Friday, July 20, 2007

John Oakes — The Problem of Pain and Suffering

John Oakes is a member of the San Diego Church of Christ, which I used to attend. I remember him speaking a number of times to my part of the congregation. He has a Ph.D in chemical physics and has authored a number of books.

I recall hearing him for the first time many years ago. I remember being a bit surprised at one of his answers during the Q & A session, mostly because it seemed to depart subtly from the doctrine of inerrancy in which we had been trained. Basically I had asked what his take was regarding the fact that Chinese history books go back so many more generations than the bible accounts for. His response was something to the effect of, anyone trying to make that assertion is trying to nail down specific genealogies to a certain time in history, which simply is not the intent of the bible. At any rate, I respected his knowledge quite a bit, and he continues to be well respected within the church to this day.

John has a website dedicated to Christian apology, I have been reading some of the notes he posts, which are presumably from speaking engagements in which he has participated. One in particular,
"The Problem of Pain and Suffering, Part I," caught my attention. The gist of John's essay is to offer explanations to the classic apparent contradiction among the collective assertions that: 1) God is omnipotent, 2) God is loving, and yet 3) suffering exists. First John deals with suffering at the hands of other people, and offers the familiar explanation of free will. Then he tries to tackle the issue of suffering due to natural causes. Here is an excerpt:

The fortunate facts about the earth we live on include the production of heat inside the earth from radioactive uranium and the action of plate tectonics caused by the release of that heat. Without plate tectonics, the earth would have lost its atmosphere and the soil would have lost its ability to support an abundance of life a long time ago. Plate tectonics, a necessity for life, also produces earthquakes. Humans suffer because of earthquakes. Before we fault God for causing earthquakes, we better propose a universe and an environment in that universe which does not include plate tectonics. Are earthquakes evil? No, they are necessary to life.

Now, this strikes me as ridiculously inconsistent.

First of all, it is not up to "us" — whether unbelievers, or doubters, or objects of God's creation — to propose a universe which does not include plate tectonics, before we can rightfully criticize the concept of an omnipotent God who created a world where suffering comes at the hand of that same world. It is the bible that makes the claim that such a God exists; thus the burden of proof lies with the bible — or at least the theist who claims to believe it — to sufficiently explain this assertion.

Second, John would have us believe that God spoke this world into existence, can change the nature of physics at will to enable a man to walk on water, and yet cannot save people from earthquakes caused by the plates of the earth shifting because they are necessary for life? This God decided to miraculously circumvent the natural order of child-birth to bring his one and only son to this earth — an event about which all of history supposedly revolves. The very basis of Christianity is based on Christ's ability to nullify the natural order of life and death! The resurrection is the very event proclaimed so loudly as evidence that Jesus is above the natural physical laws, and therefore from God! And yet, this same God must now submit to the very same laws of physics he so remarkably violated before?

Which is it? God is not subject to the physical laws that we observe, or he is?

John's notes continue on to include other phenomena such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and even bacteria. Essentially he has made God subservient to exactly the circumstances of the natural world in which we find ourselves. Pardon me, then, if I do not seem very much in awe at the power of such an "omnipotent" God. And if this is the case, then isn't it easier to assume that God does not exist, or at least does not care? At least this would relieve us of the aching burden of searching to find some purpose for senseless suffering.

I start to wonder what kind of heaven John believes in. Are there plate tectonics in John's version of heaven as well? I'm sure he will say something to the effect of, no, in heaven there will be a different kind of existence. But then, why not just start with that existence? There; the problem of envisioning an environment that does not include plate tectonics has just been solved! God could still accomplish his goal of "soul-making," or whatever other justification one might have for suffering at the hand of other humans with free will, without adding the additional burden of suffering from natural causes.

And yet he apparently did not choose that route, because such suffering does exist. Thus I find John's explanation sorely lacking.

I just ordered the CD containing the lectures of the 2007 International Apologetics Conference, where presumably John spoke from these notes. If no further insight into John's argument can be gleaned, I will likely send him an email of my criticisms.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Science Superior to Religion

I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between science and religion. Each camp seems to characterize this relationship in their respective ways. For instance, theists will typically claim that science is a faith, implying that the same amount of faith is required to believe in it as, say, Christianity. Others, on the other hand, tend to treat them as completely separate — "incompatible magisteria" being the classic label.

I must note that I am very likely abusing the word "science" here. By it I am trying to encompass all skeptical thought based on observed evidence. Also implied in science is the possibility that any theory may be proven incorrect in the future, given sufficient evidence.

First of all, I take issue with the theist's claim by arguing that the faith in science is somehow comparable to the faith required to accept something like Christianity. It is true that there are some things that will never be proven and we must take them to be axiomatic truths. But the amount of faith required to believe in any religion is orders of magnitude greater than that required to accept the basic axioms that we use to describe the world which we observe.

The more interesting issue that this brings up, however, is that the theists are more correct than they know — science and religion actually are quite similar. The error is in which criteria by which to compare them.

My assertion is that science is what religion tries to be. So, from this perspective, science supersedes religion, as it is more powerful and less prone to religion's pitfalls.

