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.

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RESPONDblog: Galaxy Quest + My Limited Worldview

The movie Galaxy Quest tells the story of a group of washed up actors, tired and bored of living with the enduring fandom around their old space opera TV show from 20 years ago. It introduces us to Jason Nesmith, the actor who played the captain on the NSEA Protector space ship in the space opera. And he’s signing autographs at a fan convention…when suddenly and finally he explodes in a “Shatner-istic, get a life” way. Who does he explode at? Branden – a geeky fan who is asking for an autograph, while also pressing him on a tricky episode plot hole that Nesmith couldn’t care less about.  
Nesmith roasts him.

“It’s just a TV show. You got it?!”

The movie also tells the story of a group of alien beings – the Thermians – who have been watching Nesmith’s old TV Show from outer space…and have come to believe that the stories told in the show are actually real, rather than just hokey entertainment.

Now, in addition to their viewing habits, we learn the peace loving Thermians are facing an oppressive and controlling space gangster called Sarris who wants to oppress them. They fear Sarris…yet are actually quite technologically advanced. So they decide to emulate their heroes on the TV show and build an advanced space ship to fight Sarris…and they make the ship look and behave just like the NSEA Protector.

They make it work in exactly the same way as the ship on the show. So…the computer will only work if the girl on the bridge repeats all the data the computer provides the bridge team. And the controls for the ship’s pilot are laid out just as the actor playing the pilot pretended to fly the ship.

BUT – the Thermians have a problem – they cannot use their cool spaceship technology to defeat Sarris. They are smart enough to build their ship. They aren’t brave enough to use it.

Their solution? They decide to naively travel to earth…find their heroes from their favourite space TV show…and take them back to their planet to pilot the ship and defeat Sarris for them! After all…these guys are their heroes…and have defeated evil many times on the show. They’ve watched it on their equivalent of TV. They think its all real.

And for some cool and interesting reasons – read pride and boredom here – Nesmith and his crazy, LA based actors from the cast say “yes” to the Thermians’ request…and travel to their alien planet to man the new and very real NSEA Protector space ship. What they don’t bank on, however, is the very real jeopardy this puts them in. And so these actors must work out a way to cope in this conflict…and survive.

I’ve been sitting in a class at BIOLA University taught by PhD professor John Mark Reynolds this week. And he reminded me of the coolest part of Galaxy Quest.

What’s the coolest part?

During their conflict with Sarris – Nesmith and his crew find themselves running through the bowels of the ship to find the engine room…so they they can diffuse the reactor and stop the ship from exploding. While doing this, they realise that – in the course of the original TV show run – they never did an episode of the show where they visited the bowels of the NSEA Protector. So – they have no idea where to go to find the reactor to diffuse it. Worse – they have no idea what do do if and when they get there.

That’s a big problem. So what do they do?

Genius idea. They contact the geeky kid Branden that Nesmith roasted during the fan convention at the start of the movie. The kid who had grown up watching the show, who bought and pored over the deck plans of the NSEA Protector. Who knew this show and the ship inside out.

Nesmith contacts Branden…but before he can ask him for help finding the engine room…Branden stops him. Not realising the very real jeopardy Nesmith is in, Branden blurts out…”Look. About the convention. I know its just a TV show. I understand completely that’s its just a TV show. There is no ship…I’m not a complete brain-case…you know?”

And Nesmith responds with three words that transform Branden’s life.

“It’s all real.”

And without hesitation…and with a whoop of confident delight…Branden explodes. “I knew it. I just knew it!!!”

Here’s what’s cool about this scene. It poses a question to us.

What if my settled view of reality…actually is more about me just settling for a narrow perspective…the little bit that I understand. And dismissing the notion that there is so much more to know! Right now – I simply don’t fully understand everything that could be known about life and reality. But there’s a future awaiting me…

Further – what if that future reality is bigger…and more amazing than I could understand today. What if it truly is bursting with goodness, with truth and beauty in a way that I’ve yet to know on this planet…so its greater than I can fully comprehend right now. So much so…that when I finally DO experience it…I might just go slack jawed…and then burst with something like…

“I knew it!! I just knew it.”

