Where the Conflict Really Lies – Alvin Plantinga (Review)

You may have heard that there is a conflict between science and religion.  Promoting such a war has enabled many on both sides, fundamentalist creationists and fundamentalist atheists, to sell a lot of books.  Even for those not on the extreme, there is a feeling and a fear that somehow faith in God is at odds with belief in science.

Of course, there is no such conflict.  But philosopher Alvin Plantinga wants to go one step farther then saying there is no conflict between science and religion.  He argues that there truly is a conflict, but it is between science and naturalism.

Before he gets there, he tackles the alleged conflict between faith and science.  This takes two forms, the idea that Darwin’s theory of evolution somehow refutes Christian faith and the idea that it is impossible to believe in miracles in a world of science.  Such conflicts simply do not exist.  Not only do they not exist, but promoting such conflict actually hurts science:

As a result, declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science. That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust. Hence these declarations of incompatibility have unhappy consequences for science itself. – Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 54). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

In the second part of the book Plantinga looks at two areas where there appears to be a superficial conflict: evolutionary psychology and scriptural scholarship.  While there may be small conflict, the claims of those two disciplines do not provide a defeater for belief in God.

Speaking of “defeaters”, it is important to grasp the understanding of basic beliefs for Plantinga.  Over and over again he speaks of many beliefs we hold with no evidence, things like perception, memory, and that other people have minds.  When we see a sheep on a hill far ahead we do not form an argument that there is a sheep.  We simply see it and believe it is there.  This belief is justified.  In the same way, believing other people perceive the world how we do and remembering what we had for breakfast do not require arguments and evidence.  A defeater is something that would prove such beliefs wrong.  If someone says of our seeing the sheep, “that’s my dog Skip,” we now have our belief defeated.

Plantinga argues that belief in God is just such a basic belief.  We do not need evidence to prove our belief in God, it is rational to believe in God in a basic way.  But can such a belief be defeated?  No such defeater has been found.  Plantinga argues that evolution is definitely nowhere close and the topics of part two, though there is superficial conflict, are not near being defeaters either.

Then in part three he discusses areas where there is concord between science and faith, making the claim that is extended in part four, that belief in science has much more justification for theism then naturalism.

Finally, part four is the height of the book.  Here Plantinga takes science, the belief in evolution, and naturalism, the belief that there is nothing outside of nature.  For Plantinga, you cannot sensibly believe in both evolution and naturalism.  For if all we are is nature, then our evolution is driven solely by survival.  We desire to feed, survive and reproduce.  Survival, not truth, is what is most important.

We assume that our cognitive faculties are reliable. But what I want to argue is that the naturalist has a powerful reason against this initial assumption, and should give it up. I don’t mean to argue that this natural assumption is false; like everyone else, I believe that our cognitive faculties are, in fact, mostly reliable. What I do mean to argue is that the naturalist—at any rate a naturalist who accepts evolution—is rationally obliged to give up this assumption. – Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 326). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

One objection to Plantinga’s argument is that it seems obvious that true beliefs would ensure survival.  He admits this is true, but says it is irrelevant.  His argument is not about how things are but how we would expect things to be if naturalism and evolution were both true.  We cannot assume naturalism (materialism) is true from the outset.  If we imagine it being true we imagine a world where all that matters is survival and truth is irrelevant.  He says:

It is by virtue of its neurophysiological properties that B causes A; it is by virtue of those properties that B sends a signal along the relevant nerves to the relevant muscles, causing them to contract, and thus causing A. It isn’t by virtue of its having that particular content C that it causes what it does cause. So once again: suppose N&E were true. Then materialism would be true in either its reductive or its nonreductive form. In either case, the underlying neurology is adaptive, and determines belief content. But in either case it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.29

Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 340). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

In a natural world your desire to get a drink of water is driven by your biological need for water.  Any true beliefs you have about water, or false ones, are irrelevant.  Believing in naturalism and evolution thus provides a defeater for naturalism in that you have no good reason to hold it is true.

