The limitations of science

I am a fan of science. I was a boy at the time of the Apollo missions to the moon, and I watched full coverage of them on television. Over the years, my parents bought me a telescope, a microscope, a chemistry set, and a 100-project electrical kit. I got As in science all through school. I still keep up with the latest discoveries, from the exploration of Mars to the particles detected from split atoms.

Science provides many benefits. Science gives us longer and more productive lives, thanks to expanding knowledge about nutrition, sleep, exercise, medicine, therapy, and the battle against pests, from viruses and harmful bacteria to fleas, ticks, and tapeworms. But science cannot help us beyond death. Science cannot tell us whether any part of our being survives death. Nor can science reveal the destiny of that surviving entity, whether it will go to heaven or to hell.

Science is limited to studying the physical world. It can measure and describe matter and energy, but science cannot observe anything that does not consist of matter or energy. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, angels, demons, or the human soul. It is not scientific to say that science disproves those entities, because the rules of science do not permit science to determine anything about the nonmaterial world.

Therefore, anyone who puts his or her faith in science is as mistaken as someone who puts his or her faith in money, or in political power, or in one’s own good deeds, or in Baal or Zeus or Thor. Money and politics and good deeds all have value; they each have a place in our lives. But none of them can take the place of God. None of them can do what God does for his people.

One of the benefits of science is that it changes. New discoveries invalidate prevailing theories and force the creation and testing of new theories about the material world. Isaac Newton applied mathematics to science. He found the equation that describes how gravity works. After Newton, science grew more and more mechanical, with the hope that one day science could explain everything in the universe. But Albert Einstein and other twentieth-century scientists showed that Newton’s mathematical and mechanical universe only describes matter and energy of moderate size. The rules change with the very big, the very small, and the very powerful.

Because science changes, it is unreliable. One researcher says coffee is good for people; the next researcher says coffee is bad for people. Efforts to eradicate the spread of disease and improve the cultivation of crops have damaged the environment by killing off insects and poisoning the creatures that eat insects. Food additives, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and perhaps even life-saving vaccinations can have damaging side effects, which may explain the increase in recent times of autism, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and intolerance of one another. The poisonous social atmosphere in which we live may literally be poisoned by the same scientific advancements that were intended to improve our lives.

The person who relies on science and scientists to provide all Truth is missing a great deal. The knowledge that our souls will spend time elsewhere when we die—a better place or a worse place, depending upon who we know and trust—and that our bodies will be raised to eternal life at the dawn of the new creation—this knowledge shapes much of what we choose to do today. Knowing the Creator of the universe is far more important than knowing when and how the dinosaurs lived. Knowing that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus provides forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God, and victory over all enemies is far more important than encyclopedic knowledge of all the chemicals or all the planets and planetoids or all the subatomic particles.

One reason science seems to be more valuable than religion is that science has, over the years, provided material explanations for phenomena (such as thunderstorms and epileptic seizures) that were formerly attributed to spiritual causes. One might chart the number of phenomena that are explained by science and no longer attributed to spirits and assume that the need for religion will disappear. But even though science can improve our lives in this world, it gives us no reason to go on living. Nor can science guarantee eternal life in a better world after death in this world. Science cannot lift the guilt of a person who knows that he or she has done wrong. Science cannot teach people how to forgive one another and live in harmony. Science is beneficial, but it cannot replace religion. A life based on science is as empty as a life based on money or politics or entertainment.

I remain a fan of science. But my faith is in God. Science studies the things God made. Theology studies God. God is not too small for science; he is too big for science to grasp, too powerful for science to measure, too grand for science to explain. I thank God for all the things science has discovered about his creation. I praise God for who he is, information which science cannot supply. J.

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Polar bears and peacock feathers

For years I have been puzzled when people say that polar bears are not really white; they only look white. They also say that the dots on peacock feathers are not really blue; they only look blue. If polar bears are not white, what color are they really? They look white to me. If those dots on peacock feathers are not blue, what color are they really? They look blue to me.

Philosophical questions about colors and other qualities go back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle. These and other philosophers have tried to examine what an object is other than its qualities and what a quality is apart from the objects that have it. Can you define whiteness apart from indicating something that looks white, whether it is a field covered in snow or a polar bear? Can blueness exist apart from a quality of things that look blue? If something changes in color, how much has it changed? Has it merely exchanged one quality for another, or is it now a different object?

I know that the people who say that a polar bear looks white but is not really white were not engaged in that kind of philosophic discussion.

