Recognising cultural blinkers

There is a current BioLogos thread on the recent debate between atheist Bill Nye and Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham. In it, our own Lou Jost continues to try and educate the benighted theists by responsing to John Walton’s affirmation of his shared belief (with Ham) in the inspiration of Genesis. Lou complains that Genesis “screams out ‘cultural document'”, and in a later post slips in the “nothing buttery” that C S Lewis noted as a hallmark of modern materialism by amending it to “just a cultural document.”

Fortunately Hump writer Merv Bitkofer calls him out on this sleight of hand (which since Lewis was pointing to it in the 1940s is distinctly past its sell-by date). But I’d like to expand that a little by illustrating that you don’t have to be a postmodernist to realise that the only documents that exist are cultural documents. If that word “just” had any actual force, one might as well forget the idea that any true knowledge exists.

The example I’d like to use is Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, since it is well known, apposite to The Hump’s interests, and is perhaps the most blatant purveyor of cultural presuppositions of any scientific text – though to be fair, that may be because it is by far the best known historical scientific text nowadays.

It’s two years since I last read the Origin, so I won’t try to be exhaustive, or even very carefully organised: listing Darwin’s cultural biases as they happen to occur to me should be illustrative enough, which is all I’m setting out to do.

  • Proposing a theory of evolution at all was culturally influenced. Transformism in its modern guise had been around for a century or so, and though Darwin deliberately pitched his case against biblical fixism, he was able to list a good number (up to thirty) of his evolutionary predecessors – even his own grandfather had written on it. In part that was due to the increasing evidence of an old earth, and geological findings of extinct types, but it also had clear roots in the Enlightenment desire to dispose of the need for a Creator – a desire that also reinstated, without evidence, the belief in an eternal Universe that remained prevalent in science until the Big Bang could no longer be denied, within my memory. Even natural selection was, of course, independently discovered by Wallace – and also, arguably, rather unclearly postulated by Patrick Matthew in 1830: three near-contemporary Englishmen finding the same thing suggests a cultural influence.
  • Prominent in Darwin’s thinking (and, interestingly, in Wallace’s too) was the application of Malthus’ sociological “survival of the fittest” (actually Spencer’s phrase, published before Darwin) to biology. Malthus’ vision was profoundly affected by the particularly acute problems in the British economy in the early nineteenth century. The idea of Nature as a merciless and cruel entity was also profoundly enculturated in the Enlightenment, as I’ve documented in detail elsewhere (sorry: still hoping for publication so can’t link to it). It wasn’t coincidental that Tennyson’s phrase “red in tooth and claw” was so influential in the evolution debate, though it preceded Origin by nine years. It is interesting how this “struggle” motif has been mitigated in recent thought, through a wider knowledge of ecology, and the gradual encroachment of altruism and similar things into evolutionary theory, such as E O Wilson’s work on group selection. “Differential reproduction” is much more representative of the current mindset than Darwin’s “intense struggle for existence,” which is quintessetially Malthusian.
  • Uniformitarianism came to Darwin most obviously through his friend Charles Lyell, but the idea was afoot as a serious (and polarised) contender to catastrophism anyway. And that was largely, again, part of the secularist attempt to debunk the Bible and, specifically, the Flood as the major agent of past change – which paradoxically made it seem “progressive” as opposed to catastrophism’s “conservatism”. Uniformitarianism was seldom as exclusive as it is often thought to have been, but its biological counterpart, phyletic gradualism, was famously crucial to Darwin’s case. According to himself, a single exception would demolish his theory – but he never stated how one would recognise such a case, so he was on safe ground. Yet that belief too was cultural, as somehow evolution has survived a return to a natural catastrophism that is, in many cases, considered the principal agent of successive suites of fauna.
  • Another cultural assumption in Darwin’s theory is the innate simplicity of life, which explains his lack of interest in its origin, and the casual assumption of a blending mechanism for endless variation. Currently, although the immense complexity of biological mechanisms has not dislodged the theory (though it has resulted in much more questioning than ever before), one must wonder if Darwin might have been a lot less sasified with proposing natural selection without really addressing variation, had he not been part of a culture in which protoplasm was still thought by some serious scientists to be so simple as to be capable of generating life spontaneously in rotting flesh.
  • Another keystone of Darwin’s evolution was the idea of progress, inherent not only in the evolutionary theories of his time, but in historical and political theory. Darwin certainly considered examples where evolution might lead to degeneration, but the work is otherwise full of the language of progress: of “improved forms”, of the “exalted objects.. of the higher animals”, of “simple beginnings” leading to “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” and so on. Nowadays even LUCA is considered to have been at least as complex as any cell today, Eugene Koonin’s overview of evolution denies that it is shown to increase complexity, broken genes are the commonest actual examples of selectable mutation, and of course “jerry-building”, “opportunism”, “junk”, “contingency” and so on are the kinds of words more common in our biological culture than “progress to perfection.” Interestingly, a comment I cited from Gould here suggests, half-seriously, the possibility that even this change is due to cultural zeitgeist. Which is to say no more than philosophers of science do in assessing what scientists find worthy of notice at any particular time: clockwork universes produce clockwork physics, computers produce cellular algorithms, postmodernism produces biological indeterminacy: it’s as predictable as Christmas.
  • Linked to the last point, we must include Darwin’s conviction that, thus far, the pinnacle of evolution was European civilisation. This thought was more strongly expressed in The Descent of Man, and of course far more strongly by Darwin’s eugenicist cousin Francis Galton, and by Haeckel in Germany together with many others. In this context, the argument about whether Victorian racism stemmed from the science of anthropology, from theological justifications for the slave trade or just from colonialism is irrelevant: the fact is that it was a very congenial idea in Darwin’s culture, and his theory did nothing to fly in its face.
  • Darwin’s religious views are another common point of dispute. But there is no doubt that, at least as a PR exercise, he maintained the compatibility of his theory with religion. But once more, the form of religion with which it sat most easily was the popular religion of the intellectuals (and of his own family), Deism. It was very much in accord with the spirit of the age to suggest a process by which God might wind up the Laplacian clock at the beginning of everything and see it moving towards perfection automatically, without divine “interference” (or as a more educated age would have called it, “immanence”). Actually, there is no more intrinsic “grandeur in this view of life” than there is in the classical view of a transcendent creator who infuses the universe with his care and activity still, but in the culture of 1859 England (as in 2014 American academia, apparently) it seemed grander.

