Tag Archives: Logic

Of Movies and Church Corruption

Birkebeinerne Carrying Håkon Håkonsson – by Knud-Bergslien, 1868

I watched a Norwegian movie this past weekend called “the Last King” (that’s the English title, “Birkebeinerne” in Norway). The story takes place in the year 1206, and tells of 2 soldiers (Birkebeinerne) carrying the future king of Norway, Håkon Håkonsson, to safety when he was a baby. Because he and his mother were living in a village in territory controlled by an opposing faction in Norway’s civil war, the dangerous ski trek through a blizzard in the mountains, carrying a little baby, pursued by enemies wanting the baby (and any supporters) dead, makes for a great story. In fact, the epic true adventure is commemorated each year in Norway with the 54km (33.5mi) Birkebeinerrennet ski race, where participants carry a 3.5kg (8lb) backpack to pay tribute to the 2 soldiers carrying baby Håkon.

While I enjoyed the movie, there was a particular theme in the movie that caught my attention for its cynicism. Part of the plot of the movie is a villainous Catholic Bishop wanting to dominate all of Norway, who orders the hunting down and killing of the would-be heir to the throne. The audience is taken into the dark cathedral, where the Bishop gives his goons the following pep talk before dispatching them on their deadly mission:

“We have just received word from Nidaros. King Håkon is dead. The Birkebeinerne have lost their unifying force. The time of kings is past. But, the Church will always endure. When one man falls, another will take his place. And he answers only to God. We rule Eastern Norway. Western Norway is next. Soon the Church will have dominion over all of Norway. But one task remains. King Håkon is survived by a son. Today, an innocent boy. Tomorrow… our mightiest foe. The boy is being hidden on a farm in our territory. The man who finds the king’s son, shall enjoy great wealth all of his days. Show no mercy during your hunt for the child, for the Lord is eternally merciful, but He also requires sacrifices. Let law and order yield along the way… and bring me the boy’s head.”

Whether the Bishop in the movie is historically accurate or not, this evil Bishop is unfortunately how many people view the Church, and consequently Christianity. But is that an accurate portrayal? Reports of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, the marital infidelity of Protestant pastors, greedy televangelists, charlatans of the “Prosperity Gospel”, and corrupt “Christian” charities stealing donations only add to the impression of a corrupt and scandalous church no better than the rest of the world, and indeed, worse for the hypocrisy. But let’s compare our movie villain, the Bishop, to what the Bible teaches.

  • The Bishop desires a physical empire for the Church, yet  Jesus told Pilate at His trial that His kingdom is not of this world [Jn 18:36]. Rather, while foxes had holes, and birds had nests, He had no home [Mt 8:20]. The warnings of the moral dangers of chasing wealth and power are too many to mention here. However, our dear Bishop could’ve at least remember the model pointed to in Hebrews where the author talks of heroes of the faith who “went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them.” [He 11:37-38] This desire for earthly power is not an example of the Church’s calling, but rather of the universal fall (corruption) of mankind explained in Genesis 3.
  • The Bishop offers lifelong wealth as a reward to the one finding the king’s son for him. Yet riches were never a motivation of Jesus, His apostles, or any of the early Christians. Jesus said to store up for ourselves treasures in Heaven rather than on earth, and that man cannot have both God and money as his master [Mt 6:19-24].  He even warned how easily riches could get in the way of one getting to Heaven [Mt 19:23-24]. Instead, we are to seek His kingdom and His righteousness first, and God will provide what we actually need [Mt6:33].
  • The Bishop specifically said to “show no mercy” and to kill an admittedly “innocent boy” who might become his foe someday. Jesus disagrees. As He put it, “Blessed are the merciful” [Mt 5:7], “Love your enemies, and pray forthose who persecute you” [Mt 5:44], and do not simply refrain from murdering someone, but rather do not even be angry with them [Mt 5:21-22]. Paul likewise said to “overcome evil with good”  [Ro 12:21]. A far cry from the Bishop here.
  • The Bishop’s reference to God requiring “sacrifices” in this context is just an awful perversion of God’s Word [Mk 12:33].
  • The Bishop said to set aside law and order to accomplish his orders. Yet Paul and Peter both told all Christians to obey the civil government whenever possible. The only real biblical exception is when civil obedience would require disobedience to God [Ro 13:1-7, 1 Pe 2:13-16, Ac 4:18-22]. The Bishop was right that we answer to God, but God has also said that we must answer to the rulers He has allowed to preside over us.