Just like Branden.

And maybe then we will reflect back…and remember. We had a suspicion that there was more to life than just this one…we had this inner sense of it…maybe from our time as a child. But we’ve grown up since then. We’ve allowed other people to convince us otherwise. We’ve cooperated as others have systematically robbed us of our hope for ultimate goodness, truth and beauty.

What a shame that has happened.

One day – we will know. We will know it for ourselves in a fresh and wonderful way. And we’ll just exclaim, “You know what? I knew it!”

I’m looking forward to the day when I begin to really experience the full wonder of creation. In the here and now…I’m living in just a fraction of it…I sense that that’s true. But there is SO much more to come in the reality that’s to come.

Why do I think that? Well…because there’s this person in history called Jesus who transformed the world with his goodness, his beauty and the truth he brought to this planet. His beauty…in what he did and said. And it all culminated in his defeat of death and his invitation to join him in the bigger reality that is to come. This points to a future reality, a bigger sense of knowing reality as it truly is in all its goodness, its truth and its beauty…in a sense that I can only imagine today.

What a shame so many of us have been duped into thinking that our narrow view of the world is the right and only one…when we haven’t given ourselves the chance to consider that there is so much more that is awaiting us.

Do you know what? My anticipation is rising…there’s going to be a whoop of delight that’s going to burst out of me that day when I see that which I confidently expect to see in the reality to come with Jesus.

I knew it. I just knew it…!

RESPONDblogs: Do Any Natural Explanations for the RESURRECTION Work?

emptyWhen it comes to identifying the most plausible explanation for an event…we start by gathering the eyewitness evidence and testimony about this event. And once the evidence has been marshalled, we then begin the job of finding a theory that best fits all the evidence and gives an explanation FOR the event.

This process will throw up many different theories. But the better theories will be the ones with the widest explanatory scope. In other words, the theories which best fit with the most of the available data. We have a problem to deal with when we have theories that require us to throw some established data away. Any explanatory theory that requires us to throw data away is not a good theory.

 

In the 1st Century, over 500 people in and around Jerusalem claimed that Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead. It sparked a movement that in 2016 has 2.5 billion followers – CHRISTIANITY. Why did it spark this movement? Because the resurrection of Jesus confirmed the claims of Jesus – that he was the Messiah, God himself, and he had come to begin setting up God’s Kingdom.

I’ve attached below the uncontested historical facts that Christian and non-Christian historians agree on surrounding the death of Jesus and the birth of the Christian Church.

I’ve also gathered the bulk of the natural and supernatural theories that have been proposed over the last 2000 years since the claims of Jesus’ Resurrection were first made. There are 13 theories which try to explain the Resurrection event. What you can see – is that all the naturalistic theories bar one have a big problem. The numbers under each theory indicate which elements of historical data we must throw away if we are to stick with this theory. These theories have poor explanatory scope. They require us to throw established facts away. They are not good theories.

There are only two theories that fit with all the established facts. One naturalistic theory – and one supernatural theory.

EITHER

Jesus was an alien. I don’t find this explanation convincing. Because “Jesus is an alien” in a Star Trek way basically just paints a bullseye around the facts…and fires the Starship Enterprise at it. This explanation ironically explains nothing at all. But personally I like this theory because I love space movies. And I think in a very real sense…that Jesus was alien…but he wasn’t from another Galaxy. He simply wasn’t originally from our Universe.

OR

Jesus was who he said He was and God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead at that point in history to confirm the ongoing narrative that had been running for millennia…and continues to run…about the establishment of the Kingdom of God. It fits with a Judeo-Christian understanding of the past and the Christian expectation for the future. It clarifies it, and it explains it in a powerful way.

 

It seems to me as I look at the data and the possible theories, that the one that best fits the data, is the explanation that the first Christians themselves proposed. That on the first Easter Sunday, God raised Jesus from the dead.

