simply adds that if a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists. Not too controversial. The actual world is what exists as opposed to possible worlds that only could exist. Anything shown to exist in this actual world therefore has actual existence.

From these 5 premises follows the conclusion that a maximally great being exists. At this point, we’ve simply concluded that some being with certain characteristics necessarily exists, but what do those characteristics tell us? A necessary or noncontingent being can exist outside of space and time and is therefore immaterial. An omnipotent being could create, or cause all contingent elements of reality to exist. An omniscient being would be capable of designing the incredibly complex and very interdependent “system of systems”  we recognize as our universe. A morally perfect being would have the authority to issue decrees, judge behavior, and reward or punish as appropriate. This description aligns remarkably well with the biblical description of God, which leaves the reader with the choice of trying to refute the argument or admitting the existence of God and dealing with the consequences. Choose wisely.


Resources:

Reasonable Faith, 3rd Ed., (Crossway Books, 2008), by William Lane Craig, Chapters 3 & 4. Craig’s interpretation of Alvin Plantinga’s refinement of St. Anselm’s ontological argument was a major part of my giving this argument another chance after discounting it for years. My only departure from Craig is that in premise 3, I’ve tried to justify the jump from existence in a possible world to existence in every world without resorting to the modal logic used by Plantinga and Craig.

Logic

Spock_at_consoleIn the coming weeks, I want to look at some different arguments for the existence of God. But first, how can you know my reasons for believing God exists are legitimate? Maybe you don’t believe God exists, or maybe you simply don’t know. Likewise, how do I know if your reasons are legitimate? How do we discuss our opposing reasons (for this or anything else imaginable) on a level playing field? With that goal in mind, today let’s start out with a refresher (or introduction) to basic logic. Like a lot of foundational material, it may seem a little dry, but it really is the necessary foundation for any type of critical thinking. Underlined words are key terms in logic.

Let’s start with some clarification. An argument in logic is not a fight or quarrel, but rather a rational though process using a series of statements (or propositions) called premises and conclusions. As such, there are some rules for making sure the conclusions you draw are legitimate. Just like in sports, these rules help ensure that the winner really did win fairly.

Propositions are simply statements that may be either the premises or the conclusion of an argument. While you may be trying to determine a reasonable answer to a question with an argument, you can’t have a question or a command for a premise, so these are always declarative sentences. Not to bring up bad memories of diagramming sentences in grade school grammar, but these statements need a subject and a predicate. The subject is just what you’re talking about, while the predicate is what you’re saying about it. The premises are  propositions that each propose a basis for the conclusion. They give your evidence. Premises can be either true or false.  “The city of Houston, Texas is located in the country of Australia.” is a false premise, while “Mars orbits around the sun.” would be a true premise. These premises use terms that can either be clear or unclear. A term is clear if it can be understood in only one sense. For instance, a person can use the word “hot” to describe: temperature (“It’s hot outside”), attractiveness (“She’s hot!”), or questionable legality (“He wrote a hot check”).  In this case, “hot” has equivocal meanings and wouldn’t be a good term to use in a premise unless we either defined it first, or the meaning was clear from the context. Some terms are not so obviously different  in their meanings, and many a misunderstanding has happened because of this issue of equivocation (using the same term in different ways).

The conclusion either necessarily follows from the premises and the argument is valid, or it doesn’t follow and is invalid. “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” is a classic example of a valid syllogism. A syllogism is your most basic argument: 2 premises and 1 conclusion showing a clear relationship between 3 terms. If it is true that all men are mortal, and Socrates is indeed a man, then Socrates simply must be mortal. This is an example of deductive reasoning, which generally moves from a universal principle to a specific application. Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, typically moves from specific observations to a more general conclusion. Valid deduction provides certainty in its conclusion, while induction only provides a degree of probability. Just because you’ve observed many similar cases doesn’t mean all cases will be similar (the exception would if you’ve actually observed all cases). Science typically uses inductive reasoning based on specific observations, hence the tendency of scientists and engineers to always qualify what they say with disclaimers.

Understanding the principles of logic is advantageous regardless of your educational background, your culture, or your beliefs because it provides a framework for knowing that what you believe is true. If your terms are clear, your premises are true, and your deductive argument valid, then your position is necessarily true and there can be no argument against it. Likewise, if your opponent’s argument doesn’t have ambiguous terms, a false premise, or a logical fallacy, then, to be honest, you must admit he’s right. The same goes for me. And so we now have a level playing field, with the same rules applicable to and acknowledged by, both sides. Maybe you’ve listened to a talk show where two opposing guests simply stated their own views over and over again and ignored the other side. Or they simply talked past each other louder and louder? Did you walk away feeling like it was just pointless discussing some issues? There is hope, and this is where logic shines. I encourage you to not simply stop at this short  glossary of logic, but to dig deeper, learn it, and apply it in your own life.