Is the Bishop’s behavior an example of Christian practice? Hardly! On the contrary, it’s strongly opposed to what Jesus actually says. In fact, the Bishop’s attempt to kill a baby he fears will become his enemy someday is more reminiscent of King Herod trying to have Jesus killed as a baby [Mt 2:13,16]! While the Bishop was a fictionalized church leader, the examples I listed earlier are very real headlines. Nevertheless, each of them is also behavior that clearly goes against the Bible. Discounting all of Christianity because of some of these bad examples would actually be to commit the logical fallacy of composition: “arguing from the part to the whole, ignoring the fact that what is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole.”[1] Are these perpetrators corrupt? Absolutely. Do they invalidate Christianity? Absolutely not. Their behavior doesn’t flow from the Bible, and is, in fact, opposed to it.  So next time you’re tempted to cast a cynical look at Christianity because of disobedient Christians or people only claiming to be Christians [Jn 15:8,14,16], keep that cynicism focused on the person whose actions actually warrant it, and not the faith they are disgracing.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 87.

The Design Analogy

The DNA Structure – Illustration by Zephyris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15027555

There is a theory, known as Intelligent Design (ID), that postulates that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”[1] Many people reject this theory out of hand, and yet it just won’t go away. Why is ID so persistent? I would suggest it’s because analogy is so powerful. We tend to think analogically. We use analogies to work through difficult problems. When we have difficulty understanding a concept, a common first move is to try to find some way the new concept is analogous to something we already understand. Of course, all analogies break down at some point. Otherwise the 2 things being compared would be fully identical. But analogies help us to correlate known causes or effects with newly observed ones. Think back to when you had trouble understanding something new, and a friend or mentor who knew you well enough to know what kind of concepts you understood well, said “It’s like this…” and related it to something you were familiar with, and it suddenly clicked.

The problem for the atheist seeking a materialistic explanation for the universe and the existence of intelligent life is that we can’t seem to avoid analogies – comparisons – to design. Intelligent Design is such a persistent idea because so much of nature is analogous to human design. It’s actually pretty difficult to describe many things in nature without using design-centric terminology: we commonly speak of the “genetic code” and the “blueprints” of DNA; different “body plans” of the each species; the fine-tuning of the universe with its “clockwork precision”; cellular “pumps” and “motors”, and the “wiring” of our nervous system; and the “purpose” of different natural components. Even Richard Dawkins defined biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” and speaks of our bodies as consisting of trillions of cells “organized with intricate architecture and precision engineering into a working machine….”[2]  In fact, the human body has been compared to a “system of systems” similar to a building’s structural skeleton, architectural skin and functionality, and mechanical ventilation, plumbing, and electrical systems, except far more complex than anything any human has ever designed. The analogies between what we see in nature and the results of the human design process really do seem to flow rather readily, don’t they? Of course, the bacterial flagellum has become the poster-child for intelligent design, but why not? The analogy between it and an electric motor, both in function and even in individual parts really is uncanny. When searching for descriptions for natural processes and their results, all of these design-related terms keep rising to the surface as the most appropriate, fitting, terms to use. Why is that?

To answer why this whole debate between Intelligent Design and Naturalism even arises, let’s look at the what analogy really is. Peter Kreeft addresses this topic in his Socratic Logic textbook, where he makes several relevant points.

  • Analogies are often not meant as arguments to prove a case, but simply illustrations to better explain some part of it.
  • Arguments based on analogy do not prove anything with certainty, only varying degrees of probability.
  • Arguments from analogy are the most common kind of inductive argument and actually make up most of our daily inferences.
  • “Argument by analogy is an really an abbreviated form of induction and deduction together.”[3]

Now, I would say that ID isn’t simply attempting to make an illustration, but a proper argument, so let’s lay out some terms first. Induction is (typically) the process of drawing general conclusions based on observation of specific instances. The most basic form of induction is induction by simple enumeration. Think of statistics; you measure a certain part of a test population and induce some general conclusion from the sample you measured. The more you measure the more certain your conclusion. But generally, you cannot be certain except in the case that you measure every possible instance. Deduction is (typically) the process of reasoning that applies general principles to specific instances. Provided the premises are true and the conclusion logically follows from the premises, a deductive argument will provide certainty.

