Science Roundup: Dawkins, Doubt, and Probability

Several interesting articles were published over the last few days that deal with science and origins. Since exploring that topic, based on the release of Enns new book, was a popular series here I thought I would share these.

On February 23rd 2012 Professor Richard Dawkins debated the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams on the ‘nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin’. The moderator was Sir Anthony Kenny.

The debate is available on You Tube, though I have not watched it as of yet.

The report from the Guardian was that the bout did not live up to the hype.

In normal boxing matches, the duty of the referee is to keep the fighters from gouging and biting; but when you get a theologian and a scientist in the ring together, the referee’s job is get them to try to hit each other and not flail at the air. …

With such a formidable referee there was some chance that the contestants might land some blows on each other, and the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford was packed for this intellectual bloodsport. They would be disappointed, despite all Kenny’s best efforts.

Dawkins explained his view:

The laws of physics have conspired to make the collisions of atoms produce plants, kangaroos, insects, and us.

yet also admitted in the same debate:

the world’s “most famous atheist” now says he is not 100 percent sure that God doesn’t exist — but just barely.  … the evolutionary biologist swiftly added that he was “6.9 out of seven” certain of his long-standing atheist beliefs.

xkcd: The Difference

Dawkins comments came out around the same time as the NYT book review on Lawrence Krauss’ new book – “A Universe From Nothing”, which claims the opposite:

Scientists may be at least theoretically able to trace every last galaxy back to a bump in the Big Bang, to complete the entire quantum roll call of particles and forces. But the question of why there was a Big Bang or any quantum particles at all was presumed to lie safely out of scientific bounds, in the realms of philosophy or religion.

Now even that assumption is no longer safe … science can explain how something — namely our star-spangled cosmos — could be born from, if not nothing, something very close to it.

According to Krauss that something isn’t God but “randomness”.

Maybe in the true eternal multiverse there are truly no laws …

Maybe indeed randomness is all there is …

Maybe. But that does not sound certain to me, and something close to nothing is still not nothing.

Lastly, the neutrino that broke the light speed barrier and therefore the theory of special relativity may have been the result of a faulty conductor according to Guardian.

So it looks like neutrinos respect the speed limit after all. At least, the OPERA experimentalists announced a couple of days ago that they have found one problem (with a connector in their experiment) which could have led to a faulty timing measurement. When they run again with this fixed, they may well get a result compatible with the speed of light.

Something Discover pointed out right away:

So don’t let your imagination run away with this just yet. This result will, in my opinion, probably turn out to be incorrect for some reasons dealing with measurement. Faster than light travel is still a dream, even though I wouldn’t say it’s impossible… just very, very, very, very unlikely.

Here the author raises the issue regarding the possibility of particles that are faster than light, reminding us that, however unlikely, even the theory of special relativity’s claim, that the maximum speed achievable is the speed of light, is not  “certain”.  The Guardian does offer an interesting question? Should the results about the neutrino have been published and would we be questioning the results as much if it did not contradict a widely held theory.

Experimentalists get ignored if they are right, and hugely cited if they are wrong.

Theorists get ignored if they are wrong, but a Nobel Prize if they are right.

When the “most famous atheist” is willing to admit that science cannot disprove the existence of God, even if he thinks it is highly, highly improbable and scientists may have observed particles that are traveling faster than light it reminds us that the scientific conclusions on origins and cosmology,which are based on inductive reasoning of current observations and experiments can not be “proven” with error-free certitude. They can only be considered in degrees of probability. Something to keep in mind when wrestling with the claims of both science and theological interpretations.

Life is not Fair (Being Elite Part 2)

Challies has written an excellent post exploring the “Entitlement Generation”. One of the examples in the post describes a professor who asked his class - what do want the federal government to do to help you achieve your dream. Here was the result:

8 out of 10 students said they wanted free health care, they wanted the government to pay for their tuition. They want the government to pay for the down payment on their house. They expect the government “to give them a job.” Many of them said they wanted the government to tax wealthier individuals so that they would have an opportunity to have a better life.

Are these expectations fair? Should citizens be entitled to a government subsidized house, education, and job?

