Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Hawking’

Is apologetics a four-letter word?

August 19, 2015

When did I become such a “fundamentalist”? 😉

I was hanging out on a relatively conservative, evangelical-friendly Facebook page for United Methodists. Someone asked us what additional classes should seminaries offer that they’re not currently offering—or at least requiring. I said that we should be required to take a course in apologetics. To which a fellow clergy said the following:

Apologetics is a fundamentally flawed discourse, that too easily reduces the faith to the lowest common denominator under the guise of defending it. The faith doesn’t need defending, it needs proclamation.

Another pastor agreed, saying that intellectual objections are merely a smokescreen for an inward, “heart”-related problem. Presumably, once we deal with the underlying spiritual or emotional problem, the intellectual problems take care of themselves. Besides, he said, no one comes to faith through logic or reason.

While I agree that no one comes to faith through logic or reason alone—apart from the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit—Christianity is a rational religion. How could reason and logic not play an important role in evangelism? Otherwise, why bother with language at all? We may as well speak in tongues to unbelievers. (Actually, the apostle Paul has something to say about that very problem in 1 Corinthians 14!)

Besides, the concern is not merely with unbelievers, as I said in this comment thread: What about the intellectual doubts of the already converted? After all, nearly every day we pastors have to be able to reconcile our world of suffering and pain with our proclamation that God is good—that God really does love us. If we pastors haven’t worked that question out, intellectually, we’re doomed! And having read testimonies from pastors who lose their faith, I know that theodicy is Reason No. 1.

It won’t do to say, as mainline Protestant seminary often teaches us to say, “It’s all a mystery.”

I continued:

Or what about the intellectual doubts of young Christians going off to college and being exposed for the first time to ideas that directly contradict what they’ve learned in church? That happens all the time. Are we not supposed to equip young Christians to handle these questions?

Because they constantly hear things such as: Jesus never existed; the resurrection motif was borrowed from other myths and legends; the resurrection was a legendary development that happened over decades; Paul “invented” Christianity by distorting or ignoring the teachings of the historical Jesus; Jesus didn’t say or do most of the things attributed to him in the gospels; we have no contemporaneous accounts of the historical Jesus; science is irreconcilable with Christian faith; evolution disproves Christianity; Stephen Hawking has shown how “quantum gravity” accounts for creation out of nothing; the existence of evil proves God doesn’t exist.

I could go on, obviously.

Are we not supposed to furnish answers to these questions—or just let these intellectual doubts fester? The moment we attempt to answer them, however, we are doing apologetics. So we may as well learn to do it properly.

My concern, therefore, is not merely evangelism. It’s also bolstering the faith of Christians, all of whom experience intellectual doubts from time to time. In other words, it’s not only a “heart” problem.

I could point to Paul’s preaching in Acts 17 as an example of apologetics. But also: his words at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15 are incomprehensible if he’s not appealing to evidence for the resurrection: the resurrection is a real historical event, Paul says, and here’s how we can know. In our own way, we ought to be equipped to do the same. Not to prove it scientifically, but to show the reasonableness of it.

Fortunately, in our own day, we are blessed with serious scholars who are doing this good work: Alvin Plantinga, Peter Kreeft, Alister McGrath, John Lennox, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, et al.

Obviously, thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Chesterton did the same in their day.

No less a late-modern theologian than Wolfhart Pannenberg believed that the work of theology was inseparable from apologetics.

Have I made case? Why would fellow clergy have a problem with apologetics? What am I missing?

David Berlinski on evolution and the pretensions of scientific atheism

December 21, 2013

devils_delusionYesterday, I read The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski. It’s a polemical, savagely funny response to the new atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et al., whose unlikely author is himself an agnostic and secular Jew. Why did he, of all people, write a book mostly for Christians like me? Because he noticed that no one else had written it! One’s soul can only withstand so much indignation, after all.

