Monday, December 22, 2014

More About Matthew 2

Jonathan Pearce has written another response to me on the historicity of Matthew 2. He comments:

Grand theft auto

In the combox, a number of atheists responded to David French's testimony of miraculous healing:

 I'm going to briefly evaluate their responses:

i) Some resort to the circular argument that since there's no evidence for God, his healing can't be evidence for God. By that logic, nothing would ever count as evidence for God. It will be preemptively discounted. 

ii) Some dismiss this as anecdotal evidence. But what's wrong with anecdotal evidence for particular events? It can be risky to generalize from anecdotal evidence, for the sample may be too small to underwrite a reliable induction, but in this case, anecdotal evidence is just a synonym for French's firsthand experience. 

My high school German teacher was a native German and war bride. Certainly I can't extrapolate from that instance to high school German teachers in general. But my experience is reliable evidence for what was going on at my high school when I was there. Don't atheists rely on personal experience for most of what they believe about their past and present circumstances?  

iii) Some dismiss French's interpretation as an example of confirmation bias. Christians are predisposed to believe in miracles. 

a) Funny thing is how often people who cite confirmation bias illustrate their own confirmation bias in the process. They are blind to their own confirmation bias. They act as if confirmation bias invariably applies to some else–never to themselves. 

The fact that atheists reflexively discount examples of miraculous healing–even in the teeth of medical verification–is a classic example of confirmation bias. They are predisposed to reject miracles out of hand. 

b) Moreover, French didn't expect his classmate's assurance to be true. 

iv) Some cite prayer studies to prove that prayer is statistically ineffective. 

a) To begin with, there is evidence from prayer studies that prayer is statistically effective. For instance:

b) The operating assumption behind controlled studies is flawed:

c) More to the point, this objection is an exercise in misdirection. Prayer studies are irrelevant to any particular case with specific evidence. 

v) Some appeal to spontaneous remission. But there are many problems with that objection:

a) That was French's choice of terms, speaking informally, as a layman. His doctors didn't attribute his recovery to spontaneous remission. 

In fact, his doctors concluded that since ulcerative colitis is incurable, they must have misdiagnosed him–for his recovery was naturally or scientifically inexplicable given that condition. 

b) Diseases range along a continuum. In some cases, the body has the ability to heal itself, with or without medical intervention. At best, medical intervention hastens the healing process. 

But you can't make a facile appeal to the body's natural healing ability in more extreme cases. Likewise, atheists use this category for diseases in general. But is that customary in medical science? 

c) To my knowledge, spontaneous remission is not a naturalistic alternative to miraculous healing. Spontaneous remission is not a medical explanation. It doesn't say how or why the patient went into remission. It doesn't identify a natural cause or natural mechanism. Rather, it's a superficial description of what happened. Really, an admission of ignorance. 

d)  Why assume that spontaneous remission is not miraculous? The fact that some people are healed in answer to prayer doesn't mean people are only healed in answer to prayer. 

vi) Some appeal to unanswered prayer to counter answered prayer. Atheists act as though, if one person is healed, but another not, the fact that one person was healed cancels out the evidence that the other person was miraculously healed. 

Take a comparison. Suppose I drive my friend to the airport. I park in the parking garage, making careful note of where I parked.  

After I return to the garage, I see that my car is gone. I naturally conclude that my car was stolen. i call the police to report my stolen car. I have them come to fill out a report. 

When they come they give me with a quizzical look. They ask me how I know my car was stolen? I reply that it didn't drive away all by itself. I wrote down the parking spot. 

They admit that the space where my car was is empty. But they point to cars parked to the right and to the left of where my car was. Cars in front and cars in back. So many cars to choose from. 

If my car was stolen, why did the thief steal my car rather than someone else's car? Likewise, if it's worth stealing one car, it's worth stealing many cars. It would be lucrative for a chop shop to hire several car thieves. 

I have no idea why the thief stole my car when there were others he could take. I have no idea why he left the other cars alone. But so what? How does the fact that I don't know what the thief's selection-criterion was zero out the evidence that my car was stolen? 

vii) Apropos (vi), In the nature of the case, we can rarely say why God healed one person but not another. We don't know the specific reason. We can only speculate in any given case. We can, however, suggest general reasons.

Just about every life has a ripple effect. Your life has an impact on other lives. God may heal one person but not another because of the long-term repercussiosn. God might heal one person because his life will have a significant beneficial impact on others. God might not heal another person because his life would have a significant deleterious impact had he lived longer. 

