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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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Merv - #79344

May 1st 2013

To both Lou and GJDS—we need not stick with hypothetical levitating pencils at all if we prefer actual events.  Newtonian mechanics did turn out to be wrong; relativity accounted for the needed corrections.  Lou will point out that this is science at work—being revolutionized and taking into account new data and new challenges.  Agreed.  But guess what!  We still teach Newtonian mechanics in our physics classes.  Why?  Because it’s good *enough*, accurate *enough*, useful *enough* for our everyday purposes…  no hand wringing over how our physics textbooks (laden with Newtonian insights) are teaching lies .... the sky didn’t come crashing down on the world of science because something wasn’t as universal as had been thought by “settled science” for centuries.  Nobody is on a crusade to rewrite all our science curricula because, technically, Newton was wrong.  It just doesn’t work that way, Lou.

Sometimes exceptions are significant because they enhance our understanding and add a new layer onto what we thought we had completely understood before (as in the relativity example above).  Sometimes exceptions are erroneous or misunderstood and turn out not to be exceptions at all.  Sometimes exceptions just involve other natural processes that we may not yet know about.  And sometimes, in a world created by an omnipotent God an exception might just be ... an exception!  The common wisdom:  “The exception proves the rule” is phrase that I’m guessing you have trouble understanding, much less appreciating, Lou.

By the way: here is the post by Dennis Venema that addresses the very topic of theory and “law” (which I henceforth should start using scare quotes around so as to help ease you away from your confusion over what we can know about the nature of its universality.) 

Lou Jost - #79359

May 1st 2013

I’m amazed at your continued misunderstanding of my comment, even after I’ve tried to clarify it for you multiple times. Will try again after I do some work.

GJDS - #79364

May 1st 2013

Merv, I am more interested in how the church views miracles rather than details of your example of a levitating pencil. The church has throughout the ages emphasised the difference between a miracle and superstition and beliefs in the occult (whatever form these may take).

The universaility of laws of science is a mistaken point of view; it is the application of theory that is considered the same in any portion of the universe. Theory is continget as you say, as it so often relies on measurements and these are rarely absolutely accurate. For anyone interested in this area, an excellent introduction is given a book on philosophy of science by Rosenberg (there are many useful books on this subject besides this one). These publications show the many and varied types of theory that science uses and on many occasions points out the limitations inherent in them.

Thus I would question any view of miracles that states they are unusual events that may happen, and we can than decide what God may have done - in fact these are specific events that in various ways may illustrate the care and concern God may show at specific times to specific people or a person. The ressurection is particularly specific and central to Christianity and I believe it is both inappropriate to treat it as something that may be assessed using arguments such as law and what have you - and perhaps treating it as a superstition belief shows profound ignorance as well as deep contempt to the Christian faith (this is not a personal comment to you Merv, nor to any other person, but directed at any such view of the ressurection).

Seenoevo - #79368

May 1st 2013

Lou Jest wrote:

“Yet the rules Christians do choose to obey are also often silly … 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.”

 If it’s my implication, it’s only because it’s the Bible’s explicit ordinance.


The New Testament indicates that, after the Resurrection, human beings are meant to be Christ’s representatives on earth. With the Holy Spirit’s power, humans are meant to be Christ’s hands and feet and face. And his tongue. A tongue of truth.

Concomitantly, the Devil also is working through human beings. Through their limbs and leers. And through their language. A language of lies.

I thought of this recently when I heard of a video that may have gone viral. I won’t say it’s the Devil “coming clean”. How about “Father of Lies makes some perhaps inadvertent honest admissions” through one of his…

Well, these are the words of a gay marriage advocate.

Again, not my language, but the language of a gay marriage advocate:

“Gay marriage is a lie …

“It’s a no-brainer that (homosexual activists) should have the right to marry, but I also think equally that it’s a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist. …(F)ighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we are going to do with marriage when we get there — because we lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change, and that is a lie.

 ‘Marriage equality’ becomes ‘marriage elasticity,’ with the ultimate goal of ‘marriage extinction.’



Whatever it takes.

How’s that children’s’ taunt go?

Liar, liar … something on fire?

GJDS - #79373

May 1st 2013

Lou and other atheist are fully aware that their position is untenable, and this has been the case since time immamorial - it is a testimony to the deceit and subtlety of these people that they need to overthrow what is naturally true and obvious, with a cunning they have insinuated throughout modern communities (e.g breaking the law by bashing people is not a criminal act but a moral imperative called homophobia; civil rights now become natural rights which become moral imperatives, which somehow leads to marriage that does not involve a man and woman; homosexuals cannot procreate, so they should have free reign to children and vulrenable people, because there is abuse out there, and this proves something about hososexuality, and so on).

Once they are confident of their contradiction (they now assume they have a moral basis), they go after the primary goal - THE BIBLE MUST BE WRONG BECAUSE IT SAYS HOMOSEXUALITY IS IMMORAL AND SINFUL.

Just how do we figure out these people?

Lou Jost - #79380

May 2nd 2013

GJDS, well, that is a wild ramble. First, as you surely know, there are plenty of silly or culture-dependent precepts in the bible that you do not follow, because you recognize that they ae silly. Mervin and Eddie and others have noted that the Bible is not a one-size-fits-all rigid literal document. You can fight it out with them about which parts have value and which do not; that is not my fight. My reason for not believing the bible is revealed truth is that there is no good evidence for the claim, and much evidence against it.

GJDS - #79386

May 2nd 2013

It is extremely difficult to be civil to you Lou, although I suppose I should make some effort - please do not assume (nor appear to speak for me) on what I know and follow regarding the bible - your reasons for not believing are just that your reasons and I for one am not interested in hearing these for the 10,000 time.

Lou Jost - #79405

May 2nd 2013

You make some wild assertions about why people are atheists, and when I correct your misconceptions, you say you aren’t really interested.

Merv - #79370

May 1st 2013

GJDS, the ‘pencil example’ isn’t original with me—I remember somebody using it in a similar way on this very site (Beaglelady?).  Anyway, I thought it insightful and didn’t mind recycling it here to make the same or a very similar point.

I agree with you (if I understood you correctly) that the ‘universality’ of scientific laws can be pressed farther than is actually warranted.  It is Lou who wishes to convince us all otherwise on that one.

