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Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 3

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April 25, 2013 Tags: Christ & New Creation
Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 3
Giotto di Bondone, Lamentation over Jesus (ca. 1304-06), fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

This third excerpt from John Polkinghorne’s chapter on “Motivated Belief” is about Jesus. He also sets readers up for a subsequent discussion of the Resurrection (which I will present in the next column), with a brief consideration of what he calls “the theological problem of miracle” (my italics). Just one caveat: everything he talks about in this excerpt—and in the next one about the Resurrection—has been discussed at great length by many authors for many, many years. No one, not even a writer as eloquent and learned as Polkinghorne, can adequately summarize the complexity and wide range of that conversation in just a few pages. Polkinghorne himself has said more about this general topic elsewhere, and others have said a great deal more about it. These excerpts should be understood simply as short, accessible introductions to the attitudes and instincts of a “bottom-up thinker” on this crucial topic.

My editorial policy for these excerpts is explained at the bottom of this post.

Motivated Belief (part 3)

Jesus had a comparatively short public ministry, but it had enormous local impact, drawing crowds who were anxious to hear his words and who often sought the healing ministry that he exercised. Then, on a last visit to Jerusalem, it all seemed to fall apart. The authorities, civil (Roman) and religious (Jewish) acting together, moved in to avoid trouble. Jesus was arrested and hastily executed, suffering the painful and shameful fate of crucifixion, the kind of death reserved for slaves and rebels and seen by pious Jews as being a sign of God’s rejection (“any one hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” Deuteronomy 21:23). Except for a few staunch women, his followers ran away, overcome by despair and disappointment. From the place of execution there came the cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).

Giotto di Bondone, The Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas)
(ca. 1304-06), fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

On the face of it, Jesus’s death seems a moment of pathetic failure, the final disillusionment of the followers of a rejected man whose grand pretensions had suddenly and definitively been found wanting. If that really was the end of the story of Jesus, I believe that most of us would never have heard of him. At best he would have seemed to be no better than other first-century messianic pretenders whose causes also finally failed. So the first remarkable thing about Jesus is that he is known to all of us. We need to look closer into the New Testament to find out why, against all reasonable expectation, his story continued beyond his death.

Amid the variety of its component writings, there are certain common themes that recur in the New Testament. Three of the most important themes are:

(1) All the [biblical] writers believe that the story of Jesus continued because God raised him from the dead on the third day after his crucifixion. We shall have to pay further attention to this extraordinary claim, but the existence of the New Testament, and the character of its contents, are unintelligible without the recognition that this is what its writers are affirming.

(2) In wrestling with what they believe to be their experience of the risen Christ, the writers are driven, in their different ways, to speak of Jesus in a quite extraordinary manner. They know that he was a man living in Palestine in their own times, yet in the accounts they give they often seem driven to employ not only obvious human categories, but also to use language that is only appropriate to deity. The Pauline epistles are probably of the earliest Christian writings known to us, certainly antedating the gospels. Already Jesus of Nazareth is being referred to in remarkable terms. Paul begins almost all his letters with some such phrase as “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; and so on). Not only is Jesus being bracketed with God in a manner that would, for example, have been inappropriate for a pious Jew to use in relation to Moses, the servant of God, but he is also accorded the title “Lord.” While this word (kyrios) had a widespread secular usage amounting to no more than politeness of address, its Hebrew counterpart, adonai, also had a special Jewish religious usage as an acceptable circumlocution in place of the unutterable divine name, YHWH, a particular significance which the religious context of Paul’s greeting could scarcely fail to invoke. The gospel of John portrays Jesus as claiming unity with God (John 10:30, words uttered in a situation where the hostile crowd are shown as having no difficulty in detecting what they see as the blasphemous implication), and it assigns to Jesus the use of images (the bread of life, the true vine, and so on) which carry implications of more than human status. The Writer to the Hebrews proclaims that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things and through whom he also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:2). Examples could easily be multiplied.

It is clear that when it comes to Jesus, the New Testament writers cannot rest content with the standard Jewish repertoire for speaking of people with special gifts from God—the categories of prophet, teacher, healer—but, against all their instincts as monotheistic Jews, they are driven to use divine-sounding language about him. Remember that they are referring to a near contemporary, and not to some shadowy figure of a legendary past. The New Testament very seldom out and out calls Jesus God (the confession of Thomas in John 20:28 is perhaps the clearest example), but its pages manifest a continual tension between the use of human and divine manners of speaking about him. The problem thus posed is unresolved in the New Testament itself, but succeeding Christian generations had to address it and eventually the Church was led to the distinctive and extraordinary doctrinal concept of the incarnation, the affirmation of the presence of deity in the life of this first-century Jew, who truly was the Son of God.

(3) Coupled with this recourse to divine language, and fuelling its fire, was a firm conviction among those first-generation Christians that the risen Christ had brought into their lives a new and transforming experience of saving power. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I believe that an adequate Christology (a true understanding of the nature of Jesus) must satisfy the criterion of affording an adequate soteriology (a true understanding of the power of Christ in human lives, to which the Church has continued to give its testimony down through the centuries). The doctrine of the incarnation implies that in the Word made flesh a unique bridge was established between the created life of humanity and the uncreated life of God, and in this meeting of divine power and human nature there lies a way of understanding the fulfillment of the soteriological criterion.

Giotto di Bondone, Resurrection (Do not Touch Me) (ca. 1304-06), fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

These three lines of testimony need to be presented for consideration by anyone seeking to understand the significance that Jesus of Nazareth holds for Christian belief. In the context of science the discussion of the persuasiveness of that belief cannot be conducted satisfactorily without a detailed engagement with these claims. The task is indispensable to honest enquiry and it is made all the more important today by the fact that many people seem to have so little knowledge of what the New Testament actually says.

The pivot on which the claim of a unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn is clearly the resurrection. If in fact he was raised from the dead to a new and unending life of glory, then it is indeed credible that he has an altogether unique status and role in salvation history. If, sadly, his life ended in failure and his body was left to molder in the grave, then he seems at best little different from many other prophetic figures who have suffered martyrdom for holding fast to the integrity of their beliefs. The quest for motivated Christian faith has to begin by focusing on the question of the resurrection. I believe that it would be a serious apologetic mistake if Christian theology thought that operating in the context of science should somehow discourage it from laying proper emphasis on the essential centrality of Christ’s resurrection, however counterintuitive that belief may seem in the light of mundane expectation.

As a preliminary one must first face the general issue of miracle. It was as clear in the first century as it is today, that it is wholly contrary to any reasonable natural expectation that a man should be resurrected within history. While there were parties in first-century Judaism which expected a general resurrection at the end of history [for example, the Pharisees], none expected the resurrection of a specific person to take place within history, even if there was some hope that a prophetic figure, such as Elijah, might have been stored up in heaven in order to be returned for a further spell of earthly life at some critical juncture in Jewish history. It is important here to recognize the distinction between resuscitation and resurrection. The former applies to someone like Lazarus, who is portrayed in John’s gospel as being called out of the tomb after an apparent death (John 11), but who was undoubtedly expected by all to die again in due course. Resuscitation is only a temporary reprieve from mortality. Resurrection, on the other hand, implies a transition from this mortal life to a new form of glorified life, lived without end in the presence of God. Resurrection is a permanent victory over mortality. The possibility of resurrection lies wholly outside the context of scientific explanation. If the resurrection of Jesus happened, it could only have been through a special exercise of divine power. In short, resurrection is, in the strict sense of the word, a miracle.

The real problem of belief in miracle is properly a theological issue, not a scientific one, since claims of unique historical occurrences lie outside science’s competence to adjudicate. All it can do is reinforce the commonsense recognition that something like a resurrection does not usually happen. The real challenge to belief in miracle lies elsewhere. It is theologically inconceivable that God should act capriciously as a kind of celestial conjurer, doing a turn today that God did not think of doing yesterday and won’t be bothered to do tomorrow. The theological problem of miracle is that of discerning divine consistency in the face of a claim of radically novel action. How that consistency is understood depends upon a proper understanding of what is involved in speaking of God in personal terms. I have already said that divine action is not to be assimilated to a kind of impersonal and unchanging process, similar to that which characterizes the law of gravity. If personal language is to mean anything when used about God, it must imply a divine freedom to respond in particular and different ways to particular and different situations, including even the rational possibility of unprecedented action in unprecedented circumstances.

Once again we encounter the unavoidable necessity of hermeneutic circularity. Of course, persons are not normally resurrected in history, but if there is something truly unique about Jesus (the Son of God), then his story could conceivably have included unique events. Equally, if he was resurrected, this was surely a sign that he indeed did have an altogether unique status. However, if he was just another prophet, then the story of his resurrection is likely to be no more than a touching legend. Both possibilities have to be considered. To believe in the resurrection rightly requires significant motivating evidence, a question to which we shall turn shortly, but its possibility should not be ruled out absolutely from the beginning, before even considering what evidence there might be for this counterintuitive belief. Moreover, it is important to note that the Christian understanding of Christ’s resurrection is that it occurred within history as the unique seed event from which a resurrected destiny for all people will come about beyond history (“for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ”; 1 Corinthians 15:22). In this sense, what Christian theology sees as unique about the resurrection is its timing, rather than its occurrence. Further consideration will be given to this point in the succeeding chapter.

​Giotto di Bondone, The Last Judgment (detail, ca. 1304-06),
fresco, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua

[The succeeding chapter, which will not be part of this series, deals with eschatology. Polkinghorne’s reference in the penultimate sentence to the unique timing of the resurrection can be fleshed out by quoting from the chapter on eschatology: “The eschatological destinies of human beings and of the whole universe lie together in the world of God’s new creation. <SNIP> In Christian thinking, the seed event from which this new creation has already begun to grow is the resurrection of Christ. His tomb was empty because the matter of his corpse had been transmuted into the ‘matter’ of the new creation, to become his risen and glorified body in which he appeared to the first witnesses.” In other words, the resurrected Jesus is “the first fruits of them that sleep,” in the glorious words of 1 Corinthians 15:20.]

Looking Ahead

In about two weeks, we will see how Polkinghorne brings his search for “motivated belief” to bear on the biblical narratives about the Resurrection.

References and Credits

Excerpts from John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (2009), copyright Yale University Press, are reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

Editorial Policy

Most of the editing for these excerpts involves breaking longer paragraphs into multiple parts, altering the spelling and punctuation from British to American, removing the odd sentence or two—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] at the appropriate point(s)—and sometimes inserting annotations where warranted [also enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information. Polkinghorne uses footnotes a bit sparingly, and I usually find another way to include that information if it’s important for our readers.


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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Chip - #79072

April 25th 2013

I believe that it would be a serious apologetic mistake if Christian theology thought that operating in the context of science should somehow discourage it from laying proper emphasis on the essential centrality of Christ’s resurrection, however counterintuitive that belief may seem in the light of mundane expectation.

Bravo.  But such would not be just an apologetic mistake.  Paul pretty clearly indicates (in I Corinthians 15) that faith is either useless or futile (take your pick), that he’s guilty of perjury, and that we’re all still in our sins & most to be pitied if the resurrection did not actually happen.  Without this central “knot,” the entire Christian tapestry unravels. 

Seenoevo - #79081

April 25th 2013

I’m having some difficulty in understanding the purpose of the modifier “Motivated” here.

Isn’t all belief “motivated”? To illustrate:

- If you believe X, then by definition you’ve found some motivation (Y) for that belief, found something (Y) which moved you. “Y” could be proofs, or evidence, or hunches, or feelings, or what you were taught to believe growing up, or something else. If X, then Y, regardless of how trustworthy Y is.

- And this could be considered to work both ways: 1) You found Y, and as a result came to believe X, or 2) You believe (or at least want to believe) X, and as a result found some Y in support of that X-belief.

Maybe a better title would be “Reasonable Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection”?


As the detective asked at the scene of the crime: “What was the motive?”

And if you’re pulled in for questioning, you better have a good “alibi”.

“Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (from 1 Peter 3).

Ted Davis - #79083

April 25th 2013


I’m calling this series “Motivated Belief” b/c I’m presenting excerpts from Polkinghorne’s chapter of that title. Thus, IMO, it would not be better to call it “Reasonable Belief,” since the ideas are P’s, not mine, and he’s entitled to choose his ownn title.

The underlying point, however, is valid: “motivated belief” for P means this: when speaking of theology in the context of science (which is the title of the book from which this chapter comes), P wants to show his “not-yet-believing friends” that he has “motivations for my religious beliefs, just as I have motivations for scientific beliefs.” If you want to say that he has reasonable beliefs, in that he can give some reasons for holding his beliefs, that’s basically what he’s saying. I’ve quoted from the first excerpt http://biologos.org/blog/motivated-belief-john-polkinghorne-on-the-resurrection-part-1,
which I’m assuming you’ve already read, but perhaps you haven’t.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79082

April 25th 2013

The New Testament very seldom out and out calls Jesus God (the confession of Thomas in John 20:28 is perhaps the clearest example), but its pages manifest a continual tension between the use of human and divine manners of speaking about him.

That is true although many overlook the story in the Synoptic Gospels where the Pharisees point out that Jesus forgave sins on His own authority, which only YHWH can do.  Jesus never backs down in the face of this charge of blasphemy.

That is very true, but it overlooks the key question of the NT, which is not is Jesus God, but is Jesus the Christ, the promised Messiah of God?  Here Jesus and the Bible are crystal clear and very consistent, Yes, Jesus is the Messiah!

The key moment in the Synoptic Gospels is Peter’s Confession that Jesus is the Messiah.  Only in Matthew does he add the Son of the Living God.  This connection that the Messiah is the Son of God is found in Psalm 2, familiar to all.

Then the question is, What are the marks or signs of the Messiah?  Jesus choose to be Isiah’s suffering Servant rather than David’s and Joshua’s conquering hero as the people expected.  The Son of a virgin was accepted as a Mark of the Messiah, rather than some sort of protection against Original Sin.

Resurrection is also a mark of the Messiah. 

So we have a number of things coming together, the expectation of the Messiah by the Jewish people, and the need for the Messiah because of the iron rule by pagan Rome,which led to several rebellions cuminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Jesus was greeted as the Messiah, the Son of David, on Palm Sunday, but did not fulfill the expectations of the people, who turned against Him encouraged by their leaders the Pharisees and Saducees.  If Jesus has led a rebellion to establish the kingdom of God in Jerusalem, it would have been very bloody and it would have excluded the Gentiles and rewarded corrupted Judaism.    

Instead Jesus established a new covenant between God and all of God’s people.  The Resurrection is important because it is God’s Seal of Approval of Jesus as the Messiah, as opposed to the opinion of others.  However one should also point to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit also for the growth of the Church.  

The Bible is the story of God working out the divine plan with God’s people.  It is the documentation of history of God revealing Godself to humanity, cumulating with Jesus the Messiah.  Science and philosophy are not about history.  History and Biblical theology are about people and how we relate to each other.  That is the problem with science and philosophy.  We must not allow science and philosophy to set the agenda for Biblical theology.            

Lou Jost - #79085

April 25th 2013

“The real problem of belief in miracle is properly a theological issue, not a scientific one, since claims of unique historical occurrences lie outside science’s competence to adjudicate.” I think most scientists would disagree with this statement. Cosmology, paleontology, and many other fields regularly deal with unique events that can never be repeated. Physical laws don’t take vacations; else they are not laws. Science does have the right to point out that the resurrection of a person who had really died and whose lifeless body laid around at room temperature for several days violates many well-supported generalizations about biology, biochemistry and physics. Of course science is fallible, and laws can be disproven. But scientists can state clearly that the resurrection violates known laws. Science, as we know it today, says the resurrection could not have happened as reported. So the kind of evidence brought to bear on the resurrection will have to be powerful enough to convince us that our fundamental understanding of biology, physics, and biochemistry is badly wrong. It will have to withstand the completely justified skeptical scrutiny of science; it is in the same category as a claim to have built a perpetual motion machine, or to have created cold fusion on a kitchen counter, or things of this nature. We will be justified to examine alternative explanations, even improbable-sounding ones. As I have said elsewhere, it is not proper for science to rule out miracles a priori, but it is also not reasonable to throw out well-tested laws on the basis of weak, second-hand evidence.

I know we’ll discuss the evidence for the resurrection in the next installment, so I won’t say more here. I just wanted to be clear that science has good reason to be skeptical about this. It is a problem for science.


Merv - #79089

April 25th 2013

...the kind of evidence brought to bear on the resurrection will have to be powerful enough to convince us that our fundamental understanding of biology, physics, and biochemistry is badly wrong.

Not ‘badly wrong’—just wrong or incomplete or over-ruled in few special cases.  If one allows that there may be an intelligent God present, then nothing precludes God choosing to do special things on rare occasions.  God’s special activity in these instances wouldn’t obviate the regular laws any more than my picking up a pencil would force us to think the law of gravity had been discredited.

Lou Jost - #79090

April 25th 2013

Merv, the example of a person picking up a pencil does not violate the law of gravity because the person is also a physical object, and the combination breaks no law. A resurrection requires violations of numerous laws as fundamental as the laws that would be violated by a perpetual motion machine. Sure, you can posit a god that has the power to violate such laws, but that is just a verbal trick with no explanation of how such fundamental laws can be violated. As I said, the law could indeed be wrong, but this would be an earthshaking claim.

Many of the laws of physics and thermodynamic border on mathematical truths; it is not easy to even imagine how they could be violated. Again, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be violated, but violations would overturn much of science. No scientist would be satisfied with the explanation that the laws of nature were just “overruled” in this special case.

Eddie - #79092

April 25th 2013

I agree with Merv.  When you pick up the pencil, your fingers, etc. are physical objects, but ultimately the action is traced back to a choice that you make.  That choice sets in motion the neurons, muscles, etc. that lead to picking up the pencil.  But where does the choice come from?  No matter how far you push explanation back, at some point you will come up with something that is not matter affecting something that is matter.  And if human beings can do that in their choices, then an omnipotent God could surely do it as well.

I anticipate your answer—the only possible answer for someone who is determined to maintain your desired conclusions—but will wait until you say it in your own words.  Then I will refute it with relative ease.

When you say “no scientist would be satisfied” you of course mean “no scientist who shares my reductionist view of reality would be satisfied”; many scientists have found it quite reasonable that God should on rare occasions, for good purposes, suspend the normal laws of nature.  I would guess that Polkinghorne’s achievements in physics make him a “scientist” and he affirms the physical resurrection.  As does Owen Gingerich, Harvard astronomer.  And many of the biologist-TEs whose support you are glad to have regarding Genesis will disappoint you when it comes to the Resurrection.  They will say that God performs some one-off miracles that have no scientific explanation and that none should be sought for them, and that the Resurrection is one of those.  And this does not “dissatisfy” them because they are not committed to your scientism.  One can be “satisfied” to live in a world in which science cannot explain everything.  A layman can, and so can a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist.  But an atheist cannot.  

Once again, just as you have in the past spoken for “we atheists” as if you can speak for all atheists, or for “evolutionary theory” even though evolutionary theorists have deep disagreements, now you speak for “scientists” as if all scientists look at the world as you do.  You have this presumptuous tendency to bring whole groups of people within the limitations of your own definitions and conceptions.  Why not just speak for Lou, rather than for some collective that you have not been authorized to represent?

Lou Jost - #79098

April 26th 2013

I suppose I do that for the same reason that you do it when speaking of orthodox Christian theology. You know what orthodox Christian theology is, and you feel qualified to characterize what the vast majority of orthodox Christians believe. It goes without saying that a tiny minority might have divergent views, as in any subject (there are still flat-earthers, for example) but that does not mean we can’t characterize the general views of a group we know well.

To return to your question, you surely do know my answer. There is no physical law broken when a person moves a pencil. If you think one is broken, show it and you will win a Nobel Prize.

“One can be “satisfied” to live in a world in which science cannot explain everything.  A layman can, and so can a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist.  But an atheist cannot. ” (Speaking for all atheists, are you? And you are a mind-reader on top of that!) I’ll remind you of the common god-of-the-gaps argument, in which many religious people appear to be very uncomfortable with the blank spots on our scientific map, so they enlist a god to fill in holes in our knowledge. They panic at the idea that we still don’t know how life originated. In contrast, scientists and atheists just keep going about our business of patiently trying to chip away at our ignorance, bit by bit, and we are comfortable knowing that it is a long road and we will probably never know everything.

Eddie - #79115

April 26th 2013

I did not say that any physical law was broken when a pencil was lifted.  I said that in all such actions, when you trace them back, you find an origin in human choice.  That choice is not in contradiction with physical laws, but it is something beyond physical laws.  I cannot choose to make a pencil float in the air by sheer will; I have to employ physical laws in order to raise it from the ground.  But the chain of causes terminates in my choice, and my choice is not something physical.  This is a fascinating problem which philosophers have long pondered, including Descartes, the inventor of the mathematics which lies at the foundation of modern science.  How is it that the world of mind and matter can interact?  

