Monday, July 23, 2007

The Hills are Alive! Run!

On June 30th I joined one crazy crew of fans at the Sound of Music Sing-A-Long at the Hollywood Bowl. It's kind of like the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but for kids. And strange fanatical adults.

These photos were shamelessly stolen from Claire. Of course I only stole the, uh, relevant ones.

Claire kept snapping pictures so I decided to start pointing out the object of interest in each one, in case it wasn't obvious. This is the only example I stole from her site though.

We pretty much baked for the first hour or so before the sun dipped past the trees, during the pre-game entertainment.

The pre-game was emceed by Melissa Peterman, who was actually quite entertaining. So much so I am almost tempted to check out an episode of the show of Reba where she apparently is part of the cast. Almost.

The real endurance part of this mad race was the endless costume parade. Of course it's cute in the beginning but wow, two hours? Yikes.

One of the winners of the costume contest is pictured here. They're the curtains that Maria uses to make play clothes for the kids.

One of the great scenes in the movie, complete with subtitles by which to sing-a-long.

This (third from the left) is the actress who played Liesel in the film.

Heh, I'm pretty wiped out at this point. All in all, lots of fun! Thanks to Steve and Sophia for putting it all together.

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.