What do Neanderthals Tell Us about Human Uniqueness?

Both archaeology and palaeontology give evidence for hominid creatures that lived before human beings. For example, the species called Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal) seems to have existed between 200,000 years and 30,000 years ago in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Almost thirty complete skeletons have been discovered.[1] Evidence of Homo sapien (Human) civilization dates back to about 80,000 years and so there is an overlap between Neanderthals and humans in ancient history and there may even be some evidence of interbreeding between these two species in our contemporary human genome.[2]

It is often said that there is an evolutionary connection between Neanderthals and humans. But what if there was a fight for dominance between Neanderthals and humans? Either could have survived. What if both species fought for survival and it just happened to be that the humans won? I think there is good evidence to suggest both these ideas are wrong.

A big reason for saying that is that there is a massive difference in the capability of the first humans in comparison to the Neanderthal. While Neanderthal capabilities were very basic and appear to remain consistent for 100,000 years or more, when humans suddenly appeared they had capacities that far exceeded everything that had come before. Human exceptionalism is evident, the human super-predator, the unique being who is made in God’s image.

 

Use of Fire

There is evidence of charcoal and primitive hearths in Neanderthal sites. But does this mean Neanderthals mastered pyrotechnology? Not to the various researchers who recently concluded that Neanderthals made opportunistic use of natural fire when it became available to them. They used it when it presented itself, rather than had mastery over it. But humans were uniquely able to create and curate fire in a sophisticated way.[3]

 

Creation of Tools

It appears that Neanderthals were able to produce and use tar as an adhesive when making spears. Does this suggest complex cognitive behaviour? The method they used is thought to be very basic and naturally occurring. They would not have to discover a precise method for distilling the tar. Also, when we compare the Neanderthal behaviour to current Chimpanzees and observe they too produce spears from tree branches using a six step process, make stone tools to open nuts, form insect repellent and exploit wildfires. So the Neanderthal behaviour isn’t so exceptional compared to Chimpanzees. [4]

Human behaviour is much more sophisticated, involving analysis of different tar production methods and choosing the most efficient production method for the maximum production yield. Human cognitive ability was superior to Neanderthals.

 

Cooking Food

Humans have always had the capacity to gather, but also to cook our food and to use implements. Based on some chemical residue at a Neanderthal site, Smithsonian paleoanthropologists concluded that the Neanderthals also cooked. But – age could have resulted in the sort of chemical residue. Worse, no grinding implements have been found to prepare matter for cooking, and there is evidence that they had not mastered fire. So – it seems we lack evidence that Neanderthals intentionally cooked their food.[5]

 

Use of Medicine

Humans do medicine. It appears that Neanderthals consumed plants that had no nutritional value, but had anti-inflammatory properties. So perhaps they did have a primitive type of medicine. But so do chimpanzees, who will eat certain leaves to cause vomiting to rid their digestive system of parasites.

 

Cave Paintings

There are many sites dated to between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. But Neanderthals were dying out by then. It seems more likely that humans were the cause of the case paintings. Painted shells have been found which are dated to around 45,000 years ago. Again – this is around the time Neanderthals were disappearing. “All claimed evidence for symbolic activities among Neanderthals is highly debatable. ..currently there is little compelling reason to conclude that Homo neanderthalensis was a symbolic creature in the same sense as modern Homo sapiens.”[6]

 

Symbolic Thought

Many studies have shown evidence suggesting Neanderthals lacked the cognitive sophistication of humans. For example, anthropologists notice human societies have the concept of division of labour, specialization based on sex and age. This promotes economy and allows human society to thrive in harsh environments.

The evidence suggests Neanderthals only hunted large game. By way of contrast, humans hunted a wide variety of creatures and developed many types of tools to assist them and clothing as well. This suggests a division of labour in human society that was lacking in the Neanderthals. It is thought that an inability to divide labour in this way led to small population groupings in fewer locations and the eventual demise of the Neanderthal species.[7]

 

The Use of Language

There is disagreement about whether Neanderthals could speak. Anatomical features remain inconclusive and while the Neanderthal genome appears to contain certain key genes, this doesn’t mean they used language. Animals communicate in many ways, but they don’t use syntactical language in a sophisticated way as humans do.[8]

The evolutionary paradigm doesn’t explain the appearance of language. Often it is linked to the ability of the species to vocalize and make sounds. But humans have a language capability that is independent of vocalization. Vocalization is necessary, but not a sufficient condition for language. The best way to study the appearance of language seems to be through evidence of symbolism and symbolic cognitive capabilities. And this is unique in the record to the human species, appearing around 80,000 years ago. While basic Neanderthal capabilities remained consistent for hundreds of thousands of years, humanity and its language capability appears suddenly.

 

Conclusion

There seems to be a good argument to suggest that humans are exceptional, of a different order from the start. So the idea that humans competed with Neanderthals for survival does not seem to be supported by the evidence. Neanderthals were very limited in their abilities, and when the human super-predator arrived, there was no comparison between them. This is consistent with the Biblical teaching that man alone is made in God’s image – the imago Dei.

Also, the evolutionary ideas of gradual improvement struggle to account for the large sudden appearance of human sophistication. Combining this with the related but different anatomy of human and Neanderthal species, it seems that we must make the data fit the evolution theory rather than the data suggesting an evolutionary connection between humans and Neanderthals. And this is not a good way to explain anything.

 

[1] Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Who Was Adam A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity, 2nd ed, (Covina: RTB Press, 2015),184

[2] Rana and Ross, 267

[3] Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “Timing of the Appearance of Habitual Fire Use,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108 (July 19, 2011), E298, doi:10.1073/pnas.1106759108Paul Goldberg et al., “New Evidence on Neandertal Use of Fire: Examples from Roc de Marsal and Pech de l’Azé IV,” Quaternary International 247 (2012), 325–40, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2010.11.015; Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “On the Role of Fire in Neanderthal Adaptations in Western Europe: Evidence from Pech de l’Azé IV and Roc de Marsal, France,” PaleoAnthropology (2011), 216–42, doi:10.4207/PA.2011.ART54.

