Improbable Planet by Hugh Ross: a Review

Author

Hugh Ross is an astrophysicist with a PhD from the University of Toronto. He is also the founder and president of Reasons to Believe, a science/faith think tank. In the ongoing conversation between people of faith and those who are not over the philosophy of science, the phrase “god-of-the-gaps” is often tossed around as an accusation against those who hold to some view of divine design or creation. It is claimed that the view is “we don’t know how this came about, so God must have done it.” This dismissal ignores the fact that design proponents who are theists (and not all are) have many lines of argumentation that show the rationality of belief in God. When apparent design is cited as evidence of God’s existence, it is not for the purpose of filling a gap in knowledge, but inferring from what is known. Ross does this very well in his books Creator and the Cosmos, Origins of Life (with Fazale Rana) and Why the Universe Is the Way It Is. In each of these books, Ross addresses how the initial conditions of the universe, the fine tuning of the solar system, and the origin of life are quite consistent with intentional purpose. In Improbable Planet, Ross brings these arguments together to show the whole picture. This is his best work yet.

Using the analogy of a huge construction project, Ross catalogs the steps that must be followed, from producing the materials, to preparing the ground, to laying the foundation, etc, to argue that the universe bears the hallmarks of design for advanced, high-tech civilization.

 

Synopsis

The thesis of the book is that the universe as a whole, and earth in particular, was created for the purpose of redemption: a home for the human race which God would use to defeat evil once and for all. The book is laid out in eighteen chapters. Chapter one lays out point of raising this question. Chapter two describes the results of what the next thirteen chapters would describe. In chapter three, Ross describes how the Big Bang, and subsequent star formation and supernovae produced the necessary building materials. Chapter four shows how rare of a neighborhood a rare planet needs. (Location, location, location.) Chapter five describes the early development of the solar system and the earth-moon system, as well as how these particular conditions make earth a suitable home. Chapter six explains how the interaction of solar system bodies brought about bombardments of the earth that was vital for the life that would later occupy it.

Scientists are frequently announcing the discovery of extrasolar planets. Those who think life must exist elsewhere are looking for planets that could have liquid water on them. They recognize that this is a necessary, though not sufficient condition for life. In chapter seven, Ross notes eight “habitable zones” that must overlap for advanced life to be possible, as well as other conditions. Chapter eight discusses the early origin of life and how it lead to the development of land masses. Here begins the series of life forms that would appear in just the right kinds, and amounts that would prepare the planet for future life forms. Chapter nine through twelve examine how these life forms affected and were affected by the climate, and how they compensated for a changing luminosity of the sun. Chapter thirteen catalogs how the geological and biological history of earth bestowed abundant resources which would be needed for a high-tech civilization. Chapter fourteen walks us through the history of mass speciation and extinction events in earth’s history. Chapter fifteen explains how the ice age cycle has prepared the earth to be able to sustain a population of billions. Chapter sixteen brings us back to the big picture, the why question, and offers an explanation from the Christian worldview.

 

Analysis

As I stated above, I think this is Ross’ best work yet. It lays out his best arguments for design in the universe, the galaxy, the solar system, and the planet. His big picture-to-close up approach, using the construction analogy, is a comprehensive summary of why so many who study these things find confidence in their faith. This book also avoids a lot of unnecessary theological speculation. It can be a little technical for the average lay person, but I think it is worth the effort. I cannot recommend this book more enthusiastically. What readers who may be skeptical need to keep in mind, is that this is a “top down” approach to the question of design. If your starting point is that matter is all there is, you will come away unconvinced. I invite you to read this with an open mind.

 

Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God by Wayne Rossiter, a Review.

Author

Wayne Rossiter is Assistant Professor of Biology at Waynsburg University. He received his B.S. from Otterbein University, his M.S. from Ohio State University and his Ph.D. from Rutgers University. Dr. Rossiter teaches Principles of Biology, Ecology and Environmental Biology.

