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Origins + Science

Origins and Science

Stephen King on Mystery and God

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It’s a mystery. That’s the first thing that interests me about the idea of God. If there is one, it’s mysterious and powerful and awesome to even consider the concept, and you have to take it seriously. I understand where Bill Maher is coming from when he says, basically, the world is destroying itself over a bunch of fairy tales about talking snakes and men who are alive inside fishes. I’m very sympathetic to it, but at the same time, given the cosmos that we’re living in, it’s very persuasive, the idea that there is some kind of first cause that’s running things. It might not be the god of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, it might not be the god of al-Qaida, and it might not be the god of Abraham, but something very well could be running things. The order of the universe as we see it, the interlocking nature, and the way things work together, are persuasive of the idea that there may be some overarching first cause.

Angus Menuge on Inference to the Best Explanation

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It is possible that a materialistic explanation of consciousness might be found, but that does not make the claim that consciousness is non-physical an argument from ignorance… At any given time, scientists should infer the best current explanation of the available evidence, and right now, the best evidence from both neuroscience and rigorous philosophical analysis is that consciousness is not reducible to the physical. Churchland’s refusal to draw this inference is based not on evidence, but on what Karl Popper called “promissory materialism,” a reliance on the mere speculative possibility of a materialistic explanation. Since this attitude can be maintained indefinitely, it means that even if a non-materialist account is correct (and supported by overwhelming evidence), that inconvenient truth can always be ignored. Surely the project of science should be one of following the evidence wherever it leads, not of protecting a preconceived materialist philosophy. Isn’t it that philosophy — the one that constantly changes its shape to avoid engagement with troublesome evidence, either ignoring the data or simply declaring it materialistic — that most resembles a virus?

The Big Questions in Science and Religion

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Can religious beliefs survive in the scientific age? Are they resoundingly outdated? Or is there something in them of great importance, even if the way they are expressed will have to change in the new scientific context? These questions are among those at the core of the science-religion dialogue. In The Big Questions in Science and Religion, Keith Ward, an Anglican minister who was once an atheist, offers compelling insights into the often contentious relationship between diverse religious views and new scientific knowledge. He identifies ten basic questions about the nature of the universe and human life. Among these are: Does the universe have a goal or purpose? Do the laws of nature exclude miracles? Can science provide a wholly naturalistic explanation for moral and religious beliefs? Has science made belief in God obsolete? Are there any good science-based arguments for God? With his expertise in the study of world religions, Ward considers concepts from Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity, while featuring the speculations of cosmologists, physicians, mathematicians, and philosophers. In addition, Ward examines the implications of ancient laws and modern theories and evaluates the role of religious experience as evidence of a nonphysical reality. Writing with enthusiasm, passion and clarity, Keith Ward conveys the depth, difficulty, intellectual excitement and importance of the greatest intellectual and existential questions of the modern scientific age. The diversity of views provides the general reader as well as opinion leaders with unbiased information in the science-religion field. ~ Product Description

John G. West on Science Education

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Students need to know about the current scientific consensus on a given issue, but they also need to be able to evaluate critically the evidence on which that consensus rests. They need to learn about competing interpretations of the evidence offered by scientists, as well as anomalies that aren?t well explained by existing theories. Yet in many schools today, instruction about controversial scientific issues is closer to propaganda than education. Teaching about global warming is about as nuanced as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Discussions about human sexuality recycle the junk science of biologist Alfred Kinsey and other ideologically driven researchers. And lessons about evolution present a caricature of modern evolutionary theory that papers over problems and fails to distinguish between fact and speculation. In these areas, the “scientific” view is increasingly offered to students as a neat package of dogmatic assertions that just happens to parallel the political and cultural agenda of the Left. Real science, however, is a lot more messy — and interesting — than a set of ideological talking points. Most conservatives recognize this truth already when it comes to global warming. They know that whatever consensus exists among scientists about global warming, legitimate questions remain about its future impact on the environment, its various causes, and the best policies to combat it. They realize that efforts to suppress conflicting evidence and dissenting interpretations related to global warming actually compromise the cause of good science education rather than promote it. The effort to suppress dissenting views on global warming is a part of a broader campaign to demonize any questioning of the “consensus” view on a whole range of controversial scientific issues — from embryonic stem-cell research to Darwinian evolution — and to brand such interest in healthy debate as a “war on science.”

What Is a “Scientific Fact”? Won’t Plain Ol’ Facts Do?