 

1 – HISTORICAL FACTS

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. He was buried.
  3. Jesus’ death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope, believing that his life was ended.
  4. The tomb was discovered to be empty just a few days later.
  5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.
  6. The disciples were transformed from doubters who were afraid to identify themselves with Jesus to bold proclaimers of his death and resurrection.
  7. This message was the centre of preaching in the early church.
  8. The message was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was buried shortly before.
  9. As a result of this preaching the church was born and grew.
  10. Sunday became the primary day of worship.
  11. James, brother of Jesus, who had been a sceptic was converted to the faith when he also believed he saw the resurrected Jesus.
  12. A few years later, Paul was also converted by an experience which he, likewise, believed to be an appearance of the risen Jesus.

[1]

 

2 – NATURAL AND SUPERNATURAL THEORIES

naturalistic_theories

[2]

 

[1] Craig Hazen, Evidence for the Resurrection, Biola University.

[2] Ibid.

RESPONDblogs: Is Theology Compatible With Computer Science?

SAMSUNG TECHWIN DIGIMAX-340
SAMSUNG TECHWIN DIGIMAX-340

A friend proposed recently to me that “the problem with doing theology in science…is that you end up looking for God in the things that you see.”

 

And this statement raises two questions for me

  • is it possible to be a genuine scientist and also be a Christian?
  • is it right to look for evidence of God in the things that you see?

 

 

Well, personally I became a Christian when I was 7 years old. I distinctly remember the experience – and I also am aware of the affect it has had on my life in the years…the decades since. When I was 21 I graduated with an Honours Degree in Computer Science…as a Christian…and have worked in this field for close to 25 years.

Initially I worked in the Broadcast Industry, developing the early automation systems that made complex TV broadcasting more doable for the army of people that it took to make broadcast telly work in the 1990s. I spent many happy days up at BBC TV Center……geeking out at where they used to make “Doctor Who” in my childhood. Latterly…I spent my working life helping other people who were themselves developing complex software systems. I used my experience to – hopefully – make their jobs easier.

Did I use the scientific method in my career? Absolutely I did. It is at the core of the software engineering principles I learned both at University and as I worked in Industry. Was I also a Christian? Yes – I distinctly remember being so. I still am, by the way.

 

Is it possible for a real scientist to also be a Christian? Some people say that Christianity is anti-reason. In my experience, the atheist position is just as welcoming to unreasonable, unthinking and obnoxious people as the Christian position is.

 

I’ve never found the need to separate Christianity from logic and reason. And I’m not alone. I listen to podcasts from “Reasons to Believe” – a scholarly organization employing cosmologists, biochemists and philosophers who develop testable computer models that work to follow the hard observable data, while also recognising and embracing the historic Judeo Christian claims.

 

 

So what? Well it seems to me to be head scratching-ly short sighted to accept therefore the New Atheist,  “Science is at War with God” narrative. Clearly – it’s not Science that’s at war with God. It’s only a subset of Scientists today who don’t subscribe to the claims of Christianity…and a small but vocal number who like to shout about it.

 

Coming back to where I started this blog, I think what my friend meant to say…was this. It is not possible to be a Scientist who is committed to NATURALISM…and be a Christian. By Naturalism – I mean the belief that all there is…is a Universe which is a closed system governed only be physical laws. I agree that one can’t be a committed Naturalist and a Christian. But my friend’s smuggling something controversial in here. He’s implying that only naturalistic Scientists are genuine scientists.

 

So – is that true?

 

Well naturalism views our Universe as a self-contained unit, a place where cause and effect reign. We don’t like thinking about what caused it…but the laws of physics and material process is king to the Naturalist. But here’s the thing. Those material processes are also king to Christians who do Science as well! When I was developing a software application to perform video field accurate control of a Broadcast A/V Mixing Desk using an RS-422 based serial protocol at 38k4 baud…I was applying principles of logic, of CPU architecture and my understanding of software engineering. I wasn’t praying that it would work – I would work to build the thing correctly SO THAT IT WOULD work. (OK – I’ll admit it…sometimes I was praying…please let this bug be fixed now)

 

I think one difference between a Naturalist and a Christian is actually found not in our understanding and respect of material processes. Rather it’s in our personal recognition that these material processes that operate in our Universe…are not just an end in themselves. There is a bigger narrative at play here. Our Universe is not the result of chance and necessity. We have become convinced that it is the result of intention, personality and design. There’s a God who is responsible for creation.

