Monday, November 22, 2010

Holy War?

Every Monday, the last page (The Forum) of USA Today's front (blue) section runs an opinion piece that focuses on religious issues. Here is the lead in they use to describe that column:
On Religion :: Faith. Religion. Spirituality. Meaning.
In our ever-shrinking world, the tentacles of religion touch everything from governmental policy to individual morality to our basic social constructs. It affects the lives of people of great faith — or no faith at all. This series of weekly columns — launched in 2005 — seeks to illuminate the national conversation.

If you have ever considered starting a blog about religious/worldview topics, you could keep yourself very busy responding to the nonsense that appears in this weekly column. Though there are occasionally some decent, thoughtful editorials presented here, a vast majority of the time this is not the case.

I have read, and commented on, several of these columns but I do not believe I have ever seen a more arrogant, vacuous, or poorly-presented "argument" than the example that appeared recently about the supposed "war" between science and religion, "Science and Religion Aren't Friends".

There is nothing new or unique in this piece. The attitude of the author is a little worse than most -- he doesn't even pretend to try to do the topic justice or offer a thoughtful analysis. But, I guess that's what you should expect when the credentials of the one chosen to engage the unwashed masses in a "conversation" about religion and science is: "a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago (Jerry A. Coyne), whose latest book is titled: Why Evolution is True."

Sounds like he'd be evenhanded, doesn't it?

That brings me to the first point I'd like to make:

Most scientists are incapable of addressing
the relationship between science and religion.

To be fair, so are most theologians. The reason for this is that the relationship between science and religion is neither scientific, nor theological. The point of contention is the relationship between the two ... and that is a philosophical point.

Case in point: Coyne tells us that "Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth." And how does Coyne tell us this works? By the scientific method, of course. "The methods of science," he says, "help us distinguish real truth from what we only want to be true."

To Coyne, the only way to find truth is by utilizing the scientific method of inquiry. So let's apply his claim to his own statement. How would we determine whether or not his claim that -- "the methods of science ... distinguish real truth from what we only want to be true," -- is true or false? What scientific experiment could we devise to test that claim?

Answer: None.

This is not tricky or elusive. It is just a plain fact. Coyne's claim cannot be tested by the scientific method because it is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. In fact, it appears to be a claim that Coyne "only wants to be true."

If you are going to run an "illuminating conversation" about the relationship between faith and science, you need to have some kind of philosopher writing it -- someone like say, a philosopher of science. If you can't have that, the least you could do is have whoever it is writing the piece actually try to address the philosophical issues that are in debate. You certainly shouldn't have a scientist (or a theologian) pontificating about why only their discipline has the only right answers.

There is plenty more to address in this article and I plan to do so in some follow-on posts. But, before getting to those, we have to understand that the main thrust of Coyne's assertion is self-refuting. Science cannot, even in principle, be the only source of truth because, as Frank Turek often puts it, "science doesn't say anything, scientists do." Scientists, like everybody else, are biased in their own perception of what the scientific data is telling them by their own philosophical presuppositions.

Science is the child of philosophy. More on that next time ...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Craig, Wolpe & Geivett -vs- Dawkins, Shermer & Ridley

For those who may be interested, this debate took place in Mexico last week. I leave the listener/reader to decide which team offered compelling arguments and which team offered empty assertions and sarcasm. Yes, the question betrays my own opinion and, yes, I am biased.

The players ...

William Lane Craig: PhD, Philosophy (University of Birmingham, England); PhD, Theology (University of Munich, Germany). Author of Reasonable Faith (and several other books)

Douglas Geivett: PhD, Philosophy (University of Southern California). Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics at the Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Rabbi David Wolpe: Rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and considered the leader of "the conservative Jewish movement."

Richard Dawkins: PhD, (Zoology) Balliol College Oxford, England. Author of The God Delusion and, more recently, The Greatest Show on Earth.

Michael Shermer: PhD (History of Science) Claremont Graduate University. Founder and Publisher of Skeptic Magazine.

Matt Ridley: PhD (Zoology) Magdalene College Oxford, England. Science journalist.

