The Case for a Creator: Galileo the Troublemaker

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 7

To start off his interview, Lee Strobel asks Gonzalez and Richards about humankind's great demotion: the medieval religious belief that we were at "the center of the universe, sort of the throne of the cosmos, the most important place that everything revolved around" [p.160] and the overturning of this belief by science, which proved that we are not at the center of the universe either physically or metaphysically. Richards claims, however, "that this historical description is simply false" [p.161].

To counter this argument, Richards cites Dante's Divine Comedy, in which "the surface of the Earth is an intermediate place" between the heavenly spheres and the circles of the underworld. In fact, he calls it a "cosmic sump". "[C]learly, this is not the stereotype that we've been given that the center of the universe prior to Copernicus was the preeminent spot." [p.162]

But what Richards has passed over is the role that Earth plays in this cosmology. It's not, as Richards' dismissive description implies, a place of no importance. On the contrary: according to this belief system, Earth is the axis of creation. It's the stage where God's plan of salvation plays out, the place where everyone's eternal destiny will be decided, the cosmic arena where everything that's ever going to happen happens. And let's not forget that the most important series of events in all of Christian history - the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus - took place on the Earth. Far from being unimportant, this belief system makes the Earth the place of supreme importance for God's plan and for humankind's ultimate destiny.

Without Strobel noticing, Richards then goes on to contradict the argument raised just several pages prior:

"It was the Enlightenment that made man the measure of all things. When you really think about it, Christian theology never actually put man literally in the center... it was never the case that everything was literally created solely for us." [p.162]

This flatly contradicts the passage from Michael Denton, quoted by Strobel and discussed in my last entry in this series, which describes the hypothesis that "every characteristic of reality exists [to create a livable habitat] for mankind" as "very far from a discredited prescientific myth" [p.158]. Strobel passes over this contradiction without noticing or remarking on it.

Strobel next raises the question of Copernicus, Galileo, and Giordano Bruno, three famous figures who were persecuted for opposing the geocentric cosmology of their day. Unusually, Richards doesn't adopt the usual evangelical apologetic of blaming it all on the cruel, dogmatic Catholic church. (Note that he's affiliated with the Acton Institute, a libertarian Catholic think tank.) Instead, he tries to exonerate the church and even argues that some of the treatment they received was justified!

"First of all," Richards said, "some claim Copernicus was persecuted, but history shows he wasn't; in fact, he died of natural causes the same year his ideas were published." [p.163]

This is a rather odd apologetic. If Richards wants to prove that the Catholic church refrained from persecuting scientists, it certainly doesn't help his case. It could equally well be argued that the only reason Copernicus wasn't persecuted is because he died before the church had the opportunity.

Indeed, the way Copernicus and his associates handled his discovery strongly suggests that they feared the church's response. When Copernicus' masterpiece, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, was published by his friend Andreas Osiander, Osiander added a foreword emphasizing that the heliocentric theory could be treated only as a mathematical convenience, and didn't have to imply anything about the true nature of reality. Copernicus himself began the work by reprinting a letter from a friend, who was a Catholic cardinal, praising his observational skills. He follows this with a long, apologetic preface addressed to Pope Paul III in which he admits that his theory is new and shocking, that for a long time he wrestled with whether to publish it at all, but that he was finally persuaded to do so by the urging of his friends. (Read the text of De Revolutionibus online; see also). And despite all this effort toward placating the church, Copernicus' work was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books later, during the Galileo affair. It would not ultimately be removed until 1835 (!).

And about that famous Galileo affair:

"As for Galileo, his case can't be reduced to a simple conflict between scientific truth and religious superstition. He insisted the church immediately endorse his views rather than allow them to gradually gain acceptance..." [p.163]

Considering that the ID movement has insisted public schools immediately endorse their views rather than wait to gain scientific acceptance, this is a laughably hypocritical charge.

