Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What Do Cave Dwelling Salamanders And Christopher Hitchens Have In Common?

Christopher Hitchens is at it again. Weighing in at Slate Magazine (here) about his own "eureka moment" (his description) regarding evolution that has further ensconced his inability to "grasp the gross stupidity of those who repose their faith in divine providence and godly design"

It is amazing to me that a man of his intellectual aptitude and interest in this specific topic would describe his brand new revelation as a eureka moment and scurry off to inform us all about it.

For starters, the blind salamander (Eurycea (Typhlomolge) rathbuni) was placed on the endangered species list in 1967. That's right, Christopher Hitchens' "eureka moment" stems from a discovery that is at least 41 year-old news. I understand the definition of a "eureka moment," but if Hitchens is as smart and motivated as he claims be about proving the gross stupidity of those of us who believe the design argument, it seems that he would have considered this old news long before now. Of course, that observation has nothing to do with his claim -- I just find it interesting.

Second, Hitchens acts as if the stupid creationists deny evolution takes place, and that they would also defend the idea that an all-powerful God would create a blind salamander. But that is not what any creationist is saying!

I honestly do not know a single creationist who denies that adaptation (which would be defined as micro-evolution) takes place within species. But, once again blurring the definition of "evolution" to make his case, Hitchens wants us to accept that obvious fact as proof that salamanders can, and do, change via such adaptations into something other than salamanders.

How?

Where is the evidence for that claim?

Third, the more substantial problem that Hitchens is blind to (pun intended) is the inability for a purely materialistic explanation to account for the incredibly high information content that exists in the DNA of even the simplest living things. We have no other example anywhere in the world where blind, undirected processes create new information. And that is the real point that Hitchens seems to miss.

It is not just the existence of information -- it is the claim that evolution is capable of adding information to the DNA of living systems that is in question. For a seeing salamander to evolve into a sightless salamander entails a loss of information in the salamander's DNA. No one disputes that such a thing could happen. In fact, the second law of thermodynamics demands that this be the case.

What Hitchens must explain is the evolution of sightless salamanders (or anything else) into seeing salamanders (or anything else) -- a process that entails the addition of information to the DNA of the system and therefore defies the second law of thermodynamics. That is the question that Christopher Hitchens needs to recognize as being worthy of constituting a "eureka moment."

One thing you can say about Hitchens is that he is most definitely not stupid. That being the case, there must be some explanation for his missing such elementary concepts as these. If we know that he is intellectually capable of grasping the importance of these questions, the only explanation is that he refuses to consider the answers to them before he goes about asking.

Or, to put it another way, none are so blind as those who will not see.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New Atheists (7)

Apples to Oranges

Sam Harris despises religion -- so much so that he has blinded himself to an intellectually honest assessment about the differences between them. To put that claim in context, Harris (as discussed earlier here), misunderstands the concept of condemnation to hell and, because of that misunderstanding, believes his in-your-face his chest beating has some force behind it when he says:
The fact that my continuous and public rejection of Christianity does not worry me in the least should suggest to you just how inadequate I think your reasons for being a Christian are.
His serious delusion regarding the public impact of his own views aside, Harris' taunt (p. 4) rings hollow. I can only speak for myself of course, but it seems that Harris fails to realize that we Christians don't hold our view based on the popularity or reputation of those who may, or may not, share it with us. To be honest, most Christians had never heard of Sam Harris before his book hit the stores. But this kind of misunderstanding on his part leads him to make what can only be described as completely baseless associations like this:

Assertion:(p. 6-7)
Every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian. And yet you do not find their reasons compelling. The Koran repeatedly declares that it is the perfect word of the creator of the universe ... The burden is upon them to prove that their beliefs about God and Muhammad are valid. They have not done this. They cannot do this. Muslims are not making claims about reality that can be corroborated

Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.
Response: To put it is nicely as I can, Harris' complete ignorance about the nature of religion in general, and the relationship between Christianity and Islam in particular, is stunning.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Blizzard of Character

"The true gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self control is equal to all emergencies; who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity; who is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another; who does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements; who speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy; whose deed follows his word; who thinks of the rights and feelings of others, rather than his own; and who appears well in any company, a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe." John Wayland

There are few in the news media, or anywhere else, whom I have admired and respected as much as I have this man. Today Tony Snow is with his maker in paradise.

