Saturday, September 30, 2006

What's in the Bible   Lesson 1.1 Creation

This is part of my current Sunday School, which is a basic tour through the whole bible. The primary text is What's in the Bible by R. C. Sproul and Robert Wolgemuth. Most of the maps are from the Tyndale Handbook of Bible Charts and Maps

The approach here is big picture, less detail. The goal is to make you comfortable with the entire bible, so that when you look in detail at any one part you don't feel as though you're picking up a tome youv'e never read and starting in chapter 47.

I will maintain a list of links to the lessons in the left sidebar.


The bible contains sixty-six books written by about forty-five writers. The dates of the books span approximately fifteen hundred years. Even for those who have read the entire bible more than once, it is difficult to get your arms around the whole thing. Most of us struggle to place stories in their proper time, and to understand what was happening in the rest of the world while a particular narrative was taking place. It can make us shy away from the blessings found in the Old Testament, because it all seems so confusing.

The Bible is different from all other books, but in an important sense it is just like any other book: it is meant to be read and understood in its entirety, not as disconnected pieces. The bible is not an anthology of short stories. It is a complete book with a beginning, middle, and end.

Do you feel a sense of dread when a Sunday School or a pastor teacher mentions the Patriarchs, or the Exile, or the Second Temple, or the Tabernacle, or the Sanhedrin, or obscure Judges and Kings? If so, this course is meant to help you. The goal is to help each of us gain a better sense of the Bible as a complete book and to blunt its intimidation factor. As such, we will take an adventure ride through the entire Bible, trying to place each section in its proper context and to gain an appreciation of the whole.

1. Creation and Blessing

We might as well start at the very beginning:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
There is a great deal packed into this first verse. First, we see that there was a beginning. There was a time when the universe was not. The Bible says a great deal about history and archeology that can be tested. It says very little about science. But its most profound scientific statement comes here in its first sentence. A scientific prediction that, from the time it was penned took over three millennia to confirm: The universe began. There was nothing, and then there was something. As late as the middle of the 20th century many scientists held on to the theory that the universe always existed because they wanted to avoid the religious implications of a beginning. The great British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) wrote:
Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order of Nature is repugnant . . . I should like to find a genuine loophole
Einstein also championed a universe with no beginning. But modern cosmology unambiguously shows the universe is expanding. Run an expansion backwards in time and you get--a beginning. The score stands: Bible 1, Einstein 0.

But that's not all you get. The first verse tells us that in (our) beginning, God already was. He predates our universe. Even more, His existence is assumed. This is important--the bible does not prove God exists, it does not even pretend to prove God exists, and should not be used to try to prove God exists to unbelievers. In the Bible, God's existence is axiomatic. It then proceeds to answer the "what now?" question, given that God exists.

The creative work of God is described as ex nihilo, meaning out of nothing. There were no raw materials lying about for God to use when He created. God created supernaturally.

We should take a second to ponder what supernatural means. It means something that is "beyond" natural. In scientific terms, it means something that cannot be explained by the physical laws. Only God can act supernaturally, although he may act supernaturally through men. When we say that Moses parted the Red Sea, we know that we really mean that God parted the Red Sea.

When God acts supernaturally in the presence of human witnesses, we call His actions miracles. One way to describe miracles is to say that God temporarily and locally suspends the laws of physics. This seemingly obvious point is very difficult to get across to skeptics who want to show the impossible: that the bible is inconsistent with science. Many will point to the miracles as examples where the bible is incompatible with science--but miracles are exempt from any such discussion. That is why we call them miracles and not "tricks." Some bible critics understand this, but many do not.

In His Image

Most of us are familiar with the first chapter of Genesis. After creating the earth and the animals and pronouncing the good, God created the one creature that was unique; the only one created in His Image: man. In what way was man in God's image? Was it because man sort of resembles God physically? No, of course not. Man is in God's image in the sense that he is capable of rational thought. He has a free will. He has a moral compass. Man has human versions of these same attributes that God possesses--which allows man to know and to worship God. In this way, God's creation brings glory to God.

The Fall

Evolution argues that man's morality evolved. That is, starting from the idea of the selfish gene whose sole purpose is to replicate itself (from this view, a chicken is an egg's way of making more eggs) man developed a moral compass, because man has a better chance to survive in a law-abiding society. We can jokingly say: our selfish gene selfishly evolved selflessness because a selfless man selfishly has a better chance to survive the selfishness of others when they too behave selflessly, albeit for their own selfish reasons.

Christianity, on the other hand, doesn't believe that morality evolved. Quite the opposite: we believe it devolved. Our morality was at one level--and then it got worse, not better. We call that degradation the fall, or original sin.

We all know the story of the fall. Adam and Eve lived in a paradise. In Eden, God removed (almost) everything that would tempt man to curse him. There was no death at the mouths of predators. No childhood leukemia. No leprosy, yellow fever, ALS, or autism. It was God's biosphere--a laboratory in a certain sense, where the only temptation present to prompt man to curse God as unfair was kept as minor as possible--and yet man failed. Adam and Eve ate of the tree from which they were forbidden.

It is important to recognize what original sin means and what it doesn't mean. Original sin means, quite simply, that we are born to sin.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Ps. 51:5, NIV)
Original sin does not mean we stand charged with Adam's sin. That is a misconception. Lead a sinless life and God will not keep you out of heaven on a technicality: True you committed no sin, but you forgot that Adam's sin was in your debit column. Gotcha! Such a concept impugns God's justice. No, original sin means something much worse, that we are such a corrupted race that in our natural state we have no choice but to sin. Whatever we do as natural men, no matter what its outward appearance, is but filthy rags in God's eyes. Adam, you see was our representative. He sinned, and the race suffered for it. On the one hand it seems unfair. But only superficially.

For it is illustrative of the fact that God interacts with man collectively--in addition, of course, to individually. The fact that God interacts with mankind and not just individuals, obvious as it sounds, is often neglected in modern evangelism, with its emphasis on a personal this and a personal that. In fact, I am resolved that if anyone ever again asks me whether Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior I am going to reply: Of course not, what a ridiculous question! Why, the mind reels! Jesus is the Lord and Savior of all who trust in the power of his blood. Why would I consider him my personal savior?

The fact that God has allowed the many to be corrupted because of the sin of their representative sets the stage for God to allow the salvation of many based on the righteousness of a different, perfect representative.

What if there was no original sin? What if Adam's sin had consequences only for Adam, and not for his descendents? We all know what would have happened: You would still have sinned, and I would have too. And if we were not represented collectively by Adam, how can we suppose that we would have been represented collectively by Christ? In that case, we really would be in need of a personal Lord and Savior. This way, that we have a common Lord and Savior, is much better.

The fall sets the theme for all scripture: redemption. Of the 1189 chapters in the Bible, the first two are about man being in fellowship with God. One is about man falling out of fellowship. The remaining 1186 are about redemption. Before the fall, we walked with God. Ever since, we run from Him. Scripture is not about man seeking God, but God seeking man, as John tells us: We love Him because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19).

Next: the Abrahamic Covenant.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Dembski sets the record straight

When reading this post, keep in mind some of my recent complaints about the ID movement.

Today on his blog, Dembski responds to criticisms coming from Ken Miller.

Dembski offer three points "for the record."

The first is that he did not withdraw from the Dover case, he was fired. That may be technically correct, I don't know. However, the evidence indicates that the overall treatment of the IDers on the Dover school board by the ID movement was reprehensible. As soon as the writing was on the wall, the trains out of Dover were booked. The patsies on the school board must have felt like the Bay of Pigs invaders: Where's our air support? Where are the Marines? You promised!

