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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Blank slates, babies and beyond: of evolution and epistemology (part VIII of VIII)

8.  My final question then: how does the personal arise from the impersonal, if not by the Personal?  (and along with this comes all the important questions about dignity and worth that come with that term “person”) And here, scientists will go on to talk about the emergence of life, consciousness, self-awareness, etc.  Many today will attribute personhood to animals as well, as opposed to being an exclusive quality of human beings.

See part I (addresses issue that this series of posts is not really about infant faith and theology), part II, part III, part IV, part V, part VI. and part VII

OK, so of the three positions I mentioned way back in the first post, which do I believe?  Here’s how you can find out the answer to that question.  According to the New Testament documents, what did Jesus seem to believe about the creation of humankind (the first man and woman), marriage, the fall, death, the flood, etc?  If you can figure out the answer to this question, you can figure out which of the three positions I think is right.  Though I want to have courage to use my own understanding, I also want to trust the living not the dead: in other words, the Resurrected Guide and His judgment and knowledge.  In fact, even if I don’t feel like doing this, I am convicted that I must.  Think this is just all about you and your reason?  Think again, child of the Enlightenment.  :  )

Ultimately, I really want to get people talking about Jesus: who was He, and what does His life mean.  Along these lines, I do not think that it is rational at all to believe Jesus Christ did not exist (as this is not even a respected minority position among historians across a broad spectrum of beliefs), which I am hearing more and more frequently from some of the more radical new atheists…

All this said, the more I learn about this topic, the more I feel like I know next to nothing.   Seriously.  This can be a very difficult conversation to have, not only because of the stakes (“No creation, no Adam; no Adam, no Fall; no Fall, no sin; no sin, no need for a Savior.  Thus is the axe laid to the root of the cross” [Baue, Frederic W, Creation: a Literary, Apologetic, and Doctrinal Approach, 2010]), but also because so much background knowledge is really being assumed, and the nuances involved with the evidence being discussed are rarely well understood.  Trust me – we trust others – both for evidence and interpretation/judgment – far more than we think we do.

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Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Blank slates, babies and beyond: of evolution and epistemology (part VII of VIII)

7) The very act of constructing a theory to explain man’s existence belies an inherent theism within man which evolution is hard-pressed to justify.

I will use famous atheist Richard Dawkin’s words against him: he calls people who are concerned to say that evolution is true “pedants” – a pedant is someone who is overly concerned with formalism and precision….  Evidently, he has a different idea of the value of truth – and speaking truth – than I do (see the whole interesting piece here).  I think seeking the truth is very important.  But perhaps Dawkin’s comments should not be surprising, since the only “purpose” or “function” of evolution (it can’t really be said to have these things, being impersonal and purposeless and unguided as it is) in his view is for us to be able to survive and pass on our genetic material (he says this is why we are here today).  In other words, to be or not to be: will our genes be selected by the mindless natural process of evolution?  That is the question.  What we ultimately need, evidently – what ultimately drives us (whether unconsciously or consciously) – is not really related to knowing any deeper truth about reality at all (“Truth”), but rather effective know-how and strategies (as we deal practically with tools and socially and politically with people) for gene-propagating machines.  In short, pure pragmatism (we do what works).  In other words, given the ultimately unguided and purposeless essence of the natural processes, this would seem to mean that there is nothing intrinsic about things like beauty, justice, love and meaning – but rather that these things are largely decided upon by us with those whom we choose to associate and align ourselves with.  There would be no truth greater than this.  I suppose we would would call this “Truth”

But of course, this also means that our sensory and rational powers must be explained as being “creations” of a mindless, purposeless, and unguided process. According to modern evolutionary theory, living beings are “selected” if they survive to pass on their genes (with some luck – not all the “strong” survive their circumstances in this harsh world), not their ability to know the Truth which will set them free!  In this framework, why should we assume that any living being should be capable of producing complicated theories and models that are accurate representations of reality that have no obvious immediate survival value?  We weren’t intentionally designed to do this by Anybody, after all – Dawkins tells us that we must see apparent design in the biological things around us for what it really is – an illusion – at least insofar as using the world “design” implies an actual mind, or intelligence in the process (analogizing the “design” of biological entities to things like Mt. Rushmore or an arrowhead, or appealing to the assumptions of NASA’s SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] program is only a rhetorical trick of creationists).

