19 February 2008

Giant Steps . . .

Posted by at 1:13 AM Read our previous post
(or . . . my thoughts on Kurt Durston's opening statement)

John Loftus over at Debunking Christianity has posted the video footage of an "origins"/I.D. debate between Jeffrey Shallit and Kurt Durston.

The first thing I will comment on is the split-screen PowerPoint display behind the two speakers, each side of the screen showing the title page of his own demonstration.
Notably, the two titles don't match.

Behind Shallit:
"Are there good reasons for scientists to believe in supernatural beings ?"
Behind Durston:
"Should a 21st century scientist believe in God ?"

This is something that I see debaters do frequently—i.e. rephrase the question to favor their own worldview. Such little details are very telling sometimes.

I just listened to Durston's 20 minute opening and paused it to jot down some thoughts before I listen to the rest.

He restates the old argument that since nature had a beginning, then whatever is the cause of nature must be supernatural by definition, as no system can create itself. This sounds reasonable at first glance in our macroscopic/microcosmic perspective, but it necessitates accepting a priori that we can ascertain where the limits of this "nature" are. In other words, given what we know of naturally occurring infinite series, feedback loops and other peculiar mathematical "realities", any assertion that there must have been a zero hour is really grounded on an old paradigm.
But I can for the sake of argument accept that the universe must have had a "beginning" in this way.
Every effect has a cause—fine.

What I have a problem with is that, having accepted the need for such a cause, some go on to ascribe anthropomorphic characteristics to this imagined cause: 'There must be a first cause, and therefore it loves me. ' . . . . or . . . . . 'There must be a first cause and therefore the ancient Hebrew attempt at a description of it is literally true and part of a divine mandate for all mankind.' This kind of argument for a biblical God from cause and effect is so weak that I'm astounded that anyone falls for it at all. If anything, it reveals an intrinsic human psychological need to make God in man's image. This might not be a "delusion" but dang it if it don't come right close. Do the people who posit this kind of thing realize what an enormous leap of logic this is? The chain of reasoning—i.e. "the universe exists, therefore there was a first cause [insert giant step here] therefore God was Moses' burning bush therefore is Jesus etc."—reminds me of the famous Far Side cartoon in which two lab coated scientists are standing before a big blackboard full of mathematical equations. At a crucial point in a complex series of equations, is inserted the phrase "and then a miracle happens."

Durston opens, presenting Dembski-like "mathematical" evidence for a supernatural origin of the cosmos and confidently spinning out probabilities for the formation of protein families and amino acids in an attempt to demonstrate how unlikely it is that the proteins would have formed "accidentally". This line of argument is baffling to me too, because, if there is no identifiable frame of reference for a measurement (there isn't), then any rationalization, any further mathematical manipulation based on that measurement is but a conjecture at best. (anyone ever heard of the rules of "significant figures"?) Don't get me wrong, I'm all for back-of-the-envelope-type calculations where the thought-experiment is the point at hand instead of the empirical measurings, but using this kind of conjecture in an attempt to refute such an established and empirically observable phenomenon as the evolutionary process is another huge leap that begs questions. (Granted, this particular debate is not explicitly about creationism, but all the references to Dembski and Dover make it pretty clear—it's a duck). He brings up the concept of infinite universes as an example of a current theory that is just as unprovable as what he professes, yet is "accepted" as plausible by a wide range scientists, as if that excuses the lack of falsifiability of his idea. That just seems like a, "You guys believe in things that are not falsifiable too . . . and so this idea is plausible too." It's just a childish "not-fair!" type of argument. It's as if secular scientist X got something wrong and that that somehow proves that some rival theory (one as audacious), is therefore correct."

Big leap.

Durston closes his opening remark by appealing to his own experiences of God and the way he interacts with it and vise versa. And this is what compelled me to sound off here.