The book clarified my thinking on several ideas I’ve blogged about in the past, including Dawkins’s argument against God, necessary versus contingent things, the mulitverse (or “Landscape”), the universe’s apparent fine-tuning, and attempts by Stephen Hawking and others to explain it away using quantum cosmology. Of the latter he writes the following (which gives you a sense of his writing style):

The details may be found in Hawking’s best-selling A Brief History of Time, a book that was widely considered fascinating by those who did not read it, and incomprehensible by those who did. Their work will seem remarkably familiar to readers who grasp the principle behind pyramid schemes or magical acts in which women disappear into a box only to emerge as tigers shortly thereafter.[1]

After describing the work Hawking did to explain the origin of our universe, Berlinski says that the universe that Hawking found is, unsurprisingly, just the universe Hawking assumed he would find. “If what Hawking described is not quite a circle in thought, it does appear to suggest an oblate spheroid. ¶ The result is guaranteed—one hunnerd percent, as used-car salesmen say.[2]

Berlinski continually highlights the same problem with these guys that I’ve highlighted a few times on this blog. Even if what they say is true (which he doesn’t believe for a moment), they haven’t answered the question, “Why something and not nothing.”

That’s all well and good… What I wasn’t prepared for in this book was his frontal assault on something that I never talk about on this blog: evolution.

In part, I don’t talk about it because I don’t understand it. No one I know understands it. I mean, we may remember some things from our tenth-grade biology textbook, but nothing that would pass muster these days. When the average person says he believes in evolution, all he’s really saying is that he takes on faith that really smart people haven’t misled them on the subject. And none of us wants to appear to be stupid.

Or sometimes when people say they believe in evolution, they’re saying something about a God they no longer believe in, or a church whose doctrines they’ve long since abandoned.

Even before reading this book, I’ve wondered why it’s necessary to talk about “believing in” evolution in the first place? Either it happens or it doesn’t, like any other phenomenon in the realm of science. Why use religious language to describe one’s assent to its “doctrines.”

Berlinski has an idea: because the theory makes little sense, and it’s supported by little evidence.

If the facts are what they are, the past is what it is—profoundly enigmatic. The fossil record may be used to justify virtually any position, and often is. There are long eras in which nothing happens. The fire alarms of change then go off in the night. A detailed and continuous record of transition between species is missing, those neat sedimentary layers, as Gould noted time and again, never revealing precisely the phenomena that Darwin proposed to explain. It is hardly a matter on which paleontologists have been reticent. At the very beginning of his treatise Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution, Robert Carroll observes quite correctly that “most of the fossil record does not support a strictly gradualistic account” of evolution. A “strictly gradualistic” account is precisely what Darwin’s theory demands: It is the heart and soul of the theory.

By the same token, there are no laboratory demonstrations of speciation either, millions of fruit flies coming and going while never once suggesting that they were destined to appear as anything other than fruit flies… If species have an essential nature that beyond limits cannot change, then random variations and natural selection cannot change them. We must look elsewhere for an account that does justice to their nature or to the facts.[3]

Berlinski also argues that computer simulations of Darwinian evolution fail “when they are honest and succeed when they are not.” When the results of one such simulation came in, a reporter for the New York Times wrote, “with solemn incomprehension, ‘the creatures mutated but showed only modest increases in complexity.’ Which is to say, they showed nothing of interest at all. This is natural selection at work but it is hardly work that has worked to intended effect… What these computer experiments do reveal is a principle far more penetrating than any that Darwin ever offered: ¶ There is a sucker born every minute.”[4]

In a recent paper published by an evolutionary biologist named Joel Kingsolver, the author said, “Important issues about selection remain unresolved.” “Of those important issues,” Berlinski writes, “I would mention prominently the question whether natural selection exists at all.”

Finally, I had a laugh at this:

Although Darwin’s theory is very often compared favorably to the great theories of mathematical physics on the grounds that evolution is as well established as gravity, very few physicists have been heard observing that gravity is as well established as evolution. They know better and they are not stupid.[5]

1. David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 98.

2. Ibid., 106.

3. Ibid., 188-9.

4. Ibid., 190.

5. Ibid., 191.

The multiverse theory merely “kicks the problem upstairs”

November 13, 2013

A Facebook friend linked to this blog post from a Wesleyan pastor named Matthew Rose about a recent Stephen Hawking speech. Hawking says that we can explain the apparent design of the universe—which he at least concedes is a potential problem for atheists like himself—by resorting to the theory of the multiverse: that our universe is one of a nearly infinite number of universes, which have no physical continuity with one another.