Plantinga’s argument is long and detailed, so I hope I did a halfway decent job of illustrating it here.  I first encountered some of these ideas of basic beliefs and defeaters in his book Warranted Christian Belief.  I found this book much better, more approachable for a non-specialist in philosophy.  That said, there were parts of it that were definitely a chore.  I am grateful for people like Plantinga who make such arguments, but I am more grateful for those who can distill them down to be made understandable for normal, average people.  I work my way through books like this because I think it truly helps me in ministry, but I can’t say I enjoy reading them as I do some other Christian thinkers like David Bentley Hart or James KA Smith.

Overall, a good and challenging read that has much that can be useful in helping those who have questions about faith and science.



Science and the Case for God

This past November CSF hosted a Question and Answer night, which is always a lot of fun.  As the questions come up, I try to set the tone for the discussion, directing it towards certain things and away from others.  Inevitably questions about science, evolution, faith and God come up.  On this night, I prefaced the discussion on those topics by stating that Christians hold diverse views on how science and faith relate.  I emphasized that many Christians believe in Darwinian evolution as the best explanation for how we got here.  Finally, I pointed out that college professors will not respect your opinion if you come into class and assume your knowledge of Genesis 1 and your Ken Ham videos make you an expert, able to refute those who have dedicated their lives to studying such things.  If you want respect, learn the material and come to your disagreement based on your own knowledge and study.

Personally, I find science interesting…and kind of irrelevant to faith.  I tried to watch Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos and after 2 episodes I shifted over to documentaries on World War I.  I’d like to know more, but there are other subjects I am more interested in.  More than that, I am bored with the entire creation- evolution debate.

Well, on that night in November, my effort to stay away from these debates failed.  Pretty soon the students were debating whether science proves God or not.  An intelligent Christian student was arguing lines from either a creationist or intelligent design textbook.  Later on another smart Christian student quoted a random verse in Job to show the Bible teaches the earth is round (the verse does not mean what he, or whomever he got it from, wants it to mean).  It seemed like a fun discussion, but ultimately it never seems to get anywhere.  Science can do a lot of things but it cannot prove or disprove God, such questions are the realm of metaphysics and philosophy.

Over the holidays an article by Eric Metaxas kept popping up on my social media feeds.  This article, published in the Wall Street Journal, argues that “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.”  Bible scholar Peter Enns points to a rabbi who argues why Metaxas’ approach is doomed to failure.

All are good reads and while I tend to take the side of Enns and those who agree with him, I recommend all articles be read.  In my work with college students one thing I always emphasize is that they keep learning, that they love God with all their mind.  There ought to be no fear in study or learning.  If you are open-minded and the person you are talking with is too, then you will at least discover respect and even friendship in the disagreement.

Any thoughts on the articles from Metaxas and Enns are welcomed!

The Mind and The Machine (Review)

Any book that combines a discussion of Raymond Kurzweil’s theory of the coming singularity with analysis of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien is probably going to be a good read.  Matthew Dickerson’s The Mind and The Machine: What it Means to Be Human and Why it Matters does not disappoint.  Dickerson’s basic question in the book is to ask whether a human can be understood as just a complex biological machine.  This view he calls physicalism, where the physical world of matter is all there is.  Dickerson contrasts this with dualism, the view that a human consists not just of body, but of body and spirit.

The first half of the book is focused on showing the shortcomings of a physicalist view.  He argues that under physicalism, things like creativity and heroism cease to exist.  Creativity is defined as the bringing of something new into existence, something original.  Heroism is making virtuous choices.  The problem is that under physicalism there is no free will.  If humans are just biological machines, extremely complex computers, we can only do what we have been programmed to do by nature or nurture.