"...he mocked the Pope, and so forth. Yes, he was censured, but the church kept giving him his pension for the rest of his life." [p.163]

First off, please take notice that Richards appears to be arguing that mocking the Pope is a legitimate reason to punish someone.

Second, it's ludicrous how Richards tries to soft-pedal Galileo's fate. What actually happened is that Galileo was summoned to Rome to appear before the Inquisition, where he was imprisoned for the duration of his trial before a jury of ten cardinals. When he was finally judged to be suspect of heresy, his book was banned and he was forced to recant on his knees under threat of torture; and when he had humiliated himself by abjuring his own work, he was then sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. (Here's an excellent reference on Galileo's trial.)

"[Giordano] Bruno's case was very sad," Richards continued. "He was executed in Rome in 1600. Certainly this is a stain on church history. But again, this was a complicated case. His Copernican views were incidental. He defended pantheism and was actually executed for his heretical views on the Trinity, the Incarnation, and other doctrines that had nothing to do with Copernicanism." [p.163]

Evidently, we're meant to take from this that burning someone for their religious ideas is somehow more acceptable than burning them for their scientific ideas.

But what Richards says here is a half-truth at best. Bruno was not a scientist like Copernicus or Galileo; his cosmological views flowed from his mystical, pantheistic religious beliefs, not from direct observation. Nevertheless, it's striking how his ideas resemble the modern, scientific conception of the cosmos. He believed that the Sun was a star just like all the others, that the Earth and the other planets revolved around it, and that there were an infinite number of other stars each with their own planetary systems and living beings. And whether or not this was the charge that resulted in his execution, the record clearly shows that it was one of the charges laid against him at trial.

In sum, far from supporting his thesis, Richards has only undermined it: The church did insist on a cosmology that put Earth at the metaphysical center of creation, and it did persecute scientists and other freethinkers who dared to offer an alternative view. This embarrassing historical record doesn't fit well with the story he wants to tell, so it's no surprise that he tries to cover it up. Unfortunately for him, the facts are not so malleable nor so accommodating.

Other posts in this series:

November 27, 2009, 11:44 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink9 comments

The Case for a Creator: All the Starry Heavens

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 7

Chapter 7 of Case is about the argument from planetary fine-tuning. This time, Strobel has two interviewees: Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Wesley Richards, both affiliated with the Discovery Institute. Since we're keeping count of scientific "authorities", which is whom Strobel claims to be interviewing, let me point out for the record that Gonzalez has a legitimate Ph.D in astronomy from the University of Washington. Richards, meanwhile, is another Christian theologian, with a Ph.D from Princeton Theological Seminary.

You may have heard of Guillermo Gonzalez from a fracas in 2007, when he was denied tenure at Iowa State University. Naturally, the Discovery Institute went into a frenzy of claims that it was entirely due to anti-ID prejudice - despite Gonzalez's unimpressive publication record and failure to attract significant research funding during his time there (remember: authorities!). But even if his pro-ID views played a role in the decision, that would be entirely appropriate, since tenure decisions are supposed to be based on the quality of the candidate's work. For the record, Gonzalez is now a professor at Grove City College, a private Christian university in Pennsylvania - the kind of place where those strictly-scientific, not-in-any-way-motivated-by-religion ID folks seem to keep ending up. (Bill Dembski, for another example, is now a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.)

But, moving on. As I said, this chapter is devoted to Gonzalez and Richards' argument that a multiplicity of factors make the Earth uniquely suited for life - indeed, that it's the only planet in the galaxy or even the universe that is so disposed - and that fine-tuning by God is the only way to explain this. Lest you think I'm exaggerating, here's a passage from Michael Denton's Nature's Destiny that Strobel favorably quotes in the introductory remarks of this chapter:

No other theory or concept ever imagined by man can equal in boldness and audacity this great claim... that all the starry heavens, that every species of life, that every characteristic of reality exists [to create a livable habitat] for mankind... But most remarkably, given its audacity, it is a claim which is very far from a discredited prescientific myth. [p.158]

Strobel also cites Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee's book Rare Earth, an argument by two non-ID-affiliated scientists that complex, intelligent life is an extremely unusual phenomenon. But Ward and Brownlee don't believe that life as such is necessarily rare - they believe that microbes, which are far more resilient than us large, fragile creatures, may be more common in the cosmos. Remarkably, even this is too much for Strobel to accept: "...Ward and Brownlee uncritically buy into the idea that microbial life may very well be more prevalent" [p.156, emphasis added].