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In the second chapter of The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that the “God Hypothesis” is a scientific question, susceptible to the weight of scientific evidence, both for and against. He strongly rejects the approach of those like Eugenie Scott and Stephen Jay Gould who would relegate the question of God to its own category, immune from the methods of scientific inquiry. Science and religion just aren’t talking about the same thing, they say. But in Dawkins’ view, “God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice.” (p. 73) Dawkins argues that, “the moment religion steps on science’s turf and starts to meddle in the real world” (p. 84, emphasis mine), any supposed demarcation between questions of science and questions of theology is erased. I agree, provided that we deal with Dawkins’ strong, implicit scientism. The Judeo-Christian religions are historical religions whose scriptures make countless claims about history in particular, but also to some extent about biology, cosmology, psychology, anthropology, and even God’s supposed interventions in the natural world. As such, this “God Hypothesis” is indeed open to critical inquiry, including scientific inquiry, and many Christian thinkers through the centuries have welcomed it and pursued it. The problem is Dawkins’ view that the answer to the God Hypothesis will be a “strictly scientific answer. The methods we should use to settle the matter […] would be purely and entirely scientific methods.” (pp. 82-83, emphasis mine) Here Dawkins is voicing a problematic epistemology that has been called “strong scientism”.

The Ad Hoc Multiverse

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In recent years, as our deepening understanding of the delicate complexity of the universe continues unabated, Naturalists are increasingly turning to “multiverse” hypotheses to blunt or dodge the force of fine-tuning and teleological arguments for the existence of a Designer. Roughly, the idea is that, parallel to the universe we inhabit, there exists an infinite series of universes, each of which is different from our own in at least one respect. In the multiverse, every contingent possibility is instantiated in at least one universe. If it helps, the concept has been used for dramatic effect on the TV show, Sliders, and in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The multiverse is thought to undercut design arguments because while it is wildly improbable that our life-supporting universe should exist if there was only one shot at it, it is inevitable that our universe exist if every possible universe exists. (Yes, it begs the question of the necessary conditions for this meta-universe, but we’ll leave that to the side.) There are mixed feelings about the multiverse hypothesis amongst skeptics and Naturalists. While it may be a stopgap against the implications of our apparently designed universe, it is an inescapably ironic move for the Naturalist to postulate a deus ex machina that is unobserved and, in principle, unobservable.

Alvin Plantinga on Science and Theism

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God has created the world, but he also sustains it in existence; without this sustenance, the world would disappear like a candle flame in a high wind. Further, God governs the world in such a way that it displays a certain constancy and regularity. These regularities are everywhere: heavier-than-air objects dropped near the surface of the earth fall down rather than up; bread is nourishing but mud is not; there is breathable air near the surface of the earth, though not at 35,000 feet or under water. Unlike rocks, seeds planted in soil sprout and take root; heavy steel beams will hold a lot of weight for a long time; a confined explosion will exert pressure on the wall of its container. It is by virtue of these regularities that human beings can act in the world, can learn about it, and act on what they have learned.

Philip Yancey on Pain as a Design Feature

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Theologians blithely attribute pain to the Fall, ignoring the marvelous design features of the pain system. Every square millimeter of the body has a different sensitivity to pain, so that a speck of dirt may cause excruciating pain in the vulnerable eye whereas it would go unreported on the tough extremities. Internal organs such as the bowels and kidneys have no receptors that warn against cutting or burning—dangers they normally do not face — but show exquisite sensitivity to distention. When organs such as the heart detect danger but lack receptors, they borrow other pain cells (“referred pain”), which is why heart attack victims often report pain in the shoulder or arm. The pain system automatically ramps up hypersensitivity to protect an injured part (explaining why a sore thumb always seems in the way) and turns down the volume in the face of emergencies (soldiers often report no pain from a wound in the course of battle, only afterwards). Pain serves us subliminally as well: sensors make us blink several times a minute to lubricate our eyes and shift our legs and buttocks to prevent pressure sores. Pain is the most effective language the body can use to draw attention to something important.

Thomas Nagel on Inferring Either Way

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From the beginning it has been commonplace to present the theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection as an alternative to intentional design as an explanation of the functional organization of living organisms. The evidence for the theory is supposed to be evidence for the absence of purpose in the causation of the development of life-forms on this planet. It is not just the theory that life evolved over billions of years, and that all species are descended from a common ancestor. Its defining element is the claim that all this happened as the result of the appearance of random and purposeless mutations in the genetic material followed by natural selection due to the resulting heritable variations in reproductive fitness. It displaces design by proposing an alternative. ¶ No one suggests that the theory is not science, even though the historical process it describes cannot be directly observed, but must be inferred from currently available data. It is therefore puzzling that the denial of this inference, i.e., the claim that the evidence offered for the theory does not support the kind of explanation it proposes, and that the purposive alternative has not been displaced, should be dismissed as not science. The contention seems to be that, although science can demonstrate the falsehood of the design hypothesis, no evidence against that demonstration can be regarded as scientific support for the hypothesis. Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim. Something about the nature of the conclusion, that it involves the purposes of a supernatural being, rules it out as science.