I do not claim to have explained something that Descartes failed to explain.  I simply observe that there is mental as well as physical causality in the world.  That being the case, we cannot rule out the possibility that God exerts an analogous form of causality, one which works itself out in detail through physical laws but which proceeds from his choices.

Lou Jost - #79127

April 26th 2013

Some day we could have an interesting discussion about dualism….a growing body of experimental evidence is showing that our “choices” are often illusions that had already been determined, in advance of our “choice”, by neuron firing patterns.

But anyway, your saying that god can suspend laws is just restating the problem at hand; I am saying that suspending universal laws of physics is not something to be accepted casually. The universality of some of those laws is built into the structure of the universe.

Eddie - #79140

April 26th 2013

Yes, but ex hypothesi it’s God’s universe, not some cosmic machine that runs independently of God that even God cannot alter.

The experimental evidence that you speak of is of course, as Ted and I have been trying to say to you (but to no avail), filtered through the mind of the scientists performing or interpreting the experiments, and if the scientist is inclined to materialism, he will of course strive for a “non-dualistic” interpretation of the evidence.

There is wide disagreement among scientists regarding the relationship of mind and brain.  Dr. Michael Egnor, a pediatric neurosurgeon with 2,000 operations to his credit, has thought for many years about this question, and he comes to conclusions which I suspect are somewhat different from yours.  So does neurologist Dr. Mario Beauregard, in The Spiritual Brain.  You are entitled to your own inferences, but when some people of great knowledge who are specialists in this field do not agree with them, one must say that the jury is still out.

Until it can be demonstrated that all apparent choices by human beings are merely epiphenomenal, my original defense of Merv’s statement about picking up the pencil still holds firm.  It appears that something apparently immaterial—a choice, a decision—can set matter in motion.  Until someone proves that all choices or decisions are nothing but rearrangements of matter in the brain of the agent, there is no reason to retreat from this conclusion.  


Lou Jost - #79155

April 26th 2013

I have agreed with you countless times that evidence is theory-laden. But that is not a blanket excuse for you to dismiss every bit of data you disagree with.

You surely see that you are even more influenced by your preconceptions than I am by mine, when you say things like “Until someone proves that all choices or decisions are nothing but rearrangements of matter in the brain of the agent, there is no reason to retreat from this conclusion.” This is like your insistence that you won’t believe whale evolution is unguided unless we tell you every detail of its history. Data can be conclusive even if it is incomplete, and even if it does not have the force of a logical proof. The data from the neurophysiolgy experiments I mentioned above are very interesting and unexpected, and shed doubt on dualism even though they do not disprove it.

Eddie - #79161

April 26th 2013


I have not dismissed any data, let alone “every bit of data I disagree with.”

I am quite sure that the experiments you mention show all kinds of interesting correspondences between mental states and brain states, neuronal activity, etc.  I would probably have no problem, in most cases, accepting the data.  But unless they make a new argument from such data—remember that analogous data has existed for decades—they won’t prove anything.

What has to be proved is not merely that mind requires the vehicle of certain brain states or neuronal activity to function.  What has to be proved is that mind is “nothing but” that brain activity, and that the “self” or “person” who seems to be doing the choosing, willing, etc., is “nothing but” a phantom, an epiphenomenon, a creature of brain activity that has somehow come to the illusory belief that it has some independent existence.

That is a very tall order, and not only is the purely scientific data in the narrow sense nowhere near adequate yet to fill the order, it is questionable—for anyone who has read the philosophical debate on the subject from Descartes through Locke etc. to Wittgenstein and others—whether natural science, given its own self-imposed limitations, can ever fill it.  It may be well be that this is one of those areas where the methods of science can say little or nothing. 

Yes, data can sometimes be conclusive.  However, if the data were “conclusive,” how could you explain how Drs. Egnor and Beauregard—among many others—don’t find it so?  And they have hands-on knowledge of the material side of neurons, brains, etc.  I would hope that you would respect the knowledge of people with such training, and at least take the time to read their writings and see how they respond to the experiments  to which you refer.

Lou Jost - #79176

April 27th 2013

I try to read anything you cite if I can get it, as you know. If you really think Egnor or someone else wrote valid criticisms of this work, please provide a citation and I’ll look. Also, I don’t claim that these experiments are mathematical proofs of anything, but they are striking and strongly suggest that conscious choices are illusiory. The decision was often made by the person’s brain ong before the person makes the conscious choice.

Lou Jost - #79292

April 30th 2013

Eddie, I am still interested in reading any article you consider to be a strong criticism of the delayed-choice work, if you would provide a citation.

Eddie - #79297

April 30th 2013

Lou, first of all, remember that I was not claiming to have disproved the articles you cited, but merely making a plea for a balanced investigation.  

I have read no recent articles on the subject.  I have seen it discussed over the years in books and on the internet.  I believe that the type of argument you are referring to is taken into account and criticized in Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain, but I have not read it.

Dr. Michael Egnor’s professional site mentions that his publications are “available on request” so if you are looking for discussions of brain and mind of a technical nature, I would suggest you get hold of him through that site:


He also blogs on his own personal site (the site has the self-deprecating title of “Egnorance”), on a wide variety of topics.  I do not endorse all the political and other views in the columns there.  However, it is likely that if you dig through the archives you will find popular columns on mind and brain.

He has given responses to some of the arguments you are alluding to on the Discovery web site.  For example:


I would suggest writing to him and asking him what, in his professional opinion, are the best technical articles published on the mind/brain relationship, and the best arguments published against the materialist account of mind and brain.  Obviously he will know the literature in a way that I don’t.

Lou Jost - #79300

April 30th 2013

Eddie, thanks for that, but I was once again asking about citations for your position that YOU particularly thought were strong, and once again you give me things you haven’t read, just like during our discussion on ID. There is a ton of worthless literature out there, and there may be some good stuff mixed in. I was hoping/assuming you knew the  good stuff, the valid arguments against my interpretations of those experiments, since you implied Egnor had good reasons to question that interpretation. I see that once again, just as in the ID argument, you are not arriving at your positions by actually investigating the literature, even the literature on your “side”.

I’ll check out the DI post you mentioned anyway, because I am curious.

Eddie - #79305

April 30th 2013

Egnor is a pediatric neurosurgeon with 2,000 operations to his credit.  He should therefore know something about the mind and the brain. It was reasonable for me to refer you to him, rather than to fake knowledge of the literature that I do not have.

I thought you would appreciate hearing from someone in the field, since, as someone whose training is in physics and population genetics (not in either psychology or neurology), your judgments of the quality of the materialist arguments you have read would not be reliable.  I though you would like to get a balanced appraisal by hearing the “con” as well as the “pro.”  

You now have contact info for Dr. Egnor, and you have the reference for the book by Dr. Mario Beauregard.  You can choose to withhold intellectual decision on the matter until you have made contact with these experts and got further literature references from them, or you can decide that one side is right without hearing the other side.  It’s up to you.

I have made no public statement about the relationship of mind and brain myself.  I am skeptical of the view that mind is “nothing but” brain activity, but advance no argument and claim to have proved nothing.  I know that if I did take that up as a topic, I would search the literature on both sides of the debate in a thorough way before offering a strong opinion.  I trust that you agree that this is the right intellectual procedure.

I do not have time to start researching the mind/brain question now; I already have too many intellectual projects on my plate.  So I will bow out of further discussion of the matter.

Lou Jost - #79301

April 30th 2013

Heck, that thing you sent me to at Evolution News and Views was  from 2008, before the recent delayed-choice experiments I was referring to, and does nothing to address them.

And what he does discuss is awful. I do not believe you would have endorsed it if you had read it. His claim that a thought has to have a one-to-one association with an exact arrangement of matter that would be the same across everyone’s brain is invalid, and no neuroscientist has made such a claim. Brain states have to be relational; whatever representation there is of, say, the White House will depend on each person’s history and the physical structure of his brain.

So in the end, you have no relevant citations that you have read addressing the implications of the delayed-choice experiments. It looks like your criticisms were based purely on your philosophical prejudices.

Eddie - #79307

April 30th 2013

I’m surprised to hear you say:  “No neuroscientist has made such a claim.”  Do you actually expect me to believe that you follow neuroscience—far from your field—in such detail (you’ve read every article in every neuroscience journal, and every book, and attended every neuroscience conference?) that you can state this as fact?  Would it not be more modest for you to have said:  “I am unaware of any neuroscientist who has made such a claim”?

As for the date, I never claimed that Egnor’s work responds to the specific articles you mentioned (and did you even provide citations?); I said that his work responds to the general type of argument that (I presumed) the articles you mentioned employ.  If these articles offer a genuinely new approach, then obviously you would have to read something more recent by Egnor as a response to them.

I undertook nothing more than to let you know of the existence of a very competent neurosurgeon who doubts the conclusion that you seem to lean strongly toward.  

In response to your last unnecessary comment, I could say exactly the same to you:  the fact that you did not even try to locate and read criticisms of the articles that you admire could indicate that your inclination to accept them (and use them in argument against me) was based purely on your philosophical prejudices.

Everyone is biased, Lou.  My point was that we should all attempt to counter our biases by confronting the strongest possible argument for the other side.  That is why I have repeatedly urged you to confront, not 98-pound scientific weaklings like myself on the internet, but the scientists whose views you disagree with, people who are well-enough trained that you will not be able to put anything past them.  You should be writing to Behe, Dembski, Egnor, etc. and confronting them directly.  A vicarious conquest is no accomplishment.

Lou Jost - #79310

April 30th 2013

I have read many of the scientific proponents of ID and dualism. I find most of their arguments very weak. That is why I keep asking you for articles on these subjects that you have read and that seemed strong to you. You apparently haven’t read any, yet you keep criticising me (mistakenly) for not reading them.

For what it’s worth, I had read a lot about the work of an old dualist, Sir John Eccles, and his dualistic theory of neurophysiology.  I even did my term paper in my graduate neurophysiology course (yes, I took lots of non-physics classes while there at UT) on Eccles’ idea that the brain could be influenced by quantum mechanical uncertainties. I showed that under idealized circumstances, the brain could indeed magnify quantum uncertainties to macroscopic levels. (I am not sure I would stand by those conclusions now.) So don’t be so condescending quick to accuse me of one-sidedness.

By the way, the neurophysiology professor, George Bittner, got so bent out of shape by the subject of my paper that he failed me, in spite of the fact that I had one of the highest grades in the class on tests and assignments. Shades of “Expelled!”

Some day I’ll tell how I got into trouble with my physics department too…you’d be impressed.

Lou Jost - #79109

April 26th 2013

Read the survey that Ted linked to below. A majority of scientists, and practically all the most accomplished scientists, do generally look at the world as an atheist or agnostic does. Only 7% of top scientists are believers in personal gods. There are additional broader surveys supporting my claims.

Ted Davis - #79118

April 26th 2013


I don’t doubt that a very large percentage of “the most accomplished scientists” have a higher degree of religious scepticism. That seems well established, and it’s been true since at least early in the last century. However, the fact that Larson & Witham (and perhaps some other polls; I haven’t taken time to check others) used members of the NAS (http://www.nasonline.org/) as the sample set is significant and may well have some effect on the results of a poll about religious beliefs, as vs something less controversial (among scientists) such as climate change or evolution. Several NAS members have made strong public pronouncements against religious faith in general, and it’s not wildly speculative to think that they merely represent a larger group within the NAS.

OK, so what? The significance is seen when we realize that the NAS is a self-perpetuating body that elects its own members. Thus, it’s not wildly speculative to wonder whether some prominent, publicly religious scientists (i.e., people who do not take steps to hide their religious beliefs from their colleagues, as some scientists have told me they do) do not get elected to the NAS precisely b/c their religious views are not acceptable to many of those who do the voting. Selection effects of this sort are hardly unknown, and I do mean to imply the possibility in this instance. Some NAS members have in fact wondered about this themselves, but I am not going to break confidences in order to be more specific; I’d rather have you (Lou, or anyone else) disregard what I just said as unsubstantiated rumor, though obviously I don’t consider it such. Certainly being elected to the NAS is partly a political matter; e.g., Carl Sagan was not elected, and his religious views (or lack thereof) almost certainly had nothing to do with it (http://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/popular-and-pilloried/). In a different but relevant matter, there was something of a witch hunt on the part of certain members of the Royal Society to fire a Christian employee who made (what many regard as) highly reasonable suggestions about how science teachers ought to respond to creationists in their classrooms, simply b/c he suggested that they pay attention to the issues raised by those students while not accepting their views (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ni/2008/09/michael_reiss_and_the_royal_so.html). I also think that a very good case (though not an airtight one) can be made that Raymond Damidian (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Vahan_Damadian), a creationist with a strong claim to have invented the MRI, was denied a share of the Nobel Prize precisely b/c of his creationist views. In short, it’s no secret that “elite” scientists can be guilty of anti-religious bias. (I’m not suggesting that other folks are free of all bias, either, but the relevant bias in this instance is the one I’m identifying.)

Although I think the NAS survey results are in the ballpark, I suspect that a somewhat larger percentage of top scientists (some of whom have not been voted into the NAS) may be theists, or even Christians.

And, I also wonder this: among those scientists who are just slightly below the level of NAS people, how many choose to spend some of their time doing religious and/or chariable things, rather than to spend that much more time in their laboratories, simply b/c they are religious and therefore those other things are too important to be neglected? There could plausibly be some effect here, too. I’m thinking of a few unnamed examples as I write this, but of course I can’t substantiate this with data.

Lou Jost - #79138

April 26th 2013

There could surely be such effects, but I think you would agree that we can still safely say the majority of scientists are not believers.

Ted Davis - #79103

April 26th 2013


I agree with you that “most scientists would disagree” with P’s claim that the problem of believing a miracle is theological rather than scientific. I don’t want to put a number on “most,” but I think it’s probably more than 50%. How much larger than that will probably depend on which scientists we’re asking. For example, we have recent data suggesting that about 40% of American scientists believe in a personal God and personal immortality. [See Larson, Edward J., and Larry Witham 1997. “Scientists are still keeping the faith,” Nature 386: 435-36, which I cannot find online, although their subsequent article about much lower numbers among “leading” scientists is available at http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html).] Presumably (and “presumably” is the word I am using), many in that group of 40% would be prepared agree with Polkinghorne, at least they might agree with him that accepting a miracle is not necessarily contradicted by science. I personally know (living) Nobel laureates who’ve said as much in public or private conversations, and they are presumably pretty darn good scientists. Thus, I think we have reason to show scepticism toward this statment of yours:

“Science, as we know it today, says the resurrection could not have happened as reported. So the kind of evidence brought to bear on the resurrection will have to be powerful enough to convince us that our fundamental understanding of biology, physics, and biochemistry is badly wrong.”

That is what I question, Lou. “Science, as we know it today,” is defined by scientists, and quite a few of them (at least), including some world class people (I put P in that category, even though he isn’t a Nobel laureate) clearly don’t agree with your assessment of the situation. I don’t either, but I’m (obviously) not a scientist even though I once intended to become a scientist and thus I probably know more actual science than most non-scientists.

This state of affairs is one of multiple reasons why I believe that you’ve overstepped the boundaries of science per se in making such a claim. Underlying your claim are philosophical conceptions of scientific knowledge and its limits & scope, and that (I suspect) is where you and I (and you and P and you and those other folks I’ve mentioned anonymously) really differ.

Ted Davis - #79104

April 26th 2013

To elaborate, if only briefly: “our fundamental understanding of biology, physics, and biochemistry” (to quote you, Lou) need not be “badly wrong,” if the resurrrection is true. Indeed, P would deny that our understanding of those things is badly wrong, and I would also deny it. What P (and many others) would disagree with, is your conclusion that the understanding of the world we have through those disciplines is all-embracing, or at least so close to it that we can flatly deny the resurrection on such a basis.

This is clear from P’s sentence, “The possibility of resurrection lies wholly outside the context of scientific explanation.” That is a theological claim, to be sure, but it’s also a philosophical claim involving science. Such claims are properly adjudicated in the philosophical realm, and there we would find (as you probably know) that there simply is no grand consensus among competent philosophers about such things. You could find a large group of really good philosophers on your side of this, and I could find a larger (but probably smaller) group of good philosophers on my side of this. (Obviously we couldn’t use the criterion of denying or accepting the resurrection (or some other purported miracle), by itself, to help us define who the “good philosophers” are, for this purpose.)

Now, your point about needing strong evidence is not negated by what I’ve just said. I anticipate that we will disagree about the strength of the available evidence, when all is said and done. But, this point of mine is going to be relevant to assessing that. If we disagree about what I’ve said so far, we’re all the more likely to disagree again when we discuss the next column, which presents P’s discussion of the evidence itself.

Ted Davis - #79105

April 26th 2013

CORRECTION: When I typed “could find a larger (but probably smaller) group”, I meant to type “could find a large (but probably smaller) group” of philosophers. The additional letter alters the sense substantially. Please read it as I have it here.

Lou Jost - #79107

April 26th 2013

Hi Ted, my answer below crossed your elaboration above in the ether. I’ll respond to the elaboration here. You said “What P (and many others) would disagree with, is your conclusion that the understanding of the world we have through those disciplines is all-embracing, or at least so close to it that we can flatly deny the resurrection on such a basis.” I think you misinterpreted my position. I used words like “violate our current understanding”, and “science as we know it today”. Those were important words. I did not say we should flatly deny the resurrection because of its conflict with what we know.  Recall our previous discussion about methological naturalism. I am saying instead that accepting the resurrection amounts to rejecting some very well-established laws, and so acceptance is not to be taken lightly.

As I said, I don’t agree with P’s claim that “The possibility of resurrection lies wholly outside the context of scientific explanation.” Let me rephrase it: “The possibility of some violation of well-established universal laws lies wholly outside the context of scientific explanation.” That seems transparently wrong. If our alleged universal laws are not universal (as resurrection would show), that is an important scientific matter and it needs explanation. If there was a small town in Bangladesh where conservation of energy or the laws of thermodynamics were repeatedly violated over a several-year period, this would be a scientific puzzle of the highest magnitude.

Eddie - #79114

April 26th 2013

Lou wrote:

“I am saying instead that accepting the resurrection amounts to rejecting some very well-established laws, and so acceptance is not to be taken lightly.”

It doesn’t involve “rejecting” any well-established laws.  It involves only a temporary suspension of them.  

If I grab the hands of a clock to stop them from moving forward for a few seconds, I have not “rejected” any of the laws of mechanics which make the clock work.  I have merely suspended their operation for the moment, for my purposes.  There is therefore no need for a scientist who accepts the Resurrection to do science any differently from the way he does it now.  He does not expect that anyone other than Jesus will rise from the dead—at last, not until the end of the world.  

The scientific enterprise is not threatened by occasional momentary suspensions of normalcy.  If these occasions were too frequent, it would become impossible to tell the difference between normal and exceptional, and then science would become impossible.  But there is no indication from the Bible that these occasions are so frequent as to confuse anyone about what normally happens.  Indeed, miracles are recognized precisely because they violate normal expectations.  There is no conflict between believing in occasional miracles and believing that nature is generally law-abiding in its behavior.

That’s a purely philosophical defense of the point.  But there’s an empirical defense of the point as well.  Things like the laser and MRI were conceived by people who believed in miracles, so it’s pretty clear that belief in miracles is not a science-stopper.

Lou Jost - #79119

April 26th 2013

Eddie, many natural laws, especially those in physics, aren’t just vague empirical regularities. As I said before, some of them are more like mathematical truths, in that they follow mathematically from some very basic propositions about the symmetry of the universe, or other deep properties. Further, many of these laws are deeply interconnected. Suspending one of these deep laws is not like holding back the hands of a clock. For example, suspending relativistic invariance for a millisecond would wreck causality across much of the universe.

Your empirical argument is irrelevant. Belief in miracles can be a science-stopper (for example, for most of history creationists did not investigate speciation processes) or not, depending on the given problem.

Eddie - #79136

April 26th 2013


I’m astounded that you fail to perceive that an omnipotent Creator-God, ex hypothesi, could suspend anything he wanted to, for any length of time, without “wrecking” anything.  He can, ex hypothesi, sustain any state of affairs whatsoever by his sheer will.  In any case, you have given not a shred of evidence that the Resurrection would violate any of these “deep” laws that you are talking about.