He also argues, suprisingly, that physicalism leads to a devaluing of nature.  This appears surprising because it is often religious people, at least of certain persuasions, who are seen as so valuing the spiritual that they care nothing for the world around them.  But Dickerson says that the views of Kurzweil and others devalue the body: if we’re going to merge with computers, what need is there for the natural world?  Further, if the only things that exist are physical things, Dickerson argues than everything humans do is “natural.”  Humans, as part of nature, do natural things, whether this is polluting rivers or cleaning them.  And if determinism is true, which it must be under this view, then it is inevitable that we will do whatever we do.  There is nothing “unnatural.”

Dickerson’s third argument may be even more surprising, as he argues that physicalism gives less reason to trust in reason or science than does dualism.  In this he turns some physicalist arguments back on themselves.  Many say that humans only believe in religion as part of our evolutionary programming, it was something helpful in the past.  Yet if all our beliefs only come about out of usefulness, then the same is true of our trust in reason.  If a mind outside the physical brain is illusion, then so to is reason.

The second part of the book then goes through the same subjects, showing how a dualist perspective better accounts for human creativity, heroism and the rest.  It should be noted that Dickerson argues for an integrative dualism where body and soul cannot be separated from each other, both are needed for a human to be fully human.  This differs from a “ghost in the machine” dualism where the soul is like an entity living in the body, pulling the levers and running the show.

Overall, this is a fantastic book.  It covers a lot of ground while engaging with a variety of fields from science to literature.  Dickerson does not claim to have a knock-down rational argument for or against naturalism or dualism.  Instead his point is to ask which view better explains our existence as humans: “What I have suggested was that if humans are spiritual beings, then we ought to have some spiritual compass” (206).

To Dickerson, and I think he’s right, it comes down to assumptions.  If you assume from the outset that humans are just physical creatures and nothing more, that the brain is just the matter you can see inside a skull, then no argument for a soul makes sense.  Dickerson asks us to question that assumption.  What if we leave open the possibility that there is more to the world than what science can find, then what is physical and material?  Does a spiritual sense better explain creativity and heroism, reason and a moral basis for ecological practice (i.e., polluting the planet is wrong).  If so, perhaps there is something out there beyond the natural world.

That said, questioning our assumptions is tough.  If Dickerson can get us to do that, he has succeeded.

Finally, I did think the book slowed down near the end.  Perhaps, and this will sound bad coming from a Christian pastor, it is because that while his defense of creativity and heroism relied on the work of Tolkien, his defense of reason and science rested on scripture.  I believe everything he said about scripture is true and that there is a strong motivation in there for trusting reason and doing science.  But using scripture to support the argument in one chapter and not another seemed uneven.  It would have been better either to add scripture to the heroism and creativity chapter, or to find examples (like Tolkien) for the science and reason chapter.

Are Christians Anti-Science? (You Lost Me 8)

In You Lost Me, David Kinnaman states that “Millions of young Christians perceive Christianity to be in opposition to modern science.”  The rest of this chapter goes on to analyze the data that says many young adults walk away from faith, or become disillusioned with faith, because it appears to be opposed to modern science.

One of my personal regrets when I think back to my own college days is that I did not take more science courses.  Along with that, I did not study as vigorously in the courses I did take as I should have.  I took the required nine credits in science and moved on to what I really wanted to study, things like history and religion.  Over the years I’ve found myself fascinated by aspects of science and on a regular basis I’ll read books (or watch videos like this)  in an attempt to learn more about everything from the theory of evolution to string theory.

I wish I had taken more science courses in college because I recall being rather arrogant.  My belief was that since I was a Christian and had the Bible, I knew how God had created and I knew evolution was not it.  I could laugh at those who thought humanity had evolved from monkeys (I don’t think I realized at the time that the theory is that we have evolved from a common ancestor we share with monkeys, so monkeys are our cousins according to the theory).

In the years since then I think I’ve learned humility.  It has been an important lesson to learn.

Now I work in campus ministry, leading a community of Christian students on campus.  What strikes me as interesting is that when I meet students who are Christians and science majors, they tend to think the theory of evolution holds strong explanatory power.  These students continue to have Christian faith, but they also cannot refuse to believe what the evidence appears to show.  On the other hand, it is often students who major in something else, those who have little knowledge of the science, (like me when I was in college) who reject evolution.  I have not taken a study on this, it is just my perception of the students over the years.

