Thursday, May 18, 2017

Fixing Our Eyes

“Turn us again, O God of hosts, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.” -- Psalm 80:7

Mourning the loss of his friend, Augustine lamented, “For in whichever direction the soul of man turns, unless it turns to you, it is transfixed on things that cause pain. They are born and die.”

Death is the starkest and most painful reminder that nothing in this world is permanent. Not that we should need a reminder. Everything -- our minds, our bodies, our relationships, our physical surroundings, the entire universe -- is in a constant state of change. All is in flux.

We are born into this state and quickly learn to accept it, even embrace it. In a contingent universe, change is essential. We are dependent on it not only for our development but for our very survival. It is integral to our temporal existence. Nonetheless, it carries powerful emotions, as anyone who has watched his child grow or witnessed the death of a loved one can well attest.

Change may be the most natural thing but it strangely feels like the most unnatural. We are often surprised by it, caught unaware that something we expected or hoped to be around forever has been lost. Such sentiment seems illogical, for it contradicts everything we know about the world around us.

Scripture addresses this great contradiction by explaining that God has appointed to everything a season but has also planted eternity in our hearts. Despite being flawed and finite creatures surrounded by a world in decay, we have an innate sense of the infinite that cannot be eradicated.

It is an irony that makes perfect sense. A contingent universe must have an extrinsic cause. There is no logical alternative. The material world did not (and cannot) create itself. As dependent beings that are part of the material world, we are reliant upon an eternal and unchanging God for our every breath. Deep down we understand this truth and long for the permanence of the creator.

In his anguish over the death of his friend, Augustine reflects on the world that is passing away, “Let my soul praise you by means of these transient things, O God, creator of all things, but let it not become fixed and glued on to them with its love of physical senses. They go where they are going, into unbeing, and rend the soul with perilous longings, for she wishes to be, and loves to rest in the things she loves. In them, however, there is no resting place, for they are impermanent. Who can hold on to them, even when they are at hand?”

The answer, of course, is no one. None of us can hold on to impermanent things. They are gifts for a season, flowers that wither away. When they pass they elicit longings within us that can only be satisfied by the one who does not pass, the one who is the same yesterday and today and forever and who knows our innermost being. As Augustine famously wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” In this rest, there is “neither past nor future, but only being, since it is eternal.”

Innate within all of us is the recognition of eternity and the search for rest, which is found in God through the redemptive work of the Son. Christ has lifted the curse of our fallen world for all who put their trust in him. This is the way to lasting joy and peace. As Augustine, quoting the ancient prophet Amos, prayed, “I will seek you that my soul may live.”

Friday, August 19, 2016

Evolutionary Heresies

In less than two hundred years, the theory of evolution has grown from simple observations of wildlife into a biological explanation of all living things to the epistemological foundation of everything we know about ourselves and the entire universe. Materialism -- the belief that nothing exists outside of the physical universe and that man is merely the chemical byproduct of an unguided process no more complicated than matter plus time plus chance -- is now the prevailing worldview of our culture. Nearly every institution that speaks with authority religiously clings to it. It is an inherently flawed dogma that has profound philosophical and practical implications on every aspect of how we think, how we choose to live, how we treat others, and how we raise our children.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection forms the basis of modern biology. Organisms with the best traits for survival produce more offspring, which results in change within species that makes them more resilient over generations. The theory is applied more expansively to explain change between species, making natural selection the mechanism for the incremental development of all life, from the simplest cell to modern man. Critics claim there is a lack of evidence to support macro evolutionary change and point to problems such as the irreducible complexity of even the simplest organisms, the inability of the theory to explain human consciousness, or even language. While their objections have grown into a sizable body of research, they remain in the distinct minority and are largely mocked by the broader scientific community.

If nothing else, those who critique evolution on purely biological grounds force the scientific community to more rigorously defend entrenched positions that have gone largely unchallenged. Such critiques do not, however, address the fallacious way in which the theory of evolution is mistakenly used as a philosophical explanation for the creation of the universe. When employed in this way, the theory violates its own presuppositions and is rendered invalid.