Responding to the idea that it is not fair that a child born to a poor woman has less chance for success than a child born into a wealthy family, Thomas Sowell points out fundamental problems with how we define “fairness”:

To ask whether life is fair — either here and now, or at any time or place around the world, over the past several thousand years — is to ask a question whose answer is obvious. Life has seldom been within shouting distance of fair, in the sense of even approximately equal prospects of success. …

More fundamentally, the question whether life is fair is very different from the question whether a given society’s rules are fair. Society’s rules can be fair in the sense of using the same standards of rewards and punishments for everyone. But that barely scratches the surface of making prospects or outcomes the same.

A look at Elite Faith and Fairness

Jesus was amazed at the faith of three people a Canaanite women, a centurion, and John the Baptist. The post from Challies helped me to look at the Canaanite women from a different perspective for the series on greatness. Let’s examine the ideas of fairness and entitlement through this woman of great faith in Matthew 15:21-28 (NASB).

Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.”

The woman is a Canaanite living in the Gentile region of what is modern day Lebanon. She has come to find Jesus, whom she acknowledges as the Messiah of Israel who was to come from the line of David.

Having had the amazing chance to meet Jesus, who had come to this area to share some quiet and private time with His disciples (Mark 7:24-25) she makes a request. What does she ask for? She doesn’t want a seat at the right or left seat of Christ in glory, or power to lord over others, or to be served? Nor does she demand the “better life”. She wants her daughter to be well. At the very heart of that appeal is the absence of any sense of entitlement. The basis for her request is not that she deserves help. She is begging for mercy and compassion.

23 But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” 24 But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” 26 And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

However Jesus does not initially respond to her request. As the account unfolds Jesus calls this woman a dog and tells her she did not deserve to be helped? This should catch the careful reader off guard, not only because these seem like cold  responses from Jesus, but it is such a contrast to how Jesus has been responding to similar requests. This narrative is surrounded by two accounts of Jesus healing many people (Matt 14:34-36; 15:29-31). The difference is the people being healed in these accounts are in areas surrounding the Sea of Galilee in Israel and are primarily Jewish.

Jesus explains first to the disciples and then the woman that His mission is focused on Israel.

  • I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel
  • It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs

In the latter quote, Jesus is saying in effect: it is not right to give the children’s food to the pets. Theologically the children are Israel, the pets are the Gentiles, and the bread is the offer to be part of the kingdom. This plan for reaching the lost is explained again in Acts when the disciples are told to be witnesses first in Jerusalem (the capital of Israel) and then ultimately to the outer most parts of the world. And again in Romans by Paul who tells us that salvation was first for the Jew, then for the Gentile (Rom 1:16).

But is that being fair to the woman?

Is it fair that she was born a Gentile and not a Jew?

Is it fair that she lives outside of Israel’s borders?

Is it fair that her daughter is sick?

Take a moment to reflect on how you might respond to Jesus at this point? If I am honest with myself, I don’t think I would respond the way the woman does.

27 But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.

The woman shows incredible patience and humility as she continues to plead her case and beg for help. Her persistence is clearly aggravating the disciples, always the model of compassion, who just want her to go away. But despite their complaints and Jesus’ initial rejection she never claims she is entitled to the healing that Jesus can give or that its not fair that He heals Jews. She humbly admits that she is willing to take whatever He is willing to offer out of grace and mercy. She is asking for the table scraps that would be thrown out or given to the pets. She is willing to take the left-overs from the Messiah that Israel does not want.

Compare that to the Pharisees who believe that they are entitled to the kingdom by virtue of their special heritage as descendents of Abraham (Matt 3:7-10). They test Jesus demanding signs (Matt 16:1) then call Him demon possessed (Matt 12:24) and ultimately reject Him as the Son of David (Matt 12:23), and plot to kill Him (Matt 12:14). Their sense of entitlement has destroyed their humility and given them an inflated sense of worth. They are not joyful at the arrival of their King and Savior because they feel they deserve great places in the kingdom already.

The Pharisees were likely incensed to learn that many Gentiles would be granted entrance into the kingdom, but they were not entitled to enter, let alone have seats of glory (Matt 8:11-12).

The series of posts is exploring greatness by exploring what the criteria are for being an elite Christian? More important than what we might say if asked if we were elite is how Jesus would answer it. The response of this woman amazes Jesus and elicits the remark: You have great faith!
Jesus has just let this woman know that she is elite because of her faith.

Understanding Jesus’ initial response is difficult. Was Jesus testing her faith, trying to teach the disciples a lesson on faith and the heart (15:17-18), or trying to show them the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (Matt 15:7-8) as well as their own lack of compassion. Probably all of the above are involved in how Jesus handled the situation.