Likewise, some people live too long for their own good. They'd be better off if they died sooner.

God doesn't heal some people because they're special; rather, they're special because God heals them. 

David French is a lawyer for the ACLJ, in which capacity he defends the Constitutional freedom of Christian expression. So he's doing something with his life that benefits many other people. 

viii) One atheist took the opposite tack an appeal to reported cases of miraculous non-Christian healing. 

a) To begin with, the atheist didn't cite any evidence on the extent of reported cases of non-Christian miraculous healing. 

b) But supposing it's true, where does that leave the original objection? Is French's example incredible because too few people are healed in answer to prayer, or incredible because too many people are healed answer to prayer? Hard to see how both objections are mutually consistent. 

c) God can have reasons to heal unbelievers. Human beings are agents of historical causation. Who lives and who dies affects the future. God can heal an unbeliever in the past to benefit a believer in the future. 

ix) Unsurprisingly, some atheists make a last-ditch appeal to coincidence. However, French's case is very specific. He was diagnosed with an incurable disease. He was rapidly deteriorating. A classmate from law school prayed for him, then phoned him to assure him that he was cured. The very next day his symptoms were gone. And that was 19 years ago. 

Appealing to coincidence proves too much. When is something not a coincidence? 

x) The existence of disease doesn't call God's existence into question, for disease is consistent with Biblical theism. The Bible contains many examples of the sick and dying. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The stone paradox

i) Can an omnipotent being make a stone so heavy that he can't lift it? The stone paradox takes the form of a dilemma:

Either God can make a stone that he can't lift, or he can't make a stone that he can't lift. 

If he can make a stone that he can't lift, then he's not omnipotent (inasmuch as he can't lift the stone).

If he can't make a stone that he can't lift, then he's not omnipotent (inasmuch as he can't make it). 

Either way, there's something he can't do. So whether you answer yes or no, God is not omnipotent. 

ii) Of course, this may be a false dilemma. If the proposed task is really a pseudotask, then inability to perform a pseudotask is not a limitation on omnipotence. Rather, it's disguised sophistry. 

iii) Sometimes the debate turns on the definition of omnipotence. There are many things I can do that God can't. For instance, I can sneeze, but God can't. Is that a problem for omnipotence–or for a silly definition of omnipotence? 

iv) Apropos (iii), if God chooses to work through natural means, then that's a self-imposed limitation on what he can do. Natural means are finite. Natural means have inherent limitations. If he chooses to work through natural means, then his chosen medium limits what he can do. 

God can work apart from means. He's not limited to means. 

v) As formulated, the paradox has anthropomorphic connotations. God can't lift a stone the way a man can lift a stone. God doesn't lift a stone through muscular exertion, or pulleys, or a crane. Perhaps we should substitute a less anthropomorphic verb like "levitate." 

vi) Lifting is a twofold relation:

a) Moving an object from one place to another

b) Moving an object from a lower to a higher position

vii) If the stone is the size of the universe, then it can't move, for it occupies all the available space. It can't shift from one location to another if it takes up all the free space. There's nowhere for it to go. A stone the size of the physical universe is immovable. It can't change position. There's no room for the stone to be displaced. 

viii) Likewise, lifting something presumes a frame of reference. To lift something is to pick it up

An agent can't lift a stone in outer space, because the stone has no frame of reference in relation to which it's higher or lower.  

Likewise, does it make sense to say an agent can lift a stone off the ground that's bigger than planet earth? In what sense is it higher than a round object if it's the same diameter (or greater) than the round object? Given the curvature of the reference frame, what makes the stone higher rather than sideways or underneath? 

It only makes sense to say it's higher if the earth is flat or the object is so small in relation to the globe that the point of contact is virtually horizontal in relation to the vertical action (raising the stone to a higher position vis-a-vis the ground).    

ix) I assume the strength of the atomic bond (chemical bonding) naturally limits on how big a physical object can be. I assume there's an upper limit on how large a stone can be. Beyond a certain threshold, the attractive force is too weak to keep the atoms and molecules from shearing. 

Although God could make a miraculously large stone, that interjects equivocation into the paradox. It's not a real stone. By "stone," we usually mean a natural object. 

Further Response To Jonathan Pearce On Matthew 2

Last week, I posted a response to some recent comments by Jonathan Pearce on the historicity of Matthew 2. He's posted a reply. He writes:

Cardinal Dolan disses “Priests for Life” anti-abortion group

“I ... want nothing further to do with the organization”.

Forget about “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”. Now they can’t even manage “Catholics and Catholics Together”.