Now analogy is said to be a combination of the two because when we draw an analogy, we are thinking of multiple past instances of something, inferring a general conclusion from that previous track record, recognizing (perhaps unconsciously) the common essence tying those past instances together, as well as that common essence in a new instance, and applying that general principle to the new instance. Analogies provide us a shortcut for that thought process. The more cases we’ve seen, the more similarities between those cases and the new one under investigation and the more relevant they are, and the fewer the dissimilarities between them,  the more certainty we can have that the analogy is sound.

So why won’t Intelligent Design go away? Perhaps because we can recognize an intelligent mind behind all of our human designs, can infer that a mind is what’s required to generate any design, can recognize the twin pillars of design – choice and purpose – in many natural objects and processes we observe, and can therefore reasonably apply that concept of design to them even if we haven’t figured out the identity of the Designer yet. Of course, ID is just a scientific theory, and stops short of identifying the Designer, but we can apply what we know about the necessary attributes of this mystery guest to arrive at an identity. The question for my skeptical friends is this: if the evidence points to nature being the result of design, and the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, ontologically necessary, free agent known as God in the Bible is the best fit for the source of that design, will you follow the evidence where it leads?


[1] “Intelligent Design”, New World Encyclopedia. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Intelligent_design, accessed 2017-02-15.
[2] Both quotes are from Chapter 1 of Dawkins’ 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2010), pp.329-31.

Content to Doubt?

face-questions-1567164-639x373Last week, in sketching a portrait of scientific giant (and devout Christian) James Clerk Maxwell, I ended by asking if you are content to doubt. I’d like to expand on that question a little bit before continuing with that series.

What is doubt?

Doubt can be defined as disbelief, uncertainty, or lack of confidence in something.[1] One could also describe it as a condition of being unpersuaded or unconvinced of the truth of a statement.[2] Something each of these have in common is the idea of negation; doubt rarely expresses itself as a clear, positive assertion, but rather acts like a virus on other positive statements, parasitically draining them of their perceived strength. Suppose, for instance, that you say you think it will rain tomorrow, and your friend says that they doubt it. They haven’t come out and made a direct counterclaim that it won’t rain, but… they’ve still conveyed the idea that your statement may be wrong. Do you find yourself doubting now too? Do they know something you don’t? Like a virus, doubt, too, is often contagious.

Why do we doubt?

Let me give you the best reason to doubt before I give the more common one. Discovering contradictory evidence is a great reason to doubt a proposition. We know from logic that two contradictory statements can’t both be true at the same time in the same way. So when we find a legitimate contradiction, that should cause us to doubt our previous belief. However, contradictions are often only apparent ones, and we have to be willing to dig deeper before automatically assuming we found a contradiction in those cases. But there is a much more common reason for doubt, and that is emotion. Often, we don’t like the implications of a belief, particularly if they go against our own self-interest, and so we hope for a contradiction to find a way out of the obligation. We fuel our doubts out of selfishness. Other times, it is peer pressure and the fear of being an outsider that makes us wonder if our beliefs are wrong. But in any case, emotions are fickle things, and not a good reason to doubt our beliefs.

How do we overcome doubt?

