Friday, September 28, 2012

Philip Yancey and Paul Brand on love.

Philip Yancey contributes his usual thoughtful and probing work to our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, in chapter one, entitled "A Doctor' Defense of Pain."  The doctor referred to is Dr. Paul Brand, whose life is one of the inspirations for this book.  The second half of the chapter includes some of Yancey's on-going conversation with Dr. Brand.  In this post I quote two of Yancey's queries about Christian charity, specifically about the danger of "compassion fatigue" in a global media market, and Dr. Brand's responses. 
Yancey: Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Modern media has made that command infinitely more complex and burdensome.  Because of television, the whole world is our neighbor.  On evening news programs we watch the effect of famines, wars, and epidemics.  How can we possibly respond to all of these disasters?

Brand: You can’t, not in the sense in which Jesus meant it, at least.  You must remember the context in which Jesus was speaking.  He meant family, nearby villages, Capernaum.  Jesus healed people, but in a very localized area.  In his lifetime he did not affect the Celts or the Chinese or the Aztecs.  And I think an intolerable burden of guilt such as you describe merely numbs us and keeps us from responding.  We must have a sense of touch with those we love.

Westerners, with our opulent life styles, are very sensitive on this point.  But I really don’t believe that children born in Bangladesh amid poverty suffer all that much more than a spoiled child in a rich country.  In The Cave, Plato pictured people being born and brought up entirely in darkness, and as a result their range of appreciation of beauty, light, and joy was very different from that of a person outside.  When they come up to the light, dazzled, they learn to appreciate a new range of happiness.  This, to me, is a deep perception of the human spirit.  A child develops a norm, above which is happiness and below which is suffering.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

U2, Loftus?

John Loftus is to arguments against Christianity what Ronald McDonald is to hamburgers.  The quality may not be very high, but given mass-production techniques, the quantity is unprecedented.  Maybe that's what his cowboy hat is all about -- like Colonel Sander's beard, or Ronald McDonald's clown costume.  Billions and billions served! 

"Thousands and thousands
This morning he's come up with a new one: the "You Too, Fallacy."  The tomato is oozing off of the bun, and the hamburger patty is off-center, and the katsup machine misfired -- in short, the argument is a bit of a mess. I'm not even sure whether John is saying I commit the fallacy, or that I criticize someone else for committing it -- so feel free to read it for yourself.  Loftus also objects when someone points out that his own faith of Secular Humanism fails his "Outsider Test for Faith," far more callamitously than Christianity does.  But this morning, the matters Loftus has on his mind are the "Problem of Pain," and the use of so-called "faith-based reasoning."  (Here's where I embrace the U2 fallacy with open arms -- atheists do and must think by means of faith, and without faith, cannot reason.  All reasoning is based on faith, in the Christian sense, as Descartes and the latest Matrix film show with equal clarity.  Unless you trust your mind, you cannot reason. Unless you trust your senses and other people, for good reasons, of course, as the Bible demands, you cannot use reasoning to learn much of anything.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Yellowstone bubbles and flows.

In early August, John, James and I spent two days in Yellowstone -- Saturday, entering from the Northwest, and driving up along the Madison River (pictured here).  This river was beautifully clear, reeds growing in it, and a bed with soft rocks that made it nicely wadable.  The water was warm enough downstream (thanks to all the thermal springs) to swim comfortably, even at 6000 feet above sea level. 

Bison coming over the hill -- a noisy animal, with
a more intelligent-sounding language than cattle.
Where were the animals?  We did see some elk
the first day -- but then, whole herds of elk are our neighbors back home in the Snoqualmie Valley.  Our first "new" animal came in a valley a few dozen miles north of Yellowstone Lake -- these herds of bison, some of them right along the road.  Then just after that we encountered a lonely coyote, hunting in the sagebrush on the other side of the road. 
Where's that rabbit?

Near Old Faithful.

My last visit to Yellowstone, when I was a high school myself, ended when I ran through a plate glass window in Old Faithful lodge, not seeing the glass, and in a hurry to find my parents so they could open the door and I could fetch my camera.  What rare natural wonder did I want to take a picture of?  The president of the United States, and not even a very good president -- yes, Jimmy Carter. After I broke tendons and nerves and the doctor dug the glass -- most of the glass -- out of my right hand and forehead and leg, the rest of the trip was a bit of a rush.  We stopped to photograph moose off the road, to walk around Mammoth hot spring -- but it was a bit hard to handle things well, also I yelled at night quite a bit. 

