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Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!

Interruption in a different direction

Ok, I know last week I introduced a series on Creation ex nihilo for Science and Religion Fridays, but it’s been a busy week and I hadn’t given it the full measure of my attention as of writing this. So instead, I’m going to just mention that I have a peer reviewed article that is available online (and as of today available in hard copy to subscribers) in the area of science and religion. It is from one of the foremost publications in this field, Zygon, but, unless you have a subscription (not very likely), you can only access it (online or otherwise) through a subscribing institution, most likely a university. That is, of course, if you’re interested as it is a fairly technical article.

Anyway the link is here with the abstract underneath:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9744.2012.01318.x/abstract

Abstract:

This paper will examine the implications of an extended “field theory of information,” suggested by Wolfhart Pannenberg, specifically in the Christian understanding of creation. The paper argues that the Holy Spirit created the world as field, a concept from physics, and the creation is directed by the logos utilizing information. Taking into account more recent developments of information theory, the essay further suggests that present creation has a causal impact upon the information utilized in creation. In order to adequately address Pannenberg’s hypothesis that the logos utilizes information at creation the essay will also include an introductory examination of Pannenberg’s Christology which shifts from a strict “from below” Christology, to a more open “third way” of doing Christology beyond “above” and “below.” The essay concludes with a brief section relating the implications of an extended “field theory of information” to creative inspiration, as well as parallels with human inspiration.

Creation from nothing (part 1): What’s the big deal?

The next few posts in Science and Religion Friday will focus on why Christian Theology insists on a doctrine of creation out of nothing, what this means both philosophically and scientifically, and what it necessarily cannot mean theologically. Please note that the following posts are a little bit technical (though I’ve tried to ease out some of the technicality).

Why make it a big deal?

What does it matter if the world was created out of nothing or not? There are creation myths that do not require that the world was made from nothing. For instance, many of the ancient cultures more or less believed the the universe was the result of a great cosmic battle (or perhaps some sort of sexual encounter) and the world formed from the blood or as the offspring of a god or gods. Some of the early Greek philosophers argued that there was a divine craftsman who carved the earth out of already present stuff. In fact, the first unambiguous promotion of the idea of creation out of nothing (or Creatio ex nihilo in the Latin) in a religious text occurs in one of the Maccabees (those books rejected by Protestants as unauthoritative, and considered by Roman Catholics as only secondarily authoritative).  Clearly there is a way to talk about the universe as if it were not made out of nothing.

Well, in a way. Once one accepts monotheism as the best description of God (which, for these posts, we are assuming), the scope of possibilities becomes severely limited. Now one cannot speak of the physical universe as if it is the leftover bits of a god who lost or something along those lines. We are ultimately left with one of two options: either matter always existed, or at some point matter began to exist. Both are compatible with monotheism, but only the latter works with Christian monotheism.

Why contingency matters

Defining Terms (Contingency and Necessity)

Contingency, if you are unfamiliar with the term, does not apply solely to funds or plans. It is simply the opposite of necessity, closely related to determinism, but not the same. One must be careful here, because it does not mean “indeterminate.” Indeterminate means unpurposed. Similarly Undefined means not known or in a state of flux (or similar things). Contingent things do have a definite existence, and may actually be purposed or have a purpose (though not necessarily), but are nevertheless not fixed in the means to an end, or even on the exact particulars of an end. Often contingency is used in terms of free will or, in physics, to speak of sub atomic particles and their interactions (and often in physics contingency is used interchangeably with indeterminism, but the terms are distinct, and there is a small debate about whether particles are just contingent or also indeterminate when in superposition).

For the purposes of this post, then, the question is whether material stuff is contingent or necessary. If something is necessary, then it is eternal, that is it must always have existed. The reason for this is that if there was a time when it was not (or will not be), then it is not, by virtue of that, a necessary entity. For those who have had intro to philosophy, the ontological argument for God’s existence presented by Anselm essentially argues that God is a necessary being (and thus must always exist). To be clear, though, one can reject the ontological argument for the existence of God as valid while nevertheless affirming that God is necessary. In short, necessary things must always exist. The converse is also true: if something always exists (that is, it is eternal), then it must be necessary. I should make one further clarification that I am not using eternal in the technical philosophical sense and so it is (for this post) interchangeable with everlasting.