Evolution is silent on the origin of life. It only offers an explanation of how life developed. In other words, the acrimonious debate over evolution is irrelevant to the fundamental mystery of creation. On the question of where matter came from in the first place, the best science can offer is its own sterile restatement of the Genesis account: in the beginning, there was a big bang. But this version of creation lacks an eternal deity so it is just another way of saying that something came from nothing, a notion that is ironically at odds with science itself.

Absent a creator, evolution is an undirected process that sprang up out of nowhere. Its origin cannot be understood empirically, and metaphysically, it is illogical. But even if one is able to put this fundamental problem aside, another problem arises. Without a creator, the entire universe, including man himself, is simply the mindless and accidental result of this biochemical process that somehow began on its own. By definition, it is a process devoid of reason. But if we are merely a byproduct of a process that is devoid of reason, we cannot use reason to make an argument for the validity of that process. In other words, materialists have no way to determine whether evolution is true. Their worldview asserts (even though in cannot logically assert) that there is no such thing as truth.

Materialists have unwittingly invalidated not just the theory of evolution but the entire basis on which we can know anything. Their worldview is not only devoid of reason but also of right and wrong. Its empirical foundations and conclusions are nonsense and it offers no normative guidance on how we should live. And yet it is a philosophy that has been given a central place in our culture. Is it any wonder that the modern world is unraveling?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Limits of Reason

“There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.” -- Proverbs 14:12

The ability to reason separates man from the animals and gives him dominion over all of the earth. Simply put, it is the most important attribute we possess. With it we can create or conquer, protect or destroy. Reason allows us to unravel the workings of the physical universe and gives us the ability to discern natural law. It makes us self-aware, forcing us to ponder our own existence and the origin of it.

The answer to this question determines not only where we came from but where we are going and how we choose to live. And on this critical question, reason does not leave us in the dark. Understanding the things we all have access to, namely ourselves and the world around us, leads to the undeniable conclusion of the existence of God.

Perhaps the most basic way to reach this conclusion is the cosmological argument, which dates back at least as far as Aristotle in the 4th Century Before Christ. The argument has been pondered by philosophers and theologians for centuries. Thomas Aquinas may have the most concise and famous form of it. Contemporary Norman Geisler provides a thorough version of it. While it builds on a set of premises that should each be rigorously examined and understood, the entire proof can be curtly expressed like this: you exist, therefore God exists.

Here is my paraphrase: being cannot be denied without contradiction. If one claims not to exist, he is asserting that claim using his own existence. Now, being is distinct from non-being. Something is not nothing. Furthermore, something cannot come from nothing. It is also known that man and everything in the universe is dependent on something else for existence. That something, by definition, must have an independent nature that is unchangeable. In order to have created everything and to sustain it, the independent entity must have several attributes, among these are it must be immaterial, infinite, omnipotent, and omniscient.

It requires no special revelation to derive this conception of God and it is a syllogism that cannot be logically refuted. Many have tried and all have failed. No other explanation for the origin of life is consistent with reality and simply observing the material world makes the argument self-evident, as the Apostle Paul explains, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

This theoretical conception of God aligns with only one worldview: Judeo-Christian revelation. The ancient Hebrews did not sit and ponder an abstract divinity using metaphysics. They encountered divine intervention that has been recorded in the writings of their patriarchs and prophets. That intervention, impressed upon a nomadic tribe of outcasts, was unlike anything the world had ever seen. It, and it alone, revealed a God that has the exact same attributes as the conjectural version of the creator that philosophers would later derive on their own. No other religion describes such a God. Their revelation foretold of the Christ who would embody these attributes in the flesh in order to redeem humanity.

These are the two pillars that point toward God. One is derived from “what has been made” and is built entirely on logic. It is a theoretical model of what God must look like based on what we know about ourselves and the universe around us. The other is divine revelation, which transcends reason but nonetheless can be understood through it. God's word has withstood unrelenting attacks by skeptics from the onset. For thousands of years it has been vindicated, time and again, by its own transforming and prophetic passages and the historical record. Scripture describes, in inexhaustible detail, who God is and our relationship toward Him and our fellow man. Both of these pillars are in perfect harmony with one another and both perfectly explain reality.

