Monday, May 30, 2011

The Grand Design, or, The Murky Metaphysics of Stephen Hawking

“Philosophy is dead.”

So declares physicist Stephen Hawking in the early pages of his new bestseller, “The Grand Design.”

He continues: “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

It’s a grand statement to open “The Grand Design,” except that for many, it doesn’t ring true. In fact, one of the fastest growing areas in academics is the discipline of philosophy of science, and it seems that the vast majority of best-selling “science” books are not, as they claim, really about science, but instead about what the science may be telling us. In other words, they’re essentially philosophy books. “The Grand Design,” as it turns out, falls into this category, and is a metaphysical treatise from a great thinker who happens to be a world-renowned theoretical physicist.

“The Grand Design” is a very well-written book, and largely enjoyable to read, but for anyone seeking concrete answers to the questions posed by Dr. Hawking, it ends in disappointment. While the book is filled with explanations and examples of quantum experiments and their highly successful track record (which is the most enjoyable section of the book), the conclusions drawn by Hawking (and co-author Leonard Mlodinow) at the end ignore his own instructions at the beginning of the book. In fact, the book creates more new questions than it answers. This is due in part to the fact that the authors build their argument around M-theory, which is unverifiable by measurement and is considered by many to be little more than mathematical metaphysics. Scientists in any field should first and foremost concern themselves with evidence verified by test-based results. The fact that Hawking is trading on his credentials as a scientist to put forth a philosophical treatise has raised some eyebrows in the scientific community.

And before someone cries foul and points out that I’m not a physicist, I’d point out that quite a few physicists have claimed that once one has a basic understanding of what quantum physics entails, the layman is every bit as capable as the physicist in offering explanations for what it might actually mean. When it comes to quantum physics, non-physicists with a general understanding of the experimental facts of quantum physics—facts about which there is no dispute—can offer opinions about what it might mean with a validity matching that of physicists.

Dr. Hawking and Mlodinow open the argument by explaining that since we don’t really know what existed prior to the Big Bang, and because the physical laws that govern the Universe didn’t come into play until some time during the first second after the singularity, we really aren’t in a position to accurately predict anything about what existed before that. To this point, Hawking has remained true to his scientific background, and true to statements he’s made earlier in his career, such as “I don’t demand that a theory corresponds to reality, because I don’t know what it is. Reality is not a quality you can test with a litmus paper. All I’m concerned about is that the theory should predict the results of measurement.”1 So far, so good.

He then notes that his own theory—the very one which forms the basis for this book—is currently untestable and unlikely to ever yield a model that could be tested. And then, without a moment’s hesitation, he proceeds to launch into a book that proposes a theory for the creation of the Universe based upon the law of gravity, a law which Hawking and Mlodinow have just finished telling us came into existence after the singularity. If readers are paying attention, they should find themselves saying, “Hey! Didn’t he just claim that those very same physical laws wouldn’t be of any use in building a testable model?”

It’s important to point out that Hawking and Mlodinow propose to use this theory—one based upon mathematical metaphysics—to answer some huge questions that have puzzled mankind since he acquired the ability and need to contemplate his own existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist?

Before attempting to answer these questions, Hawking first provides us with some background information to help the reader better understand quantum theory. Since the earliest “knowable” state of the Universe consisted of tightly-packed elementary particles, the Big Bang itself must have been a quantum event, as the classical laws did not appear until after the singularity. Once the reader has this background information firmly in hand, Hawking then presents his own model for what might have happened. It’s at this point that one should question Dr. Hawking’s motives, even if one is a loyal fan of the great scientist, because it’s here that Hawking begins to write about his theory as though it were demonstrable fact.

From this point forward, Hawking’s language and word choice clearly suggests that he firmly believes it to be a demonstrable fact, and once he begins writing in this mode, his earlier, carefully-worded caveats are completely ignored. M-Theory is no longer an untestable model of a unified theory. It appears to become the firm belief of Dr. Hawking that this is indeed how the Universe began, and he lays it out with authority. If this was not what he meant to imply, then it was a gross oversight not to say so. Hawking’s mind and his grandly-realized ideas draw tremendous respect from the general public, and for him to so strongly argue for something for which he cannot provide any evidence is, to put it lightly, a bit irresponsible. His words carry weight, and when he speaks, people listen. Anyone who has followed the controversy since the release of this book knows exactly what I’m talking about. Hawking not only lays out a metaphysical argument against a creative intelligence, but has recently gone on record with anti-faith comments not supportable with any facts or science. If one is going to use science to make a point, one should provide scientific evidence to make that point. Hawking simply counters one metaphysical idea with an opposing metaphysical idea, and counts on his considerable reputation as a physicist to add weight to his argument.