Here’s a thought experiment to flesh this out a bit: If we were produced because of the survival of our genes and exist for the survival of our genes, why should we expect our powers of sense and reason to be useful when it comes to anything higher than this – like beginning to understand what the real truth about reality is (“Truth”), for instance?  Giving the nod to “common sense realism” we might still be able to agree with most any other human being that knowing some basic facts or “truths” (little t) on the ground might have some obvious, immediate survival value, for instance, when we both immediately respond to the sight of the hungry tiger and run away.  But why would our evolved (and evolving) reason and sense “equipment” be useful for anything more complicated and abstract than this – and if it seems to be, why should we trust it? Why, for instance, would paleontologists who postulate that a bone with fresh dino blood and vessels is 65 million years old based on their understanding of radiometric dating methods, the geological column, taxonomy, and sequences of “index” fossils be more readily favored and selected by the evolutionary process over the practical geologists who learn to efficiently mine and refine iron, making weapons of war? (let’s assume these geologists aren’t barbarians and also have great social skills, which no doubt, are as valuable if not more valuable than tool making).  Is there any way to definitively prove that we, in our scientific explanations, are capable of producing complicated theories and models that even begin to be accurate representations of reality – precisely since many of these explanations do not have any obvious, immediate survival value?  It is not clear to me that it would be possible to prove this.  Perhaps the following is an answer?: Evolution “knew we were coming”, and blessed us with these powers of discernment that would seem to go beyond its humble “purposes” of (strivings for) mere survival – and on top of this, even predestined some lucky ones (perhaps some like Stephen Hawking) with the potential powers of mind to really uncover the truth about reality? (which could have *some* survival value, right?)  But now, given the supposedly humble premises of the evolutionary explanation, are we are not only getting into wishful thinking but also attributing the qualities of Mind to this process, and so it would seem, getting Personal!?

In this case then, taken to its logical conclusion from its premises, evolution does not seem to be so incompatible with religion after all.

Taking things further: at the very least, the immediate survival value of these things (i.e. the theories and models and/or the ability to make them) is not obvious to many of us, much less so to a mindless and impersonal process like evolution.  But here is another explanation: it is, in a sense, obvious in a counter-intuitive way.  For example, perhaps one may argue that it is obvious that persons who come up with complicated and abstract scientific explanations with no obvious, immediate survival value have begin to be selected by the evolutionary process – because it is clear to at least some human beings that these explanations may often have potential usefulness (as intelligent humans have begin to be able to control their own evolution, and have begin to have a hand in the selection process) and hence these persons are selected by other intelligent human beings (who have not only good basic survival skills, but are entrepreneurs when it comes to finding new ones)!  But then we are left with this: we are not necessarily talking about the truth about reality (“Truth”), or even about the probability of this or that scientific explanation being an accurate representation of some aspect of reality or reality as a whole, but rather the idea that certain combinations of our genes and social realities (including individual efforts) help us learn to create not only simple tools that work with simple facts that can clearly help us survive (because they are readily understood and people can readily have confidence in them, and hence desire them) but also complicated theories and models (or “mental maps”) that work to explain networks of facts that *may*, in some way, help us survive.  In other words, everything is about effective know-how and strategies for survival, not knowing the truth about reality.  Although our complicated and abstract scientific explanations might seem to have something to do with the truth about reality, there is no plausible or compelling reason that they, ultimately, need to have anything to do with getting closer to the Truth “out there”.  In this case, given that we have evolved to survive and pass on our genes, we are left with the interesting point that the importance of the reality within us – our internal powers that navigate us in the world – seems to trump the reality outside of us (the “Truth”).  Whatever gets the job done is the key.  Hence, as Dawkins says, only pedants are concerned with “the truth of evolution”.

In this case then, taken to its logical conclusion from its premises, evolution does not seem to be so incompatible with that most ancient form of pragmatism: magic.