My empirical argument is not irrelevant.  Your claim was, in effect, that science could not function without ruling out miracles.  I gave you examples of scientists who have functioned quite well without ruling out miracles.  It only takes one example to falsify a general claim.  Townes and Damadian falsify yours.  And of course, James Clerk Maxwell, who did more than most physicists who have ever lived to discover the deeply interconnected laws you are talking about, was a firm believer in the basic historicity of the Bible.  You are projecting what you need to do scientific work into the minds of other scientists.


Lou Jost - #79141

April 26th 2013

“Your claim was, in effect, that science could not function without ruling out miracles.”

You just made that up. I’ve told you countless times in these threads that this is not my claim. I said that if miracles happen, they show our current universal laws are falsified. You keep ignoring what I wrote.

If a person died and his cells decay for a couple of days, thermodynamics says the decay will not be reversible. Leave some meat out in a warm climate and tell me what happens after a few days.

Now we could go on and on about whether Jesus really started decaying. The more you push for non-decay, the less miraculous the resurrection becomes. Maybe Jesus actually just sat up as soon as the tomb was closed and started counting down to Resurrection Day. But in that case, maybe he wasn’t really dead to start with. If he was really dead for a long enough time to make the Resurrection a miracle, then he was dead for a long enough time to start decaying. Heck, as Chip says, that is why it is called a miracle.

Don’t get me started on the laws Jesus will break during his ascension into heaven….at least Mohammed used an aerodynamically more plausible winged horse to do his flying.

Your hypothesis of an omnipotent god is nearly equivalent to the hypothesis that there can be no universal laws.

Eddie - #79148

April 26th 2013


We’re getting hung up on the word “falsified.”  We appear to be using different definitions.  You wrote:

“I said that if miracles happen, they show our current universal laws are falsified.”

I would not say that.  I would say that the laws remain valid in all cases where God chooses not to suspend the normal operations of nature.  That does not make the generalizations of science false.  It merely means that they cannot deal with certain unique events.

If you choose to call this “falsifying” then I guess I could adjust to that usage, but it doesn’t strike me as a natural way of expressing the situation.  The laws are not false; they apply universally, unless God says otherwise.  And even where they don’t apply, it is not because scientists have made any error in stating the law.  It means only that the law has been momentarily suspended.  The procedures of science are in no way threatened.

I hope this clarifies my terminology.

Lou Jost - #79150

April 26th 2013

If the law can be suspended, the law is then shown not to be universal. That is why I said elsewhere on this thread that the claim that there is an omnipotent god is more or less equivalent to the claim that there can be no universal laws.

Eddie - #79152

April 26th 2013

We’re quarrelling over mere terminology.

If “there are universal laws” means “every event that ever happens is governed wholly by laws that obtain throughout time and space” then the Resurrection and other miracles would invalidate that claim.

If “there are universal laws” means “every event that ever happens is governed wholly by laws that obtain throughout time and space, except in the rare cases when the designer and creator of the universe (and of the laws) intervenes,” then the Resurrection and other miracles would not invalidate the claim.

I’m clearly thinking of the second meaning, and you of the first.  So now that we understand each other, can we agree not to quarrel over the phrase?

The substance of the issue is that one can be a very good scientist, even a Nobel Prize winner, and believe that, while laws apply to the vast majority of events that have ever occurred or ever will occur, sometimes these laws have been temporarily inoperative, e.g., in the Resurrection.  People of the highest level of intelligence, scientific achievement, etc. have believed this.  And they are not automatically poorer scientists for believing it.  If you can agree with this paragraph, then we need not argue further on this point.

beaglelady - #79186

April 27th 2013

The Ascension is NOT about Jesus literally rising up in the air like a helium balloon, traveling at x miles per hour,  with a destination somewhere in the physical universe.   Before I’m accused of all manner of wicked things, let me state that I believe in the Ascension.

Ted Davis - #79120

April 26th 2013

Thank you for the replies, Lou, including this clarification of your view in response to my elaboration. I’m satisfied with the clarity of my statements, and yours seem clear also. We differ on this, for reasons I believe we have stated clearly.

Lou Jost - #79122

April 26th 2013

Thank you too for the discussion.

Lou Jost - #79106

April 26th 2013

Hi Ted. I wonder if many of the scientists you talked to would actually claim that the resurrection was consistent with science. I have a hard time imagining that many scientists would say that. I know a lot of scientists, and I can’t think of even one who would say that. What proportion of scientists that you have met would say that resurrection of this kind would be allowed under our current understanding of science? Isn’t the very definition of a miracle “something that cannot occur under natural circumstances”?

And as you know from the article you cited, the vast majority of the most accomplished scientists are atheists, so they would certainly be expected to agree with my statement (which is not to say that all good scientists are atheists—I know that some are not). So if science is defined by the more accomplished scientists, then I think you would agree that my statement is right. If science is defined by just a simple majority of scientists, then my statement is still right, according to your numbers.(And I suspect many of the believer-scientists would still say the resurrection is a miracle not allowed according to our understanding of the natural world.)

Frankly, though, I don’t think science is decided by polls but by arguments. I haven’t seen any attempted argument that a resurrection of this kind is consistent with science. Do you know of any? Saying that it was a miracle is basically just another way of saying what I said—-it is something not allowed under our current understanding of science.

Ted Davis - #79129

April 26th 2013

Let me bring in just one specific scientist, Lou, who fits into the category we’re talking about. I could bring in more, but I’d rather not have the comments go into umpteen different directions based on the specific statements of several examples I could offer.

I picked this one b/c (a) the person in question is a Nobel laureate; and (b) he has a clear and simple statement of his position that is hard to misunderstand; and (c) his statement is more than a couple of sentences and therefore has some substance to it.

Here’s the statement:

I fall into the fairly literal camp when it comes to the Resurrection. People say, “Well, how could you, as a scientist, believe something like that?” And the answer that I give is very simple, “All you have to do is to believe that God is
God. And then, there’s no problem in believing in the Resurrection.”

Science is about things that are repeatable. I don’t publish things that I see once. Science is about repeatable things. Science doesn’t tell us about things like miracles. I hesitate even to use that term because, again, what does it mean? The word that is sometimes translated as miracle in the Old Testament means more something like “signs and wonders”—not necessarily something that is contrary to the laws of nature. The people who wrote the scriptures didn’t really have a concept of the laws of nature. That was something that came much later. They had a concept of the way things usually work.

People were used to seeing unusual things that weren’t completely unheard of, but it was clear which things were unusual and which things were usual. So the whole concept of miracles as it appears in the Bible is not the same thing as people often think today—that it’s something contrary to the laws of nature. But at the same time, science doesn’t rule out things that are contrary to the laws of nature. It can’t—because what it studies are things that happen consistently. That’s the way we’ve made progress in science: by understanding the consistency of things. The fact that there is consistency is one of the best kinds of evidence that we’re on the right track with scientific study. But who could say if there was one outlier? In the lab, if we have a whole bunch of data and then one thing that isn’t consistent, we say: “We’re going to throw that one away, because it is just so far outside of everything else we’re observing.” You know, we figured something went wrong. Nobody’s going to base a new understanding, a new theory, on a single event. But on the other hand, I’m perfectly willing to base my faith on a single event when I read the accounts of the Resurrection. For me, these accounts have the ring of truth.”


This was an oral interview, not a written document, and therefore it needs to be read with that level of informality in mind. So, it should be read a bit loosely, without an expectation of sharpness of thought at every point. Nevertheless, the overall point is clear enough.

The interviewer was Michael Dowd (http://michaeldowd.org/), who is not a theist, and the person being interviewed was physicist William Phillips (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Daniel_Phillips). The transcription was prepared by Dowd and sent to all those who participated in his project, including me. (Those who want to hear my interview can find a link embedded in this column: http://biologos.org/blog/introducing-ted-davis).

Lou Jost - #79135

April 26th 2013

Thanks for that. Yes, it is a clear statement, but a remarkably odd one, especially coming from a physicist.

I do agree with his historical point, and I made the same argument here on another thread: without a concept of universal natural laws, ancient people were far less skeptical about miracles than people today. They simply did not distinguish between something very unusual but permitted by the laws of nature, and something that really was impossible according to the laws of nature.

Nowadays, the physical sciences are built on the concept of universal laws, and as I said, many of these are deeply entangled with each other and with the broad structure of the universe. Nowadays, we can distinguish between unusual things and impossible things, conditional on our laws being correct. That distinction is important.

A single well-established example disproves a universal law. One star somewhere in the universe whose light travelled through a vacuum faster than c for a moment would overturn most of physics.

Science does rule out violations of universal law, conditional of course on the law being correct. So I return to my earlier statement: The resurrection violates known laws, so some of our current fundamental laws in physics and biology are not true if it happened.

Eddie - #79137

April 26th 2013


You overlook the possibility that what we call the laws are in fact only a partial set of the real laws, a partial set which applies 99.99% of the time.  If something unusual happens, it does not follow that it violates any natural law; it may violate only the partial and incomplete understanding of law that we have at the moment, while being in accord with a broader, deeper set of laws.

I am sure that 150 years ago, every living physicist would have said that some of the claims made by respectable physicists today (e.g., about “quantum entanglement” of particles on the other side of the universe) are “impossible” according to the “laws of nature.”  For that matter, Galileo discounted the view that the moon caused the tides because he believed that action at a distance was “impossible” according to the “laws of nature”—which tell us that motion is communicated only by touch.  Newton’s physics was based on the premise that what Galileo thought was “against the laws of nature” was in fact part of the laws of nature.  It is quite possible that many miracles do not violate a deeper and fuller set of laws which we do not yet know.

I believe that award-winning physicist Frank Tipler has explored some of these ideas, though I have not read his work and cannot vouch for any of his conclusions or arguments.

You still have not specified what fundamental laws of physics and biology would be violated by the Resurrection.

Lou Jost - #79147

April 26th 2013

You wrote “If something unusual happens, it does not follow that it violates any natural law; it may violate only the partial and incomplete understanding of law that we have at the moment”

I’d really appreciate it if you would read my comments more carefully. I said

“Of course science is fallible, and laws can be disproven. But scientists can state clearly that the resurrection violates known laws.” See that?  KNOWN LAWS.

“Science, as we know it today, says the resurrection could not have happened as reported. So the kind of evidence brought to bear on the resurrection will have to be powerful enough to convince us that our fundamental understanding of biology, physics, and biochemistry is badly wrong.” See that? SCIENCE AS WE KNOW IT TODAY. My point is not to rule out the resurrection but to show that accepting it means throwing out some known laws. I did not say that we cannot throw out laws, I said that the evidence better be commensurate with the task. 

Finally I said “If our alleged universal laws are not universal (as resurrection would show), that is an important scientific matter and it needs explanation.” I did not say we have to stick with our current laws. That would be foolish.

Would you please stop misrepresenting my arguments.? Thank you in advance.

Eddie - #79149

April 26th 2013


Accepting the Resurrection doesn’t mean throwing out even the known laws.  See my discussion of falsification elsewhere on this page.  It simply means that every law has an implicit caveat, e.g.,

“PV = nRT (unless God intervenes)”

“Entropy always increases in a closed system (unless God intervenes)”

“Dead bodies always decay beyond the point of restoration (unless God intervenes)”

I must say, however, that I find it surprising that you, with recent training in physics, place so much emphasis on “laws.”  I’ve often been chastised by scientists (or people who claim to represent science) for speaking of “laws.”  I’m told this is a 19th-century conception which is now outmoded.  I’m told that what we call “laws” are merely statistical regularities, with no necessity about them.

For example, I’m told that it is not impossible that a statue of Washington could walk across the public square.  I’m told that it is merely statistically unlikely.  No law would be violated, I’m told, if the molecules in the statue just happened, by statistical freak, to all shift slightly in one direction, causing the statue to change its physical position.

I’m also told that there is no law governing a number of quantum effects—at least, if the Copenhagen interpretation is correct—and therefore that there are events in nature which are not law-bound, but random in the strongest sense.  

What would you say to physicists like that, if they came on this blog and disputed your conception that the universe is run by “laws”?

Lou Jost - #79151

April 26th 2013

They are quite right about many of the predictions of quantum mechanics. The deterministic laws of QM are at a higher level. The wave function is deterministic and follows an exact equation. For example, in the two-slit experiment, the locations of the nodes of the interference pattern are determinate.

Ted Davis - #79289

April 30th 2013

I reply to this statement from Lou:

“Science does rule out violations of universal law, conditional of course on the law being correct. So I return to my earlier statement: The resurrection violates known laws, so some of our current fundamental laws in physics and biology are not true if it happened.”

This depends on one’s conception of “natural laws,” Lou, and there is no single conception of them that has always operated in the minds of scientists. Indeed, the very term “natural laws” implies the existence of a transcendent law-giver, and until modern times that’s exactly how most scientists understood the meaning of the term. This is indeed one of the reasons (as far as I can tell) why atheist philosopher Nancy Cartwright has called for us to jettison the concept of “natural law” and to speak instead about “what a property empowers an object to do.” (http://www.thur.de/philo/project/cartwright.htm)

Ironically, Cartwright’s notion here is not entirely different from that of Robert Boyle, who said in his great treatise on God, nature, and the mechanical philosophy, “to speak properly, a Law being but a Notional Rule of Acting according to the declar’d Will of a Superior, ‘tis plain, that nothing but an Intellectual Being can be properly capable of receiving and acting by a Law. For if it does not understand, it cannot know what the Will of the Legislator is; nor can it have any Intention to accomplish it, nor can it act with regard to it; or know, when it does, in Acting, either conform to it or deviate from it. And ‘tis intelligible to me, that God should at the Beginning impress determinate Motions upon the Parts of Matter, and guide them, as he thought requisite, for the Primordial Constitution of Things: and that ever since he should, by his ordinary and general Concourse, maintain those Powers, which he gave the Parts of Matter, to transmit their Motion thus and thus to one another. But I cannot conceive, how a Body, devoid of understanding and sense, truly so call’d, can moderate and determine its own Motions; especially so, as to make them conformable to Laws, that it has no knowledg or apprehension of. And that Inanimate Bodies, how strictly soever call’d Natural, do properly act by Laws, cannot be evinc’d by their sometimes acting Regularly, and, as Men think, in order to determinate Ends: Since in Artifical things we see many Motions very orderly perform’d, and with a manifest Tendency to particular and pre-design’d Ends; as in a Watch, the Motions of the Spring, Wheels and other parts, are so contemperated and regulated, that the Hand upon the Dyal moves with a great Uniformity, and seems to moderate its Motion, so as not to arrive at the Points.”

So, for Boyle and many other natural philosophers including some today, “laws” of nature” are our conceptions of divinely ordained regularties, not absolute rules that literally rule out such things as miracles. That is, our conceptions of those “laws” can be fully accurate, even if certain rare events “violate” our conceptions of those “laws.”

Lou Jost - #79295

April 30th 2013

Ted, though it is neat to see Boyle struggling with the implications of the laws of physics, I think very few scientists today would personify universal laws in that manner. As I have been struggling to explain, the universal laws of phyics almost border on mathematical truths; they are consequences of very basic properties of the universe, and could not even conceivably be relaxed for a moment without disrupting the whole structure of the universe. Somewhere here I mentioned the universal law governing the speed of light. If that speed were changed in some small part of the universe for a few minutes, then there would be frames of reference in which causal relationships would be backward, people would get younger, etc. If the change in the speed of light were universal, there are all sorts of phyical constants that are tied up with it, so atoms and chemical bonds and magnetic fields would all change and the whole universe would be affected in amazingly dramatic ways. Most of the laws are deeply interconnected with other laws. The only way to change one of them without disrupting the whole universe might be to change all the laws simultaneously, respecting the interconnections, but this would probably result in a rescaled world which would be no different from the world before the change.

I would be very surprised to find many physicists who think a universal physical law of this kind (tied to the deep structure of the universe) can be suspended for an extended period (some laws refer only to means of certain quantities, and can be violated for very short periods of time under the Uncertainty Principle). Has P really thought this through and explained it somewhere in his book?

Ted Davis - #79302

April 30th 2013

No, Lou, P hasn’t explored this particular question in either of the books I’ll be excerpting, and I’m not sure whether he’s explored it anywhere else (he has written numerous books, several of which I have not read). Some others probably have, but I’d have to think on it a bit before replying.

I agree with your view that changing (say) the speed of light in all parts of the universe for even a fairly short period would have enormous implications. That’s not the kind of thinking I normally associate with reflecting on miracles. Indeed, most of the Christian scientists whose views I know do not take literally the story in Joshua of the sun standing still for about a day, no doubt (partly) for reasons similar to those you have carefully stated here.

I don’t put the Resurrection in this category, but let’s put that on hold for the time being.

To take another case: if (say) God healed someone from a fatal illness in a scientifically inexplicable way (as you know, there are many such reports, and I am skeptical that every single one of them must be either exaggerated or involve mis-diagnosis), this need not involve changes in the way that (e.g.) the second law of thermodynamics works somewhere else in the universe at the same moment. To follow the kind of thinking that Boyle and many others have employed, God is free to move the particles of the universe as God sees fit, and thus doing something extraordinary here does not require God to do something extraordinary everywhere else.

I realize of course that you are likely to see this differently, but (after all) that’s what this particular conversation is all about. We aren’t likely to persuade one another on this particular issue, but at least we can articulate different understandings as best we can.

Lou Jost - #79325

April 30th 2013

“...doing something extraordinary here does not require God to do something extraordinary everywhere else” Ted, it is actually worse to change laws locally. For my example of light speed, local change of c is enough to reverse cause and effect for some observers.

I agree that medical “miracles” are not in the same category as resurrections, or ascensions, or turning water into wine or multiplying fishes and loaves. Interestingly, we never see medical miracles that involve a new limb, or things of that nature. It is always something much more subtle. We should ask ourselves why that is, since for an omnipotent god it is no harder to make a new limb than it is to cure a cold a day early. To me this is strong evidence that faith-healing is either imaginary, fraudulent (often the case, when investigated), or due to placebo effects.

Ted Davis - #79350

May 1st 2013


Your ideas about what a “miracle” would entail locally are interesting, definitely worth thinking about.

However, the notion of natural “law” I was presenting is essentially a “voluntarist” notion, theologically speaking. From an exchange we had off-list awhile back, I think you know what I am referring to, but others might not so I’ll say a little more.

Basically, a “voluntarist” notion is that the “laws of nature” amount to our own creations—our own best ideas of how nature normally operates. They are not reified into absolute “rules” that (say) even God cannot violate. (One of the problems with Hume’s view is that he basically does this, if I can over-simplify for my purpose here.) God does what God does, and we do our best to figure out what’s going on.

To a significant degree, this attitude toward divine activity and human knowledge substantially underlies the modern scientific attitude of “rational empiricism” (to borrow Hooykaas’ term for it). I can’t go into that further right now, but the historical case for this is strongly supported. So, whatever modern scientists might think about the theology involved in the historical situation (many of them are probably entirely ignorant of it, while others might be aware of it but pay it no attention), one cannot claim that genuine “miracles” (if there are any) undermine the notion of even “universal laws of nature.”  They don’t. What would undermine such a notion is constant, ongoing “interpositions of divine power, exerted in each particular case,” to borrow the words of William Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/whewell/), words that Darwin also borrowed and placed opposite the title page of On the Origin of Species. Such a situation would indeed be a “science stopper,” since we could not reasonably assume the reliability of our conceptions of how nature normally operates. But, something like a “miraculous healing” or the Resurrection doesn’t undermine our understanding of how nature normally operates. 

If (say) God were directly to cause something “miraculous,” God is not bound also to connect that event in a causal, lawlike manner with the rest of the created order. That’s partly what the voluntarist notion of natural laws was all about: our conceptions of how nature normally operates are not necessary truths, that apply always in every case. Rather they are “collected, or emergent truths,” a concept used by Boyle (I might not be quoting him directly, although I think I am) to describe our conclusions about nature.

Lou Jost - #79401

May 2nd 2013

Ted, I think the modern view of physical laws is somewhere between the voluntarist and the platonic views. The deeper laws are quite different from the laws of, say, economics or psychology, or some of the laws of biology, which are more or less generalizations of observations. These latter kinds of laws easily admit exceptions; as generalizations based on observation, one or two rare violations would not even weaken or invalidate the generalization (Eddie mentioned this point somewhere).

Deep physical laws are not like that. These are structural laws, often deeply interconnected, and sometimes discovered even before there is data to compare them with. The law that the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant for all observers is a law like this. It has enormous existential consequences. If the constancy of c were not exact, logical contradictions would arise (effects happening before causes, etc). By taking this constancy as an exact law, Einstein was able to derive an enormous number of counterintuitive consequences, which were all eventually confirmed.