The fate of false prophets

In his generally excellent commentary on Daniel, Dale Ralph Davis makes an odd comment. He's responding to the allegation that Daniel is a pseudonymous book written in the mid-2C BC, but set in the 6C BC. He says:

Why should they give solemn credence to "prophecies" they knew had been produced by a bunch of visionaries who were their own contemporaries? What divine authority could these pack? The Message of Daniel (IVP 2013), 20. 

i) On the face of it, this comment is peculiar. Perhaps I don't know what he means. Or perhaps he didn't succeed in saying what he means. 

Surely, many OT prophecies were produced by visionaries who were contemporaneous with their audience. And these had divine authority. They were sent by God to speak his words in his name.

ii) I'd add that in the course of church history, you have men and women who claim to be prophets, and their oracles are sometimes taken seriously, at least within their sect or cult or band of followers. But there's a catch. If they make false predictions, then they discredit themselves. Although some of their adherents follow them no matter what they say or do, although some of their adherents explain away the discrepancies, this produces a crisis of faith. Some, or many, former followers become disillusioned with the would-be prophet or prophetess. They drop out of the movement. Some of them write in opposition to their former sect or cult. 

An analogous case is when a popular Bible teacher makes an end-of-the-world prediction based on his confident interpretation of Bible prophecies. He doesn't claim to be a prophet in his own right. But he does claim special insight into the meaning of Scripture. He was able to crack the code. 

That happens every so often in modern times. And when his prediction fails, he loses credibility. 

If Daniel was actually a contemporary of Jews during the Antiochean crisis, and he mispredicted the death of Antiochus, then we'd expect his oracles to suffer the same ignominious fate. At the very least, they'd be very controversial in Judaism. Hard to see how they could possibly attain canonical status. 

So that's one reason, among others, why the liberal date for Daniel is implausible.

Typography and exegesis

Conservative commentators think there's an implicit break between Dan 11:35-36 whereas liberal commentators think it's continuous. In other words, the question is whether this is referring to the same person throughout (i.e. Antiochus Epiphanes), or whether there's a shift from Antiochus to the Antichrist. 

Liberal commentators think it's special pleading for conservatives to posit a break at that point. By way of response:

i) The charge of special pleading cuts both ways. Liberal commentators (e.g. Collins, Goldingay) admit that vv36ff. are not an accurate record of Antiochus. They themselves have to explain away the historical evidence to rationalize their identification.

ii) Some commentators (Davis, MacRae, Steinmann) have noted striking parallels between 11:21-35 & 11:36-45 (or 11:36-12:3). They contend that if both refer to the same person, the duplication is hard to explain. If, by contrast, that's an a fortiori relation, where Antiochus prefigures a future counterpart, then the parallel is more explicable.

iii) There's an abrupt shift in 11:2-3, from the Persian kings to Alexander. It skips over several later Persian kings. So an unannounced shift between v35 and v36 is not unprecedented.

iv) Finally, I'd like to make a point of my own. To my knowledge, ancient Hebrew MSS didn't have chapter divisions or paragraph divisions. It was a continuous block text. Ancient scribes didn't have our modern formatting conventions. One of the things OT commentators (as well as NT commentators) must do is to decide where one unit ends and another unit begins. Sometimes that's obvious, but sometimes that's subtle or ambiguous. Commentators disagree with each other on when a Bible writer begins a new topic.

Given the absence of modern typographical conventions in ancient Hebrew MSS to demarcate transitions from one unit to another, there's nothing inherently ad hoc about commentators positing a shift from v35 to v36. If the writer intended a transition at that juncture, that's something the reader would have to infer for himself. That's not something the ancient writer could signal by starting a new chapter or paragraph. Even if there's an implicit break, the text itself will be continuous. 

So it's not as if conservative commentators are doing anything unusual in this respect. Every commentator, when exegeting a book of the Bible, must decide where the internal divisions occur. That's part of the interpretive process. 

“A New Pagan Era”

When it comes down to it, there are only two worldviews, according to Peter Jones (“One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference – Romans 1 for the Twenty-first Century”, Escondido, CA: Main Entry Editions, 2010). For simplicity’s sake, he identifies these simply as “One-ism” and “Two-ism”. The chart here (which I have modified somewhat) should be familiar to most Reformed readers. It illustrates how these worldviews line up:

When the chickens come home to roost

According to this story, two NYPD cops were assassinated in a revenge-killing today:

According to this story, some bystanders cheered their execution:

This is the predictable result of public officials like Obama, Holder, and Blasio who pander to the narrative that cops are out to get blacks.