R.I.P.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Some Tidbits To Consider

Just a quick blurb to point out a couple of recent articles that should cause the naturalistic science folks to have "some 'splainin' to do." These kinds of things pop up every once in a while and it is interesting to consider the explanations they offer for discoveries like these.

For instance, yesterday The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science announced the recent discovery of:
a primitive single-celled microbe that answers to the name of Monosiga brevicollis [that] has a leg up on animals composed of billions of cells. It commands a signaling network more elaborate and diverse than found in any multicellular organism ...
This treasure trove of diverse and novel tyrosine kinases took the study's lead author ... by surprise since it was long thought that tyrosine kinases are restricted to multicellular animals where they handle communication between cells.
When the only paradigm by which the scientists are allowed to consider finds like this is the naturalistic paradigm, those who study them are constantly surprised -- and they should be. Pure mechanistic processes cannot account for information rich systems like this one. While they cavalierly mention the ability of cells to "communicate with each other," it is easy to forget the blatantly obvious mystery that goes with having purely physical systems which have obtained such an ability.

The naturalistic paradigm demands that first life was a simple, single-celled organism that later evolved to complex, multi-cellular organisms. But here we have a highly complex, single-celled organism that seems to be capable of assembling a sensor structure meant to handle complex, widespread communication issues. How so? A candid scientist weighs in on that question:
With all this new information, one obvious question remains unanswered: what is a single-celled organism doing with all this communications gear? "We don't have a clue!"
At least they admit it. But what some cosmologists won't admit is the incredible fine-tuning that had to go into the universe just to allow us to exist at all. This article, which posted on Space.com, addresses why cosmologists keep being blown away by how unique the Earth actually is in its uncanny and unmatched ability to support and sustain complex life.

I don't have the room of the time now to start listing all the factors that have to be "just right" to allow us to be here. But I would suggest two books that address these issues in eye-opening depth. The first is Rare Earth, by paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee. The authors make the case that it is entirely possible that we are on the only complex life sustaining planet in the universe. And though they (rightly) offer no theological inferences in their book, one doesn't have to use their imagination too much to see them.

Less trapped by their worldview, authors Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, in their bestseller, Privileged Planet are not only comfortable with making such a claim to divine design of our home planet, they take it a step further. They make a strong case that the factors which allow us to be here also do double duty as factors that allow us the ability and viewpoint from which we can discover how unique we really are in the universe. The correlation will shock you -- especially when you consider that there is no reason for it to be that way.

I would recommend either (preferably both) books for some enjoyable summer beach reading. The stars and galaxies you look up at on vacation this summer may awe you even more after having done so.

[Editor's Note: This would also serve a dual, and not insignificant role, in diverting you from the temptation to pick a book from the Oprah's Book Club List. Nothing intentional ... I'm just sayin']

Monday, July 7, 2008

Shaking Up The Faith

A fascinating story was just forwarded to me from a friend that I think deserves some comment and consideration. Today's NY Times published this article about a tablet, first discovered about 10 years ago, which suggests that the idea of a Messiah resurrecting after three days in the tomb was around at the time of Christ!

"So what?" you might ask.

[Before I attempt an answer, please note that in today's world it is probably a good practice, when you hear the term "Biblical Scholar," to assume, until they prove otherwise, that the person proclaiming that title has it as their mission to undermine everything you were ever taught to believe about Christianity. Several Biblical Scholars are actually atheists who take great pleasure in engaging in that practice.]

