RESPONDblog: The Danger of Scientific Consensus

When discussing scientific theories, it can be tempting to appeal to the consensus view of scientists when we want to silence a new theory that we don’t like. This has been done to me in online discussions by people who disagree with my position. And – frankly – I’ve not really known how to respond beyond just saying, “okay…if you say so!” However – I’m coming to think that an  appeal to consensus is not only unjustified, but its also dangerously unscientific.
In his book “Undeniable”, the biologist Doug Axe recounts his experience as an undergraduate student sitting one of his first University exams. One test question asked which macro molecule was most apt to have been the first “living” molecule. Doug decided to give the correct answer to the question, but he then decided to continue his answer by pointing out why he felt that no molecule actually had what it takes to “start life off” by itself. He did this anticipating extra credit from his professor for his creative thinking.

What he got – was marked down.

Why?

Because, “we students were expected not only to know current thinking in biology but also to accept it without resistance. We were there as much to be acculturated as educated.” (1)

Axe goes on to point out that in the conclusion of the first edition of Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species”, Darwin voiced his hope that scientists would stop rejecting his theory of evolution, and one day they might gradually take it on board. To Darwin’s surprise (I’m sure), within a period of just three years, we read in the sixth edition of the book that

“Now things are wholly changed, and almost every naturalist admits the great principle of evolution.” (2)

What caused the change? Was it a scientific discovery? No – because as Axe points out, Darwin would have recorded the discovery and attributed the change to it. (3) No, instead “peer pressure is a part of science…scientific interests compete against one another for influence…might the sudden change in Darwin’s favour have been more like a change of power than a change of minds.” (4)

Human influence and power turned the tide opinion. Not scientific discovery. Ironically – it was Darwin at the time of his book’s first edition who was the one straying from the herd…not complying with the consensus view at the time on the origin of biological life. Consensus doesn’t move us forward. As Axe says, “those rare people who oppose the stream are the ones to watch.” (5)

In other words – scientists from the past were influenced by human factors as well as data factors. Possibly more so. Our deference to consensus seems to be about sticking with the herd and not straying too far from it. And discouraging others from straying from the consensus view. If that was true for scientists back then – its sure to be true now. Arthur Koestler talks about this principle in play during the formation of cosmology. It’s also present in biology too. 

Now – I’m not suggesting accountability is wrong. Not so – our colleagues keep us honest. What I am criticising – is consensus. Or to put it another way – “group think” holds creative scientific discovery back. It hurts scientific understanding by slowing the formation and adoption of new theories.

Here are three observations about the scientific process and the dangers of group think:

First – this suggests to to me that it takes courage to be the one to stand up and disagree with the consensus – and propose a new idea. It takes courage to put forward a new theory, and back that theory up with evidences. Courage is required because, inevitably, rejection will follow from your peers.

Second – it also suggests to me that scientific consensus does not equate to truth. I wish Darwinians today could wrap their heads around this. Just because the consensus of scientists agree on something does not make their theory true, however scientifically orthodox it may currently be. Rather – the consensus is simply that. The widely held public view of qualified people today. Tho in private – they may say something else entirely.

Thirdly – it suggests to me that anyone who rejects a new theory based on the views of scientific consensus is missing the point of science, and actually behaving in an unhelpful and non-scientific way. Consensus is just the current status quo. Humanity needs people of courage to stand up and propose something that’s new so it can be examined and tested. To simply reject this on the basis of personal and consensus led bias…seems unscientific and harmful to the scientific enterprise as a whole.

The answer to a new scientific theory is not, “Don’t be so silly. No one else believes that because its stupid.” Rather – the answer should be, “That’s an interesting idea. Let’s test it together.”

Scientific consensus is harmful to the progress of scientific understanding.

Michael Crichton, who went to Medical school and taught anthropology before he authored books like Westworld and Jurassic Park, stood against scientific consensus much more strongly then either Doug Axe or myself. He calls the notion of scientific consensus “pernicious…and the refuge of scoundrels, because it’s the way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled.” Oh – how familiar that problem is to me today.

I’ll end with a Crichton quote.

“I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period. . . .