[4] Fazale Rana, Did Neanderthals Make Glue?, Reasons to Believe, January 10, 2018, accessed July 22, 2020, https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/01/10/did-neanderthals-make-glue.

[5] Rana and Ross, 315

[6] Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey H Schwartz, “Evolution of the Genus Homo,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (2009): 81, quoted in Rana and Ross, 319

[7] Rana and Ross, 321

[8] Rana and Ross, 323

Might COVID-19 Disprove God’s Existence?

Hey there – I hope you are feeling well and you are not suffering the effects of the Corona virus. And – if you have done, I’m hoping and praying you have recovered quickly. I’ve not knowingly contracted the virus at this stage. I’m not worried about myself, I am more concerned about my elderly parents and parents in law who have other health conditions. I will do all I can to help them and support them at this time of uncertainty. And – I hope you can do the same for the vulnerable in your life.

But – you know – every day is a time of uncertainty. Today is really no different in that sense. That there’s a pandemic in progress doesn’t change that fact. If we think we can control what happens in our lives – we are sadly mistaken. The unexpected is always around the corner for us.

What the pandemic might do, however, is cause some people to pose the question, “where is God in the midst of a pandemic?” Do viruses disprove God’s existence? My response to that question is – no they don’t. Rather, viruses serve as evidence of a Designer of nature. Covid-19 points to the existence of God.

In what way?

First, viruses point to the exquisite complexity and beauty in nature. If you want an interesting look at how Covid-19 attacks human cells, have a look here. All life is composed of cells. Viruses are different from cells because a virus cannot reproduce by themselves. It must enter and transform a healthy cell to reproduce.

That means a virus depends on the incredible and beautiful complexity of the cell for its existence. All of the incredible molecular machines that process information, build new proteins and assemble them – all this staggering cellular complexity is required for the existence of a virus.

Fazale Rana is a biochemist who says, “the cell’s complexity, elegance, and sophistication coupled with the inadequacy of evolutionary scenarios to account for life’s origin compelled me to conclude that life must stem from a Creator.”[1] I would agree with him. The complexity of the cellular machinery, and the viruses that interact with them, point to a Creator of this highly complex and finely balanced biological system

 

Second – viruses are thought to have important roles in nature. Bacteria are complex, single celled organisms. Scientists are still learning many things about viruses. For example, we have bacteria living inside of our guts, and bacteria is actually critical to the existence of life. They harvest inorganic compounds, and make other compounds that serve other biological life.[2] Bacteria can reproduce very quickly indeed. Yet, some types of bacteria are harmful to life. If there was nothing keeping bacteria in check, then the world could simply be inhabited by bacteria and nothing else. How incredible then that there is delicately balanced system involving bacteria, and a system to keep that bacteria in check. What does that? The virus! An important role of the virus, is to stop bacteria from dominating life in destructive way. So, we have viruses to thank for breaking up bacteria and stopping us being overrun by them.

Also, when a virus infects a bacterial cell, it breaks that cell up producing raw materials that can be usefully consumed by other life forms. So – again – the virus is serving nature in a positive way by creating food for life to consume.

 

Third – Christianity predicts the breakdown of nature. A tiny fraction of known viruses are dangerous to humans. Covid-19 is one of those. There are vast numbers of different viruses in nature and only a tiny fraction of them can harm us. Of course – if my loved ones are at risk of even just one of those viruses…it’s a big deal. But how does Christianity predict something like this?

Well, the beginning of the Bible recounts humanity’s rebellion against their Creator, and this rebellion resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and God’s subsequent cursing of the ground. You and I were not involved in that rebellion directly. But – we have inherited the consequences of it, and we live our lives in the light of rebellion against God. There are consequences to all this. Nature is broken, and this has happened as a consequence of our rebellion against God.[3]

So, what? Why a diversion into theology? Well, there are a tiny number of viruses that threaten humanity. Of course there are. This fact is consistent with the idea that nature has become broken as a result of humanity’s Fall. It’s not a nice and comfortable truth, but it is there all the same.

 

Four – Christianity suggests that God may allow human suffering to draw us to think about eternal things. We are built to live for ever. That’s what the Bible says. Even when our current bodies die, our spirits will survive and we will receive new bodies beyond the grave. And – we will live there forever. Yet, few people actually live their lives considering their eternal destiny. We are so wrapped up in the issues and problems of our current lives here and now. Yet – if we have an eternal future beyond the grave, perhaps we would be wise to consider that future and how to orient ourselves towards it? Why? Because while this life is momentary, that future life will last forever. So why might God use suffering? As a way to wake us up to our destiny. As Sean McDowell says, “God may allow us to suffer so we move beyond our momentary pleasures and focus on what lasts forever.”[4]

Don’t get me wrong – I want to do all I can to protect the vulnerable and to help them. But – I do that in the knowledge that their ultimate destination – and mine – is actually beyond the grave. And so it is good to remind ourselves of that. When life is good and going along without any problems – its easy to forget this fact. Suffering isn’t caused BY God, but I wonder whether he permits it to waken us up to the eternal future awaiting us all.

 

 

Conclusion

This pandemic is not a good situation, and my prayer is that you and your loved ones come safely through it with minimal disruption and suffering. Yet – at the same time, I think this difficult time right now points to the amazing design of nature, the seriousness of the consequences of mankind’s rebellion against God, and our future destination in eternity. And for all of those things, I am thankful for Covid-19. As C S Lewis once said, ““Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[5]

[1] https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design

[2] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/august-web-only/why-zika-and-other-viruses-dont-disprove-gods-goodness.html

[3] Genesis 3:14-24.

