Monthly Archives: February 2017

Should Believers Worry that Extra-terrestrial Life Really Exists?

As you may know from recent news releases, astronomers are excited to find 7 new earth-size planets orbiting around a star 40 light years from us. Of course 40 light years puts them way beyond our reach. It would take a space ship constructed with our current space technology 800,000 earth years to reach it. The main motivation for space exploration has always been our curiosity about ourselves, our origin, nature and destiny. So, we search for extra-terrestrial life or at least planets that could support life. Some people of faith are a bit skeptical or anxious about that possibility. So, I want to calm your fears.

What would it mean if space explorers found proof of extra-terrestrial life? Many people of an atheist bent would conclude that discovery of life elsewhere would disprove divine creation and prove that life here happened by chance. I suppose the argument would have to run like this: since we have another example of the evolution of life in the universe, we know that life on earth is not so unique and improbable that it requires a miracle to explain it. Instead, life tends to arise wherever in the universe conditions are right. And those conditions are not limited to earth. Hence we must assume that life arose on this planet by chance when the conditions made it possible.

Is this the only, or even the best, way to draw out the implications of such a discovery? I think the opposite is true. As long as earth life is the only instance of life we know, we could plausibly think of it as a freak accident unrelated to any purpose. Physical law made it possible, but chance made it actual. In truth, if we found life elsewhere it would make less plausible the idea that life on earth was a chance event. If we discovered that the universe was teaming with life, it would completely destroy the idea that life on earth came about by sheer chance. Why? Because it would demonstrate (at minimum) that the universe has a built in tendency to produce life, ultimately intelligent life. The occurrence of life could never again be attributed to pure chance. We would know it to be matter of law! The law of life would be as much a part of the universe as the law of gravity or any of the other fundamental forces. At its origin, the universe would have been programmed to produce life, to produce us. Producing intelligence is the universe’s goal. And when you and I think and dream and pray, we are enjoying the activity the universe has been aiming at from its origin! Our experience of our own minds is the most powerful telescope or microscope conceivable. It is a window into the beginning and end of all things.

But how could intelligence be the law and goal of the universe unless Intelligence was also present at the origin of the universe? As long as we think of the initial laws of our universe as mere regularities in a material universe—a rather unimaginative viewpoint—we did not have to raise the question of divine creation. But when intelligence comes to be considered an inbuilt aim–as the discovery of instances of ETL would force us to conclude–this explanation will no longer work.  Intelligence is not a mere regularity but a real thing indicating the presence of a mind. If the goal of producing intelligent beings is part of the initial conditions of the universe, the only explanation of this fact I can imagine is that a super intelligence programmed it that way.

Hence far from believers have something to fear from the discovery of extra-terrestrial life, we should rejoice at its discovery and say to our atheist friends, “See, we told you this universe was created by Life for life, by Intelligence for intelligence.” It is the atheist who should hope that we are alone.

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LOOKING FOR GOD IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES

For 30 years or longer I have been trying to figure out what makes skepticism, indifference and atheism plausible and belief in God difficult for some people.  I am sure there are many reasons and the relative strength of each varies from person to person. But one stands out to me. The external, physical/material world seems so real to us that we have a hard time imagining anything real that is not also external and material. This sentiment is expressed by a saying making the rounds on Facebook: “I worship nature. Don’t laugh. At least I can prove it exists.” I laughed anyway.

During his early adulthood, under the instruction of the Manicheans, Augustine of Hippo also experienced this difficulty:

When I wanted to think of my God, I knew of no way of doing so except as a physical mass. Nor did I think anything existed which was not material. That was the principle and almost sole cause of my inevitable error. ..If I had been able to conceive of spiritual substance, at once all their imagined inventions would have collapsed and my mind would have rejected them. But I could not [Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (Oxford 1991), pp. 85, 89].