This time we had time to stop and take lots of pictures, hike up the Tetons and to a waterfall in Yellowstone surrounded by little puffs of thermal mist, look for animals, swim in two rivers and two lakes, and generally see more of this magnificent bit of creation. 

John is off to college now, so I'm glad we had the chance to take this trip together.  I also had the chance to speak at First Presbyterian Church in Idaho Falls, spend a couple days at the home of the Spielmans, and meet some nice people at the church, several of them scientists working at a nearby federal nuclear facility.

Now why do they call it Yellowstone?  And why do people come here from
around the world? 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Why do atheists spell "God" with a little "g?"

I had a conversation today with a man we will call M, posting in the comment section for an Amazon review of our e-book, True Reason, which came up with the crocuses this spring.  (And whose cellulose leaves are due to drift down in physical form this fall.)  He admitted, in his initial post, that he was confused by a popular argument that God is the necessary source of morality.  Four rounds of back-and-forth showed that he really was confused, and seemed to want to draw others into that state as well.  But ironically, from all the confusion a measure of clarity seemed to emerge on a question I've often asked in recent years: why have so many Internet atheists taken up spelling "God" with a small "g" lately?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why Brian McLaren is wrong about Islam and Christianity

CNN recently posted an editorial by Brian McLaren on a sensitive subject, the "bad blood" between Christians and Muslims.  He seemed to argue that American Christians are as much to blame, or to blame in much the same way, as those radical Muslims with whom we are at presently so publicly at loggerheads.  And indeed, among the thousands of comments beneath his post, appeared some that did seem to imbibe something of the paranoia of the crowds in Cairo:

"What instigated the attack on the Twin Towers, Flight 93 and the Pentagon?  And what drives today's 24/7 mosque/imam-planned acts of terror and horror? The koran, Mohammed's book of death for all infidels and Muslim domination of the world by any means.  Muslims must clean up this book removing said passages admitting that they are based on the Gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of Mohammed. Then we can talk about the safety and location of mosques and what is taught therein.  Until then, no Muslim can be trusted anytime or anywhere . . . "

This is, as I said, a sensitive issue, and Christian scholars who are friends disagree profoundly about it.  Sometimes I find myself in the middle of the firefight.  For instance, I found Don Richardson's Secrets of the Koran a bit over the top, but then wrote a long letter to Christianity Today defending Richardson against Warren Larson's critique in that magazine, which seemed even more over-the-top.  And Miriam Adeney, who contributed a wonderful chapter on world religions to our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, strongly disagrees with Don on this, too. 

So let's examine McLaren's post with a view not to a muddle through the middle, nor even to resolve all conflicts -- we don't need to agree about everything -- but to at least frame the issues a little more reasonably.    

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

2nd Most Popular: Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts

"Read it!  Give it to friends!"


(152 + / 5 -)

We continue our countdown of my most popular and unpopular reviews on Amazon.  I think I warned you, already, that my counting may be a little off.  I may try to sneak a few extra reviews in.  But for now, Eternity in Their Hearts is my second most-popular review on Amazon.  That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.  For the moment. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

2016 election cancelled!

Update: the 2016 election has been cancelled, except in southern states.  Western states are due to be auctioned off to settle the National Debt on January 31st, 2013, with China and Japan the leading contenders for the choice states, and India a dark horse.  New York City has been bought by a Saudi Prince as a theme park: the New England states will be paved for parking.  Midwest states have petitioned Canada for admission.  The District of Columbia will secede as an independent kingdom, with five royal golf courses in Virginia and Maryland (this took some negotiating, and repeated Air Force flyovers) to settle the Royal Nerves after the close reelection victory. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

St. Anselm: Climbing by Faith

Note: I'll be posting exerts from our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, off and on over the following weeks.  I hope you enjoy these passages, find them tantalizing, go and buy a copy here for yourself, then buy another one for your best friend for Christmas!  This first passage is from my introduction. 

