Bad Design-Of-The-Gaps?

In conversations between proponents and skeptics of Intelligent Design (ID,) there are two recurring themes. Skeptics will often accuse ID proponents of appealing to a “god-of-the-gaps” (GOTG) as an explanation for the phenomena in question. Likewise, examples of alleged bad design are offered as a rejoinder. While it may sometimes be the case that this is intellectually lazy hand-waving, it can also stem from unexamined presuppositions.

 

God-of-the-Gaps

The idea of GOTG is that “we don’t understand how this could be, so God must have done it.” If this was the case, it would be a fallacious argument from ignorance. It isn’t very helpful, and when a natural explanation is discovered, it is often touted as evidence that God does not exist. However, when an ID proponent points to a feature of nature that appears designed, he does so because the feature has properties that are unique to designed things. The icon of the ID movement is the bacterial flagellum. It is a molecular motor that is made of proteins, and probably could not have developed in step-wise fashion. Skeptics point to structures like the Type 3 Secretory System as a possible precursor and declare the design hypothesis “defeated.” However, the real disagreement does not start with these particulars. It begins with the presuppositions.

While some ID proponents are non-theists, many are theists. As such, they do not assume, contrary to most skeptics of ID, that the only minds that exist are associated with, if not identical to, physical brains. As such, for these skeptics, there is no such thing as an unevolved mind. Given that, it is not possible, even in principle, for design to be a valid inference for anything that preceded the emergence of a mind capable of designing. Therefore, living systems that preceded humanity could not have been designed. Moreover, skeptics of ID always look at the data with a “bottom up” approach. This stems from the same methodological naturalism that informs their work. However, for the ID proponent who happens to be a theist, he is working top-down, with a background knowledge of a host of arguments for the existence of God. ID is simply offered as an example of evidence of God’s existence, not as an explanatory hypothesis.

 

Bad Design

Skeptics will also point to what they see as bad designs. This is thought to be a defeater of ID because if an all-powerful, all-knowing God designed these things, he would have done a better job. Examples would include the inverted retina, the proximity of the esophagus to the trachea, and the panda’s thumb. Others have given this a detailed response, but again they are operating from an unexpressed, if not unexamined, presupposition. They are assuming the purpose of the thing in question is to give maximal survival benefit. However, how do they come to this? I think it goes back to the evolutionary paradigm where natural selection is the name of the game. However, they are critiquing a design without examining the purpose for which it was designed. It seems to me you can’t draw valid inferences about the efficacy of a design if you don’t know the purpose. If you look at a hammer, you will thing it is very poorly designed if you think its purpose is to remove dust from glass.

 

To critique a worldview, you must start by examining it on its own terms. Too often the question of God’s existence and involvement in the world is viewed as if the world were a brute reality and, according to theists, God shows up one day and takes over. Or, if God made the world, he made it to be a place where we should have everything we want and live forever. Since it is obvious this is not the case, theism is silly. However, if God made the world, then like any other maker, he had a purpose in mind. If you want to know if a design is a good one, you must know that purpose. Likewise, if you remain ignorant of the arguments for God’s existence, you will continue to think ID proponents appeal to ignorance. How’s that for irony?

 

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.

 

Critics Wanted. Inquire Within

That’s right, I want you to rip me apart. Just do it thoroughly and clearly. Below are links to my attempt at a podcast. Before I go forward to publish them, I need feedback.

 

Troll away!

Episode 1

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Episode 2

Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told By Bradley R. E. Wright. A Review

Author

Bradley R. E. Wright has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, and is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. Wright specializes in research on American Christianity.

 

Purpose/Thesis

In the author’s own words, “The thesis of this book is that Christians are exposed to many inaccurate statistics about our faith. To understand why this happens, we should look at how these statistics are produced and how they spread through the public.” (18) In light of recent headlines and popular books claiming a crisis of image for the American evangelical church, Wright explores the research behind the headlines, and notes a serious disconnect between the facts and the hype. But just in case you really need hype to motivate you, Wright provides it: “You should read this book because ‘there is a deeply disturbing trend of bad statistics that is sabotaging American Christianity and destroying the American way of life, and if you ignore it your entire body will soon be covered with boils. The good news, however, is that if you buy this book and read it carefully, you will avoid this calamity; plus you’ll live longer, have fresh breath, and your kitchen knives will always stay sharp.’”(24) You gotta love a sociologist with a sense of humor.

