Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita"

Last night I attended my first literary book group since arriving in Salt Lake almost 3 years ago. The group was open to anyone but only Barnes & Noble employees like me were present. I was immediately reminded of how much I enjoy reading and discussing literature with others with the same love of a good book. The book we read was The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I have to confess that I procrastinated a bit so was forced to rush in the last couple of days before we met. I think that was mostly due to my experience with the Russian literature of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I read The Brothers Karamazov, Notes from Underground, and an abridged version of War and Peace eons ago and did not appreciate as much as I think I would now. The Master and Margarita was entertaining and engaging … I regret not starting it earlier to contemplate all the second and third level thought that I’m sure just blew over my head.

In a nutshell, The Master and Margarita is the story of the Devil’s visit to Soviet Russia in the early 1930’s and the seventh proof of God’s existence, which is if the devil exists then God must exist. He has a retinue with him, including a vodka-drinking, gun-wielding cat the size of a hippopotamus, who wreak havoc on the atheistic Muscovites. It also jumps back to the time of Christ (Yeshua Ha-Notsri) and Pontius Pilate leading up to the crucifixion. Throw in a love story between an author in an insane asylum and his true love, who becomes a witch and Hostess of Satan’s Grand Ball to free him, and you have the basics of the story. It is a satire of the intelligentsia of Stalin’s Russia, a play on Faust, and ultimately of love and peace (but not salvation). I recommend reading it. I certainly will again with much greater care.

I do not have any commentary but the discussion did raise a couple of questions to chew on.

1. If there is a devil, does he need people to believe in God for true temptation to occur?
2. What does it say about human nature when we kinda root for the bad guys like Behemoth the vodka-drinking cat in films and literature?
3. Are the consequences of our actions or our intention more important?

That’s all for tonight. We’re reading The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, for next month. We will meet the fourth Monday of July if you are interested in joining us. I promise not to procrastinate on this one.

Best wishes,

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Coherency of Evolution and Faith - Part IV

Part III lists all questions and comments raised to date from original posts and replies in Part I and II. So far, Dr. Jason Epps, my friend and colleague (hopefully to remain as such), has been the only person to pose such responses; therefore, my comments and questions are directed mostly to what I discern to be his position favoring Creationism over the claims of science concerning evolution. I will provide a brief treatment of epistemological issues raised thus far and then speak, mostly by reference, to some science questions raised.

The Distinction between Science and Faith
So far, the attempt has been made to place science and faith on the same playing field regarding what kind of knowledge they provide and the manner in which belief functions. In other words, the claim is that faith is ultimately common to both science and faith. Respectively, this is both simplistic and fallacious. There is not just one category of belief nor is there just one form of knowledge. Belief in God, belief that I will be killed if I play on the freeway, belief that I am not just a brain in a vat, and belief in the Big Bang Theory of the Universe are different categories of belief that provide different types of knowledge. I am not saying anything new here; many epistemologists have recognized this for centuries. For a more complete treatment of this idea, one may refer to an introductory text in epistemology such as Morton’s Theory of Knowledge (2002). If you would like a theological treatment of faith, reason, inference, and assent you may refer to Cardinal John Henry Newman’s A Grammar in Aid of Assent (1870). Newman’s work is especially relevant regarding the difference between inference and faith.

In regards to science, inference is used to make claims that have yet to be empirically proven. For example, the Big Bang Theory was inferred from the observation that the universe seems to be expanding. The inference is that if the visible universe is currently expanding then it was smaller in the past. Taken back far enough the inference leads to an extremely dense, hot singularity and an event that is known as the Big Bang. This is not faith. It is based on observations that can be replicated. Inference is more flexible to revision than faith because new observations are a different kind of evidence than what faith may require for change. Reason and observation are all that is required to produce an inference. Faith is much more complex and requires intuition and affect in addition to reason. Faith, unlike inference, does not always require direct observation. Another difference between inference and faith is that faith is not simply a belief; it requires volition of action for coherency. Inference, unlike faith, may never affect daily life. Quite simply, faith points to a different kind of truth and knowledge than inference points to associated with science. So, if one is truly interested in discovering truth, the choices after appeal to or replication of observations become:

1. Deny the observations that lead to inference because of difficulties associated with empiricism.
2. Offer an alternative inference. This leads to the formulation of a theory that may be tested to either reject or refine that theory.

Option (1) is problematic because if you reject all observation and experience then one may fall into deep skepticism, which should also apply to one’s own position and leads nowhere meaningful. Skepticism helps keep claims to knowledge rigorous but when taken too far, like most things, is not helpful or practical. Therefore, the question then becomes what observations are reasonable to accept in propositions and inference. Who decides what to accept and what to reject? My observation of the Creationist position, thus far, is that observations that lend support to a position contrary to their own or that supports a theory with implications contrary to their own is many times rejected outright. Does this aid in the search for objective knowable truth or is it simply easier to ignore the tough questions that entail from observations of the physical world?