[4] https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/why-does-god-allow-the-coronavirus-4-christian-insights

[5] C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

Are Atheists More Intelligent?

Showing your Christian convictions online leads to some people assuming you are probably irrational and so unable to think critically and logically. Now, as someone with an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, and two post graduate degrees in other fields (and a career in the development and application of embedded software) I’ve always scratched my head at this state of affairs. Why would anyone I don’t know, automatically assume that I am not an analytical or critical thinker? That I’m stupid? This feels like … bias. And maybe even raw prejudice. But is it generally true? Are atheists just generally smarter people?

One helpful person on Twitter assured me that the majority of Christians today are “poor and ignorant” souls. Well, a very recent study was done by Zuckerman and Miron, and their conclusion may bear out this Twitter opinion. The study says that “our findings support the view that intelligent people are less religious because they are more rational.”[1] Atheists are more rational that believers.

This is a fascinating conclusion. I think it struggles to account for a broad range of contemporary evidence suggesting atheists are generally no smarter than believers.

Let me explain.

First – because recent history is full of influential critical, scientific thinkers who were professing Christians.

Did you know that in the twentieth century, over 65% of Nobel Prize winners in science believed in God? That’s between 1901 and 2000. The majority were Christians, receiving awards for advancements in physics and medicine. Surely these fields require analytical, critical and logical thinking, and these individuals were at the very top of this game?[2]

Throw the net further afield, and the most recent study that explored the relationship between scientists and religious faith shows that over 51% of currently active professional scientists in the last 10 years have a religious belief.[3]

Clearly this data makes a compelling case that it is not a disadvantage to have a religious belief when it comes to an analytical job like a field of science. Actually – as an aside – I would argue that ALL people have a faith position. Everyone. We just disagree on the identity of the real God.

In summary then, I feel the assumption that atheists are smarter than Christians is not borne out in the field of science. In fact, the data might suggest the opposite conclusion, as more religious believers are Nobel Laureates.

Second – because there is evidence that the conclusions of the Zuckerman study were driven by skewed data and (ironically) incorrect correlations between data and their conclusion.

The problems with this recent study are discussed in the video, “Are Atheists More Intelligent”[4] and they make a rational, analytical and critical case. They argue that there is evidence that:

  1. The higher our IQ, the more likely we are to have a blind spot on our personal biases.
  2. The Zuckerman study defines religiosity in a confusing way, focussing on extreme viewpoints rather than the mainstream and conflating different viewpoints. On mainstream religiosity the data does not suggest Christians are disadvantaged regarding intelligence.
  3. The study does not quantify how much more intelligent atheists are compared to religious believers.
  4. Believers outnumber atheists in this study by 9 to 1. The equations they use does not work on this sort of skew in the data, so it generates misleading results that suggests atheists IQ was significantly higher. Yet this is not seen in the data they used. This renders the study results meaningless.
  5. Their measure of intelligence was completely non-standard, and ignored the gold standard measurements – Wechslier Adult Scale of Intelligence (WAIS) and Stanford Binet Test. They didn’t properly correlate religiosity to these gold standards.
  6. When they included university GPA scores, the difference in intelligence between atheists and believers was virtually non-existent and too small to have any practical significance. Did they choose not to include this measure because it adversely affected their misleading conclusions to the study? I wonder.

The folks analysing this study suggest that what is happening here is that Zuckerman et al are actually shoe-horning their own anti-Christian biases into this data.

Third – because there is mounting evidence that Christians in post Christian cultures are smart people.

Inspiring Philosophy also cite another recent study which makes an interesting observation about Christians in post-Christian cultures. In countries like England (where I happen to live), the link between analytical thinking and religiosity reverses. Here, it’s the atheists who tend towards less analytical thought. Why? Because for most people, there is a desire to conform to the mainstream, which may be atheism. The deeper thinkers are the ones who choose a different view on religiosity.

“In cultures where institutional religion is waning and where acceptance of atheism arises from tendencies to conform, it is possible that cognitive reflection may predict the rejection of atheism, a matter for future investigation.”[5]

This seems to suggest that people with low analytic intelligence tend to confirm to the majority view, whatever that is. This study suggests that to be a Christian believer in post-Christian England clearly takes work and the application of intelligence.

Conclusion

Atheists aren’t smarter than Christians. Contrary to the bullying and intimidation that happens online, and the prejudice that is sometimes shown against Christian believers, there is no convincing reason to suggest that higher levels of analytical thinking lead to atheism. So Christians should not feel any need to feel intimidated by those who are simply going along with the crowd, and repeating old atheistic ideas. When you take a good look at them, these ideas really do not hold up to scrutiny.

 

[1] Zuckerman, Miron, et al, The Negative Intelligence-Religiosity Relation: New and Confirming Evidence,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, October 2019, 10, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[2] John Lennox, How Many Nobel Prize Winners Believed in God, 23rd January 2019, accessed 26th January 2020, https://www.johnlennox.org/resources/145/how-many-nobel-prize-winners.

[3] Scientists and Belief, Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life, November 5th, 2009, accessed 26th January, 2020, https://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/.

[4] “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[5] Gervais, Will M. et al, Analytical Atheism: A Cross-Culturally Weak and Fickle Phenomenon?, 2017, 272, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

The “Faith” of Dracula

In their new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have said they continued to respect the Christian themes that run through the original novel. The Count still cringes at the sight of the cross, and the church is central.  By the way – if you are thinking of watching the new Dracula series – be warned that it is not for the feint hearted. There are some very gruesome scenes in there.

I am a fan of Gatiss and Moffat. But I must say, while I agree that they have included Christian characters and situations, I don’t think they really understand what Christianity is. They may claim they are building on Christian history in this story. I’m skeptical. Tho I agree they absolutely are building on the tradition of horror cinema from the past 40 years.