For most theoretical physicists, the purpose of science is not so much to make things work, or to predict things with high accuracy (Merv stated this view), but rather to imagine deep, simple, exact principles like that, which are not really generalizations of empirical observations but rather top-down thinking that borders on philosophy. When such principles are found, we can use mathematics to deduce their consequences. Nothing is more breathtaking than to take some of these simple principles (like those underlying general relativity) and derive mathematical deductions from them which successfully predict, with extraordinary accuracy, the behavior of stars zillions of miles away and millions of years in the past.

These kinds of structural laws cannot be broken lightly. Once the cat is out of the bag and the universe is born, if our current understanding is correct, changes in some of these laws will lead to actual logical contradictions. If we did observe a violation of one of these kinds of laws, even just once, the principle must be false, and loses its deductive force. That is why a miracle of this kind, which disproved such deep structural principles, would be a huge deal for science. Once again let me be clear that I am not saying such a miracle would be impossible, just that it is logically equivalent to falsifying these structural principles on which most of modern physics is built. Thus such a miracle should be scrutinized with just as much skepticism as we would give to somebody who claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine or a crystal ball that could see the future, or a time machine to go backwards in time. We should demand high-quality evidence, as we would for the claim to have a perpetual-motion machine. If such a miracle really happened, physicists would have to rethink the whole structure of the universe. That would be great; if the miracle could help us pinpoint flaws in our basic postulates, scientists would be very happy. But there is going to have to be really good evidence for such a miracle, far better than we currently have, because it would sink the incredibly well confirmed theory of relativity.

I should add that perhaps the resurrection itself would only violate the laws of thermodynamics. The ascenscion or walking on water or multiplying loaves and fishes are  miracles that would run afoul of general relativity.

Ted Davis - #79471

May 3rd 2013

Now we are getting at basic differences quite well, Lou; at least I would say as much (for my part).

I don’t hold the “top-down” view of natural laws that you describe. I think your view is, despite your differentiation from Platonic views, not very far from them. I sense somehwere behind your eloquent expression here the view that the laws of nature are (almost) necessary truths, not contingent conclusions about how nature works. I’m reminded of the view of Euler (if memory serves well) and others from the 18th century, namely that Newtonian physics was necessarily true and couldn’t be otherwise. That’s not too dissimilar to the modern holy grail of a mathematical “Theory of Everything,” that simply must be the way that it is, according to rational necessity. I am indeed struck by the extent to which Max Tegmark sometimes sounds just like the neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plotinus/. Anyone who really thinks that modern science has divorced itself successfully from metaphysics (a dirty word to many scientists) had better think again. (I’m not implying that you are in this category, Lou, but Hawking and Dawkins and several others are.)

I’ll bypass (at least for the time being) the questions being begged in that approach, questions about rational necessity and whether math & logic must be instantiated in any given universe (or multiverse). Even if we bypass those questions, however, I have deep scepticism that physicists will ever get there. (I recall a conversation many years ago with a Caltech physicist who didn’t think it would happen, either, and that was just the first of many such conversations I’ve had.) To me, as an historian, this sounds just too much like the triumphalism trumpeted by several physicists in the closing years of the 19th century, about how the future of physical science is to be found in the 6th decimal place (and other comments conveying essentially the same point).

Lou Jost - #79492

May 3rd 2013

Ted, yes, a long-term goal of physics is to find general principles that could not have been otherwise; if that is not possible (and many physicists do doubt that it is possible), then at least we would like to be able to deduce all physical laws from a very few principles or postulates (though this might run into the problems demonstrated by Godel for axiomatizations of mathematics).

Relativity is a model for this. Einstein started with only two childishly simple, plain-English postulates: 1) the speed of light in a vacuum (actually the top speed of any causal influence) is a constant, and 2) all laws of physics (including #1) are the same in any inertial frame of reference. All of special relativity follows from these extraordinarily economical postulates. The deductions from these simple postulates are detailed and precise, and don’t allow much room for adjustment if we find, experimentally, that one of the deductions is wrong by half a percent. Logical deductions from these principles are either true or not; even if the violation is very small, it would be fatal for the logical structure of the theory.

The amazing thing is that all the deductions have proven to be exactly true, up to the accuracy limits of our observations, across the whole observable universe, even though these deductions are among the most surprising and counterintuitive things ever proposed by humans: time dilation, length dilation, equivalence of mass and energy, etc.

The general theory of relativity extends this to non-inertial systems by adding one more very simple postulate, the Equivalence Principle, which says that gravity is indistinguishable from acceleration; deductions from these three postulates then unite gravity, mass, and the dynamics of space and time, and gave equations that describe the whole universe and predict even more counterintuitive and surprising things. Predictions of these surprising things (like time slowing down in a gravitational field) have been tested and proven accurate to twelve decimal points!


This is a mind-boggling achievement. Dramatic surprising qunatitative predictions, accurate to one part in a hundred million, deduced from just a few simple plain-English (or plain-German) postulates that could be explained to anyone.

Nevertheless the union of general relativity and quantum mechanics (another theory whose predictions have been tested to accuracies of one part in a hundred million or a billion) is problematic, and it is clear that one or both theories is incomplete. Yet the extremely surprising yet astoundingly accurate  deductions from these simple postulates of general relativity suggest that they capture (however incompletely) a deep truth about the universe.

Lou Jost - #79494

May 3rd 2013

I can’t emphasize enough the extraordinary achievement of Einstein….imagine him sitting at his desk, deducing the exact laws that govern the whole universe to an accuracy of one part in a hundred million, without even needing to look out his window, with virtually no input from astronomical observations. This is as far from Baconian induction as we can get. 

Ted Davis - #79581

May 6th 2013


I am (like you) a great admirer of Einstein, for the sorts of reasons you have in these comments. I also admire Kepler for similar reasons; indeed, Kepler was IMO the greatest scientist of his age, greater even than Galileo (who could not hold a candle to Kepler when it came to mathematical ability and creativity).

However, we clearly differ on whether the holy grail of a wholly deductive theory of nature will ever be achieved. Kepler and Einstein both pursued it, without coming close to getting there, and I doubt we ever will. We’ll see.

Even if we did, Kepler (unlike Einstein) would then say that we were reading the mind of God, because God gave us the ability to do that in the act of creation. As he said in Harmonices mundi (1619), “Geometry, being part of the Divine mind from time beyond memory, from before the origin of things, has provided God with the models for creating the world, models that have been implanted in human beings, together with the image of God.  Geometry did not arrive in the soul through the eyes.” I really can’t improve on that. Like Galileo, Kepler believed—“believed” is too weak here, a better word would be “knew in the depths of his soul”—that God is a geometer, whatever else we might say about God. Thus, our knowledge of the universe will be fully demonstrative in character. (I disagree with him, obviously, but he illustrates the rationalist pole in the Christian theological tradition.)

Let’s come back to Einstein, and this famous remark: “What I really want to know is whether God had any choice when he made the universe.” This captures perfectly the issue we are discussing, doesn’t it? I’m betting that God had choices, to which the answers were “not wholly determined by reason,” to quote the late Michael Beresford Foster. You’re betting that God had no choice but to make one kind of world—as Descartes believed. I go with Newton and Boyle on this rather than Descartes.

Lou Jost - #79600

May 6th 2013

Ted, thanks for the response. I admit to a soft spot for Galileo as synthesizer and  teacher- his writings to explain the new physics and cosmos are timeless.

“You’re betting that God had no choice but to make one kind of world” Not at all. If I had to bet, I’d bet against the actual laws of physics being all logically necessary. But the deeper our understanding of physics, the more we uncover deep logical/mathematical connections between seemingly unrelated phenomona (eg time dilation’s relation to the speed of light). I am sure that will continue. How far these interconnections can go is anyone’s guess.  I don’t think everything will be connected, but it is thrilling to try!

Lou Jost - #79501

May 3rd 2013

So now you can perhaps see how the whole structure of the universe is bound together, so that a miracle tinkering with mass must also tinker with the speed of light and the size of atoms and a host of other things that don’t appear to the layman to be logically connected. Yet they are logically connected through the mathematical deductions from these basic postulates.

Now I suppose omnipotence can mean anything you want it to mean—I suppose god could make everyone temporarily live in a dream and he could project whatever images he wanted into everyone’s head, so they only imagined that the miracle happened. Discussing this is kind of like discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But it is hard to imagine how a physically real miracle could take place in such a tightly constrained universe. If one really did take place, it would show that one or more of the three postulates of GR are not always true. Then it is surely strange that deductions from them work so well, so universally.

Ted Davis - #79291

April 30th 2013

Let me offer another example of a leading scientist talking about this, Lou. This one comes from the late Donald M. MacKay, a British physicist and cyberneticist (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_MacCrimmon_MacKay) who was also (if memory serves well) at some point on the editorial board for the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. MacKay wrote an eloquent little book called The Clock Work Image, from which I quote (p. 31). He held a Popperian view of scientific knowledge, from which basis he said this: “When a hypothesis has survived enough tests, it is liable to find itself called a scientific ‘law’. We looked at one example of this in the case of Newton’s laws of motion. But the word ‘law’ here obviously means something quite different from the sort of law the policeman has to enforce. Scientific laws do not prescribe what must happen; they describe what has happened. <SNIP> All that they prescribe are our expectations.”

Lou Jost - #79296

April 30th 2013

Thanks for the quote. Of course everything I said assumed that our universal laws were valid. I tried to remember to qualify every one of my statements with that qualifier, but I probably forgot more than once…

But the point is that the most fundamental laws of physics do make universal truth-claims, and are not mere statistical correlations. They often follow from very deep aspects of the structure of the universe. If the universe has this structure, then the law has to be universal. If the law is not universal, then the universe cannot have the structure we attribute to it. So finding a violation of one of these laws, even for a minute, is not like finding an outlier of some statistical correlation. It shakes our understanding of the physical world to its very foundations. That is why miracles of certain kinds, if verified, would have enormous implications for science. The full weight of the evidence for our world-view should therefore be balanced against the evidence for a miracle like the resurrection + ascencion.

Jon Garvey - #79303

April 30th 2013

Ted, I’m intrigued by Boyle’s re-conception of natural law in terms of the intrinsic natures of matter/energy, since it seems to echo the old Aristotelian ideas, and to make more sense than the idea of rather platonic abstract laws operating on matter from somewhere “out there” (where, exactly are these laws kept? The Universe City Hall?).

If he were right, matter that was somehow beamed into our universe from a different one, where particles had, say, a different gravitational constant, would fall according to its “laws” rather than ours. Which is one way of suggesting that the laws only apply within the Universe as a closed system.

In the case of the resurrection, the whole point is that the universe becomes open to a God who is ontologically outside it. Alvin Plantinga (no mean thinker) points that out.

Jon Garvey - #79304

April 30th 2013

PS, the other point to insist on is that most laws are approximations applying statistically.

Entropy, for example, does not preclude a mess of papers blowing into a pile, or a body coming to life, come to that. It’s actually an issue of gross improbability, rather than logical impossibility - which of course applies equally to the origin of life by natural causes or the spontaneous arising of RNA replication as discussed by Eugene Koonin in his 2007 paper.

GJDS - #79332

May 1st 2013

This discussion seems to confuse constants (certain, such as speed of light), with theories (contingent) with mathematical proofs (which one may consider axiomatic in the physical world). Boyle’s view is to expand his thinking to include a causal view as to how such things as nature’s laws may be understood, since in his time, the universaility of such regularities excited their imagination.

It is erroneous to then add divine action into this mix - if one believed (as I and Boyle, for example believe) that God has created everything, it is obvious that we would then extend our thinking into that area. If on the other hand, a person did not believe in God (or anything like him), than (unless such a person were deranged in some way), he would extend his thinking to include an absence of a god, and would by necessity consider an ‘explanation’ of what science has shown, within his context.

I again restate that events that are termed miracles do not necessarily require a discussion of scientific laws, be it a suspension of these or a modification. For theists, since God has determined it all, it is pointless to question this same thing, i.e. that God may have determined it all. For an atheists, god cannot possibly be part of his thinking, so how can he consider any act of god? He cannot!

Thus I ask. “What is the subject matter, or substance, of this discussion?” 

Lou Jost - #79338

May 1st 2013

Actually constants, theories, and mathematical proofs are all intertwined. The theory of relativity posits that the speed of light in a vaccum is always observed to be a constant regardless of whether the observer is ruching towards the light source, or going away from it. This is a remarkable thing (no normal macroscopic object does this) and it is contingent. The theory of relativity is derived from this postulate and a few others using mathematical proofs.

GJDS - #79341

May 1st 2013

There are a number of constants (charge of an electron, speed of light, Planck’s constant, to name a few). These are values that are the result of measurement - they are used in equations because they are ‘universal constants’ - and are not contingent (that means subject to chance). Relativity has been in contrast to normal motion in that the speed of light in space is the same no matter how we may imagine we are viewing an object.

Nothing is interwined - only the grand theory of everything that some physicists specualte may interwine the various theories of physics and chemsitry - although it is not the way scientists would discuss this.

The presence of constants in scientific theories (e.g. e=mc^2) makes these things remarkable and argues against a universe derived from random/chance events - simply put, a random description of any universe, be it its beginning or continuation, would logically inlcude a random nature to its constituents - thus universal constants would not naturally follow from such speculation.  

Lou Jost - #79363

May 1st 2013

“Nothing is interwined”

Almost everything is intertwined. Take the speed of light, for example. The speed of light occurs in many kinds of equations. It links electricity and magnetism, it links frequency and wavelength of light, it connects inertial mass and gravitation to energy, and much more. The velocity c in physics is like pi in math: it pops up constantly in places where you least expect it.

GJDS - #79365

May 1st 2013

These are constants - pi does not pop up; it (and c) are the result of the mathematical formulations of properties and variables (or more specifically, certan observations Y are shown to be a function of given variables (Y= F(x,y,z,...). It is a remarkable notion of science that these constants are present and they are unchanged and are relvant to so many aspects of the dynamics of nature. The term ‘interwined’ seems a crude and coloquial one that is difficult to comprehend within scientific activitites.

Lou Jost - #79410

May 2nd 2013

“ most laws are approximations applying statistically”

Jon, while that is true in most fields, it is not true in physics for the most fundamental laws. The speed of light is not approximately constant. It is exactly constant in a vacuum. Many new laws of physics were discovered by deductions from the postulate that it is exactly constant. If it were sometimes higher, and sometimes lower, there could be violations of causality and logical contradictions.

Ted Davis - #79130

April 26th 2013

Science is indeed decided partly by arguments, Lou, arguments about the evidence (the other main component). And, as I often tell my students, those arguments are subject to a variety of factors that can influence the outcome of the arguments.

In this case, philosophical assumptions about science and scientific knowledge are embedded in those arguments, consciously or otherwise. There’s just no getting past this, IMO. I’m not saying that every assumption is on the same level, but I am saying that we can’t get past this.

I look forward to more conversation later, but for the time being I’ll sign off.

Eddie - #79139

April 26th 2013

I agree with Ted; on the larger questions of science, philosophical assumptions quite often creep in unawares.

GJDS - #79093

April 25th 2013

There is nothing in the Gospel regarding the resurrection that would ‘violate’ any laws. As P states, the body was not recovered, the witnesses( included Roman guards) talk of an unusual event, and the description in the Gospel is of a unique event that is ascribed ONLY to God. If a person does not believe there is a God, it would be impossible for him to argue for anything God-based, nor accept any basis of any miracle that is found in the Gospel. Arguing the obvious, in that a dead body would decompose, is simple that, stating the obvious and a point that has never been contested. So I ask, why take this approach?

It is contemptible to conscript science for this mischievous attempt to argue against the Gospel, especially regarding the resurrection of Christ. Since no claim is made to science, nor a scientific hypothesis suggested when discussing the resurrection, nor an appeal to any scientific laws – I would seriously question the motivation and mental state of any atheist who takes this line of argument? It is clear such motivation is from an aggressive stance regarding belief and not one based on defending science from claims that are not made of it.  

Lou Jost - #79099

April 26th 2013

GJDS, the Gospel claim does impact science. Jesus is claimed to be made of human flesh, which decays following the laws of thermodynamic. It doesn’t solve or explain anything to say that this was a one-time event made possible because he is a god.

GJDS - #79153

April 26th 2013

Lou, you have an inoordinate obsession with religion, especially with the Christian faith, for an atheist. Once again I will insist you read my words, rather than what you think I have said - “no claims are made of science” - no theologian, no portion of the Gospel, no article of faith, nor anything that is part of the Christain faith, has turned to science for aid or explanation of the ressurection. Your (and your many and often illogical) statements may be relevant for something along the lines of Scientology.

Thus science has not been called to offer an explanation, or in any formal sense, a refutation of the resurrection. Scientist may, in order to sustain their unbelief, or scepticism, or perhaps hostile rejection of Christianity, turn to science to sustain their opposition. That is a choice they and you make. This is not more of your nonsense that you have evidence of support from science.

On the details of the ressurection, we have turned to eye-witnesses, and we believe their testimony. This is the case in point. To illustrate your illogical position, we may consider any matter that requires a judgement - even when a crime is committed, the reasonable approoch is to consider the eye-witness accounts. If science is involved, it is physical evidence that is allowed in the argument. If no physical evidence is provided, science cannot make any statement. If the eye witness accounts appear to speak to an unusual event, the judge will rule accordingly - the onus of proof is on those who challenege the eye-witness accounts - if the the eye witness is truthful and the court is satisfied that this is so, the accuser has made false accusations and the judge would rule accordingly.

You have made your position clear - you have an unhealthy need to always be front and centre regarding discussions of the Chrisitan faith, and thus continue with your boring repetitive ascertains that the Gospel will somehow need to be a part of some scientific discipline - while you may be absorbed by your obsession, such a view is utter nonsense. Scientists of whatever level, discipline, or success, are free to believe as they choose - this may have a political relevance within academia, though less so within the commercial/industrial sectors (spelling and grammar has not been checked).   

Lou Jost - #79154

April 26th 2013

Whenever we judge testimony, we have to take into account the likelihood of the thing that was claimed to be witnessed. If someone claims to have seen a unicorn, we should be somewhat skeptical and demand more evidence than if he had just claimed to have seen an ordinary horse. If someone claims to have seen a person levitate high into the sky without assitance, we would need extraordinarily good evidence before we’d believe it. We’d need even more evidence if the event that was supposedly witnessed was physically impossible. So science is always involved when extraordinary claims are made. Is the claim merely unusual, or is it impossible based on current knowledge? We need to know this in order to properly evaluate the evidence.

The honesty of the eyewitness is not necessarily in question; there are many amazing studies which show how easily witnesses can be fooled, or how they can fool themselves, and many other studies about how fragile our memories are and how easily we construct new memories of things that never happened. Pefectly honest and well-meaning eyewitnesses can therefore make big mistakes in their testimony.

Interestingly, you say “On the details of the ressurection, we have turned to eye-witnesses, and we believe their testimony.” In fact none of the surviving testimony is by eyewitnesses, as you surely know. Paul comes closest in time, and he was not an eyewitness. He talked to people who might have been eyewitnesses, but if I recall correctly, Paul does not give many details about the resurrection that he might have learned from these possible eyewitnesses.

Second, the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, and have some strange features which reduce their value as evidence. We can discuss this in Ted’s next post (which will be devoted to this subject).

GJDS - #79156

April 26th 2013

Interesting; the honesty of a witness is not in question, but now you are the (we) who would judge on the matter. The Gospel shows clearly that eye-witnesses testified to the resurrection - you have decided to ignore this and speak to the writers of the Gospel- I state that honesty seems important to this discussion. I talk of Christ the Son of God, you bring up unicorns and other fairy tales. I show that science has not been invoked by the Christian faith, you decide otherwise - and now you have set yourself up as the evaluator of the Gospel and Paul’s writings.

I suggest you take your own advice Lou and ask yourself - who is fooling himself? (”....how witnesses can be fooled, or how they can fool themselves”) - I for one cannot trust your views simply because of the staggering hubris you show - even thinking that if many people regard witnesses as honest, sound minded, based on a life-time of personal experience, you decide, without hesitation, that because their views differ from yours, they are fooling themselves and everyone else.

If you are honest, you should be able to understand the hesitation shown by various people, and clearly stated in the Gospel, regarding accepting the resurrection of Christ by his own disciples. You simply ignore this, and set yourself up as a competent judge (actually I regard you as an incompetent one, by your confession of ignorance regarding theology, and you do not conform to the intellectual honesty you claim, while you are quick to accuse others of dishonesty). Your assessment now goes accross the sciences, the Gospel, Paul, theology of over 1000 years; Lou, I do not think you are as competent as you seem to think regarding these matters.