But the logic of the narrative recasts cop-killers as freedom-fighters. It's hard to see how public officials can do an about-face without repudiating the narrative. 

To take another liberal narrative, Hamas operatives are really freedom-fighters in relation to Israel. It's the same logic. 

We do have a serious problem with rogue cops in this country. But it lacks the racial angle that the liberal establishment, as well as some misguided evangelicals (e.g. Thabiti Anyabwile), foist on it. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mad Cow Disease

This looks interesting:

Don and Jill are church-planting missionaries in Germany.  In August of 2000, Don was diagnosed  by two teams of doctors at two university hospitals with new variant-Creuzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD), the human version of Mad Cow Disease.  The Vanderhoofs were told by both hospitals that this disease is always fatal.  However, God had other plans and healed Don of the disease.  A book has been written detailing how God helped Don and Jill through Mad Cow Disease.  The book is entitled From Strength to Strength, and is their testimony of God's grace, help, and healing from this terminal illness.  
Its first printing of the book was in the English and German languages.  The English version is now in its third-edition printing and contains pictures with letters from three different doctors.

Gifts of healing

to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles (1 Cor 12:9-10).
According to Gordon Fee, in his revised commentary on 1 Corinthians (Eerdmans 2014):
The plural charismata ["gifts of healings"] probably suggests, not a permanent "gift," as it were, but that each occurrence is a "gift"in its own right. So also with the plurals in the next item [lit. "workings of miracles"], 659.  
[Quoting Bittlinger] "Every healing is a special gift…" 659n134.
That's a potentially revolutionary take on the typical cessationist/noncessationist debate or stalemate. It's not so much that the healer has a "gift of healing," but that each healing is a divine gift. An act of God's gracious merciful kindness. 
It's possible that some Christians are healers, viz. God heals more often through some Christians than others. But it's not a resident ability which the healer can switch on and off at will. It's just that God chooses some Christians to sometimes act in that capacity.

Keeping our promises

America, and you, have lost the moral high ground on this issue. I find it despicable that any person who is required by Jesus to give his life for others--including enemies--as Jesus himself did can even countenance making the sort of arguments you have in the wake of the torture revelations.

I find his comment a bit puzzling. If Inglis thinks that Jesus requires him to give his life for others, then the world is chock-full of opportunities to do what's required of him. What's he waiting for? Reminds me of a dialogue from I Claudius:

Lentulus: (kissing Caligula's hand) Your recovery is a miracle! 

Caligula: But you prayed for it, Lentulus. 

Lentulus: Oh, night and day! But prayers are not always heard. 

Caligula: But yours were special, so I understand. You offered your life to the gods in place of mine. That was extremely noble! 

Lentulus: It's true, I did. 

Caligula: And what are you going to do about it? 

Lentulus: Do about it? What do you mean? 

Caligula: Well, I'm still here, and so are you. But we oughtn't both be here. Should we not give the gods the things we promise them? You're in danger of the crime of perjury, Lentulus. Think about it. But not too long–gods won't wait forever, that I can assure you only too well.

Trial by ordeal

Some people claim the Bible actually endorses abortion. They allege that Num 5 is a recipe for an abortifacient. 

i) One hermeneutical challenge is that Num 5 contains some obscure terminology. For that reason alone, it's very precarious to make this a prooftext for abortion. 

ii) Even apart from the semantic issues, this is not a ritual for pregnant women in particular, but for suspected wives in general. Whether or not the woman happens to be pregnant is incidental to the ritual. The point of the ritual is to establish guilt or innocence, and penalize guilt. 

iii) In Scripture, barrenness is sometimes (but by no means always) a penalty for sin. It would be consistent with that theme if the punishment in Num 5 is infertility. 

iv) Some critics will complain that the ritual is sexist or misogynistic. By way of reply:

a) In the Mosaic law, adultery was a capital offense for adulterer and adulteress alike (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22). 

b) In Lev 20:20-21, childlessness is a penalty for incest. Apparently, God will curse the incestuous couple with infertility. They will be unable to reproduce. Presumably, they will outlive any children they may already have.

c) In traditional cultures, adultery is an offense against the husband. She has shamed him. And it's up to him to restore his honor.  

In the OT, by contrast, adultery is primarily a religious offense. A question of how men and women conduct their lives in the sight of God. Whether they lead God-honoring or God-dishonoring lives. 

