Tag Archives: Logic

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.


  • 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.


  •  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.

Memes and Hidden Premises

Philosoraptor EnthymemeIt’s hard to be on the internet these days without seeing these “memes” (rhymes with dreams). Memes (also called image macros), are clip art or photos with whatever caption a person wants to use to convey an idea. Atheist Richard Dawkins is credited with coining the term back in 1976 to describe the concept of a piece of cultural information propagating and changing over time in an evolutionary fashion. He derived the name from the Greek word for mimicry, “mimema”, as he was trying to show how ideas could propagate through imitation and evolve over time. With the advent of the net and things “going viral”, the name has stuck around, if not exactly the same as he intended.[1] The common internet memes we see so often today might also be classified with another similar-sounding, but unrelated, term: enthymemes. What’s that? Glad you asked. An enthymeme is an abbreviated syllogism, and a syllogism is a set of 3 propositions: 2 premises and a conclusion. The classic example is the following:

Premise 1) All men are mortal.
Premise 2) Socrates is a man.
Conclusion) Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

An enthymeme shortens this format down to only 2 propositions. “Enthymeme” comes from the Greek word en-thymos, meaning “in mind”, because one proposition is “kept in mind” instead of stated.[2] This can take a couple of forms. The conclusion can be left out as a form of rhetorical setup where the audience makes the connection given the 2 premises that are allegedly true. An example of this could be something like, “Only lawyers are qualified to serve in Congress and write laws, and I don’t see a law degree hanging on your wall…” The intent is for the audience to fill in the conclusion in their own mind that the speaker’s opponent wouldn’t be qualified to serve in Congress by that measure. Hopefully, they would also question the truth of the first premise, but I digress.

More commonly, one of the premises will be given, along with a conclusion that is supposed to obviously follow from that. Here’s where we have to not rush to agree with the catchy sound bite until we’ve examined it a little closer (even if the conclusion expresses something we support). In this case, the conclusion is stated, so we know the author’s intent. The stated premise may be true, but there is typically a hidden premise (“kept in mind”) that may or may not be true, and that will typically determine whether or not the conclusion necessarily follows. Once we discover the hidden premise, then we can actually analyze the view being put forward. Why is this important? If the 3 requirements of clearly defined terms, true premises, and valid argument are met, then we have a sound argument and the conclusion has to be true (whether we like it or not). Therefore, it’s important to be able to see whether someone’s view is actually supported by the reasons they give.

While validity is a measure of correct form, the argument  can still be valid even with false premises as long as the conclusion necessarily results from the premises (like the rhetorical example above). Take, for example, the following argument: “How could it be right to restrict abortion? Any restriction on a woman’s right to control her own body is wrong.”[3] This is a passionate plea on a controversial issue, but is it justified? Rewording the initial question into a declarative sentence, we have “It is wrong to restrict abortion” as the conclusion, and “Restricting a woman’s right to control her own body is wrong”  as the only stated supporting premise. But there has to be something connecting these 2 propositions together. The hidden premise in this case is “Restricting abortion is restricting a woman’s right to control her own body.” Put in syllogistic form, we would then have the following:

Hidden Premise 1) [Restricting abortion] is [restricting a woman’s right to control her own body].
Stated Premise 2) [Restricting a woman’s right to control her own body] is .
Stated Conclusion) Therefore, [restricting abortion] is .

Note: brackets are used to help keep track of the terms of each proposition to more clearly see the relationships between terms. Now we can see that this is indeed a valid structure because the conclusion does necessarily follow if the premises are true. But the argument still has to pass 2 other tests for the conclusion to be true: clear terms and true premises. In this case, the fetus is a separate human body with its own DNA, fingerprints, blood type, and gender, residing in the mother’s body. Therefore, it is not  part of her body, so the hidden premise is false. Also, most people wouldn’t think twice about restricting a woman’s right to control her own body if she were trying to commit suicide, so it would seem that even the stated premise is not true (at least not without being more specific). Now, the stated conclusion could still be true, but not for the reasons given by the author. This, then, is not a sound argument.