It is difficult or impossible to give authoritatively knowledgeable statements on the nature (so to speak) of miracles precisely because they are not regularities at our command to study.  The regularities are what we can study, so science is built on those.  There may be dimensions of nature we don’t know about yet that God uses to accomplish what appears miraculous to us.  Or maybe God just does something different on those occassions that will forever stymie analysis.  But whatever the methods, it is God at work, just as God is also at continuous work in all the processes we do correctly understand.  So I agree with you that miraculous signs and wonders are to show God’s care and concern—that is a very Biblical view, I think.

GJDS - #79372

May 1st 2013

Merv, I think we are on the same page - I have perhaps added emphasis to deflect what imo are somewahet extreme statements by Lou on miracles, superstiton and the occult, and I must confess, inadequate statements by him regarding science. I am glad we can exchage views on these matters. The ‘universality’ term is odd/awkward and I have used it because it was introduced in this discussion - I think I have clarrified this aspect of scientific theory in other remarks and if memory serves, you and others did not object or argue this matter.

beaglelady - #79381

May 2nd 2013

To the best of my knowledge, I have never talked about pencils here.  But I have read Fr. Polkinghorne’s  Theology in the Context of Science. And I met  Fr. Polkinghorne when he  spoke at my church, and we had a dinner with him.  Not too shabby!

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79379

May 2nd 2013


Please excuse me, but you need to remember that it is possible to “win” the battle, but lose the war.  It is possible to defend the power of God, but lose sight of the centrality of Jesus Christ in our faith.  In some sense that is the trap that theists are prone to fall into during this discussion.  They forget that they are Christians first and theists second.

You defended the power of God, but did not rebut Lou’s main argument which was against the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus.  What Lou was saying is that humanity does not need Jesus Christ and thus the Resurrection because they are able to come to the same conclusion that love is the basis of morality independently of Jesus Christ. 

Now I don’t agree with that point of view and I am sure you don’t either, but you did not oppose it in your remarks.  Instead you relied solely on God’s power to explain the Resurrection, instead of defending the meaning of the Resurrection and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.       

What Lou was arguing was not that the Resurrection was not possible if God is real, but that Christ and Christianity are not necessary for human salvation through the power of Love, and thus for him superfluous.  Since you did not respond to this argument, you allowed him to claim claim victory in the war against Christianity.     

Lou Jost - #79384

May 2nd 2013

Roger, you are right that I did not say that the resurrection is impossible if god is real. You are also right that I argue neither JC nor the Resurrection were needed in order to tell people to love each other. I am surprised you disagree with the latter claim. Surely you know that messages similar to Jesus’ have arisen in other cultures. Confucius comes to mind. Of course you will find important differences between Confucius’ teaching and Jesus’, and  rational thought will be required to sort out which (if any) are right on any particular issue.

I don’t think I can “claim victory in the war against Christianity”!

Merv - #79385

May 2nd 2013

What I hear Lou arguing is that the whole concept of divinity is bogus in the first place, much less a specific claim to it on behalf of any individual such as Jesus.  If somebody doesn’t believe in God, then they won’t be believing in Christ  —even if they do admire or agree with some of the teachings attributed to him.

Happily, both the battle and the war are in more capable hands than mine.

Lou Jost - #79388

May 2nd 2013

Yes, Merv, that is of course the atheist position, though maybe with a bit of nuance. “Divinity” and “bogus” are each a bit fuzzy, and there are some notions of divinity that I would not argue with. But yes, the personal god revealed by the bible, or the one revealed by the Quran, or the ones revealed by the Bhagavhad-Gita, or any of the others, are clearly mythical. And I am sure you agree with me about 99.9% of these.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79390

May 2nd 2013


Thank you for continuing the dialogue. 

Since the message of love was a part of Judaism before Jesus was born, one cannot say that it was original with Him.  However Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior, and Christianity is different from Judaism because Jesus instituted a New Covenant, or Relationship with God, based on divine and human Love found in the teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

One important reason that the Resurrection is so important is because the message of Jesus is a message of change.  It recognizes that humans cannot cease to be selfish, self centered persons on their own.  They need power from a Source beyond themselves to truly love others as they love themselves.  They need to die to their old natural self with Jesus in order to live anew with Jesus with a renewed spiritual self through the Holy Spirit.  

Humans cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Only God can help us make the radical change from self-centeredness to other-centeredness that Love is.  

Love is not about Me.  Nor is Love about You.  Love is about Us, but there is no way to know who “We” are about unless “We” have a common meaning and purpose. 

Your statements deny that “We” have a common meaning and purpose.  Christianity affirms that We do as We are all created in the Image of God.  The US Declaration of Independence similarly says, “All men [meaning humans] are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”    

I do not deny the importance of rational thought.  That is why I have created the Framework of Understanding which is a valuable rational tool in helping everyone understand how different systems of thought work, so we can understand ourselves and others better.

However it takes more than rational thought to understand Christianity, it takes personal experience.  One does not understand science just by reading books.  One understands science by doing science.  One does not understand life just by reading about life.  One understands life by living and one understands Chrisatianity by being a Christian.   

Rational thought can sort out the differences between Jesus and Confucius.  Rational thought can look to see how Christianity and Confucianism have been lived out though the ages. 

However the goals of Christianity and Confucianism are different.  The goal of Christianity is the Kingdom of God and all that entails.  The goal of Confucianism is social harmony.  For better or for worse humans cannot rationally determine which goal is better, nor can we acheive the Kingdom of God by rationality alone. 

Lou, I do not expect you to understand and certainly not agree with what I understand to be the truth.  However it is what it is.      

Lou Jost - #79391

May 2nd 2013

Roger, I appreciate your response. Your latter point (that one must be a Christian to understand it) is actually one I agree with. But because you so immersed in Christianity, there is a circularity to your arguments in favor of the Christian view—you have to believe Christianity’s claims are true before these arguments make sense. That seems to me an important flaw.

Also, please recall that I was a devout Christian.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79396

May 2nd 2013


Thank you again.

All understandings of life are in some sense circular.  Do we believe something is true because it is true or because we have been taught that it is true?  Hopefully it is both.

To resist the trap of circularity we need a falsibility principle.  I have given you what it would take to disprove my understanding of life, which is 1) a rational God created 2) a rational universe for 3) humans who are basically rational, although we certainly do not always act that way.  If you disagree with that statement, you need to indicate the concrete evidence for why the universe and/or humanity are not rational, or why the rationality of the universe and/or humanity does not reasonabley lead to the conclusion of a rational God. 