From a scientific point of view, the primary problem with Hawking’s argument for a universe “from nothing” is that he builds his case with quantum physics. Hawking and Mlodinow have chosen a single interpretation of quantum mechanics known as the Copenhagen interpretation, although this is only one of many possible interpretations. Hawking’s idea isn’t entirely without merit, however, but it does take huge leaps of logic. While quantum theory is one of the most successful theories known to science, its success resides in the study of small elemental systems, not large objects, and not entire universes.

It’s been noted that if we were to try to test quantum theory on large objects, such as objects the size of golf balls, we’d be dealing with distances and speeds such as a millionth of an inch over the course of a century. Hardly the sort of situation that lends itself to a testable model. Most of the criticism of Hawking’s theory is that it attempts to use a theory that works on small systems such as one composed of protons and electrons, and apply it to something the size of a universe. It’s akin to suggesting that since a basketball can be bounced, Jupiter could also be bounced providing you could find a surface large enough from which to bounce it. What is possible in the quantum world doesn’t automatically extrapolate to the classical world.

Additionally, Hawking largely ignores another aspect of quantum physics, one championed and explored by fellow physicist Roger Penrose. Penrose has gone on record claiming that no unified theory of the Universe will ever be complete without accounting for consciousness. Penrose even takes this idea a step farther, and to Hawking, perhaps a step too far. Penrose believes that the only thing linking the quantum world with the classical world is consciousness…human consciousness. This is a startling statement, but then we must remember that quantum theory tells us that the reality of the physical world depends upon our observation of it.

Some physicists like to soften this idea by suggesting that the reality of the physical world appears to depend upon our observation of it, but others insist that the first statement was entirely accurate, and completely supported by empirical evidence. Quantum experiments have demonstrated with 100% accuracy that our observation of what is to be measured actually produces the physical reality of what is to be measured. It’s a startling reality that is referred to as “the skeleton in the closet” of modern physics.2 This idea, when really explored, suggests some mind-blowing conclusions pointing toward teleology, which is why most physicists like to steer clear of it, Hawking among them.

In fact, while Hawking does briefly mention the role of consciousness in quantum mechanics, he mostly sweeps the issue under the rug. If you were to look at the index of the book, you’d find no references to “mind” or “consciousness,” although this issue is one of the central mysteries of quantum mechanics. While mentioning John Wheeler’s work with delayed-choice experiments, the writers do not mention that Wheeler’s original conjecture suggested that his successful experiments implied an observer-dependent universe.

Perhaps one of the most profound questions ever asked in a science book can be found in John Polkinghorne’s book, “Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction.” As he cautiously leads up to the issue of the conscious mind and its uneasy marriage with the quantum world, he asks: “At most times and in most places, the Universe has been devoid of consciousness. Are we to suppose that throughout these vast tracts of cosmic space and time, no quantum processes resulted in a determinate consequence?”3

If the importance of that question didn’t grab your attention, you weren’t paying attention, and I’ll ask you to read it again before proceeding. If you knew the answer to that question, you’d know the very answers to the questions asked by Hawking earlier.

If it’s true that the physical realities of the classical world depend upon our observation of them—and keeping in mind that quantum experiments prove this to be absolutely true 100% of the time—then the most logical conclusion drawn from this evidence suggests that mind is the originator of matter, and not the other way around, as the materialist view claims. If one wished to argue in favor of this idea, one would have the most successful scientific theory ever on their side. Therefore it’s no surprise that Hawking, who no doubt is completely aware of this fact, chose to ignore its implications in his book, while pushing ahead with a metaphysical theory about how a universe can spring into existence “from nothing.”

The fatal flaw in Hawking’s theory has been pointed out again and again by his critics, who come from all belief systems. The flaw in his theory goes beyond the theist/non-theist argument, and runs head-on into a brick wall grounded on simple logic. Hawking’s entire argument for a universe that springs into existence from nothing is flawed because it presupposes an already-existing, information-rich system that includes gravity. Keep in mind that Hawking has already warned us that we cannot speculate about what existed before the singularity using physical laws that appeared after it.