Among his many accomplishments, Isaac Newton revolutionized science’s understanding of light and vision. By demonstrating that a glass prism or a lot of raindrops could break a beam of white light into a rainbow, Newton showed that color and light are closely related. As understanding of light and vision grew from that observation, scientists realize that objects absorb some wavelengths of light while reflecting other wavelengths. We see the colors that are reflected without the colors that are absorbed. White objects are reflecting all the wavelengths of visible light; black objects are absorbing all the wavelengths of visible light.

But that still doesn’t explain how a polar bear could look white without being white.

I recently read an article about light and vision that finally explained what that means. Many of the colors we see in objects are caused by pigments, which are chemicals on the surface of that object which absorb some light waves and reflect us. Chlorophyll is a pigment in many plants that absorbs some wavelengths of light (using that energy to feed the plant) while reflecting green light. Anyone who has worked with paints understands how to blend different colors of paint to achieve the desired color. The mixture of paints absorbs some wavelengths of light while reflecting those wavelengths that the painter wants observers to see.

Polar bear fur does not contain any white pigment. It is the shape of that fur, especially when it is wet, that reflects white light. Peacock feathers do not contain any blue pigment. The shape of the surface of the feather reflects blue light while absorbing other wavelengths of light, causing the dots on the feathers to look blue.

If only people would have said it that way. Polar bears look white and are white even though their fur contains no white pigment. The dots on peacock feathers look blue and are blue even though their feathers contain no blue pigment. Yes, it requires a few more words to communicate the idea, but the communication is much easier to understand.

Interesting sidelight number one: A young man I know well likes to say that purple is not really a color. In one sense he is right. There is no purple wavelength of light. Look closely at a rainbow and you will see that the inner portion of the color is a deep royal blue, not purple at all. On the other hand, he is wrong. Blend a paint that reflects red light waves with a paint that reflects blue light waves, and you will have purple paint. Whatever you cover with that paint will be purple…or at least the color purple will be one of its qualities.

Interesting sidelight number two: Earlier this year a woman took a picture with her phone of a dress that was blue and black. She sent the picture to her daughter, who looked at the picture and thought that the dress was white and gold. You could blame the camera, but here it gets interesting. When the photograph went viral on the internet, people could look at the same photograph on the same screen under the same conditions, and some people saw a white and gold dress while others saw a blue and black dress. A few people could even alternate the colors they saw in the dress. For centuries, people have wondered whether we all see things the same way. When you and I look at something that we agree is red, are we seeing it the same way? The answer, we now know, is no. The dress photograph of 2015 has had its brief internet fame, but I predict that the photograph will appear in psychology textbooks and philosophy textbooks for years to come.

J. (reposted from April 2015–one of my first posts)

A little bit of science on the occasion of a college graduation

This weekend I was out of town to attend a graduation. The night before the ceremony the family was gathered, visiting, and the graduate shared a recent event from her physics class. The professor described a scenario, asked the members of the class to make a prediction of the outcome, told them that they were all wrong, but was unable to explain why they were wrong.

Here is a scenario: a container of water has an ice cube floating in it, and a pebble sits on the ice cube. The ice cube melts. The pebble drops to the bottom of the container. Does the water level in the container rise, fall, or remain the same?

Along with most of the other family members, I predicted that the water level would rise. I had pictures of Archimedes running through the streets shouting “Eureka!” after realizing that the volume of a solid object could be measured by dropping it into a container of water and measuring the displacement of the water. Moreover, it seems that the water level should rise because of the melting of the ice. The graduate said all the members of the class had made the same prediction and it was wrong, but she still did not understand why.

One family member, an engineer, said that the professor was correct, and he explained why. The explanation puzzled most of the family members, although I caught on after a couple times through the scenario. The engineer wanted to produce a mathematical explanation with paper and pencil, but the rest of the family assured him that would not be necessary. We did try to experiment by creating the scenario with a measuring cup, an ice cube, and a pebble, but we could not find the right size ice cube or pebble to conduct the experiment.

The next day there was a party in the same house after the graduation ceremony. In addition to family members, several fellow graduates and other college students were present. To fill a lull in the conversation, I reintroduced the scenario from the physics class. One of the college students, a mathematician, insisted that the water level would rise. The engineer again countered that it would drop. This time the two of them did resort to pencil, paper, a laptop computer, and information from the internet, including the density of water and ice. The engineer was able to convince the mathematician that the water level would indeed drop.

It happens that the classic form of this scenario involves a boat and an anchor rather than an ice cube and a pebble. When the anchor is removed from the boat and dropped into the water, the water level drops, even though it seems that it should rise. The reason for the counterintuitive answer is that the boat with the anchor in it displaces some of the water in the pond. When the anchor is removed from the boat, the boat rises and the water level falls. When the anchor is dropped into the water, some water is displaced and the water level rises, but not to the height that it had been when the anchor was in the boat. The reason this happens is that the anchor sinks because it is denser than the water. (If the anchor floated and did not sink, it would not be an anchor, said the engineer.) Because of its density, the anchor displaces less water than its weight alone displaced when it was in the boat, being supported by the water.

