Thursday, September 30, 2010

Little Green Men?

Yahoo! News published an article today announcing that astronomers have discovered a planet approximately 120 trillion miles away that is "just like Earth." It is situated in what is called the "Goldilocks" zone, making it not too cold nor too hot, so it could contain liquid water. It is also neither too big nor too small for the proper surface, gravity and atmosphere to accomodate life.

If the conclusions stopped there, I would agree that this is a very exciting discovery. What disappointed me about the article, though, was the unwarranted speculation. I think this serves as a warning against the human nature to get overly excited about what we want to be true and start making all sorts of suggestions that go far beyond what is warranted by the evidence.

Penn State University's Jim Kasting said this planet is a "pretty prime candidate" for harboring life. It seems a bit premature to make statements like that. For example, the planet is so close to its sun that it orbits every 37 days. Therefore, it cannot have Earth's cycle of seasons as we orbit over a period of 365 days with one half tilted closer to the sun during part of the year, then tilted away during the other. The seasons are crucial to plant growth. With such a short year, I, for one, am skeptical whether any substantial plant life could exist on this planet.

The planet also does not rotate very much, so that one side is almost always bright, the other always dark. Temperatures on the planet range from up to 160 degrees farenheit on the bright side down to 25 degrees below zero on the cold side. Certainly, any area of the planet that is exposed to these temperature extremes is not conducive to any form of life of which we are aware. The article somewhat acknowledged this by saying that it would be "shirt-sleeve weather" in the "land of constant sunrise." What it glossed over, however, is that this would leave a much narrower habitable zone than we have on Earth. Besides, constant short-sleeve weather is not ideal for life either. If the climate always remained constant, you could not have the regular seasonal cycles that I mentioned above that are necessary for many forms of life.

Perhaps the most bold proclamation comes near the end of the article. Without even knowing whether liquid water actually exists on this planet, Steven Vogt of the University of California at Santa Cruz declares that "because conditions are ideal for liquid water, and because there always seems to be life on Earth where there is water, ... 'chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.'" Understand that Vogt is not talking necessarily about little green men, but at least single cell bacteria.

Vogt's statement could serve as a prime example for introductory logic students about common logical errors that people make. First of all, just because "conditions are ideal for liquid water" does not necessarily mean that water will exist. Consider the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator that lies beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva. Inside that collider, scientists have used large magnets to set up ideal conditions for particle beams to collide. Yet anyone who operates the collider could tell you that it often requires a good deal of patience before anything happens. Merely having ideal conditions for a collision does not necessarily mean that a collision will occur.

The bigger logical issue lies in the syllogism Vogt advances. It could be expressed in logical terms as follows:

P1: Conditions on this "Goldilocks" planet are ideal for liquid water.
P2: Wherever there is water on Earth there is also life.
C: Therefore, there is a 100% chance of life on the "Goldilocks" planet.

I already discussed the problems with premise 1. Ideal conditions for a result do not guarantee the actuality of that result. But even assuming premises 1 and 2 are both true, does that support the conclusion?

There are many hidden assumptions in Vogt's argument. First, he assumes that the alleged relationship between water and life on Earth will be mirrored on the "Goldilocks" planet. The mere fact that two things are correlated here does not mean, absent additional evidence, that they will necessarily be correlated elsewhere. Many other factors could come into play. But more importantly, Vogt's argument provides an excellent opportunity to illustrate to students of logic the danger of confusing correlation with causation.

"Correlation" refers to an observed relationship between phenomena. "Causation" refers to a cause-effect relationship between the two phenomena. However, a logical fallacy occurs when you confuse correlation with causation.

Take the following example. Suppose a researcher notices that in the same months that ice cream sales are at their highest, so are the number of deaths by drowning. When ice cream sales go down, drowning deaths likewise decrease. There is a definite correlation between these two phenomena. Is the researcher therefore warranted in concluding that eating ice cream causes us to drown? Leaving aside the obvious joke about waiting at least one hour before you swim, the researcher who rushed to this conclusion would be overlooking the obvious possibility that there is no direct causation between these two phenomena, but instead that they are both caused by some other 3rd factor, in this case the warm summer temperatures. More people buy ice cream in warmer weather than when it is colder outside. Likewise, warm weather inspires more people to swim, which in turn leads to more instances of drowning. The mere fact that we observed a correlation between ice cream sales and drowning does not mean that one caused the other.