Unfortunately this does not settle the matter. Reason commands so little of our decision making that it is easy to discard the evidence before us. Fallen man is beset by physical and psychological limitations that constantly impede on his rational thought. We are hampered by illness or injury, stress and anxiety, and a finite amount of intelligence. Far worse than all of that is how we exercise our free will. When we can think clearly we usually choose not to. We are driven by selfishness, jealously, anger, and greed, habitually seeking to ingratiate and elevate ourselves at the expense of others. These powerful desires blind us to truth. As it is written, “This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

Man is limited in his capacity to understand but, far more importantly, we have no desire to do so. We willfully ignore the evidence and choose to live in a state of ignorance, believing theories and superstitions that are internally contradictory because they ostensibly provide us with the autonomy we crave. As St. Timothy explained, we find ourselves “always learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth”. Or as the Psalmist declared, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

These are the limits of reason. It is not a failing of it but of us. When we reject God, we are also rejecting reason itself. We lose our ability to think rationally and neither logic or history can change our minds. As Jesus explained, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” We substitute “darkness for light, and light for darkness” and the only perfectly reasonable answer to existence appears to us as foolishness.

Fortunately it is not always this way. God has said, “Come now, and let us reason together, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” He promises that all those who diligently seek are given the ability to find. This has been true for so many skeptics whose intent was to disprove Scripture but did so with a sincerity and earnestness that allowed them to honestly examine its claims. In doing so they were received life and the world around them began to make sense.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On Existence

"He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together." – Colossians 1:17

There is nothing more fundamental or more perplexing than the question of existence. Pondering it can be so overwhelming that many have never given it serious thought. Even in the current information age, with more knowledge available than ever before, many people simply refuse to look for an answer to the origin of their own consciousness and instead bury themselves in endless diversion.

If one does search for an answer to why he is here, he will discover that the possibilities are very basic. What follows is unoriginal. It is actually a terse summary of all the contributions that every culture in the history of mankind has offered to this most fundamental question. Study every philosopher, poet, and priest in the whole of recorded history and you will discover that there are only three possible answers to the mystery of existence: something came from nothing, the universe has always existed, or a deity created everything.

Now, beyond mere words the notion that something came from nothing is inconceivable to the human mind. We can think as hard and as long as we like about nothing but grasping the concept is simply not possible. Scientists talk about anti-matter and black holes but that is about as far as they can go. When we remove everything that we can, as has been tried with vacuum experiments for thousands of years, something always remains. Using the big bang theory, some cosmologists now believe that the universe was at one time composed of merely the laws of physics. But they are at a loss to explain the origin of the laws of physics.

Even if nothingness could be imagined, we would be left with an equally vexing problem: explaining the process in reverse. Nothingness has no sentience or agency. It is not a state. It is less than dead. As such, it is nonsensical to think that it could ever produce any form of energy or a single particle. Such a belief defies all understanding of reality. While the current consensus is that the universe had a beginning, and many scientists who hold this view deny the existence of anything outside of the material world, they do not assert that the universe came from actual nothingness. Their only answer is to place their hope in future research. If this seems contradictory, it at least gets us to the next assertion on existence.

The belief that the universe has always existed is a form of pantheism, the ancient religion that deifies the material world itself. It is the basis for certain Eastern and indigenous philosophies and is defined by the mindless and eternal cycles of nature. In this view, everything that exists is interconnected. There is no right or wrong, just being. The universe is an abstract force in which one can find harmony if he is able to empty his mind. But one can never understand the universe because it has no sentience, it does not say anything. Rather than trying to comprehend why things happen, the optimal state is a tranquility that is achieved by shutting off rational inquiry. There are no universal explanations for reality. This worldview best describes the modern secularist, who has stopped trying to make sense of the world.