  1. Examine it. Your doubt will typically be the conclusion of an unexamined syllogism (a logical argument, typically 2 premises and a conclusion). So first, supply what the missing premises would need to be to arrive at that conclusion.  Hidden premises are the bane of sound reasoning; so expose them here! A lot of times, this step will reveal the supposed reasons are completely unrelated to the conclusion. For instance, someone may doubt the existence of God, and come up with alleged contradictions in the Bible as the source of their doubt. Sorry, but the Bible could be completely made up, and God might still exist. Keep digging.
  2. Face it head-on. I said earlier that doubts tend to leech off of actual positive statements. To face doubt head-on, first express it as a positive assertion. Bring it out into the light and make it boldly say what it really is. If you have doubts about the existence of God, then don’t cover it up by saying you have “doubts” or “reservations”. Say “I think the proposition ‘God exists’ is more likely false than true.” Now you’ve actually made a claim, and he who makes the claim bears the burden of proof. A lot of time is spent trying to get out of the burden of proof these days, but this is a good thing to make your doubt into a claim with a burden of proof. Really! That forces you to recognize the need to justify your doubts just as much as the previous beliefs you’re now doubting.
  3. Don’t stop short. Think like an opposing debater looking at your argument for weaknesses. Recognize that while a weak link in your beliefs may have caused your doubts to begin with, your doubts also likely have some weak links. And yet, remember that weak links don’t necessarily refute a conclusion (on either side of the issue); they just show where you’ve failed to justify that conclusion, either in your initial belief or in your current doubt. You’ll likely need to keep repeating Step 1, forming a syllogism out of each premise, making it a conclusion needing supporting premises, and so on, until you get down to either some bedrock that will support your doubts, or shifting sand that shows your doubts to be unreasonable. Apply logic at each step. Are your terms clear, or are you equivocating on the meanings of words? Are your premises true? Does your conclusion at this particular level of your digging necessarily follow from your supporting premises under it?
  4. Recognize your own limitations. Get input from other perspectives, not just those that confirm your doubt. When you have doubts, you’re leaning toward a particular contrary position, and it’s all too easy to look for support in the direction you’re already leaning. Debates are great resources for expanding your perspective and thinking outside the box. A book author (or blogger) can get on a soapbox and conveniently ignore things, whether out of deceit or simply out of enthusiasm for his view. But a debate, and especially those in the form of published, written dialogues between opponents, can show you the best, fairest look at both sides of an issue because each side has to at least try to respond to an opponent critiquing their views.
  5. Finally, be honest and follow the evidence where it leads. In the Bible, Ezekiel tells us that God does not desire that anyone should perish[3], and Paul tells us that God has appointed our times and places that we might find Him, though He is not far from any of us.[4] One of Jesus’ disciples earned the notorious nickname “Doubting Thomas” because of his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection, but it’s good to remember that Jesus didn’t strike him dead for doubting; instead, He appeared to Thomas, showed him the evidence that it was really Him, and told him to “stop doubting and believe.”[5] As Matthew Henry says in his commentary on this passage, “There is not an unbelieving word in our tongues, nor thought in our minds, but it is known to the Lord Jesus; and he was pleased to accommodate himself even to Thomas, rather than leave him in his unbelief.”[6] Friend, He can do that for you today also. “Seek, and ye shall find.”[7] But don’t let doubt stop your seeking.

[1] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/doubt, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/doubt, accessed 2016-06-28.
[2] Though not defined as “unpersuaded” in most dictionaries, it still seems to apply here and has a basis in New Testament Greek. When Jesus told Thomas to “stop doubting and believe” the evidence standing before him, the word translated as doubting is ἄπιστος (apistos), which is the negation of the Greek word for faithful or believing, πιστος (pistos). The Greek root for faith is the word πείθω (peitho), meaning “to be persuaded of what is trustworthy”.[http://biblehub.com/greek/3982.htm] Hence, doubt can be seen as being “not faithful because unpersuaded, i.e. not convinced (persuaded by God)”[http://biblehub.com/greek/571.htm]
[3] Ezekiel 33:11, NASB.
[4] Acts 17:26-27, NASB.
[5] John 20:27, NIV.
[6] Matthew Henry’s Commentary, John 20:26-29.
[7] Matthew 7:7, KJV.

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. 🙂

“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.

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 freedictionary.com: “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.

Qualifications

Black Diamond - for experts only...
Black Diamond – for experts only…

There is a trend I’ve noticed in debates (especially online) where it is put forth that who you are disqualifies you from making any statement on a controversial issue. Those familiar with logic will recognize this as the genetic fallacy, that a statement’s origin can determine whether it’s true or false. And yet it persists in the public square. Here are some examples, some of which I’ve been personally challenged with: you can’t speak about human behavior unless you’re a psychologist; you can’t speak about science without being a scientist; you can’t speak about abortion unless you’re a woman; you can’t speak about legal issues unless you’re a lawyer, and on and on. Since this is often brought up, let’s look at this in more detail.