I think Option (2) is much more interesting and at the heart of what any debate related to coherency should address. The problem, however, still comes back to the demarcation problem. There are exceptions and some difficulties with verifiability and testability but these two qualities seem to provide what Creationism and I.D. do not. If one infers God, is one still practicing science? Maybe yes but on only two questions related to prima causa:

1. How did matter come into existence in the first place?
2. How did the first nucleotide or lipid necessary for even a simple Eukaryotic cell come into existence in the first place?

After those first two moments in time (and maybe not even then), no appeal to God, the supernatural, or anything non-naturalistic should be made for it remain science. Why? Because science and religion serve two separate, distinct functions in human society and are categorically different, not opposing ends of a spectrum. To change science or religion to function in a similar manner as the other defeats the type of knowledge that may be discovered from its distinct, respective position. I simply do not understand why many (but not all) in the religious community want them to be the same thing. If they are the same, do the same epistemological difficulties apply to their position as well? Some argue that the push to get science and religion on the same playing field is part of a larger sociopolitical agenda to get prayer back into the classroom at the expense of all that we have gained over the last 300 years. It is easy to see why when you have action plans such as the Wedge Strategy associated with Philip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial. One of the purposes of this blog is to explore the characteristics that make science distinct so I encourage asking the tough question of “What is Science?” and posting what qualities you feel science should possess that are distinct from religion. Also, check out the websites for the Center for Scientific Creation and The Discovery Institute to make up your own mind on the larger issue of evolution … just don’t look for many citations without a last name of Behe, Dembski, or Meyer.

A Few Replies and a Comment on Science
I must begin by stating that this exercise has shown me how much more science I need to learn. I have 3 years of Biochemistry, 1 year of Physics, 1 year of Genetics, 2 quarters of Zoology, 1 semester of Philosophy of Genetics, and 1 semester of Science & Society under my belt (all college level). I am also a big fan of the History Channel, Animal Planet, TLC, and the Discovery Channel. Lastly, I have read a decent amount of hard science on my own including Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe, Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History in Time and Universe in a Nutshell. I am not listing this to brag; my purpose is actually quite the contrary. The type of knowledge science provides is so vast that to answer all the specific questions in a particular field is rather difficult and upon reflection, I should have done more to increase my knowledge of the natural world to be able to more eloquently answer the questions posed in this blog. As such and in regards to the questions of evolution and other scientific questions raised, I recommend checking out and defer to TalkOrigins because they provide answers to these types of questions and more with many citations to source materials. They respond to but do not present Creationist or I.D. positions but provide numerous links to alternative views including Creationism and I.D. websites here. As with any Internet resource, be skeptical and judge for yourself. I have a few replies to specific questions and comments raised so far.

*** “Big Bang theory posits that at some point, there was nothing that somehow became something.” ***
This misrepresents the theory. The inference for the theory leads back to an extremely dense, hot singularity. This allows for many things including a cyclical beginning and end to the universe due to black holes or God. Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene do not posit the idea of something from nothing. Neither my physics book nor anything I researched on the web claimed something from nothing either. I am interested in a citation for your claim. Hawking and Greene do acknowledge the difficulty of the prima causa for creation of matter in purely naturalistic terms.

*** “When has “mutability” been observed?” ***
See TalkOrigins on Five Major Misconceptions about Evolution regarding direct and indirect evidence observable in the here and now. Any basic biology or evolutionary biology text should also provide examples.

*** “There is still no observable evidence for transmutability. I would challenge anyone reading this blog to produce it. If you can’t produce it, then you have to concede that there is a significant measure of “faith” that is involved in accepting evolution – as much as it might hurt to admit it :0) ” ***
Once again, either you are rejecting the abundance of observations that lead to this inference or you are not doing your homework. Many transitional fossils have been found that lend support to an inference of transmutability between species and genera, between families, genera, and classes, and between kingdoms and phyla. Check out the TalkOrigins link here for a brief treatment regarding such evidence. I also suggest reading the full article entitled Transitional Vertebrates Fossils FAQ. Your challenge has been produced, no concessions to faith given, and no hurt felt, thank you very much. Do you claim that all these observations are a hoax or do not exist? If not, what inferences would you make with the data? I highly recommend checking this section out because it addresses the misconception of extreme transmutability that has been raised such as transmutation of a frog to a cow or fish to a man. I found the idea fascinating that such extreme mutability is actually evidence against evolution.