While the notion of an eternal universe is at odds with current scientific understanding, many scientists now hold a view that is practically indistinguishable from pantheism. Both believe that life came from nothing more than a random and undirected physical process. Cosmologists and evolutionary biologists have cleverly devised theories to explain the emergence of complexity from nothing more than time plus matter plus chance. They are not dissuaded by the astounding intricacies of life.

We now know, for example, that there is more activity in a single human cell at any given moment than in a city the size of New York, and that the human body is believed to contain about 100 trillion cells, all working in elaborate coordination. And this is only what we now know. Researchers acknowledge that there is no known limit to what can be discovered at the molecular level. The smaller they go, the more they find. The same is true at the other end of the spectrum. It is not feasible to grasp the enormity of the universe although researchers do believe it has an end. But the possibility of other universes, or even an infinite number of universes, has not been dismissed. Of course, such speculation is mere imagination at this point in time. But what scientists do know, and will readily acknowledge, is that the chance for life to develop this way defies mathematical probability. And interwoven throughout this improbable existence is the unmistakable element of exquisite and unsearchable design.

But materialists, those who believe there is nothing more than a physical universe, have an even bigger problem than improbability: their belief defies their own nature. Anthropologists know that man has always possessed a self-awareness that alienates him from all else in the material world. He desperately seeks meaning beyond his finite existence. This yearning manifests itself in art and religion, the faintest trace of which has never developed in the most advanced primates. Man is qualitatively different, uniquely endowed with an understanding of truth, justice, and beauty that transcends, and is often at odds, with his biological desires. Man seeks answers, to which the materialist responds that there are none. Man is in constant conflict to do what is right, to which the materialist responds that there is no right. They maintain that personal man, who is driven and plagued by conscience, is the product of an impersonal universe that has no conscience. Rather than try to understand his defining characteristic, they reduce him to a chemical process. Love, they insist, is an illusion.

Nobody, of course, can maintain this worldview. Those that claim to hold it intellectually violate it in every aspect of their personal lives. And the reality is that it cannot even be held intellectually because if man is just a random chemical process than none of his theories have any validity. Analysis of the process cannot itself be the process. Materialism is a closed system that leaves no place for reason. But this realization at least gets us to the third assertion on existence: that a deity created everything.

Belief in various deities defines the human experience. No culture has existed without embracing some aspect of it. This, of course, is a statement that encompasses a wide range of beliefs, most of which have come and gone because they were unsatisfactory for one reason or another. Deities proved too weak or abstract to explain existence. There were good and terrible deities that reflected different aspects of human nature but they were too simple. Man desperately tried to appease his innate desire to venerate his creator through all sorts of ritual and sacrifice, some of which was unspeakably wicked and violent.

In stark contrast to this futility and heartache is Judaic revelation, which understands God as the eternal creator who is sovereign, being both omniscient and omnipotent. God is righteous and his attributes never change. He despises wickedness but shows abundant mercy and grace to His fallen creation. He does not demonstrate love but is love, a triune God who made man in His own image. This understanding provides man with a coherent answer to his own existence. It explains his personal character, including his ability to reason, and gives him intrinsic worth. This conception of God brought great spiritual and temporal advances. Simply put, it is the foundation of the West and science and democracy could not exist without it.

But how can one prove that Jewish monotheism is not mere human invention? To outside observers it may appear as subjective as the claims made by other religions. The existence of an all-powerful and loving God may seem fanciful in a world of pervasive suffering and death, which Jewish law teaches is the result of man’s willful separation from God. These objections were answered by Jesus Christ, who was God incarnate and whose unspeakable sacrifice and resurrection rectified man’s separation. The historical record of Christ removed the subjective nature of revelation.