One thing Dembski never abandons is his bravado. Not long before Dover he wrote:
I'll wager a bottle of single-malt scotch, should it ever go to trial whether ID may legitimately be taught in public school science curricula, that ID will pass all constitutional hurdles.
And in this latest post:
I was frankly looking forward to being deposed by the ACLU and staring them down at the trial.
The post-Dover ID movement talking point is something along the lines of "we never wanted or promoted the idea of ID in the science classroom." This is in spite of the fact that three of the Movements most recognized names wrote Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula: A Legal Guidebook. The conclusion of that document:
Local school boards and state education officials are frequently pressured to avoid teaching the controversy regarding biological origins. Indeed, many groups, such as the National Academy of Sciences, go so far as to deny the existence of any genuine scientific controversy about the issue. Nevertheless, teachers should be reassured that they have the right to expose their students to the problems as well as the appeal of Darwinian theory. Moreover, as the previous discussion demonstrates, school boards have the authority to permit, and even encourage, teaching about design theory as an alternative to Darwinian evolution-and this includes the use of textbooks such as Of Pandas and People that present evidence for the theory of intelligent design.
You would have to, it seems to me, spin this as "we don’t think ID belongs in the science classroom, but just in case you do, here is a guidebook. Did I mention, that we don't think it belongs in the classroom?”

The second of Dembski's "record straightening" points is related to the timing of his so-called Vise Strategy. If you have never read the Vise Strategy (or enjoyed its graphics) you can find it here. In that document, Dembski plays the lawyer. He presents questions that should be asked in a trial "when interrogating Darwinists with the goal of opening up discussion in the high school biology curriculum about evolution." So, reminiscent of the Guidebook described above, we have an ID leader being mighty helpful for a cause that has been denied: getting ID in the science curriculum.

Here I want to pause. To my readers who, like myself, see ID as a wonderful and powerful way to strengthen one's awe in Christ as the creator of all things, I urge you to read the "Vice Strategy" (and the Guidebook) and ask yourself: does formulating and participating in strategies such as what is outlined therein resemble anything I want to be associated with in terms of my evangelism? I'd be interested in your honest answer, yes or no.

Dembski's third point is that the ID Movement is not dead or dying. He writes (boldface added):
For a movement that is [allegedly] in its death throes, I, as one of its principal advocates, am looking at more speaking engagements than I can fulfill and very generous honoraria (I suspect more than Ken Miller receives). A good gauge for when a movement enters death throes is when people stop talking about it being in death throes and simply ignore it as something that is of no consequence and indistinguisable from something that doesn't exist. In short, when Ken Miller stops giving public talks against ID, we'll know that the movement is in its death throes (that, or he'll have converted to our side).
Here I was amazed about two things: the first is the tone of the reference to his monetary compensation. This, I would point out, is consistent with recent criticisms I have made about the ID movement: it is part cottage industry and some of its royalty are making a living off the movement (not unlike TV evangelists) rather than doing science. But the more amusing point Dembski made was "A good gauge for when a movement enters death throes is when people stop talking about it being in death throes."

This from a man who makes apocalyptic, Hal Lindsey-like forecasts regarding the death of evolution:
In the next five years, molecular Darwinism - the idea that Darwinian processes can produce complex molecular structures at the subcellular level - will be dead. When that happens, evolutionary biology will experience a crisis of confidence because evolutionary biology hinges on the evolution of the right molecules. I therefore foresee a Taliban-style collapse of Darwinism in the next ten years. (W. Dembski, Touchstone Magazine, 17(6), pp. 60-65, 2004).
Dembski can't stop talking about the death of evolution (he makes other predictions which I can point you to, if you are interested) and just several posts earlier on his blog he lauded Jonathan Wells's essay entitled: "Why Darwinism is Doomed," and yet he can, apparently with a straight face, argue that a movement whose imminent demise is discussed too often is one that is in no danger of collapse?

I have been urged by several people I respect to reconsider my objections to the ID movement. Fair enough. However, I would ask in return the same soul-searching from my fellow Christians who stand behind the movement as it now exists. Can you find any biblical support that justifies the tactics of the ID movement? Can you read the documents and the essays and the litigation strategies and say to yourself: this is a place where God wants me to be?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Legal Guardianship

I just got back from Probate Court. Many of you know that I have an autistic son. I had to petition the court for legal guardianship. It was straightforward--I think it is only ever a problem if either (a) the subject in question appears capable of taking care of himself or (b) the subject fights the petition. It can also complicate matters if the subject has considerable financial assets. None of these applied, and everything sailed through. By the end of the hearing, the Judge was in love with Luke--just like everyone else who meets him.

After the hearing Luke asked the judge where he lived. He always asks that. The judge laughed and said: "Now that I won't tell you!" A routine safety precaution, no doubt. Luke also asked: "I saw a judge on the news. Is he real?" This made everyone laugh--but actually I knew what he meant. He knows that some people he sees on television are "real" and some are actors, and he often asks me to make the distinction.

If you have a child with a mental handicap, start thinking about guardianship. Do not wait until he is eighteen. At eighteen, your child can sign to make purchases or enter into other binding contracts. Also, the school could (indeed, probably has to) block you from making decisions on his IEP. With guardianship, his rights in these matters are removed and given to you.

So--it was a good day because it went smoothly but also poignant, in that it was one of those occasions when you can't put off facing cold, hard reality. If you know what I mean.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I am Banned from Uncommon Descent

I have now been banned from two blogs. Pharyngula and Uncommon Descent. Go figure. That's too weird. I'm not sure if it's humiliating or a badge of honor. It's like not being welcome in either the Democratic or the Republican Party (that'd be OK.) Or being excommunicated by both the Catholics and the Protestants (not so OK.) Anyway, this seems to be the comment on a post about this Jonathan Wells World Net Daily article that got me evicted from Uncommon Descent:
I am so anachronistic. I remember those days when we settled scientific debates by actually going into the lab (you know, those places where people [wear] the long white coats and use equipment) and doing science. I know, it does seem rather ridiculous by the methods championed here. Clearly the modern way is to write op-ed pieces or popularized books that declare victory anytime a new record that may be problematic, or at least can be cast as problematic, is added to the experimental database. In days of yore what we used to do (you'll get a kick out of this) is to see if the current theory can explain the new data and if it could not we would either modify it or, if it was beyond saving, we would jettison it. Is that a gas or what? But I understand that since this takes time and work it is much more efficient just to accumulate short-term political mileage while we can.
Not exactly my best prose, I agree. But by the standards of commentology, does the above even approach rude, tasteless or offensive?

NOTE: if you wish to make a comment on this post make it substantive. Comments that are merely insults will be deleted.

Hebrews 11 and "blind faith"

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)
This passage is one of two (the other being the "Doubting Thomas" passage) that are used to support the idea that "blind faith" is not just your garden-variety virtue, it's the ultimate virtue that a Christian can and should posses. In fact, many would agree that what defines a Christian is (1) blind faith and (2) the appropriate target of that blind faith.

Hogwash. If blind faith was what God demanded, scripture would be quite short: Just believe. Don't ask why.

As is often the case in questions such as these, strange bedfellows are discovered when one yanks back the sheets. Arguing for the "blind faith" position are both anti-IDers and fundamentalist Christians.

Anti-IDers often append to a critique of ID a parting shot along the lines of: and not only is it bad science, it's bad theology too, because Christianity is all about faith, not about evidence, so IDers aren't just crappy scientists, they're lousy Christians too!

From fundamentalists, the canonization of blind faith stems from an anti-science position: Science is evil, it promotes evil ideas (e.g., an old earth) therefore the senses are not to be trusted--just believe in the interpretation of scripture we promote.

I have often written something that, judging from emails, I know people tend to dispute: fundamentalism is a form of liberalism. That's right: Bob Jones University is liberal--because liberal, in terms of theology, means man-centered as opposed to sola scriptura. Fundamentalism both adds to scripture (in the form of legalism) and takes away from scripture (mostly resulting from its overly-simplistic hyper-literal hermeneutic.) Well here is something else that may surprise you about fundamentalism: it leans toward the Gnostic. Like Gnosticism it demonizes the physical realm and emphasizes "special knowledge." The special knowledge of fundamentalism goes by the name: blind faith.

If you use a Greek Lexicon, you'll find that faith (pistis) is in fact related to trust and is never described as "believing in things for which there is no evidence."