 

Synopsis

In Shadow of Oz, Rossiter argues that given the blatant incompatibility of Darwinian evolution and the Christian worldview, those who try to hold to both do so at the expense of the Christian worldview, and in the name of a paradigm that is in deep trouble.

The book is laid out in seven chapters. In Chapter one, Rossiter tells his own story, and that of the way Darwinian evolution undermines classical Christianity, and outlines the attempts of theistic evolutionists to hold to both. In chapter two, Rossiter argues that the two views are fundamentally incompatible. Chapter 3 is a brief(ish) explanation of the Darwinian model, as well as the problems with trying to reintroduce God into the picture. Chapter four focuses on the Christian view of man, which is the greatest area of incongruity between Christianity and Darwin. In chapter five, Rossiter argues that the theistic evolution would make God the creator of evil. In chapter six, Rossiter gives an overview of the newest findings of science, and the way they call Darwinism into serious question. Finally, chapter seven evaluates theistic evolution in light of the discussion of the previous six chapters.

 

Analysis

Rossiter’s approach is quite even-handed in that rather than evaluating theistic evolution from a particular sectarian point of view, he shows how incompatible it is with mere Christianity. Moreover, Rossiter’s critique of the neo-Darwinian synthesis is grounded in the latest research in the field of biology, not simply from the work of Intelligent Design proponents. His argument is that Christianity is not compatible with Darwinism, that holding to the best of science means one is justified in rejecting Darwinism, and therefore, theistic evolutionists are throwing the baby out with the bath water. There is, however, room for improvement.

 

In chapter 2, Rossiter notes the limited role granted by theistic evolutionists for God’s direct involvement in the world. I would add that they overlook God’s sustaining the universe in its regular adherence to the laws of physics, which itself demands an explanation.

 

While most of Rossiter’s arguments are cogent and well though-out, he seems to misunderstand the views of Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. Plantinga and Craig acknowledge that “random” changes in an organism is compatible with theism just in case “random” is understood to mean “not occurring for the purpose of benefitting the organism.” Craig argues that for a scientist to go further, such as to say such changes are “undirected” is to step outside of their discipline. Both argue that such changes can look the same whether directed by God to degrade the organism, or truly undirected. Rossiter responds, “Apparently, suggesting that aliens are tinkering with mutations is fantasy, but supposing that a supernatural God is doing it behind the scenes is completely rational.”[1] Given that Craig and Plantinga can point to many points of evidence for God, while there is virtually no evidence best explained by aliens, it is in fact, rational. Rossiter goes on to claim “Craig concludes that it is logical to suppose that evolution is guided or directed by God.”[2] Actually, Craig concludes that it is logically possible that God could direct evolution, and that the scientist who denies this does so out of philosophical commitments, not scientific reasoning.

 

Recommendation

Rossiter’s book is an excellent primer on the latest in findings in the literature and why holding to Darwinism is not only unnecessary, it is ultimately a dead end. Shadow of Oz is accessible for readers with a high school education, and highly useful for understanding how a Christian ought to think about these issues.

 

 

 

[1] Rossiter, Wayne D. (2015-12-08). Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God (Kindle Locations 2149-2150). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

 

[2] Ibid., 2155-2156

Meaningful World By Benjamin Walker and Jonathan Witt: A Review

With a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics, Benjamin Wiker lends his expertise along with the literary insights of Jonathan Witt, Senior Fellow for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, to the question of just what kind of world we live in. Wiker and Witt do not simply disagree with the reigning paradigm of metaphysical naturalism found in science. They see it as harmful. They have written this book as an antidote to the “poison” that is “the assumption that science has proven that the universe is without purpose, without meaning—proven it so clearly that one need not even produce an argument.” (Wiker and Witt, Location 61.)