These are the three possibilities for existence: something came from nothing, the universe has always existed, or a deity created everything. Only the third option proves intellectually coherent and only the Judeo-Christian version is rooted in historical reality. Secularists need to understand this. There is no other alternative. No one even pretends to have one. By rejecting Christ, they are embracing a worldview that, by definition, is devoid of meaning. They can still love their neighbor but must realize that their love has no basis. Without Christianity, there is no charity. Without Christianity, there is no epistemological foundation for knowing anything. Without Christianity, there is no hope.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Feeding the Idols

“You shall have no other gods before me.” -- Exodus 20:3

Liberation is the central conceit of the materialist. Ironically, he makes an exclusive claim on freedom and enlightenment by denying the existence of anything outside of the natural world. He maintains that the physical universe is all there is, it came from nothing or has always existed, and there are no limits to understanding or manipulating it. In this worldview man is a paradox. He is the accidental result of a random and undirected physical process over which he has no control but he is also the intellectual center of the universe. His authority supplants all other even though it is no more than the fleeting whirl of atoms.

Built on a contradiction, materialism is nonetheless a brashly confident philosophy that has become dominant among the chattering class and in the academy. While it concludes that life is meaningless, this hopelessness is veiled in fearless optimism. Man is the ostensible measure of all things and his purview extends in all directions. This grants him the capacity for great discovery and conquest. In a free society, where he is not busy subjugating his fellow man as he is apt to do, his energies may be devoted to the continuous pursuit of knowledge or pleasure. Unencumbered by a higher authority, this pursuit is only limited by the rules that he imposes on himself.

Or so they claim. Try as they might, the materialist is vexed with a desire he cannot shake: the universal desire to worship. Man has always been eager to sacrifice his autonomy to venerate something that he perceives as greater than himself. This desire transcends every race and culture. It is the basis of every civilization. It has survived war, pestilence, prosperity, and modernization. It is even surviving materialism, with its unique insistence that there are no gods.

This innate need makes man qualitatively different from the animals. As Chesterton observes, the most advanced primates did not draw pictures of other primates or build temples to deities. But the most primitive men did. The development of art and religion is not traced gradually down through the ages. They appeared suddenly and cannot be explained by anything that came beforehand.

Materialists attempt to explain religion away with various theories. Some say it is merely our tribal instinct. We invent supernatural lawgivers to better govern our earthly affairs. Abiding by these proven rules ensures a more peaceful environment. Some say it is superstition arising from our survival mechanism. We subconsciously invent causes for why things happen to better adapt to our environment. Many of these causes are irrational. Some materialists are simply dismissive, predicting that religion will cease to exist once it is eliminated by natural selection.

Amidst all of these theories, one thing is certain: religion has always been and remains the center of man’s existence. As Western elites embrace secularism, Christianity is rapidly spreading in the developing world, even (or perhaps especially) in places where the church faces deadly persecution. Billions profess faith in Christ. In addition, Islam boasts of more than a billion followers while vast numbers of others practice a variety of faiths. Atheism has always been exceedingly rare or, as a scientist would say, statistically insignificant. It has a disproportionate influence today only because it is fashionable with the elite. Despite their protests, however, materialists themselves have proven incapable of sustaining their non-belief.

For centuries, preachers have warned their parishioners about the dangers of placing objects or ambitions ahead of Christ. Material things can easily become the focus of one’s life and enslave the beholder. In the modern West, these dangers are not wooden idols but expensive amusements or achievement itself. The importance of putting these things in their proper context has been vindicated time and again. The tragedies of the rich and famous, who destroy themselves on indulgence, dramatically illustrate the point.

But the love of mammon should not be confused with the darker practices that ensnare the secular world. Yearning for meaning, materialists have sought solace in all sorts of cults. Sociologists have found that self-professed non-believers are actually the most likely to embrace superstition and the occult.

For much of the twentieth century, communism and fascism were the two dominant ideologies that attempted to fill the void of secularism. Both sought to perfect man by remaking humanity and both became political movements led by cult figures who demanded total obedience. Their attempts to transcend our fallen world and establish perfection led to an unprecedented genocide. More than 100 million people were sacrificed to obtain a utopia that did not exist.

The whitewashing of these atrocities by academia is itself an atrocity. But despite relentless efforts to suppress the memory of what occurred, enough of the carnage is remembered to discourage the promotion of these ideologies, at least in the West. Many former communists and fascists have turned to other devotions. In their search for meaning, environmentalism has emerged as a popular dogma. Described as merely a healthy desire to be good stewards of natural resources, philosophical environmentalism is actually a form of pantheism, the ancient heresy that puts the created in the place of the creator. The earth is seen as a deity that demands our adoration and sacrifice.