Why does Hawking think that this helps his cause? Because he believes it explains our universe’s apparent fine-tuning. In other words, there are a number of physical constants in the universe, which, if they varied even slightly, would prevent the formation of life. (When I say slightly, I mean slightly. Click here for more on the fine-tuning argument.) If, however, a nearly infinite number of universes exist, then at least one of them—fortunately, ours—is bound to have these seemingly finely-tuned constants. Lucky for us!

Rev. Rose writes:

Take a second to think about the move Hawking is making here. To avoid belief in an invisible God, Hawking is willing to believe in the existence of a near infinite amount of universes that he can’t see or observe. Not only does this require far more faith than most any religious system
 it also doesn’t happen to explain the origin of the universe, which was the whole purpose of the lecture! Indeed, it multiplies the problem. If you thought it was hard to explain the origin of one universe
 try explaining a billion or more!

He’s right. Keep in mind: If all these universes are physically discontinuous with our own (and if they aren’t discontinuous, then there’s still only one universe; it’s just larger than we thought), what on earth can a scientist possibly say about them—as a scientist, I mean, speaking scientifically? Absolutely nothing.

Hawking is free to believe in a multiverse if he wants, but he’s not doing so on scientific grounds. He has left the realm of physics and entered metaphysics. Again, that’s fine. But the reason we care about what Hawking has to say in the first place is that he’s a brilliant physicist, not a brilliant metaphysician or philosopher. Belief in a multiverse is purely a leap of faith.

But even if Hawking is right about the multiverse’s accounting for the fine-tuning of our universe, what about the mechanism that generates the multiverse itself? How finely tuned does it have to be in order to produce nearly infinite numbers of universes such that it produces our universe? And what accounts for that fine-tuning? I posted the following on Facebook in response to my friend (click to enlarge):

brent_fb

As William Lane Craig says, if the mechanism that generates the multiverse is itself fine-tuned, then Hawking is merely “kicking the problem upstairs.”

Now this recourse to the World Ensemble [or multiverse] will be in vain if it turns out that the mechanism that generates the World Ensemble must itself be fine-tuned, for then one has only kicked the problem upstairs. And, indeed, that does seem to be the case. The most popular candidate for a World Ensemble today, the inflationary multiverse, does appear to require fine-tuning. For example, M-theory, the theory which supposedly governs the multiverse, works only if there are exactly eleven dimensions—but it does nothing to explain why precisely that number of dimensions should exist.

Beyond fine-tuning, the main question that Hawking’s multiverse theory can’t answer is “why something and not nothing.” Hawking appears to make a philosophical mistake here. Nothing means nothing—not gravity, not a vacuum, not energy, no sort of milieu in which a Big Bang of any kind can take place. For him, however, “nothing” means “space filled with vacuum energy.” I don’t know from vacuum energy or quantum gravity or whatever else he talks about, but I know that these things are still something. And the question remains, why? Here’s Craig again, referring to the book Hawking co-authored last year:

Hawking and Mlodinow seem to realize they have not yet answered the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” They return to this question in their concluding chapter and give a quite different answer. There they explain there is a constant vacuum energy contained in empty space, and if the universe’s positive energy associated with matter is evenly balanced by the negative energy associated with gravitation, then the universe can spontaneously come into being as a fluctuation of the energy in the vacuum (which, by a clever sleight of hand, they say “we may as well call 
 zero”).

This seems to be a very different account of the universe’s origin, for it presupposes the reality of space and the energy in it. So it is puzzling when Mlodinow and Hawking conclude, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing in the manner described in Chapter 6” (page 180). Here it is said that the nothingness spoken of in Chapter 6 is not really nothingness after all but is space filled with vacuum energy.

Finally, here’s what is potentially most tragic: Stephen Hawking would be on our culture’s short list of “world’s smartest person.” (If Einstein were still alive, Hawking would probably finish second.) Given that most people’s skepticism doesn’t result from carefully reasoned arguments, most skeptics will hear that the “world’s smartest man” has proven that God doesn’t exist, and think, “Well, that’s settled, then!”