And speaking of the philosophers of his day, who focused on external appearances, Augustine says,

They can foresee a future eclipse of the Sun but do not perceive their own eclipse in the present. For they do not in a religious spirit investigate the source of the intelligence with which they research into these matters (Confessions, trans. Chadwick, p. 74)

Baron Holbach, author of The System of Nature (1770) and patron of Paris’s atheist and freethinking community, attempted to explain the whole world and every event within it in material terms. His fundamental assumption seems to be that the true nature of things is revealed only in empirical experience. Empirical experience works by physical contact between our bodies and other bodies. We know things only in their external relationships to us and other things. Reality consists exclusively of external bodies set in relation to other external bodies. Holbach then interprets all our internal experience, which we do not experience empirically through the senses, in keeping with his external view of knowledge. We know that our minds, ideas and concepts possess no reality beyond the physical forces that bring them about. God is a creation of the human imagination, which itself is a product of the motions of matter.

As you can see, Holbach falls into an error similar to the one Augustine complained the Manicheans made, that is, that reality can be known truly only as external bodies and the images that represent them. Augustine saw through this error when he realized that we have internal access to reality as well as external access. Limiting knowledge of reality to how things appear from an external viewpoint severely limits and greatly distorts our understanding of the world. Holbach, the Manicheans and the nature worshiper mentioned above forget that the internal power by which we know the external world also knows itself and all its contents. And the mind knows itself and its contents not by physical contact with external surfaces but by knowing itself directly. Inside the world of the mind, nothing is external and material. Nothing takes up space or weighs anything. Nothing breaks down into smaller material bits.

In Augustine’s view, the Manicheans, and by extension Holbach and all metaphysical materialists, should have given priority to the knowledge gained by our mind’s experience of itself. Privileging an external point of view makes an inferior, indirect and obscure access to reality the judge of a superior, clear and direct access. It dismisses our sense of certainty that our minds are real and possess freedom and causal power over our bodies in favor of an analogy drawn from our external observation of the interaction of assumedly mindless bodies. It rejects our internal experience of immaterial ideas, logical laws, concepts and relations and forces them into the pattern we derive from external observation, that is, they must be material bodies externally related to each other, despite our invincible inclination to believe otherwise.

What a difference there is between the two systems (Atheism and Christian Theism)! Christian theism asserts that the appearance of humanity and all that goes with it—mind, reason, freedom, self-consciousness, moral intuition, and all that is made possible by them—reveals the true nature of the ultimate reality behind all appearances better than the externality, unintelligibility, inertness, and mindlessness of matter. And this truth comes to light in our experience within ourselves of ourselves and in fellowship with other human beings. The idea of matter is derived from sense experience’s discovery of opacity and obscurity in its vision of the world in contrast to the clarity of ideas and the self-identity and self-transparency of the mind in its act of thinking and self-reflection. Atheism (at least the most common contemporary forms) views the mindless externality of matter as disclosing the true nature of what we wrongly think we know on the uniquely human level: mind, qualities, freedom, consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, intelligibility and moral intuition.

Here is a stark choice. Both views make knowledge claims. One must choose. But the irony is that in choosing materialism I give revelatory priority to something I know externally, obscurely and indirectly over what I know directly and clearly by virtue of the process of thinking. I assert that the ultimate and underlying reality from which thinking, ideas and concepts derive is itself unthinking, obscure and unthinkable. Don’t miss this: ironically, if not in complete self-contradiction, materialism is a theory that conceives and thinks of thinking and concepts as secondary qualities derivative of matter, which is the complete absence of mind and intelligibility! According to their theory, the very power (mind) and its instruments (ideas and concepts) by which materialists formulate, defend and explain the philosophy of materialism, need to be resolved into their (material) components in order to get a clear idea of what they really are. What an absurdity! Mind and the idea of ideas are obscure and complex whereas the idea of matter is simple and clear? Of course the idea of matter is simple and clear but the idea of matter is in the mind. But matter itself is defined by being external to the mind and obscure to the eye of the mind. So, in the theory of materialism I am basing my understanding of all reality on something that can be known only as unknowable and obscure. Surely there is some kind of incoherence here!