Vogt made the same elementary logical mistake. He observed that there appears to be a correlation on Earth between the presence of water and the presence of life. But that does not mean that the presence of water causes the presence of life. In fact, there currently is no single theory of the origin of life that is accepted by even a simple majority of scientists in the field. Biologists, frankly, have no clue how the very first life occurred on Earth. Vogt's implication that the mere presence of water easily leads to the development of life is simplistic at best. Is water necessary? Most likely. Is it sufficient? Far from it. The number of other factors that go into building even the most basic single-cell organisms are mind-boggling.

The article concludes with Vogt stating, "It's pretty hard to stop life once you give it the right conditions." I understand that news agencies love the sensational. If you have two options to choose from, one that makes the story look novel and exciting and another that is more reserved, the exciting one generates more readers. And Vogt seems to have provided Yahoo! with that sensationalism. But the statement that "it's pretty hard to stop life once you give it the right conditions" is so far outside the warrant of the evidence that I can only encourage anyone to slow down, don't believe everything you hear, and evaluate the evidence for yourself. Life is actually remarkably easy to stop, even once it has begun. Just ask the dinosaurs or any of the species that have disappeared into extinction. But in the end Vogt doesn't even know how it began in the first place, let alone how difficult it is to keep it going.

This new discovery is exciting. But the evidence is a far reach from being able to support a "100% chance of life" on the "Goldilocks" planet. Let's not rush to judgment. Take it slow. Follow where the evidence leads, and try as hard as you can not to take that one extra step beyond what is justified. Otherwise you will end up stepping onto the wrong path, and before you know it you will be so lost in the woods that you won't be able to find your way back.

God bless.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Free Will, Sovereignty and Reformed Apologetics

"Reformed apologetics" refers generally to a category of Christian apologists who cast extreme doubt upon the ability of non-Christians to objectively evaluate the evidence for Christianity without being unduly influenced by their fallen nature, including fallen reasoning abilities. Two of the most prominent apologists in this camp are Cornelius Van Til and Alvin Plantinga.

Reformed apologists criticize classical and evidentialist approaches because both attempt to find a common ground with non-Christians as the starting point for their arguments. They are “actually seeking a method that assumes man’s self-sufficiency to arrive at truth” [Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr.,
Faith Has Its Reasons: Integrative Approaches to Defending the Christian Faith (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2006), 260]. Someone following the reformed approach would say, “I cannot approach data objectively because my perception is distorted by sin and prejudice” [William Dryness, Christian Apologetics in a World Community (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 59]. Because sin so distorts people’s reasoning abilities, there can be no logical common ground between the Christian and non-Christian on which to build an apologetic.

Within the reformed camp there are some slight differences of opinion about how best to give a reason for our faith to non-believers in light of their fallen state. Alvin Plantinga argues that belief in God is properly basic, similar to our belief in the existence of other minds [Boa and Bowman, Faith Has Its Reasons, 248-51]. Neither can be objectively proven but they are necessary presuppositions in order for us to function. Cornelius Van Til argues that we must presuppose a transcendent God in order to make sense of reality, but all non-Christian worldviews fail to accomplish this goal [Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics. 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 36-37].

While reformed perspectives, to their credit, demand that we focus on the presuppositions non-Christians bring to our discussions, when taken too far they remove our free will in order to remain consistent with their own premises. Cornelius Van Til explains his position as follows:

"If obedient to the will of God, man would be accomplishing genuine results. The controlling and directing power of his will would be the will of God. It would be by his own will, however, that he would reach the goal that God has set for him. If disobedient to the will of God he would be going counter to the expressed will of God for him. Yet he would not be able to frustrate the plan of God either as a whole or in any detail. Man as a creature cannot will anything either by way of obedience or by way of disobedience except in a relation of subordination to the plan of God."
[Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 36].