Many environmentalists lament modernization and the exponential increase in population that has accompanied it. There were roughly one billion people in the world in 1800. Today there are almost seven billion. They see this development through a Malthusian lens, fretting that such growth cannot be sustained. For generations they have warned of imminent catastrophe resulting in overpopulation: there will not be enough food to eat and water to drink and few will have a decent quality of life.

In his celebrated polemic, “The Population Bomb,” Paul Ehrlich famously predicted that “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. Population control is the only answer.” His dire prediction and dozens of others have been proven false, time and again. Yet environmentalists continue to seek dramatic reductions in world population.

This is because their desire to shrink the population is motivated by more than a responsible desire for sustainability. It is driven by a belief that the very existence of humanity spoils nature. A belief that is forcefully and repeatedly articulated by radicals in the movement:

Dave Forman, founder of Earth First!, declares that “Phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth, social and environmental.” David Graber, an ecologist for the U.S. National Park Service, contends, “Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, is not as important as a wild and healthy planet . . . human beings are a plague . . . some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.” Dr. Reed Noss of the Conservation Planning Institute asserts, “The collective needs of non-human species must take precedence over the needs and desires of humans.” Yale professor Lamont Cole teaches, “To feed a starving child is to exacerbate the world population problem.”

A prominent environmentalist once told me that his parents made a foolish mistake by having two children. He and his colleagues view children as a selfish indulgence and lead an effort to increase sterilizations and abortions, particularly in the developing world where there are fewer restrictions on such practices. Another environmentalist I knew killed himself, concluding that he should not be taking resources from the earth. These people are not just a handful of lunatics. They are part of the movement's intellectual foundation, which rejects the notion that man has preeminence over nature.

Driven by this belief, they relentlessly seek to limit the human footprint through propaganda and coercion. Their campaign against global warming has persuaded governments and institutions worldwide even though it is based on a relatively tiny amount of unreliable and inconclusive data. Scores of independent scientists have shown the error in extrapolating such dire scenarios from the scant evidence that exists. Even some within the movement have acknowledged that the case for man-made climate change is tenuous. But that has not stopped them from using it to advance their goals.

Through national and supranational entities, which instinctively crave power, they work to enact policies designed to curtail industrialization. A recent United Nations document would confer special rights on “mother earth” that could be defended in courts of law. To the extent that such efforts have had an effect, they have brought tragedy, particularly for people in the developing world who benefit most from advances in agriculture, medicine, and sanitation. They have resulted in the spread of preventable diseases, brought untimely deaths, and reduced the quality of life of millions of people.

Like the useful idiots who sympathized with communism, millions support these goals of environmentalism. Like previous generations, they have been deceived by the fashionable dictates of the age.

Materialists, the self-proclaimed defenders of freedom and enlightenment, have been most susceptible to this latest heresy. This is because they reject the intrinsic worth of the individual. They insist that man is the measure of all things but their worldview holds that he is the result of chance, a finite being with no more value than a tree or a rock. In their desperation for meaning they have latched on to the worship of nature, which has shocking similarities to the child-sacrificing idol worship practiced by the ancient Semitic peoples. The commandments given to the Hebrews stood in stark and refreshing contrast to this barbarism and laid the groundwork for the one who came so that all may have life, and have it more abundantly.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stepping Outside

In an ongoing debate on the validity of a materialist worldview -- one that denies the existence of a creator or anything outside of the natural world -- my friend shared with me an article detailing research on viruses. Recent discoveries have broken new ground on how viruses influence our behavior. It is thought they affect us in a variety of unconscious ways; such as making us more aggressive, lecherous, friendly, or apprehensive. Some believe they entangled with our genes early in the evolutionary process and therefore explain a great deal of our actions. What we see as virtuous could be the mere result of viruses.