Hawking’s “nothing,” as it turns out, isn’t really nothing after all. Nothing is total non-being, total blankness. On this fact alone, Hawking’s theory falls flat, as it requires the preexistence of an eternal system that he fails to explain. This doesn’t prevent him from making a very grand claim by stating that a universe can appear out of “nothing.” If the reader has been paying attention and is aware of this fact while reading the conclusions made in the book, then Hawking’s conclusion is groundless, and is reduced to metaphysical musings built upon a house of cards. One needn’t be a physicist to figure out that Dr. Hawking leaves many contingencies unexplored. Simply paying attention to what Hawking said earlier in this book and others is sufficient. His argument for a “universe from nothing” fails on logical grounds, as it contradicts his earlier statements (which are supported by scientific data). Hawking already realizes the issues and has previously stated as much: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”4

Why, indeed.

In the end, the existence of the Universe and its original cause doesn’t lend itself to a testable model, and remains hidden by layers upon layers of contingencies. It’s at this point that the philosophers step in, scientific or otherwise, and it’s here that the battle rages, perhaps endlessly. And yet, as I mentioned earlier, Hawking’s idea isn’t without merit, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a brilliant mind at work. His contributions to the scientific world are immeasurable and have helped cosmologists move forward in leaps and bounds. But for reasons known only to Stephen Hawking, simply trying to explain the Universe and the physical processes that keep it going aren’t enough for him. He also feels the need to disprove a concept that clearly vexes him, and it’s nowhere more apparent than in “The Grand Design.” For now, anyway, God appears safe from Stephen Hawking.

Quantum physics has opened an entirely new world that only now is becoming known to the general public. Some of the questions raised by this fascinating world seem best addressed by philosophy. Science can tell us how it works, but science appears confounded by why it works the way it does. Yet for many, the findings of science are enough to sustain them. Scientific discovery provides a sense of wonderment that makes them feel they’re a part of something truly amazing, part of a beautiful and mysteriously connected system capable of producing their own intelligence and ability to wonder. For others, we comprehend the same scientific facts, feel the same sense of wonder, and beyond it, through the mist of our earthly senses, see the hand of God.


1 “The Nature of Time and Space,” by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, p. 121, Princeton University Press.

2 “Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness,” by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, p. 13, Oxford University Press.

3 “Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction,” by John C. Polkinghorne, p. 51, Oxford University Press, USA.

4 “A Brief History of Time,” by Stephen Hawking, p. 190, Bantam Books.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

I AM NUJOOD, Age 10 and Divorced

This short book, which I read in a single sitting, astounded me with its narrative and left me feeling a mix of anger and incredulity upon completing it. Before reading this book, I'd read about Nujood Ali, who has been described as possessing a "precocious self-assurance." After reading the book, it's clearly an accurate description of a young girl who refuses to accept a situation that she knows is wrong. In doing so, it turns out, she opens the door for long-overdue change.

Nujood doesn't live an easy life as a young girl in Yemen, but she still finds time to enjoy her childhood. Her father, who has two wives, seems incapable of supporting them on his meager salary, and the rest of the family must find ways to make ends meet. Her father, in an effort to ease his own burden, agrees to an arranged marriage with a man three times Nujood's age, with the condition that he not consummate the marriage until one year after her first period. The new husband breaks that promise on the very night of their wedding, and from that point forward continues to beat her and rape her nightly. This is not consensual sex, but child rape, pure and simple.

The story that unfolds from that point forward is nothing short of amazing. It's also heartening to learn that right from the beginning of her ordeal, several Yemenese men stepped forward to stand up for her rights, even while knowing that Sharia law and local customs would be working against them. It is also important to realize that educated, empowered women in these countries are also willing to step forward and challenge such destructive customs and laws, and one of them, Shada Nasser, becomes her lawyer and champion.

I firmly believe this book, and the fall-out from the divorce trial, will continue to help change the lives of women living within this type of culture, although perhaps not quickly enough. No matter how many times I read about situations like this, I still find it astounding that a man can rape a woman, as was the case with Nujood's older sister Mona, and it somehow becomes the fault of the woman that shame comes to the family name. How can this possibly be? How can a young woman be raped in her own home, and somehow it becomes her fault, and the males must protect their own honor by condemning the females? This horribly twisted logic (or the complete lack of it, truth be told) boggles the mind, and books such as this one help break down barriers by exposing dark secrets.