Hence, trial by ordeal (Num 5) takes the case out of the husband's hands. A wife, falsely accused, has been dishonored by the accuser (her husband). If innocent, the rite restores her honor. The efficacy of the rite is contingent on God's will. 

v) Here's a good discussion of the terminology:

The priest himself holds the vessel which contains the "water of bitterness." There has been much debate regarding the meaning of the term "bitterness" here. The Septuagint translates it as "waters of testing" or "proof," and, of course, that makes good sense in the context. This reading has been supported by G. R. Driver. Snaith, using Arabic cognates, suggests that it may mean to "cause an abortion." There is no support from the Hebrew language for such a reading. Pardee argues that it may mean "curse-bringing," and he bases his translation on an Ugartic textual parallel. Brichto takes an entirely different approach by saying it means "instruction, revelation." 
Sasson has taken a unique approach to the issue. He argues on the basis of an Ugaritic cognate, that the term translated above as "bitterness" actually means "blessing." Thus, in his view, the closing of v18 is really a merismus, which reads, "waters which bless and bring the curse." In other words, the judgment is still in doubt, and the outcome will depend on her guilt or innocence with regard to the test. 
In these verses the priest administers an oath-taking ceremony. If she is innocent, then may she "be free" from a curse…If, on the other hand, she is guilty of committing adultery, may she receive the "oath of the curse." The term for "curse" here is used of an imprecation that is added on to an oath. Thus, the woman is calling down punishment on herself if she is indeed guilty of the crime.  
The specific punishment is that Yahweh will cause her "thigh to sag" and her "belly to swell up." 
What is meant by these two physical ailments is uncertain…The ailments probably, in a sense of ironic justice, prohibit the act of procreation. The "thigh" is commonly used to refer to sexual organs, particularly in regard to the male (see Gen 46:26, KJV).  
Distending of the belly is more difficult to interpret. Frymer-Kensky has offered a reasonable solution. She argues that the verb "to swell up" (of which this is the only occurrence in Hebrew) is related to the Akkadian verb "to flood." And, thus, the woman's uterus is directly flooded by the curse-bearing waters. She is not able to have intercourse, to conceive, or to bear children. J. Currid, Numbers (EP 2009), 93-96.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Yes, there's evidence that God exists

Letters from home

13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Heb 11:13-16). 
My father was a WWII vet. He told my mother that there were two kinds of soldiers in his unit: those who frequented brothels, and those who wrote their sweetheart or fiancée every day.
On bases far away, or serving overseas, that's what kept some soldiers going. Having that to look forward to. 
Having a woman who was waiting for them. Having a woman they were waiting to see again. Planning a life together. 
Writing a letter to their sweetheart or reading a letter from their sweetheart. Hoping to see her again, face-to-face. Hoping to embrace. Hoping to pick up where they left off.
This is what many men ultimately fight for. For the folks back home. Having that to return to. 
And that's like the life of faith. The waiting. The longing. Like letters to home or letters from home. Counting down the days before reunion. 
Of course, many soldiers never made it back. Yearning for home, but dying far from home. They died unfulfilled in this life. 
And I suppose this is one of the worst things about a civil war. Even if you survive, what if you go back home, only there's no home to go back to? When you go back, you find burned buildings. Makeshift graves of friends and family you left behind. They waved you good-bye. Hugs, tears, and kisses. That's the last time you saw them alive. While you were gone, the life you knew was blown to bits. Literally. 
There's nothing left for you here. Nothing left to keep you here. Going back shows you there's nothing to go back to. 
And that, too, is like the life of faith. Especially as the losses accrue. By faith we override what we can see and feel–putting our faith in what we can't see or feel. What we can see and feel is real, but ephemeral. What we can't see or feel is everlasting. 

The commercialization of Christmas

This time of year you always have some Christians and pastors bemoan the commercialization of Christmas. And, in a sense, they are right on the merits. The gratuitous spending. The kitsch. The secular Christmas songs. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, &c.

But in the providence of God, the commercialization of Christmas has a fringe benefit. For the commercialization of Christmas exposes many unbelievers to a major redemptive event. Exposes them to the story and the theology of Christmas. If it weren't for the commercialization of Christmas, many unbelievers would be utterly ignorant of this central redemptive event. 

For instance, because Good Friday isn't commercialized, many unbelievers don't know the first thing about the significance of Good Friday. They don't know what it stands for. Many of them aren't even aware of Good Friday. 

If Christmas wasn't a national holiday, with all the popular hubbub, many unbelievers would be even more ignorant than they already are of Christian theology. For all the excesses of the season, it makes them aware of something profoundly important. So even though the commercialization of Christmas is bad in itself, God can use that to create a theological foothold to reach people who never step inside a church. It's a start. Instead of complaining, we should build on that.