The question of meaning has implications for how all of reality is seen. For Christians concerned with preaching the gospel, juxtaposing a divine creator with a meaningless universe is incoherent. This is one of the reasons why the apologetic project is needed in order to make Christianity a live option in the marketplace of ideas. In this particular case, the meaningfulness of the universe needs to be recognized. The poison must be counteracted. Recognizing the fact that human beings are an integral part of the universe, and that we have lived, acted, and created as though the world has meaning, Wiker adds his analysis of the works of Shakespeare which are best understood if meaning were central to human understanding of the world, as well as a comparative analogy to the creativity found in nature.

“The book’s central claim is clearly stated: the universe is meaning-full.” (63) The authors make it plain that they reject the nihilistic paradigm that is claimed to be “proven” by science. They build their case beginning with a historical overview of how the idea of a random, meaningless world goes back to the ancient Greeks and found resurgence in Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx. The assumption of meaninglessness began to lose momentum as discoveries of order and specified complexity began to emerge such that even a hardened skeptic like Antony Flew was moved to theism. From this background, Wiker and Witt note that just as parts of the cosmos made sense in light of the whole, and perhaps only so, the same is clearly so in literature. Shakespeare’s works are examined to illustrate the point, showing that contrary to Dawkins’ illustration of “Methinks it like a Weasel,” the parts fit the whole, but also that the whole makes no sense if the works and their author are nothing more than matter in motion, or animals driven by the urge to procreate. The genius exhibited by Shakespeare is then used to illustrate the genius Euclid points to in mathematics. The authors show how on a materialist worldview, the existence of mathematics makes no sense, much less its applicability to the material universe. From mathematics, the order and intelligibility of the cosmos, chemistry (especially the periodic table) and biology is examined. Through each discipline, the antidote of structuralism is counteracting the poison of reductionism. Structuralism approaches these questions from the top-down, parts-to-whole view. Such a view is not even considered a live option if one starts from meaninglessness. In fact, it is the only way scientists can discern “the meaning of the data they gather.” Wiker and Witt present case after interrelated case for the meaningful whole of the created order into which each of its parts –matter, energy, chemistry, life in general, and humanity in particular– fits. While so many books of this type focus on particular arguments for God’s existence from specific areas such as cosmogony, fine-tuning, or information theory, Meaningful World looks at the big picture. If the other works study the trees, Wiker and Witt look at the whole forest. They show not only that these things fit, but also that they are made to be discovered as such. They do so with a clear, accessible style and a refreshing dose of humor. While their arguments are logically cogent, their discussion of Shakespeare’s literary acumen appeals to aesthetics. Moreover, while they mention some of the astronomically high levels of improbability of the world being the way it is by chance, they do not hang their whole case there. Another way the thesis of the book can be stated is, “Intelligent design? More like creative genius.”

The literary element they introduce by way of analogy and as a particular example is a rarity in books on this subject. Their use of Shakespeare to illustrate their point is not only a novel way to argue in this arena, but they inspire a new appreciation for the literature itself. Their presentation reaches the reader at the cognitive as well as the intuitive level. Moreover, they present a strong case in favor of their thesis, rather than simply relying on defeaters for its negation. They do more than show that reductionism is false. They present a powerful case for a meaningful world. More than merely meaningful, the authors offer a case for elements of genius in the created order that is analogous to the creative genius of Shakespeare. Wiker and Witt argue that the knowledge offered by the study of mathematics, cosmology, chemistry and biology have the depth, clarity, harmony and elegance one would expect to find in the works of geniuses. This is not design by a minimally intelligent mind, but a designing Genius.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the philosophy of science, or the history of the controversy over the Intelligent Design hypothesis. The book is accessible to the layperson without dumbing down the content. While the scholarship of the authors is evident in the content, the engaging style of the prose has none of the dryness that can come from the subject matter. The integrated approach will inform a more fully orbed apologetic than those books that focus on a narrower topic such as the origin of information or the complexity of the living cell. As important as these details are, this book will help you see the forest and the trees.