I'll let him speak for himself and intersperse my own comments as they are merited (in red):
It's interesting as you read through the Bible I could put the miracles in the Bible into three major categories. The first one is prophecy—information about the future that would require a source that transcends time. [...] Then the most powerful, I believe, is a supernatural intervention into an individual's life. Probably the most powerful—in fact when that happens you know God exists—it is also the most difficult to defend. Nevertheless, I'll just mention briefly an example of that [...] for you to think about. That has actually happened to me. My own first experience of God happened in nature. I could see that God was everywhere but yet infinitely separated from me. (Separated how? — How was this separation manifest to him - some ambiguous existential discontent?) And about that time in my life I was told, "well, the reason why God seems infinitely far from you is that you've committed moral violations that have established a barrier between you and God." Then he went on to tell me that God himself in the past had become a human being to take all moral violations of humanity upon himself to pay perfect justice for those things so that we would not have to do that ourselves and that barrier could be removed in our relationship with God. (Humanity having been humanity since the beginning, and given that even the Bible attests to the fact that man has always been a selfish, lustful, gluttonous, vengeful mess, what exactly made God wait until until Rome's occupation of Judea to decide to take up the issue of sweeping "moral violation" under-rug? What made it so suddenly necessary just then and there?) It was explained at that point that if I wanted this what I needed to do was to basically ask Jesus Christ to come into my life and take away the barrier that separates me from God and [...] give me this relationship. I said, "No." I didn't trust God at that point—I must've been afraid of him (Of course, what other reason could there be? ;P). However, I thought a lot about it over the subsequent weeks and one night as I was laying in bed I decided, 'wait a sec; if he loved me enough to do this for me, then I could trust him (in other words . . . . "and then . . . a miracle happens", like the cartoon I mentioned above. A guy is laying in bed having an existential breakdown and anxiety gives way to "faith." It happens every day. But I repeat that since religious experience is internal in form and substance, even though it "seems" external to our yearning hearts, it exists only in the synaptic firings of the penitent or the mystic or what-have-you. ). So I just asked Jesus Christ to come into my life and take away the barrier of moral violation that separate me from God and that relationship with him. And that's when I began to first experience a supernatural intervention in my life. It started small and slow, grew more powerful over the years, and I would have to say at this point in my life is the most intimate relationship I've ever experienced with anyone—and I have an excellent relationship with my wife, good relationships with my kids and my friends, but this goes far deeper. I'm aware of his presence with me throughout the day. I talk to him. He talks to me. (Really? Hmm . . . interesting anthropomorphism there - unless you want to argue that he spoke fluent American English.
o_Ó . . . )

Now, that leaves you with something. I'll just close that aspect by saying it is the most fulfilling relationship I've ever experienced (warm and fuzzy, eh?).

So you got three choices :
Number one, I'm telling a lie to get my point across. But I can tell you, if I was lying about that, there's no way I'd be here tonight. I got better things to do with my time.
I could be insane and that's a live option, but I'll leave that up to doctor Shallit here to choose between "I'm insane" or "I'm telling the truth." [laughter] (Just two choices? Isn't that a grey-less,
artificial dichotomy? Just asking. )

He doesn't even have to address this, but I toss this out because, as I said before—and I admit this—all you are hearing is me telling you this. You have no reason to believe it's true. It's the most difficult one to defend.
(I'll address it.
This is where we rub hard. I have no doubt in my mind that he believes that the feeling of euphoria and increased clarity and sense of tranquility that he and every single human being who has ever lived and gazed upon beauty with a humble heart has benefited from the encounter, comes from "without" somewhere. To our mundanity (if I could coin that for a sec), this sense of wonder seems to be the result of an external reality which is acting upon him/her from some abstract "above". But I think it is demonstrable that religious experiences are essentially nothing more than psychological events —extraordinary, maybe, but not supernatural— and are not external at all. It's as internal as it gets, in fact. Yes, the human animal does seem to have a psychological mechanism which emotionally seeks understanding of the cosmos it lives in and can attain occasional raised levels of awareness of some connection that ties us, everything, all, together. Even atheists experience this phenomenon, I think, a feeling of interconnectedness with the numinous aspect of existence, and they even find it an agreeable state of mind, a pleasant one. The problem is that, no matter how proprietary it seems, no matter how real this imagined "relationship" may seem, it is just a psychological event in the mind of just one singular person, triggered by whatever brought on this heightened sense of awareness—for me it's usually music . . . sometimes nature.
In other words, I think that all religious experiences are in our heads. Every single one. It is my sincere suspicion that all of our prayers are but packets of electrons flying through dendrites and synapses, basically. These flying electrons whirl around the brain, but they really have no means by which to reach some imagined celestial sphere "receiver." At least it seems that way to my eyes.)

But let me move on to the final one, and that's physical miracles.

I'll give you some examples:

I was raised on a beef farm out west and we had this one bull, very hard to handle; the only way we could do it was to put a steel ring through its nose and lead him around. One day I went to lead him to water and I untied him first to put the snap-ring in the ring in its nose and he immediately turned around and began to walk out of the stall and I knew that as soon as he gets his head out of that stall and he sees the cattle in the corral he's going to destroy the corral to get through to the cattle and he's gonna start breeding. [laughter] I'm trying to hold him back with all my strength. He weighs 2,000 lbs and at the time I only weighed 180. The rope was just burning through my hands; there was nothing I could do. And when there was this much left, I yelled, "God, help me!" Instantly, the bull was anchored— 2,000 lbs versus 180. I didn't feel any stronger and I don't think it had anything to do with me. If I had turned into solid steel, he could have still dragged me away. It seemed as if there was something on the rope between me and the bull but I couldn't see anything and I stood there incredulous, just savoring the moment. I had never seen anything like this before. I have no scientific explanation for this and I thought about it a lot over the years.