I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. .” (6)

(1) Douglas Axe, Undeniable How Biology Confirms our Intuition That Life Is Designed, (Harper One, 2016), 3.

(2) Online Variorum of Darwin’s Origin of Species: first British edition (1859) comparison with 1872, http://test.darwin-online.org.uk/Variorum/1859/1859-483-c-1872.html

(3) Axe, 5.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Axe, 6.

(6) Michael Crichton, “‘Aliens Cause Global Warming’Links to an external site.,” reprinted in Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2008.

RESPONDblog: Were the New Testament Authors Biased?


Introduction

I often hear something like this from sceptics:

“Christians always appeal to the Bible. But I don’t trust the Bible because it was written by authors who were biased. If the text is untrustworthy, the foundation of Christianity is therefore suspect.” 

The sceptic claims a lack of objectivity in the New Testament record. Because the authors were Christians, the sceptic assumes they were therefore not objective in their assessment of the events. Because they weren’t objective, they must therefore make claims that are biased, suffering from “unreasoned judgement.” (1)  Let’s look at the 3 primary motives for personal bias to see whether any evidence for this exists for the apostolic authors. Is there evidence the New Testament authors were intentionally misleading their readers?


Relating the Primary Motives to the Apostles

What exactly is the cause of their supposed bias? What were the authors to gain from misleading their audience? This question can be approached by considering the three most common motives for human misdemeanour.

First, the driving force of financial greed commonly leads to wrong behaviour. Yet there is no historical evidence the apostles had financial wealth, or a motivation toward amassing it. We can appeal to both the New Testament books of Acts, the letter of James and non biblical history to support this claim.

In Acts, the apostle Peter responded to a lame man, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene – walk!” (2)  Clearly Peter’s life as an apostle did not allow him to engage in much paid work; his priority was spreading Christ’s message.

The apostle James goes further, stating not only were the followers of Christ financially poor, but that their perspective was such that they prioritised eternal matters over financial ones; “Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.” (3)

We must also appeal to other sources to demonstrate the trustworthiness of the biblical claim of apostolic poverty; “All the non biblical accounts related to the lives of the apostles, whether legitimate or legendary, affirm the poverty of the disciples.” (4)

Sexual or relational desire is a second driving force for immoral action. Helpfully, we know from the writings of the disciple Clement of Alexandria, that all the apostles were men who held, “sexual purity in high regard.” (5) The record shows they were all married and some had children. While Clement suggests that they chose to deny themselves sexual contact for a time, they were known as people who would, “live their sexual lives in a manner that was beyond reproach.” (6) And their attitude to these matters is clearly seen in the counterculture requirement that men had only a single wife. (7)

The third driver is the pursuit of personal power. Often, critics of Christianity point to this as a motivating factor behind much of what went wrong during church history. To an extent, church history documents the Roman Catholic Church’s power, and its corrupting influence on the lives of some popes. It is critical, however, to distinguish this later period of church history from the earlier apostolic period. One cannot criticise the apostles for the mistakes and sinful choices made by church leaders who lived hundreds of years after they died. Rather, the apostles must be measured by their own choices.

Looking at the historical record demonstrates that during the apostles’ time, “leadership within the Christian community was a liability rather than an asset.” (8)  The extra-biblical historical record from Roman historians like Tacitus and Josephus records that the first century Christians experienced uniform persecution.

Importantly, although their leadership role led to persecution rather than power, they did not change their message to lessen their persecution. Instead, they went to their deaths preaching Christ; most of them were martyred.

I have laid out important reasons why the apostles were free from the motivating factors of finances, relationships and power. Because the apostles were free from ulterior motives, the case for them as reliable witnesses is strengthened. This gives both a clear and a thoughtful response to the sceptic who dismisses the New Testament as the product of biased sources.

The burden of proof is on the sceptic to show evidence of bias.

  [1] J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity, (David Cook), 245.

  [2] Acts 3:6.

  [3] James 2:5.

  [4] Wallace, 242.

  [5] Wallace, 244.

  [6] Ibid.

  [7] 1 Timothy 3:2.

  [8] Wallace, 245.

RESPONDblog: Is it Rational to Believe in God when there is Evil?