First off, does someone trained in a particular discipline and working in that area have an advantage over the typical layman in discussing that topic? Certainly, but this doesn’t preclude other people from forming reasonably valid opinions on the same topic. For instance, if you want to know whether your office building can support a heavier rooftop air conditioning unit, by all means, call an engineer like myself to investigate that for you. We’ll apply our knowledge, experience, and specialized analysis software to your situation to work out the safest, best solution to the problem. But if you’re in your office, and the roof is starting to visibly sag, the sheetrock on the walls is starting to buckle inward, and you can hear loud noises as bolts suddenly snap, please, don’t think you need to wait on an “expert” to tell you that you need to get out! That situation doesn’t require an expert to say “Run!” There is a difference between needing the fine-tuned conclusion that a subject matter expert can bring to a topic and needing to establish the broad, basic solution that can be deduced by anyone applying valid reasoning to the evidence at hand. In the roof collapse example, it doesn’t really matter to the occupants whether the roof beams are failing due to lateral-torsional buckling or by block shear at the column connection. They can look at the ceiling getting closer to their heads, and listen to the building, and reasonably come to the same basic conclusion as the engineer: this building is collapsing and we need to evacuate. Likewise, you don’t need to be a psychologist to recognize the guy trying to run people off the road has some serious anger issues he needs to deal with. And lawyers, despite their expertise, actually don’t decide the guilt or innocence of a person charged with murder. They can only explain the case; average citizens on the jury make the decision.   This idea that only experts on a topic can speak on any level about that subject leads to blind faith in those experts, and is really a forfeiture of our responsibility to dig deep and understand the issues we face. Please understand, this is a standard I hold myself to as well. If you hire me as an engineer, and I make some crazy-sounding recommendation that I can’t explain any basis for, don’t blindly trust me either – by all means, call me out on it.

Something else to consider is that amateur enthusiasts often develop extensive knowledge in those areas that attract them. For example, I don’t often have to deal with liquefaction as a design consideration, but someone whose house collapsed in an earthquake because it was built on susceptible soil may devote their life to learning everything they can about liquefaction mitigation. Even though they may not have the engineering credentials that I do, I might still do well to heed what they say about that topic. I’d want to verify how they arrived at their conclusion, but we should never discount someone’s statements simply because of the person making the statements. You see, ultimately, the objective nature of truth determines the validity of the message, not the qualifications of the messenger.

Often, when I get this kind of pushback, the person I’m debating ironically also doesn’t meet the qualifications they demand of me before I can speak on the topic. By their own standard, they shouldn’t be voicing their opinion either. But typically, this is just a tactic for attempting to shut down the conversation. For example, one time, an abortion supporter told me I couldn’t comment on anything about abortion because I wasn’t a woman. And yet, the Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of abortion in 1973’s Roe v. Wade case were all men. The difference? Only that they were agreeing with her position.

Are we free from the duty of making informed decisions? Can we just “leave that to the experts?” Can we ignore the claims of those who aren’t experts? Not as Christians, we can’t. The Bible tells us to “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”[1] That may surprise some who assume the Bible demands a “blind faith” or a “leap in the dark”, but we actually aren’t allowed to check our minds at the door. We need to study the evidence, reason through the implications, and make the wisest, most discerning choices we can, in whatever the matter is at hand, even if we’re not experts.

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB.

Translating Christianese, Part 7

Trinity ShieldIn January & February, I posted a series of articles that (hopefully) defined some common “church talk” terms in non-jargon fashion: “sin”, “holiness”, “righteousness”, “atonement”, “grace”, “justification”, “sanctification”, “born again”, “saved”, and “repentance”. This week, I want to add to that list a distinctly Christian term, yet one you won’t find actually mentioned by that name in the Bible – the Trinity. Nevertheless, the concept is throughout the Bible, and “in the confession of the Trinity throbs the heart of the Christian religion”.[1] The Trinity is the name given to the completely unique three-in-one relationship demonstrated by God. The idea that God is one, and yet three (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) is at the core of Christianity, but what exactly does that mean? Are Muslims right when they say we are polytheists worshiping three gods? Are skeptics right when they say one of our core beliefs is self-contradictory?  No. Now let’s dig into why not.