[The introduction is in Spanish but hang in there, the debaters are speaking English!]

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Readback, Hearback

"It sounds different when you say it that way!"
In the aviation business, we have a formality that many times seems cumbersome and uncalled for ... until you remember its purpose. The practice I'm talking about is called, "Readback, Hearback" (RH) and it has saved more lethal outcomes than we would ever be able to know.

RH is simply this: When an air traffic controller gives an aircraft instructions to follow, the pilot is required to repeat back the instructions as they were given. The controller then verifies that the pilot heard the instructions correctly and clears the aircraft to maneuver. Finally, the pilot acknowledges the clearance and complies with it.

As you can see, this practice can sometimes result in four radio transmissions for, say, a simple change of altitude. Yes, it is cumbersome. But the reasoning behind it is that it verifies that both parties to the conversations are very clear about what is being said before any direct action is taken. At every point in the dialogue, the participants can clarify the instructions. It keeps airplanes from occupying the same airspace at the same time -- a result that can obviously prove to be disastrous.

So what does this have to do with my discussion here?

In the week leading in to the mid-term elections, a young blogger with whom I am acquainted posted his thoughts about all things political. The post gave all the reasons why he was fed up with both political parties. As a way of demonstrating his independent thinking, he used the abortion issue as an example of how he differed with both of them. Here (cut and pasted) is his central argument against the party that is usually considered to be pro-life.
"I do have a moral opposition to abortion. A strong one, in fact. However, I disagree that the solution is to make abortion illegal. Rather, better educational opportunities and focus on family growth will lead to less abortions and a healthier society. Like we saw with prohibition in the 1920s, making something illegal doesn't make it go away. And besides, there are some scenarios (such as a woman who became pregnant after being raped or engaging in incest, or a situation where the life of the mother is in danger) in which I could not in good conscience make abortion illegal. Do I think it is abhorrent and terrible? Yes. I am in favor of limiting late term abortions as much as possible. If a consensus can be reached in the larger community about when life begins, I believe abortion can be limited to before that moment. While I believe that life begins at conception, that is not a belief I can force on others. Legislating morality is not the answer - which means that the core of the Republican party and I do not agree."
To the untrained ear, the argument may sound reasonable and "moderate." But I thought it would be instructive to put the argument to a "Readback, Hearback Test." So, I cut-and-pasted the argument into the comment section of his blog -- with one minor exception. I replaced the word "abortion" with the word "slavery" and offered him the following hypothetical example to let him hear what he just said in a different way:
HYPOTHETICAL SITUATION: It is 1860 and President Lincoln gives a speech in which he says the following:
"I have a moral opposition to slavery. A strong one, in fact. However, I disagree that the solution is to make slavery illegal. Rather, better educational opportunities and a focus on alternative economic growth issues will lead to less slavery and a healthier society. Making something illegal doesn't make it go away. And besides, there are some scenarios (such as a slaveowner who is having a hard time making ends meet, or whose slaves were bequeathed to him by his ancestors) in which I could not in good conscience make slavery illegal. Do I think slavery is abhorrent and terrible? Yes. I am in favor of limiting slavery as much as possible ... While I believe that slavery is immoral, that is not a belief I can force on others. Legislating morality is not the answer - which means that the core of the Republican party and I do not agree."
Maybe, for good measure, Lincoln would also add: "For those who object to my reasoning, I understand. But if you think owning slaves is immoral, don't own one."
QUESTION: Do you think Lincoln's argument is reasonable and should be accepted by the abolishionists?
When you hear it put that way, an uncommitted "moderate" stance against slavery doesn't seem so reasonable. So, why is it reasonable and "moderate" to hold the exact same view about abortion?

It isn't.

The only reason it ever has been considered so is because we have been conditioned (rightly) to see slavery as being morally reprehensible for its denial of dignity, respect and protection to those who deserve each of those things simply in virtue the kind of thing they are -- distinct, whole, living human beings. At the same time, we have been conditioned (wrongly) to deny the same moral status to the unborn. In other words, we can only hold such a view by looking past a cognitive dissonance that sees the unborn as something other than a human being.