“Faith seeking understanding” was the motto of St. Anselm, remembered today as a kindly reformer, philosopher, and gadfly, an 11th Century Archbishop of Canterbury who was exiled by two English kings.  But long before such career advances and recessions, Anselm was a climber of mountains.  What Anselm meant by “faith seeking understanding,” and how this Medieval relic of an idea can transform the world today, was foreshadowed in his experiences growing up in the Alps of what is now northern Italy.

The city of Aosta, Anselm’s hometown, rests in a narrow valley surrounded by ten thousand foot peaks on three sides.  Anselm believed (it seems more literally than most young hikers) that heaven was to be found above the tree line.  One night in a dream, he was told to climb a mountain to the court of God.  On the way up, he passed women who were reaping the king’s grain in a slip-shod and lazy manner.  Received by God and his steward at court (everyone else was out working the harvest), the steward presented him with the “whitest of bread” to eat. 

Sometime after this dream, Anselm’s mother died, and his religious zeal waned.  He fell out with his father, renounced his patrimony, and set off across the Alps westward with a servant.  On a fine day, climbing to the pass below Mount Cenis (now, fittingly, part of Gran Paradiso National Park) must indeed have seemed like entering the courts of heaven: serrated peaks rise on all sides, ibex graze the slopes, grass and wildflowers wave in the breeze, and a large alpine lake reflects valleys and clouds beyond. 

But the main pass (which Constantine and Charlemagne had also ascended) was almost 7000 feet above sea level, and Anselm tired.  The travelers ran out of food: Anselm gnawed snow to assuage his hunger.  His servant gave the donkey’s saddlebag a final, desperate search, and was surprised to uncover bread “of exceptional whiteness,” like the bread in Anselm’s dream.  Refreshed, the travelers resumed their journey. 

Anselm later wrote of God as “the highest of all beings.”  His famous ontological argument, still debated by philosophers, can be read as a kind of prayer in dialogue with and in search of God, “he than whom there is no greater,” as if he were still looking for firm footing, ascending some alpine valley.  Nor did he forget the lazy farmers in his dream. He worked in the fields of God with diligence and compassion.  People who were afraid to approach the pope, “hurried” to meet Anselm, including Muslim vassals of Count Roger of Sicily.  He gently admonished kindness to children in the monasteries he supervised, was offended by abuse of animals, and played an early role in the anti-slavery movement.  Doubtless it is due to Anselm’s kindness that his story comes down to us: the historian Eadmer, who tells it, was one of many devoted students. 

Christians believe not just in abstract dogmas, but in truth “made flesh, and dwelt among us.”  From Anselm’s life we similarly begin to see what “Faith Seeking Understanding” might mean, not just as a sticker a Medieval schoolman might have pasted to the rear bumper of his ox cart, but as a lived solution to the urgent intellectual challenges of our own time. 

Two great errors confuse the modern world about faith.   Many see faith as a leap off an intellectual precipice.  Faith, Richard Dawkins famously informed us (he was not the first), means believing “not only in the absence of evidence, but in the teeth of evidence.”  Others seem to see faith as the ultimate karmic bailout: live as seedy and frivolous a life as you please, then Jesus comes with a big red checkbook and buys you out of prison.      

But faith for a mountain climber is neither blind nor lazy.  Calf muscles and eyes engage in the climb, as you step over stones and roots, and skirt puddles.  Or perhaps you trip, lose your way, even wind up like Otzi the Ice Man, found after 5300 years, encased in an Alpine glacier near another Italian border.  For Anselm, faith meant applying a mind rich in curiosity, imagination, and insight, along with alert senses and reasonable trust in other people, to explore the rugged landscape of an often demanding and complex Medieval world. 

The two men to whom this book is dedicated also set remarkable examples of lives fully engaged in ascending the peak of God’s truth, and describing what they saw from different slopes of that summit. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Miracles or Magic? Four more characteristics

Here is the second and final part of my description of how miracles and magic differ, from Chapter 11 of Jesus and the Religions of Man.  For Part I, follow that link. 

(2) Miracles tend to be practical; Magic is often showy.