In the bible, faith goes way beyond believing (even the demons believe.) Faith means: I don't just try to obey God because I know I should, but I obey because I believe His plan is good. When a Christian is told to live by faith, it is not intended that he should abandon his intellect and distrust his senses, but rather that, given God's law has been written on his heart, he should live as if he trusts that obeying that law is not just the correct but also the wise thing to do. That is what biblical "faith" is.

When the Jews of the exodus got in trouble for their failure of faith, it was not because they stopped believing in God. It was because they stopped believing that God's plan was good for them. When Peter's faith failed (on two well-known occasions) he didn't stop believing in Christ, he stopped trusting him.

So what about Hebrews 11:1?

Hebrews 11 is the faith "hall of fame" chapter. The "unseen things" for which the inductees' faith is being honored is the finished work of Christ--which would have been impossible for them to see, given that the writer is referring, throughout the chapter, to Old Testament saints. Among those being honored for their faith include Moses, Abraham, Jacob and Gideon--four of the most famous saints for whom God, upon request and without admonishment, provided direct physical evidence of himself on multiple occasions.

The message of this chapter is: Abraham (for example) was saved (as any Christian) by his faith in Christ, even though he could only look forward to a messiah rather than back. He did, however, speak to God, and he is one of those about whom the faith in Hebrews 11:1 is being credited, so, in context, it obviously is not referring to "blind faith in God".

You may argue--incorrectly but at least sensibly--that the post-apostolic Christian has to rely on blind faith. However, you must have an answer for why the writer of Hebrews sings the praises of the faith of men who, given that they interacted with God directly and witnessed miracles, had no need for blind faith. Far from being a proof-text for the virtue of blind faith, Hebrews 11:1, when taken in the context of the entire chapter, places "salvation by blind faith" in a wooden box and then nails the lid down tight.

I have posted this list before, but add it here, as an appendix, because of its relevance. These are some scriptural examples that demonstrate that God does not demand blind faith, and that He has no problem with physical evidence.
  1. In the book of Judges, Gideon asks for multiple physical proofs that God was God. The proofs were given. The bible doesn't add: and Gideon, after serving his military purpose, was cursed for demanding proof.

  2. When Moses asked to see God's glory, God complied with the request. The bible doesn't add: And Moses' inability to rely solely on blind faith is the real reason he wasn't allowed into the Promised Land.

  3. Psalm 19 teaches that the heavens declares God's glory. The bible doesn't add: but only as a crutch for the weak-minded.

  4. When Jesus forgave the sins of a lame man, he then healed the man. The bible doesn't add: and for those who required the latter, let them be anathema, but rather Jesus said it was so we may know the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins.

  5. When Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, they thought they were seeing a ghost. He showed them he was flesh and blood, and that he could even eat. The bible does not add: and their rewards in heaven were diminished because they relied on physical proof.

  6. Paul writes, in the letter to the Romans, that since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. The bible doesn't add: but pay attention to that physical evidence at your own peril. Instead, Paul adds that the reason for this (scientific data) is so that men are without excuse.

  7. Even in the case of "doubting" Thomas, where Jesus allows Thomas to examine His wounds, and even though Jesus blesses those who believe without seeing, the bible does not add: and Thomas was cast out for his reliance on proof.

Monday, September 25, 2006


Spectator sports will break your heart every time. I need to do more "doing" and less "watching." Last week at this time I was on a natural high. Kevin Harvick had won two races in a row, include the first "chace" race. And not only did I get to see that race in person, but I was sitting right in front of Amanda (Jeff Gordon fan) and Becky (Dale Jr. fan) so the bragging rights were priceless.

Since that time: the Steelers have lost two games and yesterday Harvick--just when it looked like he would semi-miraculously nurse a mediocre racecar to a top ten finish in Dover, blew an engine with 40 laps remaining and finished 32nd, dropping from first to fifth in the NASCAR playoffs. Within nanoseconds of the blown engine, a vengeful text message arrived containing nothing but a crocodile-tears "Poor Kevin." Rats.

Karma: as a Christian, I don't believe in it. At the moment, the karma I don't believe in is very bad indeed.

Maybe a book--but maybe not

In thinking about it over the weekend, I have tentatively decided to submit a book proposal. I have an outline sketched out, one that follows a three-pronged development:

  1. How science is complementary and even purposed by God to strengthen the faith of believers. This would include a topic I have discussed many times on here and on other blogs: that scripture doesn't call for "blind faith" on the part of believers. Indeed, blind-faith is a pathological form of man-centered theology: it is the rather proud claim that I can believe in spite of my senses. In the modern church, the mistakenly elevated uber-virtue of "blind faith" is most vigorously proclaimed in fundamentalist circles. This is no surprise--they also tend to preach man-centeredness through their rampant legalism. Anti-science (sometimes disguised as "true" science), blind-faith, legalism--these all are hallmarks of fundamentalism and are forms of liberalism in that they replace what scripture reveals with what the fundamentalist supposes scripture ought (or surely intended) to reveal.

    The goal of this thread in the book would be to demonstrate to believers that neither science nor scientists are enemies of the church. Science, like archeology, is good for our faith and scientists, like archeologists, are simply neutral vessels (in their professional roles) regardless of their personal beliefs.

  2. How the Intelligent Design political movement is merely the latest in a long line of well-intentioned but misguided attempts by believers to use questionable methods to achieve what is seen as a worthy goal. It is a classic the-ends-justify-the-means approach. How old is this tactic? Very old. It can be found in the redactions of Josephus' writings, wherein early Christians added to a (probably) authentic reference to the historic Christ a fake (in the sense that Josephus didn't write it) reference to His resurrection. The end result: the important historic reference is routinely dismissed through guilt-by-association with the embellishment. The ID movement is making exactly the same mistake: some believe it's so important to get God in the public schools that the cost of getting one's hands dirty (including repeating ad infinitum the transparently false claim that it is not about getting God in the classroom) is worth paying. But (sidestepping the question of the Hebrew midwives and Rahab) deceit is never an acceptable means through which one can perform God's work. Put differently, this approach is irrefutably unsound for ethical and theological reasons. First, the biblical mandate to live for God's glory is an instruction for personal conduct. It never was and never will be a mandate to shape society into the kind of society you imagine God wants. As Barth once accurately summarized the gospel as "Jesus loves me this I know", glorifying God is also succinctly summarized by the "What would Jesus Do?" slogan. This I believe is a biblically sound extrapolation: Even if Jesus was appalled at the teaching of evolution in the public schools, what Jesus would not do is: (a) misrepresent ID as science, or (b) say that the universe and life was designed but refrain, for purposes of political expediency, from identifying the designer.

    This part of the book would also include rebuttals to some of the claims of a sound mathematical foundation for ID.

  3. The last theme would be a candidate answer to the question: If ID is not science, then what is it? Readers know that I would try to make the case that ID is to general revelation what theology is to special revelation.
I will (maybe) shop this around and see if I can generate some interest. The work that would be demanded is more than a bit daunting. But I think that a book from a believer—conservative in that I affirm biblical inerrancy--who is also a scientist, and who believes that there is evidence for design--and yet is appalled by the ID movement--would at least be a relatively novel approach. Although, it is perhaps fair to argue that Hugh Ross has this niche covered admirably.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Last Post (for now, I hope) on my Problems with the ID Movement

In the comments, Salvador wrote:
I see them on the campuses: pro-ID post docs, PhD candidates, young professors. They are quitely interested. That is where the movement's action really is. The work of the Discovery Institute and current leadership is for a decades long vision of training and schooling these individuals in ID theory

They were always there. Believing scientists who see design behind the discoveries of science are as old as science. This is not a new breed of individual. What's new is that the ID political gamesmanship has turned such people into pariahs. Before politicized ID, believers did not have to hide their beliefs behind pseudonyms, as many non-tenured faculty now feel they must do.