Of course, this is incompatible with the theist perspective that religion (whichever one is correct) is supernaturally revealed and therefore trumps any conclusions based on evidence and observation. But there are clues inside of every believer that invalidate the theist's position. To illustrate this, I outline the typical process of coming to faith.

  1. A prospective believer somehow comes in contact with the bible (or other holy book).
  2. He reads it and finds that it contains profound wisdom and provides meaning for his life.
  3. He decides to accept it and dedicates his life to learning from and obeying this book.

I omit the possible step of 0) a religious or miraculous experience. Although I believe it to be common, theists typically don't allude to it as a reason for their faith in a discussion such as this, which seems wise.

Now the crucial point of this process to note is step 2). How does someone come to the conclusion that this book holds profound wisdom? Answer: the bible accurately and successfully (in the prospective believer's mind, anyway) explains the world that he has experienced so far; it illuminates and confirms his suspicions about how the world works.

And this is precisely what science does — attempt to explain the evidence that we observe about the world. I reiterate my claim — religion is an attempt to explain the observable world, and is therefore an attempt at what science more powerfully achieves.

Another way to look at it is this: there are several myths and religions to choose from; why reject almost all of them in favor of just one? Most of them are quickly dismissed because they do not accurately describe the world that we observe. If you found that the holy book to which you currently subscribe had decreed something ridiculous, like "kill all babies," you would never have considered it legitimate in the first place. Why? Because it deviates so wildly from what you already observe to be true and right.

When faced with deciding between equivalently realistic religions, what does the believer do? He assesses the credibility and authority of each religion based on the weight of evidence for each. Again, science has provided the means of distinguishing between religions.

Other thoughts regarding the relationship between science and religion:

  • Science is the means by which we choose to accept a religion (consciously or not).
  • Science is the means by which we judge between religions (consciously or not).
  • Science is the means by which we correct/reinterpret religion's incorrect/misinterpreted claims (consciously or not).
  • Science evolves and grows, whereas religion is static, except for reinterpretation, which is enabled and prompted by science.
  • No religion has been perfect from its inception; each is trying to get closer and closer to an ideal. This nullifies any advantage of divine revelation that religion can claim to provide over science.
  • Religion is more vulnerable to gullibility and a stubborn resistance to correction than science because it depends on belief disproportionate to the amount evidence supporting it.

The other approach to the relationship between science and religion, that they occupy non-overlapping magisteria, has its mantra: "Science tells us how; religion tells us why." The problem with this is, the answers that religion gives for those "why"s are so scant and nebulous as to be effectively worthless and serve only to raise the suspicion that they are mere hand-waving inventions of man. Try following any of these lines of questioning and you end up with infinite regression.

Why are we here? God has a purpose for all of us. What is our purpose? To love God. Okay, what does that entail? Love people. So, in other words, do whatever helps people (including myself) succeed in life? Did I need God to tell me that?

What happens when I die? We go to heaven. What's that like? Better than anything you can imagine. What will we do? Trust me, you want to be there. Um, okay.

The only way I can see these answers satisfying anyone is in the way of comfort. Certainly it is comforting to believe that an omnipotent father-figure is always watching out for us, or that the greatest loss we can possibly suffer in this world is cushioned, even eclipsed, by the promise of an afterlife. Pity that truth is not subject to wishful thinking.

Tom's Birthday

Tom, Calvin, Vic, Liza

Happy Fourth! A while back (May 10th of this year) the McCaa family celebrated Tom's birthday.

TJ, Jenny
 Tom, Jenny
Jenny, Mom

These photos are all from Carly's camera, which is probably why she's not featured in any of them, unfortunately.

Vic, Calvin, Liza

Ah, I miss San Diego.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

More UCLA Weirdness

I wrote another letter to the editor of the Daily Bruin recently. Of course this didn't get published either.

I read your article "Professor discusses nature of Islam" regarding
the discussion "Extremism and Islam", which I also attended.

I am surprised that there was no mention of the way the professor responded to the first question posed during the question and answer portion of the talk. The professor's response was, to say the least, belligerent and confrontational. I do not think it was a coincidence that the moderator decided to end the question and answer portion after just one question, claiming time restraints.

It was difficult for me to reconcile his speech claiming that "The core values of Islam are mercy, compassion and humility" while his response was so much less than exemplary. Personally I was shocked and felt that the outburst detracted from the professor's credibility. To make no mention of this in your article makes me wonder about the objectivity of your report.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Last night I went to see the movie Obsession on campus, hosted by Students for Peace and Justice. Nonie Darwish, founder of Arabs for Israel and featured in the film, spoke to the audience afterwards. Overall it seemed the main point of the movie was to make strong parallels between radical Islam and Nazi Germany. By the end I distinctly felt that the implication was that war is the only logical solution, although it was never stated directly.

Watching many clips of how children are indoctrinated to despise the United States definitely had me thinking about my recent thoughts about belief. I certainly don't think that war is the answer to this kind of situation, but then the question becomes, what is? Education? Information? The invention of the internet has certainly been a revolution of sorts. Perhaps it can continue to enable global mind-change.