Resources:

Socratic Logic, Edition 3.1, by Peter Kreeft, (St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), which served as a reference for much of this. This is an actual logic textbook.

Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, by D.Q. McInerny, (Random House, 2005), is also an excellent and very concise introduction to logic, and well-suited for a first exposure to logical principles.

Walking Away?

Out the doorA friend loaned me a book by Dan Barker, co-leader of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. My friend said this book was instrumental in his rejecting Christianity and becoming an atheist. Mr. Barker had been a preacher and Christian musician at one time before he “deconverted”. Does Dan Barker have the “inside scoop” to warrant walking away from Christ? Let’s look at that.

Frank Turek[1] and J. Warner Wallace[2] have rightly pointed out that the martyrdom of modern day believers doesn’t count as evidence for the truth of Christianity because anyone can sincerely hold wrong beliefs, even unto death (i.e. Muslim suicide bombers). But, they add, it doesn’t make sense for the early disciples of Christ to suffer prolonged, intense persecution and grueling deaths for something they knew to be a lie. While we were not eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, they were eyewitnesses to the events they being killed for speaking about. Like modern cases of martyrdom, do modern testimonies of life-changing experiences similarly lack evidential weight and speak more of trust than truth? Yet, providing one’s personal testimony has been a part of Christian missionary endeavors from the very beginning[3], and personal experience often resonates with an audience more than technical statements of belief.  Then should  “deconversion” testimonies from Christianity to atheism be given equal weight to conversion testimonies? Is it simply a matter of people changing their mind from one set of beliefs to another? I don’t think so, and here’s why. No offense to Mr. Barker, but the “Christian” deconverting may have been living a lie, not truly a Christian. Maybe this sounds like an excuse to you, but Jesus Himself said there would be many that would say on Judgement Day that they had done all sorts of wonderful things for Him, and yet He will still reply, “I never knew you; depart from Me.”[4] Sobering words for all of us who call ourselves Christians. Likewise, the apostle John speaks of men like Mr. Barker when he says that “their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”[5]

But what of the atheist who becomes a Christian and is then persecuted for it, like many were in Communist countries? Men like Haralan Popov and Richard Wurmbrand come to mind, among many others who didn’t live to tell their tales. This may not be of the same weight as the original apostles’ transformation, but it is surely difficult to explain unless there was a genuine transformation in the former atheist. A change of mind seems inadequate to explain a person enduring 13-14 years of torture, like the cases above, when a simple change back to what they originally believed would not only stop the torture, but set them free from prison, and result in rewards upon release. This is the same boat the apostle Paul found himself in centuries earlier, as he wrote to the Corinthians, listing out all the punishments he had endured for his belief in Jesus, a belief he had originally persecuted others for zealously.[6]  What could cause this kind of change? We’ve all been fooled at least once in our lives, but why this refusal to change back? Simple stubbornness? Shame? Pride? How meaningful are those emotions when faced with imminent (and cruel) death? We are sometimes overly concerned with punishments being “cruel and unusual” in our Western culture, but that wasn’t an issue in Paul’s day, nor in modern Communist countries. They weren’t worried about whether a lethal injection would sting. After all, the Roman punishment of crucifixion is where we get the word “excruciating”. If simply changing your mind – not to something you’ve always rejected, but back to what you had previously wholeheartedly accepted – would spare you an agonizing death, why proceed? There is something inherently, intrinsically different about a genuine Christian that will not let him “deconvert”. Paul writes to the Colossians of “Christ in you, the hope of glory”[7].  Jesus told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would dwell in them.[8] Becoming a Christian is not simply a change in what you think, though that is certainly part of it. It is actually an indwelling of the Spirit of God, our Creator, with His creation in a personal relationship. If Christianity were just another religion of rules to try to bribe your way into eternal reward, I wouldn’t blame anyone for leaving. But if Christianity is true – if we are “the temple of the living God”[9] as Paul described – then that is a total game-changer, and there is no going back from that.

In the end, the person deconverting from Christianity and the person converting to Christianity are both leaving a lie, but only one is gaining the truth. The person leaving a Christian masquerade for atheism is only exchanging one lie for another, while the person entering into a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ is gaining the ultimate truth from the source of all truth.


[1] Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2004), p. 294.
[2] J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity, (David C Cook, Colorado Springs, 2013), p. 115-116.
[3] Acts 4:19-20, Acts 22:1-21, Acts 26:4-29, NASB.
[4] Matthew 7:22-23, NASB.
[5] 1 John 2:19, NIV.
[6] 2 Corinthians: 11:22-33, NASB.
[7] Colossians 1:27, NASB.
[8] John 14:16-20, NASB.
[9] 2 Corinthians 6:16, NASB.