(Okay. So, here's a story from myown recent experience:

I am late for a gig and loaded to the gills with equipment, heading north on the 148, just before that last approach on McDowell. Traffic is heavy, which only keeps reminding me that I am running late.
The high-pitched rev of his engine makes me turn my head.
I hear him before I see him coming from behind on the lane to my right. I continue slowly on, keeping pace with the steady but cautious jingle jangle of cars in front of me. Another rev and he goes by me on the right and suddenly the car in front of him brakes, but he's already accelerated and has no way of avoiding just touching the car in front of him with his front tire, which send him and the bike's rear end to raise up and come tumbling forward. I am watching this all in what seems like slow motion. Surprisingly, I hear myself actually saying, quite audibly, "Oh God! Please, no!"
To no avail, though.
A lunge forward, half a spin and he lands on the asphalt, face down on his upper torso, the bike following close behind and landing on him and continuing forward on as he rolls more to the right, away from me. I follow his movement for about two seconds and have to close my eyes as he proceeds to roll right under the rear wheels of a big-ass eighteen-wheeler.
Goodnight sweet prince.
If I believe that God intervened on behalf of Durston's prayer, just to keep a bull from going forth and multiplying and maybe causing some structural damage to a pen, then I have to ask myself why it didn't intervene on behalf of my profoundly heartfelt paroxysm, for something a little less trivial than a randy bull. Otherwise, he's asking me to believe in talismanic utterances as divine religious devices. That's not theology, that's "magic", as if the words held some intrinsic power of their own


But all that aside, just because Durston has no scientific explanation for this "miracle" doesn't mean there isn't one. Archimedes said, "Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the Earth." It seems pretty obvious to me that, while the rope was "burning through [his] hands" as he desperately tried to hold on to it, the metal or wood loop that the rope had been attached to and served as a fulcrum could withstand a lot more friction and tension than his hands and eventually the friction exerted on the rope and the metal managed to "lock" and finally with sufficient drag to counteract the slow moving large mass. Of course, I wasn't there and we'll never know for sure, I guess, but that's what I would have told him when he claimed a miracle saved the cows from a good schtupping.

I've seen truly amazing physical feats too, downright wondrous things—the most amazing of which was probably a superconductor demonstration right before my eyes. A little cube made of just the right beryllium alloy was suspended in mid air without the aid of magnets or forces.
It was sublime, surreal, surmagical.

A miracle, though?)
The next example of a miracle he offers makes me a little uneasy, not because I find it compelling, but because I think that someone is lying (albeit by omission :) somewhere along the line.

He claims that his two little nieces had a pair or rabbits who died, (I don't think he says how). Dead to the point of rigor mortis, in fact, he says. The little girls prayed over these dead rabbits and they were placed back in their cage in their dead state. After which, the family went somewhere else and when they returned, Lo and behold! the two rabbits were alive and kicking, thanks to the little girls' prayers.

Something about the way he says how they put the rabbits back in their cage and left the room for awhile (to give God some "privacy") gets my spidey sense to ring-a-tingling. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I smell human intervention here.

Here's what I think:
Some well-meaning relative (some cousin or uncle or sister) cleverly and clandestinely snuck in and replaced the dead rabbits with the new live ones. I don't wish to imply that his or her intention was to mislead, but perhaps only a kind attempt to soothe the sorrow of a pair of cute little girls whose bunny rabbits had just died. No one apparently has owned up to doing theswitcheroo and he/she, figuring that there's no harm in everyone believing it was a miracle, has kept it a secret. A cool bit of family folklore.

Now . . . No matter what you may think of my proposed solution to this mystery (Quick, Watson!! . . . The syringe!!— laughs).
It is far more plausible than the possibility that the tears of two little girls actually persuaded the creator of everything that ever was/will-be to take the time to re-animate two Pet Smart friggin' rabbits. (!)


(I'm sÓ serious, dude.)

Okay, now that I've got that off my chest I can listen to the rest of this debate and see how Shallit responds to this stuff.


  1. Anonymous8:46 AM

    Reminds me of a SS class on apologetics I attended, and Ravi somebody (Emmanuel?), a well-known Christian speaker and radio host, was talking about a debate with a skeptic that he won hands down, at least in his own mind.

    Basically, he asked the guy if there was good. The guy agreed, so therefore there must be evil, and if there is evil then there must be a deity that delineated, and if there is a deity, it must be the God of the Bible, and so on.

    Each one of his points were laughably weak, yet he buzzed over them as if he was discovering something new and uncontroverted.


  2. Ravi Zacharias?

    He's like a Lee Strobel with a better lexicon, cooler hair, and way more expensive suit.

    Maybe he wasn't in class that day when the reading was about Jesus telling the man that he had to sell everything he owned and then give it to the poor in order to be his disciple.

    Some fideist cum "doctor" apologists are funny that way.


  3. Yes, Zacharias. He makes my skin crawl.

    He pretends to have an intelligent, scholarly argument for the proof of God and the Bible's truth. But it is complete horsecrap with leaps of logic that would be evident to a child.

    Which of course means churchgoers eat it up.

    That same class featured Lee Strobel, so one day I looked him up in a bookstore and perused one of his books. COnfronted with a question of doubt about scripture, his response was to cite the refutation by some evangelical scholar, and presto, the question was solved because you can find people to take his position.

    Of course, that somebody takes the position is not argument or evidence, it just proves that someone is taking that position.



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