Nujood's father continually justified marrying off his ten-year-old daughter by pointing to the example of Muhammad, who married Aisha when she was but six, and consummated the marriage when she was nine years old. Some apologists insist that Muhammad didn't marry her until she was nine, but Aisha's own words, found in Bint al-Shati's The Wives of Prophet Muhammad, tell a different story.

"The Prophet married me when I was six years old and the marriage was consummated when I was nine. The Prophet of God came to our home in company with men and women who were among his followers. My mother came [to me] while I was in a swing between the branches of a tree and made me come down. She smoothed my hair, wiped my face with a little water then came forward and led me to the door. She stopped me while I calmed myself a little. Then she took me in. The Prophet of God was sitting on a bed in our home, and she sat me in his lap. Everyone jumped up and went out, and the Prophet consummated his marriage with me at our house."

It is time people stop defending this as a religious custom, and call it what it is: a crime against children that continues today, 1400 years after it was given credence by a man who claimed to be godly. It may have been a custom in times past, but it remains no less of a crime. Books like this are important because they expose this heinous crime to the rest of the world.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

GOD SLEEPS IN RWANDA: A Journey of Transformation

From time to time I come across books like this one, and once again I'm amazed to realize that there are still new voices in the world, as well as fresh perspectives about subjects that have been in the news for years. Joseph Sebarenzi's memoir about his life growing up in the killing fields of Rwanda is just such a book. It's an absolute jewel, providing profound insights while touching me deeply.

While I've grown familiar with the story of the Hutu and Tutsi clashes and the genocide that followed, I've never been exposed to this story in such an intimate and unflinching manner. During the bloody years of trouble in Rwanda, a huge part of Sebarenzi's family was slaughtered in the carnage. In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that he could have stayed away, he felt the urge to return with his wife in the years following the genocide and attempt to play a role in the rebuilding and reconciliation of his beloved country.

What he encountered upon entering politics was a system that put on a unified face for the world at large, but inside was still rife with corruption and hidden agendas. After assuming a leadership role as Speaker of the Rwandan Parliament in 1997, he set out to do the most good that he could without compromising his principles. What he encountered at every turn was a leadership that pretended to support him, but secretly started to view him as a threat that might eventually seek to overthrow it.

Throughout his ordeal, Sebarenzi's deep faith kept him centered on bringing his countrymen together and working toward reconciliation and forgiveness. In the end, his drive and motivation weren't enough, and he was warned that in spite of his claims to have no interest in becoming the country's leader, the current leadership viewed him as a threat and set out to assassinate him. He was forced to leave the country by escaping into Uganda, and from there he made his way to the United States, where he now devotes his life to conflict resolution and reconciliation.

This is a deeply-touching story, beautifully told, and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

RENDER UNTO CAESAR: Weighing in on the Gay Marriage Debate

I personally don’t understand all the fuss about gay marriage, and I really don’t buy into the argument that gay marriage somehow undermines heterosexual marriage. The biggest threat to regular marriage isn’t gays wanting to get married, it’s straight people who don’t take marriage seriously enough. In this country, we have literally millions of Americans living together and having children out of wedlock. One in three marriages ends in divorce. There are currently about one million abortions performed every year, and the overwhelming number of them are performed on young, unmarried women, with nearly half of them low-income minority women. If these situations aren’t threats to the sanctity of marriage, how is a gay American who wants to be in a stable union a threat to the sanctity of marriage?

My personal feelings are that marriage should be a sacred union between a man and a woman, a union that provides a safe and stable environment for procreation. The church recognizes it as such, and as a Christian, I feel the church shouldn’t budge on the issue. But with regards to the law of the land, I feel all Americans should have the same rights. Telling two gay Americans that they can’t share their lives together with the legal protections afforded by marriage is no different than telling two black Americans that they have to move to the back of the bus, or go eat in a different restaurant, or that they can't vote because of the color of their skin. All Americans should enjoy the same legal rights. I don’t see any wiggle room on the subject.