Did God love the Egyptians?

Darwin and the Mathematicians

The greatest flimflam man on earth

The presumption of creation

I could be wrong about this. I haven't seen any scientific polling data. But it's my impression that we seem to be living in a time, at least in North America, where a larger that usual percentage of professing Christians have jettisoned the historical Adam for theistic evolution. 

I imagine this is due in no small part to the impression that given the (allegedly) mounting evidence for evolution, that theory is now the presumptive position. Young-earth and old-earth creationists are supposedly fighting an uphill battle. Or a rearguard action. Pick your metaphor. 

However, it's important to keep in mind that there's no antecedent presumption in favor of evolution. Indeed, if you tune out the barrage of evolutionary propaganda and step back a few paces, evolution is antecedently implausible. Monumentally implausible. 

The theory of naturalistic evolution is like a corridor millions of miles long. Every few feet is a door with a combination lock. The blind safecracker must try every possible combination until he hits on the right one. That opens the door, allowing evolution to proceed for a few feet until the next door. 

Of course, Darwinians might take exception to my metaphor. However, I don't think it's a trade secret that mathematicians are more skeptical of evolution than biologists. Biologists say that's because mathematicians don't know much about the life sciences. Mathematicians counter that that's because biologists don't know much about probability. So it's a metaphor with a real-world analogue. 

Hence, there's no antecedent presumption that evolution is true. To the contrary, there's an antecedent presumption that evolution is false. Indeed, a well-night insurmountable presumption to the contrary. It's divine creation that's the default position. 

However, a theistic evolutionists might object. It's not a blind safecracker. Rather, if evolution is divinely guided or front-loaded, then God knows the combination lock. 

And it's fair to say that theistic evolution might not be improbable in the way that naturalistic evolution is. Intelligence has problem-solving abilities that mindlessness does not. 

There are, however, problems with that appeal:

i) If a young-earth creationist or old-earth creationist invokes divine agency to make his theory work, he's accused–often by theistic evolutionists!–of resorting to a deus machine or God-of-the-gaps. He's lectured on the continuum of physical cause and effect. 

ii) If theistic evolutionists need to invoke divine agency to make the theory work, that raises questions about the explanatory power of the theory in the first place. 

Let's assume scientific realism for the sake of argument. Serious scientific theories, even if they are wrong, aren't simply wrong. What makes them serious theories is that they can account for some of the evidence. What makes them lose out to competing theories is if the competition can account for more of the evidence.

A mark of a failed theory is that it only accounts for some of the evidence, not to mention evidence to the contrary. It lacks the explanatory power of a theory that accounts for more evidence, and is at least consistent with all the evidence. 

If the theory of evolution needs God to get the kinks out, isn't that a telltale sign of a failed theory? If we're going to invoke divine agency, why bother with the theory of evolution at all? The theory may need God, but God doesn't need the theory. 

Is Tolkien Christian?

Many Christians love Tolkien's fiction. Some love the books. Some love the movies. Some love both.

However, for some, this is a guilty pleasure. That's because C. S. Lewis is a Christian novelist in a way that Tolkien is not. Lewis uses thinly-veiled Christian symbolism and overt analogies. 

As a result, some Tolkien fans resort to special pleading to make his fiction more Christian than it is. They offer typological interpretations.

Now in some cases I suppose that's more plausible. You could claim that Gandalf is a Christ-figure who dies for his friends, then is "resurrected." Mind you, that would be more plausible if Gandalf in general were more Christ-like. 

i) I think one problem is when Christians feel the need to justifying their enjoyment of something that isn't Christian. But something can be good–artistically good–without being Christian. Even unbelievers must take their materials from God's hand. 

ii) That said, I think there's a way of offering a more Christian interpretation of Tolkien. It seems to me that the genre is basically in the medieval chivalric tradition. Gandalf is priestly or monkish. Aragorn and Legolas are knightly. Saruman is an evil monk and sorcerer. Frodo is the holy fool. Gollum is an apostate. Sauron is a fallen angel. And medieval literature had mythological creatures which have their counterparts in Tolkien. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Climbing Mount Improbable

Here are three critical reviews of Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins. Interestingly, all three reviewers are Jewish. One a Messianic Jew, and the other two secular Jews:

The Spanish Inquisition redux

In one example, interrogators were told that a detainee's medical files showed he had a severe phobia of the dark and suggested ways in which that could be manipulated to induce him to cooperate. 
In March 2002, the CIA captured Abu Zubaydah, believed then to be a high-level Qaeda mastermind. Abu Zubaydah apparently feared insects. Someone at the CIA came up with the idea—right out of "1984," it would seem—of putting him in a small, dark box and letting an insect crawl on him. But since this was America, and not Orwell's fantasy police state, the CIA first had to get permission from a lawyer at the Department of Justice. Parsing statutes against torture, the lawyer (Jay Bybee, then chief of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel) ruled that Abu Zubaydah's interrogators could not tell the suspect that the insect was venomous because, under the law, prisoners could not be threatened with imminent death. However, Abu Zubaydah could be placed in a "confinement box" with a harmless insect as long as he was told nothing about it. The CIA had proposed using a caterpillar.

Evil "by definition"

Critics of "torture" always employ the same methodology: 

i) Begin with a broad, amorphous, stimulative definition of "torture"

ii) Claim that "by definition," torture is evil

iii) Claim that various techniques of interrogation fit the definition. That makes them "torture" by definition

iv) Ergo, that makes said techniques evil by definition

But why would any reasonable person think that tendentious, circuitous method is the logical way to determine if, say, sleep deprivation is immoral? 

Why not consider sleep deprivation on its own terms? Why not consider if that's licit or illicit in its own rights? Why not consider each technique on the merits?  

Moreover, why treat various techniques in isolation to the terrorist? Has the terrorist forfeited certain prima facie protections by his actions, associations, or intentions? 

"Primitive" snakes

i) When I read about reticulated pythons, it's amusing to see them described as "primitive" snakes. As if these are early, draft models of more advanced snakes–like venomous snakes.

Yet reticulated pythons are perfect killing machines. Quick, clean, bloodless. They have rows of incurved teeth to get a solid grip. They suffocate their prey within minutes, then swallow it whole. They have detachable jaws which enable them to swallow prey wider than themselves. They have gorgeous camouflage, ideal for an ambush predator. 

It's a very efficient, complete mechanism for killing and costuming prey. How would you improve on that?  

It doesn't look like a primitive design which natural selection has to get the kinks out of. It's not a test model, but a final design. A fully developed, fully-functional system. 

ii) Moreover, it's not transitional to venomous snakes. Death by constriction and death by envenomation are two unrelated methods of predation. Python design is not a bridge to a rattlesnake. 

iii) Darwinians counter that pythons have vestigial hind-legs. And they point to fossil snakes with hind-legs. For them, that's evidence that snakes evolved from quadrupeds. But it seems to me that there are problems with that inference:

a) Vestigial structures don't disprove special creation. Structures can atrophy through disuse. Take blind cave fish. That's not inconsistent with special creation or fiat creation.

b) Why assume a fossil snake with hind-legs evolved from quadrupeds, rather than viewing it for what it is–an extinct snake with hind-legs?

c) To my knowledge, only the largest snake species have vestigial legs (of that's what they are) or hind-legs (in the case of fossil snakes).

That raises the question of whether hind-legs were functional. Do snakes that long and heavy need hind-legs–unlike shorter, lighter snakes? Did that help them get around, or get going? 

d) By parity of argument, should we infer that walking catfish evolved from quadrupeds? Are their pectoral fins vestigial legs? 

iv) Are pit-vipers more advanced than mambas and cobras? Infrared vision might seem to be a more advanced design. But that's only beneficial for nocturnal predators. That's not advantageous for diurnal snakes like mambas and King cobras. So it' s not more "advanced." 

If, moreover, all snakes had infrared vision, then they'd be in competition night and day. By contrast, if some snakes are diurnal while others are nocturnal, that's a time-sharing arrangement. 

Retractable fans might seem to be more advanced than fixed fangs. Yet venomous snakes with fixed fangs are some of the world's deadliest. 

v) Another fascinating predator is the electric eel. In evolutionary terms, this is a "primitive" creature compared to, say, a dolphin or leopard. Yet it's a marvel of engineering efficiency. It uses electricity for offense, defense, and navigation (like radar). It stuns or electrocutes its prey, then swallows it whole.

A very compact design. How would you improve on that? How is that "primitive"? 

Are Cheetahs evolving dogs?

As a rule, why do dogs and cats have different paws? That's because canine paws are designed for running whereas feline paws are designed for climbing and/or killing (e.g. puncturing, gripping). Although cats can run, they run in short bursts–when they are chasing down prey. They lack stamina. By contrast, wolves, Cape Hunting dogs, &c., are long-distance runners. They can run for miles and miles without becoming winded. That's how they wear down their prey. Cats are sprinters, dogs are marathon runners. 