Now the fact that you were a Christian helps explain why you believe that Love is the basis of human morality.  My study of other world views such as Marxism, Islam, and Scientism indicates that Love is not the basis of their view of morality and this is a very serious problem when the West is confronted with militant Islam which is not going away based on rational secular persuasion.

Again by work on the Framework of Understanding helps people understand their own world view and the views of others, and could help us come to a consensus if we are committed to an understanding of the Truth, whether it is a religious or secular committment.

I see your position as the postmodern relativist point of view.  This is an attractive point of view especially compared to the modern absolutist one, which is what you seem to have rejected.  The problem is that this is a false dichotomy, as the Framework of Understanding demonstrates. 

The problem is that when the Left and Right gang up on the Middle, usually the Right wins out and almost everyone loses.  I think that Christianity represents the Middle, but we who do represent the Middle need to get our act together to give the world at large a real alternative to the fundamentalism of the right and the left.            

Lou Jost - #79404

May 2nd 2013

Roger, I agree with your statement that “this is a very serious problem when the West is confronted with militant Islam which is not going away based on rational secular persuasion.” However, I don’t see it as a problem specific to Islam, but rather to fundamentalism (regardless of religion). Islam is the worst culprit today, but fundamentalists of many persuasions (including fundamentalist Christians) have played this same role in the past. It is hard to argue with someone who firmly believes that god is on his or her side.

Regarding your three principles, I submit that we know why people are rational, and the explanation is “natural selection”. No other explanation is required. Indeed we see rudimentary rational, deductive thought in some other large-brained animals, as we would expect on this hypothesis.

Merv - #79407

May 2nd 2013

Natural selection in the sense you are using it, Lou, becomes non-falsifiable; which I presume would be a concern to you.

Here is what I mean.  If we presume that n.s. is any kind of an explanation for rationarlity (let alone a ‘complete’ one!)  then it must also be the explanation for irrationality that you like to identify, especially among religious folks.  We have no reason to assume that rationality would always (or even ever!) be selected for in populations.  Perhaps there have been more times and places in history where some forms of irrationality would give somebody or some group the better  reproductive advantage.  It does no good to repsond:  “well, we are largely rational now, so obviously n.s. favored that…”  because you now have the thoroughly circular reasoning that you have criticized in others.  They could just as easily respond that it is better (and more rational) that the world is largely religious because natural selection favored that, which would be a bit of an endorsement for all religions, wouldn’t it, Lou?  I mean, n.s. wouldn’t favor something if that something wasn’t realistic, right?  This is all a bit tongue-in-cheek, to illustrate the point at hand.  And that point is that survival and proliferation is no guarantee of truth—something you have reminded others about, I believe.

Natural selection fails to provide any explanations for the events of such geologically insignificant time-spans of our cultures or religions.

Lou Jost - #79409

May 2nd 2013

Merv, it is a falsifiable statement, but yes, you are right, it might not always be a true statement. It is falsifiable for a given population at a given time; all we have to show is that more rational animals tend to leave more offspring than irrational ones. (We would also need to have an independent definition of “rational”, which might be tricky.) But you are right, some mix of rational and irrational behaviors might well be favored in some circumstances.

Jon Garvey - #79430

May 2nd 2013

“...all we have to show is that more rational animals tend to leave more offspring than irrational ones.”

Maybe, Lou:

first we have to have an objective measure of “rational” that isn’t biased by our own opinion that we are the rational ones (cf Alvin Plantinga’s argument about the unlikelihood of true reason being selected for, endorsed by Tom Nagel in his recent work). Since reason can only be demonstrated by reason, it’s hard to evade the circularity of that.

Then we have to find some rational animals other than man to put on the scale… that’s a non-starter, so we have to look only at human populations, pre-human animals being unavailable for study.

In modern populations, that’s quite easy (given the assumptions above): national stats should show the relative worldwide reproductive rates of (a) academics (b) educated non-academics (c) proletarian workers (d) rural peasants. One could also filter for the issues you’ve raised - for example, comparing secular western intellectuals with Muslim fundamentalists. Whichever group was most on the increase in population has been selected by the environment. Just don’t ask Francis Galton or Ernst Haeckel to do the project, or some bias might emerge.

On past human populations one can do some work, too. A book I read recently on the palaeogenetics of Britain showed that a disproportionately large fraction of the genetic heritage comes from relatively few dominant males - we could hypothesise that these predominated (a) because they were supreme examples of rational thought or (b) because they were rapacious warlords.

Interesting project for someone, I should think!

Lou Jost - #79443

May 3rd 2013

Jon, of course I agree that we need to have an independent definition of “rational”: I said “We would also need to have an independent definition of “rational”, which might be tricky.”

You say that there are no rational animals besides man, but that is not true. I said “we see rudimentary rational, deductive thought in some other large-brained animals, as we would expect on this hypothesis” and I stand by that. Cats, dogs, bears, raccoons, crows, monkeys, all show some ability to reason. And this gives them advantages over those which don’t. For example, it gives them access to food which is not easily reached. If they can get more food by reasoning, then they will have more offspring and the trait will spread. This is not circular; you can measure reasoning ability, and you can measure whether those that reason better leave more offspring (hopefully controlling for variation and co-variation in other traits). It may be that rapacious warlords and better reasoning ability go hand in hand.

Plantinga’s argument is not widely accepted by biologists. We might want to look at that more closely.

Today’s society is not the society that “made” us, so measuring reproductive rates now would not shed light on the origins of our traits.

I think this subject is one that actually might be productive and lead to agreement among us, in spite of our philosophical differences. Wouldn’t that be novel?



beaglelady - #79452

May 3rd 2013

We’ve really made some amazing strides in studying animal cognition, haven’t we?   

Lou Jost - #79460

May 3rd 2013

Yes, and the biggest surprises lately have been in birds….though some species are breathtakingly inflexible in their responses to novelty in their environment, others have surprising flexibility. Crows, ravens, and parrots especially.

beaglelady - #79497

May 3rd 2013

Parrots sure are amazing—look at Alex.  And they have a brain the size of a walnut!

Jon Garvey - #79453

May 3rd 2013


We’ve stumbled over the definition of “rational”, already - how can one recognise it in so many animals without having first defined it? What is to be explained (to simplify) is not why both dogs and people play ball, but what makes us study dogs’ intelligence rather than they ours.

The gulf between H. sapiens and even the highest primates is very deep - if you’ve not read it, I recommend the work of David and Ann Premack (eg “Original Intelligence”). There’s a lot of ground to cover in 4m years by Darwinian gradualism.