My advice to any sort of student I meet, regardless of their major,  is to encourage them to study.  God has blessed you with a brain, you’ve been commanded to love God with your mind, so apply all your intellectual faculties to the subject and learn as much as you can.  If you pursue a degree in science, become the best scientist you can be.

My advice to Christians who have been taught that evolution is an enemy of faith is humility.  Just because we have Christ does not make us experts on everything.  I usually refer them to the words of Augustine, writing 1000 years before the theory of evolution came along, are extremely helpful:

 “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous things for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but the people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason” (Augustine Genesis 19:39)

I think the best thing we can do for young people is help them avoid the two extremes, both of which say the same thing.  Some on the Christian side and some on the atheist side say that you cannot believe in evolution and be a Christian.  Such blanket statements, especially when made by Christians, are just wrong.  Instead we ought to encourage students to study and learn and help them integrate their faith with science, whether they believe in evolution or not.  More than that, my goal is for students to become disciples of Jesus which has a lot more to do with how you treat other people then how precisely you think God created the world.

Whatever individuals think about science and faith,  I think this quote from Kinnaman makes a vital point:

the very fact that science invites participation lends its authority more weight than areas of inquiry that don’t. Dialogue, creative problem solving, living with questions and with ambiguity, group brainstorming, the opportunity to contribute—these are highly valued by the next generation. To the extent that we in the Christian community insist that young adults should just accept our “right” answers, we perpetuate a needless schism between science and faith.” (Kinnaman, David (2011-04-01). You Lost Me (Kindle Locations 2223-2226). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.)

Science invites participation.  I was listening to a podcast (I forget which one) and the statement was made that scientists do not sit around talking about what they know, they sit around talking about what they do not know yet.  Science is a field that pushes young scientists to make their mark by discovery.

Faith, at least from the perception of young people, is more about authority: believe this book, believe this sermon and don’t ask questions.  The challenge, I think, is to help people see that Christian faith is not just about submitting to archaic rules and notions of the universe.  Instead, it is about entering into a beautiful and exciting relationship, one filled with mystery and discovery, with the Creator of the universe.

Assumptions, Biases and Evidence…Oh My! (Recent Reads)

What assumptions and biases do you bring with you as you approach evidence?

I got to thinking about that question as I read a few articles recently by Stanley Fish.  These articles were on the place of evidence and trust in our belief systems. First was “Citing Chapter and Verse: Which Scripture is the Right One?”  In the past most people put their trust in religion and religious pronouncements.  How is this different then putting trust in scientific pronouncements, since most people have not taken the time to do the research themselves?  Richard Dawkins’ response, during a recent forum, was that the difference is that with science you can cite a study, in other words (his words), you can cite “chapter and verse”.

With this proverbial phrase, Dawkins unwittingly (I assume) attached himself to the centuries-old practice of citing biblical verses in support of a position on any number of matters, including, but not limited to, diet, animal husbandry, agricultural policy, family governance, political governance, commercial activities and the conduct of war. Intellectual responsibility for such matters has passed in the modern era from the Bible to academic departments bearing the names of my enumerated topics. We still cite chapter and verse — we still operate on trust — but the scripture has changed (at least in this country) and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.

The question is, what makes one chapter and verse more authoritative for citing than the other? The question did not arise in the discussion, but had it arisen, Dawkins and Pinker would no doubt have responded by extending the point they had alreadymade: The chapter and verse of scriptural citation is based on nothing but subjective faith; the chapter and verse of scientific citation is based on facts and evidence.