So before you share that next clever meme that supports your view, or get frustrated by one that doesn’t, take a few minutes to look for hidden assumptions. Then examine their logic. You might just be surprised how many popular sentiments don’t have a leg to stand on.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme, accessed 2015-10-06.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, Ed. 3.1 (St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), pp. 264-275, “Enthymemes”. This chapter includes this bit of wisdom – “[T]here is no more practical skill you can learn from a logic course than this: how to smoke out an arguer’s hidden assumptions.” Indeed!
[3] ibid., p272, Exercise #20.

The Logic of God

God Separates the Light and the Darkness - Michaelangelo - 1512
God Separates the Light and the Darkness – Michelangelo – 1512

In previous posts (here and here), I’ve written about the need for a clear understanding of logic to separate good and bad thinking. I’ve highlighted the fundamental laws of logic: the Law of Identity (A is A), the Law of Non-contradiction (A is not non-A), and the Law of the Excluded Middle (either A or non-A). These are so fundamental to basic thought, it’s easy to not think about them. Yet remembering these basic, self-evident truths can keep you from falling victim to  some surprisingly common mistakes in this age of relativism. Sadly, some Christians have tried to distance themselves from logic, thinking that “God is above logic”. On the contrary, the Bible reveals in its descriptions of God a rich exposition of these truths that shows that logic is part of God’s very nature.

Consider the Law of Identity. Commonly formulated as A=A, this demonstrates why these are called “self-evident” truths – you recognize the truth of it as soon as you see it. There is no proof of this because this is one of your basic building blocks of thought that you can’t break down any lower. Something simply is what it is. How is this demonstrated in Scripture? In the book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses, telling him to go and rescue the Jews enslaved in Egypt. Moses worries that the Jews, who have lived in the polytheistic Egyptian culture for centuries by this point, won’t believe him when he tells them that “the God of your fathers has sent me to you.” He supposes they may ask “What is His name?”, and asks God how he is to answer. God responds with “I Am Who I Am. Tell them ‘I Am has sent me to you.'”[1] This expression of independent, self-existent being is the epitome of the Law of Identity. We can all be identified in relation to someone else. A man may be his father’s son, or his sibling’s brother. There may be hundreds of Johns in a city, tens of John Smiths, only 2 that live on the same street, but only one John Smith Jr on that street. But here, God shows that His name can only relate Him to Himself. He is truly in a category by Himself. And we understand this by the Law of Identity.

Let’s look at the Law of Non-contradiction now. There are several different ways of expressing this, but in general, something cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same manner. Similarly, something can’t both exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. How is this demonstrated in the Bible? The apostle John records Jesus saying that “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.  The book of Hebrews tells us that “it is impossible for God to lie”, and the apostle Paul tells Titus that God “does not lie” and Timothy that “He cannot deny Himself”.[2] Why is this important? Because logic seeks after the truth, and the opposite of truth is a lie. A lie can also be defined as a contradiction, for truth corresponds with reality, while a lie contradicts reality (a contradiction, from the Latin “contra” + “dictio” literally “speaks against itself”). So here we see that because God cannot lie, He cannot violate the Law of Non-contradiction.

The Law of Excluded Middle says that something either is or isn’t, true or false, on or off. There is no middle option between contradictory states. There are times when we may have a spectrum of choices, like when the gas tank is empty, or full, or somewhere in between. The Law of the Excluded Middle comes into play when the choice is between true opposites where one choice is the negation of the other, Instead of “empty” and “full”, the choice is between empty and not-empty, or between full and not-full. God either exists or He doesn’t. Our own belief, unbelief, or agnosticism does nothing to change that objective status. The apostle John tells us that “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.”[3] It’s either all or nothing.He either exists as morally perfect, without blemish, or not at all.

Now, is all of this to say that God is somehow limited by some man-made rules? Hardly. The laws of logic aren’t made, but discovered. Logic is the lens through which we look to make sense of reality, and it makes sense of reality because it is founded in the nature of the Creator of reality. Rather than limiting God, logic gives us a glimpse of His nature.