One of their most interesting characters is Sister Agatha, played by Dolly Wells. She appears to be a snarky and disillusioned Catholic Nun with an analytic mind. I enjoyed the way she worked to outwit the infamous Count. The story, particularly in the first episode, is masterfully crafted by Moffat and Gatiss. BUT- I was bemused by their understanding of the word “faith.”

At one point in the first episode, Sister Agatha rolls her eyes at the seeming naivety of the other sisters in her religious order. “Have faith,” they encouraged her. Agatha’s reply is piercing.

“Faith is a sleeping draft for children and simpletons. What we must have is a plan.”

The phrase “sleeping draught” comes from Stoker’s original novel, and I think it refers to the shot of whisky or strong spirit that people may take to help them fall sleep at night. What Agatha is saying is that faith is dangerous because it lulls us to sleep. Faith causes us to lose our creative edge, and that is dangerous for intelligent people who are true problem solvers. If we are wise, we will avoid religious faith.

I would suggest that this shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of Christian faith. While it’s dramatically powerful to show Sister Agatha as a disillusioned Nun, to hear her confusion about Christianity is – well – rather odd. It’s the current post-Christian cultural confusion about the roots of Western society … placed into a devout character in a historical setting. That’s weird and anachronistic to me.

 

What’s Faith?

Well – it’s not a complicated or even a particularly religious idea. Faith simply means – confidence, trust and reliance.

 

What’s the Misunderstanding Today?

The problem is, our culture has swallowed the idea that there is a disconnect between faith and evidence and reason. In fact, people today (including the writers of Dracula) think faith is the OPPOSITE of reason. We get that from Sister Agatha. When we learn about something, the need for faith vanishes. But more than that, our culture dismisses Christianity because it they don’t think it contains anything knowable…the need of faith betrays the pointlessness of religion. “One needs faith in religious or moral claims because there is no knowledge that these claims are true, no evidence either way for them.”[1] If that’s the sort of religion that Sister Agatha is embroiled in, then no wonder she is disillusioned and wants to run from it. It’s pointless and, in the face of a cunning enemy, highly dangerous. But you need to know – this is not – and never has been – what Christianity is about.

Quite the opposite. If “faith” is really about confidence, trust and reliance then in those terms, knowledge is absolutely crucial. Why? Because we cannot trust something or someone we do not know anything about. Knowledge is essential in the building of that trust! Do you see the misunderstanding about faith in the words of Sister Agatha?

 

Replying to Sister Agatha

Is faith about being simple, and not knowing?

Not at all. Faith is about knowledge. The Greek word “notitia” refers to the CONTENT of faith. This is learning about how to develop a Christian understanding of the world, and what the Bible teaches. I’ve spent many years on this task, and there is so MUCH to know and contend for. In fact, it inspired this blog. The Jude in the New Testament wrote:

“I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”[2]

Clearly there is much to KNOW and apply in life. And more than that, we must proactively stand up for this in culture around us.

Is faith about turning off our rational faculties?

In my experience, the opposite is involved when growing in faith. Why? Partly because of “notitia,” the knowing element. But it is also because of a second element.

Faith is about agreement, or “assensus.” Personal agreement to live this way. This means that its not enough to rationally grasp and know the contents of Christianity. We also have to ACCEPT this teaching as true.

There may be very good reasons why we may not want to do that. Maybe the teaching is hard! Why? Because it challenges some deeply held patterns of behaviour in my life that are wrong, but I do not want to give up. I know its right to change. I just don’t want to. Or, maybe my prior experience has left me struggling to accept what Christianity says. If I grew up in an abusive home environment, accepting God as father may be really hard for me!

Is faith is about becoming passive and not acting?

Again – absolutely not. The Greek word “fiducia” is used to describe this in faith terms. We have to wilfully choose to commit to, and partner with God in every aspect of our lives. Christianity isn’t a set of abstract terms. Its actually an engagement with a God who we can know. And its about actually having a life that reflects what Christianity is.

 

So – does faith involve an absence of rationality, engagement and action? Absolutely not – it requires the most from us in all three areas!

 

How would I reply to Sister Agatha? “We don’t need faith … we need a plan,” she said. Can you see now that a proper understanding of faith involves gathering all the resources for approaching life and its challenges? (I’m assuming this also applies to the undead but I’ve not tried it) And even more than that, it is about facing these challenges together with God, not on our own.

 

“To trust Him is not a leap in the dark, but it is a venture none the less. It is a venture of courage and not of despair, of insight and not of bewilderment.”

P. T. Forsyth, The Creative Theology of P. T. Forsyth

 

[1] J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God, (Downers Grove:IVP, 2008), 18.

[2] Jude 3.

 

Are the Gospels Trumpian – Getting Some Details Right, But the Story All Wrong?

At Christmas time, the Christian churches return to the gospel accounts of Christ’s birth and re-read the events as they are described. In a recent conversation between Peter J Williams and sceptical theologian Bart Ehrman, there was an exchange of views about the reliability of these Gospel accounts. This was a discussion around the question, “How reasonable is it to accept the Gospels as history?” [1]

It’s important to recognise that the Gospels present themselves as historical accounts. Many scholars think they present as a first century literature form of biography, which was sometimes written in a particular form about important public figures. Jesus certainly qualifies as one of those.

It’s also important to realise that I am talking about using reason as we examine the Gospels, not some form of blind acceptance. There are good reasons to believe that, even though the Gospel writers sometimes give a different perspective on some events, that they were qualified to record these historical events.

First, they wrote them very quickly after the events occurred. The average person on the street might assume they were written hundreds of years after the fact … like legends. Yet the evidence points to a few decades after the fact. In historical terms, writing an account a few decades later is incredibly early, and few historical events we assume to be reliable have such excellent documentary support.

