RESPONDblogs: Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

moral_landscape

I regularly watch TED Talks. As a regular public speaker myself, I love to learn from the best speakers. I recently watched a TED talk by Sam Harris which dealt with why Science and not Religion can answer the deepest questions about right, and wrong and human morality. In fact – Harris argues that science’s objectivity can give us better moral answers than religion can.

 

You can watch his talk here.

Science Can Answer Moral Questions | Sam Harris | TED Talks

I have a lot of sympathy for Harris’s arguments. And judging by the standing ovation he received at the end, so did his audience. I feel that Harris plugs in to our intuitive sense of right and wrong in this talk. He appeals to our inner call for justice in the face of injustice towards women and children. His condemnation of religious extremism? I wanted to stand up and applaud him for these points too!

 

But do I agree with him that science can give us any answers on the questions of right and wrong? No – I don’t follow his argument at all. It doesn’t make sense to me. And I’ll tell you why.

 

Harris uses the term “flourishing” as he builds his case. He claims that the scientific method can help us to work out what enables human beings and human society to flourish. Moral behavior, therefore, is simply that which causes the majority of people to flourish. I agree with him that human flourishing is important. And I am sure he’s right that scientific observation can assist in this process. But there’s a big question that is looming over his argument.

 

1 – Harris’s Argument Never Answers WHY?

WHY? Why is it right and good for the most number of people to flourish, and bad to frustrate this moral agenda?  Ah – a reply comes – it’s all about survival. We promote human flourishing to ensure the survival of the species in a Darwinian sense.

 

No – hang on a moment. Survival is not the “ought” that promotes human flourishing. Survival of the fittest is not going to work for you here. Because when it comes down to it, moral good isn’t actually defined as the best for the most people. History is full of examples of that sort of reasoning, where the majority benefit at the expense of the minority. A morality based on the principle, “might is right” is no morality at all. History shows us that it opens the door instead to all sorts of inhuman acts.

 

Why shouldn’t I flourish at your expense? Whether “I” is me personally or my community of my ethnicity or whatever? If I’m unfortunate enough to be in the minority who is not permitted to flourish…then that’s just tough luck to Sam Harris. Agreed – it is tough luck. But is that morally right? I think we would intuitively say – no it’s not morally right. So why is it allowed to happen? Harris’s argument has nothing to say beyond, that’s just the way things are.

 

The problem is, Harris measures morality purely on the basis of observation, watching how people behave. It is locked into human society. It has no way to appeal beyond human society to a higher ideal. Science cannot reach beyond “what is”. It cannot touch on “what should be”. The scientific method was never intended for this purpose. It is the wrong tool for the job.

 

 

2 – Harris’s Argument ASSUMES Moral Values Exist in Order to Work

This is the deeper issue for Sam Harris.

 

His Moral Landscape imports human morality in order to work. He assumes that it is morally good to encourage people, to promote value and purpose and all these things. And he is right – it is good! But the problem is – he is not deducing these things. He is just assuming them. His logical argument “begs the question” over morals and their existence.

“Concepts of sacrifice, nobility and honour must be assumed foundationally, but these are not morally neutral notions….He’s borrowing pre-existent, objective moral notions about worth, value and purpose, while holding a worldview that argues against any pre-existent moral notions.”[1]

 

Harris needs morality to exist in order for his moral landscape to make any sort of sense. But these morals are precisely the things he is trying to explain! Where do these notions come from? Ironically they come from the Christian foundation that he has benefitted from as a citizen of a Western nation. The humane, people valuing society that is promoted through the teaching of the Bible. A million miles from the religious extremist caricature he paints.

 

 

 

So…

 

I applaud Sam Harris as he calls for the protection and the flourishing of persecuted people groups. I’m with him on that. But we part company when it comes to his line of reasoning. Science cannot derive issues of ultimate value to human life. Because by definition it is locked into the human condition.

 

Rather, it seems to me that science needs to import and assume Christian moral values in order to become humane. And so do people. There’s a transcendent source for the moral values that Sam…and each one of us…appeal to. And whether we like it or not…we are ultimately answerable to that source. A Holy God.

[1] J Warner Wallace, Is “Right” and “Wrong” Simply a Matter of “Human Flourishing”, Cold Case Christianity, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2013/is-right-and-wrong-simply-a-matter-of-human-flourishing/.