I have always found it interesting that Christ spoke strongly about divorce and adultery as sinful, but never once mentioned same-sex unions. I think it’s hypocritical of Christians to rail about homosexuality but ignore the issue of divorce and adultery, which in Biblical terms is any sex outside of a marriage. Would any mainstream Christian church refuse communion to a divorced person, or a single person who wasn’t a virgin? Would any mainstream church refuse to perform a burial service for a divorced person, or a single person who'd had sex outside of marriage? I seriously doubt it, yet they have refused these same ceremonies to homosexuals, a practice I find terribly hypocritical.

Here's another thing to consider. According to a recent Barna poll, evangelical Christians have one of the highest divorce rates in the country, currently standing at around 25%. Where’s the outrage from the evangelicals? If they want to preserve and protect traditional marriage, why aren’t they protesting divorce, or working to pass laws that forbid heterosexuals from living together outside the bounds of marriage? If they want to protect the sanctity of marriage and think taking legal action is the right route, then why not start there?

These aren’t absurd comments when viewed within the context of the argument. It’s only by refusing to acknowledge all the issues as a whole do we delve into absurdist theater. When we look at the issue in this manner, fighting only for laws against gay marriage seem silly and terribly selective. If fighting for laws against gay marriage is your way of defending traditional marriage, then why not be consistent, and also demand that singles stop living together, stop having sex outside of marriage, and that divorce be outlawed. Only then will you be consistent and hypocrisy-free. Are you willing to go that far?

I suspect most people would back away once they consider the larger issues, and what defending marriage actually means when they look at the big picture. If you're going to insist that homosexuality is a sin, then you need to also acknowledge that divorce is a sin, and sex outside of marriage is a sin as well. Be consistent, and then ask yourself if you're without sin before casting the first stone.

In the end, it comes down to this: gay marriage is a civil rights issue. I don’t think it’s right to deny legal rights to some citizens and allow them for others. Christians seem to forget that Christ calls us to live and prosper within any governmental system or culture, be it democratic, communistic, fascist or socialistic. Christians thrive and prosper under all types of governments, all over the world, and live under all types of laws. It’s not our job to force our beliefs on others through rote of law. We are to exist within whatever culture we find ourselves in, be it corrupt or honest, sinful or pious. We are part of a larger kingdom, but we have a obligation to our earthly kingdoms as well, and it’s not a sin to honor that connection. In fact, Christ instructs us to honor it without complaint.

Christ solved the issue for us, and did it very simply. Whenever I think of His comments to the Pharisees about paying taxes, I imagine His reply to the gay marriage issue, a civil rights issue if there ever was one, sounding much the same. “ Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.”

Let the church stand strong on upholding the sanctity of marriage as a holy union between a man and a woman. And let the state provide equal protection under the law to all its citizens.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

BALANCING ON THE EDGE OF THE ABYSS: The shifting foundation of natural law

Is your worldview based upon naturalism? Do you believe that everything within the Universe is simply matter and energy, operating in accordance with mathematical and physical laws? If you believe this, then by default you must believe that everything that takes place within it, including our very thoughts, and nothing more than functions of matter and energy. The brain may be highly-complex matter, to be sure, but our thoughts cannot be anything more than a fractal express of matter and energy. If you believe in naturalism, then the Universe cannot be anything more than this. There is no wiggle room on the subject. If you claim there’s something more, then you’re disagreeing with the bedrock foundations of your worldview, which insists that there isn't. Ideas like morality are nothing more than subjective abstractions. They may serve a valuable purpose, but they cannot be found in the foundation of naturalism.

Here's a small thinking exercise to conduct from within the framework of a naturalist viewpoint. It may at first strike you as absurd, but if you think it through, it will accurately explain the inherent problems with the naturalist worldview. A rock breaks loose from a cliff and falls onto a trail below, striking a hiker on the head and killing him. Has the rock done anything wrong? Of course not. Concepts such as right and wrong don't even apply here, and it would be absurd to even consider them. Every single action that took place within the chain of events leading to the rock falling and striking the hiker was simply matter acting in ways that are in accordance with the physical and mathematical laws that govern the Universe. Now consider this next scenario. A person holds a knife in his hand and stabs another person to death. If you believe that matter is all there is, then the actions of the murderer are nothing more than matter acting in accordance with physical and mathematical laws, but nothing more. The actions taken by the aforementioned matter leading up to the murder may be far more complex than the rock falling off the cliff, but they're still nothing more than fractal expressions of matter. If matter is all there is, then the murderous act absolutely cannot be anything more than this.