By the same token, ice floats because it is less dense than water. As it floats, it displaces some of the water. When it melts, the volume of the water that was previously frozen is less than the volume of water displaced by the floating ice. Therefore, the pebble-ice cube combination displaced more water when the ice was frozen and floating, supporting the pebble, than the pebble displaced after the ice melted; even the melted ice did not add enough water to raise the water level to the height it had been when the ice was still frozen.

The rest of the weekend, including the graduation, was also nice. J.

Early medieval Christian writers

Pseudo-Dionysius; John Scotus Eriugena; John Climacus: the names may be unfamiliar, but the writings of these men have shaped the course of Christianity from the earlier Middle Ages to the present.

Western civilization in general and Protestant Christianity in particular perpetuate an image of Europe’s Dark Ages—the Roman Empire fell, and until the Renaissance a thousand years later, Europe stagnated in a miasma of superstition and barbarianism. This myth was encouraged by thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment (a label they chose for themselves); following the religious wars of the Reformation, Europe was allegedly ready to abandon the blind prejudices of religion and emerge into the light of science, reason, and humanistic philosophy. Because of this attitude, many of the treasures of the Middle Ages were buried in libraries and museums. Condemned with labels like “Gothic,” the advances of European civilization during these centuries were all set aside as a bypath to oblivion, barbarism from which the fragile flame of the Renaissance and the more robust furnace of the Enlightenment rescued western civilization.

Even the Great Books of the Western World series acknowledges only three writers from the Middle Ages—Chaucer, Aquinas, and Dante. All three are undeniably great, but they could anchor a new set of books that might be called Great Books of the Western Middle Ages. That set would also include Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and John Climacus.

Pseudo-Dionysius is an anonymous writer of the fifth or sixth century who represented himself as the man named Dionysius who heard Paul preach in Athens and became a Christian (Acts 17:34). His surviving writings include “The Divine Names,” “The Mystical Theology,” “The Celestial Hierarchy,” and “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.” As these titles suggest, the writer organizes the known universe into levels of power and authority, reaching from the lowest forms of created being to the one Uncreated Being, God Himself. Pseudo-Dionysius is known for organizing the angels of heaven into nine levels—three sets of three—and also for describing the levels of church leadership that existed in his time and place. More important, Pseudo-Dionysius recommended humility in the believer who would approach God. The Lord of the universe is far beyond human understanding, and we know him only through what He has told us about himself in the Bible.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Let us hold on to the scriptural rule ‘not in the plausible words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the power granted by the Holy Spirit’ (I Corinthians 2:4) to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from that the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor.”

John Scotus Eriugena was a theologian, philosopher, and scientist of the early ninth century who lived in the British Isles. He preserved and commented upon the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and also wrote a  profound commentary on the Gospel according to John. As a scientist, Eriugena continued the tradition of ancient Greek and Roman science, bridging the time between ancient civilization and the scientists of the High Middle Ages such as Roger Bacon and Nicholas of Cusa. The work of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and their heirs would have been impossible without the contributions of men like Eriugena and Roger Bacon. Yet medieval European science was always grounded in the truth of God’s Word, finding meaning and purpose for all creation in the messages from God which communicate the thoughts he wants known by human beings.

Commenting on the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, Eriugena wrote, “When humanity abandoned God, the light of divine knowledge receded from the world. Since then, the eternal light reveals itself in a two-fold manner through Scripture and through creation. Divine knowledge may be renewed in us no other way, but through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature. Learn, therefore, to understand these divine modes of expression and to conceive their meanings in your soul, for therein you will know the Word.”

John Climacus was a monk who lived in a monastery near Mount Sinai at the beginning of the seventh century. His last name refers to his most famous writing, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” which describes the Christian life in terms of gaining virtues and dispelling vices. One of the virtues recommended by Climacus is apathy or dispassion, detachment from the things of this world. This may reflect a Buddhist influence upon Christian monasticism in west Asia, unsurprising in the centuries before the rise of Islam in that part of the world. John’s description of the ladder, based loosely on Jacob’s dream, was a deep influence on the writings of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches, lasting until the present. John was himself deeply influenced by the Desert Fathers, the early monks of Egypt and the surrounding area, extending back in time to Saint Anthony. While John’s writings appear to tilt toward legalism, he was more interested in prescribing rules for life in a monastery than he was in speaking of the grace of God and the unearned redemption that belongs to all Christians.