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RESPONDblogs: Why Christianity Can’t Just Be Based On Wishful Thinking

i_want_to_believeIn 1961, the first big Alien Abduction claim hit the public consciousness. Barney and Betty Hills, from Portsmouth New Hampshire, reportedly had a Close Encounter with…something.

What exactly did Barney and Betty claim? You can listen to an interview with Betty online[1]. It’s fascinating and familiar to those of us with the benefit of 10 seasons of Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” to draw from!

And this raises a question for me. As I raise my eyebrow at Betty Hills outlandish claim…which sounds very much like fiction to me…I wonder whether Christianity sounds just like it to many people today. Christianity’s claim that Jesus of Nazareth returned from the dead 2000 years ago  – is this any less outlandish? Does the New Testament’s report of Jesus’ resurrection belong in the fictional “X-Files” cabinet, or is there more substance to Christianity’s claim that points toward its historical credentials?

 

Let’s go back for a moment to the cold war tensions and paranoia of 1961. It wasn’t just a new decade marked by musical brilliance and Moon shots. Aliens were also reportedly doing medical procedures on unfortunate folks who were going about their daily business!

 

Driving home one evening, they thought they saw something unusual in the night sky. Actually – many people including the US Military later agreed that something weird was happening that night. They reportedly stopped the car and took a good look. But the bright lights – and the erratic behavior of the object – began to freak them out. So they hurried back to their car and drove on. Before long – it became apparent they were 35 miles further down the road than they should have been. They appeared to have lost time!

Many weeks later, following a period of disrupted sleep and nightmares, they reportedly went thru regression hypnosis. And this brought out vivid details of little bald grey captors, operating tables and medical procedures.

Actually this is only the first well documented case of Alien Abduction – throughout the next 20 years, a number of similar claims were made by apparently ordinary people with no apparent reason to lie.

 

The New Testament contains 2000 year old eyewitness reports from apparently ordinary people too.

  • Reports of the death of Jesus of Nazareth, followed by the grief and shock of his friends.
  • Reports that these grieving people then subsequently encountered their friend back from the dead at various different times and places over a 40 day period.

 

Sounds pretty unlikely – right? Dead people don’t come back. Aliens don’t abduct people driving home in their cars.

 

Whatever historical event you are trying to verify – whether mundane or fantastical – historians apply 5 criteria to test the solidity of the report.

A solid Historical claim will[2]:

1 – be supported by multiple, independent sources

2 – be attested to by enemies (hostile witnesses) as well as friends

3 – include embarrassing admissions which reflect honest reporting rather than creative storytelling

4 – be supported by direct eyewitness testimony

5 – be supported by early testimony making legendary development impossible

 

The problem with the Barney and Betty Hills Alien Abduction claim is – by the criteria laid out above – we do not have a solid Historical report.

The only witnesses were the alleged abductees. There are no independent sources or witnesses – either friendly or hostile – to the Hill’s claim.  While other people agreed something strange was seen in the night sky that evening in September 1961, no other witness to the alleged Close Encounter exists. We’re right to be skeptical – their case is historically unverified.

 

So – what about the Bible’s claim that God raised Jesus from the dead? (Acts 2:24) Well – a historical case based on a minimal set of data does exist. What is this data and how solid is the case?

 

DATA POINT 1 – The Death of Jesus By Crucifixion

This fact is attested by every Gospel, and many non-Christian sources too. For example – Roman historian Josephus, Tacitus, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata as well as the Jewish Talmud itself.

Jesus crucifixion meets the historical criteria of multiple independent eyewitnesses, early sources and enemy attestation.

Some have proposed that – maybe Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross. He merely swooned, was then buried and was then revived in the cold tomb.

But this doesn’t work.

  • Roman executioners were excellent torturers and executioners
  • Jesus faking his resurrection goes against his moral teachings
  • There are no early reports he was wounded and not killed
  • A half dead Messiah could not serve as the foundation for a belief in the Resurrection. If his friends had encountered him bloodied and bleeding…they would not have called him the Lord of Life. They would have called him a doctor!
  • Jewish thinking said, only once at the end of human history would the dead be raised. This means that – on encountering Jesus alive again after his crucifixion –his followers would naturally have just assumed he didn’t die. Yet this is not what they claimed. It is highly culturally unusual for the Jewish early Church to proclaim him as Christ crucified and raised from death.