Contrast that with contingency, which means that something is necessarily dependent upon something else. If it were necessary, it would have always existed and thus it would not be dependent upon some other being. However, if it is contingent, then there must have been some time (or will be some time) when it will not exist. It is not eternal, and thus its existence is dependent (or we might say contingent, based upon the existence and/or causal interaction of) some other thing.

This leaves us with two options, then, if the physical/material universe is eternal (always existed) it is necessary. If, however, it is not necessary it must be contingent, which means it had to have come into being.

Picking contingency

If we are to say something was created, yet also claim that it is eternal, then it must be necessarily created. The problem with this kind of language in talking about God is that it suggests that God is somehow required to create the physical world. That is a genuine restriction upon God that we cannot have if we assume, as we are, that God is omnipotent. So may we affirm that the material universe just was, and wasn’t created?

Leaving aside the biblical argument (that is that the bible says God created), let’s examine this purely philosophically. If the universe is necessary, then that means it must always be. It cannot be destroyed (modern physics calls this the law of conservation of mass, matter cannot be created or destroyed). I’ll get to the scientific issues another day. For the moment, what would this mean with respect to our picture of God? Yet again, it would mean that something exists which a) is non-dependent upon God (which could compromise our view of sovereignty) and, perhaps more importantly at present, b) acts as another barrier to the power, omnipotence, of God. Unlike “square circles” and “rocks so big God can’t lift it” this would present a genuine problem. This is not a self-contradictory limitation (as the others are). However, there is no reason to assume that we are required to choose that.

Thus, for Christian theology, we cannot say that the physical universe is either necessary or eternal. This means that it is contingent, and it’s existence is based upon God’s action to create. Thus the universe had a beginning (and could, conceivably, have an end). In order for it to have a beginning, then, we say it was created. Since there was no prior material “stuff” for it to be created from, we say it was created from nothing (or ex nihilo). Next week I’ll go through some of the other implications of this.

Additional Qualifications for Dialogue (Science and Religion Friday)

This week, I’m only going to give a few more qualifications for the grounds of a dialogue between Science and Religion as they will appear on this blog (in this weekly category). Next week, hopefully, I’ll start with some constructive dialogue and get to what I genuinely wanted this series to do.

A Philosophical Assumption

I stated last week that the most fruitful ground for a dialogue between science and religion would occur via the medium of philosophy of science. That is true, and there I argued why such a category is not only particularly useful, much more so than critics would have you believe, but is also something with which scientists engage regularly, whether or not they acknowledge it.

I would add an additional qualifier here by saying that philosophy of science speaks best to religion when it does so through the medium of philosophy of religion. Now, I should probably distinguish the two. Philosophy of religion is primarily the academic study of the ideologies with which religion is concerned. It is not concerned with the reasons for belief (psychology of religion, and religion itself), nor is it concerned primarily with the actions of the believer (as religion is, and social scientific study of religion is). Instead, it evaluates the beliefs of religious systems along philosophical guidelines. Now, there is some overlap. Clearly the validity or non-validity of belief systems will factor into “reasons for belief” (as many apologists know), and they are vital for establishing the reasonableness of belief. However, Philosophy of Religion does not have the same restrictions upon it that some religious systems have. (I say some because many, like some forms of Christianity, don’t have many restrictions either). The philosopher of religion simply follows the logical line of argument, given certain assumptions about what he or she is studying. I do believe that philosophy of religion is the best ground for dialogue with philosophy of science because the two have a shared methodology and are both concerned with ultimate truth, regardless of the restrictions that may or may not be placed upon it (and yes, science has some pretty hefty restrictions as well, like you can’t question empiricism).

In theory, I could engage with any and all religions in philosophy of religion, but that’s not my personal concern. Since this is a blog and not an academic book in either of those disciplines, I can add an additional qualification.