Thomas Nagel on Scientific Orthodoxy

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The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it is, has resulted in a counterorthodoxy, supported by bad arguments, and a tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory. Skeptics about the theory are seen as so dangerous, and so disreputably motivated, that they must be denied any shred of legitimate interest. Most importantly, the campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design as beyond discussion because it is not science results in the avoidance of significant questions about the relation between evolutionary theory and religious belief, questions that must be faced in order to understand the theory and evaluate the scientific evidence for it.

Kludge

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Why are we subject to irrational beliefs, inaccurate memories, even war? We can thank evolution, Marcus says, which can only tinker with structures that already exist, rather than create new ones: “Natural selection… tends to favor genes that have immediate advantages” rather than long-term value. Marcus, director of NYU’s Infant Language Learning Center, refers to this as “kluge,” a term engineers use to refer to a clumsily designed solution to a problem. Thus, memory developed in our prehominid ancestry to respond with immediacy, rather than accuracy; one result is erroneous eyewitness testimony in courtrooms. In describing the results of studies of human perception, cognition and beliefs, Marcus encapsulates how the mind is “contaminated by emotions, moods, desires, goals, and simple self-interest….” The mind’s fragility, he says, is demonstrated by mental illness, which seems to have no adaptive purpose. In a concluding chapter, Marcus offers a baker’s dozen of suggestions for getting around the brain’s flaws and achieving “true wisdom.” While some are self-evident, others could be helpful, such as “Whenever possible, consider alternate hypotheses” and “Don’t just set goals. Make contingency plans.” Using evolutionary psychology, Marcus educates the reader about mental flaws in a succinct, often enjoyable way. ~ Publishers Weekly

Men Without Chests

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In this essay, Lewis takes as his subject the thesis presented by two unnamed schoolmasters in what he calls “The Green Book”: that our value judgments refer only to our own sentiments and never to any intrinsic worth in the objects we judge (i.e. subjectivism). He is concerned as to what this will mean for the education of English children, and this essay constitutes one part of Lewis’ Abolition of Man, subtitled “Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools”. In the authors’ seemingly innocent and casual subjectification of value there is a subversive outcome: “I do not mean, of course, that [the schoolboy] will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial. The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.” The Green Book’s authors analyze a piece of banal and deceptive advertising. But, Lewis notes, the authors have effectively precluded any normative judgment of the ad, for a similiar judgment upon Johnson, Wordsworth, or Virgil could be no less an accurate description of a reader’s sentiments, and there is no other quality to which to appeal. Lewis ends with this oft-cited poetic prose: “And all the time — such is the tragicomedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” His argument continues in “The Way”. ~ Afterall

Science, Evolution, and Creationism

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How did life evolve on Earth? The answer to this question can help us understand our past and prepare for our future. Although evolution provides credible and reliable answers, polls show that many people turn away from science, seeking other explanations with which they are more comfortable. In the book, Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a group of experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine explain the fundamental methods of science, document the overwhelming evidence in support of biological evolution, and evaluate the alternative perspectives offered by advocates of various kinds of creationism, including "intelligent design." The book explores the many fascinating inquiries being pursued that put the science of evolution to work in preventing and treating human disease, developing new agricultural products, and fostering industrial innovations. The book also presents the scientific and legal reasons for not teaching creationist ideas in public school science classes. Mindful of school board battles and recent court decisions, Science, Evolution, and Creationism shows that science and religion should be viewed as different ways of understanding the world rather than as frameworks that are in conflict with each other and that the evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. For educators, students, teachers, community leaders, legislators, policy makers, and parents who seek to understand the basis of evolutionary science, this publication will be an essential resource.

J.P. Moreland on Rival Worldviews

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An important and, sadly, often neglected component of Christian apologetics is the task of showing how Christian ideas enhance and do explanatory work across the academic disciplines and how rival worldviews harm and fail to do commensurate work in those same fields. And given that the various aspects of the image of God are recalcitrant facts for rival worldviews such as naturalism and postmodernism, one would expect that in those fields that examine that image, Christianity would enhance and its rivals would harm work and practice in these fields in particular. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the field of psychology.