 

How did we become convinced of this? I will grant you – I didn’t become a Christian by learning the laws of Physics! I didn’t study the behaviour of electrons thru a transistor and therefore wind up in church the following Sunday. I don’t know anyone who did. But I do know people who look at our exquisitely ordered Universe and scratch their heads, “I wonder whether there is a God after all?”

 

So – I agree. You can’t be a Christian and a Naturalist…that’s true for Scientists, Authors and Shop Keepers. But clearly you don’t HAVE to be a Naturalist to be genuinely good at any of those professions. To claim otherwise…is just mistaken. Now there will always be one voice that claims – the Christian Scientists are the rubbish ones. Well – it takes hard work to be good at anything…whether we believe in God or not! Let them be measured by the quality of their work. I was always happy for that to be done to me as a software engineer.

 

 

What about the other question – is it right to look for evidence of God in the things that we see? Well – again – if we are a committed Naturalist…then this won’t be happening. But my argument is this. If we do open our eyes to this evidence…what we will find may challenge our Naturalistic presuppositions to the core.

I find the argument from “Information in Biology” to be particularly compelling (as a Computer Scientist myself, that’s predictable). The cells found in all living things contain mind bogglingly complex Nano machines for processing and replicating pre-existent information that is found in DNA and in the epigenetic systems that influence animal body plan construction. Life is rich in complex information. Information that a Naturalistic worldview does not have a reasonable explanation for IMHO.

I’m not saying – it is so complex that God must have done it. Rather, I’m saying that the most plausible explanation for this information rich biological complexity is that it was designed by a creator. And that creator sounds very much LIKE God.

I’m reminded of this quote from Stephen Meyer:

“Yet we know from our uniform and repeated experience that some types of phenomena – in particular, information-rich sequences and systems – do not arise from mindless, materialistic processes. For just this reason, no rational person would, for example, insist that the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone in the British museum must have been produced by purely materialistic causes such as wind and erosion.”[1]

I suggest that the argument from information points to a Designer. I’m not smuggling in the notion of a Designer – rather I’m saying that a Designer is the most plausible explanation for the complexity we see in nature. This argument doesn’t identify who that Designer is. There’s only so far that this evidence takes us. But coming back to my friends at RTB, something happened to convince them as scientists that the claims of Christianity were true. Something took them the next step – from simple intellectual assent – to belief in Jesus Christ.

For myself, that something was the discovery that God isn’t distant and unknowable. He comes close to us and speaks to us. He has done in recorded human history primarily through the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But he also does so now – I know He does cos he did so with me. He will make the first move. He will speak to our hearts and soften us towards him.

The real question is – will we let him?

[1] David Klinghoffer, Debating Darwin’s Doubt, Discovery Institute Press Seattle, 147.

RESPONDblogs: Just how Strong is the Moral Argument for God?

homersimpson

Have we ever considered that – maybe – the moral fabric of our world points to a creator God? If people were simply the result of mindless, chance events that occurred over a prolonged period of time do you really think that human morality would have grown into the common code that it is now…shared by all people everywhere down through the ages? The moral code feels to me like a far reaching Act of Parliament…handed down from heaven…written on our hearts from birth…that we can run from but we cannot hide from.

I think that human morals provide a strong pointer to the just and loving God that the Bible describes. How do I support my conclusion? What are my premises?

1 – Maybe morality is just the result on an evolving society? I’ve explored reasons why this cannot be the case.

2 – But there isn’t a “one size fits all” morality – right? 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 Science, while a useful tool, is not capable of making moral judgments on its own.