I Read How To Be an Atheist, and Now I Believe In Moral Subjectivism

 

 

Mitch Stokes is a Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.  He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Notre Dame under the direction of Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen.  At Yale, he earned an M.A. in religion under the direction of Nicholas Wolterstorff.[1] In fact, being trained by Plantinga, van Inwagen and Wolterstorff made J.P. Moreland positively gush at Stokes’ credentials. That is high praise indeed. Stokes is the author of A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists, and the current book under review, How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough.

Many militant atheists pride themselves on their reliance on reason and science to tell them the truth about the world. They are especially confident of their views of science and what it can tell us about morality. Stokes argues that if they were to put their skepticism where their mouths are, they would be a little more hesitant to assert that science has proven that naturalism is true (and therefore theism false) and that morality is real.

How to Be an Atheist is a short book of just over 200 pages, broken into three parts. In part one Stokes shows the problem of relying on reason and science as articulated by one of the “heroes” of the Enlightenment, David Hume. In part two, science is examined to see the limits of what it can tell us, especially with respect to what is unobservable. This section includes a helpful explanation of how theories, which are neither easily dismissed claims nor iron-clad laws, are inferences that try to make sense of what has been observed. (Stokes also holds advanced degrees in engineering, so there is no anti-science bias here.) Also noted is the fact that many of the areas of physics most often cited as evidence for naturalism are instrumental rather than realistic, which is to say, the theories involving quantum mechanics and such are models used to make sense of what can be observed, but do not even claim to accurately describe what cannot be observed. In the third section, Stokes argues that if naturalism is true, then morality, actual good, bad, right and wrong, does not exist. They are merely expressions of human likes and dislikes.

It is this third section that prompted the title of this review. Stokes argues that all values are personal. The thing that makes something good (in a moral sense) is a value holder. Likewise, a duty or obligation is only held between persons. Many atheists would affirm this. However, this is not to say that morality is ultimately grounded in human persons. After all, if all morality is mere human preference, which human? Why this one and not that one? Why yours and not mine? It is not hard to see why this can lead right back to a kind of moral anarchy. As Stokes notes, Christianity has held to what is called “Divine Command” theory of ethics which is the idea that which is good, and that which we are obliged to do and prohibited from doing, is good, obligatory, or prohibited because God has commanded it. He further notes that the common “Euthyphro objection” is resolved when we understand that God commands what he does because his nature is good.

All this is not to say that morality is relative. Moral standards are person centered (or on Stokes’ view, Person centered.) Whatever the standard, whether a behavior measures up is an objective reality. However, it is not the behaviors themselves that are intrinsically good or bad, but these values are derived from the Value Holder, God himself.

 

Stokes’ book is highly accessible, well reasoned, and fun to read. Stokes has a flare for mixing humor into a technical subject. He is generous in his treatment of those with whom he disagrees, and sets quite the example in this. I highly recommend this book.

 

 

[1] CV taken from http://www.mitchstokes.com/about.html

Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth by Fazale Rana: a Review

 

Fazale Rana is the Vice President of Research and Apologetics at Reasons to Believe, a science-faith thinktank in Covina, CA. Rana earned his PhD in Chemistry (with an emphasis on biochemistry) at Ohio University. He is the author of The Cell’s Design, Creating Life in the Lab, and co-author of Origins of Life with Hugh Ross, in addition to the book under review.

In 2005 a team of paleontologists led by Mary Schweitzer discovered 70 million year old fossilized dinosaur eggs that contained soft tissue. This controversial discovery has led to mixed reactions from the scientific community, since it has long been thought that no such tissue could survive such long periods of time. There are skeptics who think the discoveries reflect contamination, and therefore not tissue that was original to the fossilized organisms. There are those who accept the findings on their merits and are seeking to make sense of how it could happen. Another group are Young Earth Creationists (YECs) who accept the findings and see them as evidence that radiometric dating methods are unreliable when they date the fossils as older than a few thousand years. Rana offers arguments that the findings could be genuine and that they in no way prove radiometric dating to be unreliable.