There Is a God

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A wave of modern atheists have taken center stage and brought the long standing debate about the existence of God back into headlines. Spearheaded by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, this “new atheism” has found a powerful place in today’s culture wars. Although this movement has been billed as “new” the foundation of its argument is indebted to philosopher Anthony Flew and his groundbreaking paper “Theology and Falsification,” the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last half century. Flew built his highly acclaimed academic career publicly debunking the existence of God. But now the renowned philosopher has arrived at the opposite conclusion and officially joined the other side. ~ From the Publisher

Jay W. Richards on Biological Information

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Then there is the niggling problem of the origin of biological information, which stubbornly transcends its chemical medium in the same way the letters and sentences of a book transcend the chemistry of ink an paper. We see this starkly in molecular biology where the presence of information encoded along the NA molecule look suspiciously like an an extraordinarily sophisticated computer code for producing proteins, the three-dimensional building blocks of all life. Move up a level, and we find complex and functionally integrated machines that look inaccessible to the Darwinian mechanism. Moreover, such structures look much like the systems produced by intelligent agents, who can foresee a future function and bring it into being. ¶ Then there is the three-dimensional complexity of animal body plans, which so outstrips our understanding of the informational systems present at the lower levels. Finally, there are human agents themselves, which are so unexpected in materialistic terms, that many actually try to deny their existence — another deliverance of materialist reasoning that has obvious logical problems.

Human Evolution and Christian Ethics

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Can the origins of morality be explained entirely in evolutionary terms? If so, what are the implications for Christian moral theology and ethics? Is the latter redundant, as socio-biologists often assert? Stephen Pope argues that theologians need to engage with evolutionary theory rather than ignoring it. He shows that our growing knowledge of human evolution is compatible with Christian faith and morality, provided that the former is not interpreted reductionistically and the latter is not understood in fundamentalist ways. Christian ethics ought to incorporate evolutionary approaches to human nature to the extent that they provide helpful knowledge of the conditions of human flourishing, both collective and individual. From this perspective, a strong affirmation of human dignity and appreciation for the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity is consistent with a revised account of natural law and the cardinal virtues. ~ Product Description

Religion and the Challenges of Science

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Does science pose a challenge to religion and religious belief? This question has been a matter of long-standing debate – and it continues to concern not only scholars in philosophy, theology, and the sciences, but also those involved in public educational policy. This volume provides background to the current ‘science and religion’ debate, yet focuses as well on themes where recent discussion of the relation between science and religion has been particularly concentrated.The first theme deals with the history of the interrelation of science and religion. The second and third themes deal with the implications of recent work in cosmology, biology and so-called intelligent design for religion and religious belief. The fourth theme is concerned with ‘conceptual issues’ underlying, or implied, in the current debates, such as: Are scientific naturalism and religion compatible? Are science and religion bodies of knowledge or practices or both? And, do religion and science offer conflicting truth claims?By illuminating contemporary discussion in the science-religion debate and by outlining the options available in describing the relation between the two, this volume will be of interest to scholars and to members of the educated public alike. ~ Product Description

Alvin Plantinga on Naturalism as Self-Defeating

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Since we have been cobbled together by (unguided) evolution, it is unlikely, he thinks, that our view of the world is overall accurate; natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, not in true belief. But Dawkins fails to plumb the real depths of the skeptical implications of the view that we have come to be by way of unguided evolution. We can see this as follows. Like most naturalists, Dawkins is a materialist about human beings: human persons are material objects; they are not immaterial selves or souls or substances joined to a body, and they don’t contain any immaterial substance as a part. From this point of view, our beliefs would be dependent on neurophysiology, and (no doubt) a belief would just be a neurological structure of some complex kind. Now the neurophysiology on which our beliefs depend will doubtless be adaptive; but why think for a moment that the beliefs dependent on or caused by that neurophysiology will be mostly true? Why think our cognitive faculties are reliable?

Billions of Missing Links

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Dr. Geoffrey Simmons focuses on the millions of structures and systems on the Earth that came about all at once, entire… with no preceding links, no subsequent links, no “sideways” links. To illustrate, he surveys examples like… the hummingbird and its circulatory system, insects and insect–eating plants, the role of the thousands of species of viruses, chemical signals and the sensory apparatus that detects them, the self–regulating capacity of the Earth’s ocean/air/soil system. It’s clear: Nature contains only leaps, not links. Only the intelligence and purpose of an all–powerful Designer can explain the intricate creatures, connections, and “coincidences” everywhere.