As for the DI, obviously I don't object to their creating materials or presenting negative arguments about evolution. Thought provoking negative arguments against evolution (or any science) are entirely proper, and while negative arguments are not science-proper, if they are compelling enough the science they are questioning will be forced to respond.

I do have a big problem if they (the DI or the ID movement) label such efforts as science (when it isn't) and a bigger problem when they engage in politics to achieve their goals. I feel the same way about the Christian Right. I want to slap them on the side of the head and say: go do what you're supposed to do (preach the gospel) and stay away from that for which there is no biblical mandate (political activism.)

I would say to the ID movement:
  1. If you're about science, then do science.
  2. If you're about politics, then do politics.
  3. If you're about promoting theism, then promote theism.
But if you are really about (3), then don't deny it and say you are about (1) but for some reason you are compelled to hire multitudes of lawyers and use the methods of (2). It's just too much of a FrankenApproach to enjoy any credibility.

As I said, I am reading (and will review) the Wiker and Witt book. I could have imagined myself using this book in a "Physics for Poets" class I taught back when I was a prof. (Back then I used some of the early Anthropic Principle publications). No more (could I use A Meaningful World)--although technically it would still be legal, it would generate more grief than it would be worth. And it's a shame because this book takes the proper approach to ID: here is what science demonstrates--it's amazing indeed--you can take it to mean life (and the universe) is meaningful or you can take it to support a nihilistic view. Your choice, but in any case you are without excuse, in the event that an excuse should someday prove valuable.

That's all ID has to do to be as effective as it can be. It needs to make the philosophical case that science points to a creator, and in a way that is compatible with scripture. Shoe-horning your way into science class curricula, by any method--no matter how distasteful, or how deceptive, or how awful it makes Christians look--will only serve to diminish rather than enhance the design message. If the ID movement stuck to that approach (and it would have gotten more powerful with recent discoveries) nobody, except for bigots like Dawkins and Sam Harris (and they'd have little market for and even less tolerance of their inanities if not for the ID-wars) would have objected.

ID must stop stating it can prove design, especially since people like Mr. Dembski have never proved anything. You are confident, you write, that those in information science and engineering find his critique scientifically sound. I will wait for any published demonstration of a proof that a biological component was designed. And keep in mind, this challenge is from someone who believes that life was designed. ID can convince, but it never proves. You’ve been sold, in my opinion, a bill of goods.

The bottom line is, that from a pure science perspective, the modern biological ID movement has not advanced the cause as much as you seem to think. Behe's Irreducible Complexity is compelling in that it has placed the "what good is half an eye" canard on a firmer, more serious foundation--and it has forced the evolution community to react with additional research, so in that limited sense it was even good science. The awakening realization that, microscopically, biological components are incredibly complex is a powerful and important development that without question strengthens the design argument as it stresses the evolutionary argument, but it is not a proof of anything. Still, apart from being oversold (when it didn't need to be in order to be effective) I applaud his work. He just should have said: this is amazing and, given that evolution has no explanation and, as far as I can see will never have a credible one, it only serves to strengthen my faith rather than evolution can't explain this, therefore design is demonstrated, a position that cannot be supported scientifically. On the other hand, Dembski's work falls far short of the standard set by Behe, and, unlike Behe's work, has not caused much of a response in the scientific community beyond derision. Far from advancing the cause, it was instrumental in sending the cause into retreat. If you are going to claim that your mathematics proves design, then go out and do it--living off the movement rather than doing some real science will only satisfy the choir.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Follow-up on "Color Me ID Cynical"

My friend Paul posted a thoughtful comment on yesterday's post. I was going to respond in the comments, but my response grew to the point where I decided it merited a post, saving me from thinking about what I was going to blog today,

Paul wrote:
In the UK, ID hasn't made the political waves it has in the US - the out of date opinions expressed on "Horizon" and in "New Scientist" were about as significant as it has got. But then society as a whole is far more secular, and whereas Christians in the US are trying to be heard in schools, Christians in the UK are more concerned with the fact that the expression of any absolute belief is likely to face imprisonment within the next few years (except the absolute belief in relative truth).

From an apologetic point of view, I think that ID can remove what people want to hang their hats on. However, there is an issue of science - ID in my opinion embodies a metaphysical alternative to philosophical naturalism. That is, the scientific consensus at the moment is that there is uniformity of natural causes within a closed system - which means that there is no external agency, and we are part of the system. ID means that science can be carried out in an open system - human intelligence needn't be just the product of the system (which has a major epistemological impact - how can we know anything if we are part of the system?), and the origin of things can lie outside the system, rather than through some internal bootstrapping process.

Creationism has an open system. But whereas creationism starts with a prior commitment to a text (the Bible, or other) - which means that it has an empirical predisposition to squeeze results to fit a particular interpretation - ID starts with no such prior commitment. It simply accepts the possibility that the system may be open. Naturalism has to exclude that possibility - it is as committed to a particular interpretation of results as creationism.

Since, IMO, we have no a priori way of knowing whether we are part of the system, or whether there is a God, and ID is the only game in town which works on this basis, that's where I am at the moment. If I could find other science being carried out that wasn't philosophically naturalist and didn't have a prior commitment to a text, I would take it seriously.

I just don't see what's wrong with this simple approach:
  1. Do science, motivated, if you will, from an ID perspective. There are many believing scientists who are motivated, to varying degrees, by what science reveals about creation. In physics and related disciplines, not only is it not unusual to have such a perspective, it is (was) not all that rare to express it among atheistic colleagues. (Alas, thanks to the US ID movement's Keystone-Cops-like political antics, believing scientists at public institutions/national labs are probably less inclined to speak freely.)

  2. In the proper venues discuss how those scientific results bring glory to God. This can be on blogs, in books, in churches, at Christian clubs on colleges, sometimes even in normal seminars at a college, which is still somewhat possible. (Alas, thanks to the US ID movement's Keystone-Cops-like political antics, it is virtually impossible for this to happen in the public schools.)
This approach worked for centuries! Admittedly I have a personal bias—as an unbeliever I was evangelized by a nuclear physicist who gave the first fine-tuning lecture I ever heard. He:
  • Never once claimed what he was doing was science, although it was clearly about science.
  • Never once pretended it wasn't also about God.
  • Generated lively and polite debate among believing and non-believing students.
  • Generated complaints from nobody.
  • Sparked the interest, for at least one lecture, of the subset of students who tended to fall asleep.
  • Oh, as a bonus, he actually did first-rate science rather than just talk about it. (Thank's Bill W.)
Contrast that (now possibly career-ending) approach with stickers in text books, cult-like followings, and courtroom debacles.

The ID movement is so tainted by its political maneuvering, including its rather transparently false insistence that it has nothing to do with God, that is has polarized the issue of science and religion and given a platform to lunatic-fringe bigots such as Dawkins. Today, everything is much, much worse for believers in science—not in spite of the ID movement, but because of it.

Science, by its nature, approaches problems presupposing that we can, if we look hard enough, find a naturalistic explanation. Christians who do science should take the same approach—at least until such time that they devise a way to test for a discontinuity. We should not claim as science that the absence of a scientific explanation for something is tantamount to proof that it is inexplicable. It is perfectly reasonable to highlight such things as biological micro-motors as evidence of design—it is not proper and (as we have seen firsthand) not productive to claim such apologetics amount to science and deserve legally sanctioned placement in science curricula. Likewise, it is proper to point out the amazing fine-tunings present in the universe and to proclaim such as evidence for a creator—it is not proper to say that what you are doing at that moment is science and that it has nothing to do with God.

One approach is honest, and it gives glory to God. The ID political approach is inherently deceptive, hinging entirely on the thinnest of technicalities (the designer could be a super-alien) and gives no glory to God.

The ID community is also schizophrenic in that it claims to be "all about science" but it strongly (I mean very strongly) discourages examining the age of the earth from a purely scientific approach—which is odd if ID is indeed all about science, but understandable if it is really a political movement that doesn't want to splinter its base.