Dinosaur Blood and the Age of the Earth is just four chapters long. In the first chapter, Rana catalogs some of the soft tissue discoveries in the fossil record. In chapter two, Rana cites the best work put forth by YEC researchers seeking to show how soft tissue is best explained by a young earth. In chapter three, Rana notes the problems with the arguments against radiometric dating, explaining how it is done and why it is trustworthy. In chapter four, Rana explains a number of mechanisms by which soft tissue could be preserved over long time periods. In his conclusion, Rana encourages readers to consider all the evidence before making a judgment.

Three appendices follow the core content, with a defense of the Day-Age interpretation of Genesis, which Rana holds to along with Hugh Ross, as well as addressing the science fiction of the Jurassic Park movie franchise, and the work done on reverse engineering and estimates of dinosaur genomes.

The discovery of soft tissue remnants (and make no mistake, these are remnants, not large chunks of meat) has been the “go-to” for many people in the YEC community when they argue for a young earth. Rana’s work shows how weak this argument is. Moreover, Rana’s explanation of radiometric dating techniques is very helpful in seeing how easy it is to misuse them to defend a point of view. While the jury is still out on whether these are genuine soft tissue remnants, or if there is a better explanation, Rana thoroughly defends their plausibility. These scientific issues and their theological implications are areas where Rana excels.

With respect to Rana’s defense of the Day/Age view of Genesis 1, I especially appreciate Rana’s humility in his presentation. I was personally first convinced that the 24 Hour view held by YECs was false by the Reasons to Believe Scholar team. However, I don’t find the Day/Age view compelling. The repetitive structure of Genesis 1 strongly suggests something other than plain historical narrative. For a highly plausible alternative, called the Analogical Days view, can be found here in a commentary by C. John Collins. I have noted here my disagreement with the strong concordism of RTB scientists’ approach. Another weakness I see to the argument is, “There are a number of passages throughout the Old and New Testaments that make direct statements about the antiquity of the earth and its features.” (Kindle Location 1248) These passages use words like “long ago,” “ancient,” etc to describe these features. While I am not a YEC, I could easily imagine one saying, “So what? A 16-year-old thinks a 30-year-old is ancient. Why wouldn’t the Bible writers think a thousands of years old planet was ancient?”

Rana gets a little technical in his explanations of the science, but it does not require an advanced degree in science to get the gist of his case. He makes a compelling case for the plausibility of the discoveries, as well as a solid refutation of the claims YECs make about their implications. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in these issues.

 

 

Science or Theology: Must We Choose?

 

Have you ever gone one Amazon.com to look at a book, looked at the reviews and saw a lot of one-star reviews, which when you read them you know the reviewer did not read the book? I hate that. If you are going to post a “review,” it should reflect the book and your interaction with it. Having said that, it is with all due respect that I comment here on a book I have never read. Actually, it is not about the book, but about the approach the author took, which I have seen before, and I think it is problematic.

Michael Guillen has published a book called Amazing Truths. As I stated above, I have not read it, but I heard Dr. Guillen discuss the book with Eric Metaxas on the Eric Metaxas Radio Show. Guillen seeks to show how the Bible and science are compatible. I have no quarrel with the idea that there is no conflict between the Bible (rightly understood) and science (rightly understood.) My concern is how authors like Guillen will display really poor theology and even philosophy in their arguments. In Guillen’s case, he argues that the idea that absolute truth exists is a point of compatibility between science and the Bible. Well, it is true that both scientists and theologians affirm absolute truth, neither science nor the Bible tell us this. The Bible and science both presuppose objective truth. You can’t do either without it. Granted, this is a nit picky point. However, of a more serious nature is Guillen’s attempt to explain how God who is “far away” can hear prayers immediately by appealing to quantum entanglements. It is not necessary to understand what quantum entanglements are. The idea is about instant communication over great distances. If you understand some basic theology, you would not even go there. If God is omnipresent, which he is and he has been understood to be for, oh I don’t know, the last 3000 YEARS, then he is never “far away.” Moreover, if he knows the end from the beginning, which he does, he does not need to wait until you pray to know what you will ask for or how he will act in response. In fact, you can find a wonderful story that illustrates this on pages 17-18 of Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power.[3]