Is it rational and coherent for the Christian to believe that God exists and he is good while staring into the face of so many distressing and disturbing things going on in our lives? The evils we face; the brutal illnesses that cut people down in their prime; the painful situations that leave us speechless with grief. Is it rational and responsible to believe in God while we are sobbing the question, “Why?”

Before his conversion to theism, Anthony Flew didn’t think so and he made a compellingly case against belief. Flew’s argument is summarised by Steve Grant as follows:

“We are told that God loves us, and the sceptic points to a child dying of inoperable throat cancer. The loving father is frantic with worry, but God does not intervene. Does God loves us? And the theist claims, ‘God’s love is not merely a human love.’…If allowing a child to die horribly when one has the power to prevent it does not conflict with the claim that God loves us, then it starts to become unclear as to whether or not the theist is really using the word ‘love’ in a way which is recognisable…’What would have to occur…to constitute for you a disproof of the love of God, or of the existence of God?’”[1]

I would agree that when investigating a hypothesis using the scientific method, that we need to agree on some way to test a theory, to establish a set of criteria such that if they were met they would ultimately falsify our theory. If we don’t allow any criteria to undermine our theory…then it’s not a good scientific theory and we are trying to conceal that.

But to apply this process to Christianity is to misunderstand the Christian’s faith in God; like so much we take for granted in life, relationships are not scientific theories; either is Christianity. Is belief in God a sound choice, even though the Christian struggles to understand the causes of evil and the answer to the question, “Why?” Doesn’t my confusion ultimately falsify my belief in God?

I think the answer is no. For a start, the test is not yet complete; all the results are not yet in.

But in a deeper way, I’ll explain why I think the answer’s no by referring to Basil Mitchell’s “Parable of the Resistance Fighter”.

The parable asks us to imagine we are fighting the Nazis in occupied France during the War. Os Guinness, a pupil of Basil Mitchell, describes the scene:

“Imagine I come to you in a bar and I say to you, ‘I hear you want to join the local resistance. Well, I’m the local resistance leader. So, let’s talk for a while; ask me anything you want to know. But if you decide to join the resistance tonight, then you must agree to obey me BLINDLY. We will never speak openly like this again because it’s just too dangerous to do so.”[2]

In a sense, the Christian has become convinced of two essential truths. First, that God is there and second that he is good.

For myself, it is the person of Jesus Christ who has led me to both of those conclusions.

  • If God is the Father of Jesus…
  • if Jesus promises God’s love to each one who believes…
  • and if God raises Jesus from the dead specifically to show that God has validated Jesus’ work…

…then I’m in. Sign me up. And having signed up – I then choose to take a crucial step. I choose to trust God in the dark; when I don’t understand what’s going on in life and why it is happening.

Think back to the resistance leader for a moment.

Let’s say that following our conversation with him in the bar, we agree to join the resistance. Well – we’ve agreed to trust the leader – even though we don’t understand everything that he will be doing during the fight. There will be times we get confused, when it looks like he is helping the Nazis…not opposing them. But we are part of the resistance…we’ve got to hold on and keep trusting both the leader and his motives blindly.

Eventually, the end of the war will come, everything that is hidden is made public. All the codes are released, the motives behind the resistance leader’s confusing actions are finally laid bare for all to see. Then…ah…of course…that’s what he was doing…it’s obvious! He was resisting all along. But while we are in the heart of enemy territory…it’s a different story[3].

In a sense – the Christian is in enemy territory right now. Awful things are happening in this world today, sceptics point Christians to unsettling passages in the Old Testament. Why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his own son? No honest follower of Jesus will claim to have all the answers to the question “Why?” She is in the dark on much of it.

Yet – the Christian is still rational to maintain trust that God is there and he is good.

Os Guinness explains why.

“We can say God – I trust you. Even though I don’t understand what is happening right now. Yet one day, perhaps we will know why. This is a faith that simply knows what it NEEDS to know right now; that God is there and he is good. So, we can trust him even though right now…in enemy territory…we are in the dark.”[4]

Is it rational and coherent for the Christian to say that they believe God exists and is good in the face of so much distress? Yes. The rationality of one’s trust in God is founded on the person of Christ, and is not undermined by everything we do not understand. We’ve got to hold on, to watch this world – and the evil within it – to play out and conclude. To do what we can to resist it.

