Tag Archives: evidence

“Hard Evidence”

Lab Experiment“I don’t think there’s anything he could say that would convince me – I need hard evidence,” said an atheist friend when I invited him to come with me to  a presentation on the reliability of the Bible. That got me thinking about evidence and our desire for more of it. After all, “seeing is believing,” right?

This November marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein publishing his theory of general relativity. Only 10 years earlier, in 1905, Einstein had published not one, but four, paradigm-shifting papers, including his special theory of relativity and his proposal of mass-energy equivalence, from which we get the famous equation E=mc². Since then, his theories have been repeatedly confirmed. Special and general relativity did not simply provide a competing theory compared to classical Newtonian physics; they encompassed Newtonian physics. In relatively weak gravitational fields, special relativity reduced to Newtonian formulas at speeds much slower than the speed of light (our typical earthbound experience). General relativity expanded on that to provide an explanatory framework that could account for objects travelling at all speeds and through any gravitational field. It explained what Newtonian physics could and couldn’t explain. That’s powerful.

How did Einstein develop this powerful theory? Can you tour the lab where he huddled over a workbench full of special scientific equipment, or see the telescope he tirelessly spent long nights peering through, looking for evidence of gravitational lensing, or examine his lab journals of dutifully recorded experimental results? Not really. Einstein worked as a simple patent clerk in his “miracle year” of 1905, and was still doing “thought experiments” when he developed general relativity. He was short on evidence, but long on problems to think through. He proposed 3 scenarios unexplained by Newtonian physics that relativity would need to correctly explain for it to be true: 1) the slight changes in Mercury’s orbit around the sun already observed by others, 2) the deflection of light by the sun that Newtonian physics predicted, but not accurately, and 3) the color change (redshift) of light passing through a gravitational field that was completely unverifiable at that time.[1] While he could compare his theory’s predictions to  Mercury’s orbital changes measured by others, he had no way to confirm the other 2 tests. In fact, the evidence to support his theory only trickled in over many years, the most conclusive confirmations  of it after his death in 1955. Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed the deflection of light by the sun’s gravity in 1919 when he measured the slight curvature of starlight bending in the gravitational field of the sun during a solar eclipse. But it was decades before sufficiently precise measurements could confirm gravity’s miniscule color-shifting effect on light here on earth. In the years since, though, several other effects have verified Einstein’s unproven theory.

In fact, Einstein’s general theory of relativity touches most of our everyday lives  in one very real, but surprising way. Our cars, planes, cellphones, and even wristwatches now have the ability to tell us where we are because a of wonderful cold-war invention called GPS. But engineers designing the GPS satellites originally didn’t think they would need to account for gravitational redshift in the signal timing. This change in color of visible light is actually an effect of time dilation; time actually runs faster in a weaker gravitational field. And so the clock on a GPS satellite will run 38 microseconds faster, per day, than the same clock on earth, which is enough to produce invalid location results. This would also handicap our cell phones that use this precise timing to handle transferring calls to new cell towers seamlessly.

So did the lack of hard evidence in any way detract from the truthfulness of his theory? No, that’s because we don’t create truth, we only discover it. If something is true, it’s true whether we know it or not, and whether we understand it yet or not. The GPS clocks ran faster whether the original engineers admitted it or not, and whether you and I fully understand it or not. Can Christianity be true without measurable, scientific evidence? Absolutely.[2] But there’s a deeper question here. Is experimental observation the only way we come to know truth? No. In fact, the “thought experiments” Einstein relied on were simply exercises in sound reasoning that scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers have used for millennia. As Einstein understood, there are many times where it is impossible to obtain “hard evidence” for something. It may be a unique, non-repeatable event, or it may be something infeasible to test at the present time, but that doesn’t have to stop us from investigating. Albert Einstein didn’t limit himself to experimental evidence, but rather used his mind to go where science couldn’t yet, and he changed the world. Don’t let your desire for a certain type of evidence keep you from investigating the truth of Christianity and changing your world.

[1] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 87-88.
[2] Not that there isn’t a wealth of evidence for the truth of the Bible, but that’s a subject for another day.


Blind Faith?

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net“Blind faith”. I’ve heard atheists use the term as an insult to Christian opponents – “I believe in science and not blind faith like you.” Surprisingly, I’ve heard some Christians use it almost as a badge of honor  that they had such complete blind faith.  So what is the biblical perspective on faith? Is it really “believing something strongly in spite of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary” as atheists would claim? Is it a step into the unknown, taking God at His word, so to speak, with no reason whatsoever, as some Christians would claim? Or is there another option? What does the Bible itself say?