I want to focus on this before moving on to the rest of the chapter. After all, if you think about it, this is a very curious position for Strobel to take. As we've said before, intelligent design, according to its founders, is supposed to be about science. And science is based on observation. Since we've never done any close-up observation of any planet outside our solar system, there should be no grounds for excluding the possibility that there may be life on one of them. Even if one agrees with every argument that's given later on in this chapter, it doesn't follow that life is a one-of-a-kind unique event, only that it's rare. Yet Strobel is clearly uncomfortable with the idea that any life of any form might exist elsewhere in the universe, even if it's only extremophile alien microbes.

Why should this be problematic? After all, didn't he just spend the previous chapter arguing that the laws of the cosmos have been fine-tuned to extraordinary precision to allow for life to exist? It would be incredibly wasteful to go to that much trouble just for the sake of one tiny planet in a universe of ten billion trillion stars. If intelligent design is being presented as a scientific hypothesis, it seems to be an a priori possibility that the intelligent designer might have created life on many different planets. Shouldn't this hypothesis be given at least some consideration?

But instead, Strobel brushes past it without a backward glance, and this tells us something. When discussing an issue where the truth is still unknown - and the question of extraterrestrial life surely qualifies - a genuinely scientific book would present the competing possibilities and evaluate them fairly (remember "teach the controversy"?). For a journalist like Strobel, this would be an ideal place to interview people with different views and see how they stack up.

This book, however, ignores every alternative and homes straight in on the conclusion that its author has clearly chosen ahead of time: that life on Earth is a one-of-a-kind unique phenomenon. And since this conclusion isn't supported by scientific evidence (how could it be?), it must derive from the author's personal religious faith. In other words, this chapter is another piece of evidence showing what we all knew already - that this book's claim at being "science" is really just a pretense, a form of window dressing, that uses scientific language to disguise a conclusion that comes first and foremost from evangelical Christian religious beliefs.

Other posts in this series:

November 20, 2009, 6:57 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink31 comments

Answering Lee Strobel's Questions for Atheists

Friendly Atheist has posted the third part of a dialogue with Christian apologist Lee Strobel. In it, Strobel poses questions that he thinks would be the most effective at planting seeds of faith in an atheist's mind. In this post, I'll answer those questions. I've written on some of these issues at greater length in the past, and I'll also provide links to those essays where appropriate.

Historian Gary Habermas: "Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus' resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself."

These historical facts are: (1) Jesus was killed by crucifixion; (2) Jesus' disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; (3) The conversion of the church persecutor Saul, who became the Apostle Paul; (4) the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus' half-brother; (5) The empty tomb of Jesus. These "minimal facts" are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn't have quite the same virtual universal consensus, it nevertheless is conceded by 75 percent of the scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.

Ebon Musings: Choking on the Camel

Even if we grant that dubious 75% figure, what Habermas fails to acknowledge is that most of the scholars who study the historicity of Jesus are Christians, and are unlikely to produce conclusions that deviate from orthodoxy, even if - as in this case - those conclusions are supported by no evidence outside the biblical record itself. Habermas' alleged "historical facts" are just the tenets of Christian belief presented in a facade of neutrality.