            When I lived in Taiwan, God seemed to meet my needs in remarkable ways at times.  A place to stay was provided where I knew no one, home-cooked meals when I was lonely, money when I was broke, and a cheeseburger and a song as specific answers to two doubting, but specific, prayers.  Another time I was out of money and worried about holes in my socks.  Just then I received a package in the mail, not from my mother, or aunt, but from the young woman who later became my wife.  Inside, I found several pairs of clean white socks.  After we married, I asked why she sent such an unromantic gift.  "I just felt like that's what I should send," she told me.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Can John Loftus question his faith?

From Loftus this morning:
David Marshall asked me three questions:
What existentially difficult questions do you even admit face you, as an atheist? What contrary evidence troubles your confidence? Do you dare confess?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Miracles or Magic?

People often conflate two classes of phenomena that I call "miracles" and "magic."  The following is an exert from Chapter 11 ("Impractical Magic") of my book Jesus and the Religions of Man.  The previous chapter argues that miracles really do happen, sometimes.  (In a personal,  usually anecdotal manner, rather than the detailed recent study of Craig Keener, which I recommend to readers who would like to study the empirical data in more depth, or in  the philosophical insight of C.S.Lewis' classic Miracles)  In this chapter, I set forth five criteria by which to distinguish magic from miracles.  After opening with a long personal introduction (I ask your pardon, later sections get to the point more quickly -- but some readers may find this interesting), this post describe the first of those criteria. 

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Grand Tetons

This blog is dedicated to "mapping the universe from a Christian perspective."  How did we overlook the Grand Tetons up to this point?

When John was young, he used to ask to go to Idaho.  Finally we did, a month ago, and I asked, "Why Idaho?"  "It was the next thing on the map," he explained.

The thing after that is Wyoming. 

We camped about 30 miles south of Jackson, in a campground between the road and the Snake River, but closer to the former.  We found a place to go down to the river, where the current swirled around a bar into a pool, pouring across the bar, and then upstream.  It took a little hard swimming to overcome the wash across the bar, but when I did, it turned out to be made of rounded little rocks in different light shades of yellow, purple, ochre.  John and James brought a log to their assistance to conquer the bar. 

A little surprised that I slept that night, so close to a road that had some traffic still, we woke early the next morning, packed up, and headed into Jackson for breakfast at McDonalds.  It was a little cloudy, but as we drove north, the Tetons began to reveal themselves.  We parked at Lupine Meadows (most of the flowers had already bloomed), and went for "a little hike."  But after the parking lot, the mountains hid behind ridges and pines (some fir and a local spruce).  Faced with a fork in the road, James was outvoted, two to one, and we attacked a long series of serious switchbacks.  Too bad, I told myself several times on the way up, that we hadn't bothered to bring more than one bottle of water, and no lunch.  We grabbed at sweet little blue huckeberries when they began to appear, few and far between. 

After ten thousand switchbacks -- "like a sheep's intestines," as the Chinese say -- passing some Spanish hikers, and meeting a small group of Italians, we arrived at Surprise Lake.  The sign said 9520 feet, so we'd gained more than 3000 feet on a casual hike after breakfast.  Central peaks of the Tetons came into view as we approached the little lake, and especially walking around its east side, spectacular pinnacles more like the granite fingers of the earth.  The big surprise for me about the lake, is that it wasn't too cold to swim in, which we did with delight. 

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Peter Boghossian sees through me.

He must be patient indeed, to piles books up like that!
Dr. Peter Boghossian, who teaches philosophy (and atheism) at Portland State University, is writing a book on faith.  I have written (and thought) a lot about faith, too, so I dropped him a line with a friendly invitation.  Normally I don't post personal communications.  But in this case, I think I'll make an exception, since we've been talking about (and I've been thinking about, after reading this, see also my later comments to Tom Gilson's interesting thread) ideological atheism on campus.  Also, Boghossian makes it pretty clear that ordinary courtesies don't weigh too heavily with him. 

Good morning!

Yesterday I noticed on the website for my friend and sometime sparring partner, John Loftus, that you had endorsed his new book on the "Outsider Test for Faith." I haven't seen the book yet, but I'm pretty sure he responds to my critique of the OTF in True Reason, somewhere in that book.

I think I've also seen you make comments about "faith," with which I strongly disagree.

Since we're both in the Northwest -- my home is east of Seattle -- I was wondering if you would consider a civil public debate on the topic of faith?