A Theological Qualification

If you haven’t figured it out already, I have a particular perspective throughout this blog. I am an evangelical Christian who is also a Baptist. (If you want to read more about it, click the category to the right for “Orientation Posts”). I’m not really that concerned with whether what I say violates the theology of various forms of Hinduism or Buddhism. I don’t particularly care whether it speaks to Roman Catholic theology. Now, it may say something to those various groups, which is fine, but that’s not the goal or focus. I’m concerned primarily with evangelical Christianity from a Baptist perspective. That is my starting point. I think it is also where I will end up, but I am trying to be open about this thing (and so, theoretically, it could not, but I seriously doubt that will happen). This means several things:

  1. Monotheism will be assumed: and that is a Trinitarian monotheism. I’m not going to try to “prove God exists” because others have embarked on that journey in more detail and much better than I could
  2. The veracity of the bible will be a starting point (and likely ending point). By this I mean I will take the bible as true until I see evidence to the contrary (which I don’t think will happen). It describes a certain history and events as I believe them to have actually occurred.
  3. The theological issues will be Christian: that is I will be concerned with things like creation out of nothing (Creatio ex Nihilo), the historical incarnation, how to understand contemporary issues in physics in light of past Christian theological doctrines (and whether we should change or abandon those doctrines). While other religions may hold to some of these, others do not (for instance, only monotheistic religions seem to require a creation out of nothing, others are ok with the idea that the world just always was in some form or another).

And similar things.

Next Week: Creation out of nothing.

 

 

Philosophy of Science: A Bridge for fruitful dialogue

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been showing how I don’t find Ian Barbour’s scheme entirely helpful, and why I’ve abandoned NOMA as in any way adequate. Yet, I’d like to suggest something that sounds like I am endorsing a form of NOMA (that is, the view that science and religion don’t interact).

I’d like to suggest that the best source for a fruitful dialogue between religion and science is likely to be found by turning to the often maligned, much misunderstood discipline of philosophy of science.

On the surface it might seem like this is giving into NOMA, and saying that really religion only engages with philosophy of science and never with what scientists are actually doing. Instead, I’d like to suggest that any time a scientist moves beyond a description of the methodology and occurrences of an experiment, and moves to interpretation, she or he is, aware or not, engaging in the philosophy of science. The philosophy of science, then, rather than something external to the work of science is something integral to it. For a long time people engaged in it without really acknowledging it, but in for long time people engaged in metaphysics (which is related), without calling it that either.

Karl Popper

Some of the early pioneers in the philosophy of science as a discipline distinct from science and metaphysics were, among others, Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, who included significant discussions of epistemology (how we know anything) into their dialogues. Thomas Kuhn is perhaps best known for popularizing the term “paradigm shift,” while Karl Popper has been, perhaps, a bit more influential in actual scientific investigation (many disciplines now accept Popper’s suggested “null hypothesis” and falsification as their method). Despite this, the philosophy of science has been largely ridiculed.

Perhaps the most famous derision of the Philosophy of Science comes from Richard Feynman who said “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” While Feynman was certainly brilliant, his lack of self-awareness in this quote is striking. First let’s take the statement as true.

Richard Feynman

The fact is that ornithology is actually incredibly useful to birds, the birds just aren’t generally aware of it. Ornithology can help others know how to protect or regrow habitats. The study of migration patterns of one species can help others to problem solve population control issues in another species. Ornithology is actually quite helpful to birds, the birds just aren’t aware of it (so maybe Feynman was more right than he realized).

Here’s the other problem. Any time scientific investigation moves from what is to what was or what will be (i.e. anytime it tries to say something useful), the one making the claims is engaging in philosophy of science because, as has been demonstrated by numerous people at numerous times, such claims are non-empirical. They rely on some interpretive power beyond sensory observation. They are making existential claims about the universe that go beyond the realm of science. This is not to say they shouldn’t make such claims, but only to say that when they make those claims they are engaging in non-empirical philosophy (even if it is informed by empiricism).

