Saturday, January 3, 2015

Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God? A Look at Eric Metaxas' Recent WSJ Article

Recently a friend posted an article by the evangelical author and Intelligent Design proponent, Eric Metaxas. In the article, published by the Wall Street Journal, Metaxas argues that scientists have determined that life is so improbable it must have been created.

“Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life [and] every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart.”

To which my friend, a fellow Christian, added, "Amen and Hallelujah." And that is the precise moment when the proverbial excrement hit the cosmic wind tunnel.

First, if you are not already familiar with it, please follow this link and read the article:
Eric Metaxas: Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God - WSJ:

Next, please have a gander at the rebuttal which the WSJ wouldn't publish, but Richard Dawkins did:

What follows below is a lightly edited transcript of an online conversation that broke out between my friend and fellow believer, I'll call him "PM," our mutual friend, a geophysicist and theology student I'll call "CW," a Christian apologist called "TMD," and the author of PhilosFX a.k.a. "PFX." I love this conversation so much that I wanted to share it. But if you don't have time to read the whole thing, the bottom line for me in all of this is that:

The human race is dividing between those who trust science and those who hold a pre-Copernican view of life and death. Why must these camps be mutually exclusive? Why can't believers trust science? And why must scientists refuse to accept the possibility that the truth is bigger than our human powers of perception?

A Friendly Discourse on Religion, Science, and God
Inspired by a Recent WSJ Article

CW: Nice column. Well, aside from the fact [Metaxas] significantly misinterprets both history and science. Two brief examples. First, the "parameters" debate over habitable planets has been around for decades. Even Sagan, along with Shklovskii co-wrote the technical book "Intelligent Life in the Universe" in the early 70's that discussed the range of probabilities and problems. As for "tuning" at the subatomic level, at the risk of over simplifying a mind-numbingly complex topic, that discussion is a bit ridiculous since we don't as of yet completely understand the relationship between the various "constants" in physics. The weak force and electromagnetic force are actually manifestations of the same thing, so to treat them as independent values as many ID proponents do is ignorant at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

Note that I am *not* arguing either for atheism or against religion at this point, only that the ID folks are stretching or outright misinterpreting the science. FWIW IMNSHO as a practicing scientist, the science at best only restricts the religions that are potentially true (which is, to be honest, most of them). However, science does not exclude *all* religions (including core Christianity), contrary to the assertions of atheists. But science itself is agnostic.

TMD: Science is only agnostic if you isolate each scientific fact or line of reason. If you look at science as a whole, the overwhelming amount of evidence shows that there has to be a Creator.

CW: Most Christians and Atheists fall into the same trap, starting with a conclusion then looking for evidence to support that conclusion at the exclusion of other possible theories. Your statement that "the overwhelming amount of evidence shows that there has to be a Creator" is one I strongly disagree with. In my field of expertise (geophysics/atmospheric science) I can state that as an "expert"(FWTW!) there is none. I am also unaware of any such evidence in any related fields about which I am knowledgeable enough to assert an opinion (physics, astrophysics). Not saying there is no God, just that there is no unambiguous evidence of one. As for Aquinas he certainly has been influential on Western theology - but is not accepted in the Orthodox Churches. His ethical views (slavery, inferiority of woman) could be argued to be a product of his time and forgiven, but his other views and strongly cataphatic theology, and his distinction between the natural and supernatural, are more problematic.

PFX: We don't know that there is not life on other planets, only that we have not yet found what we are looking for, i.e., life that we recognize as more sophisticated than bacteria. I like science, AND I like God. I EVEN like logical attempts to connect the two. Aquinas' argument from design is a good case in point, but then again, I'll settle for Pascal's Wager. What I do NOT like is the assertion that by not finding life on other planets, "science increasingly makes the case for God." For one, science does not prove, science either rejects or fails to reject. Science is objective, agnostic, not interested in making a case. For another, what if we DID find life on other planets? How would that reject the hypothesis of God? Why can't a Creator start life on lots of planets? Bottom line, I am comfortable with my belief in God. That belief is based on faith which is outside the realm of science.

CW: What PFX said (mostly). [W]hile I am a student of theology I'm far from an expert on it (I'm a lot more comfortable talking about quantum mechanics!), but here's an abbreviated try: The "Argument from Design" is essentially a version of the "God of the Gaps" theory, and suffers from the same fatal flaw: the more we understand, the narrower the "gaps" get until at some point they disappear. It is directly related to the cataphatic theology western theologians are so fond of because it essentially argues God's creation and interactions with nature are understandable and definable on a human level. A related aspect is that Aquinas' arguments (such as the division between natural and supernatural) and the legalistic theological worldview of the West set the stage for the Calvinistic perspective that creation is apart from the creator, and in the wider Protestant view "depraved", rather than merely fallen. (As an aside, the aphophatic theologies, and the distinction between essences and energies, prevalent in Eastern Christianity did not make those distinctions, and didn't end up in that trap.) Regarding ethics, as I said in the earlier post his views are simply a product of his time, but it is unfortunate and disturbing that so many Saints and Doctors Of The Church are ethically no more advanced than the societies in which they lived. The Christian argues they were just being human, but the Atheist uses that fact to say they are not better than the rest of humanity because there was no outside influence (e.g. God).