The Cheetah is an exception. The Cheetah has paws like a canine rather than a feline. It's a necessary adjustment to equip it for extreme speed. It couldn't run that fast, or turn that fast, with big soft paws and retractable claws. 

According to evolutionary reasoning, we should infer that Cheetahs have canine paws because Cheetahs and canines share a common ancestor. Indeed, Cheetahs are transitional species. Either felines evolving into canines or canines evolving into felines. 

But, of course, in the case of Cheetahs, Darwinians admit that this is simply an adaptation. It's not common descent, but the environment, that accounts for this adaptive trait. That exploits a food niche. Superior speed enables Cheetahs to outrun prey that's too fast for lions and leopards. 

But that raises questions regarding evidence for evolution. Are similar traits due to common ancestry or adaptation? 

From a theistic standpoint, Cheetahs are cats with dog-like feet because God designed them to run fast. A very specialized cat. God makes a wide variety of creatures. God rings the changes on possible combinations.

The divine origamist

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that this is a significant discovery:

i) Lately, a number of professing Christians have abandoned the historical Adam based on (alleged) genetic evidence for the common ancestry of apes and humans. The basic argument is that common genes imply common ancestry. The more two creatures are genetically alike, the greater their affinity by common descent. They share so much genetic material in common because they share common ancestry (i.e. most recent common ancestor).

ii) However, even Darwinians admit that the shared vocal ability (i.e. imitation, vocalization) of parrots and humans isn't due to a common ancestor. Rather, they chalk that up to independent development of the same morphology and brain circuitry. 

iii) But a familiar problem that convergent evolution poses for evolutionary theory in general is that it undermines evidence for common ancestry. 

iv) Another issue is why we'd attribute this to independent evolution rather than special creation. 

v) Finally, if parrots and humans have similar vocal abilities because they have similar genes, then how do shared genes count as evidence for evolution (whether convergent evolution or common ancestry)? 

From a theistic standpoint, if God chose to make two creatures with similar vocal abilities, he does that by giving them similar genes. They have similar genes, not because they are related to each other, or because they evolved, but because that's the natural mechanism to produce a similar result. God uses similar physical causes to produce similar physical effects.

To say they are related because they share common genes is  circular. You can reason from similar morphology to similar genes or vice versa. Each implies the other. 

If God designed to creatures to have similar abilities, then the way to engineer that would be to give them similar genes. 

Some creatures are more alike because God chose to make them more alike. Some creatures are less alike because God chose to make them less alike. The range of diversity is a tribute to divine ingenuity. Like origami. All the different figures you can shape by folding the same piece of paper different ways. That takes great imagination, artistry, and skill.

"Development of Doctrine" for the Roman Catholic: A blank check for a wax nose.

It seems to me that what Roman Catholicism has done over the years is to “synthesize” and to bring in unbiblical concepts, which it then understands to be “divine revelation”. That is why I’ve written recently about Aquinas being “the problem”.

Aquinas “synthesized” Aristotelian metaphysics, and in doing so, he did alter what was at the time “the Classical doctrine of God”, sacraments, etc. The challenge with understanding all of this is to understand (a) where the concepts came from, and (b) at what point did they become “doctrine” and hence, at what point, did Rome begin to consider them “divine revelation” -- or “tradition”, in other words.

In the Roman system, “tradition” is not the same as what the Eastern Orthodox mean by “tradition”. There is a whole elaborate set of explanations to say why these Roman accretions are “development” and how they continue to be part of “tradition” (or rather, “Tradition”, with a capital “T”), even though some of them are less than 50 years old.

Before Aquinas, the writing of someone like a pseudo-Dionysius existed, and some likely loosely held to them. Aquinas incorporated what we now clearly know to be a forgery into his “theology”, and his “theology” became ratified into dogma in large scale by the RCC.

Keep in mind, there is a difference between “doctrine” (or “dogma”) in Roman Catholicism and “theology”. Any “theology” can be (and is) easily dismissed by apologists, especially that which doesn’t suit their purpose du jour.

Dogmas then, for Rome, become “reformulated positively” -- essentially a blank check for a wax nose, all of which occurs under the rubric of “development”.

This is essentially why Rome, while having the claim to being “old”, really is the adopter of “every wind of doctrine” that has come down the pike. It keeps a couple of dusty old artifacts (such as “the papacy”), and all the rest is a whirlwind.