 

Synopsis

The book is arranged in nine chapters, each exploring an issue that often appears in the popular literature. Chapter one looks at the “if it bleeds, it leads” aspect of the issue. Chapter two tests the rumors of the demise of the American church. Chapter three looks at the alleged exodus of young people from the church. Chapter four analyses popular stereotypes of Christians. Chapter five examines the consistency of Christians’ beliefs and actions. Chapter six focuses on alleged bad behavior of professing Christians.  Chapter seven explores the level of love shown by the church. Chapter eight takes a closer look at how those outside the church see the church. Finally, chapter nine boils it all down to a report card. Several appendixes are included to explain methodology.

 

Analysis

As an apologist, especially one who has attempted campus ministry, I have heard all the claims of “75-80% of young people abandon their faith when they graduate high school.” I have worked with a major campus ministry that repeats (and I assume, genuinely believes) this figure. If Wright is not Wrong (rather than a slam on his name, I am actually trying to mimic Wright’s wonderful style of humor) the picture isn’t nearly so bleak. That being said, one Christian abandoning his faith because he doesn’t have good answers to the challenges he encounters is too many.

Some of the numbers cited make me wish more data was available to better support the inferences drawn. For example, Wright looks at the occurrence of certain sinful behaviors among Christians and non-Christians. It would really be helpful if data was available to show the change in frequency of these behaviors over time. If discipleship was genuine, we would expect the frequency to decrease with time. Questions like “Have you _____ at least once in the last year?” are of limited help. Maybe the respondent would answer yes, but the previous year they did so more often. Likewise, some actions, once done, cannot be undone. Divorce and abortion are examples explored. Wright points out in the case of divorce, it is not known if they happened before or after conversion. Even if it happened after, people grow in their faith and given a chance to do it over again would not.

Finally, Wright notes with disappointment how evangelicals feel about various people whom we are called to love. This is a fair point, but is it necessarily the case that this indicates a deficiency? Could it not be the case that someone would honestly report a less than warm feeling for some group, but be determined to let the love of God drive their behavior toward them rather than their feelings?

 

Recommendation

This book is accessible for anyone with a high school education, but is more suited to those in leadership roles, or interested in such. Wright displays a unique ability to make statistical analysis interesting and even entertaining.

 

Hacksaw Ridge: A review

THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

 Before watching this movie, I listened to a great discussion my friends at A Clear Lens had with Brian Godawa, a Christian who is a filmmaker (not to be confused with a Christian Film maker) about the film. It is unavoidable to me that my views and comments will be colored by that discussion. There are important details of the film I might have missed if I hadn’t heard the conversation ahead of time. Some of my views will echo theirs. It might be said that this will be a review of the film and a review of a review. (Wow, meta review!) 

 Desmond Doss was a devout Seventh Day Adventist who grew up in rural Virginia. Although he was a conscientious objector, he believed he ought to serve in the Army during WWII as a combat medic. Hacksaw Ridge is his story.

 Seventh Day Adventism includes a principle of pacifism. While Doss did not oppose the war, he was convinced that killing was “the worst possible sin.” It is easy to think of such things in abstract terms that have little relevance, but for Doss, it was real. Moreover, there were two key events in Doss’ life portrayed in the film that had a major impact on his conviction. This is one place where I am indebted to the Clear Lens discussion because I may have missed the connection had I not been watching for it. In a scene early in the movie, Doss is fighting with his brother when he hits his brother in the head with a brick, knocking him out. At first, he thinks he has killed him. Later as a young adult, he intervenes in a fight between his mother and father, removing a gun from his father’s hand and pointing it at him. When he describes this incident to an Army buddy, his buddy says, “But, you didn’t kill him,” to which Doss responds, “In my heart I did.” Not only has Doss been taught to believe killing is wrong, but is keenly aware of his own capacity to do so.

 With this background in mind, Doss grows up, meets and falls in love with a nurse, and begins to learn medicine. He joins the army over the objections of both his parents. His mother objects for religious reasons and, well, she’s his mom. His father is especially concerned because he is a WWI veteran.

