Monday, January 31, 2011

Relativism: Where Rational Thinking Goes To Die

For the next few posts, I am going to address the most ridiculous, frustrating approach to thinking the world has ever produced -- RELATIVISM -- and I am not exaggerating when I say that. I do this not to simply prove a point or engage in some kind of intellectual gymnastics. I do this because relativism is more than frustrating and vacuous; it is dangerous, not only to the church within which it has taken hold, but to society in general. Relativism is a cancer that is eating up the way people see the world and interact with one another in it. It is doing this because it is corrosive to the concept of truth itself, and therefore contrary to reality.

[For those who will want to dig further, I cannot recommend the book (cover to the right), Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted In Midair, highly enough. Frank Beckwith and Greg Koukl do a masterful job refuting every aspect of relativism in this short, readable, and highly impactful treatment that I found invaluable in helping to identify and respond to the silliness of relativism. Koukl also has a downloadable (.mp3 format) talk on his website here: The Bankruptcy of Relativism. This link is to Stand To Reason's secure website so you may have to register there to be able to download the talk -- registration is free.]

Some recent conversations I have had elsewhere about this topic have compelled me to talk about it here because the claims of relativists -- and the responses I have gotten to my challenges to those claims -- beg to be refuted and shown for what they are: utter nonsense. There is just no other way to put it. Unlike some of the relativists I have encountered, I will not identify the individuals who have made these claims because who they are has no bearing on the ideas they are trying to defend. As it has always been, my goal here is to challenge bad ideas, not embarrass the people who hold to them.

That said, I will not hesitate to quote these folks verbatim to demonstrate how truly ridiculous some of the things they say are. I can promise you that if I do quote someone here, I have not made the quote up. I don't need to. Those who attempt to defend relativism do just fine making their views sound silly all by themselves.

Relativism has been around for centuries but has gone more mainstream over the last three hundred years or so as "postmodern" philosophy came more into vogue. The philosophical road to postmodernity is complicated, but a simple model to understand what it is begins during the Enlightenment (roughly 17th -18th centuries). Because of the corruption in the church, and as a reaction against it, this was the first time in human history that divine revelation was dismissed as a way to know true things. In its place, human reason and science were elevated to almost (if not actual) divine status. This brought us "modernism" and our subsequent deification of science (labeled "scientism") as the only way to find the truth about anything.

Science seemed to work. It brought us the staggering worldly successes and the technology that we are all familiar with today. Unfortunately, "scientific" solutions were also brought to bear on social issues ... and those failed miserably. Think: the French Reign of Terror, Nazi eugenics, and Soviet communism. The devastating results of trusting science as the only source of knowledge of the truth -- and the only way to fix the world's ills -- led to skepticism about whether or not we could know anything for sure. Since revelation had long since been in doubt, and since science seemed to have also led us astray, some philosophers concluded that there was nothing we could trust for sure -- and this led to the philosophy that we refer to today as postmodernism.*

Here's the thing. Modernism was born because some abused the authority and power of the church. The church needed reformation, no doubt. Similarly, postmodernism was born because of the horrific failures of modernism, which also had problems that needed to be addressed. Postmodernism is a reaction against that -- and rightfully so. But the problem with each of these philosophical trends is that they are rooted in an incomplete view of the world. For this discussion, the important thing to remember is that postmodernism is characterized by an over-arching distrust of anything or anyone that claims to know true things.

Relativism is postmodernism's degenerate offspring.

Because of the general distrust inherent in postmodernism, anyone who makes truth claims about anything is met with suspicion at best, derision more likely. This is where we hear statements like: "There is no truth," "True for you maybe, but not for me," and "Who are you to impose your morality on me?"

It's not just that postmodernists (PM) distrust you if you make a truth claim, they think you are dangerous, oppressive, intolerant and/or arrogant for doing so. This view toward truth and ethics manifests itself in both veritical (truth-related) relativism (VR), and moral (or, more accurately, ethical) relativism (MR).

In the interest of not making these posts too long, I will begin to take those on next time.

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[* Those familiar with the history of philosophy will no doubt see this summary for what it is, simplistic and incomplete. That's OK. I'm not a philosopher. But my goal here is modest -- to trace the big picture as a means of understanding the foundations and motivations of postmodernism. For that, it's good enough.]