Likewise, religions (and particularly Christianity) make existential claims about the universe, including what has happened and what will happen. This, it seems, means they have a common overlap with the philosophy of science.

It is my contention that a fruitful dialogue may occur via the philosophy of science. In other words, the interpretation of scientific claims and the claims of, in my case, Christianity (which is really just an interpretation of historical events), are talking about the same subject matter, and therefore are de facto in dialogue. Thus Ian Barbour’s scheme may be descriptive for how people think science and religion interact, but in actual fact, the two are in a dialogue which they cannot escape. Science and Religion are in dialogue because, by the very nature of both of them, they cannot not be in dialogue.

Adendum to the discussion of NOMA

A week and a half ago, I talked about abandoning NOMA as a valid model for science/religion interaction. The week after that the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece on the seemingly dominate force of “beauty” or “symmetry” in much scientific investigation, particularly in physics, and how it might be misguided. I’ve linked to the piece below, but I’d like to just give a few highlights, plus some background to it.

The drive for beauty and symmetry in physics dates back to the Pythagoreans, particularly in their discovery of octaves that are formed through evenly dividing a string. Eventually this led to the elegance of thirds, fifths, and the so-called “golden ratio.” Once Plato and Aristotle reemphasized these points (Plato very likely visited some Pythagoreans at some point), they became entrenched in physics. As the article notes, Copernicus’s theory was accepted not because it was correct based on data, but because it was more beautiful or elegant (though it turned out the universe is not quite as elegant as Copernicus thought). Likewise, Kepler only begrudgingly abandoned his initial view on the orbit of the planet’s once it became clear he would need to move in the direction of “uglier” ellipses.

To move the discussion forward to today. Now that the standard model is all but confirmed (it remains seen whether the Higgs Boson discovered is a “standard model” Higgs or another kind, but it is very likely to be a “standard model” one), much of physics has run up against a wall. The leading unification theories (theories that bring together quantum and field physics) of String Theory and Supersymmetry are accepted because of their “elegance.” As the article notes, they have gone to the point of being unfalsifiable, a claim usually levied against the religious. If what either theory purports to exist is not discovered, then advocates can argue that current equipment is simply insufficient to produce the speed, pressure, and volume or collisions needed to produce the expected particles. Here’s the problem: there is no good reason to accept “elegance” or “symmetry,” as understood in physics, as being somehow normative. In fact, there are numerous instances where it does not hold. The Sun, moon, earth and other such bodies are far from symmetrical spheres, yet the model is used because it is easier to work with and close enough to producing predicted results. In biology, virtually nothing is as symmetrical as once was thought (the article notes, for instance, that though amino acids produced in the lab can be “right handed” or “left handed” nature only produces “left handed” ones).

Then there are the known asymmetries in physics. Neutrinos, the most common particle in the universe, only spin in one direction, while both String Theory and Supersymmetry predict there should be an even number of two opposite spins. Where are the other ones? Although not mentioned in the article, there is the additional absence of “anti-matter” which should exist in high enough quantity (proportionate to matter) that we should be able to observe more of its natural occurrence (as it is, most observed anti-matter has been laboratory produced). All of these are problems with physics as it currently stands.

Why do I bring all of this up? The main reason is this: It demonstrates that scientific investigation is often times more subject to non-empirical concerns (here aesthetic ones) than empirical concerns, and thus incapable of meeting the criteria of NOMA from that end.

To read the article, click here.

(Sort of) Abandoning Ian Barbour’s Scheme for Science and Religion Dialogue

Over the past few posts in this series, I’ve been discussing the way in which science and religion interact. In several posts, I spent a good deal of time attempting to debunk the idea that science and religion necessarily conflict. Last week, I tried to show how NOMA is invalid, in large part because science necessarily makes non-empirical claims, and religion frequently makes claims that are historical, and thus empirical. This week, I’d like to examine one of the more well known schemes for discussing Science-Religion Dialogue; the one offered by Ian Barbour.