But everything changes if with Augustine we give priority to internal experience. The way we know our minds and their contents becomes the model for our knowledge of the external world. We experience the world not only as external, material and obscure but also as internal, ideal and transparent. Through our senses we receive into our minds information (not simply dumb physical impacts) embodied in the world. This information becomes internal to our minds; only then do we possess knowledge of the “external” world. Assuming that this information truly exists in the world apart from the work of our minds, we can ask from where it came. Or, since we know from our internal experience the creative and shaping power of mind and ideas, we can ask about the nature of the Mind that thinks and creates the world I experience as intelligible but not as the product of my or any human mind.

The apostle Paul was not making idle conversation with the Athenians when he quoted the Cretan philosopher Epimenides: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Unlike the young Augustine, Holbach and today’s nature worshiper, Paul looked around at the world and saw in everything the marks of the divine Mind, and he felt surrounded, indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of the living God. Our task, Paul says is to “seek him and perhaps find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). And it helps to begin your search in the right place.

Where’s the Outrage?

Today we return to the theme of  “Love not the world,” taken from 1 John 2:15-17:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

In times of social unrest we often hear extreme expressions of such emotions as fear, anger and anguish. These expressions are sometimes accompanied by dismay that more people do not seem to feel these emotions as violently as they should. Hence the agonized questions, “Where’s the outrage?” “Why the apathy?”

I’d like to reflect today on these questions.

They presuppose that the right response to perceived injustice is extreme, near out-of-control emotion. A good person, one who cares about right and wrong, justice and injustice, would feel these strong emotions and be moved by them to express them in equally strong ways. Anyone who doesn’t feel and express these emotions shows themselves to be insensitive to wrong and lacking in compassion for its victims.  But is this presupposition really consistent with the Christian understanding ethics and virtue?

John tells us not to love the world or anything in it. Love for the world crowds out love for the Father.  He condemns three emotions or passions, passion for physical pleasure, passion for possessions, and passion for honor. John does not mention other passions, fear, anger, and jealously, but his argument applies equally to all emotions. Allowing any object or any experience in the world to control our emotions and direct our behavior will displace love for the Father. We should not allow ourselves to be controlled, consumed or outraged by the world and its desires. They will pass away.

What then should a good person feel and do in the face of wrong? If allowing ourselves to be outraged, fearful, and anxious conforms to the pattern of the world, what is the correct response? I think John would say that our utmost passion should be to love the Father and do the will of God in every situation. In other words, our emotions and actions should be determined by the unchanging love and will of God rather than by the images and words we meet in the world. Every day the world confronts us with enticing things and revolting things, with good and bad, curses and blessings, beauty and ugliness, safety and danger, right actions and wrong actions. John tells us not to allow our emotions and actions to be determined by the changing scenes around us. We should instead anchor them in God so that we can experience clarity of purpose, steadiness of composure, and consistency of action.

John is not alone in his caution about human passions. I know of no place in the teaching of Jesus or anywhere else in Scripture that encourages us to be angry and express outrage. Quite the opposite is taught. We are taught self-control, moderation, and patience. Would Paul, the author of Galatians and the following ethical teaching, encourage us to rage?

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Galatians 5:19-26).

Would the one who pronounced his blessing on the “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and instructed us to “turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39) rebuke us for apathy because we are not sufficiently outraged at our enemies?

James seems to think our tendency to outrage is a fault not a virtue:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be…17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:9-18).

Peter also lived in a time of social unrest. What advice did he give?

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing…14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

No my friends, outrage is never a virtue. Anger is not a reliable guide to justice. Cursing is never a sign of devotion to truth. Nor are self-control, patience, kindness and blessing indications of apathy. Where is the outrage? I can tell you where it’s not: it’s not in any heart devoted to “the love of the Father.” There is no room for outrage there.