I'm author of five books, also editor of a new book called Faith Seeking Understanding, that came out this week, and has so far been endorsed by Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff and Penn State historian Philip Jenkins. So this would seem pretty appropriate. My PhD is in the theology of religions.

Thanks much,

David Marshall

Answer this question: What would it take for you to lose your faith?

(Taken aback by the socially-minimalistic character of the question, I gulp, and reply.)
 Do we agree on what the word "faith" means? Do you know what my "faith" is, yet?

If the reasons I believe in God, and in Jesus Christ (or, say, that Io has active volcanoes), proved mistaken, and none better were forthcoming, then I think I would have little intellectual right to hold those beliefs any longer. But it is the very nature and grounds of faith, that I propose to debate. 

This does not answer the question. Please answer the question or this will be our last communication.  What reasons would have to be mistaken? Give me an example of a reason and how you know it would be mistaken. What would this look like?
(Now irritated, and finding a philosopher named on PB's viva that might help explain his style.)

Sorry, Peter, Socrates is a friend of mine. You're no Socrates.

I'm duly warned off. I'll look forward to reading, then debunking, your book.

You're a fraud.  Don't contact me again. 

Gnu folk hero, or just a lot of bull? 
If only I were  better at philosophy, I would be able to plow through my critics with that kind of ruthless efficiency, too!  Gnuistan may have gained a gnu folk hero. 


From all evaluations (almost literally), it seems Boghossian is a talented teacher, though.  Students rave over his passion, knowledge, and dialectical brilliance.  (Whether or not it be on display above.) 
I even find this description of his methods: "All the characteristics you desire in your interlocutor you should display in your own actions: attentive listening, the openness to revise beliefs, respect, and patience, among others. This will lead to more honest and genuine conversations. According to Boghossian,
Those sorts of authentic interactions, that’s when you have the possibility to make change. When you yourself are willing to make changes in yourself. And hey, look, you should always be open to the idea that someone knows something you don’t know. That’s what epistemic humility is. That’s just what being humble is."
Maybe I caught Peter on a bad day.  Perhaps, as with Negy, he is merely giving advise he wants his students to follow, while he himself prefers to be dogmatic and rude.  Or perhaps, as with many of us, pet peeves drive the reason out of the man.  Indeed, one student writes:

His heroes: Dawkins, Habermas, James Randy, Dennett, Pinker, Hitchens, Socrates, Darwin, D. Davidson, Wittgenstein. His hitlist: Postmodernism, pseudoscience, religion, superstition, mysticism, fascism/totalitarianism, Sarah Palin.  This class will give you an opportunity to live a life free of illusion.

Note that three of the "Four Horsemen" appear here: I wonder will Sam Harris feel slighted?  Also, would Socrates fully appreciate this strange company into which he's cast, here? 

And how do fascism / totalitarianism wind up next to the name of a housewife from Wassila, Alaska, who took on Big Oil and spent a couple years in a nice white house on the hillside above downtown Juneau?  What was Sarah Palin's crime, exactly?  Did she put cariboo in concentration camps? 

Anyway, here's another "godless professor" (Dennett's term) apparently using his lectern as a bully pulpit to browbeat young pups out of their faith.

Bogghosian also gives an inane definition of "faith," a purely "straw man" definition like those many New Atheists use to avoid careful confrontation with objects in the real world:

“Pretending to know things you don’t know”.

Too bad Peter declined the debate.  I'm not sure I would have enjoyed the conversation, or even that I could have equalled his rhetorical skills.  But it might do him good to argue with someone his own age, who knows what Christians really think, can talk back, and won't be getting a grade from him at the end of the semester.

Ironic new tidbit: A reader points out that Boghossian chastizes his critics for refusing to debate!

It's interesting—every time I've had a talk cancelled, I've challenged the people who cancelled it to a debate... and no one has accepted yet. If I were to debate somebody, and they could show me that there's really good evidence... that faith really is a reliable guide to reality, that would be fantastic. Then I'll be their voice. I'll be the voice of faith.

The reader adds, "But when you called  his bluff, he refused to debate you." 

That's because I couldn't,answer his riddles correctly, showing I had no right to be ferried across the underground lake to the secret portal that leads out of the Misty Mountains, and must be clubbed over the head and left for the orcs to finish off. 
Hopeful note: It appears that debates with more reasonable opponents will be forthcoming, however. 