But Van Til’s position ultimately results in no free will. His illustration implicitly includes three options. If a person wills that which is consistent with both God’s will and God’s plan, then God allows the action to take place. If a person wills something that is inconsistent with God’s will but still consistent with God’s plan then God also allows that action. But if a person wills something that is inconsistent with both God’s will and God’s plan then God does not permit the action to take place. In fact, God overrides the individual’s will so that the person is utterly incapable of willing such an act in the first place. Ultimately, the individual is only “free” to choose that which God plans for the person to choose.

Van Til sacrifices free will in his attempt to preserve God’s sovereignty. These two concepts can be reconciled, however, if the mode of existence for the creator is transcendent to that of his temporal creation. Humankind lives a temporal existence, traveling through linear time, perceiving that future events are determined by our free choices. But as the creator of all things, God is also the creator of time. Therefore, he exists beyond time. As Norman Geisler explains,

"as an eternal Being God does not really fore-know anything. He is eternal and, as such, He simply knows in one eternal Now everything there is to know. God sees all of time – past, present, and future – from His lofty perch of eternity; whereas human beings looking through the tunnel vision of time can see only the present."
[Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), 1:583 (emphasis in original)].

While the reformed approach includes the important insight to be aware of non-Christian presuppositions, it takes too restrictive a view of humankind’s will; a view that Norman Geisler demonstrates is not necessary in order to preserve the sovereignty of God.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Where's the Gentleness and Respect?

Time and time again when I am speaking to someone about the truth of Christianity, one of two objections almost inevitably arises. The first is how a loving and omnipotent God could allow pain and suffering in the world. I have explored that topic elsewhere and we'll have to reserve any revisitation for another day. The second objection is how Christians, who supposedly exemplify Christ's love to the world, throughout history have been directly responsible for so much hatred, pain and bloodshed.

It truly amazes me how many so called Christians will pick and choose what they like from the scriptures while ignoring passages that clearly and unequivocally condemn their actions. Specifically, I am writing today about the plans by "Dove World Outreach Center" in Gainesville, Florida to commemorate the 9th anniversary of 9/11 by holding and encouraging "International Burn a Quran Day."

AOL News story

I obviously do not believe the Quran is true. I also take issue with many Muslim groups who refuse to allow anyone the privilege of exposing it to intellectual criticism. But that does not mean we should be burning it.

This calls for a dose of common sense. We are called to answer the non-Christian world with "gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). Put the shoe on the other foot. How would members of the Dove World Outreach Center react to a call to hold an "International Burn a Bible Day?" Would they feel respected by those calling for such an event? Would they be angry, furious even? Then how do they expect Muslims to react, and how do they honestly believe they are fulfilling God's command to interact with gentleness and respect? Please allow me to be abudantly clear to these alleged Christians. You may think you are acting for God. You are not. In fact, what you are doing is the exact opposite of what He has commanded. This is a horrible idea and you are showing an utter disregard for your Creator by doing this. You owe the entire world an apology, including your fellow Christians who, thanks to you, will now be associated with the actions of about 50 people who are willfully defiant of the Word they claim to hold so dear.

It does not avail anything to claim that Islam is a violent religion and that more drastic measures than usual must be taken. First, what are you doing, exactly, to disprove Islam? Nothing. You are figuratively spitting in their faces, which will only serve to provoke animosity toward the gospel.

Second, Peter did not allow any exceptions to the command to show gentleness and respect. In fact, the entire point of the command is that the worse a non-Christian reacts, the better you appear to the world around you because you continue to be courteous.

Finally, before you are too quick to label all Muslims as violent, remember that if the actions of certain sets of believers were sufficient to label an entire worldview, there would be plenty of evidence to attach the same label to Christianity:

Army of God
Concerned Christians
Scott Roeder

Following the "logic" of the Dove World Outreach Center, these incidents should justify encouraging a world wide burning of Bibles.

This is precisely why we are not to interact with the world through antagonism, provocation and violence. If you want to disagree with Islam, do so by explaining to the world why it's doctrines do not hold up to logical or existential scrutiny. But in taking actions like this Quran burning, you are turning people away from Christ, not bringing them closer to Him.