A shorter response to your comment might have been: I don't disagree, and in fact we are in agreement of sorts: there is nothing wrong with ID (there is a great deal wrong with the ID machine)—but there is no point in making the false claim that ID is science in the accepted sense of the word. Either change the definition of science (you wouldn't be alone in that effort—cosmologist and anti-IDer Leonard Susskind has hinted that the requirement of faslifiability is, perhaps, antiquated) or say: whatever ID is, and however valuable it may be, it is not science.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Color Me ID Cynical

I am reading Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt's new ID book: A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, (Intervarsity Press, 2006) More on this when I give a complete review later. But I will say that in an overcrowded genre full of ponderous gobbledygook, this book is a breath of fresh air.

Which is just what I need, being so deeply soured on the ID "movement." (Though not on the idea that God has left evidence of His design.) The movement, as a political enterprise, has made so many mistakes you wonder its proponents don't just disband and go home. A quick review of a very unsuccessful campaign:
  1. "Evolution is just a theory" stickers in the text books. The purpose of which was--I don't even know. I'll speculate on their effectiveness: as for changing anyone's opinion one way or another on evolution: infinitesimal. As for pissing off the opposition, giving them something to rally around, and making Christians look like fools: very. This is independent of whether or not there is merit in the "evolution is just a theory" criticism. The tactic, in any case, was boneheaded.

  2. The "ID is science" mantra. Except that by ordinary standards of science it isn't. The Irreducible Complexity "experiments" are really challenges: We dare evolution to explain the flagellum. This is reminiscent of a "refutation" of the four-color theorem I once saw in (I think) Scientific American for one of their famous April Fool's spoofs. A hugely complicated map was printed, and readers were challenged to try filling in the myriad of tiny, twisted shapes using only four colors. Can't do it? Q.E.D. Even the falsification experiments in the The Privileged Planet, which in my opinion is the ID book on the most solid scientific ground, don't smell like real experiments: Search for intelligent life on a planet without a large moon. This is not to say that experiments cannot be ID inspired, I believe they can be and are--in fact all experiments are ID inspired in the sense that they presuppose two facts in evidence: i) nature is orderly, i.e., governed by laws and ii) although we have no reason to expect it, it would appear that humans are able to uncover and understand these laws.

  3. "Design can be mathematically demonstrated" except that nobody has ever actually done it, although there are plenty of excuses as to why it hasn't happened "yet." The irony here is multifaceted. Dembski's mathematics, which is touted as putting ID on solid mathematical footing, actually does nothing of the sort. His work says some interesting things applicable to genetic algorithms, but genetic algorithms resemble actual evolution (the way it is supposed to work) in only a superficial way. However, in a move analogous to leaning into rather than away from a left hook, evolutionists often proclaim genetic algorithms as a sort of proof of evolution. This lunacy then plays into Dembski's hands by extending the shelf life of his arguments which should, by now, be dead. It's all kind of crazy, when you think about it.

  4. "ID has nothing to do with God." Yeah, right. Perhaps one place where Dembski's filter might actually work is that, just maybe, it could detect design in the composition of the ID movement. This shouldn't be all that difficult, given that the overwhelming majority of IDers are theists. Oh, the argument has a milli-ounce of merit: it's just about the design, not about the designer (and in truth is not much different from evolution saying: we don't care about abiogenesis) but this clumsy posturing loses out to the "looks, walks, and quacks like a duck" test.

  5. "Let's get school boards to put ID in the curriculum, then fight the battle in the courts, and argue that ID is not religious (nod, nod, wink, wink) but, even if it is, then atheism is a religion too." Brilliant! That's worked real well. Not only are many scientists antagonized, but now many nonscientists are too. Perhaps the only saving grace is that these efforts have pushed enough loudmouths to Dawkinsian extremism and fundamentalism that the opposition is wasting its time fighting internal skirmishes.
The whole state of ID is in such utter disrepair the leaders of the movement should fall on their swords. (But that would necessitate abandoning a cottage industry, so that's not going to happen.)

The only thing, in my opinion, that can save ID is to acknowledge that it is not science but a science-based apologetic. Its purpose is to demonstrate that science is not incompatible with the bible and that Christians have nothing to fear: science is not the enemy anymore than archeology. Neither physics experiments nor Holy Land excavations are going to disprove God or the bible. ID, like all apologetics, should have as its primary audience believers, not unbelievers.

I have said this many times, but here is the truth, and it's worth pondering. Before the ID movement, ID ideas were discussed in classrooms. I hardly remember a physics class in college where a rabbit trail discussion about how the beauty of nature might point to a creator did not come up. The typical attitude of the professor was such that even if he wasn't a believer, he could understand how science, given that what it revealed was so amazing, might cause someone to consider that God was behind it all. Since that time, only additional marvels (such as the ever-more-rapidly-expanding universe) have been discovered. But the failed ID political movement, with its built in hero worship of rather unaccomplished non-scientists, has totally poisoned the well. I may be a minority of one, but I have to say that, as an IDer, I am embarrassed by the ID movement: its tactics as well as the lack of intellectualism of many (though not all) of its leaders.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Let's talk about something really important: NASCAR!

The country's premier sport, that would be NASCAR, really takes off this week. The "chase" begins on Sunday in nearby Loudon, New Hampshire, and I'll be there! Now that's what I'm talking about!

For those who don't know about NASCAR's playoff format, it is an intelligently designed system that works this way: after the first 26 races, the top ten drivers enter the "chase." The point spread from the regular season is (almost completely) set aside, and these ten drivers, and only these ten, compete for the championship, which will be decided over the last ten races. However, all the other drivers still compete in each race--but with no further moderating influence from the need to be cautious so that they can make the chase. Nope, they're on the outside looking in with nothing to lose. Brilliant!

Here's one of my cartoons from my NASCAR blog:

Dave Despain says "Don't Despair..." (click to enlarge)

It's really funnier that it looks (honest.) The announcer, a man by the name of Dave Despain, hosts a racing news show on the most informative television organization: the SPEED network. You see, earlier in the season the 5 car, driven by Kyle Busch, had a run-in with the 20 car driven by last year's champion Tony Stewart, who is sponsored by Home Depot.

At one point Kyle radioed his team to "tell NASCAR that Stewart is trying to kill me!" Such unforgivable whining did not endear Kyle to NASCAR's rowdy-though-intellectual fans. Stewart, whose nickname is "Smoke," is known for his recklessness and his pugnacious demeanor--while Kyle looks like he got picked on a lot in school, although now he could buy his own state--Canada perhaps. (I'll let you guess which photo is of which of these two drivers.)

Kyle is in the chase, Stewart (to everyone's surprise) is not, hence the comic strip--and yes I know that if you have to explain the joke it can't be funny--but NASCAR fans would not need an explanation. I hope.

If God didn't want NASCAR, he wouldn't have made so many California blondes to marry all the drivers!

As for me, I'll be rooting for Kevin Harvick in the 29 car.

I have petitioned NASCAR to be the official physicist of NASCAR (baseball has one) but so far they have ignored my offer.

UPDATE: Good news for my friend Amanda, a big Jeff Gordon fan--he qualified 2nd for Sunday's race. The bad news is that he's still behind Kevin Harvick, who captured the pole position. Air-borne!

UPDATE 2: Harvick wins!! (Jeff Gordon came in third.) Then intrigue: a reporter states on the SPEED Network that NASCAR discovered Harvick's team bent the rules (it's been known to happen.) Just when the victory tasted a bit tainted, NASCAR issues a statement that the reporter was wrong, and that Harvick's car passed post-race inspection without incident. What's not to love about this sport?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Baltimore Catechism

The next time you are making a purchase on amazon, I strongly recommend spending another five dollars on The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism No. 2.

This volume (the second of four) is at the level of preparing Catholic Children for confirmation, typically around age seven.