Lou Jost - #79157

April 26th 2013

The writers of the gospels (and we don’t even know who they are) might have been quoting verbal or written legends that were circulating at the time, forty or more years after the event supposedly happened. Further, they  might have had motives to bolster a particular interpretation of the Jesus legend, since we know (thanks to Paul) that there were initially many divergent sects with different beliefs about Jesus, and these sects were fighting each other for followers. Some of the gospels show signs of this kind of motivation, according to bible scholars.

GJDS - #79158

April 26th 2013

And you base this belief of yours on your expertise at growing flowers? It seems that ‘if’ and ‘maybe’ are sufficient for your case rgarding other people’s faith (and is, as you keep insisting) supported by the authority of the sciences (which is a dishonest statement!)?

So again I ask, why are you so motivated in your disbelief? And why have you not provided competent replies to these discussions? Is your opinion so weighty? I note that you are now discussing the universality of scientific laws (and I wonder if you understand that) while any questions that are raised by competnent practitioners regarding you fervent belief in Darwin’s ideas is scoffed at and ignored, even though these writers show the lack of such universaility on these. Honesty is a good thing Lou, but it needs to be practiced.

Lou Jost - #79159

April 26th 2013

“...any questions that are raised by competnent practitioners regarding you fervent belief in Darwin’s ideas is scoffed at and ignored…”

I have tried to address as many questions as I could on this forum, but I also have jobs to do, so sometimes I can’t address every single issue that comes up, and sometimes I don’t know an answer. If I have inadvertently missed a particularly important  question, let me know here and I’ll try to answer it if I know the answer.

Don’t you think it is strange that in this comment, you criticize me for not answering people’s comments often enough, and also criticize me for answering them so often? 

GJDS - #79160

April 26th 2013

I have discussed the resurrection and the often odd and aggresive opinions you put forward - you have a nack at twisting other people’s remarks to suit you - your failure to address critical comments made by evolutionists of evolution is the gist of my other comment on this subject (as a way of illustrating your odd view of honesty), not your self-proclaimed role to “answering other peoples questions”. So do not twist this into “you criticize me for not answering people’s comments ... etc.” That is blatently untrue.

Once again, I restate, my criticisms are directed at you as an atheist taking the stance that science authorises you to make the ‘nutty’ comments on the Gospel (hopefully my use a the US term nutty will be easier for you to understand).

Ted Davis - #79290

April 30th 2013

Dial down the tone please, GJDS. Lou is stating his position in a clear, respectful manner. You certainly need not agree with him, any more than I do on several matters, but please reply to his views (if you wish to reply) with clear, respectful statements of your own. Our aim here at BioLogos is to host conversations, not verbal fights. Those conversations can surely involve arguments on various points, but we’d like those arguments to be about the ideas themselves, not those who are advocating them.

Lou Jost - #79175

April 27th 2013

First, thank you for using the US term to help me better understand your insult. That was very thoughtful of you.

Second, let me give you an example to show you the problem with the Gospels. You know that Mohammed claims to have flown to heaven on a winged horse. You probably don’t believe that. Why not? Because (1) it is impossible since there are no winged horses and no heaven, and (2) you weren’t immersed since birth in a culture that believes this  legend. You were immersed since birth in a culture that believes a different but equally unlikely legend. And if you also believe in the Ascension, your legend is even less plausible than that of Mohammed, since at least Mohammed understood aerodynamics and used wings. It shouldn’t matter, according to you and Eddie, that Mohammed’s flight violates many things we know about how the world works. A god can suspend the laws whenever he wants.

In some ways Mohammed’s flight is better documented than the resurrection. We have actual first-hand testimony of the pilot, Mohammed, unlike the Resurrection where we don’t have direct first-hand testimony from any witness. Now surely Mohammmed wouldn’t lie about this, or be confusing visions with reality. Look at how it transformed his life and the millions of lives of the people he touched. Even today people are willing to die for him. How can one billion people’s changed lives not count as evidence that Mohammed was in contact with the divine, as proven by this miracle?

GJDS - #79177

April 27th 2013

Looks like I am learning a great deal from the US via you Lou - now I can see what is insulting and what is not (since you are obviously an authority on that also). I can now feel well educated on Islam, winged horses, aerodynamics, not to mention culture, legends and so on - and all in one (short) post from you. Mighty USA and its unbelievable intellectuals (take a bow Lou).

In case this too does not please you, I will in passing, mention a USA intellectual that I repsect - Charles Pierce, and particularly, his insightful writings on the irritation of doubt, and his view on what is authoritative regarding human endeavour and knowledge. Off course this will not link with your analysis of god(s), suspended laws, and all of the other trully weighty matters that you are obviously dealing with (while looking after your flowers).

Now look, after all of this effort, surely I would qualify as one of those who is now ‘into’ the culture wars you lot in the great USA indulge in so freely (and before my degrees are removed again, I have not checked the spelling and grammar, and I publicly confess to very poor typing skill - and short attention span for this type of drivel).

Alternatively we can do each a great favour and cease with this exchange. What do you say?


Lou Jost - #79178

April 27th 2013

There was no response from you about the substance of my comment. That is the usual pattern with our exchanges. So sure, we might as well stop “discussing” this issue for now.

GJDS - #79180

April 27th 2013

Tosh and gosh - how can I say this clearly - there is NO substance to your comments. You do not have anything that is worthy of anything but a sharp response. If you need (so desperately) meaningful exchanges, please make some substantive comments on a specific area that you have a reasonable understanding. Otherwise, simply state that you do not believe these things, and at least show a level of maturity by recongising that other adults have consdiered these matters and have come to their decision and belief. I tried to point this out to you but clearly I have failed to get it over to you. If you do not accept my comments, then say so and leave it at that.

I am at a loss - let it rest Lou. Otherwise, e.g. read Anastasius or Calvin, analyse their writing, and come back to us with your considered analysis. I can assure you, I (and others) will pay attention if you do this.

However, the juvenile and crude remarks you make on matters that some of us regard as important and worthy of some civility, come over as very insulting (to put it mildly). And yes, try and get it into your head that I (we) have considered that winged horses are not real (until I suppose you lot tell us they had evolved to be so - but that undoubtedly would form another exchange).

Lou Jost - #79182

April 27th 2013

Roger’s remarks below are an example of a substantive response.

The fact that a myth is believed and taken seriously by many adults does not show that the myth is true, or even worthy of respect. Mormonism, Islam, and the tens of thousands of other religions prove that otherwise-rational people can convince themselves of anything. A billion people believe Mohammed’s silly flight. I have seen even very educated Muslims argue for the historical reality of this flight. That is an important thing to keep in mind when we discuss the miracle beliefs of our own cultures.

GJDS - #79184

April 27th 2013

The initial comments I made (many posts ago) were that the Gospel does not turn to science - you made the illogical claim that the Gospel ‘impacts’ on science, and from there your ‘discussions’ have wondered to the ressurection, Islam and other matters. Miracles and how they are viewed by Christians had been discussed many posts ago, and you should look to these comments as a matter of common sense; you have acknowledged that you have struggled with such matters and seem to have some type of outlook based on your experiences regarding your background and upbringing. This to me, is indicative of a personal and subjective aspect to your comments and not one based on a calm and intelligent analysis of Christian theology.

It is this lack of appreciation of the outlok(s) of those who believe that I find offensive, and the (I just cannot say it another way) odd belief you project that others besides yourself cannot think through the accounts that have taken hold of your imagination. So I again come back with this not so civil tone, by asking you, “Do you think you have a special mission to bring us into your truth, because we all have been somehow made to believe lies?” If this is how you see yourself, why not say so.

The important thing to keep in mind is that you seem obsessed with discussing miracles and I prefer to discuss the Gospel, the Faith in Christ, the redemption and grace of God, just to name some important topics. Miracles have been stated (and agreed by all comments that I can recall) to be personal experiences that cannot possibly be subjected to tests and verification. That is it. You do not accept it - well so what! That is your choice, and you should at least try and respect other peoples choice and judgement (if you wish for civil discussions).

Lou Jost - #79192

April 27th 2013

“Miracles have been stated (and agreed by all comments that I can recall) to be personal experiences that cannot possibly be subjected to tests and verification.”

Most people who are posting believe that at least some miracles of the Bible are events that really happened and are not merely personal experiences, and they believe this because of biblical text, among other reasons. The evidence for these beliefs can and should be discussed. That is what this post and the next are about.

When evaluating that evidence, it is relevant to consider miracle claims from other cultures. By looking at these, we can appreciate people’s willingness to believe even the most absurd things, and hopefully guard against self-deception when evaluating our own culture’s miracle claims and myths.

GJDS - #79205

April 27th 2013

Once again you decide to twist words around for your purpose:

(1) miracles have been discussed on this site and at that time, it was generally agreed these are personal experiences, and not subject to testing and repeatable experimentation.

(2) Christians believe the Bible - that is axiomatic.

(3) The Gospels are written with statements regarding people who witnessed Christ on earth, and Christ the resurrected.

(4) It has been stated to you (ad nauseam) that we as Christians accept this evidence, as have Christians throughout history.

(5) You have failed to bring anything to this discussion except for you endless drivel, which may be summed up, as “Lou does not believe the Gospels”.

(6) While fully aware of the points of view presented, you persist on denigrading our beliefs, (...people’s willingness to believe the most absurd things).

(7) You have decided that your role is to .... guard (presumably for those of us who believe what you do not) against self-deception...”

(8) In the light of your extremely offensive stance, I again challenge you to provide any rational basis for your participation in this exchange.

(9) I again state that I have serious doubts regarding your mental state.

(10) If you have evidence of ‘general self-deception’ then provide it, or accept point (9).

(11) You should discuss other cultures, faiths etc (and what you have now proven are their delusions) with thse who hold them, rather than hiding behind a Christian site.

(12) No Christian tradition that I know of supports superstition and any spurious claims by anyone - your statements are both offensive and in the context of your claim to know what the Christian faith teachs, blatent falsehoods.

Lou Jost - #79207

April 27th 2013

I’ll just comment on your #12. To an atheist, there is no difference between a Muslim who believes in the miracles of Islam, and a Christian who believes in the miracles of the Bible. You call one of these two a supersition or falsehood. A Muslim thinks you are the one who believes superstitions or falsehoods. An atheist sees that both of you are right about each other’s beliefs.

GJDS - #79209

April 27th 2013

Naturally you will comment on whatever - however I know of two type of atheists (not one as you falsy claim). The first (as I pointed out at the beginning of these nauseating exchanges with you) is one who is motivated by goodwill and who has considered, that, just as he has the right to arrive at his view, others also may exercise their reason and come to their own views. This athiest is properly termed one who professes an absence of belief in God and is motivated (and displays) by goodwill to others, basing his/her views of other people on their character and activities.

The second that typifies your outlook, has an unstable mental state because they are motivated by an ego-centric view that may be summarised as, “You know everyone who has faith is wrong, and you can pit various faiths against each other, make any irrational ascertains (which mostly display your ignorance), and aggresively push the view that others are self-deluded, obviously believe in superstitions, and any other offensive remark that posesses your imagination.

Additionally, you than earn the displeasure of scientists such as myself, when you claim the sciences have given you some type of imagined authority, and thus you feel empowerd to indulge in your ‘nutty’ comments as a scientist who claims authoritative knowledge on religion.

I state catagorically that your position is one af an aggresive athesit who is motivated by some (unknown) antagonism towards Christianity (as for Islam, I do not wish to discuss your non-sense on this matter). 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79097

April 26th 2013


I agree with Eddie.  Whereas the body uses natural means to carry out the ideas of the mind, the activities of the mind are not based on physical laws, but mental processes.  In other words a person picks up a pencil most likely because of a mental need to write something down, rather than a physical need to eat, sleep, drink, breathe, etc.

That is why human and divine actions need to be seen in relation to history, not merely some physical context.  That is also why God reveals Godself as a Personal, Complex/One Being, which superior to the comcept of the Simple One which cannot think, but just acts.

Reality is not purely physical.  It is also rational and spiritual.  Thus God and humans work on more than one level to accomplish their goals.  The Resurrection works on all three levels to demonstrate the power, wisdom, and goodness of God. 

Chip - #79111

April 26th 2013


the resurrection violates known laws.

Of course; but that’s just the definition of what a miracle is.

I’ll remind you of the common god-of-the-gaps argument, in which many religious people appear to be very uncomfortable with the blank spots on our scientific map, so they enlist a god…

And I’ll remind you that this is a (tiresome…) straw man, and that your presuppositions are showing.  Belief in the resurrection (or in God more generally) has nothing whatsoever to do with “blank spots in our scientific map,” as if a “scientific map” constitutes the entire universe of all legitimate knowledge, and that such a map, even when 100% complete, could ever speak to issues like sin, guilt, love, forgiveness, justification and redemption.  Science is a fantastic servant; it’s a woefully inadequate king. 

Lou Jost - #79121

April 26th 2013

“....that’s just the definition of what a miracle is” Yes.

“Belief in the resurrection (or in God more generally) has nothing whatsoever to do with “blank spots in our scientific map,” ” I never said belief in the resurrection had anything to do with gaps in science. I am puzzled that yo could you read my comment that way. But I do think that belief in god often has to do with gaps. Some believers I have talked to say they believe because “How else could life arise?”, etc.

Anyway I was just addressing Eddie’s false claim that atheists, unlike scientists and religious people, are uncomfortable with uncertainty.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79181

April 27th 2013

Lou wrote:

You know that Mohammed claims to have flown to heaven on a winged horse. You probably don’t believe that. Why not? Because (1) it is impossible since there are no winged horses and no heaven, and (2) you weren’t immersed since birth in a culture that believes this legend. You were immersed since birth in a culture that believes a different but equally unlikely legend. And if you also believe in the Ascension, your legend is even less plausible than that of Mohammed, since at least Mohammed understood aerodynamics and used wings.

Lou, there are all sorts of reasons to accept the Ascension of Jesus while rejecting the Night Journey of Muhammed.  The primary would be that the Ascension is recorded in God’s Book the New Testament, while the Night Journey is not found in the Qur’an.  Thus in terms documentation, God’s Book overides the hadith, which are historical traditions.

Also there were at least 11 people who witnessed the Ascension, and only one person who witnessed the Night Journey.  (Many Muslims say this was a vision, rather than a historical event.)  Also we have at least two Biblical witnesses, Stephen and Paul, who saw the ascended Jesus, and none have claimed to have seen Muhammed in heaven. 

In terms of science Christians believe that God does not need and does not use mythological creatures.  If God needs something to be done God uses spiritual messengers, the angels.  Allah did send Gabriel to fetch Muhammed, but He also used the buraq. 

The Bible says flesh and blood cannot enter heaven.  I do not think that Muhammed qualifies as an exception.  Paul says that the resurrection body of humans is not a body of flesh, but a spiritual body.  Certainly the resurrection Body of Jesus is not a body of flesh, so it would not be subject to the law of gravity.  Just how Jesus ascended, we cannot say, but there is no reason to say it violated the law of gravity, which does not apply here.

The basic reason that I am a Christian and not a Muslim is because Bible is a more convincing revelation of God than the Qur’an.  This confirmed by every day life of my life. 

I do not know about you or any one else, but I looking for what is true, not to prove or disprove any particular point of view.  My Biblical Jesus is the Logos, the rational Word of God, not some myth that must be believed no matter what. 

I hear atheists saying that life has no meaning, because reality is only matter/energy.  No meaning means no Truth, which means no life.  As far as I can see that is false.  What do you think?                 

Lou Jost - #79183

April 27th 2013

Thanks for the civil comment, Roger.

Actually there is a reference to the Night Flight in the Quran, 17:1, though most of the details are from sacred commentaries outside the Quran.

You have said that you believe something just because it is in the Bible. This is exactly the way that Muslims support their beliefs.

None of the people who witnessed the ascension left an account of it.

I am not sure what you mean when you say Stephen and Paul saw the ascended Jesus. I suppose you are referring to Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus? This was a vision, no different from the visions that Hindu priests have of their elephant god Ganesh, or the visions of my Amazonian shaman friends who see and talk with jaguars and eagles and duendis during their “trips”.

“God does not need and does not use mythological creatures.“Angels are also mythical creatures.

“The Bible says flesh and blood cannot enter heaven.  I do not think that Muhammed qualifies as an exception.” You are quoting the bible to support the bible against the Quran. That is circular reasoning.

“Certainly the resurrection Body of Jesus is not a body of flesh, so it would not be subject to the law of gravity.” This is actually a very important point. If you are right, the resurrection could have been just a vision (as some of Paul’s writing and the some parts of the Gospels also suggest), and no miracle is necessary, and no real resurrection need have occurred to explain the testimony.

We are both looking for truth. I think you have not given any good reasons for thinking that your particular religion is true.

Life has meaning; it does not come from above, but from within. Your “No meaning means no Truth, which means no life” makes no sense to me. There is a real truth; it is not known through alleged “revelations” but through investigation.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79201

April 27th 2013

Lou wrote:

Life has meaning; it does not come from above, but from within.

Lou, I am glad that you agree that life does have meaning.  I once wrote that the search for the meaning of life is or should be the purpose of religion.  Different faiths bear witness to the different meanings which different peoples have ascribed to Life. 

This means that different faiths can be described and compared according to their world views, which I have tried to do with the Framework of Understanding.

However if life really has any objective meaning then there must be a rational Source of reality beyond humanity.  This is what atheist seem to reject.  I hope you are different.  Truth comes from everywhere not just from above or below or within.

Did Jesus know the Truth?  Evidence seems to indicate that He does.  If He did then we need to learn from Him.  I take it you don’t think so.  Is there anyone who you think does or did know the Truth who we can learn from?  Maybe you know the Truth and you can share your insights.  After all you can not really call some wrong, unless you know what is right.

As for above the NT was based on eyewitness accounts which were shared with many people though the preaching of the gospel.  We have the story of Jesus based on four different but related accounts. 

On the other hand the Qur’an is based on the prophetic sayings of Muhammed collected shortly after his death.  Islam states that the Qur’an, or Arabic Bible, is Allah’s Absolute Word.  The Hebrew and Greek Bibles are also considered Books of God. 

My point is that the Night Journey is not found in the Qur’an as you say although yes there is a verse which may refer to it.  Thus it is not found in any of God’s Books, so it would seem to be less valid than something found in one of God’s Books.

Before determining whether the Resurrection is a fact or vision, we must determine what it means.  The Resurrection is God’s affirmation that Life is stronger than Death, Good is stronger than Evil, Love is stronger than Hatred, and Justice is stronger than Wrong. 

If you accept the above statement, it does not make much difference whether the Resurrection is a fact or a vision.  However if Jesus is alive after all that happened to Him, if the Resurrectgion is real, why would not God reveal that to God’s people?  If Jesus is not alive, then how can anyone think that this statement is true.  The issue is not science, it is the truth.                     

Lou Jost - #79202

April 27th 2013

“...if life really has any objective meaning then there must be a rational Source of reality beyond humanity.  This is what atheist seem to reject” When I said life had meaning that comes from within, I meant that there is not necessarily an objective meaning. Atheists obviously don’t believe that humans are part of a divine plan. The universe does not have mind.

Nevertheless all atheists I know think there is an objectivity reality beyond humans. It is a physical reality without purpose.

I strongly disagree that any human knows “THE truth”, though some people have a lot of wisdom, and have uncovered bits of the truth.

About the NT, remember that we have no idea where those stories came from or who wrote them. We do know that the people who wrote them were not eyewitnesses. We do not know much about the reliability of the sources that the Gospel writers used. We do know that there were many sects of early Christians, with very different beliefs. If the story of Jesus was really clear and well-evidenced, why were there conflicts within the very early Church?

“If Jesus is not alive, then how can anyone think that this statement is true.  The issue is not science, it is the truth.” Truth is the main issue of science.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79204

April 27th 2013

Lou wrote:

Nevertheless all atheists I know think there is an objectivity reality beyond humans. It is a physical reality without purpose.

Lou, you said life has meaning, but now you say that reality has no purpose.  How can you have meaning without purpose?

If you say that life has only subjective meaning and purpose, how can that be real?  If everything is subjective, is there right and wrong?

Truth is the main issue of science.

I really do not think so.  Facts are the main issue of science.  The word science is based on the Latin word “to know.”  Science is about knowledge.  Philosophy is about Truth.  Theology is about Meaning.  Confusing Truth and Knowledge seems to be a common error.

Few if any people who write history are eyewitnesses.  The people who were witnesses to the life of Jesus are reliable witnesses because their spiritual life depended on it. 

The reason why later there were variations on the Jesus story is because there were gnostic gurus who tried to hijack the gospel by inserting their ideology into this new movement.    


Lou Jost - #79206

April 27th 2013

“Lou, you said life has meaning, but now you say that reality has no purpose.  How can you have meaning without purpose?” Meaning is personal (“it comes from within”). It does not presuppose that the universe has a purpose.