John wrote, “We should love the Lord as we do our friends. Many a time I have seen people bring grief to God, without being bothered about it, and I have seen these very same people resort to every device, plan, pressure, pleas from themselves and their friends, and every gift, simply to restore an old relationship upset by some minor grievance…. In this world, when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse, through laziness or inertia, the call to heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods…. Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: ‘How can we who are married and living among public cares aspire to the monastic life?’ I answered: ‘Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.’”

Far from being mired in any dark ages, these writers show themselves to be as intelligent and as relevant as any of our contemporary Christian authors. J.

E for effort

Leave it to college students to discover a new approach to higher education.

I was visiting with some students in a classroom one evening this week. One student described a video he had recently watched (presumably on YouTube) which demonstrated that contemporary education is failing because it is built on a social model that is obsolete. I replied that efforts to reform and restructure education have been around since the 1960s. Another student then remarked, “Why should a person have to take algebra in college if that person is going to be an artist and will never use algebra?”

“The usual answer,” I replied, “is that studying algebra develops thinking skills that are used in a lot of areas other than mathematics.”

The first student then said that education should be more career-oriented. The students were careful not to use history as an example—I am their history instructor—but the students did mention classes they are required to take that have no use in most careers. “The usual answer to that,” I said, “is that education includes more than learning how to do a certain job. Students need to learn how to make a living, but they also need to be exposed to various things that make living worth-while.”

A couple other students nodded. “But why should they have to pass those classes?” the second student asked. “Being exposed to other things is good, but—as long as they come to class and do the work—why should they need to pass the class or take it again if they didn’t pass?”

“That,” I told him, “is a very good point.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation for a while. A high school graduate should be able to do basic computation—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. He or she should be capable of giving correct change, balancing a checkbook, and filling out a simple tax form. A high school graduate should be able to communicate—to read, to write, and to speak in public. Beyond that, a high school graduate should be exposed to science, to history, and to the fine arts—visual arts, music, literature, and drama. It’s best for a high school graduate to have skills in some vocation, especially if that graduate does not plan to continue on to college. For that matter, all those things are true of a college graduate. Each college student should go deeper into his or her chosen field while at college, while also being exposed to a range of experiences from the sciences, the fine arts, and the liberal arts.

But why should they have to pass the classes not related to their major or career?

We already have a grading system perfect for this change, since grades are assigned as A, B, C, D, or F (for failure). Why not add an E for effort? If a professor or instructor perceives that a certain student is trying his or her best in the class but just not getting it, why not give that student an E? Those who don’t show up for classes and don’t turn in assignments would still receive the F, but the student who tries to comprehend algebra or history or chemistry or music appreciation and fails should be given some credit for his or her effort. After all, the object of education is to expose the students to various facets of life. That object has been achieved. Why demand that the student take the class again, when that will only sour the student upon the subject matter, reversing the point of that exposure?

This idea would suit high school and undergraduate college work. Elementary students are still mastering basic skills, so an E for effort would not be appropriate at that age. Likewise, graduate students are focusing on deeper and narrower aspects of their chosen specialty, so an E for effort would be pointless. Honors students would not be allowed to accept an E, nor would an E be given for a class in the student’s major or minor department. In all other cases, though, whether the class is required for all students or chosen as an elective, if the subject has no bearing on the student’s career or personal interests, why not leave the teacher the option of awarding an E?

An E would not enter into a student’s grade point average. That average would reflect only the student’s basic skills in computation and communication, as well as the student’s mastery of knowledge and application relevant to his or her career. The artist would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to master algebra. The engineer would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to understand Shakespeare. But the artist was exposed to algebra, and the simple effort to handle it enriched his or her thinking skills. The engineer was exposed to Shakespeare, and he or she may return to Shakespeare’s work later in life with a better opportunity to understand and enjoy that work.

What do you think? Should high school and college teachers be permitted to grant their students an E for effort? Why or why not? J.

On cars and science

I had several ideas for posts to write this evening: I was going to write about the haircut I had this morning. I was also going to write about the fact that, after hounding me for months to donate blood, the Red Cross refused this afternoon to take my blood. I also had some Christmas memories and observations to share. All those will have to wait. I have something else to say.

This began as a conversation on a post by InsanityBytes (which you can read here). IB referenced Genesis 1:3—“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” John responded that photons did not exist for the first four hundred million years of the history of the universe. John went on to say that the universe is 13.82 billion years old, the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, suggesting that God and his Word have nothing to do with the existence of the universe, the Earth, or light.