Something else happened that night which really left an impression on me, so much so I wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Bruin:

I attended the showing of "Obsession" on the night of the 24th. As people were filing in, there were people from other groups handing out informational flyers to those waiting in line. I took one and put it in my backpack, looking forward to reading it more closely later. What surprised me was that upon entering, our bags were searched and this flyer was removed — I was told that I could not bring it into the theater. The response to my look of astonishment was that it was policy and that I could retrieve it after the show.

While I imagine there could be valid motivations for UCLA to make this kind of policy, I found the situation ironic considering that presumably the goal of hosting such events is to educate by showing different sides of issues and letting people decide for themselves. Especially disconcerting was the fact that as I left, the confiscated flyers were nowhere to be found. When I posed the question of where they were to the security guard enforcing their confiscation, he had no idea.

I hope to find out the history of this policy. And I would appreciate it if the groups that endeavor to enforce it would do so with greater respect and integrity.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

This I ... Believe?

My most recent attempt at describing where I stand on faith these days has been a criticism of the Christian concept of salvation being dependent on belief in Jesus. By and large all who call themselves Christian have a wide spectrum of beliefs regarding salvation, but at the core of them all is this one. Some doctrines hold that there are additional requirements for salvation (baptism, confirmation, etc.), but all these of course depend on some kind of belief in Jesus in order for them to be meaningful, so I think this argument can safely address most of Christianity, mainstream or otherwise.

Now here is how my travels have brought me to a place where this no longer makes sense: I have come to find that believing (or disbelieving) something is not a matter of choice. While this conclusion has been formulating in my mind over the past few years, I came upon the same idea expressed much more eloquently by both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and their arguments helped me to frame what I was feeling into words.

All of us have had something that we believed to be true at one time, only to find out later that we were wrong. For those who always get things right the first time, think of the many concepts that were once widely held but then later refuted — for example, the idea that the earth was flat. For a long period of time people could not help but believe that the world was flat. And yet, when more and more evidence appeared indicating otherwise, eventually it overwhelmed people to where again they could not help but believe that the world was round. Could they, indeed could we, still "choose" to believe that the world is flat? I suppose we could, but at that point we call this delusion or denial which is understood to be an unhealthy way to approach things. Certainly this is not the sort of faith that Christians would want to advocate anyway. In a sense it is making a distinction between what we "choose" to believe (voluntary) and what we "really" believe (involuntary). So even in this there is concept of something that we cannot help but believe.

If belief truly is involuntary, then how does the concept of a salvation based on belief fit into things? If belief is not something that we can choose, then salvation is not something we can choose either, and the point of exhorting people to choose it would be nonsensical. This to me is a conflict within the framework of Christianity that is beyond recovery.

Newtonian physics was a model that worked for a long time, but when Einstein came along he helped us see that the model fell apart when describing things approaching the speed of light; a new model was needed. In my experience Christianity has this same feel to it — I accepted it because as a model it made the most sense with what I saw and knew at the time. Belief as a choice was one key point that I accepted whole-heartedly; indeed I felt that anyone who chose not to believe was simply evading responsibility. Now however, I feel the model breaking down, this point of belief being one of many examples. Psychology, sociology, and science in general are better, more powerful models of describing the world, and they have proved more fruitful for my life in general.

Now I brought the idea of belief being involuntary up with Ben and he raised the interesting point that if belief is involuntary, that is, simply a product of experiences, then all choice is simply a product of experiences as well, since choice is determined by beliefs. Thus, he argues, the original assertion necessarily implies a deterministic world.

And this really got me thinking in a lot of different ways. Initially my response is to say that choice is not directly determined by beliefs, but that within a certain set of beliefs there are still an enormous, perhaps infinite, number of choices available to a person. While I think this is a reasonable idea, I also note that a deterministic world is not outside the (or my) realm of possibility. As my education is in computer science, this kind of thinking is not unusual. The theory that the world is in fact some kind of computer simulation has already been put forth, in fact.

What Ben's question really raises for me is the need for a closer examination of the concept of "choice." I haven't thought about it extensively but perhaps a materialist world — where the brain behaves according to rules of chemical reactions — denies the idea of choice altogether. What if historically "choice" was simply the label we used to describe the mysterious machinations that people undergo, producing behavior? Maybe it was simply our tool to describe what we could not yet explain accurately, on the level of "soul." Perhaps now we have a better model and so we should reexamine what choice means. After all, as I have brought up before, we did not choose to be born into this world. Is it that difficult to accept that choice as we know it is some kind of mysterious illusion?

The idea of a deterministic world is somewhat unnerving, I think because our traditional understanding of choice is so pervasive. It's interesting how I (and probably most people) immediately equate the obliteration of choice as a concept with a loss of rights, or some kind of authoritarianism, or as somehow turning us into robots. I suppose I may eventually quell my initial unease with relinquishing my definition of choice and wholeheartedly embrace the idea of a deterministic world. For now though I will consider it undetermined, *ba dum bump*.