If you insist that this act of murder is more than matter acting in accordance with physical laws, then you're stepping beyond the bounds of hard science and the physical and mathematical laws that all matter and energy must follow. When a naturalist insists that the Universe is nothing more than matter and energy behaving in accordance with physical and mathematical laws, then any action that takes place within it cannot be more than a fractal expression of actions taken by matter and energy. But when they insist that a piece of matter such as the brain has a responsibility to behave in a particular way, I have to insist that the naturalist explain why, and also insist that the explanation be scientifically testable. If the naturalist points out that the brain has emergent properties beyond mere functions of matter, and that this piece of matter they call a brain is capable of overriding and manipulating the physical laws that govern it, then they're admitting that there's far more to it than just matter. Yet getting a naturalist thinker to concede this point is nearly impossible.

If there is no God who provides absolutes, then all acts of matter can be viewed as irrational. All thoughts must be irrational as well. Logic and reason become borderless abstractions. If the naturalist insists upon placing values on those actions and thoughts, then they’re not only subjective values, but also irrational ones. When viewed from this perspective, “naturalism cuts its own throat,” as C.S. Lewis once commented. So when a naturalist insists that a particular collection of matter such as a brain, no matter how complex, possesses an inherent responsibility to assess and manipulate its own actions, I must insist otherwise. Naturalism, from its very foundation, makes no such call, and every value or thought considered by a piece of matter such as the brain is ultimately random, irrational, and completely subjective. If the naturalist claims that an act of brutal murder is evil, they violate the foundational structure of their own worldview, which has no use for moral classifications. If you’re a naturalist who has a problem with this concept, please read on. I’ll discuss it more in a moment, and you’ll get to meet a naturalist thinker who’s deconstructed and reduced his worldview down to this same morality-free foundation.

The answer to this question is directly tied into the God versus Naturalism debate. What’s at stake is much, much more than competing theories about our origins. What’s ultimately at stake is the very paradigm for how we should live. One paradigm says that since life is nothing more than a chance assembly of molecules, there is no ultimate purpose, no ultimate authority, and we should be able to live in any manner that suits us. The only “truths” are those that we create as subjective, ever-changing guidelines. These “truths” are never absolute, and can be altered or discarded when we decide something else is more relevant to our current situation. The other paradigm insists that we were created for a purpose by an omnipotent Creator, a super-intelligence that has not only provided us with a moral code stamped upon our consciences, but provided us with permanent, absolute truths by which to live, incontrovertible truths that provide a solid foundation upon which to build civilizations and develop relationships between each other as well as our Creator. As you can see, there’s no wiggle room in either paradigm. There’s no way to blend them. At its foundation, true natural law has no use for God, or anything remotely associated with theism.

If naturalism is true and there is no God, then the points I’ve made here about naturalism are completely valid. Naturalism, by its very nature, makes no demand that we behave in a moral way. Any moral behavior is adopted, subjective, and not grounded in any absolute value system. In spite of this, many atheists hold personal worldviews that conflict with the foundational elements of their own belief system. They insist upon a code of conduct that closely parallels one found within all theistic cultures, rather than one that parallels the “natural order” we find within nature. If we’re nothing but a complex arrangement of matter, if we’re nothing more than another step in a purely natural evolutionary process, then why do we insist on elevating ourselves above the rest of the animal kingdom? What’s wrong with behaving exactly the way animals behave?

If we’re simply a link in an unbroken chain of primates, then there’s nothing remotely logical about the atheists’ insistence that we hold ourselves to a higher standard, or that we behave in a way that’s different from animals. Let natural selection run its course. Let the strong prosper at the expense of the weak. What should we do about those huge populations of starving people, or populations of people subject to oppression, genocide, rape and torture? Absolutely nothing. It’s natural selection at work. If you’re a naturalist thinker striving to be intellectually honest, you should admit that there’s absolutely nothing in the foundation of your worldview that demands you take any action, or even have any passionate feelings on the matter. If you insist otherwise, then you’re succumbing to unnatural theistic influences that have crept into our culture within the past three or four thousand years. You have yet to cast an unflinching eye on the implications of what you believe, and I will suggest that you haven’t yet worked out the principles upon which a purely secular society should be founded.

