RESPONDblog: The Danger of Scientific Consensus

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

What he got – was marked down.

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scientific consensus is harmful to the progress of scientific understanding.

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

I’ll end with a Crichton quote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(3) Axe, 5.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Axe, 6.

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

RESPONDblog: 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…!

RESPONDblog: Were the New Testament Authors Biased?


Introduction

I often hear something like this from sceptics:

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

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


Relating the Primary Motives to the Apostles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  [2] Acts 3:6.

  [3] James 2:5.

  [4] Wallace, 242.

  [5] Wallace, 244.

  [6] Ibid.

  [7] 1 Timothy 3:2.

  [8] Wallace, 245.

RESPONDblog: Why is there Something Rather than Nothing?

gervais

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

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

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

 

Why is there something instead of nothing?

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

 

Ricky’s response was,

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

 

Interesting.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

And yet…again as Robertson points out about Ricky,

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

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: 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: Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

moral_landscape

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

 

You can watch his talk here.

Science Can Answer Moral Questions | Sam Harris | TED Talks

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

 

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

 

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

 

1 – Harris’s Argument Never Answers WHY?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

This is the deeper issue for Sam Harris.

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

So…

 

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

 

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

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