In sum:  Why should it matter whether our reason and senses can accurately map reality or not?  What is ultimately important is that they exist to help us survive – and if this means they will “deceive” “us” (what are “we” anyway?) from time to time, perhaps that is for the best.  And in the end, if it is true that we exist to pass on our genes, I wonder what would really be so objectionable about those who succeed in this game calling themselves “gods”… gods who will eat, drink, and be merry until they die (until that can be conquered!).  Just like some of the gods of the ancient world emerged from the eternal elements of the water and earth, so to, may we… Evolutionary thinking undercuts the value of the powerful concept of truth.  Ironically, it would seem to only be a theistic view of the creation (which includes God’s endowing us with reliable powers of sense and reason, or our “epistemic equipment”) that would give us reason for having confidence in our theories or models as “maps” that help us get closer to the Truth “out there”.

See part I (addresses issue that this series of posts is not really about infant faith and theology), part II, part III, part IV, part V, and part VI.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Blank slates, babies and beyond: of evolution and epistemology (part VI of VIII)

6) Also, there is always an element of trust in all this…  and I think that both sides in this battle are really talking about the nature of historical knowledge (and we need to decide which accounts of history we are going to trust or keep trusting, and why).  Again, Evolution writ large is an idea with a massive historical component, and here it involves lots of interpretation of fossil and geological evidence (although the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins is now saying that this particular evidence is not really important anymore at all, since there is other evidence for evolution that seals the deal).  We cannot repeat the origin of the universe or the species in a lab.  In other areas of science, there is much that is replicable, or repeatable, and this creates confidence.  But when it comes to scientists as regards history, how much can we, or they, trust their judgment?  Who do we trust when it comes down to determining what has happened from the beginning of space and time (and what it means)?

It is not only creationists who make points like this:

Science needs objective criteria to rank the value of predictions and observations without the appeals to authority inherent in peer review or “scientific consensus.” Observations that are experimentally repeatable should rank higher than historical observations whose repeatability is limited by increasing entropy. Specific predictions regarding future events should rank higher than expectations of future discoveries of pre-existing evidence. Thus, the science of natural law is inherently more objective than scientific descriptions of natural history.

What is the benefit of pretending that science provides the same high levels of certainty in historical theories of origins (species, universe, solar system) as the more objectively and repeatably testable quantum electrodynamics and classical mechanics (within their well-established areas of applicability)?

http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0812/0812.4932.pdf

In my view, this all has to do with trust.  First of all, I think historians, more than scientists, are the experts when it comes to telling me about the past.  Further, I think that prehistory, or history before human writing, is only able to “tell” us so much.  In short, I think what cosmologists, archaeologists, geologists and paleontologists do is more limited in scope than what is often assumed, because complex interpretation, involving all manner of assumptions and presuppositions are involved (this is not to say that they cannot tell us some very important things definitively, or that their methods are altogether without value – hardly) – i.e. this is “model” stuff (see above).  Historians certainly make assumptions as well, but historians have an advantage: they really deal not with “prehistory” but history, meaning the writings of people who were really there.  Here, we are dealing with people who left writings that can be of great assistance in helping us to interpret the evidence we uncover.  Their writing can “testify” to the truth.  Although there is no doubt that the remains of bones, statues, buildings, pottery and arrowheads may certainly illuminate historical texts, I think that, generally speaking, historical texts illuminate the remains of these things even more.  In short, the value of this recorded human communication for helping to discern the truth about the past is inestimable and irreplaceable.  Then, for me, the question simply comes down to which historians I am going to trust – and here of course, we get into questions of character, wisdom and knowledge.  Historians don’t just tell us what happened, but what they think probably happened, why things happened like they did, and to a greater or lesser extent, what they think it all means.

Without a doubt: in the end, what we believe about history – what we think is true about history – what we think we can and should confidently determine and even assert is true (and false) about history (perhaps in spite of our very real doubts), does have a significant impact in determining how we think we should live our lives in the here and now.  This is clearly the case regarding our own personal history in this world, i.e. what we know – or think we know (some may be more confident about this than others!) – about from where we originally came (in the case of parents) and have come from (understood as the time from our birth until now) has a momentous impact in how we see ourselves and know ourselves. In like fashion, what we believe about where the universe came from (in the case of its beginning) and has come from (understood as the time from that beginning until now) will impact us, regardless of how aware of this we are or not.