Definition

  • The Trinity, or Tri-unity, is the idea of “plurality in unity”, that God is three distinct persons united in a Being having one nature or essence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity describes three “Whos” in one “What”.[2]
  • A being’s nature or essence is what it is at its core without incidentals. For example, having blond hair is not essential to a human being, but having human DNA is. Nick Vujicic, the man born without arms or legs (and pretty amazing guy), is still obviously human despite not having the limbs typical of most humans. That’s because these are not what makes us human.
  • “Personhood is traditionally understood as one who has intellect, feelings, and will.”[2] Alternatively, a person can be defined philosophically as “a self-conscious or rational being”.[3] William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland use the concept of “imago Dei” (that humans are created in the image of God),[4] to explain that when we use terms like “person” to describe God, it’s not that we are trying to say how God is like us, but rather how we derive our nature from God. They put it this way: “Human beings do not bear God’s image in virtue of their animal bodies, which they have in common with other members of the biosphere. Rather, in being persons they uniquely reflect God’s nature. God Himself is personal, and inasmuch as we are persons we reflect Him.“[5] Part of the difficulty in understanding the Trinity is that our uniform experience is that one person correlates to exactly one human being. We have no experience with how 3 persons would correlate to 1 being.

Though there have been many attempts to explain the concept with different analogies, it’s important to remember that every analogy breaks down when the object under study is truly like nothing else. In fact, several common analogies actually explain competing ideas about God that are definitely not the Christian view. We’ll look at some of those in with related objections.

Objections

  •  Muslims look at the Trinity and think we are polytheistic (believers in multiple gods). However, the Trinity is not 3 gods (this would be tritheism), but rather one God in three divine persons. The Godhead is 3 personalities operating in perfect union, but only 1 essence.
  • Another common misconception is that God is one Being taking on different roles (or modes),  as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at different times. This is actually an old heretical view called modalism that says that God took on different modes as our Father from eternity past, then as our Savior as Jesus, and then as the Holy Spirit  after Jesus ascended. A common illustration of the Trinity – that God is like water in that it can exist in solid (ice), liquid (water) and gas (steam) – is actually an example of modalism. While it’s still H2O in each case, it isn’t water, ice, and steam at the same time. It has to stop being one to change form to the others. Similarly, the example of how a man can be a son, a husband, and a father at the same time also falls victim to this error (the modes may be simultaneous in this case, but they are exhibited by only one person instead of three). However, each member of the Godhead is equal in being (i.e. fully God) at the same time, while differing relationally from each other.[6]
  • The law of noncontradiction explains that a statement can’t be true and false in the same sense at the same time. When skeptics claim the Trinity is a contradiction, they are forgetting the “same sense” part of that law of logic. To say that God was 1 person and 3 persons, or 1 essence and 3 essences at the same time would be a contradiction. The correct term would be that this is a paradox (a statement that appears contradictory at first, but proves not to be on closer examination), or a mystery (something we simply don’t understand fully yet, like the wave-particle duality of light).

In closing, in the Trinity, we find mystery and awe for One truly beyond our finite understanding, yet who reveals Himself sufficiently for us to grasp in small ways the scale of our Creator’s nature. We find a foundation for our own dignity as humans. Yet we also find a reason for humility in remembrance of our own limited understanding. The more we grasp this, the more we are driven to worship – to give God the honor, respect, and adoration only He deserves. I leave you with these words from theologian Wayne Grudem on the matter: “Because the existence of three persons in one God is something beyond our understanding, Christian theology has come  to use the word person to speak of these differences in relationship, not because we fully understand what is meant by the word person when referring to the Trinity, but rather so that we might say something rather than nothing.”[6]


[1] Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, p. 281, as quoted in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 247.
[2] Norm Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume (Bethany House, Minneapolis, 2011), p. 540-1.
[3] “Person”, www.dictionary.com, definition 5 (Philosophy), accessed 10/25/2015.
[4] Genesis 1:26-27, NASB.
[5] William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic, Downer’s Grove, 2003), p.609.
[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000), p. 254-5.