5 – All this only really makes sense if there is a God to provide the moral code in the first place.

 

Is there a strong moral argument for God? Yes – I think so.

 

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

 

RESPONDblogs: A Morality I Don’t Understand

morality

Human morality makes no sense to me if atheism is true – and there is no God.

 

Some of my best and longest friends are atheists. And sometimes they will tell me what morality is all about. But my problem is…I just don’t think it holds together.

 

  1. Often I hear that we are genetically programmed to care for those most likely to be genetically similar to us. Morality is genetic programming.
  2. Then there is the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” theory. Society is really just all about supporting each other to achieve a good end.
  3. And thirdly – reputation. We want to be seen to be doing the right and good thing.

 

But who defines what the right and good thing is? Is it you? Is it me? Is it the one with the most control in society – might makes right?

 

There are so many problems with this Godless understanding of morality. Here are a few big ones.

 

PROBLEM ONE  – it’s not much of a moral framework because it’s focussed squarely on ME. It is a theory that is happy to encourage selfishness. Yet I would suggest that human selfishness is at the root of our problem, it’s not supposed to be the best foundation of society at all.

Moral reformers from the past stood out amongst their peers for the precise reason that – they thought more of others than about themselves. A moral framework can’t be built on selfishness.

 

PROBLEM TWO – it’s a deterministic view of humanity. In other words – it completely denies human free will. We are nothing but genetic machines dancing to the tune written out in our cells. But this is a dangerous theory because it legitimises all sorts of behaviour that we know to be wrong.

We cannot prosecute the rapist anymore, because he is simply doing what he’s programmed to do.

The alcoholic or drug user has no hope because their addiction is predetermined.

To that, we should all say no. There is hope! A crucial part of being human is that we all intuitively know – that we have the ability to choose. Genetic factors do affect us – but at the core we are creatures that can and do make free will choices.

 

PROBLEM THREE – there is no absolute morality. No overall moral code. I know people who would cheer and say – that’s right, Stuart! Welcome to the party at last. But I don’t want to come to this party – it doesn’t sound much fun at all. Because if there’s no absolute morality, there are no standards to judge anything by. And so we are left with – anything goes. Whatever you want to do – have fun with that. As I said before – this leads to “might is right”. And we live at the whim of the most powerful people who, as we have already established, are self-centred and do not respect our free will. Sound familiar? Horrific regimes were run that way by powerful dictators in the 20th century and millions of people died as a result. Welcome to the party? No thanks!

 

PROBLEM FOUR – there is no good or evil. It doesn’t exist, according to a Godless materialistic view of morality. You know that notion inside of you about what the right and good thing to do? You know your conscience? You know all the stories that have been written down thru human history to help people grasp a transcendent moral code? It’s all nonsense. Just stick to personal preference. There is no absolute good or absolute evil. Just choose what you like and go with that.

As Richard Dawkins describes it –

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”[1]

 

 

 

And my atheist friends cheer. Now you are getting it, Stuart! And I reply – no I’m not. I am not getting it. Not because I don’t want to get it – but because from what I can see – no one lives this way! No-one is able to live as if these 4 tenants of atheistic morality were true! This is all simply a grim fantasy.

 

For example, take atheist Sam Harris. He like to take the opportunity to point of God’s abject failure to protect humanity. Why doesn’t God intervene and stop the rape, torture and murder of children? Where was God in 2005 when the city of New Orleans was destroyed by a hurricane? Didn’t God hear the prayers of its victims, hiding in their attics, trying to escape the rising water level? Many of these people died talking to an imaginary friend, according to Harris.[2]

 

So as Sam Harris rails at God – what is he saying? Is he saying that such suffering is evil and should not be allowed by God? But I thought we had established that there is no good and evil?

 

Now I would understand it if Sam Harris is just expressing his feelings on the matter. I agree with him – the suffering he points to is truly horrible. But he doesn’t just tell us how he feels. He goes beyond that. And according to his atheistic worldview, he is making assumptions that he simply cannot make.