But the war is not over.

Yet.

[1] Steve Grant, Talking about God, Richmond Journal of Philosophy 9, Spring 2005, accessed 15th March 2017, http://www.richmond-philosophy.net/rjp/back_issues/rjp9_grant.pdf.

[2] Os Guinness, The Journey: A Thinking Person’s Quest for Meaning, The Veritas Forum, accessed 15th March 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOXzgs7Tyys.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

RESPONDblog: Why is there Something Rather than Nothing?

gervais

I found this discussion on prime time US TV to be pretty fascinating! I’m always pleased to see when discussion about God comes out of the private places and into the public square where it belongs.

Ricky’s a sharp and witty comedian…and I do enjoy his irreverent humor. But I honestly find his atheism troubling. Not because I find his arguments compelling…its just the way he immediately seems closed to the idea of God.

I thought Colbert asked a great question out of the gate on his show…and he let Ricky off very lightly by allowing him to sidestep his good question.

 

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Why does the universe exist at all? Why are we here?

 

Ricky’s response was,

“That makes no sense at all…surely the bigger question is not why, but how?”

 

Interesting.

 

First – Ricky’s saying first that the question makes no sense. Sure it does. The sentence conforms to the laws of English grammar and syntax. But that’s not what he means. What he means is that naturalism and his materialistic worldview has no good answer to the question “why”. And so rather than admit that, he moves the discussion to “how”. Interesting sleight of hand. But it seems to me that it would have been more honest to admit that he has no answer to the question “why”.

 

Second – he says that the bigger question is not why, but how. Of course…Ricky thinks he’s on solid ground now about the “how” because…well…science. He can engage on that topic because of the great work in cosmology, biology, etc. But is he right? Is “how” a bigger question? I personally don’t think so.

  • Human beings have been asking “why” for millennia. It’s the oldest philosophical question. And I’ve experienced the “why” question many times in my discussions with atheists to this day. “Why” always matters to people – whether you have an answer or not.
  • Why do we exist? That is MASSIVE. I think its short sighted to skip that one because it feeds directly into our own purpose in life. Are you saying you don’t care about that?

 

Personally – I’m of the opinion that BOTH the “why” AND the “how” are important questions. And rather than dodge them…we need to work on them. Maybe we don’t have all the answers yet – which is why we are working on them. David Robertson makes an interesting point,

“Don’t be so dismissive of the very questions that make us human.   Humans are the only animal who ask the why question.  Please don’t dehumanise us.”[1]

Too right – you are worth more than that, Ricky.

 

I also love the part in the interview when Ricky says,

“Can you prove there is a God? You say no. So I don’t believe you.”

I’ve hit this so many times myself. And it’s like…we are stuck together in this odd discussion on proof for God…with the definition of the word “prove” getting tougher and tougher by the second. Yet there are so many things in life that we naturally accept, even though there is no empirical, cast iron proof of them.

  • I have a mind as I am writing this. You are reading this and you are using your mind. You have no empirical proof of my mind. You just choose to accept it. The same for me with yours.
  • What’s more…can we prove we are not plugged into the Matrix as we read and write? No. And neither can I.
  • Can you prove there is a God? No – because someone always pushes the definition of “prove” that bit higher each time.

BUT – is there EVIDENCE for God. Now – that’s a whole different question. Of course there is evidence that points towards the existence of God. For example…

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/does-human-reason-point-toward-gods-existence-or-gods-absence/

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/respondblog-doesnt-order-in-nature-provide-circumstantial-evidence-for-god/

 

And yet…again as Robertson points out about Ricky,

“you have already pre-determined that there can be no such evidence and therefore you automatically dismiss or explain away any such evidence.”[2]

Isn’t that the truth. We come back to what is permitted or allowed by the atheist belief system. Robertson engages with many more of Ricky’s points during this brief exchange…it worth taking a read of his blog.

[1] Ricky Gervais v Stephen Colbert – The Real Answers – An Open Letter, https://theweeflea.com/2017/02/03/ricky-gervais-v-stephen-colbert-the-real-answers-an-open-letter/, accessed 13th Feb 2017.