The Challenge of a False Dilemma, Part 2

Decisions_smallIn last week’s post (here), we looked at how to tell if a dilemma before you is legitimate or not. This week, let’s apply that training in logic to a classic case, the Epicurean Dilemma. This is a series of questions regarding the goodness of God allegedly proposed by Epicurus in the 3rd century BC to show that God could not be omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-good or all-loving) if evil exists.[1]

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

The 4 questions have 2 base assumptions: 1)  omnipotence and omnibenevolence are required attributes of God, and 2) Evil exists. The first, depending on the definition of the terms, is in accord with traditional lists of attributes of God accepted by theists.[2] The second is reasonable given our observations of the world around us – just look at the news headlines and you’ll find abundant evidence of the existence of evil.  The horns of the dilemma then form a choice between:

A) God, if He exists, does not meet the “minimum job qualifications”, or
B) evil doesn’t exist.

Since evil is so readily apparent, “Whence cometh evil?”is a rhetorical question attempting to make the simultaneous existence of a good God and a world of evil an absurdity, and to steer us to accepting choice A. How then should we respond?

Actually, once we clearly define the terms, we’ll see that 3 of the 4 questions fall away, and the remaining has a reasonable answer. Let’s start with clarifying what we mean by these terms:

  • Omnipotence means having unlimited power to do whatever is possible. God cannot make square circles or stones so heavy He couldn’t move them. These are logical contradictions, and God cannot do what is contradictory.[3]
  • Omnibenevolence refers to God’s “infinite or unlimited goodness”, or His love for all.[4]
  • To love is “to will the good of its object”.[4]
  • Evil may be defined as a deprivation of some good that ought to be there; not a substance in itself, or a mere negation of substance, but a corruption of the good substances God made; analogous to rust on a car or rot in a tree.[5]
  • Free will is simply the ability to choose between alternative possibilities.

With clearly defined terms, we can now examine the argument. Though not mentioned in the dilemma, God has free will, which governs the use of His omnipotence. So then, just because God can do something, doesn’t mean He must. While His power to do anything possible is unlimited, His use of that power is limited by His will and His love. He could overwhelm us, and force us to only do what is right, but He doesn’t because of His love for us. Instead, He desires our freely-given love in return, since forced love isn’t really love at all. And so we have been created  with free will, able to choose to love or hate, to obey or rebel, to build up or destroy. This is where we start to see the nature of the false dilemma: the “problem of evil” really isn’t a choice between either God’s omnipotence or His omnibenevolence. It must factor in free will, both of God and man, and this actually answers the question “Whence cometh evil?” As Norman Geisler has highlighted, “God is responsible for making evil possible, but free creatures are responsible for making it actual.”[6] Free will is that two-edged sword that allows moral good and evil.

People often ask why God couldn’t simply eliminate all the evil in the world. But how many of us stop to think that if He did that, He just might start with me? We like to think other people are always the problem, or that He would take out the Hitlers of the world (and, you know,  maybe the guy that cut me off in traffic last week), but not sweet little me! Yet none of us are perfect, and perfection is the standard. Then, if we got our wish that a perfectly just God eliminate all the evil in the world, would any of us survive?

So is He able to prevent evil? Yes. He could make us all robots without the ability to disobey (but also unable to obey out of love). He could potentially give us “free will” but take away any bad choice that we were about to choose. Is that really freedom when the game is rigged like that? Is it really love when there’s actually no other possible option? He could potentially make every bad choice somehow have only good results, but (if possible) this seems to eliminate any concept of moral responsibility for our actions. I could go out and kill people knowing that God would simply follow behind me resurrecting them on the fly (or some other compensatory act). Is He willing to prevent evil? Yes, but not at the expense of free will that makes a morally good world possible.

We can therefore “escape between the horns” by showing how free will allows a third option that reconciles God’s attributes and the presence of evil in the world, or we can “take the dilemma by the horns”, by showing that the premises are false because of an unclear definition of the term “omnipotent”. In the end, God is willing and able to prevent evil, but it’s for our own good that He restrains His power and grants us the freedom that so often sadly results in the evil we observe.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil#Epicurus, accessed 10/17/2015.
[2] See Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume, (Bethany House Publishers, Bloomington, MN, 2011), p. 410 for a longer list of attributes.
[3] ibid, p. 487-8 (see also Hebrews 6:18, 2 Timothy 2:13, & Titus 1:2, NASB).
[4] ibid, p. 585.
[5] “Evil, Problem of”, in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, by Norman Geisler, (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2000, 5th Printing), p. 220. Condensed for brevity.
[6] ibid, p. 219.