An important line of evidence towards the accuracy of the Gospels that Peter J Williams presented is the consistent correctness of the minor details. For example, geographic details about first century Palestine, names of people and places and the distances between these locations. So…

  • the writers clearly know the area
  • this suggests they must have been there
  • they get the small details correct in their account

Given these points, why should we believe that the bigger details around Jesus and his life were fabricated?

In response, Ehrman reminded Williams about President Trump’s inauguration ceremony in Washington DC. If you remember, there was some controversy surrounding Trump’s claims on the number of attendees at this ceremony. He claimed a high number of people attended, while photographic evidence at the time points to a much much smaller representation. So what? Well, Ehrman says that Trump got the details right. There was a ceremony, and people attended and he was there. But just because these things are true does not automatically result in accurate reporting. Not at all. He clearly misrepresented the important issue of how many people attended! He is not a reliable witness.

You could apply this argument to the Gospels. Just because they got the small details right doesn’t mean they are reliable witnesses. Or can you? The reason people were sceptical of President Trump is that he is prone to exaggerate when he talks. Documented evidence of his exaggerations is easily available to us. So, this put his claims around his inauguration under sceptical scrutiny.

Yet no such precedent exists for the New Testament Gospels. K. Albert Little points out that there are no first century accounts that contradict the Gospel narratives. If they were manufactured, it would not have been difficult for the historians at the time (Josephus, Tacitus, etc) to set the record straight. Wouldn’t we expect to find this contrary evidence if the Gospel accounts were fabricated? Yet no such first century evidence exists. [2]

In the case of President Trump, we have experience of his exaggerations and we have photographic evidence of the event in question and this raises scepticism at President Trumps claims. Yet no such data exists on the Gospels. We cannot reasonably doubt the Gospels in the way we can doubt President Trump.

Albert Little goes further and points out that In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul points to hundreds of people who could verify the stories about Christ’s life, death and resurrection. If you don’t believe me, Paul is saying, speak to them! If Trump had made this claim, he would have been found to be a bad witness. He could not do so. Yet Paul could easily do so because his account was solid and reliable.

Getting the small details right lends credence to the Gospel claims, and given that there are no contemporary voices disagreeing with their claims and no outside sources giving alternative version of events, we have no alternative data to cause us to doubt their claims. Remember that the likes of Josephus and Tacitus were writing towards the back end of the first century and they could have set the record straight if it needed to be done. And the early second century Church Fathers quote the Gospels liberally, showing that they were in heavy circulation well before then. There are good reasons to accept the Gospels as history.

[1] Peter J Williams & Bart Ehrman, The story of Jesus: Are the Gospels historically reliable?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuZPPGvF_2I.

[2] K Albert Little, Did the Gospel Writers Get Facts Right But Their Stories Wrong?, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/albertlittle/the-gospels-are-reliable-and-ehrman-is-wrong/

Machines, Personhood and Sarah Connor

Contains mild spoilers.

The latest Terminator movie has stumbled at the box office. I feel that’s unfortunate because this was a genuinely fresh and interesting take on a well established story. What interested me was the philosophical article I read about it in the Hollywood Reporter.

The Hollywood Reporter suggests that, perhaps people just don’t see AI as the enemy any more? Rather, we see machines in more positive terms, convinced by the idea of a future personhood owned by machines. Yet Dark Fate tries to observe the psychological difference between man and machine. “Humans are uniquely alive compared to artificially intelligent beings because we are fated to death and decay in ways machines are not.”[1] There is a character called Grace who is part human and part machine, yet she is psychologically on the human side of the conflict. In comparison, the antagonist is a highly dangerous Rev-9 model Terminator which mimics humanity simply to make it a more efficient killing machine. This is a familiar story beat. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in this movie has tried to emulate humanity for more positive and life giving reasons. Yet both of these machine Terminators are simply machines, unable to achieve personhood. Arnie’s Terminator “appreciates humanity and strives toward personhood, but can’t fully achieve it.”[2] So in this movie we see the full spread – human, part human and machine. The inhumanity and non-personhood is always located on the machine side. Perhaps people don’t resonate with this idea so much anymore? Perhaps “the generation raised on Wall-E is entering adulthood just as regarding robots as people becomes the onscreen norm.”[3]

If you think about it, Western society is increasingly of the opinion that people are simply biological mechanisms. There’s no soul, no spirit, just physical. We live, we break down and we die. And death is that cessation of functionality that no one in Western society likes thinking or talking about. Given that understanding of humanity, it makes sense that robots would be seen closer to us than ever before. Why do we have to portray conscious robots as the enemy, when it makes more sense to imagine that they would be our friends?

It’s a fascinating observation and – the Reporter might have a great point. But because society gathers around the idea of future, conscious AI, does not make that idea either credible or likely. Fictional stories are important, we learn a lot about ourselves and our personal development through myth and fairy-tale. Fictional stories can also lead to breakthrus in science. But sometimes the fictional idea is just going to remain a fictional idea. I think conscious, thinking and creative AI is one of those fun yet solid fictions. It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of Terminator Dark Fate, but I’m increasingly convinced that genuinely conscious, thinking machines are impossible.

Why?

 

1 – We project our capacity for conscious thinking onto today’s AI.

It’s a way we use language and it would be misleading to someone who knows nothing about computers. AI is a cool gadget that makes my life better (self-driving car). Yet our AI of today is purely functional, following an algorithm and incapable of thinking about whether or not it wants to. It is a mechanism designed to emulate a human (hello Siri).

 

2 – We are always going to be superior to AI.

Machines may be faster and stronger than us, but we have ontological superiority. We are the ones designing and thinking here. When machines do cool things, they don’t get the praise. We do. The designers. We may not even have a metaphysical property that allows us to create thinking, creative  machines that can reproduce themselves.

 

3 – We are conscious, but we do not understand what that means.

