Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why is Faith Necessary?

Mark Twain said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." And that is a common perception: faith is the ability to tenaciously suspend incredulity, to maintain one's convictions in the face of pesky things like facts. I've even heard it said that faith is not so bad as long as believers just acknowledge that it's not reasonable. These individuals seem to be telling us that we should concede Twain's point.

But there is absolutely no reason to believe what ain't so. I never understood the effort some parents go to in order to keep their children believing in Santa Claus. Or all the Christmas movies that hail "faith" as a virtue in and of itself. Faith is only as valid as the object of our faith. This means that we should only believe in the truth. Anything less is misplaced faith.

According to the Bible, faith is the means by which we arrive at the truth about God. But that seems somewhat backwards, because generally we determine the truth first and then believe. Seeing is believing. But the Bible turns that around and says that believing is seeing. Why is that? Because in our natural state we are cut off from God, and none of our faculties can bridge the gap. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised." Faith means a spiritual awakening that removes the veil from our eyes, so that we can perceive spiritual realities.

Why is this spiritual rebirth necessary? Let's look at some of the other ways we might go about arriving at the truth about God: science, experience, and reason.

Science: The Bible is God's message of salvation rather than a science textbook; however, it does clearly state some things about the universe. Genesis 1:1 says, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." So the Bible says that it had a beginning. And Hebrews 11:3 says, "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible." God spoke the universe into existence out of nothing. He created space, time, and matter by fiat.

In our scientific age, we have an advantage over prior generations in that we have substantial evidence to support the biblical account. The big bang marked the beginning of time, the universe emerged out of nothing, and it was finely tuned for life. It appears to have been purposefully created with us in mind.

So does this dispense with the need for faith? No, because one can always argue that we simply don't know enough yet. Maybe there is an infinite number of universes, and this one just happens to be the one where everything went exactly right. Never mind that there is no evidence for that; if we have a naturalistic mindset, we will choose any explanation rather than the supernatural, no matter how improbable.

Experience: I've heard non-believers say that they would believe in God if they witnessed a miracle. But is that really true? C. S. Lewis said the following:
In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that the person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing.
For this reason, the question whether miracles occur can never be answered simply by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we shall always say.
A miracle is by definition a supernatural event, but unless we know everything about the limits of nature, how do we know if something was supernatural? If a person is healed of an incurable disease, we will most likely interpret the event according to our preexisting philosophy. So if we assume naturalism, we will either try to give a natural explanation, or we will just accept that we don't know. We will not consider the event to be evidence for the existence of God.

Reason: I am a firm believer in critical thinking and sound logic, and I believe it reinforces faith. Critical thinking cannot destroy true faith, which has to be built on truth. Of course, if we craft an idol out of select parts of the Bible and mistake that for God's revealed truth, that idol can easily be shattered by a well-aimed argument. But the word of God itself, understood accurately in context, can withstand intense, honest scrutiny.

Logic is a useful tool, but one problem is that none of us are pure rationalists. Most of the time there are certain things we want to believe and other things we don't want to believe. We are invested in our philosophies of life because they define us. So if we lose a debate, we don't necessarily modify our views--we just walk away. And next time we'll come up with better arguments.

Another problem with logic is that it is very difficult to arrive at the truth by way of deductive reasoning because we don't always recognize our own assumptions. Like I said before, people often assume naturalism, which means that their conceptual framework excludes the possibility of a God. So deductive reasoning will never lead them to conclude that God exists whether or not He does.

Bertrand Russell said: "The question is how to arrive at your opinions and not what your opinions are. The thing in which we believe is the supremacy of reason. If reason should lead you to orthodox conclusions, well and good; you are still a Rationalist." As a relativist, Russell had no problem with this, but if rationalism can lead us to all kinds of different conclusions it is not the ideal tool for discerning truth. Most of us are not capable of the kind of objectivity that would lead us step by step toward truth.

In light of all this, it makes sense that God would choose a method of revealing Himself to us that transcends our intellects and our senses, because these are fallible. That is why the Bible talks about being born of the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth. 1 Corinthians 2:16 says, "For who has known the mind of God that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ."

When Christ died on the cross the heavy veil keeping all but the high priest out of the inner chamber of the temple tore in two, symbolizing the penalty for sin having been paid, granting us free access into God's presence. But it also symbolizes the "veil" being removed from our eyes, so that we may see God.

Isaiah 25:7 prophesies: "And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all people, even the veil which is stretched over all nations." The veil is that which blinds us to God. But 2 Corinthians 3:16 says, "whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is removed."

Back when I experienced this spiritual rebirth, I became very conscious of God in nature, like I was seeing everything for the first time as part of God's creation. Nothing had changed, except the lens through which I viewed the world. I saw that God is indeed present in His creation.

Someone might argue that my experience was subjective, and that would be true. Everything we perceive with our minds and through our senses is subjective. But we can still know that they are very real. The times when Christ was closest to me have left no doubt in my mind that He is real. C. S. Lewis says in his novel Till We Have Faces: "I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words."

However, faith is always a matter of degree, so in order for it grow stronger we have to allow it to be tested. We should embrace truth of every kind, and never hide from challenges to our faith. Faith is not a fragile object to be hidden away someplace safe. We have to reinforce it with reason, experience, and truth, knowing that "this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith" (1 John 5:4).

Friday, June 4, 2010

Does God Hide in the Gaps of Science?

Atheists often claim that God is merely a stopgap for the next scientific discovery. Science has demystified the marvels of creation one by one, forcing God out of the narrowing gap of knowledge. In spite of the frenzied efforts of theists to stop scientific progress, they argue, God is disappearing in a puff of science. 