A few more questions:
1. What is an evolutionist? If I believe in coherency between faith and religion, what is my label? How would one categorize Francis Collins? He is Director of the Human Genome Project and Evangelical Christian. He believes that evolution is not only real but also evidence of God.

2. How can evolution be coherent with the idea of Biblical inerrancy? Is the Bible a guide to the physical, spiritual, or both? If it is a physical guide then how does it help answer modern questions of medicine, biology, or physics that were inconceivable roughly 2000 years ago?

3. If the message of the Bible refers to an immaterial soul, how are morality and meaning affected by evolution, a material process?

4. What specifically does treatment of science with epistemological integrity look like or entail?

5. What are the 700 dissenters who claim, “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life? Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” actually saying? It does not seem to denounce evolution but calls for skepticism and careful examination of evidence, which no scientist would (or should) disagree. See Jason’s blog on the subject here for the specific document.

I appreciate the comments and questions so far. I think Socrates had it right when he argued that the way to truth involves pursuing thought in many directions and to follow out logical implications of thought. It makes us uncomfortable to challenge our own positions but drives those who truly seek truth to continue to work and discover. I do not understand how Creationism or I.D. allows for the possibility of further work to discover the many unanswered questions; however, I am open (and still waiting) for answers to analytically evaluate. Only in this way may objective truth may be discovered and therefore become knowable.

As always, respectful comments are encouraged.

Best Wishes,

The Coherency of Evolution and Faith - Part III

Here are all of the questions and comments raised in Part I and II. If I missed anything, it was not my intent. Please leave a post detailing any errors so I may update.

Questions Raised to Date

1. Are strict adherents to either side interested in civil conversation?

2. Should the debate be under the label of “science”? Why or why not?

3. How is science defined?

4. How does Intelligent Design not fall prey to a regress that concludes with an entity we traditionally define as God?

5. What does a basic definition of evolution need to consist of?

6. Does this definition go beyond Darwin's understanding in "Origin?”

7. How many dissenters of the theory constitute a significant amount?

8. What do you mean by "accredited scientist”?

9. If the dissenters of the theory from #7 above make a supernatural conclusion, are they still practicing science?

10. Who has the burden of proof and why?

11. Is the burden of proof to show that evolution or intelligent design or creation is right, wrong, or that one is science and that one is not?

12. If the moral and Biblical implications of evolution are intolerable to so many of faith, is reconciliation, debate, coherency, or any other unifying word even possible?

13. Big Bang theory posits that at some point, there was nothing that somehow became something. Why is it that this belief considered science when it is plainly not naturalistic or empirically observed?

14. When has “mutability” been observed? Variation within species has certainly been observed, but when has “transmutation?” If we haven’t then why refer to this as science? If you can’t observe it in the present, in a lab for example, doesn’t that case to be science? Or does that line of reasoning apply only to those who believe in God?

15. How many evolutionists would adhere to the recent finding that the universe had a beginning?

Comments and Difficulties Raised to Date

A. Certain words and concepts need to be clearly and concisely defined if any productive conversation is to take place.

B. There needs to be a clear-cut statement of belief for Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design.

C. Science should be systematic and not appeal to supernatural causation.

D. Religion and science, once you carry them back far enough, are both based upon faith.

E. Just as religion, science is based upon ultimate foundations that cannot be empirically verified.

F. The debate should not be under the label of “science” because I.D. and Creationism appeal to the supernatural and lack a methodology for further research. It would be acceptable for the debate to be under Philosophy, Sociology, or Education.

G. Current mainstream science appeals to the supernatural just as much as creation science does. If it did not, it would have no foundation upon which to rest its evolutionary conclusions.

H. Intelligent Design is equivalent to God and is simply a tactic around the Supreme Court ban on the teaching of Creationism in public schools.

I. Related to # 4 above. A regress presupposes that the ultimate Intelligent Designer is subject to the natural order that He created and exists outside of. This is illogical. God created the physical order of things that includes reason, logic, time, space, and laws. The idea that a creation must have a Creator is valid in the order that God created but it makes little sense to suppose that He is subject to rules that He created for a reality where He does not primarily “reside.”

J. There is still no observable evidence for transmutability. If evidence cannot be provided then there is a significant measure of “faith” that is involved in accepting evolution.

K. “That evolution is” versus “how evolution is” are two separate questions.

L. Under 1% of working earth and life scientists in the United States dissent with the theory of evolution.

M. Majority has absolutely nothing to do with truth. Most people thought Galileo was an idiot but the overwhelming majority was overwhelmingly wrong.

N. Related to L above. These are two different studies. You are committing a fallacy by combining the two to draw a conclusion. Your conclusion implies that the 700 dissenting scientists are the ONLY scientists who disagree of question the “absoluteness” of evolutionary theory.

O. Let’s make sure science treats its subjects with epistemological integrity.