Hebrews 11:1 is the most famous definition of faith in the Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here, and in most other places translated as “faith”, the Greek word used is πίστις (pistis) or one of its related forms. This word can be translated as faith, belief, trust, confidence, or proof. Looking at secular Greek sources, Herodotus used it to refer to a pledge or military oath[1].  Other secular authors such as Aeschylus, Democritus, and Appian used the word to denote evidence from the senses or from eyewitness testimony, or proof of intent deduced from observed actions [2].  The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo used the term pistis in his writings 156 times with the sense of evidence in over 50% of those instances [3]. Aristotle used the term to describe various “proofs” for convincing someone of your case through reason and logic [4]. This word for faith sounds like it was often used by secular sources as a justified belief based on observation, logical or philosophical reasoning, or testimony and solemn oaths. But we can dig a little deeper yet. The word pistis is derived from the Greek word πείθω (peitho), meaning “to persuade”. Are you persuaded blindly by any assertion you hear, or by evidence, by sound reasoning,and by common sense? It makes sense then that Aristotle would use pistis to describe the proofs of the art of rhetoric (persuasion).  It seems that Biblical faith is anything but blind. Rather, it is “God’s divine persuasion” [5]. It is also interesting that the word translated in Hebrew 11:1 as “conviction” in the NASB translation is ἔλεγχος (elegchos) which means proof, and is derived from ἐλέγχω (elegcho), a verb meaning “to convince with solid, compelling evidence; to expose, refute or prove wrong.” [6] Faith could be said to be God’s divine persuasion of the reality of the supernatural things we can’t observe with our natural senses.

So then, if our faith is more of an evidentially persuaded trust by definition, are there any supporting passages to confirm that is what biblical writers like Paul understood when using words like pistis and elegchos? Below is a partial list of supporting passages.

 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Matthew 22:37-38

“And because of His words, many more became believers. They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” John 4:41-42 (NIV)

 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.” Acts 1:3 (NASB)

 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good…” 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NASB)

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1 (NASB)

We are to love God with all that we are, including our mind. Jesus repeatedly appealed to the evidence He presented to people, not the least of which was Him being alive after being scourged, crucified, and having a spear run through His chest.  Paul tells us to  examine everything carefully, while John urges discernment specifically in spiritual matters. In the end, I have to say that we don’t check our brains at the church door, and if we do, we’re not following the example set before us in Scripture. For while blind faith in the truth may still benefit us, it is an accidental benefit that could just as easily be a blind faith in error (such as cults). Thorough, honest investigation only destroys faith in error; but it only builds faith in what is true.

[1] The Histories, Book 3, Chapter 8, Herodotus. Viewable in English or Greek at The Perseus Project.
[2] Pistis as “Ground for Faith” in Hellenized Judaism and Paul, David M. Hay, Journal of Biblical Literature, 1989, 3rd Quarter, p. 461.
[3] ibid. p.463.
[4] Rhetoric, Aristotle, Book 1, Chapter 1:3, 4th century BC, Kindle Edition. The word pistis or one of its forms is translated as “proof” here and throughout the rest of the 3 books.
[5] Biblehub.com word study of pistis (Strong’s #4102).
[6] ibid, word study of elegchos (Strong’s #1650).

Alphabet Soup


I explained a few weeks ago how any kind of observed design actually requires a designer, by definition. If we correctly observe design, we can reasonably infer the existence of a designer. But how do we know we’ve correctly observed intentional design?  We don’t want false positives or false negatives (while thinking you were healthy when you had cancer could be fatal, mistakenly thinking you had cancer when you don’t, and having an unnecessary amputation isn’t desirable either). And so the atheist is often concerned that we Christians are falsely attributing intentional design by God to naturalistic processes. Let me start by saying I appreciate those concerns. So today, let’s look at the evidence for intentional design in nature in the form of information.