I don’t mean to take away from what Guillen is trying to do. He is trying to show Christians and non-Christians alike that choosing Christianity does not entail rejecting science. However, if he is going to write as an expert, he needs to be sure he covers all his bases. What he does here is similar to other scientists who are Christians. Hugh Ross has also made similar errors in trying to use his scientific background to explain God’s capacities. In Ross’ case, he appeals to multiple time dimensions to explain prayer. This is unnecessary for the same reasons stated above.[4]

Scientists who wish to employ their expertise in the service of Christian apologetics would do well to become better informed theologically. At least they should consult with a theologian they trust to get feedback.

/rant

 

 

 

 

 

Bait and Switch

In my last post, I discussed a skeptics forum in which there was a dialogue between two scholars from Reasons to Believe, and one from the New England Skeptical Society. The skeptic, Dr. Steven Novella, made an interesting remark. He opened his comments with a joke about someone breaking into his house in the middle of the night and stealing all the furniture, and replacing it with exact replicas. He then claimed that those who hold to some sort of creationism do the same thing by taking the world that just happens to look like it developed by purely natural means and posit a God to explain the gaps in our knowledge.

This seems to be the kind of charge that works for whoever makes it first. It is similar to a corrupt politician accusing others of corruption before he gets caught so it looks like his critics are just saying, “Not me, you!” Do not misunderstand. I am not calling Dr. Novella corrupt. In fact, I think Novella really believes what he says. My point is that theists hold to God’s existence and role in the creation and sustaining of the universe for a variety of reasons. While it may be that there are some who hold to a “god-of-the-gaps,” the arguments presented at the forum were not arguments from ignorance. In fact, from a theistic worldview, and this is relevant because  the scientific revolution was started by theists, God is the creator and sustainer of the universe. Part of our worldview is that the universe exists and operates as it does because of God’s creation and providence. Two important ideas stem from this. Theism is not a “science stopper,” and it is just as likely that the materialist is the one “stealing the furniture and replacing it with exact replicas.”

Science stopper?

Materialists claim that appealing to a creator puts an end to inquiry, and therefore is a “science stopper.” This claim is patently false. It was theists, such as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, etc who launched the scientific revolution because they believed that God had created the world, and since God was a rational being, his creation should be rationally ordered and could be studied; therefore such study was an act of devotion. It was not enough for them that God had created the world. They wanted to know how he did it, and how it works. They believed, as materialists do, that the world is governed by regular and predictable laws. The difference is that for the materialists, these laws are mere brute fact. Both the theist and the materialist are interested in seeing how much creative power is in these laws. The important distinction is that for the materialist, supernatural intervention is not possible even in principle. The theist allows for such a possibility. This does not mean, however, that the theist is willing to punt to miracles to fill gaps in knowledge. Arguments for design are made from what is known about designers and their activity. Arguments for the origin of information are based on all of our knowledge about information.

Where’s the furniture?

Scientists, regardless of worldview, operate on a principle of “methodological naturalism.” (MN) On this method, investigations of causes assume a natural cause. This is really not controversial. Where the furniture is switched is when scientists conflate MN with philosophical, or metaphysical, naturalism. MN assumes a natural cause but is blind to supernatural events. philosophical naturalism holds that the material universe is all that exists. It is rare that this bait-and-switch is intentional because very few scientists seem to be well educated when it comes to philosophy. (Not to mention some politicians, but that is another story.) Consequently, many of them are ignorant of philosophical arguments for God from the origin of the universe, such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument. (KCA) Basing our assumptions on the KCA and other arguments, it is not hard to think that a God that created the universe could engage in other acts of intervention. However, materialists will just assume the universe to be a brute reality, and when pressed on its origin, they will appeal to some future discovery that will explain it. In other words, they engage in materialism-of-the-gaps.

It seems to me, materialism tends to be a metaphysics-stopper. Whose furniture is it anyway?