I suggested that we could visit the highway and determine the speed of the passing cars; knowing their speed and their direction, we can use a map to find where each car was one hour ago and where it will be one hour from now. The problem with that assumption is, of course, that cars have drivers who make decisions about the motion of the cars. Knowing how fast it is going this minute does not tell me whether that car was sixty miles away an hour ago or was sitting in a nearby parking lot until a few minutes ago.

Science can measure mass and energy in the present and can make predictions about the past and the future, but only with the assumption that the universe is a closed system. If any supernatural being can enter the universe and change things, then science has a problem. Years of observation have determined that on very few occasions do things happen that could not have been predicted by science. Some call these miracles and take them as proof of an intelligent being who is beyond science; others are determined to say that miracles never happen. They insist that every recorded miracle is faulty information, recorded by unscientific people who were tricked by others or by their own imaginations. This leads to circular reasoning, which first defines miracles as impossible and then uses that definition to discredit every record of a miracle.

So let us study cars scientifically. I have seen cars in a parking lot. They are physical objects, hollow metal boxes with some moving parts that I did not take time to study thoroughly. I did not notice any drivers in the parked cars I observed. Now we know that a moving object tends to remain in motion and an object at rest tends to remain at rest, unless outside forces are at work on that object. Therefore, if no drivers were required to keep those cars in the parking lot at rest, I assume that no drivers are required to keep moving cars on the highway in motion. In fact, given my observation of moving cars on the highway, I find it highly unlikely that any intelligent being is in control of the motion of those cars.

Now John (or someone like him) can present me with literature about cars, literature that demonstrates the existence of drivers, but I am free to laugh away his literature as the deluded imaginings of unscientific writers. (Of course they are unscientific—they believe in drivers!)  John can tell me that he has met drivers and has spoken with them—that he has even ridden with them in cars. I cannot test the experiences of John to know whether he has really met a driver or only thinks that it happened. John can try to explain certain irregularities in the behavior of some of those moving cars that reveal the presence of an intelligent driver, but John may be disregarding physical laws and forces that require the cars to move in the way we both observe. John may even try to point out drivers to me as the cars move past us on the highway, but my radar gun only detects moving cars. It cannot tell me anything about drivers inside those cars, and therefore I am free not to believe in them.

I am not at any great risk if I refuse to believe that cars are operated by drivers. I will be sure to keep my distance from any moving cars, all the more so since I don’t expect them to be operated by intelligent beings. People like John are at a greater risk if they refuse to believe that a God created the universe. The God who made all things has the right to tell his creatures how to behave. He has the right to punish those who break his commandments. Ironically, John judges God as wicked and malevolent because the Creator does not follow John’s rules regarding creation and miracles. I suggested to John that God might call John the same things if John does not follow God’s rules. J.

Pennant? Yes. Championship? Probably not.

I’m sure every American has heard these numbers repeatedly, for what seems like thousands of times: until this month the Chicago Cubs have not won the National League pennant since 1945—that is 71 years—and they have not won the championship in the World Series since 1908—that is 108 years. No other professional sports team in the United States has existed for one hundred years or more without winning a championship. Those teams that have never won a championship have existed for only a few decades or less.

I am a Cubs fan. I have been watching every game they played in the play-offs this month, although I had to join some games late because of classes I teach. I have been wearing blue every day this month. The Cubs and baseball have been on my mind day and night, yet I have not written a word about them to anyone—not on this blog, not on Facebook, not even in an email to family or friends. Why this silence? I have not written about the Cubs because of a personal superstition.

I am not normally a superstitious person. I share my house with a black cat and we cross paths often. I treat Friday the 13th like any other Friday. Yet as a baseball fan, I do follow certain superstitions, and one of those involves the fact that, whenever I write something about the Cubs, they immediately begin losing.

Now superstitions are the scientific method gone wrong. The scientific method is observation, interpretation, and testing the interpretation with predictions. Biologists and chemists and sociologists all use this method to learn about what they are studying. Why did something happen? Can we observe it happening, interpret its cause, and make predictions based on that interpretation? If the predictions come to be, we believe that our interpretation is valid. Every superstition involves some sense of cause and effect that is mistaken. Superstitious people do certain things expecting certain results, but other observers can see no connection between the actions and the results.

Not every tradition or custom is a superstition. When driving on the highway, I always look over my shoulder before changing lanes. A person who knew nothing about traffic might call that action a superstition, but I know that looking over my shoulder reduces the chance that my car will collide with another car.

Baseball superstitions are based on observations that appear to be cause and effect. Two friends are attending a game and their favored team is losing. Late in the game they exchange seats, and their team pulls ahead and wins the game. If this happens a second time, they will probably exchange seats every time they are at a game and their team is losing.