A genuinely thinking machine would have to be conscious. But no one is doing the work to understand consciousness from a third person perspective. Part of the problem is that consciousness is something we have. It is deeply subjective and requires someone to be conscious. It is not something we can dissect from a third person perspective. Rather, it is something we experience. Thinking always requires a thinker.

We need to understand consciousness to replicate it. But – I’m not sure we’re built to understand consciousness. Just to experience it and use it to understand other things.

 

4 – Humans are of a Different Order than Machines.

Yes, we have a physical make up and the closer we look at it, the intricacy of biological mechanism is seen. But – we are of a different order to machines. Likening machines to humans is, in a real sense, comparing apples and oranges.

Whoever we are, we have the ability to navigate our way through life, following our own thoughts and ideas and intentions. We create opportunities and respond to events that occur from our own rational, creative and conscious selves. We have general intelligence. We live in our environment and we cope within it, we adjust. We establish a social network, we conduct our lives appropriately.

Machines are different order from us. They lack this general rationality. We give them rules to follow and they don’t think about it, they just do it. We are simply of a different order from them. We can build them to mimic human characteristics, but they are not thinking as they do so. They are simply following the instructions we programmed them with.

 

Final Thoughts

Yes, we are going to get better at making machines mimic human behaviour. But – I don’t think we will ever see a genuinely conscious machine. Terminator Dark Fate understands the ontological differences between us. And I think there is an important reason for doing that. Realising that we are more than biological machines is important for the future of humanity. It is a life giving perspective. As Arnie once said – “Come with me if you want to live.”

[1] Clara Wardlow, One Reason ‘Terminator Dark Fate’ Didn’t Connect With Sci-Fi Audiences, Hollywood Reporter, accessed 20th November 2019, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/why-terminator-dark-fate-didnt-connect-audiences-1252112.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

 

Why Doesn’t God Save People From Natural Disasters?

If God exists, then why do people die in natural disasters?

It is always a heart breaking tragedy when people die as a result of tornadoes, earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis. But – I’m not convinced we can blame God for the death of these people, or claim God doesn’t exist. There may be good reasons for all this.

 

We Can’t Blame God for Natural Disasters

First – if God’s responsible for setting up the universe, the matter, energy and physical laws that comprise it, then there are going to be some parts of nature that are essential for our survival, yet also lethal if we get too close. For example, the cosmos if full of suns. Cosmologists estimate that important materials were cooked in suns during the early eras on our universe. Suns are where the essential elements of matter were prepared. Also, clearly the energy given off by our particular sun is vital to our survival on this planet today. But what would happen if we got too close? Crispy! Not good for us.

Second – if we choose to walk around or live close to areas of natural risk, then we make a personal, conscious choice. I have many friends who live out in California in the US. They live close to the San Andreas fault. If there’s an earthquake, then they have chosen to live there and put themselves in harms way. You can’t blame God for the San Andreas fault line. Plate tectonics are just how nature operates. But if we choose to get too close – its possibly not going to be good for us.

Thirdclimate change is probably going to be the cause of many human deaths as time passes. That’s a tragic thought. But it seems that here, we are reaping the results of our own societal choices. You cannot blame God for that either. If he gave us a climate, we broke it. Not him.

Fourth – for one reason or another, one day you and I will die. We cannot stop it.

 

Why God Usually Does Not Save People from Natural Disasters

But if God loves people (as Christians claim) then why doesn’t he miraculously rescue people from natural disasters? And prolong their lives?

Well – I think sometimes he does choose to rescue people. I’ll give you a personal experience that may point to this at the end of this blog. But – I’ll be honest. I think God rescuing people from natural disasters is unusual, it’s not the normal flow of events. It’s a miracle. It’s abnormal.

So why doesn’t God want to rescue us from natural disasters?

Well – the Bible tells us that the core problem of the human condition is that we have chosen to reject God’s sovereign role in our lives. God’s created us to relate to him as God. And we have chosen to make ourselves God instead. We worship people and ourselves instead of God. Think of that as cosmic rebellion.

If God was always to rescue people from every potentially harmful event in life, what would this do? If a divine hand prevented every avalanche, every bullet and oncoming car…what might happen?[1]

First – it would take away the consequences of our rebellion towards God. We would be deceived about the consequences of our separation from God…which is not a good thing. It’s not good to live as if I am my own God. If the real God were to encase us in cotton wool – and prevent us from experiencing the consequences of our choices – then we would never experience the reality of these consequences. If we want to live apart from God then – fine. But, there’s a risk for us in doing so.

Second – it would FORCE people who DO NOT want to worship God, to worship God!! Cos there is a big hand in the sky. People who don’t want to bow the knee, suddenly find themselves thinking they better bow the knee to God. They have to…because of the sky hand…so resentfully, they do. No – that’s not how God works. He wants us to come to him willingly, not under coercion.

Third – as I understand the God of the Bible, I don’t think he wants us to stay comfortable with the idea that its okay to live separated from him by our rebellion against him. He doesn’t want us to think humans can live successfully in separation from him. So – the risk of natural disaster may be a possible event that encourages us to come to God to get right with him. Why? So that when we DO eventually die, we will spend forever with him afterwards as he intended. There’s a hint toward this in the New Testament. Check out Luke 13 for some hints there.

 

 

A Time God DID Save ME From a Natural Disaster

Here’s a final thought. Earlier I said that – sometimes, for his own reasons – God DOES rescue people from natural disasters. So – what’s my evidence for saying this?

It was 21st October, 1971. I was 3 years old. My mother intended to take my baby sister and I to Clarkston shops in Glasgow. My dad had taken the train into work that day, leaving our brand new car at home so we could use it for our shopping trip.