Whatever conclusion one draws it is clear that Jesus gives us a lesson on being elite. If we want to be great in the kingdom it requires a humble recognition that life is not fair and we don’t deserve all that we think we do. Most importantly we need to recognize the need for a Messiah because we are not entitled to a place in the kingdom because of who we are or what we have (or have not) done. Until we start to let that sink in we are not going to be great in the eyes of our Savior.

[Continue reading through the series: part 3]

Are you Elite?

The Greeks were know for their irony. And I am not sure one could have scripted a more ironic start and finish to the 2011 NFL season.

The season started with Eli Manning, quarterback for the NY Giants being put on the spot when he was asked: is Eli Manning an elite quarterback, a top 5, top 10 quarterback? Are you in the Tom Brady class? To which he answered, “I consider myself in that class”.

Most people laughed at the time. Despite a SuperBowl 42 win and some good numbers, most did not think Eli was in Brady’s class. But when you make your living as an NFL quarterback, are the number one overall pick (in what may be the best QB draft ever), the son of a former NFL quarterback, and your older brother is often considered to be the greatest QB in the game, you are used to be scrutinized. Add to that the pressure of playing in New York and calling yourself elite becomes major news.

Eli backed up his claim with 15 TDs in the 4th quarter and 6 come from behind wins to get the Giants to the playoffs. With a 7-7 record, the team rolled and notched 5 straight wins to earn a showdown with elite QB and potential classmate Tom Brady of the Patriots in SuperBowl 46.

Adding another 4th quarter game winning drive with the championship on the line, the question that started the season was reconsidered:

“This business about being an elite quarterback,” Coughlin said, “that’s come and gone. I don’t think we’ll hear much about that anymore.”

Anytime we ask who are the elite quarterbacks it generates excitement and debate from fans. Part of the fun is trying to figure out how does one rank elite quarterbacks?

Should it be wins and losses, championships, or eye popping numbers – like yards, completions, or touchdowns? Or maybe clutch performances and team leadership?

It is tough to know what factors to use and which deserve more or less weight. That is why when we look at the lists of top 10 QBS we see familiar names but often in different orders. Some will put Peyton Manning and Dan Marino at the top because of the stats despite the lack of championships. Others will go with Joe Montana because of the 4 rings and clutch performances.

What would you say if someone stuck a microphone in front of you and asked if you were an elite Christian?

And how would you know? What would you use as criteria?

What makes someone great? And should Christians even be asking that question?

Before we move forward, we need to be clear about something. I am not proposing that we should be comparing ourselves to other Christians so that we can evaluate whether we are better than they are. We may from time to time need to evaluate a person’s walk and gifting to determine if they meet qualifications for a position like deacon or pastor/elder. We may also have to evaluate the teaching ability of two pastoral candidates and determine who is greater as part of a hiring process. But those situations are different than arguing about being a better Christian than someone else for boasting purposes.

Like us, people argued over greatness in the first century. In the Bible the scribes asked which commandment is the most important (Mk 12:28) and the Pharisees liked to compare their works to others (Luke 18:9-14), and based greatness on who gave the biggest gifts, prayed the best, or fasted the longest (Matt 6:2, 5, 16).

The disciples argued about who was greater on a couple of occasions. In Mark 9 we encounter the disciples traveling with Jesus.

33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?”

34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.

I wonder what that might have sounded like:

Thaddeus: Remember when Jesus sent us out two by two. I hold the record for healing more people in a single day.

Thomas: Right but I think John healed more over the whole trip. Right John.

Bartholomew: Well who cast out the most demons?

Thomas: During one exorcism or overall?

James: Well, guys, not to brag but John, Peter, and I did get to see the transfiguration.

Peter: And don’t forget I got to walk on water!

John: But you did sink like a stone.

Peter: Well at least I got out of the boat.

Andrew: yes, but Peter I am the one that brought you to the Messiah in the first place.

This conversation is based on my “sanctified imagination”, a term used by one of the pastors I know to  preface his descriptions that fill in the gaps in a Biblical narrative.

Through their example, if we are honest, we can see some of our own pride in them. The desire to be greater than those around us, to be found favorable in the eyes of those around us. This is the attitude we need to recognize and guard against.

We should want to be great Christians. But not at the expense of others. We should also desire all Christians to be great. In order to do that we need to know what a great Christian is. So we turn to Jesus who gave a few lessons on what greatness looked like.

[Continue reading through the series: part 2]