The argument is circular and amounts to saying that the chapter and verse we find authoritative is the chapter and verse of the scripture we believe in because we believe in its first principle, in this case the adequacy and superiority of a materialist inquiry into questions religion answers by mere dogma

Fish goes on to argue that all people look at the world with a set of assumptions.  We all have presuppositions – “original authority” or “basic orthodoxy” that we begin with.  These assumptions are the lens through which we look at evidence.  If the evidence fits in with our belief we accept it and if it contradicts our belief we ignore it.

The second article was a follow-up, “Evidence in Science and Religion, Part 2“.  In this he replies to some of the responses garnered from the first article.  He is not saying science and religion are similar in every way, simply that they are mediated.  They both “work” in different areas.  While the certainty religion gives us can change, so too can the certainty science gives us as its claims have changed over the years.

Yes, the apostle of science will reply: that just shows that science is progressive and can correct its mistakes, while religion lacks a mechanism for detecting and purging error. This argument (made by many posters) assumes that when science “changes its mind,” it is because more precise and powerful techniques have given it a better purchase on the world it had previously perceived only dimly (“Now we see through a glass darkly”). The world has stayed still; only the devices of perception have changed and brought us closer to it.

But this Baconian model of scientific progress in which data sits waiting to be revealed by superior instruments is now, the Princeton philosopher Thomas Kelly tells us, “universally rejected by philosophers” (“Evidence,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). “It is now appreciated,” Kelly continues, “that at any given time, which theories are accepted … typically plays a crucial role in guiding the subsequent search for evidence which bears on these theories.”

Shortly after this he makes what is the clearest and vital point: theories determine what will count as evidence.  The idea that we sift evidence with an open-mind and believe where it leads is simply false.  We all bring theories (assumptions, biases) to the evidence.

The very act of looking around is always and already performed within a set of fully elaborate assumptions complete with categories, definitions and rules that tell you in advance what kinds of things might be “discovered” and what relationships of cause and effect, contiguity, sameness and difference, etc., might obtain between them.

We all look at the world through a lens.  Some of us approach the world with the belief that a Creator is behind it all, others approach the world with the belief that it all came about through time and chance.  Whichever approach you take will influence what you count as evidence in any discussion.

This is why people can make statements like:

“I have never seen any evidence God exists”

“I see evidence God exists everyday”

One couple in financial trouble can talk about how God blessed them and they made it through.  The believe in an active God which influences how they interpret the evidence.  Another couple in financial trouble can talk about how they got lucky, had help from some kind people, and made it through.  They don’t allow God into the equation.

So often in discussions and debates we talk past each other because we do not focus in on the assumptions people have.  Everyone brings their assumptions into a discussion.  No position is bias neutral.

I have a lot of thoughts swirling in my head about this.  The one thing I will write is that this is why you can’t just throw “evidence” at people and expect them to change their minds.  Or, to think of some very popular evangelical books, the evidence may demand a verdict but depending who you are, certain verdicts are ruled out before even approaching that evidence.

Back to Fish.  I love how Fish closes the second article, in response to those who say religion is a sort of debate-ender:

Finally, I cannot forbear noting the picture of religion assumed by some of the most caustic commentators who say that religious experts “don’t engage in … debate” (chuckwagon), that when a religious truth is announced “no further inquiry is permitted” (Kevin Brady), that “religious dogma brooks no debate” (Prakash Nadkarni), that the only argument believers have is “The bible says so” (Kevin Grierson) and that “Faith requires a belief system by fiat”(drdave). It is hard to know what to say in the face of such pronouncements, except to recommend a course of reading to those who make them. They might begin with The Book of Job, Augustine’s Confessions and Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

The Moral Landscape

I recently picked up “New Atheist” Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape.  As I read itI wondered if Sam Harris would be good to have as a neighbor. He is a strong believer in objective morality. Many Christians believe that atheists are all terrible people with no morals. Sam Harris shows that this stereotype is false (though he would go a step further and say it is most Christians who have poor morals). As a moral guy who cares about issues in the world, Sam Harris would be a good neighbor.