Around lunch time, my mum got us ready and bundled us into the car, strapping us in for the short journey from East Kilbride to Clarkston. She climbed into the drivers seat, and put the key into the ignition and turned it. Nothing. She tried again. Nothing happened. What was going on? My Dad had used the car yesterday! It was – a new car!! They had never had troubles with it before. She pumped the gas pedal, she waited a while and tried again. The car was dead. Frustrated – she realised she wasn’t going to the shops that day. She bundled us OUT of the car again, and went back into the house.

A few hours later on the radio, news of a devastating gas explosion in Clarkston broke on the radio. Twenty two people were declared dead at the scene. It was later described as the worst peacetime explosion in Scotland’s history. And – with a deep sense of shock – my mother realised that if we had managed to get to the shops that day, we would have been in the middle of it.

My Dad came home from work, and my Mum told him the shocking news. They both felt great relief that we had not managed to go shopping that day, and we were safe. And then – a thought occurred to them. What about the car?

My dad took the car keys from my Mum, walked down the drive and opened the car door. He sat in the drivers seat and turned the ignition. The engine burst into life on the first attempt.

 

I think – sometimes, and for his own reasons, God decides to save some people from the effects of natural disasters. I think on 21st October, 1971, that may have been what happened to me, Annie and my mum.

 

[1] Peter van Inwagen, The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy, in Philosophy of Religion A Reader and Guide, General Editor: William Lane Craig, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 370 – 393.

Ad Astra and a Privileged Planet Earth

What do you get if you mix “2001: A Space Odyssey” with “Apocalypse Now,” and add a dash or two of “Event Horizon?” If you get the chance – see “Ad Astra” in an IMAX cinema. It looks and sounds beautiful. I thought the IMAX cinema format really let James Gray’s work shine.

In many ways, the film’s narrative is understated, mundane even. Yet all the while, Gray’s visual and audio spectacle pulls vigorously against a slower plot. This gives the film a slightly odd unbalanced feel. But – it’s not an unpleasant one. It elevates the experience, and – I think it works with the overall theme of the movie. Brad Pitt gives voice to this theme during the third act of the story, when he describes the choices and actions of another character. He says something like, “He had it all looking him in the face, but he missed the significance of it all.”

If you have picked up that “Ad Astra” is a father – son story, then you have heard right. It is. But there’s a bigger issue that is also raised here. I don’t think it spoils the movie to reveal this. Apologies if you’ve seen the film and you disagree with me. I’ll describe the issue this way:

What if the earth (our beautiful marble) and our human race is actually the only source of conscious life in the whole universe? What if we are alone in this vast expanse? What if we’ve got each other, and that’s it? The title of this movie is Latin for the phrase, “To the Stars.” Ad Astra. Well, once you’ve been to the stars and comprehended their beauty, what if you need to come home again to find someone to describe your experiences to? What if there is no extra-terrestrial life waiting out there for us to contact?

And someone groans at the thought. “How can this universe be so vast, and yet there NOT be life on many other planets? Are you saying we are somehow privileged, living here on this unremarkable spot in our galaxy? That doesn’t seem likely.” Really? Why don’t you think that’s likely?

Look at it this way. Imagine you have to bake a cake for your mother’s birthday. But, before you start, there’s a rule you must follow. You are not allowed to buy any ingredients at the store. None. Instead, you must grow everything from scratch that will eventually be used to make the cake! What might that mean? Well – as my wife will tell you, my presence in the kitchen is usually a sign that I’m hungry, not that I’m making anything. I’m no cook. But I do know that to make a cake, you need at the very least milk, eggs, flour, sugar and jam. Probably chocolate too. If you cannot buy your ingredients…how are you going to come upon them?

Well – milk comes from cows. So – you are going to have to set aside a substantial area of farm land to raise a heard of cows. You will need enough farm land to raise and nurture them. And you will also need to grow enough crops to feed them. You are doing all of this work so that they will eventually produce milk for you. How about the eggs? Well – you are going to need to raise chickens for eggs. Right? And flour? You get where I’m going now. You need to plant a field of wheat which you will eventually harvest so that you can process the resulting grain to produce the flour. You’re also going to have to grow sugar cane, fruit trees… and you need space to process and refine them all. The list of preparatory steps goes on….and must all be done before anything starts on the cake.

You will bake your cake in a small kitchen. But the production of the raw materials FOR your cake will take an extremely vast area of farmland dedicated to livestock, wheat and fruit production. And these raw materials won’t appear quickly. It’s going to take time to grow them to the appropriate stage of development, so that you can take more time in converting them into the raw materials for your cake. Little kitchen…massive farm land to produce your ingredients.

What has this to do with Ad Astra?

Well – this movie works hard to show us an artistic impression of the glorious and beautiful universe we inhabit. What if its that big and beautiful…just for us? As I’m watching the story unfold, I’m suddenly left feeling very alone. Like I’m watching our characters pick their way thru lonely farmland that exists to service a busy kitchen. What if our vast universe is actually that size and this composition, just so that life can be constructed and deposited on a particular planet which is specially prepared for it? What if the age of our universe is right for the production of life on the earth during this specific time period? That there are just enough stars that have cooked the elements…raw materials that human and animal bodies are composed of? Our universe is big and old…because it grew and prepared all the stuff that our world, and we are composed of. Like the farmland outside a small kitchen.

It’s a thought. And it doesn’t take away from the visual splendour of our universe, particularly as its depicted in Ad Astra. You could argue, it makes our universe all the more sweet. Because as we view it, we do so from the only place that is made specially for our protection and safety now. Home, planet earth. Surely, a privileged planet? James Gray does a masterful job of positing this idea, I think. Yet he does so thru the lens of an intensely personal story. One that I think may stay with you once your memory of this visual and audio feast has faded.

Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

Sometimes people will say to me something like, “I might believe there was a God if there wasn’t so much evil in the world.” I’ve always scratched my head at this response because it seems to me that evil is MAN’S problem – not God’s problem. The perpetrators of great evil in history have been people.