Friday, January 21, 2011

Chances Are ...

In August 2008, Francis Collins stepped down as the head of the Human Genome Project after serving in that position since 1993. Collins is a proud Christian who, even though he embraces the idea of full-fledged Darwinian common descent (which I reject for lack of evidence), has been a strong voice in the debate about the relationship between faith and science. We owe him a debt of gratitude, not just for his incredible leadership in the quest to decipher DNA, but for his defense of the Christian worldview as being intellectually viable in a culture that has been led to believe that science has rendered it impotent.

The end of Collins' tenure reminded me of an article I read in Touchstone magazine. The piece referred to an interview with Collins and "new atheist" Richard Dawkins that was published in Time magazine in November, 2006. That interview contained an exchange between the two that I think is worthy of comment. While considering the beginning of the universe and the possibility that a supernatural creator could have been responsible for it, we get the following:
DAWKINS: ... We are profoundly ignorant of these matters. We need to work on them. But to suddenly say the answer is God--it's that that seems to me to close off the discussion.

TIME: Could the answer be God?

DAWKINS: There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.

COLLINS: That's God.

DAWKINS: Yes. But it could be any of a billion Gods. It could be God of the Martians or of the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. The chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small--at the least, the onus is on you to demonstrate why you think that's the case ... we were talking about the origins of the universe and the physical constants, I provided what I thought were cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable--but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. I don't see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.
Today I want to address one simple point. Dawkins goes on, from the above quote, to dismiss the idea that the improbability of 6 physical constants (gravity being one, not sure of the other five he admits to) of the universe being "tweeked" exactly right for life to be possible is not very convincing to him. Apparently both Dawkins -- and Collins, who never corrected him on it -- are unaware that in 1961 there were two of these constants in play. By the 1970s, scientists had identified the six to which Dawkins appears to refer. The information below (provided by Reasons To Believe's, Hugh Ross) shows how the number of design features in the universe has grown over the years. Strikingly, it includes the probability that each of these features would occur at the same time in any universe.

In 1995 there were 41 features. The chances are 1-in-10 to the 31st

In 2000 there were 128 features. The chances are 1-in-10 to the 144th

In 2002 there were 202 features. The chances are 1-in-10 to the 217th

In 2004 there were 322 features. The chances are 1-in-10 to the 282nd

In 2006 there were 676 features. The chances are 1-in-10 to the 556th

That's right, as of four years ago astronomer Hugh Ross has identified 676! While improbability does not constitute an airtight argument, at some point such astronomical improbabilities would seem to approach an impossibility. In this case, Ross has calculated the probability at one-chance-in-10 to the 556th power that the constants that define our universe would be just the way they are so that life would exist anywhere.

But that's not all. The kind of life we are talking about is nothing but a permanently existing bacteria -- the simplest form of life. By contrast, the number of features required for advanced, high-tech, sentient human beings -- creatures like Richard Dawkins that wonder about these kinds of questions and are equipped to answer them -- is a mind-boggling 824, while the probability of all those features occurring in any universe is one-in-ten to the 1050th power.

That is one chance in 10 with one thousand and fifty zeroes after it!

These figures have only improved (for the theistic case) since the chart was published (I don't have the newest figures available as I write) but the trend is obvious.

By way of comparison, the number of atoms in the entire known universe is estimated to be 10 to the 80th power. Mathematicians consider odds of one-in-10 to the 50th power as the definition of an impossibility.

There are a couple observations to be made here about yet another claim made by the esteemed and often-quoted "new atheist" Richard Dawkins:

First, Richard Dawkins dismisses the "impossibility of six physical constants" as "unconvincing." I wonder if he is ignorant of the fact that his admission of just six constants is based on scientific data from 40 years ago, or if he knows it and just hopes that none of his listeners/readers will notice? Either way, one has to wonder why anyone takes Richard Dawkins seriously as a "scientist."

Second, Dawkins and his ilk would undoubtedly reply that no matter how improbable something is, that improbability does not mean it could not have happened. Fair enough. But which view has more evidence to support it? Dawkins continuously sings the refrain that theistic/religious people are irrational and dismiss the obvious scientific data that refutes their view.