 

DATA POINT 2 – The Empty Tomb

All naturalistic theories that attempt to explain away the Resurrection presuppose the empty tomb. The body was reportedly gone.

From the beginning, the hostile Jewish authorities claimed that Jesus’ followers had stolen his body to fake his resurrection. But this claim gives no reason WHY they would have done so.

Further – the claim that the disciples stole the body does not work within Jewish culture at that time. There was no expectation of a Messiah who would become the suffering servant; who was executed shamefully by the Gentiles, and then raised bodily before the general resurrection at the end of time. Rather – Messiah’s were ten a penny in ancient Jerusalem. If your Messiah got themselves killed – you either gave up and went home, or you hitched your wagon to a different one. But the idea that Jesus followers stole his corpse and faked his resurrection just wouldn’t have entered their minds at that point in Jewish history.

Finally – if the disciples stole the body – this doesn’t explain the conversion of Christianity’s 1st century enemy turned Apostle – Saul who became Paul.

Surely if someone had managed to produce his rotting corpse and deposit it in the middle of Jerusalem for all to see….that would have been an end to it. But they could not.

DATA POINT 3 – The Post-Resurrection Appearances

Scholars cite 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 as the earliest snapshot of Christian belief about Jesus. Paul claimed to receive this creed from the original Apostles many years before he wrote his letter. Scholars date the creed to within months or weeks of the crucifixion itself.

Three of our four minimal facts are recorded there as an early statement of belief – Christ died, his tomb was discovered empty and he was seen by his closest friends. And then more than five hundred people saw him at once.

The early date of this creed rules out legendary embellishment because there simply wasn’t time for legends to develop. And besides – the eye witnesses were still alive at the time this was passed on.

Yet over hundreds of years some legends did develop; they are referred to as the 3rd century Gnostic Gospels. In comparison to the New Testament’s stark and excited eyewitness reporting, the Gnostic Gospels are full of bizarre and fanciful imagery.

 

Some have suggested hallucination as an explanation for the appearances. People saw what they wanted to see. But Psychologists have ruled this out. Hallucinations are private experiences yet crowds of eyewitnesses reportedly witnessed the risen Jesus. Remember, Jews would not expect to see a raised Jesus anyway. And finally – hallucination does not explain the empty tomb itself or indeed Saul’s conversion to Christianity.

 

DATA POINT 4 – The Origin of the Christian Faith

Within one generation of Jesus crucifixion, “the Way” had spread to Europe, Asia and Africa. If Christianity is the effect – then what was the cause?

Well – surely the most obvious cause is the Apostles belief that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead. And this belief transformed people’s lives. The cultural worship practices of Jewish people changed. Church moved to a Sunday.

Could the Disciples have stolen the body and made it all up? No lie or shared conspiracy or mistaken observation has the explanatory power to ignite the Christian church in human history.

 

IN SUMMARY

Jesus resurrection is based on historically verifiable evidence – it meets the 5 requirements outlined earlier in this blog. However unusual the event, there is powerful evidence of the event’s historical reliability. Even though we don’t understand how it happened – this does not preclude us from historically accepting that it did happen.

 

Really?

You’ve got to be gullible to believe Alien abduction reports – right? In the same way, dead men do not rise!

Hold on a minute –

The historical basis of the resurrection is incredibly strong. And no one claims Jesus was raised from the dead by natural means. Christians simply repeat what the Bible eye witness accounts say – that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Besides – you don’t have to understand something to accept the truth of it. Ask any Scientist to explain human consciousness; where does it come from? Then ask them what energy really is. They don’t really know. If Scientists can accept these things even though they don’t understand how and why they work – can’t we accept Jesus’ Resurrection as true based on observable and historically verifiable evidence?

 

 

[1] Betty Hill UFO Encounter Interview, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FO6VIMPZhwA.

[2] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.

RESPONDblogs: God, Morals and Steven Avery

murderer

Over the past few posts, I’ve done my best to lay out the moral argument for God as I understand it.

While doing so…I’ve also been watching “Making a Murderer” on Netflix…which has been a fascinating experience…and resonates strongly with the argument I have been making. I’ll explain why I think that in a moment.