I spent several years running this argument through my head, always trying to find another way to deconstruct it, but no matter how I approached it, the end result was always the same. I was therefore surprised to finally discover someone else who’d apparently been through exactly the same thought process and arrived at the same conclusions. Even more surprising was the fact that this person was an atheist, and not a theist like me. Peter Singer, a bio-ethicist at Princeton University, has emerged as a lightning rod of controversy in the culture of what’s become known as The New Atheism. Singer is one of those extremely rare naturalist thinkers who fully and completely understands the implications of his worldview. When you strip away all the theistic cultural influences that have ground their way into naturalist thinking over the past two millennia, you arrive at a worldview like Singer’s. His grasp of the implications of naturalistic thought is the most articulate and well-resolved I have ever encountered. He simply sees mankind as another primate evolved from purely natural forces, and therefore suggests we divest ourselves of any influences born from faith and culture, and instead adopt a “natural” set of ethics consistent with behavior we see in other animals. Singer doesn’t stop there, however. Because he believes in a purely natural world without a God, he rejects the idea that human life is sacred, or that all men are created equal, and suggests that women should be able to get abortions at any point in a pregnancy, including the moment of delivery. He goes on to suggest that newborn babies aren’t viable human beings for some time after birth, and believes that it should be legal to kill those babies during the first twenty-eight days of their lives. He also believes that mentally handicapped humans and the aged could also be legally euthanized. They serve no purpose and don’t add anything of value to the gene pool, so why keep them around? Nature wouldn’t tolerate them or protect them, so why should we?

If you’re an atheist and you take offense at Singer’s value system, I will ask you the same questions that Singer might ask you. Why are you offended? From what value system does your offense emerge? If Singer’s premise is true, then the conclusions based upon it are accurate, and they’re a true reflection of an intellectually-honest worldview based upon naturalism. As shocking as I find Singer’s views, I also must admit that I have real respect for the fact that he doesn’t shy away from embracing his well-examined beliefs. He has clearly deconstructed his worldview and cast an unflinching eye on the basic foundation of his beliefs. At no point does he hide behind borrowed values, nor does he waste his time making subjective moral judgments about what’s right and wrong. He sees the world as the result of purely natural forces, and suggests we dispense with subjective moral values and simply live according to the natural order found in the rest of the animal kingdom. If you’re a committed believer in naturalism, then Singer provides the most lucid and honest assessment of that worldview to be found anywhere. Whether or not atheists are willing to embrace it is another matter entirely.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

THE DEVIL'S DELUSION: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions

It's rare that I can find the time to read a book from cover to cover, but that's exactly what I did with this book. I picked it about noon one day and couldn't put it down until I was finished. The subject, in case it's not clear from the title, deals with the rise of militant atheism and its claim that science supports the notion of a God-free universe.

Regardless of your viewpoint, if you appreciate good writing, you'll love Berlinski (or at least be able to acknowledge his deft writing skills). I've been following this entire argument for several years now, and even if you're looking at it as a neutral observer, I would have to give points to Berlinski. Hitchens, Stenger, Dawkins, Harris et. al. have yet to produce an argument that doesn't end by asking us to accept a subjective conclusion. They believe in naturalism simply because they reject the idea that a Creator could exist. I'll be the first to admit that the concept of a super-intelligent agent existing outside of space and time (at least within our four-dimensional world) is difficult to wrap your mind around, but if you put it on the table with naturalism, and simply look for the most logical explanation for the "first cause" behind everything, God makes more sense.

Naturalism can't prove itself in a scientific argument that begins with the Big Bang. Scientific cause cannot be established, and science itself, which can only analyze a universe that operates in accordance with physical and mathematical laws, is of no use in predicting what resides beyond the boundaries of those physical and mathematical laws, or what force gave rise to the Universe in the first place. To do so is to engage in speculation, and any position taken on those speculations is a faith position (and a rather dogmatic one at that).

Using this as the root of his case, Berlinski proceeds to pick apart, with swift cuts, the opposition that has become known as The New Atheism. He does so with a brilliant grasp of the issues, and a deft and witty style that always entertains.

One of the arguments emerging from this new brand of atheists is their defense (yes, I would call it that) of atheistic mass murderers by claiming that although Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin and others were bad men, they certainly never committed their atrocities under the banner of atheism. True enough, says Berlinksi, but they did commit these atrocities because they felt confident that God was not watching and therefore they had no one to answer to. They may not have murdered under the banner of atheism, but their atheism was clearly a major factor in their decision to butcher their fellow human beings without remorse. Berlinski also points out that as the world has grown more secular, it has become a far more violent place, and he supports it with a list of atrocities from the past century. The Inquisition and the Middle Ages are certainly horrible stains upon the mantle of Christianity, but they don't represent the actions of true Christians, who believe and act on the notion that the nature of God is best manifested in our treating others with unconditional love, and treating them as we wish to be treated. Additionally, the sum total of deaths from these events, which covered hundreds of years, still pales in comparison to the 100 million people butchered by the thugs mentioned above.