[1] Exodus 3:14, NASB.
[2] Hebrews 6:18, 2 Timothy 2:13, Titus 1:2, NASB.
[3] 1 John 1:5, NASB.
[4] D.Q. McInerny, Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, (Random House, 2005), p. 25-30. Though not quoted directly, this short, concise summary of basic logic provided much of the background on the laws of logic referenced here.

Deconstructing Dawkins, Part 1

Richard DawkinsToday, I wanted to look at an argument from Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” where he says “[A]ny creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it.”[1] Or to put it in the classic form of a syllogism:

Premise 1:  Creative intelligences are highly evolved.
Premise 2: Highly evolved components appear late in time.
Conclusion: Therefore, creative intelligences can’t be responsible for any design activity occurring early in time.

This might sound reasonable until we look closer at the original question and recognize Richard’s bait-and-switch. The question at hand is whether unguided processes like physical laws, random interactions, and natural selection are responsible for the current state of the observable universe, or if a creative intelligence (God) is instead responsible. So we are baited with a choice between the natural and the supernatural, but then Richard pulls a switch and says that creative intelligences also are the results of naturalistic processes only. We find the coin toss is rigged, for the coin he’s using is really naturalism on both sides. He does this by assuming naturalism is true in the premise in order to conclude that it’s true. Now let’s flesh out some terms in his argument to show precisely how it supports the premises with the conclusion.

Premise 1:  Creative intelligences are highly evolved the result of unguided, naturalistic processes (because naturalism is true).
Premise 2: Highly evolved components The results of unguided, naturalistic processes appear late in time.
Conclusion: Therefore, creative intelligences the products of unguided, naturalistic processes can’t be responsible for any design activity occurring early in time, so they must somehow still be responsible for originating everything that exists, but in a non-designed way. Therefore, intelligent design is false, leaving naturalism as the true alternative.

We would certainly agree that unguided, naturalistic processes aren’t responsible for any design (ever), as design is an inherently intelligent process relying on choice and purpose in the mind of a designer. But to redefine “creative intelligence” as a naturalistic product is to try to rig the game so as to ignore the original choice between mind and matter as the ultimate causative agent. But aside from that tactic, and his assuming that naturalism is true in Premise 1 to determine that naturalism is true in the conclusion, can his first statement about sufficiently complex creative intelligences evolving be true? Actually, no. Dr. Stephen Meyer has highlighted the extremely low amount of functionally specific information that can possibly be formed by unguided processes like this:

“In a nonbiological context and absent intelligent input, the amount of specified information of a final system, Sf, will not exceed the specified information content of the initial system, Si, by more than the number of bits of information the system’s probabilistic resources can generate, with 500 bits representing an upper bound for the entire observable universe.”[2]

Meyer limits his statement of a theory of conservation of information to nonbiological cases, but that is precisely what we are talking about here when Dawkins speaks of a creative intelligence not being available to design the universe. Evolution would only be available (in theory) once a self-replicating organism had formed.  So even if Dawkins were correct that creative intelligences were evolved, he is left with no reasonable explanation for how that first life originated, or how the universe originated tuned so precisely for life to even be possible. This fine-tuning of the universe represents far more than 500 bits of specified information, yet more information than that exceeds the probabilistic resources of the entire universe. Once we are confronted with biological entities, the problem is only magnified. By Dawkins’ own admission, an amoeba has more information in it than 1,000 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.[3] And we still have a long way to go before we get to the complex intelligence found in a human. Yet it’s highly unlikely that a human would be able to fine-tune the universe to the degree we observe. It truly is a fine-tuned system of interdependent fine-tuned systems. For the designer of the universe, we are talking about many orders of magnitude beyond that 500 bit limit. We simply have to have a Designer of incomprehensible abilities available, from the beginning (technically, from before the beginning of space-time), to account for the amount of information we find in the universe. This is none other than God, and it turns out to be Dawkins who is deluded in denying Him.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2008, p. 52.
[2] Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell, 2009, p293-4. See here for a previous post looking at the Universal Probability Bound from which the 500 bit information limit is derived.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1996, p.116.