[2] Ibid.

RESPONDblog: Terror and the Horns of a Dilemma

blog

We live in a post 9-11 world.

Religiously fuelled terrorism is a tragic staple on our news feeds. At a time where people fly planes into skyscrapers, randomly shoot holiday makers at the beach and drive trucks into crowded Christmas markets, man’s inhumanity to man seems to be in no risk of letting up.

What’s fascinating to me is the way many terrorists justify their horrific acts by appealing to God and their religious outlook. For example, “Allah told me to do it.”[1] And I’m sure this line of reasoning isn’t solely limited to Islamic terrorism.

But I feel I need to point something out here.

While this is a common radicalised religious view (referred to theistic voluntarism) …it is not and has never been the Bible’s view of God as properly understood. And despite the Christian church’s failures in living up to it over the centuries…it is not the way ethics is supposed to work in the world.

God is good. It’s his nature. Ontologically speaking, it’s his being. And his offer to all of us – is that with his help, we can be restored to the goodness that he intended for us from the beginning.

“God, God, a God of mercy and grace, endlessly patient—so much love, so deeply true—loyal in love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin.”[2]

Now at this point…my philosopher friends may nod their heads…and raise their hands. Because one of the founding fathers of modern philosophy, Plato, posed an interesting dilemma that relates to this very issue. It’s become known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma.

There are two horns of this dilemma.

First – is something good because God commands it?

If I say yes…then I’m faced with the possibility of terrorist morality. “God told me to crash the plane – there’s a greater good being done here thru terror – I must obey.” And even though the average person recoils in horror at this…the terrorist feels morally justified. But that wouldn’t make God very good tho…would it? Not by our intuitive sense of right and wrong.

If I say no…then I have another problem. God no longer becomes the source of all moral goodness. And in that case…he ceases to be God. He has no moral basis with which to command anything of me. He “promptly disappears in a puff of logic.”[3]

 

What about the second horn? It goes like this.

Second – does God command something because it is good?

If I say yes…then again, something is already good before God does it. Goodness and morality must exist separately from God. God is expected to obey these moral laws like us. He’s not God any more. He’s irrelevant. Puff of logic again!

If I say no…then this opens the door again to God commanding us to do morally questionable actions.

 

If this mind bender sounds irrelevant…I understand…but actually it isn’t irrelevant. Because it challenges us to answer the question – “What is good, and where does good come from?” If there is no God after all…then good is simply a person’s point of view. And if that’s the case then we’re in BIG trouble.

Relativism might be the law of the jungle ethics for many people…but that does not make it right and good. Christianity demonstrates that this is not how ethics is supposed to work at all.

The point that the Bible makes about God is that he is good…it is his being…it is who he is.

And so the Christian perspective doesn’t respond to Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Instead the Christian understanding of God demands that we reject it altogether. On what grounds, do we reject it?

 

First – is something good BECAUSE GOD COMMANDS IT?

Scott Smith draws a distinction between two forms of goodness. Metaphysical goodness and moral goodness[4]. God is revealed to be metaphysically good. He is transcendent…he just is good. Yet people are different. We are moral beings. There is the potential within us of moral goodness. But there is also the potential that we choose actions which are the very opposite to moral goodness.

Another way to put it – is like this. People’s behaviour is arbitrary. If I have a bad day at work, I’m much more likely to snap at my family and say something I regret afterwards. Yet God’s not like that. He’s good…all the time. People are therefore essentially…ontologically (relating to our being) different to God.

How are we different? Well there’s always a question over my goodness. And for that reason, we have an “ought” hanging over us. There is a way we “ought” to behave and it is good. Yet no such “ought” exists for God. Because there is no question over how he will behave. He is predictable and reliable. God is good – all the time.

Another way to put it is like this. God doesn’t make commands for his benefit. He doesn’t choose whether to obey them or not. We do. And there’s no guarantee we will. But the command itself – by the nature of its existence – performs a governing function for us. It works to try to keep us on the straight and narrow path that God is always on anyway.

So – is something good BECAUSE GOD COMMANDS IT? The question doesn’t work for the Christian understanding of God.