I leave the reader to assess who sounds more reasonable in this case.

Later, I'll challenge the equally irrational and lame philosophical reasoning of another scientific giant -- Stephen Hawking.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Big Questions

A friend emailed me the other day with the following statement/question. Because I love talking about this kind of stuff, and because his observations were so good (and relevant to the blog), I decided to share both his comments, and my answer. I welcome discussing the issues involved here with anyone who wants to take the discussion further ...

COMMENT

The Universe is 13.7-14 Billion years old. The first stars lasted 10 billion years and seeded the organic material necessary to form the life producing second generation of solar systems and stars that are now 3-4 billion years old. Carbon, Amino acid precursors, etc, are being scanned spectroscopectively in nebulae. Early prebiotic compounds are being found among the earliest rock formations on Earth. All of this involves a brilliant, lengthy, "protection plan of evolving life" based using time and distance to ensure safety and development. Attribute the most complicated, sophisticated plan to God. Every time a scientist or a Humanist attributes a theory to Gaia or Carl Sagan, ask, if Gaia or Carl Sagan had a more sophisticated idea, why would that not be God? Evolution, as we vaguely understand, could that not be God's plan?! Why would He not use the most sophisticated means at His disposal to create and re-create?

I am constantly miffed by institutional science that declares the discovery of something earlier, more complicated or unexplained means God doesn't exist. If happenstance started everything, everything might be unsophisticated. If an ultimate and unlimited being created everything..........It would tend toward His image. Lots of open ground in this, but I'd like to know what you think.

RESPONSE

I don't see any reason why "evolution could not be God's plan," as you put it. But it depends what you mean by "evolution." I don't rule out evolution per se because of any preconception or presupposition. Many Christians think evolution is a dirty word and that considering it at all is heretical. I don't agree. I'm not afraid of science. I just want to find the truth. So, to do that I think we need to look at the evidence.

The evidence suggests that evolution occurs all the time in what we might call "micro-evolution." Environments change. Species adapt. There is no denying these things happen. But that is a far different thing from what I call "'Big 'E' Evolution" -- which is the theory that all that star dust (carbon etc.) you reference as being present in nebulae somehow formed complex, biochemical pathways that transformed non-life elements into complex life that then evolved into ... us. I don't see any evidence that that took place, or that it is possible even in principle.

Every form of evolutionary variation and adaptation we see runs up against limits and results in a breakdown or loss of information -- not a gain in information content. It just doesn't work. This is why you see evolutionary biologists punting on the issue of the Origin Of Life (OOL). Their data can't explain or justify it on Darwinian terms. That is why guys like Richard Dawkins have suggested that life originated elsewhere and then got transported here ("panspermia," they call it). But they seem oblivious to the fact that panspermia doesn't solve the problem -- it just pushes it back one more step.

Notice that Dawkins et al never deny the appearance of design. They see it too. They just refuse to accept anything but a natural explanation for it. They're constrained by their naturalistic presuppositions to do so.

So, to me adaptive "evolution" (little 'e') seems to be a reasonably logical demonstration of design. The wing of my airplane has to adapt to turbulence or it would snap off. It has to be able to bend and flex. It is designed to do so. Likewise, living things need to adapt to their changing surroundings to survive. But the ability to survive and live on does not explain OOL or the appearance of new kinds of life. All those elements you see in outer space were formed through billions of years of stellar births and deaths. But something had to transform those simple elements into what has become complex, sentient life forms. I don't see how any completely materialistic explanation can account for the non-material realities we live with every day -- laws of logic, numbers, ideas, thoughts, continuity of personhood, contemplating the future, moral realism etc.

I think all of these can only be explained by the direct intervention of a transcendent, non-material, intelligent, moral Source. Acknowledging that intervention is not anti-science. Likewise, acknowledging the natural phenomena that we observe over billions of years in a universe specifically designed for our existence is not anti-theistic. The evidence supports both ... so that's why I do the same.

If you want to read a great book that addresses all this stuff, check out Hugh Ross's, Why The Universe Is The Way It Is.Thanks for addressing some fascinating stuff. I wish more people would think about these things ... and I'm not sure why anyone talks about anything else :-)