The presence of information is a key part of confirming design because true information is always the result of intelligence. Waves makings ripples in the sand are an unguided process that may generate patterns, but not information. On the other hand, someone writing their name in the sand has guided the movement of the sand so as to convey data (their name) using symbols (letters) arranged in a non-random order (J-O-H-N) with a goal (for others to know that John was there).  If we walk down that beach later and find that name in the sand, we recognize this was not the work of the waves, but rather an intelligent agent, because codes (i.e. the English language) are not generated by physical-chemical processes alone. Meaning is conveyed by the willful choice of certain letters to form certain words in a certain order, but natural processes do not possess a will – only intelligent agents do. This then takes us back to the causal agent required of design.

If I hand you a piece of paper that has been moved at a constant speed under an eyedropper filled with ink, will the series of evenly spaced dots provide you any information? The repetitive pattern of dots are arranged as they are out of necessity. What if the ink drops were splattered randomly on the paper where there was no pattern whatsoever? The first is highly specified (identical spacing and size of dots) but repetitive and not complex. The 2nd is complex (in that it would be very difficult to intentionally reproduce it), but completely unspecified. Either way, no useful information is conveyed. But what if the ink drops were from an inkjet printer that was plotting a set of framing plans for a skyscraper? Has information been conveyed? Certainly, but how can we know that? The symbols on the paper exhibit specified complexity. They are a product of neither chance nor necessity. They also have a clear purpose: If you follow the instructions presented, with the materials specified, in the order prescribed, you will have successfully constructed a tall building. These characteristics can differentiate legitimate information from repetitive patterns and random noise.

Now let’s apply what we know about information to DNA.  Deoxyribonucleic acid is composed of 4 bases (Guanine, Adenine, Cytosine, and Thymine) attached to the famous double helix backbones of sugars and phosphates. These bases match up in pairs (G&C, A&T).  One DNA molecule can have 220 million of these base pairings. The entire human genome, the transcript of all the base pairings in all of human DNA, is 3.4 billion units.  Printed out in small font, this takes over 100 volumes of 1,000 pages each. While DNA is still mind-blowing 50+ years after it was discovered, and we’ve still only scratched the surface of understanding it, does assigning letters to these bases and filling books with them make this a language? Are these letter sequences conveying information? Actually, the ability of DNA to store and transmit information has not been lost on scientists. In 2012-13, 2 different groups managed to encode text, pictures, and audio data into DNA’s code, synthesize actual DNA from it, then sequence that DNA to get the original data back with 100% accuracy.  In fact, DNA makes for a far more stable data storage medium than our current typical magnetic disks. It’s also estimated that one cup of DNA could store 100 million hours of hi-def video[1].

Let’s compare this 4-letter “alphabet” to some other alphanumeric codes. Consider this: our common number system is called Base 10 because it uses the ten digits 0-9. Our computers use “binary”, a Base 2 system that only uses the numbers 0 and 1, because these can represent physical states of on and off. Hexadecimal (Base 16) has been used in computers to reduce storage requirements. It uses the digits 0-9, then adds the letters A-F. In this way, you can count to 15 with only 1 digit (F) compared to the 4 digits needed in binary (1111). The English alphabet that I’m using to communicate right now is a sort of Base 26 code. You have 26 symbols to use for each character, and if that’s not enough to convey an idea, then you need to keep adding characters to form words, stringing those into sentences, paragraphs, books, and rambling blogs…. Knowing how base systems work, what do we see when we look at DNA? We see a Base 4 code for conveying information. Interestingly, a 2006 paper in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology asked the question of why DNA is a Base 4 code and not a binary code, or Base 6, Base 8, etc, and concluded that Base 4 actually maximizes the rate of replication over every other option.[2] Dr. Werner Gitt looked at DNA from a data storage standpoint and concluded that the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” (codons) used by DNA for synthesizing proteins were 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]. So the framework for efficiently storing and communicating information is there, but is there actually information there? Like the set of framing plans, if you follow the data found in human DNA you will end up with a human. In fact, this is carried out every time a baby is conceived as a new human is constructed from the plans found in its DNA.  The data found therein is extremely specific, highly complex, and has intent or end-purpose. Therefore, it does indeed seem to be true information, requiring an intelligent source, and providing an additional jigsaw piece in our design puzzle.

1. http://phys.org/news/2013-01-dna-storage-million-hours-hd.html
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. “Without Excuse”, by Werner Gitt, PhD, 2011.