The Truth that Won’t Budge

the truth shall make you freeI heard some sobering statistics in church this past Sunday: 78% of Americans overall, 64% of American Christians, 94% of teenage Americans overall, and 91% of teenage American Christians don’t believe that objective truth exists.[1] This represents a staggering disconnect with reality. You might question why I would say the majority of the US population is disconnected from reality, but I would ask in return, “What is truth?” Truth is correspondence with reality, and reality is painfully objective. If you don’t believe that, go find a big rock and kick it barefoot, and see which gives way: your subjective idea that it won’t hurt, or the objective solidity of that rock. No matter how much you might want to believe something is true, it either is or it isn’t; and no amount of belief, desire, “positive mental attitude”, or temper tantrums on the part of you (the subject) can change that truth about the object (unless you go and change the object). That’s because truth is rooted not in the subject but the object. That’s what it means for truth to be objective.

We actually can’t live like there is no objective truth. It simply conflicts with reality too much for anyone to live like that consistently for any length of time.  In fact, this idea that something “is what it is”, is the Law of Identity, one of the fundamental laws of logic considered to be self-evident . The Law of Non-contradiction then builds on this to say that “it is impossible for something to both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.” For instance, I cannot be both sitting at my desk and not sitting at my desk at the same time. The Law of Excluded Middle then says that there is no middle state between existence and nonexistence. These logical truths build on ontological  truth, or existence. An object is ontologically true if it exists, and statements about it are logically true if they are not self-contradictory and accurately correspond to that existence – that is, to reality. But in all of this, the subjective interpretations of the person observing an object never come into play. These fundamental laws of logic in effect anchor us to an objective understanding of reality – even when reality interferes with our desires.

However, maybe the disconnect isn’t with physical reality. Perhaps the majority of Americans in this generation haven’t forsaken all objective truth, just the objective truth that they can’t see, touch, hear, and smell. Are moral truth claims simply subjective then? Saint Augustine once said, “All truth is God’s truth.”[2] If God exists and is the Creator of all, doesn’t it make sense that whatever corresponds to the reality He made would be consistent? He is, after all, “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”[3] That’s why I’m not surprised when scientists find that the universe couldn’t have existed eternally, but had to have a beginning. God, the One who began it, told us it had a beginning in the very first 3 words of the Bible, His direct revelation to us.[4] I’m just glad scientists are finally starting to catch up to what Christians (and Jews before) have known for thousands of years! Moral truths are no different. All commands, such as laws prescribing behavior, are grounded in the authority of the one issuing the command. As much as I might like to at some places, I can’t just put a traffic light where I want. I can’t reroute traffic at the intersections on my commute that always back up. I can’t because I don’t have the authority, but the city does. Likewise, there are laws the city can’t change, but the state can. There are laws that apply to all states in our union, and help define what it means to be an American versus a citizen of another nation. Yet there are also laws that apply to every nation. Lying, stealing, murder – these are things that are wrong regardless of nation, culture, or time. But is that really surprising if these moral laws are grounded in the unchanging nature of God?

I have to wonder what Christians mean when they are telling people  that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life”[5], and “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”[6] if there is no objective truth. Does Jesus change to match each person’s interpretation of Him? What exactly is setting us free if truth is different for each of us?

The church in the book of Acts was accused of “turning the world upside down”.[7] Is it any wonder that the American church isn’t doing that today when there’s such a minimal difference between us and the rest of the world’s culture? With statistics like those above, we’d turn ourselves upside down right along with the world if we actually started living the faith we claim. Then again, with statistics like those, maybe we need to be turned upside down.

[1] Bill Parkinson, sermon titled “Believe because it’s true”, preached at Fellowship Bible Church, Little Rock, AR, July 12, 2015. See the video or download the mp3 here.
[2] The original quote from Augustine’s work “On Christian Doctrine” is “…but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…”, although it is commonly condensed to the phrase I used above.
[3] “Hebrews 13:8, NASB.
[4] “In the beginning…” – Genesis 1:1, NASB.
[5] John 14:6, NASB.
[6] John 8:32, NASB.
[7] Acts 17:6, ESV.

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.