  • He cannot assume the intrinsic value of every human life. From the perspective of matter…of chemistry and biology, he has no reason to do so.
  • He cannot move on from expressing his feelings and climb upon a moral high ground. Because there isn’t any!

YET – and this is my point – this is EXACTLY what he and many like him do. Why? Because atheistic morality is a grim fantasy that no one can honestly live with. And so we naturally go with the moral framework we’ve been given….by the God that so many deny.

I agree with Ravi Zacharias who sums up what Sam Harris is doing like this:

“he is selectively borrowing from the biblical revelation of justice and retribution while ignoring the big story into which it fits and by which it gains its purpose. His moral argument distorts the Bible’s finer points while denying its big picture.”[3]

 

 

I don’t understand the explanation for morality that my atheist friends give me. It just doesn’t hold together for me. What does make sense…is the possibility that God himself has written the moral law on each and every one of our hearts. After all…

 

  • When I say there’s such a thing as evil, I assume there’s such a thing as good.
  • When I say there’s such a thing as good, I assume there’s a moral law that helps me distinguish between good and evil.
  • When I say there’s a moral law, I must posit a moral lawgiver who give us the moral law in the first place.
  • And that moral lawgiver…sounds a lot like God. [4]

 

 

 

…who does not exist. According to my friends.

[1] David Robertson, The Dawkins Letters, quoting Dawkins The Blind Watchmaker.

[2] Ravi Zacharias, Why I am Not an Atheist, quoting Sam Harris Letter to a Christian Nation.

[3] Zacharias, Why I Am Not An Atheist.

[4] Ibid.

RESPONDblogs: How Cultural Differences Point TO Absolute Morality – Not Away From It

culture

I think there are many strong arguments that point to the existence of the God who is presented to us by the Bible. And one of those arguments is – the human moral code.

 

I suggest that human morality points to God. And human morality is all about how people SHOULD behave.

 

Yet one of the common responses I get – is that morality is not about how people should behave. Morality is just how people DO behave. And that has changed over time. Further, just look at people in the world today. Moral values are clearly different between (for example) the members of the ISIS terror organization, and the average British person who looks on in horror at what they are doing to innocent people.

 

Each people group appears to have its own set of moral laws. These laws guide each people group as they seek to satisfy their wants and desires. And most compelling of all – each group thinks they are right! One group feels morally justified in its terror tactics – another group disagrees. In the face of this – to claim that a single, absolute moral code exists seems unlikely at best!

 

My response to this is – really? Are you sure about that? Perhaps you share this opinion that – morals are just what society does. Ok – let’s look at this claim closely.

 

FIRST – the person who says that morality is just what society does – is making a self-refuting claim. It is a claim that cancels itself out. Why?

They are saying that everyone is basically imprisoned in their own culture – we all have cultural biases – we all think we are right. We cannot see beyond our cultural biases. So it is just meaningless to claim that an objective moral standard exists.

Why does this claim cancel itself out? Well – because the person who makes this claim must have escaped his own culture, he must have somehow arrived at an objective perspective himself to have discovered that fact. So they can look down objectively on all the different cultures around them, who are locked in to their own way of doing morality. They see clearly, while the rest of us mere mortals are slaves to our individual societies.

So why is this a self-refuting claim? On the one hand – you are saying that no objective morals exist. And to prove it – you are making an objectively moral claim and expecting to make it stick. This is contradictory – you are denying the very thing to make your argument work.

It’s a bit like the story about the elephant surrounded by a bunch of blind men. You’ve heard this one, right? One can feel the trunk, another the ears, still others the legs. And they each think an elephant looks like the single bit that they can feel. And so they each have a very different idea of what an elephant looks like. But to truly understand what an elephant looks like, it takes a guy above them in a balcony – who is not blind and can see the elephant – to shout out, “The elephant is a big animal. Each man touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is like.”[1]

In order to assert that culture and morality are the same thing – you need to be the guy in the balcony looking down on the elephant. Yet that’s the very position that you deny – God’s absolute moral position.