What is fantastic about this book is that it is both informative and yet delightfully anachronistic. The illustrations and examples will fill you with nostalgia, especially if you are over forty or a fan of the Mystery Science Theater series, because they are very much in the style of those 1950's short films put out by the government on topics from personal hygiene to atomic power. Tommy knows that a boy's hair should be parted two inches to the left of the center line of his head, and it should be straight and clearly visible. And remember, the atom is your friend.

For example, in a section on "Occasions of Sin" there is a picture of a boy reaching for a pack of cigarettes on a dresser, with an ashtray and matches nearby. The boy reminds himself: "These are my father’s cigarettes. But he told me not to smoke, I'm too young..." In one generation we have gone from "you're too young to smoke" to "cigarettes are a repulsive habit that will kill you." The cultural change is so interesting. I can't even remember the last time I saw an ashtray, other than in some far off smoking section of a restaurant. And yet in my lifetime people used to smoke on elevators. Elevators!

As for learning about Catholicism--if you want to learn what Rome teaches you should, at least at first, use the Catholic Church's own resources. There is a lot of bad if not slanderous garbage written by Protestants. There is plenty of material in this book that will point out substantive differences and also many similarities between conservative Catholicism and evangelism. One striking example of the former is on the inside cover of the catechism, where we read:
The faithful who devote twenty minutes to a half hour to teaching or studying Christian Doctrine may gain:

An indulgence of 3 years. A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions twice a month, if the above practice is carried out at least twice a month.

--Apostolic Brief, March 12, 1930; S. P. Ap., May 26, 1949.

In teaching about the Eucharist and transubstantiation, the catechism states:
351. Is Jesus Christ whole and entire both under the appearances of bread and under the appearances of wine?

Jesus Christ is whole and entire both under the appearances of bread and under the appearances of wine.

The reason for this doctrine, which is to defend the practice of withholding the wine from the laity, is not mentioned. If the blood is also present in the bread and not just the wine, then the bread constitutes a complete meal, and the laity is not missing anything by not drinking the wine.

I found quite interesting an explanation as to why transubstantiation doesn't go all the way--that is, why only the substance of the bread changes, but not the appearances:
The appearances of bread would also change into those of Christ if God did not prevent this by a miracle.

When the priest says, "This is my body," at Mass, you would immediately see Christ, and not the appearances of bread, if God did not prevent it by a miracle. He keeps the appearances of bread in existence to enable us to eat the flesh of Christ without difficulty. (p. 165)

Of course, in many Protestant churches the extreme opposite view is taught: the Lord 's Supper is purely a memorial service, nothing supernatural, no grace being bestowed, no statement about whether or not Christ is present in any manner different from the other three Sundays when the Lord's Supper is safely secured in some kitchen closet.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Rome emphasizes its support for neo-Darwinism!

The Vatican continues to demonstrate its support for evolution, this time by labeling it "unreasonable." The National Center for all Science Education Except Physics, Chemistry and Astronomy is ecstatic, pointing out that what the pontiff meant was that the theory of evolution was so sublime that it taxes reason to expect that mankind could ever have developed such a thing of beauty—hence the honorific "unreasonable."


We are now reading about Gideon in my bible study. Gideon, like Barak, also gets a bum rap at the hands of many expositors. This is in spite of the fact that, like Barak, he appears in the Hebrews 11 walk of fame.

We can never discuss Gideon without bringing up two of the more humorous passages in scripture. One is when the angel of the Lord (which may be a theophany) first appears:
And the angel of the LORD appeared to him [Gideon] and said to him, "The LORD is with you, O mighty man of valor." (Judges 6:12)
Now our complete picture of Gideon tells us that in all likelihood the last thing he considered himself, at least at that time, was a man of valor. You can easily imagine him replying: "Are you talking to me?"

But an even funnier exchange, in fact a top-ten finalist in the category of humorous scripture, occurs just a bit later:
17 And he [Gideon] said to him [the Lord], "If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speaks with me. 18 Please do not depart from here until I come to you and bring out my present and set it before you." And he [the Lord] said, "I will stay till you return."
When Gideon asks God to stick around while he runs inside to get something, God answers. "Go on, take your time. I'll wait." You just have to love it.

Gideon returns and God miraculously burns up his offering. Later Gideon famously puts God to some additional testing:
36 Then Gideon said to God, "If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, 37 behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said." 38 And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. 39 Then Gideon said to God, "Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew." 40 And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew. (Judges 6:36-40)
This is what gets Gideon in trouble—not with God or with the writer of Hebrews, but with teachers who say: "don’t be like Gideon." Well, to them I say: I'd very much love to be like Gideon. You will note that God does not rebuke Gideon for asking for proof. Our premium on blind faith and the view that proof somehow is demeaning to God is darn near 180 degrees off. Blind faith is never called for, and in fact the elevation of blind faith to a virtue is, in my opinion, demeaning to God. Made in his image, we are rational beings, and every indication in scripture tells me that God is quite pleased when we seek evidence (even through science), and when he is visibly present among us, he readily provides it. For more on this topic, see this post.

So if God, or an angel of God, appears to me and says that he will send me to defeat the army of Iran with nothing more than a Ronco VegoMatic, I am going to behave just like Gideon.

Monday, September 11, 2006

PZ on Ken Miller: Let him be anathema!

Pharyngula is one of the first blogs I read every morning. One reason is that I am always looking for something to write about. Blog fodder is the currency that supports my addiction. Another is that PZ Myers is refreshingly honest.

This morning I was not disappointed, as I discovered that Myers has been taking a switch to the backside of Brown Professor Ken Miller.

I too have criticized Miller many times, but from the opposite direction. A professed pro-evolution Catholic, my complaint with Miller is that he mischaracterizes his own Church's position on evolution. In my mind, Miller is dishonest. It would be one thing to say: I think my church is wrong in this matter. It is quite another to do what Miller does, which is to misrepresent Rome's stand, going so far as to quote-mine the previous Pope in a missive to the current pontiff, co-authored, to add insult to injury, by physicist Lawrence Krauss, an atheist. (Yes, I think Krauss's atheism is very relevant when we are talking about a letter offering free advice to the Pope.)

Myers likes to attack impure scientists who dip even as little flesh as their small toe in the waters of theism. Not long ago he took on Francis Collins for his participation in a D. James Kennedy anti-evolution television show.

Francis Collins is a believer and a geneticist with scientific credentials that make Myers look like someone who couldn't find the working end of an operating Bunsen burner.

Myers wrote a set of three posts on Collins and his role in the Kennedy program. I'll paraphrase those posts and the general mien of the comments from his independent-thinking followers:

Post 1:
PZ: Collins is an idiot!
Commentators: he's a loser; he's a traitor, I always knew Collins was a nut; what a moron,…

Post 2:
PZ: Cool! Collins repudiates his role in Kennedy’s program!
Commentators: yeah I knew he wasn't that bad; I'm not surprised that he's the victim here; Collins is one of the good guys, for a believer,…

Post 3:
PZ: Hold on! Now that I've seen the show, Collins really is an idiot!
Commentators: he's a loser; he's a traitor, I always knew Collins was a nut; what a moron,…

Folks, for this kind of entertainment you would, at the very least, have to purchase an expensive premium-package upgrade to your basic cable service.

Well, as I said at the start of this post, Myers has now set his evangelical crosshairs on Ken Miller. From Myers's perspective, Miller’s Catholicism, minimally intrusive as it may be, makes him a minion of the antidawkins1.

I'll repeat myself: I admire his honesty. Contrast Myers's approach to the infamous and duplicitous tactic of Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education2, who said:
One clergyman with a backward collar is worth two biologists at a school board meeting any day!
Charming. Scott and most of her colleagues (but not PZ) see the nominally religious scientists as useful idiots--an extremely repulsive position. Myers, an ideological conservative, fundamentalist, and altar-boy for the Church of Richard Dawkins, wants no unholy alliance with the unclean. The radius of Myers's circle of orthodoxy is microscopic.