The problem is, I am a Christian. For that reason, I fear Sam Harris would not like me. I would hope that if we got together with our wives to play Settlers of Catan, or perhaps watched a football game (does Penn State every play UCLA?) we could get along. Could we disagree and still live in neighborly friendliness?  I have read all three of Sam Harris’ books and I am not confident that this would be possible, as he shows a deep and bitter anger towards Christians. Not that I blame him for this, the hate mail he has received from people of faith has not done much to bring any sort of reconciliation.

In The Moral Landscape, Harris presents an argument for objective morality. He opposes secular scientists and philosophers who argue that there are objective facts in science but when it comes to morality, objectivity is gone. Harris sees this moral relativism as false. Worse, he sees in it secularists conceding objective morality to people of faith. His goal is to provide an argument for morality from a secular perspective.

Harris defines “good” as that which supports human well-being. Determining human well-being rests mostly on the science of the brain, which Harris admits is still relatively new. Thus his book is not a final argument for a specific morality. Science is not at a place to do that yet. Instead it is an argument that science does speak to issues of morality and over time will do so more and more.

As a Christian I tried to come to this book as open-minded as possible. In other words, I expected to disagree (much as an atheist expects to disagree when coming to a Christian text, we’re none of us unbiased). But I tried to give Harris a fair hearing. I am sure there were some specific arguments I did not fully grasp, for I am not a trained scientist. I suspect many of those arguments were in the chapter on belief (chapter three), which I found to be the most interesting and insightful chapter in the book. Overall, I still am a Christian and I still find arguments for morality from a naturalistic perspective wanting.

Harris’ argument seems to be a form of utilitarianism – maximizing the good (well-being) and minimizing the bad. It is difficult to see how this can be measured, which I believe has been the main critique of utilitarianism over the years. Besides that, if Harris is right that well-being is the key, the question is whose well being? Why should I care about the well-being of others if it does not affect my own well-being? He reports an exchange he had with a scientist at a conference who said she has no issue with the Taliban’s violence against women because that is just the way their culture is. Harris was appalled at this. But if I am happy, if my wife and kids are healthy and my life is comfortable, why should I care about these people on the other side of the world? Perhaps Harris cares, and good for him. But if I am an atheist, I only have this one life to live and then I am gone forever. The Taliban is thousands of miles away and I do not want to bother with it. I would rather enjoy my life.

The same basic question came up a few times as I read. He seems to lament the fact that more people spend their time playing video games than working to help the homeless (p. 70). Again, if such people were lucky enough (or worked hard enough) to have a comfortable life, why not play video games? Who is Harris or any of us to tell them they should live in a different way? Of course, Harris’ whole project is to prove that science does provide such “shoulds”. I just don’t see it.

Likewise, he shares a story of his wife being hit on at the gym (p. 51). He was glad she resisted the flirting of this other man and he speaks of how an affair would damage the well-being of his family. I am glad for Harris that his wife is loyal. But if she had chosen to cheat on him…what if that increased her own and this other man’s well-being? What if this man was a widower with four children? Perhaps stealing Harris’ wife would hurt Harris’ daughter, but it could help these other four children? Isn’t that more human well-being?

My point is that judging morality in these ways is unsatisfying. Further, if all that matters is human well-being, why not envision a scenario from a movie like The Matrix where all humans are plugged into a computer? If such an existence would make us happiest, why not? Or as one reviewer says: “Nobel Prize–winner Daniel Kahneman studies what gives Americans pleasure—watching TV, talking to friends, having sex—and what makes them unhappy—commuting, working, looking after their children.” (http://nationalinterest.org/bookreview/s… )

Harris also rejects free will, while assuring us that this does not lead to determinism or fatalism. (103-105). Reading his argument for this, I felt like I was reading John Calvin (and Harris may be surprised to find that Calvin would agree with him in this assessment, though for different reasons). Harris says we believe in free will because we are ignorant of the causes of our actions in each moment (105). He goes on to say:

“But the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they do not matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are all causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe” (105)

“There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will…the former are associated with felt intentions (desires, goals, expectations, etc.) while the latter are not…a voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, while an involuntary action isn’t. Where our intentions themselves come from, however, and what determines their character in every instant, remains perfectly mysterious in subjective terms…the freedom to do what one intends, and not to do otherwise, is no less valuable than it ever was” (105-106). 