Re rapacious warlords and reasoning ability - well, it will be a good study to do once we’ve moved beyond the old IQ tests, which would only be standardised for American warlords. I’m sure there aren’t any of those. You’d have to find some warlords happy to have their reasoning ability assessed… my objection would be to those who would construct the just-so story in lieu if they declined: “We see warlords over-represented genetically compared to philosophers: no doubt some as yet unidentified reasoning ability lies behind it.” In that case it would be just as likely that warlords were thick but strong, and that reasoning is a spandrel, or a gift of God. Plenty of spandrels persist. Plenty of gifts of God are irrevocable. And who knows but that intelligence is a spandrel of the gene that was selected for because it enabled early men to recognise God and pray effectively?

Warlords still have lots of children nowadays - eg Saddam or Idi Amin. My brother-in-law met the latter, and wasn’t over-impressed with his reasoning ability: low cunning doesn’t qualify. My neighbour was held hostage by the former, and called him “Sodding Insane”. I grant my sample size is small, and the methodology suspect.

Then again, we’d have to explain, even now, why reasoning ability has such a huge selective advantage, but there is so little evidence that average intelligence has increased, judging by palaeolithic problem solving and art compared to adult behaviour today.

Plantinga’s argument would be expected to be misunderstood by biologists, unless they were also trained in philosophy. It’s certainly not in the self-interest of those working on the evolution of rationality to concede that it is unlikely to have evolved. In terms of expertise, I would probably go to a philosopher rather than a biologist for an understanding of reason, since it’s their stock in trade ... at least, you as a biologist have been unable to define it for me!

I half-expected your reply about modern reproductive rates: clearly the maintenance of traits is different from their arrival. That would seem, though, to make its origins nothing more than a matter of inaccesible history, or speculation based on existing presuppositions: “Since reason evolved, it evolved by natural selection, therefore it was a selective advantage, even if things are different now, which just goes to show…” . Back to circularity, in my book. Better to remain scientifically agnostic, surely?

Even if we found a village of living H. erectus to study in Java, they’d be products of history before, during and after species separation: they could have learned all they know from local tribes… though I suppose we’d have the useful information that reason wasn’t quite so advantageous for them as for the folks over the hill who evolved it more. Sigh - Why isn’t any of this obvious?

Lou Jost - #79464

May 3rd 2013

Jon, I haven’t tried to give you a definition, nor have the religious folks (who were the first to bring it up here). We all know more or less what we mean by it, but yes, as I stated in my very first comment about this, we need a precise testable definition before we get into the details of this.

What would count as a non-circular argument supporting the claim that variation + selection led to rationality? One way to do it would be to look at variation in rationality (perhaps defined as ability to solve novel puzzles) and see if the more “rational” animals had more offspring. That would not be enough; we would also need to test to see if rationality has an inherited component; if it did not, then natural selection would not kick in.

In the meantime, I think if we could demonstrate the first part (variation in rationality, and heritability), and if we could show that the environment was complex enough that it often presented novel puzzles which needed to be solved in order to get food, that would be enough to make the n.s. argument plausible.

We know there is a genetic component to intelligence (more or less the same as “rationality”?) and that it varies between individual humans, and in my experience this applies to animals as well. Also, in my experience, complex natural habitats like the one I live in (tropical forest) are full of hidden puzzles whose solutions provide food. Finding a mate might also be quite a puzzle…So I think the explanation in terms of natural selection is plausible.

Why do I get the feeling that I will find out in a few minutes that most of you disagree?

Seenoevo - #79428

May 2nd 2013

“…I submit that we know why people are rational, and the explanation is “natural selection”. No other explanation is required.”

How meaningful and discriminating is that statement? Could you not replace “why people are rational” with “why anything exists or used to exist”?


“Indeed we see rudimentary rational, deductive thought in some other large-brained animals, as we would expect on this hypothesis.”

Who still believes brain size has anything to do with intelligence? And why would they ever have believed this to begin with? Is a sperm whale 6 times more intelligent than you? Well, maybe.

Human brain 1,300 grams (Note: The chimp, with which we allegedly share a common ancestor, has a brain weight of only 400 grams.)

Sperm whale 7,800 grams (Note: The hippopotamus, one of the ungulates which may be in the evolutionary line to whales, has a brain weight of only 600 grams.)


“all we have to show is that more rational animals tend to leave more offspring than irrational ones.”

Is the rapidly-reproducing rat more rational than the far more parsimonious panda? Oh, but perhaps the word “tend” changes everything. Nevertheless, this quote seems to go against the typical liberal population-controlling evolutionist’s jaundiced view of big families. A surprising switch – now the modern contracepting woman is evolutionarily irrational.


“(We would also need to have an independent definition of “rational”, which might be tricky.)”

Certainly, natural selection should be able to come to the rescue here. N.S. is the answer, and has the answers, to everything. As has been said: “No other explanation is required.”

[Did the first rational creatures know they were rational? How did they know? How could they be confident they were rational?]


“But you are right, some mix of rational and irrational behaviors might well be favored in some circumstances.”

Right. But in some circumstances, wrong. It all depends. Or it doesn’t. The essential point is:

Right or wrong (or some mix, thereof), the answer is always evolution.

It’s quite a game. Heads you win, tails I lose.



In true lou evolution, there is only life, until death. Neither is good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse, for such terms have no meaning. In this evolution, there is only what is, what continues, and what doesn’t. In this evolution, life and death carried on in all sorts of ways in all sorts of creatures for allegedly billions of years, before the “benefit” of the advent of “rationality.” And “rationality” added nothing good or bad to the mix. For there is no good or bad, in true lou evolution.

Jon Garvey - #79432

May 2nd 2013

The circularity of the argument is right on, Seenoevo - and was pointed out by Darwin’s own first associates such as Asa Gray. It is just not the case that natural selection is the only explanation we need for rationality - we need to know why and how rationality appeared in order to be selected, or it’s merely a trivial observation: “it’s here because it was selected - it was selected because it’s here”. Here’s Gray:

“Circumstances may preserve or may destroy the variations man may use or direct them; but selection, whether artificial or natural, no more originates them than man originates the power which turns a wheel, when he dams a steam and lets the water fall upon it.”

A more contemporary illustration might be: the only explanation we require for the i-Pad is that more people buy it. Just imagine watching a documentary (worse still, enrolling on a degree course) about how computers work, and being given only a sales survey as a sufficient explanation!

Lou Jost - #79444

May 3rd 2013

Yes, we have to show that small variations, favored by natural selection (or at least not too deleterious), accumulating over time, could lead to rationality. There is no circularity though.