This is an excellent book, and if you've been following the rise of militant atheism and its clash with faith, this is a book you shouldn't miss. Berlinski, who claims to be a secular Jew, offers a refreshing new outlook on the subject.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

THE REAL MEANING OF "PRO-LIFE" POLITICS: More thoughts on the election and the sanctity of life issue

I've always had a problem with the so-called pro-life agenda of the Republican party, as I've always found it very hypocritical. If someone wants to imply that they're pro-life, then I would assume they mean that they place a value on the sanctity of human life...all human life, not just the unborn. Unfortunately, this same political party seems to care little about death by war, genocide and starvation. If conservative Christians want to vote for a candidate who treats all life as precious, then they're going to have to quit supporting an expeditionary war in Iraq, start demanding that we get involved in the Sudan and Tanzania, and stop spending 12 billion a month on war and start spending it on feeding the 28,000 people who die every day from lack of food. A candidate who did all these things, as well as protected the rights of the unborn, would be a true pro-life candidate. Neither candidate in the 2008 Presidential elections fit the bill on this point.

And if you're a conservative Christian who is about to reply in anger to me, please hold off for a second...I'm not finished. Liberal Christians who support abortion need to examine their own motives as well. Once again, we see hypocrisy in their political agenda as well. Many support banning the death penalty and nearly all insist that we get out of Iraq, and most wail about the number of civilian deaths caused by the war in Iraq. I happen to agree with these points as they are definitely "pro-life" issues, but can't agree that killing a living fetus is somehow not included in the equation.

So why the inconsistency between the two ideologies? I'm not sure, but I can only assume it's because they haven't really thought it over. I'm not trying to wag my finger or pass judgment, only offer an observation. I'm a relatively conservative Christian in most respects, but as I grow in my faith, the glaring contradictions that I see in both political platforms just jumps out at me.

Perhaps that's the answer right there. I think as we each move closer and closer to following the example of Christ, we see that no worldly state government is going to reflect the true values of Christ. In fact, to really be a follower of Christ requires us to reject much of the rhetoric coming from both parties.

In the end, I supported Obama simply because I thought he'd be the best fit overall for these pro-life issues (war, starvation and genocide), even though he supports a woman's right to choose. As Obama pointed out, nobody is "pro-abortion," so instead of arguing, we should be looking for a way to reduce them drastically. I do believe that even if abortion was outlawed, people would still get them (they always did before Roe v. Wade, so there's no reason to believe it would stop if it was overturned). In the end, the only way to reduce abortions is to change the way people think, and the change of thought must be by choice, not by rote of law. Christ is the answer, and until we can share the Good News without being judgmental or hypocritical, we're probably not going to make much progress.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

THE SANCTITY OF LIFE: A Consistent Ethic of Life from the Unborn to Baghdad

I have struggled at times to express my feelings about the sanctity of life issue, and why all of us, believers or not, should strive to find establish a universal, consistent ethic for life. I think I just found a piece that describes the issue in words both beautiful and bittersweet.

I've always enjoyed the approach of Sojourners and the guest writers who frequent the magazine and website, and in this piece by Rev. Omar Al-Rikabi, a Methodist minister, I've discovered (for myself, anyway) another powerful voice on the value of life, and I just wanted to share it. Al-Rikabi, the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, chose the way of Christ, and has much to share. It's my hope that anyone reading this will take the time to read his post on the God's Politics blog on the Sojourner website, as well as visit his own fascinating blog, First Born Son. I like it so much that I'm adding it to my own links list.

While on the subject of other's blogs, I would also like to recommend Bold Grace, which I have also started following and enjoy very much. In simple, broad terms, the five writers on this site drive home the point that God's love is so beyond our comprehension that we do God a great disservice by trying to force Him into a concept that we can grasp more easily. Read Bold Grace, and embrace the immense power of a God without limits. (Note to Bruce and Geo: if I've misinterpreted your goal, please correct me!)