Friday, September 07, 2012

Wanted: Profs who don't give a dang about reality!

I just completed my PhD, and am looking for work. I saw this job description from a school in Georgia, for someone to teach world religions:

"Religious Studies at Georgia X explores questions in a non-sectarian setting, in which the "truth value" of any religious outlook is not at issue. We do not ask whether a religion is right or wrong, but how and why a religion is meaningful to the people who practice it. Our goal is not to enhance our own personal faiths, although this may be a welcome benefit to some, but to explore faith and belief from the perspective of the liberal arts."


(1) How can one "explore faith and belief" without talking about the objects of faith and belief?

 (2) If "truth value" is not an issue, does that mean the professor should never raise it? Should have no opinion on it? Or should hold a particular opinion on it of which the administration approves -- say, that all religions are equally true, or equally false?

(3) How can an ultimate view of reality be "meaningful" if it is not at all true? Isn't meaning related to truth? If I say, "It is sunny today," that is a meaningful statement, even if it is snowing -- a meaningful but false statement. But surely the statement is not very meaningful if we dismiss the notion of truth from the get-go. And surely what one derives from a meaningful but false statement, is trouble in the real world -- one goes to the beach in a bathing suit, and gets frostbite in a blizzard. 

(4) Does a Christian, or anyone but a relativist and secular humanist, have a chance in Hades of getting this job?

(5) Do Christians pay taxes to sponsor higher education in the state of Georgia? 

Update: I asked these questions on a site where serious Christians post, and got a lot of reactions like that of Crude, below.  This made me think one of two things may be going on: (1) Either I was irritable this morning, and over-reacted (very possible), or (2) I didn't explain what troubles me about this advertisement very well.  Just in case it's the latter, let's rework this into an advertisement for a physics prof:

"The Physics Department at Georgia X explores scientific questions in a non-sectarian setting, in which the 'truth value' of any interpretation of quantum physics is not at issue. We do not ask whether a given stance on indeterminacy is right or wrong, but how and why that stance is meaningful to the scientists who practice it. Our goal is not to enhance our own personal theories, although this may be a welcome benefit to some, but to explore faith and belief from the perspective of Calvinistic theology."

Sorry, but in religion, as in science, "truth value" is always at issue.  If one is being taught, even just by example, not to ask whether a given stance is true or false, one is by default being taught some particular stance -- agnosticism, perhaps, or more likely, that "all religions are equally false," because we know before asking that the Enlightenment is true.  This is similiar to the de facto (and probably intended) result of "methodological naturalism:" by setting miracles outside of the realm of possibility for the sake of doing science, the intent seems to be that students will learn to set miracles outside of the realm of possibility for ALL purposes.  And that's often how it works in practice.  Borders laid in clay, harden into cement. 

I find it patronizing to assume either that a teacher cannot teach fairly if she frankly admits her biases (most of my best teachers did just that), or that students will wilt and class turn into Sunday School if they do so.  None of my best religion or philosophy profs was a Christian: one was an atheist and secular humanist, another an atheist and practicing communist revolutionary who brought black arm bands to school to protest the death of a student in Nicaragua.  The worst was probably a New Ager or Buddhist of some sort, but he was too timid (and therefore boring) to express his own opinions in class. 

Please don't mistake me.  I'm not saying a teacher should be obnoxious, or cram his worldview down his students' throats.  I taught in four colleges and universities in the heavily secular country of Japan.  None of my supervisors was a Christian.  I expressed my Christian faith when appropriate (say, at Christmas), but also tried to act like a professional, which my supervisors seemed to recognize, for example on the letter of recommendation my primary supervisor gave.  I can't even imagine teaching world religions, say (to give it credit, Islam), while trying to divorce "meaning" from the insistant Muslim claim to be true, or pretending that my mind is empty of opinions on the subject.  Students deserve more credit and honesty than that, IMHO. 