Jon Garvey - #79456

May 3rd 2013

OK, Lou, just to close of this track,  natural selection isn’t a sufficient explanation.

How could we show that small variations could lead to rationality, rather than just observing that there are variations and assuming they (a) are selected (b) they will accumulate over time (c) they will move progressively towards intelligence? All this given that we cannot recover the original species or its environment, lost in the mists of time.

That sounds to me like an exact parallel to explaining i-Pads by sales figures, ie a non-explanation.

Lou Jost - #79468

May 3rd 2013

How could we show that small variations could lead to rationality? One way would be the comparative approach. Find different levels of rationality (defining it carefully first!!) in different organisms. Find that the rationality within a species varies and has a heritable component. Find that rationality measurably affects the organism’s fitness. Then, it will increase due to natural selection.

If i-Pads (I don’t even know what that is…one of the disadvantages of life in the cloud forest) were assembled blindly out of random parts, and had the ability to reproduce in proportion to sale figures, then the explanation of the numerical dominance of a given model (and extinction of the others) would be that this model outperformed the others and so garnered the most sales.

GJDS - #79431

May 2nd 2013

It is instructive to consider some significant debates amongst Christians that have been a reaction against liberal/non-Christian theology, and also the debates that have centred about the importance of grace and revelation to our knowledge of God, as opposed to the erroneous view of natural theology as a means of understanding ‘the mind of God’.

An excellent example has been the debate between Barth and Brunner; this debate imo shows us how a number of points on the centrality of the Bible may be ‘blunted’ by appeals to human knowledge. Within the context of the opinions I have read on the BioLogos site, it appears that many may forget one central aspect of theology, in ‘that the original image of God in man has been destroyed, that the justitia originalis has been lost and with it the possibility of doing or even of willing to do that which is good in the sight of God’ (Trevor Hart, ... The Barth-Brunner Debate ....” Tyndale Bulletin 44.2 (1993) 289-305.)

T Hart makes an excellent point which I feel is worth considering within discussions on the crucifixion of Christ: Nature is not, in its historical state, predisposed towards grace, but resists it. The old creation is not capable of the new creation, i.e. there is nothing in the old Adam, the flesh, which could simply be developed or extrapolated to posit the new Adam. Redemption, therefore, is not a matter of evolution, or of development, or perfection: but of revolution, crisis and crucifixion.

Jon Garvey - #79434

May 3rd 2013


Good insight indeed. Any account of the gospel (including the resurrection, of course) that fails to take account of sin and grace is inadequate. In the context of some discussions we’ve had, one way of looking at it is that too many accounts nowadays  see the work of God as his striving to give us more autonomy in creation, whereas the biblical account is of  grace as a work of creation to replace our autonomy with true freedom.

Hart’s account sounds worth reviewing, and is from an impeccable source (I used to study at Tyndale House!) - can you give a link for us lazy posters?

GJDS - #79439

May 3rd 2013

Jon, I hope this cut and paste is sufficient - the paper is downloaded using the link:


Jon Garvey - #79457

May 3rd 2013

Thanks GJDS - link found.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79441

May 3rd 2013

Lou wrote:

fundamentalists of many persuasions (including fundamentalist Christians) have played this same role in the past. It is hard to argue with someone who firmly believes that god is on his or her side.

Lou, you do not seem to understand what I am trying to say.  Modernists or Absolutists are not necesarily theists or atheists.  Communists are modern absolutists. 

However since it is hard to argue with a persons who believe they have God firmly on their side, the only way you can get through to them is to demonstrate that God does not share their point of view.  That is what Jesus did and what we are called to do.

That is one reason I reject your approach, and the other is it is not true as I will try to explain. 

I submit that we know why people are rational, and the explanation is “natural selection”. No other explanation is required.   

Lou, a description is not an explanation.  Natural selection is not magic that requires no explanation. 

If you concede that humans are rational, that is fine for my three principles.  In that case, the question is, How and why does rationality give human beings an evolutionary advantage in an irrational universe?

If the world is not rationally structured, if it is not comprehensible, how does rationality benefit humanity?  If anything it would seem to be a hinderance. 

The problem I have with Darwinian evolution is that it does not explain how and why evolution works, just says that it does work, which is not good science.  Natural selection is not magic.           

Lou Jost - #79445

May 3rd 2013

Roger, you said “since it is hard to argue with a persons who believe they have God firmly on their side, the only way you can get through to them is to demonstrate that God does not share their point of view. ” That is one approach, and maybe the best one in practice, since people who believe in god are so reluctant to consider the alternative. But that would be a dishonest argument for me, so I’ll leave that to you and your fellow believers, and wish you luck.

You are right that the world has to have some structure in order for rationality to be advantageous.

We now know quite a lot about how variation arises, and we can measure the fitnesses of the variations, and predict how the gene pool of the species will change over time. That’s evolution.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79455

May 3rd 2013


Previously you said natural selection was evolution.  Evolution is not only natural selection, but it is not only variation, which you speak of here.  Evolution as we understand it is both evolution and natural selection.

We understand variation, but we do not understand natural selection, so we really do not understand evolution. 

You are right that the world has to have some structure in order for rationality to be advantageous

Lou Jost - #79465

May 3rd 2013

No, natural selection is not equivalent to evolution. Evolution of gene frequencies over time can be due to natural selection or genetic drift.

We do understand natural selection very well, actually better than we understand sources of variation. We can measure fitness and we can predict its effect on gene frequencies of populations over time. We also understand genetic drift quite well. Population genetics is the subject that studies this, and it is a very well developed and highly quantitative subject. And it is the field I am currently working in.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79466

May 3rd 2013

Continuation of #79455


I am trying to change the subject from whether or not God is to what is the nature of nature.  As important as question of the existence of God is it is not the most important question. 

The universe must be more than matter/energy, because matter/energy is not in itself rational.  The universe has rational structure which is not a thing, is not physical.  The universe also has a purpose, which is to be the home of life. in particular human life.  This is not based on some speculation by Monod and others, but by clear observation as found in the antropic principle.  

I wish you would read one of my books to see how the Framework of Understanding takes us away from seeing the world as monistic and without meaning to a complex/one entity with all sorts of diversity and meaning.

The issue as I see it is primarily philosophical, not scientific or theological.  We need a sound understanding of the nature of the world we live in, which again has little to do with theology.                                                   

Lou Jost - #79472

May 3rd 2013

Roger, I also find it much more interesting to talk about the actual world.