Between 1989 and 1991 Barbour gave the somewhat famous Gifford Lectures in Scotland (Aberdeen those years). The lectures eventually became the book Religion in an Age of Science. In the book, Barbour outlines four models for science and religion interaction:

  1. Conflict: One which we have already addressed
  2. Independence: Which is best exemplified by NOMA
  3. Dialogue: Where one uses the other or vice versa, but they remain essentially within their own field
  4. Integration: Where there is a more complete intermingling, such as with Natural Theologies

While his scheme is helpful on a certain level, I’d like to suggest that his distinction between Dialogue and Integration is actually not that helpful. On the one hand both take science and religion very seriously and believe that both fields point to the truth. On the other hand, some of what Barbour classifies as integration is, at best, a superficial treatment of either science or religion.
In truth, I don’t find the distinction helpful, and suggest a different way of looking at the dialogue.

Let me just get something out there. I do not think it is genuinely possible to prove the existence of God through purely empirical means. There. I said it (and in bold letters no less). This is the problem I frequently have with natural theology, at least of the sort that purports to prove God’s existence. Here’s the problem with trying to prove God’s existence by an appeal only to science: what you prove exists is not God. If you can prove the existence of God in this way, then it leaves us with one of two possibilities. Either

The god proved is subject entirely to empirical methodology, and thus is not truly supernatural. If that is the case, then God is not over and above natural law, but subject to it. Further, it is difficult to reconcile the idea that “God is Spirit” as Jesus said with the idea of a God subject entirely to empirical observation.

OR

The god who is proved is not a personal god, but rather an impersonal pantheistic god (that is a god who just is the universe as in Spinoza and Hegel) or a god who sets the universe in motion and does little else (the god of eighteenth and nineteenth century deism).

Now, let me be clear about something else. I do believe God truly exists, and I further believe that the existence of God can be proved, and even that empirical methodology may have something to do with this. But it can’t be through empiricism alone.

But, if we really think about it, what can be meaningfully said about the universe that can be said through empiricism alone? This brings me back to my objection to NOMA. Any time we are confronted with a question of existence, particularly future existence, we can only make claims about the existence or non-existence through extrapolating from our empirical observations. This objection to empiricism as a sole criteria for knowledge, first found in David Hume, is so old and frequent as to be trite, yet the fact that it is frequently ignored means I should bring it up again. Perhaps instead of driving a wedge between the two things, we should accept them for what they are: different pieces of the epistemological puzzle.

In Epistemology, that is the philosophical branch that deals with knowledge, there is a perennial problem of how we can claim anything counts as knowledge (a sort of developed skepticism). For a long time the standard working definition of knowledge was “justified true belief.” Then a series of “Gettier Problems” were introduced. These scenarios gave an account of a person who had a belief that was true and that he was justified in having, yet because the justification was actually mistaken, it didn’t seem like his belief should count as knowledge. There have been numerous attempts to answer the Gettier Dilemma, but they have usually relied upon something that can’t be described (there is some quality in addition to truth and justification about a belief that is needed, and we’ll just call it g, for Gettier, or something less imaginative like x, y or z).

I’m suggesting that one of the first steps out of this dilemma (that is to be able to claim knowledge) is to accept that knowledge does not come about through a single isolate process. Rather we come about our beliefs (and eventually knowledge) by rather complex methodologies that take from various processes. This is the same for the scientist as it is for the theologian. Once we accept that, then we can move on to find out what counts as the “right” sort of justification for something.

This brings us back to science and religion interaction. I don’t think the final distinction of Barbour’s (between “Dialogue” and “Integration”) is terribly useful because, on some level at least, we are all practicing some sort of integration, and on another we all resist it. Thus genuine meaningful interaction is not a choice between the two, but rather an expression of what level and how we integrate the two, as well as other ways of thinking, in an attempt to arrive at knowledge about the universe, and about God.

But what do you think? Is Barbour’s final division still useful in some ways? How?

Why NOMA is inadequate

It’s Science and Religion Friday again. Last week I talked about moving beyond the “conflict” model of science and religion (but especially Christianity) interaction. This week I talk about the concept of NOMA (and why it fails). Next week, I’ll go to Ian Barbour’s scheme of different models of interaction, and why it may be helpful on one level, but grossly inaccurate on another.