So, do some pilot stuff -- practice "Readback, Hearback" with those who make these kind of claims about the unborn. Make them acknowledge and verify exactly what they have just said by putting it in a context that makes it sound as ludicrous to them as it does to you. It makes for safer maneuvering around the battlefield of ideas.

And the life you save just might be one that is powerless to save itself.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mildred Jefferson

From National Review's The Week:
When Mildred Jefferson graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1951 -- the first black woman to do so -- she took the Hippocratic Oath. Jefferson believed in it, and believed it prohibited the taking of life, so two decades later, when the AMA declared that physicians could ethically perform abortions, she became one of the founders of the National Right to Life Committee. She remained active in NRLC and other pro-life groups until her death on October 15, 2010.
A surgeon, she was renowned for her energy, her stirring oratory, and her tireless dedication to the cause. Perhaps her most concise explanation of why she felt so strongly came in a 2003 article:
"I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have a right to live."
When she testified before Congress in 1981 about a pro-life bill sponsored by Jesse Helms and Henry Hyde, Jefferson was no less blunt:
"With the obstetrician and mother becoming the worst enemy of the child and the pediatrician becoming the assassin for the family, the state must be enabled to protect the life of the child, born and unborn."
RIP ...

Friday, November 5, 2010

Off Center

The Geocentric Model
 [ ... this is the final post in a series that began here ... ]

There were two other main points my reader wanted me to consider in his appeal. Both were contained in separate booklets he included in the package he mailed to me. The most astounding one was a booklet titled, "The Exegesis of Cosmological Passages Supporting Geocentricity."

I am not being sarcastic when I say that I literally could not follow the logic of this document but, from what I gather:
  1. The earth was created first, then the heavens, but both were created "from within the initial mass of water."
  2. The noun (shamayim erets) which names "the heaven(s) and the earth" demands that there are "two physical heavens."
  3. Psalm 147:15 ("his words run swiftly") means that God placed his "spinning power" only in the heavens.
All this (and more) to say that "the earth was not rotating or moving. Indeed, the earth was in no shape to do anything. It had nothing to hold it together. If it tried to spin in this condition, water and matter would make a muddy mess all over the universe."

This was all proven true by the Sagnac Experiment ("which measured the rotation of the aether of the Sun"), and the Michelson-Morley Experiment ("which measured the Earth's annual velocity around the Sun to be zero"). The conclusions of these confirmed that "the earth just won't move."

I am no physicist but I do know this -- Michelson and Morley were the first to accurately measure the speed of light. When they did, one of the things that led to their breakthrough was the realization that the long-assumed "aether" that everyone thought made up the stuff of outer space, actually did not exist. Michelson and Morley's work determined that the speed of light was constant -- a scientific fact that led to Einstein's Special Relativity Theory, and eventually to his General Relativity Theory.

Yet, here we are 120 years later being told that an experiment surrounding "the rotation of the aether of the Sun" helps prove that the Earth does not move. I also find it ironic that a short glance at a description of the Sagnac Effect shows that it is employed in current technology like ring lasers and inertial guidance systems "that need to take the rotation of the Earth into account in the procedures of using radio signals to synchronize clocks."

I honestly feel badly for folks like my reader/critic who are constrained by their own pre-ordained commitment to a young earth that they must insist that the earth is the unmoving center of the universe --  to insist that others also accept a "fact" that is so plainly false.

If your view of the world demands that you perform these kinds of mental gymnastics to prove it, you might want to reconsider what you are thinking. I'm not sure what else I could possibly say about that.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Age of the Earth (Part II)

... continued from last post (10/30/2010) ...

In addition to the Scriptural issues described last time, the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the OE view and therefore also aligns perfectly with the scientific evidence from God’s natural revelation. If we truly believe that all truth is God's truth, we have no reason to distrust valid scientific data that does not conflict with a valid interpretation of Scripture. As I've said before, the two complement one another in amazing ways.