The significance of this story is that many Biblical scholars have tried to debunk the Messianic story of Jesus by claiming that the notion of a dying and rising Messiah is actually just a story borrowed and then employed by Jesus' followers to perpetuate the myth that Jesus was the Messiah.
"Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism," [a Biblical Scholar] said.
"This should shake our basic view of Christianity," [a Biblical Scholar] said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University. "Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

New Atheist Rebuttals (6)

Hitchens' Childhood Epiphany

Christopher Hitchens begins his screed against God and religion by recounting his awakening, as a 9-year old "insufferable little intellectual," to the "overreaching" comment of his grade school teacher, Mrs. Watts. The statement that is burned into Hitchens' memory from that day is this: In an attempt to ...
fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher, she said, "So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to the eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be."
Assertion: I have to note that Hitchens is charitable in his assessment of Mrs. Watts. His only description of her is as a kind and loving woman with sincere motives. But Hitchens' memory of this incident is that he was "appalled" by what she said. Knowing nothing of the argument from design, the claims of Darwinian Evolution, or any of the related issues, Hitchens remembers that he "simply knew, almost as if [he] had privileged access to a higher authority, that [his] teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences. The eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way around."

This epiphany led him to notice other "oddities" over the next few years, such as (to list some):
  • If God is the creator of all things, why should we praise him incessantly for doing what came to him naturally?
  • If Jesus could heal a blind person, why not heal blindness?
  • With all this continual prayer, why no result?
  • Why was the subject of sex considered so toxic? (Note: remember this one for later!)
Response: If Hitchens is not embellishing (and I will assume he is not), you have to admit that these are some pretty precocious observations for a nine to thirteen year-old to make. But what interests me is not only that Hitchens readily admits that these are "childish" and "commonplace" objections -- but that he still holds them.

Each of the four bulleted items above is related to either the "problem of evil" or centers on the fact that the God to whom theists appeal is not the kind of God Hitchens would like him to be. Each of these come out in his book in more sophisticated, but no less defensible, terms. He just can't bring himself to believe in a God that would make the world this way. None of us "like" some of these things. But for such an intelligent person, you would think that he would realize that there are legitimate reasons to see the following ...
  • A perfectly holy God is perfectly within his "rights" to seek praise and we, being imperfect creations of his, would have no reason to deny it -- beyond our own overblown sense of self-worth or rebellion.
  • Perhaps God has a reason for allowing blindness. Sight is a gift. It is not required for survival. Easy for me to say of course because neither I, nor anyone I know, is blind -- but there are many reasons that someone could be blind. None of them, however, hinge on the reality of the existence of a loving God.
  • How does Hitchens know there is "no result" to prayer? What if two people are praying for contradictory results, with insincere motivation, or for answers that would be against God's sovereign will? The truth is that neither Hitchens, nor anyone else, knows whether there are results to prayer, or whether there will be results in the future.
  • Toxic sex? There is nothing in the Bible that deems sex "toxic." Has Hitchens ever read Song of Solomon, for heaven's sake?! What can be toxic are the results that follow from immoral and/or aberrant sexual behavior. That can be toxic ... and for many legitimate reasons.
I'm trying to keep this short but I would also like to address Hitchens' original disgust with his teacher's assertion that the color of vegetation was made to be pleasing to the human eye ... and Hitchen's counter that it is obviously and exactly the other way around.

I won't argue for or against the design of the human eye here. But what I would like to point out is an insight that J. P. Moreland brought to my attention in class several years ago at Biola University ...

There is no color in an electron, or a proton, or an atom, or in any of the bits of matter that make up this universe. So the "stuff" that makes up the universe is colorless. Why then, does anything have color at all? It is not a requirement for existence, that's for sure. Things have color because they emit, or reflect certain wavelengths of light. But a wavelength is just an arbitrary unit of measurement assigned by scientists. Wavelengths don't have "color."

Color, in other words, seems to be an arbitrary feature of the universe with no reason for its existence. "Maybe," J. P. said, "God just added color to the creation to make it more enjoyable for us."

Now Hitchens would never accept that as an explanation. And I wouldn't offer it as a defense of the design of my eyes, or the vegetation I like to look at. But it is interesting to ponder. And I bet Mrs. Watts would think so too.