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Response to Law III

A few days ago, I responded to some of Dr. Stephen Law's arguments against the Resurrection, both here and on his blog.  Law answered back, and we went a few rounds, with helpful contributions from some readers. I think Law made a couple good points, but those points were almost lost in a cloud of rhetorical cliches, careless assertions, unexamined assumptions, and half-forgotten references.  In a way, I admire Law for wading in against (initially) unknown on-line opponents.  The tricky thing for an eminent scholar in these forums, is that one clearly can't take as much time in a casual conversation, as for, say, an exchange of ideas in a journal.  So one either has to opt out of such conversation, or risk a few hasty claims, from time to time. And the more eminent (therefore busy) one is, the more hasty one must be.  So I admire eminent scholars who wade into the fray, regardless of their dignity.  And I think it's a good idea to test one's ideas like this.

Anyway, I think Law's arguments, at least at this stage, do more to illustrate why the Resurrection is credible, than to undermine it.  Here I post an interesting recent round of debate from below in one place where it's easy to find, which also allows me to add highlighting and links, and hopefully make it more readable.   

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

My new book is Now Out!

Our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, is now available from William Carey Library!

I think almost everyone interested in apologetics, missions, or the life of the mind, will enjoy this book. It includes conversations with Alvin Plantinga, Rodney Stark, and Don Richardson, as well as original and often personal essays about the search for truth by Philip Yancey, Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman, quantum physicist Don Page (a little weird!), anthropologist Miriam Adeney, Chinese philosopher and reformer Yuan Zhiming, philosopher Randal Rauser, and others. (Including myself, the editor, of course.)

Here are two welcome and telling endorsements:

Philip Jenkins, Penn State historian:

"David Marshall has gathered a really distinguished array of contributors, who have all thought deeply about faith in its global context, and the different essays work wonderfully well together. The book makes a splendid memorial to two truly great individuals, Paul Brand and Ralph Winter."

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale philosopher:

"What makes the collection especially fascinating and valuable is the individuality and particularity of the stories -- a concrete testimony to the fact that the Christian intellectual life takes many forms."

This latter underlines one of the purposes of Faith Seeking Understanding, to encourage Christians to "love God and think boldly," to paraphrase Luther. 

I'll also be hitting the road from next month (book launch this Saturday evening at West Side Pres, then next Saturday at Issaquah Christian, in the Seattle area), and welcome invitations to speak anywhere on the planet, very much including Antarctica.

Don't ask me to wear the suit, though. 

Monday, September 03, 2012

Marshall - Law: Is the Resurrection Epistemic White Noise?

Stephen Law, editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy Journal and professor at the University of London, argues here that many accounts of apparently miraculous events are to be expected, on naturalistic premises, even if nothing supernatural is going on.  He suggests that the story of Jesus resurrecting from the dead is no surprise, then: a naturalist would expect such odd tales to turn up, from time to time. 

I reproduce (I) his argument below, (II) give my initial reply to it, and then (III) his response to that.  Finally, (IV) I explain why I still think his argument fails (though the objection is of value to the discussion, and worth further investigating), plus a few brief comments on why I think the evidence for the resurrection remains convincing. Readers may well pick up points I miss, and I welcome other perspectives. 

Saturday, September 01, 2012

2nd Most Unpopular Review: Dawkins, "Great Show, Lousy Argument"

Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth

*** (79+ / 122 - )

I am a critic of Dawkins. I wrote a response to The God Delusion ("The Truth Behind the New Atheism"), the essence of which could be summarized by paraphrasing a comment Dawkins makes in this book:

It would be nice if those who oppose evolution (Christianity) would take a tiny bit of trouble to learn the merest rudiments of what it is that they are opposing.

Nevertheless, when I saw this book on the "best-seller" rack in the same store in Dawkins' home town where I bought GD, I thought I'd give him a second chance.

I'm glad I did; this is a much better book. It's well-written, as always. It has awesome photos and lots of humor. Clearly Dawkins is much more in his element talking about life forms than theology, the history of religion, or American culture. Sometimes Dawkins gets carried away with whimsy, sarcasm, or on tangents -- but those are often entertaining, too.

More importantly, Dawkins makes a case for evolution, in a limitted sense, that I think is fairly persuasive. What he establishes is evolution in the sense of, "common descent, over billions of years, from relatively simple life to the myriad creatures." On that, I think his argument should be persuasive to anyone open to being persuaded.