If there is no free will, then however the intentions, goals and such that arise in us, we are not responsible for them. So how are we responsible for the actions they lead to in the world? He goes on to say, “What we condemn in another person is the intention to do harm” (108). Why condemn something that this person has not freely chosen? Why hold them responsible? It seems more consistent to say that we don’t have free will and thus we are subject to whatever combination of natural desires made us who we are.

Harris did make a huge point that Christians should listen to (123-124). Here Harris talks of how the internet has reduced intellectual isolation but it has also allowed bad ideas to flourish. He goes on to say that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will overestimate his abilities, in other words ignorant people are more confident (123). He applies this to debates between science and religion:

“When a scientist speaks with appropriate circumspection about controversies in his field, or about the limits of his own understanding, his opponent will often make wildly unjustified assertions about just which religious doctrines can be inserted into the space provided. Thus, one often finds people with no scientific training speaking with apparent certainty about the theological implications of quantum mechanics, cosmology, or molecular biology” (124)

I have to say, I agree with Harris here. Christians do no one any good when assuming that just because they are Christians, they are right about everything. For example, Christians should have no problem admitting that Richard Dawkins (or Sam Harris) knows more about science than they do (unless said Christian has degrees in science).

But to turn this critique around on Harris, he often writes as if he possesses a better knowledge of Christian faith than Christians do. He declares the Bible is in favor of slavery, quoting chapter and verse. This sort of surface-level understanding of the text seems to be the same surface-level understanding he decries when Christians approach science. Why not engage with the best Bible scholars? Or at the very least, try to get inside the culture in which the Bible was written to try to understand if there is more going on.

Would it matter to Harris that though the Bible allows slavery, it puts regulations on this slavery that put the slave in a much higher position than slaves in the surrounding culture? Probably not, as the idea of progressive revelation does not seem to carry much weight for Harris. Harris, like some other atheists, seem to say if God exists then God would do xyz (says who?). At any rate, if he wants to be as fair to Christians as he expects people to be to scientists, he should recognize that proof-texting is not valid biblical interpretation.

The same critique could be applied to history. Harris rolls out the rhetoric that Christians in the middle-ages burned witches on a regular basis. But Rodney Stark has shown that witches were rarely burned in the middle-ages, instead witch-burning became most popular at the same time as modern science was beginning to rise (see For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, With-Hunts and the End of Slavery).

This book has me wanting to read more about brain science, especially books that limit the tangents. Harris seems to be writing for an audience that he knows will agree with him, so he throws out rhetoric and red herrings every now and then, to remind us how dumb religion is. I am not sure what the point of the chapter on religion was (chapter four) other than just to smack around religion for a while. In this I am sure Harris comes across as a hero to those who agree. To me, it sounds like the same sort of arrogance that Harris hates when ignorant Christians discount the findings of science.

While I would like to read more about how the brain works, and I assume science will continue to shed light on this, I do not think it is possible to find morality (or meaning, which is a separate question) here. Jerry Coyne in his book Why Evolution is True talks about how when a lion takes over a pride he will kill the baby lions to rid himself of the competition. Of course, no person would say that lion was a murderer or was evil. Yet when I listen to the History of Rome podcast and learn of how many emperors upon coming into power would kill their relatives or relatives of the previous emperor to solidify their power, I see this as murder. What makes humans different? If we are just animals, or if such murder increases the well-being of the emperor and his empire, why is it wrong?

I still agree with Ivan Karamazov in the amazing novel, The Brothers Karamazov: “if there is no God, then all things are permissible“. If Harris is wrong and there is no objective morality from a secular view, it does not automatically mean there is a God. Perhaps life just is meaningless. That is what Ivan believed, and it angered him as this philosophy justified his father’s disgusting life. I think Ivan is right. If there is no God then what reason can you really give a person to choose to help the poor rather than spend their days playing video games?