First, a definition. NOMA is an acronym to describe a particular way of thinking about Science and Religion interaction. It stands for Non-overlapping magisteria. The concept was first put forth, at least in these terms, by Stephen Jay Gould. Drawing on the use of the term “magisteria” in Roman Catholic thought, he argued, in his initial essay and later in his book Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, that a magisteria is “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for

Photo of Stephen Jay Gould by Kathy Chapman via wikicommons (Click picture for full information on the photo)

meaningful discourse and resolution.” He went on to argue that the domain of science is with the realm of empirical observation, what he calls “fact” and the realm of religion is in non-empirical areas, what he calls “meaning” or is sometimes referred to as “the big questions.” The two are entirely distinct according to Gould.

On the one hand, that solves the problem of any apparent conflict very neatly. There is no conflict because the two are talking about fundamentally different things, and thus the two can’t even be in dialogue, much less disagreement. No fuss. Gould calls his solution “elegant” and “simple.” So compelling is it that most scientists (and arguably theologians) ascribe to it. There’s just one problem. It’s built on entirely false presuppositions and erroneous claims.

First, let’s address the problems from scientific perspectives. The claim is that science only ever makes statements of fact, that is not to say it only makes claims that are true, but that it is only concerned with physical material existence, which would include mathematical claims as well as claims of observation. The problem is that this just isn’t the case. Scientific claims regularly extend beyond the observable. Claims about events that are strictly non-observable are, by their very nature, more than empirical claims. By claiming that historical events occurred in such a way, one is making a claim that they did not occur in a different way (a tautology I know, but bear with me). One excludes all other claims to how something could have occurred. Now, if it is vital for a religious belief that, rather than the universe progressing toward absolute thermodynamic entropy (a cold, dark universe), it is actually progressing towards some greater fulfillment (as virtually all religions claim), then there is a conflict here. Simply put, scientific claims about the distant past (i.e. where there is no record of observation) or distant future (where no one alive now can observe it) can never be value neutral claims. They have implicit meaning. While this certainly doesn’t exclude all religious interpretations of events, it does impose certain limits on what those interpretations can be.

Let’s look at something more contemporary, though. Take cognitive psychology. Rather than the “soft-science” that people might exclude from NOMA, I’m referring to the biological study of the brain. There, many mental disorders are attributed to purely physical/material phenomena, such as chemical imbalances in the brain. The treatment may often involve a series of drugs. However, this clearly overlaps into the religious claim by certain branches of charismatic and pentecostal churches that mental disorders are caused by demon possession and require an exorcism of some sort. Now, again, religion is not entirely excluded from these discussions, but to accept the scientific claim, it does certainly place certain parameters on the religious interpretation of the world.

Let’s also look at the actual claims made by scientists. Rarely are they value-neutral or value-independent claims. Probably the most notorious example is that of certain neo-Darwinians. The point where they go beyond mere “statements of fact” occurs when they shift from describing an historical process to describing the means by which occurs. Specifically, when the claim is made that evolution occurs as a “purposeless” or “random” process, there is a pretty significant value claim being made there, one that seems very much at odds with virtually all forms of theistic belief.

Finally, from the scientific point of view, one must consider that even if empirical claims were value neutral (which I doubt), the presumption of empiricism is not. Empiricism cannot be shown to be a valid method from empiricism (that’s circular). Instead, all empirical investigation (such as scientific investigation), must make the value claim that empiricism, and even a particular type of empiricism, is a valid means of accurately describing the universe. That is a value claim and not a “statement of fact.” Let’s look at the religious point of view.