“’God does not, say, keep promises because he ought to (which would imply some external moral standard). Rather, the theist claims that God will keep promises,’ since it is impossible for God not to act morally.”[5]

God simply is goodness. Whatever people choose to say or do.

 

Now the second horn – does God command it BECAUSE IT IS GOOD?

Again, the question doesn’t make sense. Because if God is good, if his nature embodies goodness in a complete way, then there is no risk of arbitrary behaviour and no goodness beyond Him.

Someone might say, “Hang on. I didn’t learn to be polite and act in a good and proper way because God taught me.” Absolutely right. It was probably your mother or a significant adult in your life. But just because there are many ways that we learn how to act in good and proper ways does not mean that there is no God underpinning it after all. Both things are true. Your mum’s moral goodness can ultimately be traced back to the very heart of God. It’s impossible for him to act any differently.

Someone else might say, “God’s redundant. I have a conscience, after all. I have a sense of right and wrong. I don’t need him telling me what to do.” Speaking personally – I respectfully disagree. If only that were true! I have many times seared my own conscience thru my own thoughtlessness and selfishness. And besides, people often disagree over the right thing to do and say. We need an objective standard and his gentle reminder.

 

Euthyphro’s Dilemma might have been relevant as Plato was musing on mankind’s interactions with the fictional, created Greek gods. But it has no place in relation to the God who is revealed through the Bible.

When a religiously motivated person hurts someone else under the banner of “the end justifies the means”, they are on their own. They do not have God in their corner at all. It’s an appalling fantasy that must be rejected…and strongly challenged.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/15/canada-stabbings-allah-police.

[2] Exodus 34:6-7, The Message.

[3] Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

[4] R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, IVP Academic 2014, p. 32.

[5] R. Scott Smith, p. 34.

Facing Blue Monday

This morning, the British Press have been talking about the “Blue Monday” effect. Monday 16th January is reportedly the lowest point in the year for many of us. I think the British Press have a point.
The credit card bill following Christmas has popped into our inbox, the weather is cold and grey, all the decorations are gone and the the traffic is heavy and the journey to work grim.

Add to that the sadness many of us felt as we began to come to terms with the loss of childhood heroes in 2016. David Bowie, George Michael…the list goes on. Their loss underlines our own mortality…their stardom however bright…was temporary. How much more temporary are dull and mundane us?

As a Star Wars fan since 1977, I felt the loss of Carrie Fisher keenly over Christmas. She was a big childhood favourite of mine. A mix of nostalgia and excitement about the new Star Wars movies for these past 12 months has made her loss that much bigger for me. She has fallen “from a bigger height”, as she herself said of her mother recently.

Blue Monday sucks. It leaves me feeling low, maybe ripped off. Resigned to an uncertain and temporary future.

And it reminds me of a quote by the author C S Lewis:

If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.

— C S Lewis, Mere Christianity

I desire for there to be a future that is bright. I long for something to look forward to. Yes – I can book a holiday in the sun…or a new movie to watch…but actually that too will end. But there is something in me that longs for the joy NEVER to end. That’s why I’m continually chasing it in my purchases, in my relationships, in my distractions. Yet I never seem to find it. When I think I have found it…I find myself suddenly looking towards a further hill a distant horizon that I must now get to. And so on.

This is a recipe for disillusionment. 

Unless. 

Unless we consider what C S Lewis himself became convinced of. That you and I…and he are actually built for another world. That this world is going to come up short. It’s predictable. Its inevitable. In our life here – we will be left with a sense of disappointment and disillusionment. Let’s face it together.

But – this is not all there is. In fact – we can tell that this world is not all there is from the constant longing that seems never to be filled within us. We are built for more. It’s written thru our cells, it bursts out of the thoughts and the emotions that rush thru us. 

The Bible points towards the truth that…while this world will mean suffering…the future will be glorious. It’s what we are actually built for. Where the fulfilment finally awaits us.

Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.

— 1 Peter 4:13, The Message

For myself – I choose not to reject God when life is hard. Rather – I choose to walk thru this veil of tears with the guidance of the one who has made me especially for that coming fulfilment and glory.

Tell you what. The little green dude from Star Wars was right!

Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.

— Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

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/.