As such, I don't intend to begin by making the concessions he would prefer. I maintain that of his five facts, (1) is recorded primarily in the Bible, and only secondarily, and spottily, in some documents written decades later. (2) is mostly correct, so long as we remove the question-begging assumption that the first Christians were disciples personally chosen by Jesus. (3) and (4) derive from no evidence I know of outside the Book of Acts, which was written for apologetic purposes and which Habermas has naively accepted as historical truth (see below). (5), again, is just a derivation from the creeds of Christian orthodoxy, not from any historical documents which suggest that first-century non-Christians acknowledged this.

For a comprehensive natural explanation, I propose this alternative: The first Christians believed that Jesus was a savior deity, similar to those of other mystery religions of the time, whose sacrificial death and resurrection was a sacred mystery that took place in a higher, heavenly plane and was revealed to believers through visions and revelations. Allegorical documents like the Gospels set the activities of this mythological figure in recent history for teaching purposes. Over time, through war and disruption, the original purpose of these writings was forgotten. This explanation neatly accounts for most of the available facts, including the vague and fragmentary references to Jesus in early historical documents that gradually become more concrete, the lack of reference in the epistles to a human life and career of Jesus, and the first Christians' apparent lack of interest in sacred relics or holy places of their religion.

Philosopher Paul Copan: "Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?

Ebon Musings: Unmoved Mover: The Fine-Tuning Argument

I take strong exception to the claim that the universe is "remarkably finely tuned for life". On the contrary, simple observation suggests that the universe is not well suited to life such as ours. When we consider the entire volume of the cosmos, we see that 99.999999... percent is cold, hard vacuum with a temperature of 3K. Within the galaxies, most of the interstellar medium is flooded with radiation. Most of the planets we've discovered are either freezing cold or boiling hot, unsuitable for life. In fact, in all the vastness of the cosmos, we only know one place where life can thrive - our own world - and even there, it's restricted to a relatively narrow range of habitable zones and climates. A universe "finely tuned" for life should produce it abundantly; but in fact, life is confined to a single, infinitesimally small and fragile corner. This strongly suggests that life, far from being the intended purpose of the universe, was an unintended side product arising from a confluence of rare and unlikely circumstances.

And, second, granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don't such 'injustices' or 'evils' seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?

Absolutely not! The injustices and evils that we perceive are not intrinsic properties of the universe, but qualities of human perception. We evaluate natural phenomena based on whether they have a harmful or beneficial effect for us. Often those effects are harmful, but this doesn't imply that the universe has deviated from an original plan of goodness - that belief is a product of Christian presuppositions - only that natural phenomena occur randomly and don't take human needs into account. In reality, the randomness and amorality of nature is a much stronger argument for atheism than it is for theism.

Talk show host Frank Pastore: "Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from non-life, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source."

Ebon Musings: Pay No Attention to the Deity Behind the Curtain

Pastore is asking for a full account of the current state of several entire scientific disciplines - cosmology, abiogenesis, and the evolution of the conscious mind. This is more than I'll attempt to explain or even summarize in this space, but I do have one shorter observation. If Pastore's question is meant to raise doubts in atheists, it can only be an example of the "God of the Gaps": the belief that anything not currently known must be miraculous.

The fallacy is a glaringly obvious one. Throughout human history, countless natural phenomena that were not understood were attributed to divine action: mental illness, contagious disease, the seasons, weather, fertility, life and death, and many more. Without exception, these supernatural explanations have receded and been replaced by natural ones as our knowledge grows. Pastore is just applying this tactic to the issues where we don't yet know the full answers, trusting that this time the gaps will remain impenetrable, and expecting that supernatural answers should be accepted despite their repeated past failures. But if we go by track record, we should all admit that the more likely answer is that these phenomena will turn out to be natural ones as well.

Historian Mike Licona: "Irrespective of one's worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?"

Yes, I do occasionally experience doubt, as I've written about before. That's a necessary consequence of having an open mind. But what I generally find gives me the most uncertainty is unfamiliarity. I'm not the kind of person who can dismiss a claim out of hand without looking into it, and claims I've never heard before usually give me a moment's pause for that reason. But so far they've all failed to pan out, and the more I learn about most religious and supernatural claims, the less plausible they seem.