TMD: Most geophysics/atmospheric science people fall into the same trap. They only believe in things that they can see and touch. If they are right that there is no God, then they are right. If they are wrong, it's a mistake with eternal consequences. Faith is believing without seeing. I have faith.

PFX: What CW said (mostly, except the parts that I cannot claim because I do not understand them yet).

CW: With respect, TMD, it isn't the same "trap." You are equating scientists with atheists, and drawing incorrect conclusions from that false equivalence. Science is entirely agnostic with respect to any religion or the existence of any particular God or Gods. It does, however, severely constrain which religions are rational, and which God(s) might exist. An atheist would argue that *all* God(s) that have been posited have been rationally excluded. They are wrong, because they do not understand (and in many cases don't want to understand) the God as defined by traditional Christianity. However, they are right in that many of the definitions of God as put forth by many Christian denominations (especially evangelical Protestants and their derivatives like Mormonism) are excluded by the evidence. The formal Catholic definition of God is in a little bit of trouble, largely due to recent innovations, but the traditional definitions still held by the Eastern Orthodox Churches are in pretty good shape.

PM: Out of popcorn and out of energy to continue. Besides, we are now wandering dangerously close to a debate regarding the merits of cataphatic v. apophatic theology, and I will not willing enter that briar patch..... That is at least a 3-beer discussion. Now I'd love to have that conversation in person - you guys would make for a very lively & interesting discussion!

PFX: I think TMD summed up Pascal's Wager nicely in his comment. I believe the fact that not all scientists are atheists is a nice summation of CW's last comment. But I believe PM has wisely directed us to curtail the conversation until we can meet in person--preferably over a beer or three. It's been fun!

The End...?

And now, these Wikipedia end-notes are for those of you who, like me, needed a refresher on cataphatic (positive) and apophatic (negative) theologies.

Cataphatic (sometimes spelled kataphatic) theology is the expressing of God or the divine through positive terminology. This is in contrast to defining God or the divine in what God is not, which is referred to as negative or apophatic theology. The word cataphatic itself is formed from two Greek words, "cata" meaning to descend and "femi" meaning to speak. Thus, to combine them translates the word roughly as "to bring God down in such a way so as to speak of him."
  • God is omnipotent
  • God is omni-present
  • God is omniscient
  • God is light
  • God is love

In Apophatic descriptions of God through negative theology, it is accepted that experience of the Divine is ineffable, an experience of the holy that can only be recognized or remembered abstractly. That is, human beings cannot describe in words the essence of the perfect good that is unique to the individual, nor can they define the Divine, in its immense complexity, related to the entire field of reality. As a result, all descriptions if attempted will be ultimately false and conceptualization should be avoided. In effect, divine experience eludes definition by definition:
  • Neither existence nor nonexistence as we understand it in the physical realm, applies to God; i.e., the Divine is abstract to the individual, beyond existing or not existing, and beyond conceptualization regarding the whole (one cannot say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; nor can we say that God is nonexistent). 
  • God is divinely simple (one should not claim that God is one, or three, or any type of being.) 
  • God is not ignorant (one should not say that God is wise since that word arrogantly implies we know what "wisdom" means on a divine scale, whereas we only know what wisdom is believed to mean in a confined cultural context). 
  • Likewise, God is not evil (to say that God can be described by the word 'good' limits God to what good behavior means to human beings individually and en masse). 
  • God is not a creation (but beyond that we cannot define how God exists or operates in relation to the whole of humanity). 
  • God is not conceptually defined in terms of space and location
  • God is not conceptually confined to assumptions based on time

Even though the via negativa essentially rejects theological understanding in and of itself as a path to God, some have sought to make it into an intellectual exercise, by describing God only in terms of what God is not. One problem noted with this approach is that there seems to be no fixed basis on deciding what God is not, unless the Divine is understood as an abstract experience of full aliveness unique to each individual consciousness, and universally, the perfect goodness applicable to the whole field of reality. It should be noted however that since religious experience—or consciousness of the holy or sacred, is not reducible to other kinds of human experience, an abstract understanding of religious experience cannot be used as evidence or proof that religious discourse or praxis can have no meaning or value. In apophatic theology, the negation of theisms in the via negativa also requires the negation of their correlative atheisms if the dialectical method it employs is to maintain integrity.
“God's existence is absolute and it includes no composition and we comprehend only the fact that He exists, not His essence. Consequently it is a false assumption to hold that He has any positive attribute... still less has He accidents (מקרה), which could be described by an attribute. Hence it is clear that He has no positive attribute however, the negative attributes are necessary to direct the mind to the truths which we must believe... When we say of this being, that it exists, we mean that its non-existence is impossible; it is living — it is not dead; is the first — its existence is not due to any cause; it has power, wisdom, and will — it is not feeble or ignorant; He is One — there are not more Gods than one… Every attribute predicated of God denotes either the quality of an action, or, when the attribute is intended to convey some idea of the Divine Being itself — and not of His actions — the negation of the opposite. (The Guide for the Perplexed, 1:58.)”