For Gould’s NOMA to make sense, it must also be the case that religion only makes value claims and makes no claims regarding “statements of fact.” Again, this is not the case generally. While it may be true of certain existentialist interpretations of Christianity (where the historical accuracy of the bible is irrelevant, all that matters is what it means to you right now), and certain forms of Eastern religious philosophies (most, but not all, forms of Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism), for most religions this is not the case. It is certainly not the case for what I consider genuine Christianity. Christianity makes claims about the physical world. They include: a) God made it good and directs its purposes; b) God interacts (and has interacted) with material creation, particularly but not exclusively people, in an empirically observable way; c) God became a real and genuine historical person in Jesus; d) this Jesus really lived and was really executed on a cross; e) this Jesus really was raised from the dead (not spiritually, but physically in history); d) God is not done interacting with this world; and e) God will again come to this world in visible form to change the course of its history forever. Now all of these claims make value claims as well, but they are primarily claims about the observable universe and thus very much overlap with the “magisteria” of science. To state that they don’t actually make any kind of claim to “statements of fact” is the very definition of “begging the question” (to presume the answer to an argument or proof before one has been provided or explored). Such a thing is invalid and thus not a “solution” at all.

Now, as I said last week, I don’t believe that science and religion are in conflict. So if they aren’t in conflict, yet they do genuinely interact, contra Gould, then where does that leave us? I’ll start on that point next week.

Moving beyond a conflict model

Hey it’s science and religion Friday! NPR ain’t got nuthin’ on me (and if I continue to write like that, they never will, nor care to)

Anyway, most of my posts in this category thus far have been discussing the relationship between science and religion, though really science and Christianity, from the perspective of conflict. That is, I have been attempted to demonstrate that, despite the claims of many, primarily the so-called “new atheists”, there is no genuine conflict between honest scientific inquiry and Christian faith.

Since at least the time of Origen, there has been an idea that there are two ways of understanding God, from the natural world and from the revelation found in Scripture (arguably this has roots in Paul’s opening of Romans, or even earlier with some of the psalms). However Augustine was the first to use the term “The book of nature” to refer to knowledge that comes about through observing the natural world, which is often set alongside the “book of Scripture.” This is, at least in Augustine, affirming of the validity of such knowledge, even in a fallen world.

The terminology (of two books of knowledge) has been used by Christians for centuries since then, including Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin (though most in the Dortian Calvinist tradition seem to find the metaphor too strained to be of use), and others. One of the primary arguments is that both books have the same author, God, who has not changed his mind or opinion since writing them. Therefore, if there is an apparent conflict between the two, it is not the case that one is right and the other wrong, rather it is our interpretation of one or the other that is right or wrong. There is no conflict between the book of nature and the book of scripture, thus we should attempt to adjust our interpretation of one or the other (or both) in an effort to arrive at true meaning.

One of the more well-known examples of this was by the German (pre-reformation) theologian, Konrad von Megenberg, who spent considerable time detailing what he considered to be the book of nature in an important precursor to scientific literature. His book, entitled The Book of Nature, was profoundly influential, having been reprinted multiple times before the arrival of the Guttenberg printing press. My point, though, with all of this is that theologians have never seen a conflict between the two. Perhaps its time we move beyond models of conflict and start talking about something else entirely. What do you think? Can we move past a conflict between the two?

Megenberg’s work, in reprinted form (via Wikicommons)

Does the Resurrection provide an objective criteria for Christianity?

Let’s step right in with some heavy Science and Religion.

If you were following this blog before I left, you may recall a post (with a promised follow up that never happened until now) on the Resurrection. Specifically, I contest the claim offered by so many of the so-called “New Atheists” (and others like them) that Christianity has no clear objective criteria. The fact of the matter is that it does. What is more, the criteria is falsifiable: namely, the Resurrection of Jesus. The argument is simply this. If the Resurrection did not occur, I will–well not gladly– admit that Christianity is a lie, or a fool’s hope, or some combination of the two. If, however, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ did in fact occur as historical event, then the truth of Christianity, at least at its core message that Jesus was God who came to save us, cannot honestly be disputed. The question then becomes, is the Resurrection a satisfactory objective criteria?