And just as a person may not even begin to question the fact that her parents love (i.e. desire for and action towards her “good” in a way that also exhibits faithfulness, commitment, personal sacrifice, etc.) her unless someone can produce evidence that is, on the face of it, immediately compelling and seemingly damning (i.e. unless they have this she will not even begin to question her personal history), in like fashion, a person may not even begin to question the fact that Christ is risen in the absence of this kind of evidence.  Much of what we are confident is true is never or cannot be proven, and what we know is, quite frankly, what we have yet to be shown is false.

 

See part I (addresses issue that this series of posts is not really about infant faith and theology), part II, part III, part IV, and part V

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Blank slates, babies and beyond: of evolution and epistemology (part V of VIII)

5) Young earth creationists will point out all kinds of things that upset the apple cart: for example, geologists in the past emphasized and taught uniformitarian principles as the key to understanding the geological column (for example, with the Grand Canyon).  Now, influenced by the actual observation of catastrophic events and their results (like Mt. St. Helens), the pendulum has swung and much of the geological record is thought to have been caused by catastrophes (like floods, perhaps?) – which has implications for the fossil record.  They also like to point out other things: how quickly things can fossilize or from which were previously asserted to take long periods of time ; how in the Bible, when God creates, in other places in the Bible, He makes things “fully formed”, i.e. with the appearance of age ; accounts worldwide of a global deluge ; interesting features in geological formations like polystrata fossils ; the adaptability that is already present within a species (prime example: bulldogs and greyhounds can breed ; as can tea cup poodles and St. Bernards [genetically at least] – consider that their skeletons will look nothing alike though…) ; the fact that genetic codes seems to taking on more and more harmful mutations (i.e. we have devolution, not evolution) ; carnivores who don’t eat meat but vegetables ; lions and tigers who can breed ; the discovery of fresh dinosaur bones with intact red blood cells, etc.  Within the evolutionary framework, or model, all of these things are problematic to a greater or lesser degree – but they make perfect sense in a creation model.  So yes, I think there is evidence for this position as well.

More on Monday.

See part I (addresses issue that this series of posts is not really about infant faith and theology), part II, part III, and part IV

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Blank slates, babies and beyond: of evolution and epistemology (part IV of VIII)

4) I also think that the concept of “The Laws of Nature” is, at best, a “useful fiction”.  Strictly speaking, I question the wisdom of using the whole idea of “Laws of Nature”.  On the other hand, I would prefer to speak about “regularities in Creation”, and think that we have very good reason for suspecting that the success of modern science is mostly due to Christians who believed that God arranged the universe such that we would be able to discover these regularities, and harness them (and so, the ancient knowledge that good boats will always float and the starts will always follow their pattern has been supplemented with harness-able knowledge that even a few years back was beyond our imaginations).  This certainly approximates the views of 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon, who is often called the father of modern science (Roger Bacon, centuries earlier, was not insignificant either).  Illustration:  Parents arrange things in a consistent fashion so that a child can be captivated, play, create and experiment on the one hand, and they arrange things and *act* in a consistent fashion so that the child feels security, stability, and confidence, on the other hand.  Arranging things in a consistent fashion – more or less so – depending on what we are talking about, and acting in a consistent steadfast fashion is a part of love.  Creating beauty and order for another is a fruit of love.  In other words, order is born of love, not love of order – or from a love of order!  As the linguist, Roy Harris perceptively notes, communicative behavior cannot arise from non-communicative behavior.  There must be an infrastructure in place from the beginning.  This matter does not center around the fact that truth is a social construct instead of some cold and impersonal correspondence, or something like that – but that how we conceive of and describe reality can’t not be done personally, socially.  And such should not surprise, because Reality is personal, is social (rooted as it is in the Reality of the Triune God).  And this in turn brings us back to Romans 1.  It is not that there is nothing to the idea that order=God, but rather that order can’t not be recognized as a fruit of love.  One’s proof of God does not begin by saying “Someone must have made this”, but rather by the love that one does know.  Design can’t not be personal: saying something like “intelligent design” is simply redundant.  And I would venture that any infant that has people who love him/her subconsciously understands this (children naturally gravitate towards belief in God).