The Challenge of a False Dilemma

Wall St BullSometimes as engineers, we are confronted with tough choices like counteracting project requirements; solving one problem makes the other worse, or vice versa. My boss gave me some good advice in these situations: redefine the problem. Often, the problem is not one of truly conflicting requirements, but rather of our presuppositions leading us to interpret the requirements a certain way, eliminating valid options prematurely (or more likely, never even considering them).

In many areas of life, we are likewise confronted with dilemmas where neither choice is desirable. The two unwelcome choices of a dilemma have long been compared to facing down the horns of a charging bull: but is it only a question of which horn you want to be skewered on? Not necessarily.[1]

The first step with any dilemma is to see if the choices offered are mutually exclusive and exhaustive. That will determine whether or not we are really limited to the choices given, or if we can “escape between the horns” of a false dilemma.  This is like my boss’s idea of redefining the problem. This is the easiest solution, but it may not always be possible, especially if the dilemma is carefully worded. For instance, consider the dilemma “He who is not with me is against me.” This is mutually exclusive and exhaustive (the way this is worded, a person trying to claim neutrality is lumped in with those in the “against” category; thus the case of x or non-x exhausts the possibilities, and the two are contradictory positions that can’t be held at the same time in the same manner, thus being exclusive).[2]  If there are other options not stated, or if we’re not limited to an either-or choice (maybe both options or neither apply) , then it’s not truly the dilemma it was made out to be. For example, suppose your friend Joey asks you if hamsters should have legal rights, and on answering, you’re given the dilemma “If you don’t agree with me on this issue, you’re either a bigot or an idiot!” While it may be a childish response,  it’s still an example of a dilemma, but one that definitely doesn’t exhaust the possibilities; the idea that Joey could simply be wrong and your opposing view perfectly warranted is still a viable option.

What if we really are obligated to the dire options given? Then we need to look at the choices themselves to see if the conclusions are true. This is called “taking the dilemma by the horns”. Invalid reasoning, false premises, and ambiguous terms can break one or both horns of the dilemma. Suppose we accept Joey’s conclusions of bigot or idiot as the only possibilities. Are those really the necessary result of disagreeing with him? Most bad arguments won’t actually have invalid reasoning. Even Joey’s response is still logically valid – if his assumptions are true. First, let’s look at those. In other words, what is he assuming connects disagreement with bigotry and idiocy? Filling in those unstated premises, his dilemma would look more like this: “If you disagree with me on this, then either A) you are a bigot, for all who disagree with me regarding hamster rights are bigots, or B) you are an idiot, for all who disagree with me on this are idiots.” If his terms are appropriate, and these premises true, then his either-or conclusion would be valid. But “all” is actually a pretty big word in each of his assumed premises, as that implies that disagreement with him somehow consistently results in reduced mental capacity or unfair intolerance in other people. Unless he could clarify that, this premise appears to be false. This brings us to the most common cause of false conclusions: ambiguous terms. The term “bigot” means someone with an obstinate and unfair intolerance of opposing ideas, and so it does not follow that you are a bigot simply for having an opposing idea. In this case, Joey is probably using “bigot” ambiguously to begin with, which makes his first premise false once we correctly define the  term. It’s important to remember that refuting an argument doesn’t prove the conclusion to be false. You might still be a bigot or an idiot, but your friend will have to come up with better reasons to prove that.

Of course, Joey the Defender of Hamsters was a somewhat silly example, but the concepts apply to any dilemma (or any other disagreement) you might find yourself in. Remember: define the terms clearly so you understand the issue; judge whether the supporting reasons are true;  determine whether the conclusions necessarily follow from those reasons; and with dilemmas specifically, determine whether the conclusions offered are really the only ones available. Tune in next week as we apply this tactic to a more complex dilemma, an argument against the goodness of God called the Epicurean Dilemma.


[1] See Peter Kreeft’s “Socratic Logic” textbook, (St Augustine’s Press, 2010), Ed. 3.1, p. 306-310 , for a more technical analysis of constructing and responding to dilemmas.
[2] Matthew 12:30, NASB. This quote from Jesus uses the Law of the Excluded Middle and the Law of Noncontradiction, and is a sobering warning to those thinking they can be neutral toward Jesus, or think of Him as “a wise teacher” and nothing more.