If we do not trust the scientific data, we are forced to resort to claims like the ones my critic puts forth below. The irony here is that my YE friend accepts the fact that the universe looks old and "admit[s] that it is a serious problem." The question is, how do [YE] Creationists address this serious problem?

My critic offers three suggestions that I have heard before and two that I have never heard. First, the familiar explanations:
  1. The decreasing speed of light -- Because the speed of light has been gradually decaying, objects appear farther away than they actually are. There is little scientific evidence to support this claim. The minor deviations in our measurement of the speed of light cited by some cannot begin to account for the discrepancy between the roughly 14 billion year age of the universe claimed by modern science and the less than 10,000 year claim of YE creationists. 
  2. Time dilation in outer space -- Based on Einstein's General Relativity (GR) Theory, this is similar to the speed of light assertion -- that the universe simply appears older than it actually is. Again, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. Ironically, the concept of time dilation rests on an acceptance of GR which also happens to posit an expanding universe and therefore provides strong physical evidence for Big Bang Cosmology. This aspect of GR is what led Einstein to doubt (and modify) his own theory because he could not accept the divine implications of an expanding universe. He later described his modification as one of the worst mistakes of his life. So, I say it is ironic when YE proponents appeal to time dilation to buttress their case because by doing so they are also unwittingly accepting one aspect of the Big Bang -- a scientific theory  that YEs despise because, again, they claim it supports 'Evolution.' The materials my critic sent me do exactly this and specifically deny the expansion of the universe as being true.
  3. Starlight created in transit -- The starlight was created after the stars themselves or it was artificially made to look like the stars are older than they actually are. Once again, there is absolutely no scientific evidence for this claim. Additionally, one has to wonder why the God who we all accept as the source and standard for Truth would deliberately foist a deception like this on us -- and for what reason? In fairness, most reasonable YEs have abandoned this option.
This brings me to the unfamiliar points:
  1. "The Lord has put a shield in front of each star and each shield has a different color of the rainbow" -- The idea here is that these shields affect the brightness of the stars, thereby rendering them dimmer in appearance than they really are. This dimness makes them appear to be farther away than they actually are.
  2. The Bible tells us the approximate size of the universe directly (but only in the KJV) -- This distance is easily calculated as follows:
    • Reading Revelation 8:1 and 12:1 together tells us that, on the fourth creation day, "there was silence in heaven about the space of half and hour."
    • The speed of light is 186,000 miles/sec
    • 186,000 miles/sec x 60 sec/min x 30 mins = about 350 million miles to the "outmost parts of heaven" (re: Deuteronomy 30:4)
Because we "know" that the Earth is at the center of the universe (a later post will address this claim), the outer edges of the universe must lie just beyond this 350 million mile limit. This is offered as "proof" that the universe is orders of magnitude smaller than astronomers claim and therefore verifies that it is also orders of magnitude younger. As a point of reference, I would note that modern science -- by direct measurement -- puts the planet Jupiter at approximately 468 million miles away. Therefore, I leave it to my readers to evaluate the reasonableness of this claim.

Forget the actual numbers or the fact that these claims completely defy any of the actual findings of modern science. What I really object to here is the method involved. Because the hard core YE proponents see any acceptance of modern science or the OE view as a capitulation to 'Evolution' (as described in the previous post), and because the YE camp holds to a dogmatic insistence that its interpretation of the word yom is the only valid one, they are forced to offer these kinds of explanations to support their view.

In addition to that, the exegetical method of plucking Bible verses out of thin air and using them -- or even using phrases from them -- to make a scientific point strikes me as doing violence to Scripture. It is completely indefensible to ignore (or worse -- make up) the context just to suit your own personal, pre-ordained view of what the text "should" be saying. Using that method, one could make the Bible say anything they want it to say. The proof of that is in the pudding above.

My question is, why? Why does anyone find it more compelling, reasonable, or more in line with Biblical truth to have to concoct these kind of twisted explanations for things than to just accept the clear coherence we find between the findings of modern science and an equally valid (and, yes, "literal") translation of the Bible? I honestly don't get it.

I sincerely hope that my YE critics will weigh in on this and that we can engage in a productive and polite debate about these issues.