Excellent quote from a Christian author that relates to this, and powerfully sums things up:

Some see miracles as an implausible suspension of the laws of the physical universe.  As signs, though, they serve just the opposite function.  Death, decay, entropy, and destruction are the true suspensions of God’s laws; miracles are the early glimpses of restoration.  In the words of Jurgen Moltmann, “Jesus’ healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world.  They are the only ‘natural’ things in a world that is unnatural, demonized, and wounded.” (Yancey, Philip, The Jesus I Never Knew, 183, 1995)

See part I (addresses issue that this series of posts is not really about infant faith and theology) and part II, and part III.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Blank slates, babies and beyond: of evolution and epistemology (part III of VIII)

3) I am keen to use the word “models”, because all of this talk about the validity of different scientific theories can get very complicated – even when dealing with what we usually call the hard sciences. It seems clear that the simple theory that objects of differing mass will fall at the same speed (in a vacuum, i.e. to account for wind resistance due to the shape of an object) is readily verified wherever one may be on earth.  As to exactly how this happens – and for what reasons – more can, and has been said, and here, of course, we get into more abstract notions and interpretation (often involving complex mathematics, calculus, etc.).   More complex and robust theories are not as straightforward for the common man of course, as again, they require much more background knowledge, abstract and critical thinking, and hence, more interpretation. (in Isaac Asimov’s view, “once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve.  Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete… Copernicus switched from an earth-centered planetary system to a sun-centered one. In doing so, he switched from something that was obvious to something that was apparently ridiculous. However, it was a matter of finding better ways of calculating the motion of the planets in the sky, and eventually the geocentric theory was just left behind. It was precisely because the old theory gave results that were fairly good by the measurement standards of the time that kept it in being so long.”).  When considering the great scientific theories of Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics, for example, this is certainly the case. The validity of these complex and broadly-encompassing theories, rest in large part on repeating highly controlled experiments successfully from various angles, as well as the theory’s overall explanatory power (of the evidence we find) and ability to make useful and testable predictions (as the well-known philosopher of science Karl Popper points out, theories help us to see new problems where none have been seen before and also help us to find new ways of solving them) – and there is of course, their corresponding usefulness for applications in the real world (which often takes some imagination, of course).  However, I think it is reasonable, and perhaps even obvious, to submit that as regards scientific theories vis a vis general or ordinary knowledge (like the fact that you and I can agree it is raining outside, or that objects of varying mass fall at the same speed), matters of proper interpretation of the world we experience can become more tenuous as one moves up in levels of critical reflection, context, generalization, extrapolation, and abstraction – and even more so when we are dealing with models.

The second half of this show is helpful: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00vhhjm

See part I (addresses issue that this series of posts is not really about infant faith and theology) and part II

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Blank slates, babies and beyond: of evolution and epistemology (part II of VIII)

2) I am not a practicing scientist (though I have a biology and chemistry degree) but think it is reasonable to classifiy “scientific things” in terms of observations, hypotheses, theories, and models.  For example, theories, in my view, are stated ideas of varying complexity about observable, testable, and replicable regularities, including the thing(s) that causes these regularities – and these theories have more or less wide impact and applicability when it comes to practical problem-solving (explaining data, making predictions, or implying things about the world that we may not yet have observed).  Models, on the other hand, are hypothetical guesses about how many [or all!] things work together based on the best and most complete use of what is believed to be reliably known, and which, strictly speaking, cannot be reproduced/replicated by scientific methods of investigation.  This would not be to knock models as scientific explanations (i.e. all scientific explanations, in order to be these, need to correspond with what we observe in the world around us – the evidence, or data, corresponds to, or is consistent with, a theory or model[i]), but simply to make what I think is a reasonable distinction.  Although evolutionists may indeed be able to predict some things on the basis of their explanation – and then find confirmations of things that confirm their predictions – I would say that because of Evolution’s inescapable historical component (note the large E, meant to illustrate evolution as a master idea that helps us to explain things throughout history), it is more of a model than a theory.  I recognize that different disciplines would have different ideas about what a theory or model consists of, but I think overall, my definitions above can be useful when it comes to scientific ideas in particular (see next point).  Further, I do not believe that I am denigrating science when I state these things, but rather simply reminding us to be humble when we think about our scientific explanations.

part I
 
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Posted by on March 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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