But why does an Oxford zoologist insist on "debating" only the most ignorant opponents? Why does he give us a more than four page transcript of his conversation with a representative from Concerned Women for America, whom he tears to pieces to his evident satisfaction, and never mention any proponent of Intelligent Design?

I was hoping he would. I wanted to read Dawkins' best argument against the most convincing arguments the other side could put up, for the curious reason that I really would like to know if there's anything to ID.

Instead, I found a strange but yawning "gap" in Dawkins' argument.

Dawkins knows who Michael Behe is. He wrote a review of his last book, The Edge of Evolution, for the New York Times. He never mentions him overtly in this book, but he does refer to him, at least twice. On page 128, Dawkins refers to "the 'irreducible complexity' of creationist propaganda." Then again on 132, he writes how "creationists" revile a certain set of experiments, because they show the power of natural selection "undermines their central dogma of irreducible complexity." As Dawkins well knows, "Irreducible complexity" (IC) is the signal idea in Behe's popular Darwin's Black Box, probably the most widely-cited book in the ID arsenal.

These references occur in an interesting context here. You find them in a chapter called "Before Our Own Eyes," about the fact that on occasion, evolution occurs so rapidly that it can be witnessed. More specifically, Dawkins offers these jibes towards the beginning of a seventeen-page long discussion of the biologist Richard Lenski's famous experiments with e-coli.

Dawkins discussion of these experiments is more than a little flabbergasting, giving his implicit claim to have read Edge of Evolution. Behe discussed those experiments in that book, in quite a bit of detail as I recall. Behe also discussed the mutations Dawkins refers to here, in a blog about a year prior to the publication of this book. Dawkins mentions none of that. He says nothing about the probability of particular mutations compared to population size. He doesn't even deal with the physiological detail Behe gave. Reading this, it is hard to believe that he even read chapter 7 of Behe's book, still less his blog on how one "tribe" of e-coli found a way to metabolize citrate. He imagines that these experimental results are a great blow to Behe's concept of IC, completely overlooking the fact that these results are just what Behe predicted! A single instance of a probably double mutation in e coli after trillions of cell divisions, is closely in line with Behe's predictions. Surely someone as literate as Dawkins ought to be able to see this. Behe wrote in his blog a year ago:

In The Edge of Evolution I had argued that the extreme rarity of the development of chloroquine resistance in malaria was likely the result of the need for several mutations to occur before the trait appeared. Even though the evolutionary literature contains discussions of multiple mutations, Darwinian reviewers drew back in horror, acted as if I had blasphemed, and argued desperately that a series of single beneficial mutations certainly could do the trick. Now here we have Richard Lenski affirming that the evolution of some pretty simple cellular features likely requires multiple mutations.

So Behe knows very well that duel mutations can aid in evolution on occasion. How bizarre for Dawkins to treat the same thing here as the death knell of IC!

Dawkins also claims that in Lenski's experiment:

It all happened in a tiny faction of the time evolution normally takes.

Nonsense. 20,000 generations is the equivalent of 400,000 years for human beings. A trillion individuals would be equal to perhaps 20 million years of early human evolution.

Dawkins then talks about how bacteria develop resistance to drugs -- the main subject of Behe's book, but he takes no notice whatsoever of any of the tough details Behe discusses. All we get are glib words of comfort for anyone who might doubt the power of evolution, and an attack on "goons and fools" at some conservative web site led by a lawyer. Dawkins seems to refuse to engage in any but the most childish contrary arguments -- a remarkable act of self-discipline for a scholar.

I'm finding it hard to "place" this guy. There's no doubt he knows a lot about the natural world, and is in love with its wonders. No one can deny that he is a brilliant and evocative writer, that his similes are often moving and suggestive, and that many eminent scientists swear by him. Nor would I deny this book is worth reading.

But Richard Dawkins seems to me less a scholar, and even rhetorical pugalist, than that sort of mythologist, like Freud, Nietzche, or Marx, who cloaks his beliefs in the language but not always the rigor of scientific argument. To the extent he argues, he only seems inclined to take on the easiest possible targets; indeed one gets the feeling both here and in GD that he is talking down to his readers.

Nonetheless, it's not a bad book. Read it for the beautiful descriptions of the natural world, and for its fairly convincing argument for common descent. If you want an argument against ID, the best I have found so far is Michael Shermer's Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.