 

SECOND – just because cultures disagree on moral viewpoints doesn’t mean there are no objective morals. It just means some societies differ on some moral viewpoints!

Just because societies disagree on what is morally acceptable does not lead us to the inescapable conclusion that there is no objective morality. Not at all!

“Currently there are conflicting views on many things…Is there life after death, or do we perish with our bodies? Does the disappearance of equatorial rain forests pose a threat to civilisation? Is the protective ozone layer that covers the earth being destroyed? Opinions on each of these issues vary. The fact that there is disagreement, however, does not mean that no view can be correct. The same is true with differences of opinion on morality.”[2]

Anthropology allows us to conclude that different people have different views about right and wrong. It does not let us conclude that there is no objective morality.

 

 

 

THIRD – differences in cultural moral practice POINT TO objective morality. These difference do not point away from objective morality.

This seems an odd thing to say – so let me explain what I mean. What might look like moral differences – often turn out to simply be a difference in perception of the circumstances, not a conflict in the core underlying values. There can be a difference in the facts…but the values stay the same.

  • A fact is – a fetus has developed for 16 weeks and has toes, fingers, a nose, eyes and a mouth.
  • A value is – a fetus is a human being.

Facts answer the question – what IS the case? Values answer the question – what OUGHT to be the case.

Killing human beings for no reason is and has been wrong in every culture at every time in history. It is an absolute moral value. What changes – is the justification for the killing. The abortion debate does not turn out to be a conflict about facts at all – rather, it’s a conflict on values.

Pro-life people think abortion wrong in 99.9% of the time because it involves taking the life of an innocent human being without proper justification.

Those favouring abortion agree completely that human beings – particularly the mother involved here – is a valuable human person! They disagree though on whether or not the unborn child qualifies to be seen as a human person.

But this debate points to a single, absolute human moral requirement – human beings are always of value and must be respected at all times. On both sides of the debate, we share a point of morality.

Here’s another example. In India cows roam free because they are considered sacred. Yet people in Britain eat beef burgers. This would seem to show a conflicting moral value between our cultures on the treatment of cattle.  Yet BOTH our cultures would agree that it is wrong to kill and eat human beings. So what has that to do with anything?

“In (Britain) when Grandma dies, we don’t eat her, we bury her. In India, Hindus don’t eat cattle because they believe the cow MAY BE grandma reincarnated in another form.”[3]

In other words – we share the absolute moral value of each human life. We just express that moral value differently.

There are many different examples of this. Recently someone pointed me to the ancient Roman Coliseum and said, “Morals have evolved since the barbaric Roman times. We don’t have a Coliseum any more. We don’t watch slaves being torn apart by wild animals and soldiers”. And my response is precisely this point. No – we don’t. But we kill our unborn children on an industrial scale. Is that any more or less barbaric? The Romans justified the killing of slaves as sport…by dehumanising them. They wouldn’t have treated Roman citizens that way – proper human beings. They would only treat sub humans to the horrors of the Coliseum. The Romans agreed with us that human life is precious. They shared this absolute human moral requirement. Yet they justified the killing by lowering their assessment of the value of their victims to subhuman levels. We do the same with the unborn child.

 

And ISIS? Well – I wouldn’t claim to understand their motivations. But I will say this. Their killing is not indiscriminate. You don’t see ISIS members randomly killing each other. They value friendship and human relationship and common purpose. Just like us. They are particular about who they murder. What you see is ISIS killing specific Christians and Muslims…and anyone else who they devalue to such an extent – that immediate death is our only option.

 

 

 

Is there evidence of absolute morality amidst the confusing mess of different cultures and peoples? Yes I think so. When you look beneath the surface – it is there at the centre. We all just cover it over with a different cultural coat of paint. It’s a common code of conduction that presses in on us…and that sounds very much like a pointer to God himself.

 

The God who cares about you and me so much…that he wants us to live a safe and productive life together. So he coded it into each one of us…

 

[1] Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism Feet Planted in Mid-Air, (BakerBooks, 2011), 45.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.