William Lane Craig on Plausibility

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The gospel is never heard in isolation. It is always heard against the background of the cultureal milieu in which one lives. A person raised in a cultural milieu in which Christianity is still seen as an intellectually viable option will display an openness to the gospel which a person who is secularized will not. You may as well tell the secular person to believe in fairies or leprechauns as in Jesus Christ! Or, to give a more realistic illustration, it is like a devotee of the Hare Krishna movement approaching you on the street and inviting you to believe in Krishna. Such an invitation strikes us as bizarre, freakish, even amusing. But to a person on the streets of Delhi, such an invitation would, I assume, appear reasonable and cause for reflection. I fear that evangelicals appear almost as weird to persons on the streets of Bonn, Stockholm, or Toronto as do the devotees of Krishna. ¶ Part of the broader task of Christian scholarship is to help create and sustain a cultural milieu in which the gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking men and women. Therefore, the church has a vital stake in raising up Christian scholars who will help to create a place at the university for Christian ideas. The average Christian does not realize that there is an intellectual war going on in the universities and in the professional journals and scholarly societies. Christianity is being attacked as irrational or obsolete; and millions of students, our future generation of leaders, have absorbed that viewpoint.

Alex Vilenkin on a Universe Out of Nothing

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The concept of a universe materializing out of nothing boggles the mind. What exactly is meant by “nothing”? If this “nothing” could tunnel into something, what could have caused the primary tunneling event? And what about energy conservaton? … The initial state prior to the tunneling is a universe of vanishing radius, that is, no universe at all. There is no matter and no space in this very peculiar state. Also, there is no time. Time has meaning only if something is happening in the universe. We measure time using periodic processes, like the rotation of the Earth about its axis, or its motion around the Sun. In the absence of space and matter, time is impossible to define. ¶ And yet the state of “nothing” cannot be identified with absolute nothingness. The tunneling is described by the laws of quantum mechanics, and thus “nothing” should be subjected to these laws. The laws must have existed, even though there was no universe. … A quantum fluctuation of the vacuum assumes that there was a vacuum of some pre-existing space. And we now know that the “vacuum” is very different from “nothing”. Vacuum, or empty space, has energy and tension, it can bend a warp, so it is unquestionably something. As Alan Guth wrote, “In this context, a proposal that the universe was created from empty space is no more fundamental than a proposal that the universe was spawned by a piece of rubber. It might be true, but one would still want to ask where the piece of rubber came from.”

Daniel Dennett on the Cosmological Argument

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If something can be self-caused, why can’t the universe as a whole be the thing that is self-caused? This leads in various arcane directions, into the strange precincts of string theory and probability fluctuations and the like, at one extreme, and into ingenious nitpicking about the meaning of “cause” at the other. Unless you have a taste for mathematics and theoretical physics on the one hand, or the niceties of scholastic logic on the other, you are not apt to find any of this compelling, or even fathomable.

God’s Universe

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In God’s Universe, Owen Gingerich, a Harvard University astronomer and science historian, tells how in the 1980s he was part of an effort to produce a kind of anti-Cosmos, a television series called Space, Time, and God that was to counter Sagan’s “conspicuously materialist approach to the universe.” The program never got off the ground, but its premise survives: that there are two ways to think about science. You can be a theist, believing that behind the veil of randomness lurks an active, loving, manipulative God, or you can be a materialist, for whom everything is matter and energy interacting within space and time. Whichever metaphysical club you belong to, the science comes out the same. In the hands of as fine a writer as Gingerich, the idea almost sounds convincing. “One can believe that some of the evolutionary pathways are so intricate and so complex as to be hopelessly improbable by the rules of random chance,” he writes, “but if you do not believe in divine action, then you will simply have to say that random chance was extremely lucky, because the outcome is there to see. Either way, the scientist with theistic metaphysics will approach laboratory problems in much the same way as his atheistic colleague across the
hall.” ~ Scientific American

Darwinism and its Discontents

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Ruse, a well-known evolutionary historian and philosopher, defends Darwin from all comers, whether religious critics; those who, like Gertrude Himmelfarb, have accused Darwin of being a second-rate scientist; or postmodernist critics who say science is a social construction and not objective truth. Ruse (Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?) expounds on why he accepts evolution as fact. Though he doesn’t buy the argument that all science is merely a social construct, he acknowledges that Darwinism holds a mirror up to the times and reflects contemporary thinking, and he looks at the forms Darwinism has taken in philosophy, literature and popular culture. Some readers may think that Ruse, who freely and frequently admits that he isn’t a Christian, doesn’t quite provide a level playing field on which to confront some of his intellectual opponents, in particular the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins. Still, Ruse’s agnosticism keeps him from being doctrinaire ("Perhaps there is a God on the other side… I do not know"). Some readers will struggle with Ruse’s occasional philosophic density. Nevertheless, this should interest fans of the philosophy of science and readers caught up in the contemporary debate about evolution.