It is considered bad luck to mention that the pitcher is pitching a no-hitter. Many announcers scorn this superstition because they believe that they have a duty to keep their audience informed. Many fans groan when an announcer mentions the no-hitter, because often the other team gets a hit right after the no-hitter is mentioned. My father says it is bad luck for a pitcher to strike out the first hitter of the game. I have heard no one else mention this superstition, but I have observed that the prediction came true twice this month for the Cubs—both times the pitcher for the Cubs struck out the first batter of the game, the Cubs lost that game.

Whenever I write about the Cubs, they begin losing. Therefore, I have not written about the Cubs all this year. They won 103 games, which is a very good record for the regular season. They beat the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers to earn the National League pennant. Now they are in the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. But the Indians have won three of the four games played so far; to win the championship, the Cubs need to win three more games. If they lose just one more game, the World Series is over and the Indians have won.

A sage has said, “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.” Like fans who exchange seats to try to reverse the luck of their team, I’ve tried to reverse the Cubs fortune. If I fly a Cubs flag and they win, I fly it again for the next game; but if they lose, I put it away. If they lose while the flag is away, I fly it again for the next game.

Researchers say that sports superstitions serve a purpose: they allow fans to feel as though they take part in the teams’ successes. Superstitions allow fans to say “we won!” instead of “they won!” after a game. Obviously, the reverse is true: when a team loses, the team’s fans might blame themselves. This is why it is also healthy for fans to remind themselves, “It’s only a game.” Fans root for their team, they celebrate the wins, and life goes on in spite of the losses.

My name is Salvageable, and I am a Cubs fan. J.

Book report: The God Delusion

 

Richard Dawkins is a scientist, a writer, and an atheist. When I saw a chance to grab a free copy of his best-selling attack on religion, The God Delusion, I seized it. This month I have read Dawkins’ book and am ready to offer a review.

Some parts of the book are quite interesting and even useful—particularly those near the beginning and the end of the book. Much of what exists between the two is less satisfying reading. For a while, I thought that Dawkins might be engaged in deliberate satire, mocking the earnest but shrill defenders of religion whom he deplores. Alas, Dawkins is equally earnest and equally shrill in his attacks upon religion. His certainty that science provides correct answers to the questions of the universe blinds him to the reality that, at best, he can provide, for an agnostic, evidence that creation and evolution are equally plausible (or, one might add, equally implausible).

I was prepared for better writing. Dawkins’ friend, Douglas Adams, was able to skewer religion while provoking laughter. Although the back cover promises “a hard-hitting, impassioned, but humorous rebuttal of religious belief,” most of what passes for humor is snide sarcasm. I’ve seen better-phrased rebuttals of religious belief in the comments on various blogs, written by amateurs with no published books to their credit.

Logic is an important tool in the pursuit of scientific investigation, but Dawkins employs most of the logical fallacies identified centuries ago by Aristotle. He lists notorious abuses done in the name of religion, as if this was sufficient to condemn all religion. By the same logic, one could condemn science because it has caused pollution and nuclear bombs. He cherry-picks the Bible, reporting the statements he finds least believable without bothering to establish context for any of the quotes he selects. He references religious leaders who reject the truth of the Bible, as if their authority was somehow greater than that of religious leaders who still trust the Bible.

Dawkins firmly suggests that no one should speak of “Christian children” or “Muslim children.” He claims that no one can be part of any religious group without years of training and indoctrination. He offers no evidence for this claim. Dawkins speaks disparagingly of any person who does not accept evolution as a scientific fact beyond all doubt. In this book he never presents a shred of evidence that evolution is a scientific fact. (I am aware that he has written other books for that purpose, but somewhere in this book he should at least summarize his case for evolution since he uses opposition to the theory of evolution as a reason to attack religion. Given the poor communication skills he shows in this book, I am not likely to seek to read his books about evolutionary theory.

Dawkins also complains that the topic of religion is given a free pass in society, unlike any other topic. Bizarre behavior that should be unacceptable is allowed if it can be labeled as religious. People are unwilling to confront religious ideas with opposition, although they will debate any other subject. I don’t know where Dawkins has been living. I experience less tolerance of religious diversity than of cultural diversity, gender-identification diversity, or many other kinds of diversity in the world today. Perhaps Dawkins’ exaggeration balances that of the Christians who claim to be persecuted by those who say “Happy Holidays” to them.