I don’t understand why you say that the universe has structure but this is somehow nonphysical. Are you not confusing the structure (physical) with the description of structure (nonphysical)?

The anthropic principle does not imply that the universe has a purpose or that it is designed for life. Any universe in which intelligent observers evolve must be suitable for those observers. If our actual universe is one of many possible universes (and this idea is suggested by some of the equations of physics, though it is highly speculative), then the appearance of design can be explained; only universes suitable for life would have life, so no matter how rare or unusual such universes are, ours would necessarily be one of those. 

I have been thinking a lot about this lately, and I think there is one bit of empirical evidence that could decide the issue in favor of design instead of anthropic selection among multiverses. If our universe is selected from the multiverses, based only on the condition that it must be suitable for the emergence of intelligent life, then most of the universes that satisfy that criterion would not be on the edge of the parameter space allowing life, but on the interior of it. In other words, the majority of the universe suitable for life should not be just barely suitable, but should have multiple planets with life. If our universe actually only hosted exactly one planet with intelligent life (namely ours), I think this would be so improbable among the collection of possible universes containing life that I would have to consider that the universe was designed for us.

So far, though, we are finding lots of exoplanets so it seems likely that life also evolved elsewhere. It will be interesting to find out.

Also, note that this is a universe that certainly does not appear well-designed for us. See my discussion in an earlier P post. The fraction of the universe that is suitable for humans is almost zero. Even those numerous exoplanets are tiny islands in a vast sea of nothingness unsuitable for intelligent life. Even our earth is mostly hostile to humans. Octopus have a better claim to be the object of a designer’s fancy. As I said elsewhere, we could be just tools whose purpose it is to fertilize the oceans to make them more suitable for octopus, the real focus of the designer of the universe.



Seenoevo - #79482

May 3rd 2013

Lou Jest, convert to atheism, reminded those here:

“Also, please recall that I was a devout Christian.”


So were Hymenae’us and Alexander. And they had the real-deal, saving kind of faith. Otherwise, Paul would have had no reason to bemoan the loss, the “shipwreck”. (cf. 1 Timothy 1:19-20).

We don’t know what became of those two. Paul just says they ‘lost it.’ [So much for the relatively recent theology variously called “once saved, always saved”, “eternal security”, “you can’t lose your salvation”.)

And apparently, Paul just let them go, had nothing more to do with them.

The wise Paul.

Merv - #79489

May 3rd 2013

So Lou, what should a universe that was well-designed for us look like?  What would it take to satisfy your critical eye as you browse through your mail-order universe catalogue?  (I never got mine this last month—maybe a mailing list problem.)

Paraphrase from a Calvin & Hobbes strip:  “I think the best evidence that there is intelligent life out there is that none of it has tried to contact us.”

Merv - #79490

May 3rd 2013

In case you didn’t see where I was going with that ...   when I think of Europeans crossing the formidable Atlantic to “bring civilization” to the poor natives already here, I praise God that He had the wisdom to put impossibly vast gulfs of space and time between any and all of his precious creations.  One can only imagine with terror what we gun-worshippers would do with other innocent and trusting cultures should we ever encounter them.  Of course, if evolutionary forces are as universally merciless as some are inclined to think, then we may have other much more selfish reasons to praise God for those same gulfs of space.  

Lou Jost - #79493

May 3rd 2013

I’d vote for a universe that wasn’t going to kill us in 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% of its volume.

Merv - #79495

May 3rd 2013

I think it’s kind of nice that we have this 0.00…01% just for us to live in—it does require us to learn to share a tad bit more.  Were you planning on heading somewhere else anytime soon?

Lou Jost - #79496

May 3rd 2013

Yes, I am really curious about the deep sea, which makes up most of the life-bearing fraction of this planet. Unfortunately I would die instantly there. I also was curious about life in the upper atmosphere, but once again I would die instantly there. I would like to know what is on the top of the volcanic mountain my house is built on, but unfortunately I would die instantly there. I wonder what is deep below the surface of the earth but—-you guessed it—- I would die instantly there.

I’d even be satisfied to be able to just spend extended time in some of the high-elevation forests I can see from my house; there at least I would not die instantly, but in a week or two I’d run a high risk of hypothermia, and of course starvation.

I think I will register a complaint with this designer.

Jon Garvey - #79506

May 4th 2013

He might reply, “You got a world to rule, you got telescopes, you got submarines, you got rockets, you got seismologists to see all the places I made for the rest of creation. So now you want to take their space already! If I’d made you half the size of the Universe you’d have complained it was too small. Now you complain it’s too big.”

Lou Jost - #79507

May 4th 2013

I thought the consensus was that he made earth specifically for us. Could have done better, especially now as we overpopulate and destroy the tiny fraction of the planet that we can actually live on.

Eddie - #79524

May 4th 2013

It has been a common interpretation by Christians that the earth was made “specifically for us,” but it is not what the Bible actually says.  In fact the creation benefits creatures other than man, as Genesis 1 and Job make clear.  But Western culture since the Renaissance, both Catholic and Protestant, has tended to endorse a rapacious and anthropocentric attitude toward nature (which fit in very well with the global imperialism of the European powers), and Christian theology, especially popular theology, has quite often been shaped by the human, all-too-human failings of Christian people.  Santmire’s book The Travail of Nature is very good at showing the diversity of Christian thought on nature, ecology, etc.  An ecologically healthy Christian view is available, even if Christians themselves have not yet done enough to put it into practice.

And of course, it is not Christians alone who have pillaged the planet for resources.  Muslims, Marxists, etc. have all done it.  

GJDS - #79547

May 4th 2013


A couple of interesting observations on the planet, human behaviour, and theology. (1) The Christian faith looks to an ‘end’ which includes a new heaven and a new earth - this brings us hope and an impetus to seek ways to improve this planet as ‘preparation, or practice’ for that hope, and (2) it is interesting to note that European civilisation has brought a number of ‘things’ to the rest of humanity, most of which were either harmful, or catastrophic (and where possible other peoples have tried to reject these ‘gifts’ from the west). Yet science and technology have been universely accepted by all other cultures, mainly because of the perceived material benefits.

The irony in point (2) is the fact that evolutionary thinking is rarely included in the accepted S&T, and the major damage to the planet, in all likelyhood, will result from an unsustainable exploitation of resources, made possible by S&T. I am unsure if the damage to the planet is underscored only by a rampent materialism, or an underlying ‘belief’ from the west that the superior species has a natural right to survive by expoitation and an appeal to its self-referential’fitness’ (or perhaps both?)