Author Greg Koukl: "Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?"

Ebon Musings: Unmoved Mover: The Cosmological Argument

Atheists are not committed to believing that "everything came from nothing". Koukl's alleged dichotomy overlooks a third alternative: that we simply do not know the ultimate origins of the universe at present, and that we can accept this as our answer for the time being until more evidence is discovered. As with Pastore's question, Koukl assumes that a supernatural explanation, even one with no evidence in its favor, "wins" by default if a natural explanation is not currently known - this despite the well-established pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones over time.

I didn't email Alvin Plantinga, considered by many to be among the greatest philosophers of modern times. But based on his assertion that naturalism is self-defeating, we could formulate this question (thanks to William Lane Craig for some of the concise wording): If our cognitive faculties were selected for survival, not for truth, then how can we have any confidence, for example, that our beliefs about the reality of physical objects are true or that naturalism itself is true? (By contrast, theism says God has designed our cognitive faculties in such a way that, when functioning properly in an appropriate environment, they deliver true beliefs about the world.)

Daylight Atheism: Are Evolved Minds Reliable Truth-Finders?

The fallacy of this argument is its assumption that "survival" and "truth" are two different objectives, such that they could be selected for independently of each other. But it should be obvious that, all else being equal, greater accuracy in perceiving the world will always be a survival advantage. Granted, evolution can and does take shortcuts, producing well-known psychological fallacies like the urge to anthropomorphize natural phenomena, and many people have been misled in this way. But even here we are not helpless. By using cognitive prostheses like science, we can compensate for our mental shortcomings and learn to view the world still more accurately.

By contrast, a theist who believes that God has designed our cognitive faculties to be accurate is faced with the embarrassment of explaining why there are so many conflicting and incompatible religions. How is this so, if we are designed to perceive the world accurately? Why is there so much confusion, ignorance and error among humans when it comes to determining what the true faith is?

For me, when viewing all Strobel's questions, what stands out about them is their ordinariness. I concur with Greta Christina that these arguments, far from being anything new or unusual, are no different - and no more difficult to defeat - than those of the run-of-the-mill amateur apologists that most atheists encounter on a routine basis. That's not surprising, of course, since most of those people take their cues from the leading apologists.

But for the same reason, it's meaningful because this should give us confidence - confidence that we truly can stand up to the superstars of modern apologetics and answer the best that they have to offer. It's not even difficult. Any reasonably well-versed atheist should be able to shoot down these arguments without a problem. If this is truly the best they have to offer, then we can be all but certain that the evidentiary base of Christianity does not have anywhere near the depth or breadth that would justify an atheist's conversion.

February 2, 2009, 7:56 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink65 comments

Putting Humanity on a Pedestal

The history of the human species is, as Carl Sagan put it, a series of great demotions. Prior to the scientific age, humanity believed that we were the crowning glory of creation, and that all the universe existed merely to pay tribute to us. But the advances in understanding brought about by the dawning of the Age of Reason steadily undermined this belief, and though the partisans of superstition fought viciously against every new piece of knowledge, they have been steadily losing ground.

The first of these demotions, the Copernican revolution and the subsequent findings of astronomers, revealed that the Earth is not the center of creation, but is merely one planet among others orbiting our sun, less than a speck of dust when compared to the terrible vastness and majesty of the cosmos. The forces of religion fought against this for a long time, but they have at last, for the most part, come to accept it.

But the next blow cut against our sense of exalted specialness more keenly: the Darwinian revolution revealed that the human race is not the apex of life, specially created and separate from all other species, but rather one product among many of the process of evolution, deeply and intricately related to all other living things. Worse, the process that produced us was not one of intelligent and planned foresight, but of blind trial and error, forging species in the cauldron of random chance and ruthless natural selection. Some religious believers have come to an accommodation with this, but very many of them are still fighting fiercely against it.