In criticizing a talk Miller gave in Kansas, Myers writes as if he is passing little gossipy notes in fifth period study hall:
Thanks, Dr Ken! I know what side you're on, now…it's you and the creationists, best friends 4ever! Did they promise to let you strike the match at the atheist-burning?
Just as with Francis Collins, Myers's more weak-minded commentators instantly change course, like imprinted ducklings. "That's too bad, I liked Ken Miller" wrote one. "Ken Miller: massive generalizations a specialty" added another. You get the picture.

Myers calls Miller a creationist. You have to understand what an insult that is meant to be. It is not an exaggeration that on the Dawkins/Myers abomination scale, which ranges from zero (a ranking which only Master Dawkins has attained) to Jesus Christ, it unclear which is worse: creationist or child-abuser. Or, more accurately, if you can be the former without being the latter. Here is what PZ wrote:
To those who disagree with my calling Miller a creationist: tough. I've read his book, I've listened to several of his talks. He believes that evolution is insufficient to explain our existence, and has to postulate a mysterious intelligent entity that just happens to be the Christian god as an active agent in our history, and further, he believes he can make common cause with more overt creationists by highlighting his religious beliefs. Theistic evolutionists are part of the wide spectrum of creationist beliefs, and that he personally endorses the power of natural processes in 99.99% of all cases does not change what he is, it just means we're haggling over the degree
Did you think I was kidding when I claimed Myers was a fundamentalist? The standards he sets for one to avoid a charge of apostasy exceed anything imagined by the inquisition.

Keep writing PZ, so that I may never run out of topics.

1 The antidawkins is an evil creature who could appear on the scene any day now. Fortunately he is recognizable by his hideous markings: four circular scars--two on his wrists, and two on his feet.
2 As long as that science is not physics, chemistry, or astronomy, about which the NCSE has nothing to say.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Spong is Splendiferous

The right reverend Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong is just a barrel of laughs. Sure, the effect upon many Christians when encountering his theology for the first time is Mad Magazine style projectile vomiting (let the reader understand.) But after you are inured to his blasphemies you acquire a sense of admiration for their comic purity. I get his newsletter by email, and I always look forward to each new issue. The format used is the Bishop Spong Q&A, in which admiring acolytes ask questions and Bishop Spong, in his tireless effort to save Christianity from its insane practice of worshipping Christ, shares his insights.

The latest was a real gem. A loyal Spongian writes:
First of all, let me say that, if I can still consider myself a Christian, it is thanks to you and your work. As a former Catholic, I can only contrast your message of the God of Love with the God of Judgment that we find in virtually all the modern popes... But I sometimes find myself wondering: why not just do as I have done and identify oneself primarily as a Buddhist? The Buddha isn't God, he's just another human being who, like Jesus, pointed the way for his fellow humans to find peace and liberation from suffering. Scholars like Marcus Borg have indicated the similarities between Jesus and the Buddha; and indeed, great and inspiring people like Thich Nhat Hahn have indicated this in their work as well…

But for some of us, it is precisely the distortion of these cultural aspects of the Christian message that makes it so hard to see Jesus without what I call "spiritual interference." For Catholics such as myself, it might be the spectre of the church cover-ups of the abuse of so many children by its shepherds, or the appalling cost wrought by Paul VI with his encyclical on birth control... Maybe some members of the Church Alumni Club have been so worn out trying to see Jesus past the figures of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell that they have forgotten how God's power shines through such contemporary figures as Martin Luther King, William Sloane Coffin, John Dear, Daniel Berrigan, Joan Chittester and yourself...Basically my question is, since the Church is so in need of reform, and since conservative power is so entrenched, why not become a Buddhist?
The humble Bishop Spong responds

You raise a fascinating issue. I have read Thich Nhat Hahn with great pleasure and admire the Buddhism that I know. I have a friend in England who, though still an Anglican priest, describes himself as a Christian Buddhist Atheist...

I have had the privilege of engaging in an afternoon long dialogue with a Buddhist monk in China and with a group of three Hindu scholars... Out of these two experiences, I came to an awareness that there is great similarity in the religions of the world in the questions that they all seek to answer. They are, after all, profound human questions. The differences appeared in the ways the various traditions sought to answer these human questions. Answers come out of culture, environment, and circumstances and reflect the worldview of the area in which those religious systems arose...

I do not believe that God is a Christian or a Buddhist. Yet both Christianity and Buddhism have pointed hundreds of millions of people toward the mystery of God.

I am glad that Reverend Spong did not admonish his admirer for including him in his Hall of Fame of men and women through whom God's power shines. False modesty in the truly great is so unseemly.

I would like to meet Bishop Spong's friend who is a Christian Buddhist Atheist. I once heard a radio interview with someone who described himself as a "lesbian trapped in a man's body." Although quite impressive, I don't think it reaches the standard set by a Anglican Priest who is also a Christian, a Buddhist and an atheist. That must takes years of graduate level study at the Seminary of the Spong.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Does evolution cause global warming, or vice versa?

Suppose tomorrow you woke up with (a) a sand dune in your driveway or (b) a glacier in your driveway. There is only one thing you can take to the bank: the culprit would be identified, in either case, as global warming.

That is not to say that I dispute global warming. I'm just making an observation that no climatic data fail to be explained thereby. Glaciers shrink because of global warming. Glaciers grow because of global warming. Al Gore's bank account and fuel consumption swell to unprecedented levels because of global warming.

Evolution is just the same, only worse. Pick any characteristic: obesity, male pattern baldness, the popularity of Neil Diamond, and it must be explicable through evolution because the only explanation for the way we are is: evolution.

Our morality is good example. There are no hard data indicating that man's morality evolved. There are only just-so explanations: our selfish gene selfishly evolved selflessness because a selfless man selfishly has a better chance to survive the selfishness of others when they too behave selflessly, albeit for their own selfish reasons.

If that just-so story falls out of favor, it can be replaced by a new one because the underlying premise, that morality evolved, is axiomatic. All that's left are adjusting details until we agree that it seems just about right.

Of course, the Christian version is that morality devolved: we call it the fall or original sin. It would seem to this observer that Christianity fits the data better. If morality evolved, evolution probably needs to fine-tune its master genetic algorithm, for it didn't evolve all that effectively.

Physics has just-so stories. An experimentalist plots some data. He's puzzled, so he takes the graph to a theorist. The theorist shakes his head, sighs, and says, "Why, an undergrad would have expected this plot," and he proceeds to explain in the most impenetrable mathematical terms why the graph took the shape it did. The experimentalist walks away more confused than ever. Then he realizes he made a mistake, but rather than being upset he sees how to use his blunder to humiliate the theorist. Rushing back, he tells his pedantic colleague, "Gosh, I'm sorry, but I showed you the plot upside down." The theorist, not skipping a beat, replies "Of course you did. Why an undergrad…"

The difference between physics and evolution and global warming is that the just-so story is a joke when it comes to physics. For global warming and evolution, it's de rigueur.

All that is a prelude to this: here is an evolution claim that you just couldn't make up:
The human brain is hard-wired to be susceptible to supernatural beliefs as a result of tens of thousands of years of evolution, a British psychologist said today.
Where are the hard data that support this idea? Here, as far as I can tell:
Credulous minds may have evolved for several reasons. It was once less dangerous to accept things that are not true than it was to reject real facts, such as the threat posed by a nearby predator, and this may have predisposed humans to err on the side of belief. Superstition may also give people a sense of control that can reduce stress
I'm convinced. I mean, a propensity for religious belief had to evolve (where else could it have come from?) so this sounds about right. At least until I hear of a better "evolutionary pathway."

I do like how the article ends, with the theory's champion, one Professor Hood, claiming:
I want to challenge recent claims by Richard Dawkins among others, that supernaturalism is primarily attributable to religions spreading beliefs among the gullible minds of the young. Rather religions may simply capitalise on a natural bias to assume the existence of supernatural forces."
The quality of the science--it really does boggle the mind.