 Doss trains at Fort Jackson. At this point, I find myself in disagreement with Godawa. Vince Vaughn plays the part of the drill sergeant. Because of his comedic roles, Godawa found it very difficult to accept Vaughn in this role. I don’t know if Godawa is a veteran, and if he is not, I don’t mean to be critical of that fact, but it is not at all unusual for drill sergeants and/or drill instructors to say funny things in the course of their interactions. However, God help you if you laugh. Even as a veteran who has seen Vaughn act (perhaps not as much as Godawa,) I had no problem with his performance. It is during this training that Doss’ convictions are put to the test by peer pressure, physical abuse by his platoon mates, and even a court martial. Obviously he makes it through these, since he goes on to the theater of combat.

 Mel Gibson, who directed this film, received mixed reviews about the level of graphic violence. However, given the nature of war, as well as the fanaticism of the Japanese on Okinawa, it seemed realistic without being exploitative.

 Doss proved his mettle in an action in which his regiment had to scale a cliff about 200 feet high to attack fortified positions. The regiment seized the objective with heavy casualties, and then was forced to retreat by a counter-attack. In the course of these two actions, the regiment was decimated. Doss stayed behind when the survivors who could do so retreated. While naval gunfire bombarded the area, Doss explored the battlefield looking for wounded survivors. As he found each one, he dragged them, one at a time, to the top of the cliff and lowered them by rope. By morning he had done this with 75 men. This feat is amazing in itself even without the risk of death or injury by the shelling or from the Japanese, who were also looking for survivors and killing them.

 Hacksaw Ridge is a moving portrayal of courage of convictions, as well as courage in the face of great danger. It is a moving story, but not for the squeamish.

Making Sense of God by Timothy Keller: a Review

Author 
 Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He is the author of several books, including The Reason for God. Making Sense of God is a prequel to The Reason for God.
Synopsis 

 The central premise of the book is that no one comes to their core beliefs by reason alone, or by emotion alone. Rather reason, emotions, experiences and intuitions have a role in forming our world views, regardless of which worldview we adopt.

 The book is divided into three parts. In part one, Keller argues that the rumors of the dearth of religion have been greatly exaggerated, and that the idea that religion deals with faith while secularism deals with facts is a non-fact that many have taken on faith. In part two, Keller shows how religion best serves the human need for meaning, freedom, identity and morality. In part three, Keller offers a rational case for the truth of the Christian religion.
Analysis 

 Keller is a rare combination of careful scholarship combined with pastoral compassion, and in this book, he exemplifies these qualities. He goes to great lengths to cite works by people who do no share his worldview, but recognize the truth of what he has to say on particular subjects. Keller shows no interest in building straw men, or simply echoing scholars with whom he agrees. Making Sense of God gently but firmly challenges the skeptic to reconsider the premises on which he has built his worldview. Moreover, the believer can benefit from this book not only as a resource for sharing her faith, but even thinking more carefully about it. Therefore, it is a book well suited for the skeptic and the believer alike. It is written for an educated reader, but a bright high schooler could manage it.

Podcasts You Should Know Part 6

After four grueling weeks of work, ministry activities, TV watching, and endless crucially important rounds of Candy Crush, I am finally getting off my duff and posting what I hope to be something useful.

Frank Turek is a  former aviator in the US Navy, has a master’s degree from the George Washington University and a doctorate from Southern Evangelical Seminary. He is the author of I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist, and Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case (a review of which can be found here.) In addition to his writing, speaking and teaching as an adjuct professor at SES, Frank has a weekly television/radio show on the American Network called Crossexamined.

Crossexamined covers a multitude of apologetics related topics. Frank often interviews interesting guests, such as Carole Swain, Hugh Ross and Tim McGrew. When time permits, Turek takes listener calls. (His show airs Saturedays 10-11 am Eastern time.)

One thing I find ironic is that although Turek is known for what he calls “New Jersey style” apologetics, he is consistently gracious with those who disagree with him. Contrast this with Ken Ham, who regularly calls those who disagree with him “evolutionists” and followers of pagan myths. Why do I raise this? You can hear comments from Ham during commercial breaks on Turek’s show, and these short form comments are made without disclaimer. However, right before and after crossexamined, you hear “The following does not necessarily reflect the views of American Family Radio or the American Family Association.” I infer from this that Ham’s comments do reflect the views of the AFA.