And finally, in the modern era, the findings of psychology and neuroscience have revealed that our minds and personalities operate due to comprehensible, material causes, not due to divine influence or demonic possession. For the most part the forces of religion have not even felt this blow yet, though glimmerings of an emerging understanding can be seen in, for example, the furious denials among the religious right that homosexuality could have any kind of genetic basis. However, when the full import of these facts becomes clear, I believe it will cause an upheaval in the religious worldview even greater than that caused by the theory of evolution.

Today, the iron grip that the churches once had on society has been broken, and in its place flourishes a diverse marketplace of ideas. Competing with traditional religion is a wide variety of superstitions, pseudosciences and other popular delusions. However, despite their surface diversity, I believe that all these belief trends share two remarkable similarities. One, of course, is the privileging of faith over reason and the rejection of evidence-based methods as the appropriate way to learn about the world. But the other, which I have observed that a remarkable number of superstitious beliefs have in common, is anthropocentrism - that the universe regards us as special, that human beings are in some sense built in to the laws of physics. Despite the successive scientific revolutions that have revealed progressively more of our true place in the grand scheme of things, uncritical thinkers the world over continue to cling to the belief that the cosmos holds us in special regard.

The pseudoscience of astrology is without a doubt the most glaring example. Astrologers advocate the outrageously arrogant belief that a whole galaxy of stars exists only as a backdrop to our daily lives. It is easy, from our limited perspective, to forget that the stars we see in the night sky are not just tiny twinkles of light but massive nuclear furnaces of unimaginable size and power, cosmic engines far older than our solar system next to which human beings and even the whole planet Earth are insignificantly tiny. Yet astrologers would have us believe that the suns are somehow united in concern about the lives of people.

Claims of psychic power also suffer from the anthropocentric fallacy. There is no basis in the ordinary laws of nature for such a phenomenon (the garbled versions of quantum mechanics often put forward by true believers notwithstanding). The only way such a thing could work would be if mind and consciousness were somehow special phenomena, singled out by the laws of physics and qualitatively unlike everything else that exists. But, again, there is no basis in the facts for this anthropocentric special pleading. All our scientific investigations of the mind have revealed our thoughts and our emotions are physical, neurochemical processes, no more capable of directly influencing distant events than striking a ball with a pool cue can cause another ball on the other side of the table to spontaneously jump in sympathy. We are not in a class of our own when it comes to the laws of physics; our minds are constructed according to them just like everything else.

Even certain kinds of alternative medicine, I would argue, are fallacious in this way. In particular, I would point to those varieties of non-evidence-based medicine which assert that there are "natural" cures for every possible health ailment. Only the arrogantly anthropocentric view that nature was created for our benefit, that it "owes" us cures for the things that afflict us, could lead to such a belief. Although there are many natural compounds that have beneficial effects on humans, it is unreasonable to believe that every illness can be cured by raw natural substances without significant effort or processing.

Finally, many kinds of fundamentalist religion take part in this same delusion. It is particularly acute in, for example, the young-earth creationists who literally believe that the entire universe was created for the sake of human beings, and that all it contains matters only in relation to us - that all the distant galaxies, massive stars and nebulae light-years across are significant only as "lights" for our use and admiration, and that all those stellar entities will be destroyed on our judgment day, when "the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll" (Isaiah 34:4). It is as if all the history of the cosmos is irrelevant, a prop to be waved aside as soon as our needs take priority. How can such a worldview not be described as prideful and arrogant? How can it not be described as giving a supreme importance to humans that is not supported by any evidence?

The number of times human beings have declared themselves the center of the universe, and subsequently been proven wrong, should give us a healthy skepticism of any new hypothesis that considers our existence as somehow special. Since pseudoscience and superstition are primarily about wish fulfillment, it is no surprise that many outgrowths of that basic credulity would in some way elevate us to privileged status.

July 16, 2006, 6:00 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink21 comments

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