This understanding bolsters the claims of materialists, who have always struggled to explain free will. Freedom cannot exist if we are derived and bound by a random and undirected physical process. Materialism maintains that we are the result of natural selection. Our existence is due to successful adaptations occurring over millions of years that were favorable to perpetuation. This progression, by definition, is devoid of right and wrong. It makes no moral judgments, operating on instinct alone. Our actions are determined by our biological makeup, which runs on automatic pilot. Man’s consciousness, though largely a mystery, is a relatively recent byproduct of this evolution and is therefore subject to it.

Our ability to choose between two instincts, and to sometimes pick the less attractive and more altruistic one, seems to validate the presence of right and wrong and our sense of self-determination. But materialists deny that this is anything more than biological hard wiring. And many will say that the recent research on viruses further dispels this illusion of choice. But does it?

The ability to think is affected by physiological needs and also by most outside influences. It is usually the case that our thoughts are altered by these internal and external pressures. Viruses are one of these pressures. If the latest theories are correct, we cannot change or easily comprehend their impact on our cognitive process. They are a part of us.

But here is the point: scientists are beginning to comprehend their complexities. And to do so they must use reason that is independent of these pressures. To objectively understand viruses and make accurate determinations about them this must be so. The only alternative is to concede that their analysis is also subject to the influences of these viruses, which would render it invalid.

Ironically, all of science fits into this category. To objectively observe and theorize about the physical world one must step outside of it, so to speak. To ponder evolutionary theory one must be mentally set apart from it. Analysis of the process cannot itself be the process. Reason must subjugate all physical influences in order for a claim to be valid. Man’s awareness of his own existence and his ability to employ reason in attempts to understand the physical world gives him freedom from its constraints.

Science is the greatest tool the materialist has but it is not even material. Dependent on objectivity, it is proof that another realm lies outside nature. When confronted with this reality some choose to deny that truth exists. But by doing this they inadvertently destroy science.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Origin of Science

“Because I believe in science,” is a common retort of those who deny the supernatural. What is meant by this is that science has an exclusive claim on reason therefore anything outside of its domain is irrational. Religion is a superstitious vestige of a bygone era.

To a certain extent these skeptics are right. The religions of the world, for various reasons, have proven incompatible with science and most of their assumptions about the universe are at odds with what has been discovered. But there is one glaring exception: Christianity. Not only compatible with science, it was the Christian faith alone that provided its essential foundations.

That this is not common knowledge today is due to the predominant historical perspective that emphasizes the achievements of a later more secularized West while romanticizing its pre-Christian Greek and Roman heritage. The Church is portrayed as a repressive institution that actively stifled intellectual pursuits. By crafting this distorted narrative, contemporary academics fail to understand the circumstances in which science arose.

Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark helps clarify these circumstances. What follows is largely taken from his book, “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Let to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.”

Stark explains that science is theory and practice. It is an assumption about an aspect of nature coupled with supporting observations from the physical world. Both components are necessary. Theorizing without empirical evidence is mere speculation. Empiricism without theory is only exploitation. In all of human history, almost every effort to explain and control the material world has lacked one or the other.

The technological advances that occurred in China, Greece, and the Islamic world were significant. But they were not linked to testable theories. Therefore these achievements remained only useful observations and inventions. Alchemy did not develop into chemistry and astrology never became astronomy.

Stark quotes Charles Darwin to highlight the distinction between simple empiricism and science, “About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at that rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.”

Conversely, the celebrated theorizing of the Greek and Eastern philosophers that is held in such high regard was non-empirical. They never tested their postulations. For example, Stark cites Aristotle’s belief that the speed at which objects fall to earth is proportionate to their weight. This could have been disproved by “a trip to any of the nearby cliffs.” But this did not occur to any of his fellow Greeks.

Why did intelligent peoples, gathering knowledge and experience for thousands of years, fail to wed theory and practice? The answer is because their belief systems prevented them from doing so. Their gods were either too inconsequential or too abstract. Most believed that the universe always existed and moved in never-ending cycles. Having no creator, it was “a supreme mystery, inconsistent, unpredictable, and arbitrary.” This was no worldview on which to base rational inquiry.