Near the beginning of the book, Dawkins offers a usable distinction of theists, deists, pantheists, and atheists. (Rather than pantheists, he should have written panentheists. The former believe that everything is God, while the latter believe that God is contained in everything—a necessary distinction.) Many scientists, Dawkins says, are pantheists, viewing God as a result of the universe rather than its cause. While Dawkins remains an atheist, he shows some sympathy for the thought that a mighty God could develop in a universe of increasing complexity, although he says that a perfect God could not exist prior to such a universe. Nowhere in the book does Dawkins address the idea of entropy (the tendency of closed systems to become less complex over time), but his distinction allows for interesting discussion of these four approaches to belief in God.

When I was in college, I raised this question: Is it easier to believe that advocates of evolution were created or that advocates of creation have evolved? Dawkins provides a fine answer, explaining how religion could be a necessary part of human evolution, reacting to the world as it was seen in earlier times. He writes eloquently about the gaps in human knowledge that once were filled by religion but that now are closed by science. Reversing the metaphor, he speaks of science ripping away barriers to our sight, revealing a far more spectacular universe than our ancestors could sense or comprehend.

Dawkins does not realize, though, that believers find the vast universe unknown to our forbearers to be additional reason to praise the God who called the universe into being and shaped it according to his plan. Dawkins’ confrontation between science and religion is fueled by religious leaders, past and present, who have rejected science as a whole. Yet his approach borders on satire of religious discussion rather than a genuine attack upon religion as a whole. He seems to believe that no one can be scientific and religious at the same time.

To maintain an open mind, one must (from time to time) read the work of those with whom one disagrees. Perhaps the greatest benefit, for me, of reading this book is to confirm that rejection of religion does not result in clearer thinking and a healthier view of life as a whole. Dawkins demonstrates the truth that one can be a brilliant scientist without being an expert in other fields. I thank him for his effort, but I am not convinced by what he writes to abandon my faith. J.

On science and faith

I am a fan of science and of scientists. I enjoy learning about science, and I enjoy the things that are accomplished in the world because of science. I admire scientists—especially those scientists who are humble enough to admit that science cannot answer every question or tell us everything we need to know about ourselves and the world around us.

Science can measure the measurable, but science cannot describe the things that are not measurable. No one can bring God into the laboratory for dissection or capture the human spirit in a test tube. Science cannot disprove the existence of a spiritual world, no matter how many people claim that science has done exactly that.

Science can measure the world as it is today. With those measurements, science can project forward or backward to describe the world as it will be in the future or describe the world as it was in the past. The caveat to these predictions and these theories about the past is contained in the words “all things remaining equal.” Science treats what it studies as a closed system; if a power outside the system interacts with the system, scientific projections of the past or the future are likely to be wrong.

I can take a radar gun to the highway and measure the speed of the cars and trucks traveling down the road. Knowing how fast a car is going at this moment does not tell me where that car was an hour ago or where that car will be an hour from now. A scientific projection based on the car’s current location, direction, and speed is more likely to be wrong than to be right, because the car is being operated by a driver.

The light from a galaxy a million light years away reaches the earth tonight. Does that prove that the universe is more than a million years old, or could the God who created that galaxy also create the rays of light that stream from there to here? Radioactive decay of certain atoms gives clear readings about the time that has passed since a living creature died. Can we be sure that radiation in the environment has been consistent through the past, or is it possible that environmental radiation was less in the past, causing living creatures to ingest less radioactive material than has been assumed? It takes a hundred thousand years for a coral reef to reach its current size, based on the measurable growth of coral. Could a different environment in the past have caused reefs to grow faster in earlier times?

My family once had a guided tour of a cave in Missouri. The tour guide told us more than once how long it takes stalactites and stalagmites and columns to form in a cave. The tour route had metal rails to keep tourists on the path. Those rails had stalactites. Another person in the group asked when the rails had been installed. I forget the answer, but by the statistics used by the tour guide, the stalactites on the rails should have been much smaller. “Those statistics are just an average,” the tour guide explained. “There are actually quite a few variables.” There are always quite a few variables.

History is both a social science and a liberal art. Archeology is a branch of history that is particularly scientific. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, archeologists said that they had found much evidence verifying historic accounts in the Bible. Now, many people claim that archeology has disproved much of the history reported in the Bible. It seems as if even the science of archeology depends upon the bias of the researcher for its results. Dating events by looking at the remains of cities and other structures is a challenge, although accepted results are becoming increasingly precise. At the same time, the history of Egypt and southwestern Asia is still dominated by records Greek historians developed about the Egyptian pharaohs and dynasties. These records were found in Egyptian temples by the Greeks, but they are no longer available. Some archeological evidence indicates that the Greek records are flawed. For example, the Greeks treated two late dynasties as successive, but those two dynasties are now known to have co-existed in Upper and Lower Egypt. This information casts doubt upon many of the dates that have been considered reliable in the study of ancient history in that part of the world.