For now – here’s what I’ve been exploring on this blog: 

 

 

1 – The claim that human morality is simply just what society does as it evolves. I’ve explored reasons why this cannot be the case.

2 – The claim that each different human society has its own particular moral code. I’ve discussed why I think this misunderstands what morality is.

3 – I’ve gone on to explore what moral absolutes look like.

4 – And I’ve said that – this state of affairs only really makes any sense if there is a God to provide the code in the first place.

 

 

But – so what? If there’s a moral code imprinted onto each human heart that urges us to look after the poor and the helpless, to care for and respect our children and our elders, to seek justice in this world…so what?

 

 

Here are a couple of thoughts.

First – I think it’s easy to forget just how strong the force of the moral code really is in our lives. The stronger something is – the more important it is to explore its cause and its reason.

Just after the Christmas holiday, Janet and I watched the Netflix series that’s getting a lot of buzz right now. It’s called “Making a Murderer” and it’s a series that documents the life and misfortunes of Steven Avery who has spent most of his life in prison. And the series lays out – using a creative mix of interviews, news clips and recovered footage during the events – that Avery has been sent to prison twice for crimes that he did not commit. And as things stand today – he may never manage to gain his release.

What affect has this had on the people of have watched it? Well – those who I have spoken to, those who I have listened to – have been full of moral outrage on behalf of Steven and his nephew Brendan Dassey. That he would be misrepresented in such a crushing way twice, leading to decades behind bars, makes people angry…and it makes them call for change. Some people take it further…and seek to punish the poor prosecutor Ken Kratz for putting Steven in prison. Kratz seems to have done a good job of punishing himself, if the reports of his impropriety are to be believed!

Director Peter Jackson has written about his feelings on his public Facebook page:

“it’s only by watching the 10 hours of riveting documentary that you will really understand how faulty the U.S justice system currently is, and how badly it needs fixing. That will only happen if you are angry enough to demand it, and “Making a Murderer” does a pretty good job of achieving that!”

This TV show has made a massive impact. Netflix hasn’t released viewing figures…but its impact on social media has been enormous between December and January 2016. The first episode was uploaded to YouTube to encourage non-Netflix subscribers to get on board…and that episode has achieved 1.6 million views since 18th December when it was posted. The official @MakingAMurderer twitter account went from 4000 to 114000 followers over the same period. This show has made a big impact on an international viewing audience, and it highlights just how important the moral absolute of “justice in court” is to the average person.

Our shared call for legal justice in a corrupt justice system points to the creator God who makes sense of our moral outrage. That’s an important point to consider here.

 

 

Second – if God has given us a humane and protective moral code, then that tells us a lot about what his character is like. Because it’s going to reflect the caring protective heart laws we have explored.

Now some would reply – “Stuart, the Bible is the most immoral work of fiction I’ve ever read!” Really? You call the Bible a work of fiction? Are you sure you read it? But I do agree it is full of immoral acts. And I think there are some reasons for this:

1 – The Bible is not completely prescriptive. It does not spend all of its time telling us how we should behave. It doesn’t need to do that because the moral law is written elsewhere (on our hearts). What it does however spend a lot of time doing – is describing the human condition. The immoral problems that humanity wrestles with. The problem is the human heart – the problem is my heart. And the Bible spends a lot of time showing us why we need God’s help.

2 – The Bible was written at a different time in a different culture. For example, the ancient near east was nowhere near as humane a society as the western countries are today. Yet ISIS seems to be trying to take us back into those dark ages. The behaviour of God’s people seems very harsh to 21st century eyes. Yet when viewed alongside the evils of the time that were wrought by other nations…Israel was always progressive in its humanity. An example of this is the way it treated slaves – who were limited in their engagement to 7 years (Exodus 21:2).

3 – When we hear non-Bible scholars accusing God of heinous immoral acts in the Old Testament, you’ve got to ask:

  • where are you getting your sense of morality from in the first place?
  • why do you think you are properly understanding these ancient texts that come from a particular place and time – and are not prescriptive today.

 

 

Humanity is capable of incredible acts of selflessness, love and faithfulness. And I suggest that they reflect the character of the God who made us, who loves us and who has imprinted his goodness onto us.

“May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favour and give you his peace.” Numbers 6:24-26, NLT