By the way, years ago I read an article about our culture’s veneration of Einstein. We mistakenly believe that if a person is a genius in one field of learning, he is therefore a genius in all fields of learning. This popular belief doesn’t correspond to current research about geniuses.

So, if it makes you feel any better, while Einstein was a genius in physics, he—along with all other geniuses, Hawking included—was about as dumb as the rest of us in all other parts of his life. Therefore, when geniuses say something outside of their specialty, their words, in principle, shouldn’t carry more weight than anyone else’s.

This applies to Hawking’s metaphysical musings.

“Of course we’re afraid of reality! Who isn’t?”

May 25, 2011

What a relief to have Paul back from sabbatical! It’s about time!

Paul, a scientist himself in his former life, weighs in on Stephen Hawking’s interview from last week, in which he said that the afterlife is a “fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.” He discusses the temptation to psychoanalyze Hawking with the same broad strokes with which Hawking psychoanalyzes all religious believers. Here’s my favorite part:

Christians are often mocked for being afraid of reality. Of course we’re afraid of reality; who isn’t? All the reasonable people like Hawking? I can’t buy that. I think Jesus was pretty much unafraid, but he still sweat blood. And maybe Buddha was unafraid, but I don’t know enough about him to speculate.

So yes, fear motivates people. But saying “that’s what religion is” is just silly. I might as well say, “science is merely a manifestation of humanity’s crazed desire to control everything.” There’s truth there, and it would serve some people (not me) nicely if it were so. But it just isn’t. It’s really easy to write people off, but it doesn’t help anyone.

Roger Olsen, a theology professor at Baylor, whose blog entry on the subject I reflected on last week, dipped his little toe in the deep end of psychoanalysis with this comment.

Projection theory works both ways (as Hans Kueng has so well demonstrated in Does God Exist?).  Atheists project the emptiness of their own lives into the sky, believing God does not exist because, if he did, they might be in real trouble.

I wouldn’t have put it quite so starkly, but heaven knows that popular atheists accuse believers of projecting all the time. If projection is a real thing—and I’m sure it is—why wouldn’t it work both ways?

“I’m not a scientist,” but if I were, I could answer every important question

May 23, 2011

When I read this stuff, I want to shout, "You cannot be serious!"

This blog post by the so-called “humanist chaplain” at Harvard University (is it too much to hope that there’s a Methodist chaplain there, too?), which attempts to defend Stephen Hawking’s musings on religion and philosophy in a controversial interview last week, is so shallow and unreflective, it hardly deserves mention. But it bugs me, so let me briefly call attention to a couple of things.

The author, an atheist, describes a conversation he had with a believer in a bar who asked him the following: “OK, but tell me this, Mr. Atheist: Where did we come from? How did all of this get here?” He wrote:

I answered: “Well, I’m not a scientist,” a line I often offer with a chuckle when I’m confronted with a question I don’t know the answer to, “but to be honest, that question doesn’t matter all that much to me. I’m not especially interested in how we got here; what concerns me, given that we are here, is what will we do?”

“I’m not a scientist, but…”

I call foul! I strongly disagree with the premise of his answer, but it accurately reflects our modern cultural bias toward “science” as the source of all knowledge. Science at best can only provide a partial answer to the question of “where we came from” and “how we got here.”

What bugs me is, Why doesn’t the author realize this?

I’m sure that if he thought he were qualified to give a scientific answer, he would talk about evolutionary processes, which is fine as far as it goes. But you still haven’t answered the most interesting part of the question “How did we get here?”

I used to say that science answers the “how” questions and religion answers the “why,” but that’s still giving too much credit to science. How did the conditions exist in the first place such that there was a big bang, etc. (I’m not a scientist either, so “big bang, etc.” is shorthand for that part of the answer that is scientific.) How was there something in the first place? Where did that come from? How was there an environment in which conditions existed to cause the evolutionary processes that the author undoubtedly would credit in his answer?