So that's all it takes to publish in evolution, at least in the popular literature. A simple just-so story.
I think I'll try:

The human species is evolving a love for NASCAR because NASCAR has the highest percentage of female fans of any major sport. This means that NASCAR fans tend to meet their mates at the track. Since both parents love the same sport, the racing gene is passed to their offspring. Furthermore, since both parents have the same interest they tend to stay together, enhancing the chance that they will have a whole double-wide trailer full of kids with the NASCAR gene.

Now, where to publish...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Deborah and Barak

In our men's study group we are going through perhaps my favorite Old Testament book: Judges. An vile, obese king being stabbed to death through righteous subterfuge with the pronouncement of execution: "Here's a message from God." A tent peg pounded through the head of a scoundrel. I mean, what's not to like?

Today we we discussed Judges 4, the story of Deborah and Barak. Deborah being the only woman among the judges, and Barak being the general who was reluctant to make war against Israel's oppressors. He did his job, you'll recall, only when Deborah agreed to accompany him into battle.

A common conservative theme is that Deborah was only a judge because no men were willing to take on leadership. I disagree with that. When Deborah is introduced:
4 Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. 5 She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. (Judges 4:4-5)
there is no mention that she was a last minute replacement after every male Jew was determined to be inadequate. In the New Testament we see unequivocal teaching that one of the requirements for being an elder in the church is a Y-chromosome. But we see no such teaching regarding a similar demand being placed on judges or prophets. In fact, scripture is crystal clear in its affirmation of the office of prophetess.

Still, it is plainly seen that Barak was guilty of poor leadership. However, it seems to me that, in general, commentators are too tough on Barak. He in fact is something of a scapegoat: there is a tendency to say that Deborah was a necessary aberration because Barak was too pusillanimous. This unfortunate argument is a reaction against feminists who use Deborah for their cause.

Two passages from scripture argue against this view and shed a better light on Barak.

The first is the very next chapter in Judges, which is the song of Deborah and Barak. A two part harmony. The impression I get reading Judges 5 is one of great celebration in which Deborah and Barak are held in high esteem--there is no festering wound about Barak's reluctance to enter into battle.

The second passage comes from the Faithful Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11. When the writer gets to the section where judges are praised, we read:
32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, (Heb 11:32-33)
We see that Barak is honored--and Deborah isn't even mentioned! What's up with that?

I have worked out a deal with another church member. At the conclusion of Sunday School next week he is going to ask, apropos nothing, "Hey David, why does Hebrews 11 mention Rahab the prostitute but not Deborah?" After rubbing my chin a bit, I'm going to reply: "I don't know" and then turn to our pastor and ask, "Pastor Mike, would you care to answer that one?"

Oh, it should make for great mischievous fun!

Monday, September 04, 2006

What's in the Bible

My first Sunday School topic this year will not be, as originally planned, the question of the continuation or cessation prophetic gifts. That may come later. Instead we will begin with a simpler topic: what's in the bible. We'll use a book of that very title: What's in the Bible (no question mark) by R. C. Sproul and Robert Wolgemuth.

The general idea is to give an overview of the entire bible in its historic context. Who were the Babylonians? where was Babylonia? etc. The goal is that, upon completion, there will be less distracting historic, geographic, and cultural nebulousness when reading scripture.

I am not sure how long it will take. The book has seventeen chapters, so I plan to try getting through one per week.

I'll post my notes here. I do plan to augment the book with better maps and more historic context.

Just to Clarify

A couple weeks ago, on a post entitled Dissonance as a Way of Life, I commented about PZ Myers's publication record, charging that he had not published a peer-reviewed research paper in this millennium.

Many people flamed me in the comments section. One in particular was troublesome. Someone with the charming name Kansas Anarchist wrote:
No, you should be silent about that in order to keep from looking like a completely ignorant buffoon. Granted, given what I've read of your blog, that doesn't seem to come at the top of the list of priorities. A simple search through the Web of Science citation index was sufficient to come up with a reference during this millenium, and a primary authorship article to boot:

Myers PZ, Larson M, Hartwell M. (2001) "Ethanol teratogenesis in the zebrafish, Danio rerio." Developmental Biology 235 (1): 339.
The Kansas Anarchist added, in a later comment:
A single reference was all that was needed to refute your claim that he had no papers published this millenium, and cannot be taken to imply that this is the only paper he's written since the turn of the millenium.
Not only was the Kansas Anarchist sticking to his guns, he was upping the ante. The implication was clear that after a simple search he provided all that was necessary, a single counterexample to my claim, but that by no means did he mean to imply that this exhausted the Myers third millennium corpus.

Well, I redoubled my efforts to find more publications, especially the one cited as a refutation, using all the citation services that are freely available. I was not successful. I had a suspicion about the paper the Kansas Anarchist cited, but I was unable to verify my hunch.

Someone else has done it for me. A loyal Myers fan has written a Wikipedia entry for the irrepressible doctor. At the bottom, youll find a link to his cv. I am not going to link to it myself, because it contains too much personal information--I strongly urge Dr. Myers to replace it with a sanitized and updated version. However, I will display the three most recent entries in his publication list:
Sipple, B.A. and P.Z. Myers (2002). The Rohon-Beard cell: formation of the primary sensory system of the zebrafish. Submitted, Anatomy and Embryology.

Myers, P.Z (2002) Haeckel's Embryos, in Icons of Anti-Evolution, D. Thomas, W. Elsberry, and J. Wilkins, eds. Submitted, NCSE.

Dudkin, E.A., P.Z. Myers, J.A. Ramirez-Latorre, and E.R. Gruberg (1998). Calcium signals monitored from leopard frog optic tectum after the optic nerve has been selectively loaded with a calcium sensitive dye. Neuroscience Letters 258:124-126.
The first two are from this millennium, that third is the one I took, following my original search, as his last peer-reviewed paper. So what does this mean? Well it is unclear. This cv was probably written in 2002, and so it is reasonable that the first two papers are in the submission stage. The second one, I'm am guessing, wouldn't count as a research paper even if it did get published--it appears to be more of a historical nature or even an essay. Not to mention that it was submitted to the NCSE, which is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The first sounds like a real research article, but I could find no indication that it was ever actually published. I searched here, which seems to be the right place, but maybe I'm wrong. It is not uncommon for a submission never to reach publication--it can happen for any number of reasons.

The more interesting citation is found in the "Conference Papers and Presentations" section of Myers's cv. There we read:
Myers, P.Z., M. Larson, and M. Hartwell (2001) Ethanol teratogenesis in the zebrafish, Danio rerio. Abstract, Society for Developmental Biology National Meeting.
Sound familiar? It's the "paper" Kansas Anarchist cited. It's not a paper at all--it's a conference abstract.

For those not in the game, an abstract is a short description of a talk being presented at a conference. Presentations at conferences range from invited research talks at international meetings, which are more meritorious than a published paper, to routine (and short) research reports or poster sessions which, while of value, are not comparable to a published paper. In some cases, if it is a society conference, such papers cannot even be turned down.

Myers placed it in the appropriate section of his cv, but Kansas Anarchist was not such an honest citizen.

Of course, the possibility exists that Myers et. al. published the research in the peer reviewed journal of the same name. However, three facts argue against it: 1) I have not been able to find a citation to the paper, 2) The publication date quoted by Kansas Anarchist is 2001--in which case Myers almost certainly would have included it on his 2002 cv. 3) We can look at the schedule for the meeting here. In the section on Developmental Biology and Medicine we find:
339 B49 Ethanol teratogenesis in the zebrafish, Danio rerio. P.Z. Myers, M. Larson and M. Hartwell. Univ. of Minnesota, Morris, Morris, MN.
Again, this is clearly the reference provided by the Kansas Anarchist. Note the 339--it is simply the abstract number. In the Kansas Anarchist reference it looks like a page number in a journal. The B49 probably represents the poster board ID. So I suspect this refers to a poster session, not a published research paper. Kansas Anarchist misrepresented a perfectly acceptable research activity (which no doubt involved one or more of Myers's students, as this is a common method to get undergrads some exposure to the professional community.) Myers was completely honest on his cv--his defender, not so.