Let’s look, briefly, at the history of science (which entails some philosophy of science) to possible help us out. In the early history of modern science (beginning, with Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton), scientists set about trying to prove that something was or wasn’t true with their own method. They would amass data and from that data put forth a theory that made sense of the data. If enough data was collected which conformed to the theory, then the theory was considered proven, and in some cases referred to as a physical law.

Karl Popper

This method was adopted until the beginning of the twentieth century. The first major problem was the failure of the positivist project, which I talked about here. The second major problem was a category mistake. If you’ve taken logic, you may recognize the scientific method as being primarily a form of inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning can never lead (validly) to universal claims, one needs deductive reasoning for that. Thus Karl Popper introduced (or re-introduced, depending on whom you ask) the concept of falsifiability. Deductively the observation of a number of white swans cannot move to the proposition that “All swans are white,” only that the number of white swans observed are, in fact, white. However, the statement “All swans are white” may be likely, and have a certain falsifiability to it. Indeed, when black swans were discovered in Australia (where else?), that hypothesis/theory proved wrong.

Later, the new criteria of reproducibility and the practice of verification were introduced to aid in other issues with different methodologies. However, it is a mistake to believe these other methodologies are universally applicable. There are certain historical events, which nevertheless are scientific or objective in the claims made about them, that are by their very nature non-reproducible and not subject to verification in laboratory experiment. One of the most discussed of these is the nature of the beginning of the universe. Evidence of it may be analyzed and even, with Super-Colliders (such as CERN) be reproduced. But the majority of what occurred is not subject to reproducibility. There are still other events, such as massive geological shifts, the history within evolutionary biology, and other such things that are not reproducible. Yet, they are not called “unscientific.” Instead, it is understood that they are objectively observable events that, due to their massive and historical nature, can only be analyzed today from the effects of them, whenever they occurred (or are presumed to have occurred).

Since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a cosmic event upon which all of history turns (or rather, if it occurred it is of this sort), and it is necessarily historical in nature, it does not need to be reproducible to be objective (indeed such a claim is ridiculous). Instead it must meet two criteria to be objective. It must have effects and historical markers which can be analyzed, and it must be falsifiable. The historical markers are numerous, and there are many witnesses and writings which record the event, as well as the impact it has clearly made upon the world via the Church, an organization which the Resurrection established. It is also clearly falsifiable. Namely this: produce the body, or evidence that there was a body of Jesus that was not brought back to life and all of Christianity falls (well except that which follows in the line of Tillich or Bultmann, but that might scarcely be called Christianity). It was an historical event in the sense that anyone could have witnessed it, and it involved material things.

Note, though, that this is a different claim than one that says I can prove the Resurrection is true. Granted, I do believe the Resurrection is true, and even believe it can be shown to have likely occurred, but, as is the case with most historical events, I do not believe it can be absolutely proven until history ends (and Christ returns). That does not, however, change the fact that the Resurrection is itself either objectively true or false, and with it all of Christianity.

Also, this is not a claim, from the objective scientific/historical point of view, of whether God did or did not do it. That is a philosophical and theological claim (which does not mean it is not a description of reality, only that it is of a different sort). I am merely claiming that the objective claim of Christianity is that the historical person Jesus really existed, genuinely died on a Friday, and was genuinely brought back to life on a Sunday.

However, of all the possible interpretations of the resurrection event, if it occurred, the most likely is that God is the one who raised Jesus, and if so then the claims of Jesus could only be true. Rather than say that this aspect is unscientific, though, I would like to merely point out that the objective claims of science are often followed (usually immediately) by decidedly philosophical interpretations of those objective claims. If they did not, then nothing meaningful about the world could ever be made. For example, it doesn’t matter that 1 + 1 = 2 for the purpose of the world if it doesn’t have some correspondence to reality (i.e. that if you have one item and another item, putting them together yields two items). However, applying the mathematical concept of ‘1 + 1 =2’ to reality universally (and not just in this or that instance, but in all future instances yet to be encountered) is a philosophical, not objective, claim. However, because it is based on objective events, we consider it valid. My argument here is that the Resurrection functions in the same way as other scientific claims for the foundation of Christianity as a valid paradigm.

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