Jon Garvey - #79551

May 5th 2013


There seems little grounds to dispute that the intellectual concept of using the earth as a resource to be dissected and exploited is Baconian - and the forerunner of that half of science that isn’t motivated by pure delight at the world. The leitmotif of the Enlightenment was control of the world through man’s reason.

In mediaeval times, even mining was a morally suspect activity as disrupting the natural order of things, its reverse being exemplified in, say the Cistercians philosophy, of taming, rather than exploiting nature.

The distinction isn’t absolute, of course - ignorance and greed have always existed, and beneficial stuff has always come from investigation. But you tend to find major issue like deforestation, which had happened in Greece in classical times as they build their navies, only raising their heads again in early modern times, with nation states fuelled by Renaissance knowledge and human ambition bent on forcing nature, as well as Africans, into slavery to their ambitions.

The religious/anti-religious background to that is complex, but to me the controlling oncept is the ousting of the mediaeval Christian concept of man as an important, fallen but ultimately limited part of God’s ordered Creation, to be replaced with the humanist notion of rational man as the measure and master of all things - including God.

In the older view, the Hawking ambition of man’s conquering and occupying the whole Universe (whether physically or intellectually) would have been not so much incomprehensible as laughably bizarre.

GJDS - #79565

May 5th 2013


I agree that “the religious/anti-religious background is complex” and in any final summation we would inevitably use the term “human nature” as a type of explanation to ourselves. It is mainly for this reason that I take a greater interest in both faith and reason. Faith has taught us (although we do not often heed) that we must differentiate between good and evil, and reason ought to show us how we can apply the teachings of faith. This understanding comes from realising who we are, and how we may comprehend good as from God, and evil as choosing contrary to God.

It is for these major reasons that understanding ourselves and what it means to be human is central if we are to avoid the catastrophic mistakes of the past. Unfortunately materialists and athiests have improved on the concept of “burrying their heads in the sand” by deciding that religion (as an understanding of good and evil and the moral imperative to choose good) is to blame for the evil acts humanity has done. It is astonishing how self-deluded humanity can become - by avoiding the question of good and evil (or redifining it as a a materialistic result of Darwinian thinking and/or as say Neitze), they than claim to have solved it? 

beaglelady - #79514

May 4th 2013

I thought we required the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide.    And isn’t it better for us all that the oceans, upper atmosphere, etc. are NOT full of people?  The planet seems to work very well. But then again, one day the sun will enlarge, engulf Mercury, and burn the earth to a crisp…..

Eddie - #79523

May 4th 2013

So in the end, despite your initial apparent disagreement with Lou, you end up agreeing with him that things are badly designed; you imply that no intelligent designer would let the earth be “burned to a crisp.”

beaglelady - #79531

May 4th 2013

Just some interesting facts.  

GJDS - #79502

May 3rd 2013

I have tried, as time and interest permit, to understand the reasoning behind the ‘gaps’ in Darwinian thinking, and why this would have caused some misguided people to come up with the bizarre ‘god of the gaps outlook’. Newton observed the variety in the creation, and concluded this was evidence for a creator. Others, such as Henry Drummond, a Scottish evangelist, spoke against a ‘god of the gaps. From what I can see, people, over a long period, have recognised that there are inadequacies, or gaps, the Darwinian view of evolution. It seems that atheists tried to sidestep the issue (their usual strategy), with the mantra of ‘that is how science works’. So I am left with the (astonishing) conclusion that theists have tried to help atheists by creating a new theology to help Darwin’s atheistic outlook. Talk of the ultimate contradiction! 

For a better understanding of why we should ignore and reject the ‘that is how science works’ mantra, I recommend a discussion that I have just read on the BBC web page – the author is providing a popularised version of the origin(s) of the universe. The major theme of this article is summarised by the author as, “If you think all these options are fairly mind-bending, rest assured that professional scientists feel the same way.” It is a useful reminder of how ‘wacky’ opinions can enter popular culture when non-experts, and people who are easily excited by speculation (and a good deal of fiction), decide they understand what science is and how it works. 

The unique aspects of the Universe have been discussed for many years, and it is instructive to see how militant atheists (or anti-theists) will twist and turn in the wind of scientific speculation – e.g. first the anthropic principle is irrelevant, than there are many worlds out there with intelligence, and now life is so unlikely and the chances are so slim that (blah blah blah) they have the only explanation for whatever fictitious view they hold. And as for the huge gaps that seem bigger as science obtains more data? Well, if not god of the gaps, than pure unadulterated chance must explain their contradicted views (whatever they may be at any point in time). Hawkins set up an, “it is either this or that argument” by positing an “either there is a creator, if the Universe has a beginning, or there is no creator if the Universe has no beginning.”

The attitude of good scientists (whatever their beliefs) is summed up, regarding these matters, as militant agnostic, or as sceptical of basing a belief system on science. Atheists who continually use science to support their anti-belief belief system are motivated by a bizarre agenda.

Lou Jost - #79504

May 3rd 2013

At least scientists are really trying to solve these difficult problems, and trying to find new evidence to help them do so. Seems wiser than freezing the outlook of a superstitious culture of two thousand years ago and insisting, in spite of everything we have learned in the intervening 2000 years, that this frozen view must be correct.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79508

May 4th 2013

Lou wrote:

Are you not confusing the structure (physical) with the description of structure (nonphysical)?

No, I am not.  I suggest you are confusing form with substance. 

As you know all atoms and molecules are composed of the same basic particles, electrons, neutrons, and protons.  Thus if we perceived the substance of all that there is, everything would be the same electrons, neutrons, and protons, instead of the wide variety on substances we perceive today. 

Scientism wants us to believe in this monistic, superficial, monotonous world of substance.  However humans live in a diverse, meaningful, beautiful world of forms and structure based on relationships.    

Lou, I enjoy and appreciate the octopus and gladly share this world with him, but I do not think that the octopus enjoys me.  All living creature benefit from the living earth, but humans are in the best position to benefit, enjoy, and appreciate it most, which is why it makes sense to think that it is created primarily for us, when of course there is no reason why it should be except we exist.

When you confuse the multiverse theory, which I don’t think you got quite right, with the real world, it tells me that you are pretty desperate.  We need real world answers for real world problems.  Science has some of the answers to our needs, but not all.  To overextend the reach and its abilities is to undermine its integrity and authority.  