Various notions of a guiding force were vague and incomprehensible. Stark cites Taoism as a key example. According to its founder Lao-tzu, “the Tao is ‘always nonexistent’ yet ‘always existent,’ ‘unnamable’ and the ‘name that can be named.’ Both ‘soundless and formless,’ it is ‘always without desires.’” Such mysticism defined the Eastern religions. The Greeks “conceived of the universe as not only eternal and uncreated but as locked into endless cycles of progress and decay.” This view was paired with a belief that attributed agency to inanimate objects. If objects have their own motives, it does not follow that their behavior can be explained by physical laws.

Islam, which developed centuries after Judaism, sees Allah as the sovereign creator of the universe. This suggests a conception of nature that can be understood. But Allah is believed to be “an extremely active God who intrudes on the world as he deems it appropriate. This prompted the formation of a major theological bloc within Islam that condemns all efforts to formulate natural laws as blasphemy in that they deny Allah’s freedom to act.” At one point, Islamic scholars made significant progress in astrology and medicine but their advances had no theoretical basis. Further hampering their efforts was Muhammad’s alleged claim that his generation was the greatest and subsequent ones were steadily deteriorating.

The God that was revealed to the Jewish people changed everything. Astute historians have pointed out that the Scriptures are the only thing new under the sun. For the first time an entire culture recognized the omniscient creator of all things. The universe was not eternal and did not run in endless mysterious cycles. It was ordered by immutable principles that were bestowed by the perfect lawgiver. Time had a beginning and it moved in a progression. Individuals—a radically new concept—were fearfully and wonderfully made and, as a consequence, had inestimable worth. There was a purpose to everything and for the first time the idea of progress was embraced.

Historians remain puzzled as to why the Jews completely divorced themselves from the existing conventional wisdom and how they came up with such views. There is no earthly explanation. But as Thomas Cahill explains, the revelation that came to the Jews gave us everything including the very notion of history itself.

Although the Jews possessed the foundation for the development of science, their scholars did not immediately combine theory to practice. Stark attributes this to the difference between orthopraxy and orthodoxy. Judaism is best described by the former. It places a “fundamental emphasis on law and regulation of community life.” Christianity, however, is defined by the latter. It places a “greater emphasis on belief and its intellectual structuring of creeds, catechisms, and theologies.”

The reason for the distinction is that Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection fulfilled the Law. He frees all those who are willing from its impossible demands. This allowed theologians to focus on interpreting Scripture and using their ability to reason to understand God rather than dwell on legalistic codes of conduct. While they knew their comprehension was limited by their own human frailty, they believed it could be enhanced by intensive scholarship. This applied not only to things unseen but to the physical realm as well. Nature was God’s intricately designed handiwork. It had a logical structure that could be understood.

And so science was born as theology’s handmaiden. There is no need even attempting to list all the temporal advantages this understanding gave Europe. The average Westerner today is ignorant of science’s origin but he does not doubt its utility. He is more likely to deify it. Along with freedom and capitalism, it has given the West a standard of living so superior to other regions of the world that for many the excess has become embarrassing or even shameful.

But as we move farther away from science’s foundation can science be sustained? Of course this sounds absurd. Just because science required a Christian worldview and its progenitors confessed an “absolute faith in a creator God” does not preclude modern secularists, and others, from building on that legacy. For generations they have done so. But the pertinent question is how will a post-Christian worldview change their methods?

Fashionable postmodern theory sees logic as an oppressive tool employed by Western imperialists. It rejects truth and views reality through the cloudy lenses of race, gender, and class. Its relativism far better resembles Eastern mysticism than Christianity. And this gets to the crux of the matter. Stark quotes respected anthropologist Graeme Lang who dismissed the notion that Confucianism and Taoism were the reason science failed to develop in China. Lang believes that if Chinese scholars had wanted to do science, philosophy would not have been a serious impediment. Stark explains that Lang misses the point. Chinese scholars, immersed in their philosophies, did not want to.

I am reminded of an admonishment given by Christ, “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”