Many religious groups have tried to compromise the Bible and science by adopting a version of the Big Bang theory in which God says “Let there be light” to begin the universe billions of years ago. At the same time, Stephen Hawking has proposed a process that omits the Big Bang from history, saying that universes can come into being instantly as a singularity. Hawking is not a Christian, and he would not approve of the way I use his theory, but I find it conceivable that the universe came into being six to ten thousand years ago as a singularity. God created Adam and Eve as adults (complete with useless navels), not as infants born of non-human creatures. God placed them in a garden with mature plants, not just seeds and soil. No doubt the trees had rings, even though they had not existed six days earlier. God did not create a mature world to trick future scientists; he created a mature world to be home to humanity from the beginning.

Of course I could be wrong. The universe might be twenty billion years old and the Earth 4.5 billion years old. Adam and Eve and the garden might be a parable to teach about goodness and evil. Arguments about science and history distract people from talking about the things that really matter. Sin and evil exist. Sinners cannot rescue themselves from evil. Sinners require a Savior. Jesus Christ entered this world to be the needed Savior. He died and rose again to defeat evil and to claim his people. When we focus on these basic truths, it does not matter what we believe about the age of the universe. J.

 

Genesis

People who know me describe me as intelligent and educated, even scholarly (among other things). Some of them are surprised to learn that I regard the biblical book of Genesis as historically reliable and accurate. They have been told again and again that the accounts of that book have been discredited by science and archeology. They don’t understand why I will not wave a white flag of surrender whenever they confront me with what “studies have shown.”

In the near future, I will write a second post to comment upon scientific studies. Before writing that, I want first to address my reasons for regarding Genesis as a good source of information about the past. My reasoning is not the circular argument that Genesis is in the Bible and the Bible says it is from God and true, so Genesis must be true. My confidence in the Bible comes from my faith in Jesus Christ. I do not worship the Bible as such, but I follow the example of Jesus in trusting what the Bible says.

Of course Jesus is best known through the Bible, so I might not have escaped yet the accusation of circular reasoning. However “studies have shown” that the New Testament documents were created by the first and second generation of Christians, reflecting information that came from eyewitnesses of Jesus. The four gospels were delivered as oral tradition before they were written—the similarities of outline and content among Matthew, Mark, and Luke testify to this oral tradition. The source of that tradition was a group of witnesses identified as apostles, men specifically chosen by Jesus to carry his message to the world. Gross inaccuracies in the account of Jesus would have been corrected or removed from the gospels. Without demanding belief in inerrancy of Scripture or addressing every apparent discrepancy or contradiction among the gospels, one can accept their general description of the attitudes and opinions of Jesus to be reliable for historians.

Among those attitudes and opinions of Jesus are respect for the accuracy and reliability of the Hebrew Bible (called Old Testament by Christians). Jesus frequently quoted from the Torah (known also as the books of Moses), and he treated the historical information they contain as true. Because I trust Jesus, I imitate his respect for the Hebrew Bible, and I use my intelligence to comprehend the message of those books rather than to fight against their message.

Perhaps on Judgment Day Jesus will tell me and other Christians that the book of Genesis was always meant to be treated as parable and metaphor. Perhaps he will reveal that Adam and Eve were not historic figures, that there was no Garden of Eden, no world-wide flood, and no Tower of Babel. I will not be sorry at that time to learn that what I believed about those stories was false. In fact, I will delight to relearn history and science from the Master. Meanwhile, I risk trusting that they are true, not because I don’t want to use my intelligence, but because I don’t want to lose my relationship with Jesus.

Other people, who cannot accept the accounts in Genesis because of their trust in scientists and historians, use their lack of confidence in Genesis to support their rejection of the entire message of the Bible. Because they cannot believe that the world was created in six days, or that a talking snake met Eve in Eden, they say that the entire Bible is nothing but fairy tales and that God is an imaginary being. Being wrong about how long the world has existed does not matter. Being wrong about God does matter. One of the strengths of science as a discipline is the ability of scientists to keep exploring new ideas, to admit that some ideas are wrong and others are better. One of the strengths of Christian faith is the ability of Christians to remain anchored in unchanging truth even while every scholarly finding is questioned and changed.

I have high respect for scientists, historians, and archeologists. I have high respect for their findings and discoveries. I do not have respect for people who try to use those findings and discoveries as weapons against people of faith. With unintended irony, they mock people of faith who aver that scientists and historians may be wrong, while genuine scientists and historians are always open-minded toward the possibility that they may be wrong. The air of superiority worn by those who trust science to disprove faith will be overturned when they meet God face to face. Sadly, that Day it will be too late for them to change their minds. J.