Lou Jost - #79511

May 4th 2013

Roger, this is not true: “All atoms and molecules are composed of the same basic particles, electrons, neutrons, and protons.  Thus if we perceived the substance of all that there is, everything would be the same electrons, neutrons, and protons, instead of the wide variety on substances we perceive today.” First, most of the basic particles you mentioned, and lots of other particles you did not mention, are not really basic but made of simpler particles. More important, you could just as well consider the atoms and molecules as the “substances”,  and then you’d perceive something of the variety of material. To me, these kinds of arguments you make hinge too tightly on vague words and loose analogies.

This statement is anthropocentric and unsupported: “humans are in the best position to benefit, enjoy, and appreciate it most” Why not octupus, or birds? Each has access to more of the earth than humans do, and wouldn’t it be cool to fly or move in three dimensions under water?

You write about real-world answers. Religious answers such as those you just gave (earth is made for us, etc) are far from real-world answers; they seem more like wishful thinking.

Would you say quantum mechanics and relativity are not real-world answers?

Merv - #79513

May 4th 2013

Why not octupus, or birds? Each has access to more of the earth than humans do, and wouldn’t it be cool to fly or move in three dimensions under water?

We’ve been to the bottom of Challenger Deep.  (I’m pretty sure on octopus hangs out down there.)  We’ve been in every level of our atmosphere and all the way up to the moon.  Any birds done that?  You might respond that you as an individual can’t get to all these places.  But the individual octopus or bird, likewise, is probably too preoccupied with basic survival matters to day dream about travel tour luxuries that you and I have the luxury of pondering (and sometimes actually doing!).    But it sure would be nice to soar like a hawk without needing to engage in expensive hang-glider training!  I hear you on some of this.

I may be away from computer access for much of the rest of this weekend.  Will be traveling (courtesy of petrol) farther than any other land animals have the luxury of traveling in the same amount of time.  (Not sure we can fault God for the extensive infrastructure required to make that possible, though.  That one may be on us, unfortunately)

Lou Jost - #79516

May 4th 2013

All the things you describe—computer, airplanes, submarines—came not from revelation but from science.

I’m sure you’ll say that rationality and an orderly world are gifts from god. Then why do so many Christians (not all) go out of their way to fight or deny science, or to lie about it in classrooms? Why not embrace it?

Lou Jost - #79518

May 4th 2013

Probably shouldn’t have said they actually lie about it, as that implies they know that their statements are false. Many of them probably do not know this, because they refuse to use the rational faculties they think god gave them. However, I do think some of the people spreading creationist propaganda in schools know they are spreading misinformation. Some famous ones (Hovind comes to mind) have been repeatedly corrected (on simple factual matters) in debates with scientists, and seem to accept the correction at the time, but then make the same statement in the next debate.

Merv - #79553

May 5th 2013

All the things you describe—computer, airplanes, submarines—came not from revelation but from science.

That science is one of the necessary components of technology is obvious enough.  But it isn’t anything close to the whole story.  Science outside the contexts of humanity is meaningless (non-existent even).  And humanity without contexts of its own is also bereft of meaning—indeed everything good in life.  And the whole notion of science being some kind of progenitor (let alone the assumption that its progeny is all good, which seems to be an implication of yours) is not just simplistic, but manages to even be simplistically wrong.  Science has its own indebtedness and roots on which it depends for its very existence.

Lou Jost - #79555

May 5th 2013

“the assumption that its progeny is all good, which seems to be an implication of yours” is nothing I have ever said or implied. On the contrary, as an environmentalist I know that many scientific “advances” are really disastrous.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79512

May 4th 2013


Quantum physics works in the quantum world.  Humans do not live in the quantum “real world.”

Relativity proves that time and space are real, even though time and space are not composed of matter/energy, which disproves the claim that nothing is real except matter/energy.  E = mcindicates that there are no absolutes and all things are related, indicates the power of love.

Lou, we began agreeing about the importance of love in solving “real life problerms.”  I do not see how physics teaches us much about love and ethics, so we are getting far afield from where we started. 

From my point of view theology does try to address these problems.  You said that other faiths besides Christianity agreed on the need to love.  This discussion should not be about God, but about love.  Please tell me how your approach would help people to better to understand and practice love, or if you do not think that is necessary because everyone practices love instinctively, then we have nothing to discuss.  

Lou Jost - #79530

May 4th 2013

Roger, remember that we were talking about being interested in truth first and foremost. So even if physics doesn’t provide any boost for ethics or love (and I think physics is entirely silent on them), it is still a subject with deep truths to teach us. Theologies may indeed be useful for helping people to practice more love. But if they are not true, then even if they say nice things that we wish were true, we should not promote them. We should first judge a theology on whether it is true, not on whether it promotes our ideals. To judge them solely by their effects would be to put truth behind expedience.

Seenoevo - #79533

May 4th 2013

Lou Jest: “Could have done better, especially now as we overpopulate and destroy the tiny fraction of the planet that we can actually live on.”


I thought you said that the more rational creatures are more successful reproductively. Are you saying we’ve become too rational?

I thought that perhaps the greatest problem facing the world now is too few people.

Two hundred years after Malthus’ morose moaning (An Essay on the Principle of Population) and 45 years after Paul Ehrlich’s sensational starvation scenarios for the seventies (and 1980s) (The Population Bomb), our real-time reality is a demographic winter of too few babies.

Some governments are so desperate they’re paying women to have babies (e.g. Russia, Japan). 

Seenoevo - #79534

May 4th 2013

Lou Jest: “I’d vote for a universe that wasn’t going to kill us in 99.9…% of its volume.”

Jon Garvey: “If I’d made you half the size of the Universe you’d have complained it was too small. Now you complain it’s too big.”

Good line, Jon.


Lou Jest continues with the focus on death:

“Yes, I am really curious about the deep sea, which makes up most of the life-bearing fraction of this planet. Unfortunately I would die instantly there. I also was curious about life in the upper atmosphere, but …I would die instantly there….top of the volcanic mountain …I would die instantly there…deep below the surface of the earth… I would die instantly there.”

Moses: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.”

Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”.

We all must choose. But some choose death.

I’d bet the jungles of Central America could have made for a decent alternative movie set for the filming of Apocalypse Now. The insane Colonel Kurtz could have set-up his compound in what is actually Costa Rica.

The jungle can be a dark place.

Jesus: “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Apocalypse Now was a modern version of Joseph Conrad’s

Heart of Darkness.

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