Scientists have traced the biological chain of causation back with only one remaining frontier: the origin of life. And since they are nowhere near discovering how life could emerge from non-life, it is tempting for Christians to stake a flag of victory in that scientifically barren ground. 

But why should we peg our hopes on scientific ignorance, when an entirely different picture is emerging in the field of cosmology? Biologists may be plugging in gaps, but cosmologists are creating a mosaic that is looking a lot like the face of God. Self-described agnostic astrophysicist Robert Jastrow said in God and the Astronomers: "Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements are the same; the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy."

Compelling scientific evidence supports the Big Bang theory, which says that the universe began approximately 14 billion years ago as an infinitely dense point of pure energy that marked the beginning of time. But the laws of physics break down at this point, so scientists do not know what caused it or what came before, or if it even makes to sense to speak of "before" the beginning of time. According to Jastrow, it looks like they will never know, because "in the searing heat of that first moment, all the evidence needed for a scientific study of the cause of the great explosion was melted down and destroyed."

However, we do know that the laws and constants of the universe had to be very precisely fine-tuned for it to come into existence. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, said:
When you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we were coming. There are 15 constants--the gravitational constant, various constants about the strong and weak nuclear force, etc.--that have precise values. If any of those constants was off by even one part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not actually have come to the point where we see it. Matter would not have been able to coalesce, there would have been no galaxy, stars, planets or people. That's a phenomenally surprising observation. It seems almost impossible that we're here. And that does make you wonder--gosh, who was setting those constants anyway. Scientists have not been able to figure that out.  
 Jastrow confirmed this:
Suppose, for example, that the density one second after the Big Bang had been less than the critical density by one part in a million, then the elements of matter in the Universe would have flown apart too rapidly for galaxies, stars and planets to form. That means we would not be here today. Suppose, on the other hand, that the density of matter at that early time had been greater than the critical density by one part in a million; then the expanding Universe would have come to a halt and collapsed on itself too rapidly for life to evolve on any planets that formed. Again, we would not be here.
What we have here is positive scientific evidence for a Creator. This is not a God of the gaps argument, because that depends on a knowledge gap. Stephen Hawking said in A Brief History of Time: "It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us."

However, none of this constitutes proof of the existence of a God. Science cannot prove or disprove God. It is more akin to the following illustration by Canadian philosopher John Leslie: Suppose a man is sentenced to be executed by a firing squad of fifty expert marksmen. All of them fire from less than ten feet away, and yet they all miss. It is technically possible that all fifty of them would miss, but it is far more reasonable to conclude that it was intentional.

Well-known atheist and biologist, Richard Dawkins, agreed in a 2007 video that the cosmological argument for a God is the strongest:
There may be good reasons for believing in a God, and if there are any I would expect them to come from, possibly, modern physics, from cosmology, from the observation that, some people claim, the laws and constants of the universe are too finely tuned to be an accident. That would not be a wholly disreputable reason for believing in some form of supernatural deity. I think there's a very good argument against it and I developed much of my chapter four to, as I think, refuting that argument. 
So let's examine his arguments in chapter four of The God Delusion.

Dawkins made two major arguments: First, he hypothesizes that there are many universes, which he calls a "multiverse," and we just happen to be in one where the laws and constants were just right. We are like the lottery winner; regardless of the improbability of winning, someone won. Since we are here discussing this, we won. Second, he claimed that God "must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide."

Note that Dawkins hypothesizes the existence of a multiverse. There is no evidence whatsoever that another universe than the one we occupy has ever existed. This is philosophical speculation without a shred of scientific evidence to back it up. (Scientific hypotheses that challenge the Big Bang theory in various ways are likewise merely proposals, unsupported by evidence. Stephen Hawking said of his no boundaries model: "I'd like to emphasize that this idea that time and space should be finite without boundary is just a proposal.")

Dawkins acknowledged this weakness in his multiverse hypothesis: "It is tempting to think (and many have succumbed) that to postulate a plethora of universes is a profligate luxury which should not be allowed. If we are going to permit the extravagance of a multiverse, so the argument runs, we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and allow a God."

And this leads him to his second argument, that God would be a complex and therefore improbable explanation. This argument fails for the following reasons: First, the scientific evidence itself points toward a God, and specifically, it is consistent with Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." The Bible teaches that God created ex nihilo--out of nothing--and the scientific data supports this. It further teaches that God created the universe at the beginning of time and that he exists outside of time. The data likewise tells us that the big bang marked the beginning of time. Arno Penzias, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who codiscovered the cosmic fireball radiation that provided strong evidence for the Big Bang theory, said: "The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five Books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole."

Second, the "complexity" of God has no bearing on the probability of his existence. There is no inherent reason why a complex entity is less likely to exist, unless it requires us to make a lot of complex assumptions, which is what Occam's Razor says. So Dawkins's multiverse hypothesis fails Occam's Razor, because it is not the simplest and most logical explanation for the data supporting the Big Bang theory. However, the biblical explanation passes Occam's Razor because it meshes neatly with the evidence, without requiring speculation or complex assumptions. Unless someone presupposes naturalism, a Creator is the most logical explanation.

Dawkins said that those who "succumb" to the "temptation" of raising the aforementioned objection to his multiverse hypothesis "have not had their consciousness raised by natural selection." That reminds me of the following quote by Jastrow:
There is a kind of religion in science; it is the religion of a person who believes there is order and harmony in the Universe. Every event can be explained in a rational way as the product of some previous event; every effect must have its cause; there is no First Cause. Einstein wrote, "The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation."
This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized. As usual when faced with trauma, the mind reacts by ignoring the implications--in science this is known as "refusing to speculate"--or trivializing the origin of the world by calling it the Big Bang, as if the Universe were a firecracker."
Jastrow ends his book on the following note:
At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.