“If you say that life has only subjective meaning and purpose, how can that be real?” I don’t expect everyone to share my choices about what to do with my life; they are not universal.

“If everything is subjective, is there right and wrong?” First, everything is not subjective. Reality is not subjective.

Want to see something subjective? Look at your choice of religion. Mostly subjective. After centuries of debates and even wars, no religion is any closer to proving that it is right and the others are wrong. So if you say you take your sense of right and wrong from your religion, or your subjectively-chosen god, then your sense of right and wrong is subjective too. You could have chosen a different religion (a subjective choice) and then you would have a different set of rights and wrongs.

For me, right and wrong have to do with what makes society function, what makes us thrive and grow, what keeps the planet healthy. Right and wrong are not decreed from above, not objective, but require thought and discussion about how an action affects the fabric of society.

Why should an atheist care about defending the fabric of society? Well, because he and his loved ones and his friends are all immersed in that society. Making it better helps everyone. An atheist cares just as much about his loved ones and his children as a religious person does (and conversely, your religion is not what makes you feel love—-if you gave up your religion today, I am sure that tomorrow you would have exactly the same feelings toward your family as you did yesterday).

I think an atheist actually cares more about making the world better than a Christian does. We know that this is the only world,  and a person gets only one short life. There is no reward in the afterlife for patiently suffering injustices in this life. An atheist therefore wants to fix structural injustices. People who believe in an afterlife have less motivation to fix these.

“Facts are the main issue of science.” No, science is about finding clues about the underlying reality, in order to explain the facts from deeper principles.

“The people who were witnesses to the life of Jesus are reliable witnesses because their spiritual life depended on it.” But you are forgetting that you don’t know if any of those eyewitnesses had any contact with the writers of the gospels. Remember that the writers were not contemporaries of Jesus. As far as I know, Paul is the only writer who had contact with eyewitnesses. And his accounts are far sketchier and less detailed than the later gospels, which may have begun the mythification process that we often see in other cults.

Merv - #79218

April 28th 2013

An atheist cares just as much about his loved ones and his children as a religious person does (and conversely, your religion is not what makes you feel love—-if you gave up your religion today, I am sure that tomorrow you would have exactly the same feelings toward your family as you did yesterday).

Lou, I suppose many religions (and I know Christianity does in particular) teach that love is much deeper than the notion of it that you share here.  What you are describing are feelings that come and go.  It’s during those periods when feelings are absent or even negative that real love kicks in.  It’s when the needy ones are of no relation to you whatsoever or have no way of repaying you that real love actually shines.  This doesn’t come from science (evolutionary or not)—it comes from Christianity as well as any other discerning religions that have also been honed and drawn to these deeper truths.  

What does science have to offer regarding these “oughts”?  Well ... zilch ... as you all too well know and as evidenced by the fact that you remain unable to offer anything on this that is even remotely scientific.  What you do have is truth that you smuggle in from religion.  Caring for your family and friends are great things to do if you want yourself and your progeny to personally benefit (social sciences can help us see that)—‘enlightened selfishness’ we might call it.  Christians have a different description for that kind of activity:   “you call that love?  —even the pagans (atheists) are doing that!”  Go on and give also to those from whom you will never get anything back—even the ones who persecute you!  Now THAT is love.

As far as keeping the ‘fabric of society’ healthy, atheists have historically been around the map on how this might be done.  Stalin or Pol Pot come to mind.   Perhaps a ‘healthy society’ means eradicating certain “lesser” classes by killing them off.  Then the strong can survive without the carrying the weight of the weaker.  Euthanasia?  Abortion?  (Crime rates have gone down since Roe v. Wade)  Or maybe we need more wars.   That lessens populations, thins out the weak and vulnerable; leaving more resources for the stronger.  It seems that some may have drawn on evolutionary science for some of these ideas.  So how would science answer these charges laid to its account?   ....  sound of crickets ....

It can’t condemn tyrants of the past or present because it can’t support them either, any more than it can support your ethical choices.  But Christianity speaks quite consistently and clearly about it all.  I thank God for this real guidance so that I and others aren’t stuck trying to set our own moral compasses using the same set of tools Stalin used. 

Lou Jost - #79219

April 28th 2013

It is certainly true that many people (atheist and religious alike) do not show much love. It is also true that many people of all stripes do show love to all.

As I have said many times and as I am sure you know, the fact that evolution is true doesn’t tell us how we should behave, it only helps us understand why we behave as we do (just because we believe in the law of  gravity doesn’t mean we should crawl on our bellies).

I strongly suspect you could make eloquent and strong arguments in favor of the ethical positions you advocate, without invoking mythology, if you tried. You could do some introspection and voice the real reasons why you think it would be terrible to allow involuntary euthanasia. These reasons might well be persuasive. I bet god is not the real reason you feel that way anyway.  I strongly suspect you would not change your ethics if you found out that god wasn’t real, though of course I could be wrong. You probably hold a view that we should treat all people equally and respectfully, and (perhaps) that life begins at conception. I think the first is defensible, the second is not. But this is something open to rational discussion. Rational discussion does not necesarily equal cold discussion, as you seem to think.

What does block ethical reflection is the insistence that Person X gets his orders from God. Once someone believes that, rational discussion is over, and we are at the mercy of fanatics, as in many Islamic societies where the rules supposedly come from their god. Hence the acid in the faces of girls who dare to go to school.

Your Christian bible is very complex and self contradictory, which means there is quite a lot of leeway for interpretation. You know very well the silly rules of the OT, which you wisely ignore. Yet the rules Christians do choose to obey are also often silly (not you in particular, because I don’t know you). An example that came up in Seenoevo’s post a few days ago was his implication that homosexual marriage was wrong, presumably because the bible says so. That kind of argument from authority is hypocritical (the bible says many other things are wrong, such as cloth made of two kinds of threads, but he ignores those parts) and dangerous to a sane society. It would always be better to argue for Christian ethical positions without using the Bible or other mythical documents as false authorities. I bet you can do it. I bet you can persuade most people that most of these ethical principles are good for society. After all, the atheists I know generally have very similar (though not identical) ethical beliefs as Christians.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79220

April 28th 2013

Lou, thank you for your response.

Why should an atheist care about defending the fabric of society? Well, because he and his loved ones and his friends are all immersed in that society. Making it better helps everyone. An atheist cares just as much about his loved ones and his children as a religious person does

The question is not whether the Christian or the atheist loves their loved ones more.  I expect that the Nazi, the Communist, and the Muslim all love their loved ones and want to improve their society so they can florish.  Probably the Liberatarian would also have the same feelings. 

The question is not whether we should love our neighbor, but Who is our neighbor? as a pharisee asked Jesus.  Jesus made it clear from the Parable of the Good Samaritan and elsewhere that everyone is our neighbor, even our enemies. 

As far as I can tell Jesus was the first one to say that is just not one of the ways we must treat others, it is the only way.  This separates Christianity from Judaism and Islam and this makes the Resurrection of Jesus an important test. 

Does God give the divine seal of approval on Love as the right way to relate with others, or is it right to love only those who love us?  God stood with Jesus against the religious leaders and the Roman Empire.  Where do you stand?   

Therefore Jesus Christ is the standard for Christian Love.  This means that He is the standard of how we are to love, how we are to forgive, and whom we are to love.  Of course that this does not mean that all Christians meet this standard.  Some Christians are really not.  We are all sinners, which means we all fall short of His Glory, no matter how hard and sincerely we try.

Jesus is the Christian standard.  He is an objective standard in that He is not us.  He is not subject to our will.  This of course does not mean that humans do not try to distort the the story of Jesus to justify their own ideas of what is right and wrong.  However honest folk know that God is not fooled by human self deceit.

Prevously you repeated Monod’s argument that since the universe cannot think, the universe can have no objective meaning.  Using the same reasoning one can say that since words cannot think, words also can have no meaning.  Since we know that words do have meaning, this argument is patently bogus. 

Thus we go back to the issue which we discussed previously, the nature of reality.

science is about finding clues about the underlying reality, in order to explain the facts from deeper principles.  

If reality is composed of only matter/energy, how can there be deeper principles?  Last time I checked principles were not things, composed of matter and/or energy.  Principles are rational relationships.  Again since we agree that the matter/energy does not think, from whence come principles or rational relationships?

Scientists seem to agree that objective, rational principles govern the natural physical world, but you and others reject the view that objective, rational principles govern the human moral world.  What is the basis for this dualistic view?  How can nature have a split personality, so to speak?

You use the words “underlying reality” and “deeper principles” concerning science which indicates that science believes that reality has more than one level of reality.  This contradicts that idea that reality is monistic.  It also goes against the thought that there is no underlying moral reality and no deeper moral principles as you state.

Is Love stronger than hatred?  Yes or No or doesn’t matter.  If you are interested in the Truth, I suggest that it does matter.  And until it does matter this world will not get off its rear end and do what needs to be done to make it right.                   

Merv - #79221

April 28th 2013

Here are a couple short and selective responses for now, Lou, before I launch into another potentially busy week.  (I have trouble keeping up with all you full-time posters!)

You speculated of me:  

Rational discussion does not necesarily equal cold discussion, as you seem to think.

I would say rather that warmth doesn’t come from rationality alone, but it need not be in opposition to it either—so, no, I don’t think one [necessarily] excludes the other.

Regarding your insistence that the Bible be a one-size fits all document that is supposed to, in every detail simultaneously fit widely varied cultures spanning thousands of years, I can only say that we study it to learn the enduring principles that are indeed common (and eternal) for all cultures and times.  Hence the disagreement among Christians as to how much and what details must fall into the “eternal and unchanging” category.  Perhaps some [rare] Christians think that every detail must still be applied (though I agree with you that they are probably not [we hope] going to be consistent in applying such an approach).  Most Christians, however, give the Bible more credit as being a textured and detailed document for its time giving its audience of that time many specific details they needed, and then much more—for people of all time to learn of their spiritual heritage as well, ultimately pointing them to the true Word:  Christ.

You are right that I would probably still love my family even if I wasn’t Christian.  But loving your own family and friends is relatively easy (sometimes!).  It’s what we do beyond that which is much more telling.  And yes, there are times when even loving our own would be an improvement on what we actually practice.

Much earlier you responded to my pencil example by insisting that universal laws be, well, universal.  And you said I wasn’t breaking the law of gravity because I too am an object and the interchange between objects still preserves the law intact.  My response may echo some of what I think Eddie said at the time, but it bears repeating to you, Lou.  I don’t think you meet as squarely as you could the concept of an omnipotent God.  You refer to God as just another (mythical) god, as if the Christian God were just one object or being among many (even if an imaginary one).  You can spend time knocking down any such imaginary god (or a god who is a mere mental construct), but I don’t know any Christians who believe in such a thing.  The God we believe in is the ground and origin of all being.  If I as a “mere object” am free to lift a pencil and still consider gravitational understandings undisturbed, then it is logically incoherent to think an omnipotent creator God is not capable of the same.

Lou Jost - #79222

April 28th 2013

I also have too much work to do, but anyway…..I am disappointed that you did not comment on my main point. I hope you can think about it during work: My main point was that you actually have reasons for your ethics. You love your enemy not just because your god said to do that. You love your enemy because you see something wise and beautiful about that ... such is the society you would like to see. Maybe it was thanks to Jesus that you saw the wisdom of this idea, but it doesn’t depend on his divinity. Indeed, similar wisdom has come from non-Christian thinkers.

If you looked deeply into yourself you would probably be able to articulate why those ethical principles were important to you. It wouldn’t just be “because god said so” (as you can see by noting that you would not change your behavior even if you learned god was not real). And once you had articulated those reasons, you would in fact have produced a secular argument for those ethical principles. And secular humanists would mostly agree with your principles, for those very reasons that you would articulate.

I’ll respond to the rest early next week, as time permits.

Lou Jost - #79278

April 29th 2013

Mervin, you said “Regarding your insistence that the Bible be a one-size fits all document that is supposed to, in every detail simultaneously fit widely varied cultures spanning thousands of years…” Why would you think I insist on that? I am not criticising Christians for selecting which parts they obey. On the contrary I am congratulating them on this rationality. I wish they showed more of that.

“But loving your own family and friends is relatively easy (sometimes!).  It’s what we do beyond that which is much more telling.” Even if you stopped believing in god, I sincerely think you would still act toward all others just as you do now. Furthermore, I think we would all (secular humanists and religious people) prefer to live in a world where people loved and respected each other and were generous towards each other. This isn’t some arbitrary rule that is only worthwhile because god allegedly ordered it. It is a form of behavior that has been advocated by many people of many different faiths, and of no faith. It would not be impossible to argue that this is how we should all behave. We could make that argument, and have that vision, without ever mentioning god.

I still don’t understand your argument about the pencil. We all agree that nothing in the pencil example violates any physical laws. There were no violations of physical laws in your brain when you made the decision to move it. That is not true of the resurrection, which violates laws that, according to our current understanding of the universe, are universal. Of course you believe that your god is omipotent, but the existence of such a being is precisely the point of debate here. I know very well you have no problem believing in a god who can alter or suspend even the most basic structural laws of the universe. I only point out that this violates our current understanding of the universe. (Such a belief in an omnipotent god also gets perilously close to logical incoherence.)

Your comment about the Christian god seems very odd to me. Of course I think your god is a mythical god just like any other. That is what being an atheist means. But of course I know that Christians think otherwise! That is what it means to be a Christian. Muslims and Hindus and etc would think otherwise about their gods too. In my view, all are equally wrong.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79253

April 29th 2013


I welcome the ideas of those who are concerned about the human situation.

However, the message and the life of Jesus were unique.  Jesus did more than tell us how to be in right relationship with God and other people, Jesus lived that life in the face of intense pressure to do otherwise.

Now if you think that there are others who can match His wisdom and example, you are free to share this information with us and others.  However as the saying goes, a bird in the hand is worth (at least) two in the bush. 

Of course the life and words of Jesus are true because they are true.  They are also true because they come from God Who is the Source of all truth.  Albert Einstein was a brilliant scientist as demonstrated by his work.  His brilliance does not make his work true, his work makes him worthy of the adjective.

Jesus is our standard for living.  If you and others have a better one, please share.  If you don’t have an objective standard, then you don’t have an objective purpose for living.

You seem to assume that people do not need an objective rational meaning for life that only God can provide.  That seems to contradicted by the story of a Harvard graduate student that was in the pepers not too long ago.  A student of philosophy he wrote a long dissertation style paper explaining why life was meaningless, and then he shoot himself in the head on Yom Kippur (he was also Jewish) during a public meeting at the Library after leaving a note calling his action “an experiment in nihilism.” 

I am commited to live a rational life.  A rational life means living a life that has meaning and purpose.  Living for the sake of living is not rational.  Even living so others might live is also not rational, because irrational and purposeless live are not worth living.

If you are committed to proving that life is without purpose and meaning, that is you problem.  As for me I see nothing irrational in concluding that a rational God created a rational universe for rational human beings like you and me.  If the universe actually were irrational and people were basically irrational, then the conclusion would be different, but that is not the case.         

Merv - #79306

April 30th 2013

Two more responses.

First—I’ll try again to pick up on your main point from before.  Actually my behavior would change if I did not believe in God.  Much of what Jesus teaches is counter-intuitive to me, and I am prone (in my ‘cold rational self’ as I guess you would put it) to fall into social darwinian thinking or political/social conservatism.  But from what I know of the Bible and the saints of history—most importantly from Jesus himself, I am compelled in the opposite direction and try (usually against my own instincts or rationale) to follow the call of Christ instead.  Without that call on my life, I would not be a nice man to be around (and even as it is ... there could be some question about that :->)  So—no—I don’t trust my own personal instincts/desires/wisdom to come up with my own personal moral system.  I have no reason to think it would be a trust-worthy one, and many reasons why it wouldn’t.  Besides—you are correct that anybody can produce moral systems “from within”.  They are, in that sense, a dime a dozen, so to speak, and probably worth about that much.  I bet Stalin could enumerate lots of “good” reasons why his moral system was the best one for society and should have prevailed.  So I’m not interested in the personal preferences of folks no matter how deeply or sincerely felt.  I’m interested in the moral settings that come from an authority higher than myself—and also then higher than any cultural consensus of the day (which is where you are forced to stop to the extent that you are interested in any ‘authority’ beyond yourself.)  If I am going to answer for my actions to God, then checking my actions against my own preferences or that of my neighbor’s would be like a student deciding that he will take a poll among his semi-literate friends as to the best ways to spell words in his essay.  But when the teacher (using dictionary authority) grades his paper, the opinions of the friends will become sadly irrelevant no matter how much accidental or designed agreement or sincerity they had contrived.  

Second:  regarding your use of ‘univsality’, I think you invest more in to that term than, say, Newton himself would have owned.  It was a radical enough notion in Newton’s day to think that other objects than the earth can also pull “down” or towards themselves in proportion to their mass.  So instead of one gravitational body (earth), they jumped to the radical notion that all objects with mass exert attractive force—hence it became the universal law of gravitation.  But ‘law’ and ‘universality’ are very inductively supported terms always with contingency—always awaiting further data.  As other essays on this site have explained quite well, (I’ll try to find them if you’re interested), even so-called “laws” are best not thought of as immutable.  Popular press, and secondary level science education (my level) has common currency with these terms, but real science doesn’t insist that it has now has last word on something we can now call ‘law’.  It simply says ... well, we have no well-documented (or repeatable) case yet of anyone ever producing energy from nothing, so this is the regularity that best seems to explain how things work both now, in the past, and presumably on into the future.   Science knows nothing about exceptions other than to note (and probably ignore) occassional outliers when it comes across them.  It most certainly does not deny their existence, and therefore cannot speak for or against their potential significance.  Absolute universality in the sense you wish to apply it across all space and time is beyond science to support.  Now for philosophy and theology though ...

Eddie - #79309

April 30th 2013

An excellent discussion, Merv, just excellent.  I have always enjoyed your contributions on this site.  And if you don’t mind my saying so, while your thoughts have always struck me as sensible and intelligent, your writing lately seems to have taken a quantum leap forward in depth and thoughtfulness.  It is as if a philosophical or theological Muse has suddenly taken hold of you.  Don’t stop now!

Lou Jost - #79311

April 30th 2013

Merv, I am surprised that you think “Without that call on my life, I would not be a nice man to be around.” I really thought (and still think) there are legitimate secular reasons for many of the ethical beliefs of Christians, and I still suspect these reasons could be drawn out by discussion and introspection (even if the ethical actions arrived at might be difficult to follow). We were starting to see those kinds of reasons elucidated when commenters started writing about how awful society would be if we didn’t have Christian ethics. I do not necessarily trust an individual’s unreflective judgement, but a rational broad-based consensus based on thoughtful open discussion has often produced good societies, whose ethics are not tremendously different from those a Christian would hold.

Regarding the universality of physical laws, you missed my point. You say “But ‘law’ and ‘universality’ are very inductively supported terms always with contingency—always awaiting further data.” Of course. That is why I have repeatedly qualified my statements with phrases like “according to current knowledge”.  My point is that if there were a well-evidenced miracle that violated a law we believed was universal, then this would disprove the universality of that law, and this would have major implications for science. I was not saying that this means miracles can’t happen, but rather that a miracle of this kind, if it really did happen, would have huge consequences for physics. This means we should demand as much evidence for the miracle as we would for, say, cold fusion or a perpetual motion machine. We shouldn’t take “big” miracles lightly.

Ted mentions medical miracles. I think those are in a different class than the resurrection or ascension. Given the complexities of diagnoses and bodily responses, I doubt there are many “miraculous” healings that even appear to violate fundamental laws. We never see new limbs regenerate or stuff like that.

Merv - #79326

April 30th 2013

Thanks for your kind words, Eddie.  In my case, a little encouragement is a dangerous thing.  I am happy to have learned from so many others here including you, and I trust you will continue to jump in on points where my understanding still needs growth or insight that you can help provide.  We’ll see if your new enthusiasm over my ‘musings’ survives these next rambles.

Lou, you wrote:

I really thought (and still think) there are legitimate secular reasons for many of the ethical beliefs of Christians, and I still suspect these reasons could be drawn out by discussion and introspection… 


I didn’t mean to sound as if discussion and introspection have no place in Christian circles.  We often engage and need such activity in the church.  The difference I think is that among Christians there is an acknowledgment of a “center” —that our topic actually is or should be rooted in something solid and real—not just in a drifting matrix of current consensus.   We may disagree over just where that “center” is on various issues or whether or not we are indeed plugged into it, but we [Christians] all have that sense that it exists and that we ignore or dismiss it at our own peril.   Which brings me to my next point – and here is where I think atheists, Christians, and others get along quite amicably discussing ethics with each other.