So, why is it that good people seem to suffer? Take my little sister Anne, for instance. She died of a horrible disease at age 37…way too young. Anne was the nicest person you could ever meet, and she was a source of strength, kindness and hope to many people. But – I know Anne. She would have hesitated at agreeing with you that she was truly a GOOD person. Why? Because as a Christian she knew the real state of her heart and what she was capable of if she let her guard down.

I don’t think Anne is that different from anyone else. Certainly not that different from her big brother. We are all capable of evil acts. Elie Wiesel survived the Jewish Holocaust, and said “man isn’t only executioner, victim and spectator. He is all three.”[1] Clay Jones suggests that perhaps human niceness is more of a survival strategy than anything else. We tell ourselves we are good, but actually we fear the consequences of the evil that we know lurks in our hearts. Do flirty co-workers avoid affairs because of innate goodness, or because they fear the loss of the reputation is they are found out? Do murderers stop at red lights because they are good people, or because they fear the possibility of a car accident if they keep going? The fact that much good is done in the world does not mean that good is done by good people, just normal people who are doers of particularly good acts.[2]

But why is there so much suffering in the world? I would suggest three reasons:

  1. Because people are capable of making other people suffer.
  2. To wake us up to the mess the world is in, and to drive us to God. He really does have a project underway to transform people’s hearts from the inside out. “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.”[3]
  3. To wake me up to my own personal guilt, and to drive me to God. But not to bury me under despair. Rather, as an incentive for me to stop rejecting God’s transformative project and to get on board with it myself.[4]

 

Yes. I know, it’s tough to hear about the next heart breaking event on the news. But – I do genuinely think that hope and light bleeds through each act that brings pain and darkness. We all face the end of our lives one day. And…

“If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins – make a clean breast of them – he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing.”[5]

 

[1] Elie Wiesel, The Town Beyond the Wall, trans. Stephen Barker (New York: Avon, 1970), 174.

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2017).

[3] Colossians 3:10, New Living Translation.

[4] Ibid.

[5] 1 John 1:9, The Message.

 

Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

Dealing With Fallen Heroes

It’s not easy when people you look up to are found to be less than perfect.

I’m a Christian, and have been involved in the work of the church for my whole life. I experienced “hero disappointment” around Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church last year. I visited Willow Creek as a twenty year old. He has challenged and inspired me for over 25 years. Yet last year, he went into sudden retirement amidst a (still growing) realisation that he regularly abused his position of power and authority. Some of those closest to him are reportedly still coming to terms with their bad experiences of Bill.

When you are hit by these sorts of revelations, you go into a kind of grief cycle. There’s shock followed by anger and bargaining. But – you do eventually come to accept it. When public Christian leaders fall – this sort of grief will be known by people inside and even outside of Christianity.

I know people who may be similarly affected by the news of Hillsong Church leader Marty Sampson this week.

The question is – how should we speak about a fallen Christian leader in the midst of the fallout? Well – the New Testament goes into some detail on how to treat conflict in the church, and how discipline must be handled in the church.[1]

That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m asking how we should WE speak about public figures who have suddenly brought the Christian church into disrepute?

 

Well – I think there is good evidence to suggest the authentic Christian answer is – “respectfully.”

 

Why do I say that? Consider the following.

 

Do you feel hurt and betrayed by this leader who has fallen?

Perhaps we feel we have somehow been mistreated by them … or feel outraged that the church has in some way been mistreated? Well – if we hang onto these feelings, they can undermine us. That’s why Jesus spoke directly to this problem:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”[2]

They are another human being, as well as a fallen Christian leader. So – Jesus’ command is relevant. And – it is important for our health too. This is one reason being a Christian makes sense – it’s about making healthy life choices like – choosing to love and forgive those who hurt us. Even if it takes us time to do so.

 

Is your belief in Christianity is being challenged  by this painful situation?

This can happen for some people. When our leader suddenly fall off the path, we can find ourselves wondering whether we’ve wasted our time in following them. Some may ask, “Is Christianity still true? Even when the Christian leader I idolized has gone?“

Well – idolizing other people is always going to be a problem. So we need to adjust our attitude. Only one person is not going to let you down. And that’s Jesus. Other people – in my experience – will let us down regularly.

But there’s another issue here. Maybe this fallen leader’s life poses a question to us – “Do I still believe that Christianity is true?” How should we respond?  Sometimes, it isn’t a person’s words that challenge our beliefs. It is often how other Christian people treat us that leave us wondering, “Do I still believe? Even in the face of this nightmare?”

The Bible says:

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”[3]

We must look to the foundations we have with Christ first, not any church or church leader. Revere Christ as Lord, it says. We need a strong foundation with someone who won’t disappoint you. That’s going to be Jesus and no one else. Christianity is still true cos Jesus is still Jesus.

While standing on this firm foundation, how do we speak about the fallen leader who has challenged our Christian belief by their actions? We must speak words of confident Christian convictions with gentleness and respect. The only way you can do this, is by having firm foundations in your life on Christ.

By the way – the Jesus who is the foundation for gentleness and respect – is also the Jesus who forgives us when we confess we have not lived this way. His forgiveness is available.

 

Do you simply feel contempt for this fallen leader?

In that case, I think we need to reflect on the fact that Jesus was always for those who were the outcasts in society. And – he had harsh and challenging words for those who shunned them. Particularly those in the religious establishment. The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Jesus. It’s ultimately his responsibility to deal with situations like this one.

Surely that’s worth reflecting on?

Surely it’s better to aim to speak about people who have disappointed you – with gentleness and respect?

 

 

 

 

 

[1] For example, Matthew 18.

[2] Luke 6:27-28, NIV.

[3] 1 Peter 3:15, NIV.