Online Reviews

Recent Reads

THON!  I danced in THON in 2002 and it was awesome.  Adam, a PSU alum, can tell you what THON is.  I wish I had written that!  My prayers are with all the dancers this weekend!  WE ARE…

Newsweek had a recent article on the Bible and sex.  Get Religion demonstrates what a mess this article is, both from a basic bad interpretation standpoint as well as from a poor journalism standpoint.  Here’s a sample: “The piece (which attempts to expose contradictions in the Bible) also has too many contradictions and curiosities that are left unexplained. Is the Bible wrong or is it just the interpretations that are wrong? And if the Bible is an ancient, patriarchal, awful text, why are we arguing that it embraces gay sex, premarital sex, etc? And why are we saying that’s a good thing if, again, the Bible is this awful, patriarchal mess of incohesion?

Speaking of questions Christians need to ask, what happens if (when?) computers become human?  Science fiction or only three and a half decades away?  I have heard of Ray Kurzweil before and should probably read one of his books.  Check out this article from Time on the Singularity: “Here’s what the exponential curves told him. We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. Kurzweil puts the date of the Singularity — never say he’s not conservative — at 2045. In that year, he estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today.”

Do babies that die automatically go to heaven?  Most Christians would either say yes (of course, they have not committed sin yet) or maybe (if they are elect for Calvinists, if they have been baptized for Catholics).  Greg Boyd points the question in another direction.

I work with college students and this is not breaking news: email use plummets among teens.

I enjoy football, but this article asks good questions.  Are Christians mature enough to question the uncritical acceptance of the greatest American sport (sorry baseball, its true)?

A special treat for my fellow fans of The Simpsons.

Hilarious: Nation Somehow shocked by Human Nature.

Recent Reads

I found Albert Mohler making a good point here: “News of the “house of horrors” in Pennsylvania brings prompt moral outrage, and understandably so. But is the abortion clinic on the corner, established for the purpose of killing unborn children, any less a house of horrors. The couple in Australia openly admitted aborting their twin boys because they want a daughter. Millions around the world seem outraged by their decision, but having accepted the basic logic of abortion, they are hard-pressed to define when any abortion demanded by a woman might be unjustified and thus illegal.”

Speaking of Albert Mohler, he made waves a while back by saying that only young earth creationism is the only valid option for Christians.  The interesting thing is that Mohler admitted that the evidence seems to point to evolution.  I have read other young-earth creationists say the same thing: the scientific evidence points in favor of evolution but Christians should reject it because a “literal” understanding of Genesis 1 trumps the scientific evidence.  Mohler’s speech has garnered tons of responses, many of which are nicely summarized here.  The biggest problem with Mohler’s argument (line in the sand) is that, at least as I understand it, he says Christians should reject a “uniformitarian” understanding of nature which means we should not assume that natural laws have always worked the way they do today.  But to assume this is to bring into question how we can really know anything:

If Mohler’s view of history is correct, then all of his assumptions about scripture are up for grabs.  Absent a “uniformitarian” view of history, there is no way to be sure that what we now think of as “scripture” wasn’t poofed into existence with the “appearance of age” only moments ago.  There is no way to know with any certainty what the “plain meaning” of these documents might be or whether there is any “language” with meaning at all.  Indeed, there is no way to know whether Jesus really lived and truly rose again.

This is an issue that is not going away.  Rachel Held Evans has written a story on her intellectual journey and she weighs more on the issue here with, what I think, is an important message.

Moving on, here is a post listing some of the most prevalent “counterfeit gospels“.

I love this: the Internet Monk blog always reminds me of the beauty of grace!

I also like to read dead people.  Speaking of dead people, if you read the King James Version, this is an interesting post listing words that mean a different thing now then they did when that translation was made.