I don’t think most well-read Christians think of the Bible as an arbitrary set of rules given by a tyrant just to throw his weight around – (I decree that all right-handed males must keep their left hands touching their nose all day every second Tuesday of each month.)   As ridiculous as some rules sound to us today and are mocked by many (this is why I accused you of thinking the Bible could only be valid if it somehow managed to be a one-size-fits-all for every culture over all time) —these rules were probably grounded in something that actually did help the people of that time avoid pitfalls or be the more cohesive people God called them to be.  So it isn’t as if these decrees are removed from all examination and blindly obeyed at all times by all cultures.  There probably were good reasons for people to avoid pork in that day or for people to not work on the Sabbath (which still has considerable wisdom when not reduced to a blindly absolute legalism).  Jesus himself engages in such explanatory discussion when he gave a pithy summary of the motivation behind all the laws:  Love –first for God and then also for each other.   So right away we are invited to peek behind the curtain and “go beyond” the law so to speak, by following the Spirit behind it instead of trying so hard to attend to the letter of it.  And if atheists or others are somehow tuned in to the same motivation of love, then they also will share the sense care and attentiveness to others that Christians [should] already have. 

Now, I recognize problems some Christians have with what I just said:  namely that it is impossible that an unbeliever can please God, and they will happily site chapter and verse as if to drive their point home.   But they forget some of Jesus’ most jarring teachings about the surprises so many of us are in for come judgment day:  “But Lord – I did x, y, and z big things all in your name!”  or on the other hand “Lord –when did I ever do any such thing for you!”  As important as so much of our speech is, Jesus cuts right through all that and asks  “Yeah … but did you muster up the cold glass of water, the kind word, or the listening ear for that ‘nobody’ who hovered on the periphery of your ‘oh-so-important’ work?  You know who that was, don’t you? —that was me.”   After that, there isn’t much room for dogma among Christians about “who is in and who is out”. 

I admire and aspire to discuss (and support and participate in) all such activity that finds its roots in love, whether or not all my co-laborers are explicitly able yet to acknowledge the “Who” behind that love.  So to your atheist friends who are involved in “doctors-without-borders” –I admire their heart of labor and would have no trouble discussing their sense of motivation with them.  And if they want to believe that their calling is rooted in nothing more than their own conviction for human kindness and decency, I’ll respect that —who is going to argue with someone busy saving the life of a war-ravaged orphan!?    And hopefully these hard working ‘atheists’ won’t be too upset if some of us presume to believe their [the atheists’] convictions of active love are more deeply anchored than they profess to know.

Merv - #79327

April 30th 2013

On our topic of ‘universality’, you were confused before about why I felt the need to bring up the difference between God and gods.  Of course it is obvious to all that you disagree with all theists in this since you see all of these, whatever category attributed, as mythological.  But in your insistence of lumping them altogether you then remain confused on the point of how an omnipotent being can interact with creation.  Just as I can (and do) “think atheistically with you” to understand your points – so also, you will have to exercise your imagination to ponder with us what an omnipotent God would be like if this God exists.  I haven’t seen any sign of comprehension from you yet that you are able to, in your own turn, engage the actual argument because you treat God as just another object in a collection of (mythological, no less) deities who, even if they existed would be  bound up within the rules and regularities of nature, which of course  has nothing to do with a Christian conception of God.   So, in that vein …

If the omnipotent Christian God  wants gravity to be a general law, but also wants to pick something up – such a God will see to both.  The physicists will get their universal law intact and undisturbed while God and his creatures all happily pick up any and all pencils they care to pick up.  Of course his creatures are obliged to use their God-created hands to accomplish the task.  But if our omnipotent God wants to make a pencil hover –then hover it will.  A physicist privileged to see God in direct and special action (pencil hovering) would no doubt enjoy the show and wonder how it was done.  She would probably test for all sorts of discreet levitating agents and maybe she would find one.  Or maybe it would remain a mystery.  But regardless, she would not be successful trying to persuade us all to delete gravity from our textbooks and cosmologies.  I would still be happily teaching Newtonian mechanics to my physics students for years to come  (and entertaining them with stories of a hovering pencil!) 

So on this view of things, God’s actions whether special or ordinary aren’t a threat to normal understandings of how things work.  In fact God must count on our having this understanding of normalcy if He expects to be able to get our attention by performing “signs and wonders”.  Without appreciation of the regularity the irregularities hold no attention-grabbing status  – certainly nothing to write home (much less, Gospels and epistles) about anyway. 

Lou Jost - #79328

April 30th 2013

Merv, thanks for the extensive comments. I think we are still misunderstanding each other on your second comment, but first I’ll just say one thing about your first comment. I honestly don’t understand why Christians think that love has to be anchored in something divine. The “who” behind that love is the person doing the loving. Why this perceived need to externalize it?

Your second comment continues our miscommunication on this theme. I do play along with you and consider an omnipotent god. In every one of my comments on the theme, I have been careful not to say that physical laws imply miracles are impossible. I have repeatedly said that the pencil can hover if there is an omnipotent god. What I am having trouble conveying is that this cannot be just a tiny “time out” from the laws of physics. If a pencil suddenly hovers with no physical cause, this deeply refutes our current understanding of gravity as curvature of space-time and/or conservation of energy, which follow from deeper principles regarding the structure of the universe. Now I am not saying this makes it impossible for the pencil to float at the command of an onmipotent god. I am saying if it happened, even for a minute or two, it destroys the foundations of what we currently know about physics. Some of our laws are so fundamental that they cannot be violated without shaking up the universe, according to our current understanding of that universe. Above in my discussion with Ted I gave the example of the speed of light changing in one area for a little while. This would have enormous repercussions with violations of  causality over a wide area for the rest of the lifetime of the universe.

Now please note, I am not telling you this to convince you that such things are impossible. I am agreeing with you for the sake of argument that an omnipresent being could do this (though I am beginning to suspect that the very concept of an omnipotent being is incoherent). But I just want you to understand that this would overturn huge swaths of physics, because these laws are structural and universal under our current understanding. So, my point in all of this is that such a miracle would show our understanding of the physical world is completely wrong. It would be BIG NEWS. So it would require extraordinary evidence. It is not some little show that we could applaud and go about our business.

As I said to Eddie somewhere, the belief in an omnipotent being is more or less logically equivalent to the statement that there can be no truly, absolutely universal laws.

Eddie - #79330

April 30th 2013


Please reread my 79152 above (or, if you missed it initially, read it now) on the ambiguity of “universal laws.”

But even if we use the phrase in your sense, I don’t see what the big deal is.

Suppose there are “no truly universal laws” if the laws only work 99.999% of the time (the remaining .001% of the time representing the rare occasions where God intervenes for special purposes).

So what?

Provided that everyone who witnesses a pencil hovering in the air understands that this particular event is caused by the conscious intervention of an omnipotent being, and that it is a one-shot deal, not reasonably to be expected to happen ever again, they are going to go on investigating pencils (and gravity) in exactly the same way they did before.  Not a single, law, theorem, principle, axiom, etc. will be altered in any physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc. textbook. 

Francis Collins believes that Jesus got up from the dead and walked around and talked to people.  But if you told him your Aunt Matilda got up from the dead and walked around and talked to people, he would not believe you.  He would tell you check out the possibility of a gag, a fraud, an observational error, a coma that only seemed like death, a dream, a hallucination caused by smoking an illegal substance, etc.  He would behave exactly as you think a good scientist should.

What is the threat?  Suppose you woke up tomorrow, and—nightmare of all nightmares—every scientist on earth except for you suddenly believed that Jesus rose from the dead.  (Not became fundamentalists, not denied evolution, not took up spiritualism and UFO-hunting, just believed that Jesus rose from the dead.)  Do you think they would suddenly start making clumsy mistakes in their physics equations?  That they would start explaining unfamiliar chemical reactions by the intervention of angels and demons?  That they would start explaining death by the Grim Reaper instead of by cancer or heart failure?  Or disease as a punishment for sin rather than as caused by exposure to a pathogen?  Or babies by the stork instead by the fertilization of an ovum?  I find your alarmism unwarranted by the situation.

What’s the issue?  What skin is it off your nose personally, and what danger is it to science, if a few exceptions to the laws of nature—understood by all as exceptions—occurred in ancient Palestine?

Are you simply being a verbal purist?  I.e., are you saying nothing more than:  “If there is even one exception to the laws in 10 trillion years, they aren’t truly universal”?   If so, that’s trivial, like saying people should say “It’s I” rather than “It’s me” on technical grammatical grounds, even though the second expression is just as useful for practical purposes as the first.

The point is that the laws are close enough to universal to enable scientists to explain nature with a high level of confidence, and to give us technology-based comforts that work reliably, all the time.  I expect that my light switch will keep working until the Second Coming—and at that point, if it stops working, I don’t think that the loss of “the universality of natural laws” is going to be weighing as heavily on my mind as how I have treated my wife, children, parents, employees, employers, friends, neighbors, etc.

Lou Jost - #79337

May 1st 2013

I have to do fieldwork today so will have to answer this later. But in short, you misunderstand the nature of physical laws (and, seemingly, the purpose of science). You also misunderstand the impact of violation of the laws we believe are universal. Violations are no danger to science; they are new knowledge about the world. But they would force us to discard the current (rather successful) foundations of physics. If that is the way the universe works, fine, we’ve learned something. But it is a huge change that needs to be justified and well evidenced. Will elaborate later, though right now I don’t know how to make this clearer than I did in my speed-of-light example, which you don’t seem to have understood.

Eddie - #79346

May 1st 2013


I fully understood every example you used and every word you wrote.  I did not agree with the conclusions you drew from what you wrote.  I do not think you would have written what you did if you had a full grasp of what the notion of an omnipotent Creator of natural laws implies.

For the record, regarding the nature of physical laws and the purpose of science, it is likely I have as much knowledge the subject as you have and possibly more.  A small sample of authors I have studied, some in graduate seminar, includes: Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Kuhn, Burtt, Cassirer, Carnap, Russell, Whitehead, Ayer, Wittgenstein.  I’ve also read many academic works on Greek and Medieval and early modern science, and published academic work on the historical origins of modern science.  I certainly know what scientists have meant by “physical laws” and I certainly have a broader historical perspective on what “the purpose of science” has been (and it has varied from ancient times to the present) than the vast majority of working scientists, who think very little about the history and philosophy even of their own disciplines (let alone of science generally), as they are wrapped up in technical research of a focused rather than a broad nature.

Lou Jost - #79360

May 1st 2013

Your comment 79330 would not have gotten you very far in a philosophy of physics class.

Eddie - #79371

May 1st 2013

That would depend entirely on who was teaching the class.  Just as there is no one thing called “evolutionary theory” on which all evolutionary biologists agree, so there is no one “philosophy of physics” (or “philosophy of science”) on which all practitioners agree.  Do you think that Kuhn, Feyerabend and Popper agree on everything?  All that I can say is that I have been reading about science since I was 5 years old, and that I have read a massive amount of the history and philosophy of science, and that I could defend my understanding on the basis of primary sources (the works of the great scientists and philosophical founders of modern science) and secondary sources (the writings of modern philosophers and historians of science).

But the important thing here is not who has a broader, richer, and deeper understanding of the history and philosophy of science.  The point here is that plain empirical fact is against you.  The plain empirical fact is that there are world-class scientists in every field—astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, you name it—who believe that Jesus got up from the dead yet who practice science in exactly the same way that you do.  Their belief that the laws of nature were “suspended” or “broken” (pick you own term) on rare occasions in the past does not stop them from believing (a) that laws of nature exist and (b) that the laws of nature we have uncovered are the right ones (more or less).  There is not one of them that says:  “I used to think that gravity works in accord with an inverse square law, but now that I have become a Christian and believe that Jesus walked on the water, I think the inverse square law cannot be right, so I’m investigating other possible mathematical formulations of gravity.”  Not one.  Every Christian scientist known to me thinks that the inverse square law applied before the time of Jesus, and after the time of Jesus, and even during the time of Jesus, except for the few moments when it was suspended to achieve one of God’s purposes; and that it will continue to apply for the rest of the history of the universe, unless God intervenes again.

So the idea that if a miracle ever occurred, the whole of science would be thrown into chaos, that we would decide we were wrong about the natural laws, etc., simply does not hold water. Practicing scientists who are religious believers simply don’t draw that conclusion.  In fact, you are the only Ph.D. in science I’ve ever “met” who has drawn that conclusion—and I’ve spoken with dozens of scientists, and read many of their reflections on these topics.  So once again you offer your own view as that of “science.”  I become weary of trying to point that your view is just your view—not the view of “science” or “scientists” or “physics” or “physicists” or “philosophers of science” or “evolutionary biology”—just your view.  What is it about internet debates on science/religion topics that causes so many people—not just yourself, but many others, e.g., melanogaster, beaglelady, Coyne, Myers, Shallit—to write as if they are the embodiment of, or at least authorized representative of, “science” or “evolutionary theory”?  Why can’t people just say:  “This is what I think,” and leave it at that?

Lou Jost - #79412

May 2nd 2013

I have yet to see a single Christian theoretical physicist justify such a complete compartmentalization of thinking. If they don’t ask themselves about the apparent incoinsistency between the general theory of relativity and a physical Jesus who walked on water and flew through the air, they must not be very curious, or  they must not very interested in the subject of gravity.

Eddie - #79458

May 3rd 2013

You haven’t even begun to explain how walking on water would violate “the general theory of relativity.”  But if you wish to, run it by me—I know someone whose Ph.D. is in Physics—specifically the physics of gravity—and who also has advanced qualifications in the philosophy of science—I’ll flag your post for him and have him look at it.

Lou Jost - #79402

May 2nd 2013

Merv, if Jesus walked on water or Mohammed flew to Jerusalem on a winged horse, the foundations of today’s gravitational theory would be wrong, and every physicist worth his or her salt would be staying up late at night trying to figure out what kind of new postulates would be needed to build a truly universal theory of gravity.

You have mentioned Newton several times. While the predictions of Newtonian physics are often indistinguishable from these of relativistic physics at slow speeds and low masses, the underlying principles are very different, as you know (with the Newtonian versions being falsified), and we now know that Newtonian physics fails badly in many circumstances.

Eddie - #79406

May 2nd 2013

Lou Jost wrote:

Merv, if Jesus walked on water or Mohammed flew to Jerusalem on a winged horse, the foundations of today’s gravitational theory would be wrong, and every physicist worth his or her salt would be staying up late at night trying to figure out what kind of new postulates would be needed to build a truly universal theory of gravity.”

I deny this vigorously.  At least, I deny it of “every physicist worth his or her salt.”

It would be true of atheist physicists, because, not believing that Jesus or Mohammed did what they did via supernatural means, they would have to believe that it was somehow done through natural means, and that would mean that the universal law of gravity was not adequate for all natural events, since there were natural events it could not account for.

It would not be true of Christian or more generally of religious physicists, because, believing that God sometimes acts directly and supernaturally, they would not seek to explain the events in question by natural means.  They would not—based on those events—see any need to update the law of gravity.  They would assume that the law of gravity remained in force outside of the exceptional events in question.

They would not change their practice of science by even an iota.

That my assessment is correct, you can easily verify.  Call up or write some Christian physicists known to you.  I don’t mean nominally Christian physicists who go to church for baptisms and funerals only, or who vaguely interpret God as a symbol, or think that the teaching of Christianity is that everyone should be nice, or the like.  I mean Christians who actually believe in a dynamic, active God who actually does things in the world on occasion.  Ask those Christian physicists if they do physics differently from their colleagues in the lab or at the college.  And if they were converts, ask them if they used to do physics one way, and then, when they started believing that Jesus walked on the water, started doing it another way.  E.g., were they Einsteinians before they believed Jesus walked on the water, but became convinced that Einstein’s theory was inadequate because Jesus walked on the water?  Report back to us on what you find.  

TE Biologists such as Denis Lamoureux, Darrel Falk, Dennis Venema, etc., regularly report that they study evolution in exactly the same way as their secular colleagues, that they affirm similar mechanisms, etc.  They have declared that the difference between themselves and, say, Coyne or Dawkins, is only over the motivation for doing science, and the personal implications of science for them, not over the methods or contents of science.  I would be surprised if you turn up any Resurrection-believing physicists who think any differently.

But in any case, the onus is on you:  so far your claim is just the opinion of one scientist—Lou Jost.  I don’t count it as representative of physics or of any other science, until you prove that it is, by statements from Christian or other religious scientists that, because miracles have happened, the existing understanding of natural laws is inadequate for scientific purposes.

Lou Jost - #79408

May 2nd 2013

I stand by my claim. Any physicist with an ounce of curiosity and depth would have to wonder how the structure of the universe could take a local “time out” like that. A physicist who understood relativity would have to be brain-dead if they didn’t wonder how it was possible.

You may have missed it, but I have taken pains to point out (in 79401, under one of Ted’s very early comments in this post) the difference between laws of physics and most laws of biology or economics or psychology. The latter are generalizations from observations, and as you said elsewhere, a few violations would not even weaken them; they would still be valid generalizations. The fundamental laws of physics are not like that. See my discussion with Ted.

Eddie - #79454

May 3rd 2013


1.  I didn’t say that a physicist wouldn’t or shouldn’t be curious about how a miracle could occur.  And one doesn’t need to be a physicist to have the same curiosity.  I’m must as curious as you are about someone walking on water or getting up from the dead.

But there is no reason to assume that the methods of physics could ever explain how God could make such a thing happen.  How is physics equipped to understand the nature and workings of a Being who existed before there was any universe or any laws, who made the universe and the laws, and can rearrange the universe under new laws at his pleasure?  Physics is not equipped for that, by its own voluntary self-limitations.  Physics does not study the nature and activity of infinite, eternal beings; it studies the nature and activity of finite, temporal beings.

2.  It’s unclear to me what counts as a “fundamental law of physics.”  You gave one example of a body decaying, and you said it would violate the second law of thermodynamics for its decay to reverse.  Would violating the second law be one of your “fundamental” violations?

Yet I have read many books in which someone claiming expertise in physics says that the “laws” of thermodynamics are not really “laws” but just statistical generalizations.  That is, many things are not really “impossible,” but are instead very, very unlikely.  So, for example, it is possible, though extremely unlikely, that if you open your door on a cold day, the air inside your house may actually heat up, if it just happens that the few molecules inside with the low energy rush out and the very few molecules outside with high energy rush in.

If that is correct (and I’m not saying it is, but some of your fellow-Ph.D.s in physics say it is in their popular expositions of physics) why couldn’t it be, not impossible, but just very, very, unlikely, that a body would reverse its decay?  And why couldn’t an omnipotent being engineer such a reverse, without violating the “law” of thermodynamics?  (Since the “law” is only a statement of probabilities anyway.)  Why would physicists have to re-think the laws of physics in such a case?

How about walking on the water?  Is that a case of violating “fundamental laws” of the sort you are talking about?  I don’t see why.  We can imagine a human engineer devising, say, some sort of boots that generate a repulsive electrical charge which, by interacting with the electrical charges of the electrons in the water molecules of a lake, creates a lifting effect, allowing someone to walk on water.  That wouldn’t violate any fundamental laws, would it?  So if God gave to Jesus electrically charged feet for a few minutes, couldn’t Jesus walk across the water in the same way, without violating any fundamental laws?

In short, it would help if you would be very specific regarding the following:

a.  What are some “fundamental laws” that can’t ever be violated?

b.  What is a specific Biblical miracle that violates one of those laws?

3.  It would also help if you would answer my other question about the practice of scientists, including physicists; i.e., since, as you know perfectly well, there are Christian physicists, astronomers, biologists, etc. who are aware of the fundamental character of certain natural laws, but who accept the Resurrection and many other miracles, how is that they do that?  Are you saying they don’t know their physics well enough?  Polkinghorne doesn’t know his physics well enough, for example?  Does that sound plausible to you?  Guillermo Gonzalez, discoverer of many extrasolar planets and a student of the fine-tuning of the universe, doesn’t know his physics well enough, for example?  Does that sound plausible to you?  

Lou Jost - #79475

May 3rd 2013

Eddie, I anwered the questions about fundamental laws that are exact above. Even QM makes some deterministic, exact predictions.

As for your last questions, take the miracle of the loaves and fishes. That one requires new atoms to arise from nowhere. New mass of any kind out of nowhere would violate relativity, whose postulates I think are  fundamental and well-confirmed (though there is clearly something we don’t know about them because of its conflict with QM). The amount of energy contained in one loaf and one fish is huge: the equivalent of the yield of one of the largest atomic bombs. Multiplied by lots of loaves and fishes, we have an enormous spectacle. Now Jesus could save some energy by transforming existing air atoms to fishy compounds. Still there would be a very large difference in energy between the initial and final products.