A Second Look at the Evidence

Necker Cube smallAs a kid, I always loved drawing things isometrically (3D). It was fascinating how the addition of a few lines and/or some shading could suddenly turn a flat square into a 3D cube, or the flat letter “A” into a more “real”, more “solid” A-shaped object. But occasionally you draw the lines wrong or you shade the wrong part and you don’t get the perspective you planned.  For instance, dashed lines  in a drawing are generally understood to mean that that line is obscured or hidden from the viewer’s perspective.  This convention and it’s inclusion in a drawing help us figure out the orientation of the drawn object in 3D space even though the drawing is clearly only a flat representation of a non-flat object. So what happens when we draw the dashed lines as solid, too? The top picture at the right is called a Necker Cube. Because it’s missing that additional information about which lines would be hidden from view, it can be interpreted by our brains a couple of different ways, depending on how each of our brains fills in the missing info.  Most people look at it and say they are looking down on the cube from the right, so that the top, right, and front sides are visible. Others see it and say they are viewing it from below and to the left, so that the bottom, left, and front sides are visible.  Sometimes, the interpreted image flip-flops between the two as our brains try to fill in the missing information and make some consistent object of  what our eyes are seeing.  But some people see the cube one way and find it almost impossible to see it oriented the other direction. The middle and bottom pictures have the appropriate lines dashed for confirming which cube faces are towards the viewer. Removing the dashed lines entirely, or shading the faces described can also convey that.  Unlike some of M.C. Escher’s drawing that would use contradictory visual cues to show physically impossible scenarios (like staircases supporting themselves in a kind of loop), The Necker Cube is simply incomplete visual information. It is lines without any distinguishing cues to guess the intended orientation.

What does any of this have to do with Christianity? Just like 2 friends can look at the top cube and see the same cube oriented different directions, Christians and atheists often look at the same evidence in history books or through telescopes and microscopes and come to different conclusions. Two people can look at the testimonies in the Gospels or the evidence of creation pointing to its Creator, and not see it. They interpret it one way, maybe over and over again, and never see it the way I see it. Then they see the exact same thing they’ve seen a hundred times, but it flips, and suddenly everything’s different. Was the evidence contradictory or just incomplete? Did they have life experiences that have “hard-wired” them to see things a certain way? Praying for healing for a friend or family member and seeing that person die anyway, for example,  can bias people against God, regardless of what evidence they might see for Him. As a Christian, my hope is that I can fill in the missing information – those dashed lines –  that someone needs to see the evidence from the true perspective.  Have you been looking at an incomplete picture, seeing a materialistic universe with no place in it for God? I encourage you to take another look at the evidence with me each week.

Reliable Transmission

Isaiah Scroll vs Camera smallI talked to an atheist colleague recently who said that if Jesus appeared on the front steps of the capitol here in Little Rock in all His splendor, and did some miracles and ascended up in front of the TV crews, then he would be the first to bend the knee. But otherwise, he wouldn’t believe.

I told him that Jesus did make an appearance just under 2000 years ago, and did miracles for 3 years, and 4 biographers wrote about it, testified about it, and published their accounts, and we still read them today. He responded that those didn’t count, and that we couldn’t trust that eyewitness testimony. Interesting. I asked how we could know that George Washington existed. He said that we had historical records to prove it. Yes… from eyewitnesses like Ben Franklin saying that George was there at the Constitutional Convention… so why believe Ben and the other eyewitness patriots more than John and the other eyewitness apostles?

Also, why does Jesus need to come and prove Himself over and over again to each and every person throughout time? He’s not some genie in a bottle at our beck and call. If Jesus really was God, isn’t it a little arrogant to tell Him, “Once wasn’t enough. I won’t believe until you come and do a personal song and dance for me.” Seriously?

I told him that if he saw Jesus and believed, that would be a pretty momentous occasion, and he would probably want to document that on his own, in addition to the TV crews. Maybe with pen and paper, or on a blog, or social media, or a little cell phone video, something. Now what would someone say who finds some documentation left behind by him of this momentous event 2000 years from now? (Assuming that any of the video he counts as strong evidence survived more than a few years.) Their skepticism of my friend’s account in no way discounts the truthfulness of his recording what happened. If it happened, it happened, whether or not he documents it sufficiently to justify skeptics 2000 years from now who might argue that they won’t believe it because he only used video and not whatever super-realistic holographic sci-fi ways they have of documenting events in the future. Whether I testify in court, or write down what happened for you to read, or (now) record the audio/video of an event, or use some as yet nonexistent technology, the event objectively happened. Method of transmission doesn’t change the truthfulness of eyewitness testimony of an event.