Seriously! Do these questions never cross the author’s mind? Not just this guy… Last year, Hawking himself speculated that the force of gravity (or something) is sufficient to account for the conditions necessary for the beginning of the universe—as if that answers the question! Why would such a force (or anything else) exist in the first place? Why something and not nothing? Unless the scientifically minded atheist answers this basic question of existence, he hasn’t answered the most important how or why questions. Philosophically, the scientific atheist is guilty of a category mistake.

Oh well… Enough of my banging my head against the wall on that particular issue. I hear and read popular atheists today constantly falling into this trap, and no one in the media calls them on it. Why are we so dumb? (Here’s an article from the New York Times last year that irritated me for the same reason.)

Anyway, the piece goes from bad to worse when the author, referring to the Hawking interview, writes,

But in my mind, the most pivotal moment of Hawking’s interview is also the easiest to overlook. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sentence, Hawking offered an imperative call to action:

So here we are. What should we do?We should seek the greatest value of our action.

Given that we are here, what will we do? What is the greatest value of our action? I’m not a scientist, but I believe the answer is as simple as seeking to understand the diverse people who are here with us, and working together to advance equality and justice for all.

“Value”? What does value possibly mean to a philosophical materialist like Hawking or this blogger that isn’t hopelessly relative? What one values, according to their way of understanding the world, is nothing more than a personal preference, like my saying that I value dark chocolate because it tastes good to me. “Value” is nothing more than a meaningless accident. Yet, on the basis of this meaningless accident, atheists can become as sanctimonious as any religious person.

And what about the blogger’s “simple” answer about working together for these concepts called “equality” and “justice”? He cannot be serious! Where does he get that from? If science has all the answers, as he believes, the burden is on him to show that working for equality and justice is scientifically justified.

Another good response to that Hawking interview

May 18, 2011

One reader named James Petticrew at Roger Olson’s blog responds to Monday’s Stephen Hawking interview in a very sensible way:

It some times amuses me and at other times frustrates me that the media in the UK treat Hawkings as the national equivalent of Mr Data on Star Trek the Next Generation. He is hyper intelligent scientist and so must have the answer to all questions. I have listened to him on several interviews and he goes beyond anything I can comprehend when he talks about physics but when it comes to his answers to philosophical questions his answers are not heavy weight at all.

It says a great deal about our news editors that they choose to ask him questions like these, don’t remember the last time they asked Rowan Williams a question on advanced physics!

For readers on this side of the Atlantic who may not know, Rowan Williams is Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Church of England—and not to mention a world-renowned theologian and writer.

Someone else’s thoughts on that Hawking interview

May 17, 2011

Roger Olson says it very well in this post, and not just because his words echo mine

First, how does being a physicist make Hawking an expert on metaphysical questions?  This seems another classical case (like Carl Sagan in Cosmos) of a scientist dabbling in philosophy outside the boundaries of his realm of expertise.  IN PRINCIPLE physics cannot prove or disprove life after death or heaven or hell or God or any such realities.  I am ashamed of journalists who fall for this stuff.

Second, perhaps Hawking doesn’t want to believe in life after death because he’s unsure of his eternal destiny.  Projection theory works both ways (as Hans Kueng has so well demonstrated in Does God Exist?).  Atheists project the emptiness of their own lives into the sky, believing God does not exist because, if he did, they might be in real trouble.

This reminds me of some questions put to PARADE magazine colunnist Marilyn vos Savant (I can’t believe that’s her real name!) a few years ago.  Apparently people think because she has a very high IQ she knows the meaning of life.  Someone wrote to ask her what gives a life meaning and purpose.  Her response?  A life is purposeful that produces more than it consumes.  Now how does having a high IQ qualify one to speak authoritatively on such subjects?

Brent White says universe run by large, invisible Commodore 64

May 16, 2011

I wish I had one of these! I still have my Vic-20 in the attic, though.

This headline is only slightly sillier than this one. Suppose I were a world-renowned expert on something. What would qualify me to speak authoritatively on something far outside of my area of expertise?

I read an article on the nature of genius somewhere (the New Yorker, maybe?), where I found this thought oddly comforting: Albert Einstein, the modern paragon of genius, was as dumb as anyone else when it came to things outside of the realm of physics.

How does this not apply to Stephen Hawking?