The violation of even purely statistical laws would require some explanation, if this were done at will at a particular, appropriate moment.

Regarding your last question,  I think they are compartmentalizing their thinking. I have seen this  alot among religious people who can be quite skeptical about real stuff, but who turn off their skepticism when it comes to this subject. I asked Ted above whether P had ever actually explained in detail how the miracles relate to physical laws, and Ted answered that he was unaware of such discussions by P. Of course I have no idea what G Gonzalez believes. If you have something written by him going into detail about the violations (or non-violations) of the laws of physics by miracles, please let us know.

Eddie - #79484

May 3rd 2013

I’m sorry, Lou, but I’m still not seeing the problem.

The creation of new atoms out of nowhere might well violate “relativity”; it would also violate very ancient notions of science; the principle that nothing can come out of nothing was articulated by ancient Greeks.  But the ancient Greeks did not have the conception of an omnipotent God.  Once you grant the possibility of an omnipotent God, the possibility that something can come out of nothing can no longer be discounted.

[By the way, can you point me to a general science work—aimed at intelligent lay people, but written by a competent scientist—which connects the principle of nothing coming out of nothing specifically with relativity?  I of course was taught that matter-energy can never be created or destroyed (only transformed), so the principle is familiar to me, but I did not think this principle was established by relativity theory.  In fact, I thought it was universally accepted in science before relativity theory came along.  Further, when the Big Bang Theory was duking it out with the Steady State theory back in the 1950s, I don’t recall reading any accounts that said scientists objected to the Steady State Theory (which involved new matter emerging out of nothing) on the grounds that it violated relativity theory.  So while I understand the fundamental nature of “nothing comes from nothing” I’m not seeing the connection with relativity theory.

[Of course, Hawking is now telling us we can get universes out of nothing, so does his view violate relativity theory?]

Back to the loaves and the fishes.  Since the Bible doesn’t say how the miracle was accomplished, I don’t see how you can’t be sure that existing molecules and atoms weren’t rearranged; but even if new atoms or molecules were created ex nihilo, I still don’t see the problem.  Are you saying there would have been some nuclear explosion or burst of radiation as the particles first appeared?  If not, what is the problem?  But supposing that natural laws require some “enormous spectacle” whenever new atoms appear—whatever you mean by “spectacle.”  God, who is omnipotent, could easily suppress the spectacle.  If he wants a universe with a few quadrillion more atoms in it than it had a few moments before, he can arrange for the atoms to enter the scene without causing damage or even causing notice.  He has his finger on every natural law at every moment.  He can control the response of every other bit of matter and energy in the universe to the entry of the new atoms.

And if the overall larger universe then requires new “tuning” to adjust afterwards to a minuscule increase in total elementary particles (a few quadrillion extra atoms in an obscure corner of a universe with 10^85 elementary particles), God can accomplish that tuning quietly and without fanfare.  He’s omnipotent.

I don’t know what Gonzalez had written specifically about miracles, but (a) he is a Christian and (b) he is well-trained in physics and astronomy, and his work is acknowledged to be good (if your standard of citations applies) by the number of times his work has been cited; and (c) his book Privileged Planet is specifically about the fine-tuning of nature to allow for a planet such as earth, so he presumably is well aware of the interconnections of laws, constants, etc. that you have been talking about.  Yet I have never heard that he agonizes over how Jesus violates relativity or over how all physics has to be changed because Christian miracles happened.  So there is a disconnect between what you are saying and what he is saying.  I don’t know how to account for it.  

It is at least possible that these people are not compartmentalizing their thinking, but that you are seeing a problem that is not there.  

I do agree with you that religious scientists sometimes compartmentalize their thinking, but yours is not the example I would have chosen.  The example I would have chosen would be the sort of Christian biologist who believes, as a scientist, that evolution is entirely explicable by reference to random mutations and natural selection, without an reference to teleology, guidance, or design, but as a Christian praises God every week for his wonderful design—which is real, but perceived only through faith.  Looking at the same thing, while on Monday to Friday and seeing only “chance,” but on Sunday seeing “the divine plan”—now that’s compartmentalization.  (And that’s one thing ID people aren’t guilty of.  Mike Behe thinks we can perceive design in living systems through reason, not merely through faith.)

Lou Jost - #79487

May 3rd 2013

I’m short on time right now so have to be brief:

1. The Greeks were wrong, we now think something can come from nothing, see QM vacuum fluctuations. There are big holes in our understanding of this, though.

2. The connection to relativity is through E=mc2

3. Even if fish atoms are reassembled from available air and dust atoms, the nuclei of different elements have different rest energies than the rest energies of the sums of their parts. This is the basis for energy generation from fission and fusion of nuclei. So enormous energies would be involved if new elements were being made from available ones.

4. For the n-th time, I never said a violation was impossible, just that a violation (even for a moment) would falsify the foundational principles of relativity. I do think that these cannot be turned off and on, even for a moment, without causing universal chaos, so I am starting to think that the concept of omnipotence is self-contradictory, but I am not ready to defend that thesis yet.

5. Regarding connections between natural laws, some things are connected mathematically. You can’t change one without changing the other, if our current understanding of the universe is correct. Even those who believe god is omnipotent often hesitate to claim that he/she can cause logical contradictions. So, for example, a miracles could not just change an electric field without also changing the magnetic field in a certain way (again, if our current understanding is correct). Again, just “turning off” the fundamental principles may have huge consequences that propagate through the universe, and local turn-offs may lead to logical contradictions.

6.  Your point about the steady state theory is a good one. The theory’s proponents did seem to regard general relativity as an approximate theory, and argued that the violations would be so rare a to be undetectable. So yes, some physicists shared the views of you and other commenters here about the approxinate nature of even this theory. They neglected the precision of the logical deductions from the fundamental principles of the theory. All I can say is that they were proven wrong. 

I am not saying GR must be exactly true. We know there is some problem at quantum scales. But it will be incomplete in an interesting and deep way, not in a dirty way like the one proposed by the steady-state proponents, sneaking in a little tiny bit of violation of mass-conservation to mess up the logical deductions of the theory.

7. Regarding Gonzalez, you say “So there is a disconnect between what you are saying and what he is saying.” You don’t know that, since you have never seen him discuss these issues.

Eddie - #79498

May 3rd 2013


In reverse order:

7.  Forget about Gonzalez.  Name me a Christian physicist who believes that walking on water (name your miracle) implies that the physicists’ understanding of nature is inadequate.  I think that, to a man (or woman), the Christian physicists would say that it is not the understanding of nature that needs to be changed, but only the atheistic insistence that there is nothing other than nature.  Until you find me such Christian physicists, I don’t see any reason to change my mind.

6.  Thanks for acknowledging my point about the steady state theory.

5.  You seem to think that I’m unaware of the interconnectedness of nature, because you keep repeating the point.  I grant the interconnectedness of nature.  I agree that things are connected mathematically.  But things are connected mathematically only when the laws of nature are in operation.  If the laws of nature are suspended, then all the mathematical relationships you are talking about become negotiable.  And of course in a miracle situation the laws of nature are understood to be suspended.  When the laws of nature are suspended, literally anything goes, except straight logical contradictions.  God still can’t make a square circle.  But he can do anything else.

It strikes me as absurd that you insist that scientific epistemology should apply even when the laws of nature are suspended.  Science can study only nature.   Once you are into the supernatural, scientists are as ignorant as anybody else.  Their training becomes no more useful than an insurance salesman’s at explaining what is happening.

4.  I know you never said that a violation was impossible.  And for the n-th time, that is not what I’m disagreeing with you about.  What I am disagreeing with is only this:  your claim that if certain Biblical miracles happened, scientists would have to discover new laws of physics to deal with those events.

If a miracle had never happened from the beginning of time up to the present, and then, tomorrow, the voice of God was heard all over the earth, saying:  “I am God, and I created the whole universe and all its laws, and I am going to suspend the normal order of things for one hour, to show you who is boss of this world,” and then trees grew ice cream cones and we could fly by flapping our arms and Conan O’Brien suddenly became funny, etc., and after an hour, everything returned back to normal, the laws of nature that scientists had previously determined would not be wrong, and they would return to affirming those laws the moment the hour was over.  Neither the methods nor the conclusions of science would change by an iota.  Every scientist on earth would resume his or her previous way of studying nature—except perhaps for you.  Because they would all understand—after all, God told them— that what they observed for the special hour was not nature and therefore was not the object of their science.  This is the only point I have been trying to make, but you have been making it very difficult for me to make it.

3.  I don’t know what a “fish atom” is—unless you mean the atoms which make up the molecules which make up the cells etc. which make up the fish.  And I don’t know why you are talking about fission and fusion.  I’m talking about taking the atoms existing in the environment already—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, phosporus, etc.—most of which are easily found in the air—and rearranging them into a new form.  There’s no fission or fusion involved, just molecular reconfiguration, which is at the electronic level, not the nuclear level.

If you mean that bonds would have to be broken, energy released, new bonds would have to be formed, requiring energy—well, of course!  So what?  You think an omnipotent God couldn’t do that?  It’s done all the time in the plants that manufacture your food and chemical products, by means much less powerful than God has at his disposal.   

2.  I understand E = mc^2 to indicate how much energy is locked up in a given mass.  I don’t understand how the equation itself limits the amount of mass or energy there can be in the universe.  There must be more to your argument than that.  Are you saying that physicists have proved that matter/energy can never be created or destroyed?  I would say that it is an axiom of physics, not something that physics has proved, or ever could prove.  (And I think it’s a reasonable axiom, but that doesn’t make it a proof.)  But if I’m wrong, please point me to a book on physics where I can find an intelligent layman’s summary of the proof.

1.  The “something can come from nothing through quantum vacuum fluctuations” argument shows why physicists need to learn philosophy.  Or at the very least, English.  Our brilliant physicists apparently do not realize that the word “nothing” is being used equivocally in such expressions.  They need to get out more, and learn to communicate in language that is meaningful, rather than a private language of their own, in which the meaning of words is distorted beyond recognition.  

Out of “nothing”—where the word is properly understood—nothing can come—unless there exists an omnipotent God.  And whatever a “quantum vacuum” is—it isn’t “nothing” in the proper sense of the word.  But of course it has great propaganda value to speak of making universes out of nothing, if you are an atheist like Hawking.  You see, even Dawkins wasn’t quite right; Darwin didn’t quite make it possible to be “an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”  You still need an atheistic origin of life—which is nowhere near forthcoming.  And even if you get that, you still need an atheistic explanation for the origin of the universe.  Hawking apparently sees himself as completing the process of ousting God entirely from the world of physical explanation.  But he accomplishes it only by a dishonest verbal trick.  Shame on him.

Lou Jost - #79503

May 3rd 2013

This exchange is getting as silly as an argument between two nerds about whether Superman’s superpowers are stronger than Batman’s.

Eddie - #79515

May 4th 2013

You’re free to break off the exchange any time you want, Lou.  I’ve simply explained to you why I’m unconvinced that science would have to be radically reformulated if certain miracles have happened.  If you’re getting bored, you can stop repeating the same argument (in different words), and I"ll stop repeating the same response (in different words).

One thing we do agree on—though we don’t agree on its implications regarding miracles—is the fine-tuning of the universe, and its close-knit character.  I suspect  you would very much agree with at least the first half of Michael Denton’s Nature’s Destiny, which spells out a good number of the interconnections between laws, constants, the properties of the elements, etc.  You might even like the parts where he shows—and here he differs from Francis Collins and other TEs—that the tight interconnectedness of things runs through not only physics and cosmology but also through chemistry, geology, biochemistry, biology, and the physical side of anthropology.  Whether you would like the second part of his book—which offers a decidedly non-Darwinian, (much more deterministic than chancy) account of evolution based on these interconnections—I do not know.  But I think you would be saying “Amen” throughout the first half.  And Denton’s intellectual breadth and historical knowledge of scientific thinking make the books of Collins and Miller on evolution seem like light popular fare by comparison.   When it comes to a large synthetic view of the overall picture of the universe painted by science, Denton ranks up there with expositors of the past such as Carl Sagan.  Again, I think you would enjoy it.  Best wishes.

By the way, on the other mammoth thread, I commented briefly on your last-posted statement that “the Bible is false.”

Lou Jost - #79520

May 4th 2013

Yes, I think we should break this off. I’ll check out Denton when I have the chance.

I saw that other comment about the falsity of the bible, but didn’t have much desire to argue about that. At some point, if nearly every seemingly-factual story in the bible turns out to be factually false, it seems to me that it would be fair to call the bible itself “factually false”, but not much rides on this. Of course you would say the false parts weren’t meant to be taken literally. I would say “You can’t know which parts should be taken literally, and some false parts sure look like they were meant to be taken literally, like the story of Adam and Eve”, and you’d come up with some nonliteral interpretation, etc, etc. Life is short and it is more productive to argue about specifics if possible.

Hasta pronto.

Lou Jost - #79525

May 4th 2013

Eddie, I’ve just looked at the Wikipedia page and the Amazon reviews of Denton’s book. If they had been good, or even neutral or just slighgtly bad, I would have boughgt it. But they were really discouraging. All made the point that Denton himself, in his second book, rejected most of the central claims of this first book. And I can verify that his argument about molecular clocks is false (and he also apparently rejects it in the second book, to his credit; see below).

The most helpful Amazon review was by someone who appears sympathetic to  ID. He recommends buying Behe’s book instead. “I was expecting the material to be updated since it is a 1996 SECOND EDITION copy. But it was just a reprinting of the original, outdated text. Is there good information in there? Yes, some, but quoting from a 13-year-old book when trying to debate an evolutionist is rather pointless. Besides, in his newest book NATURE’S DESTINY, Michael Denton seems to do a complete turn around - he now states that evolution did occur and did overcome all of the arguments he previously made. As another example of his change, he now embrases the “molecular clock”, which he denounced in this book. All in all, I think if you are short on cash, avoid this book (and in my opinion, his new one as well) and opt instead for DARWIN’S BLACK BOX by Michael Behe - it is much better and more up-to-date.”

That is pretty bad, if even the author rejects his own claims.

I wish you were more evenly skeptical about your sources of information. You unskeptically embrace these fringe characters who tell you what you want to hear. I think this is the source of many of our disagreements.

Eddie - #79526

May 4th 2013


As a trained scholar with a Ph.D. from an excellent university, I don’t need your little lecture on academic epistemology.  (“I wish you were more evenly skeptical about your sources of information.”)  I’ve read both of Denton’s books with extreme care, and taken detailed notes on them; you’ve read neither, and are going entirely on hearsay.  So you are in no position to lecture me on how to assess my sources!

Further, anyone who would rely on Wikipedia or Amazon reviews to determine the value of a book must be completely unaware that both of those sources of information are frequently wildly partisan, especially in the case of Wikipedia, which is controlled (in the case of all articles on evolution and intelligent design) by a cabal of people who simply delete all changes to the articles which are favorable toward, or even simply fair toward, ID.  And more generally speaking, no respectable university professor anywhere in the world allows Wikipedia articles as sources in an essay.  So I wish you would be more evenly skeptical about your sources of information.  (And by the way, what you have reported about Denton—re 1996 editions etc.—is badly confused.  Whether that is a confusion in the material you are using, or in your reporting, I can’t tell, but it goes to show the perils of talking about books based on hearsay.)

Second of all, you seem to be unaware that most of your above post is irrelevant to the point I was making.  Whether or not Denton’s first book disagrees with his second makes no difference, since I was recommending to you his second book, not his first.  And I was recommending it to you in good faith, with a friendly attitude, and you threw it back in my face.

For someone like yourself, steeped in materialism, reductionism, and scientism, to lecture me that I “hear only what I want to hear” is ridiculous.  You “hear only what you want to hear” about Christianity, science, and many other things.  I have caught you making numerous one-sided statements about what physicists believe, what evolutionary biologists believe, what neuroscientists believe, what science is, what Christianity is, etc.  Your apparent notion that you possess a wholly impartial mind, which never lets anything but evidence and argument sway it, is not only a priori preposterous to any serious scholar in the area of religious and science, but is falsified by numerous prejudiced remarks which you have made, and which I have taken pains to point out all along.  Your formal manners are polite and you are superficially flexible, but at the deepest level your position is as fixed and inflexible as that of any of the fundamentalists who have posted here.  You are in no position to lecture any of us here about our deep biases.  You are chock full of them.

Lou Jost - #79529

May 4th 2013

Yes, I had looked up his first book first, and the review I mentioned was of that book. So the confusion was on my end.

I do think you are much less skeptical of ID or anti-mainstream evolutionary authors than you are of mainstream evolutionary authors. You have often said similar or worse things about me, as you do again in this comment. I didn’t let that get under my skin, and I hope you don’t either.

I did take your recommendation of Denton as a friendly gesture, and I took it seriously. I did the best I could from here, looking up reviews of Denton’s work,  not just from Wikipedia but from ID-sympathetic readers.

Eddie - #79536

May 4th 2013


I don’t want you to even look at Denton’s second book unless you are in an open frame of mind.  So I recommend you stay away from the book for a few months, until the negative vibes have worn off.  If you read it with an open mind, I think you will agree with 90% of what he says about natural laws and constants (and maybe even some of what he says about evolution).

You would find me more critical of ID, of Shapiro, etc., if I thought that the blogosphere and mainstream media were giving these writers a fair shake.  I have many criticisms, for example, of Stephen Meyer’s first book.  But I wouldn’t air them here, because BioLogos columnists and commenters have been grossly prejudiced and unfair toward the book, and any criticism of Meyer would just lead to more unfair “piling on.”  (I can just imagine Fruitfly or beaglelady, taking a qualified criticism of mine, and turning it into:  “Even Eddie admits that Meyer’s science is lousy”—which of course would not be my intended meaning.)  

In fact, on other websites, I have quite often been critical of creationists, and of versions of ID which are close to creationism.  I’ve also aired criticism of individual points made by Dembski, Meyer, etc.

Wherever I go, I try to restore academic balance to the discussion.  Where the creationists rule, and are being unfair (making ignorant generalizations about radioactive dating, for example, or saying that “evolution” by itself is automatically godless), I emphasize where they are being unfair.  Where the TEs and atheists call the tune, and are being unfair (pretending that there is one unified “evolutionary biology” that is without serious internal tensions, or misrepresenting historical Christian theology, or misrepresenting Behe’s argument about irreducible complexity, or whatever), I emphasize where they are being unfair.  

In my ideal world, everyone from every camp would feel free, in every venue, to criticize members of his own camp on individual views.  No one would worry about the misuse of those criticisms, because everyone would trust the intellectual and academic integrity of the people in the other camps.  But we don’t live in that kind of world.  We live in a culture-war realm of thuggery.  People are almost forced to be partisan because they don’t want to be responsible for the sacrifice of an ally to the thugs on the opposing side.  And this goes back to a conversation on the other thread about dogs (the monster with over 600 comments now).

There you made some comments about American culture.  I agreed with those comments, and amplified them with a discussion of the harmful polarizations of the culture wars and how American culture needed some healthy internal criticism.  You never responded.  And that is too bad, because we might have built up some common ground from our agreement there.

Perhaps you did not catch the comment.  But if you go back, I am sure you can find it on Page 3 or maybe Page 2 of the comments.  If you wish to comment here rather than there, you can forget the old thread, simply reference the comment, and respond here.

Lou Jost - #79539

May 4th 2013

Thanks for the reminder about that older comment. I have had a hard time keeping up with the comments even on the freshest threads, but I’ll go find that one. I will be travelling and working on the road the next few days, though, so will probably be a very sporadic commenter for the next few days.

I will  go and look at Denton one of these days, or at least try to find excerpts on the internet to get a feel for him. I do appreciate the recommendation, in spite of my negativity based on an admittedly superficial evaluation of him.

GJDS - #79329

April 30th 2013


I suggest that you are committing an error in how you use the example of a levitating pencil. To illustrate this I offer the following re-statement of your example:

(1)   If in the normal course of events, people report insistences of levitating pencils at say roughly 1 per 10,000 instances of picking up pencils, that would be a significant matter and science would need to rethink our understanding of gravity (and other matters pertinent to science, since there is no singular universal scientific law).

(2)   If Christians decide that this is a manifestation of a miraculous event, they would need to show why God would choose to act in this way, and what faith/purpose would be served (e.g. people were cured of illnesses every time a pencil levitated)

(3)   If (2) the Church would be obligated to examine every instance of levitating pencils, and every concurrent act of healing, to be satisfied that these were ‘acts of God’.

(4)   If (3) were not substantiated than it is customary for the Church to view levitating pencils (if such a thing were proven) with suspicion and would probably attribute such events (if proven) to superstition/ungodly forces.

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