That is sufficient, perhaps, to demonstrate my thesis. One could add other elements, such as Darwin’s arguable comparison of macroevolution to the motives and scope of livestock breeding, which peculiarly matched his interests as an English country gentleman (especially in his formative university years), his impatience with philosophy that matched the unreflective empiricism of Victorian society, and so on. The popularity of his theory, more immediately amongst educated laymen than his scientific contemporaries, is a strong indicator that this was a culture waiting for just such a theory, presented in just such a popularly-written book.

Does that negate the theory? Of course not, though as many historians and philosophers of science have written, it should perhaps make us more ready to recognise its biases, especially where those biases happen to have persisted in our own culture. That we are more critical of Aristotle than Darwin may sometimes say more about our own cultural prejudices than about our in-depth knowledge of, and the quality of, their respective science. As a matter of necessity, those of us who deal seriously with ancient texts like the Bible (and I’m not including those like Ken Ham here) have to take enculturation seriously. Those like John Walton, who has studied the ANE texts for his entire career, are especially attuned to this, but I regularly see even local pastors working hard to discern the cultural situation in which the Scriptures arose, and translate it into contemporary terms. At my own small village Baptist church, I noticed on Sunday, Aristotle’s influence on the New Testament has been referenced for three weeks running, only once by me!

There is only one alternative to taking the writings of other cultures seriously, discerning what is of value, and what is peculiar to their culture of origination, on a case by case basis. And that is to privilege ones own culture (or in the case of some New Atheists, ones own subculture) as being the reference point for all truth – the “view from nowhere” in Thomas Nagel’s phrase. That part of Victorian prejudice, at least, western intellectuals seem to have retained completely intact.

21st century cosmology myth

21st century cosmology myth


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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124 Responses to Recognising cultural blinkers

  1. Lou Jost says:

    Jon, you’ve entirely missed my point.

    My comment was in response to John Walton’s shameful statement in the main post on BioLogos: “When Ham was asked what it would take to change his mind, he was lost for words because he said that he could never stop believing in the truth of the Bible. I would echo that sentiment…”
    The statement of Ham’s, here supported by Walton, is the very definition of closed-mindedness. When Ham made it during the debate, he might as well have walked off the stage right then, because it was an admission that his position was not based on objective consideration of the evidence, as he had claimed. He was so culturally blinkered that nothing would persuade him that he was wrong. And here was John Walton echoing this claim!!

    I pointed out that John Walton was making the same mistake as Ham. He was proud of the fact that no evidence would shake his faith that the bible was divinely inspired!

    I stated my own view: “The theory that best explains all the data is that the Bible, like the books of other religions, contains deep cultural myths capable of transforming lives. There is no evidence for actual divinity behind any of them (even though there easily could have been).”

    I was not saying that because the bible has cultural influences, it is not true. Instead, I was saying (pretty clearly, I thought) that there is no positive evidence of any divine influence in the bible. Either it is a cultural document with divine influences embedded in it, or it is JUST a cultural document, and I think it is the latter.

    So your Darwin story is completely irrelevant, though fun to read as always. Sure, every book is full of cultural elements, and this does not make it false. But not every book contains divinely-inspired wisdom. How do yo know the Bible is more than just a product of human culture? I trust you would never say, like Walton and Ham, that nothing could shake your belief that the Bible has divinely-inspired elements.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I think you’ve over-interpreted a one-liner in a blog comment by Walton (and I’d even suggest in Ham’s thinking). In real terms, the question, “What evidence would convince you that the Bible is untrue/ God doesn’t exist / Jesus didn’t rise from the dead” is pretty meaningless.

      As Ted David says on BL, if the bones of Jesus were found, that would do the trick. But he knows, as Walton or Ham do, and every thinking atheist does too, that that’s vanishingly unlikely to happen. It’s one thing to be able to demonstrate a scientific law that’s operating all around us: it’s another to “prove” a historical event either way: history always leaves us limited evidence, and always judgements have to be made, and always on non-scientific grounds.

      So Hume excluded miracles on the basis that they were not common human experience. But modern esearch has shown that some ridiculously high percentage of US physicians (55%) say they’ve encountered miracles in their work. But since miracles “don’t happen” commonly, the physicians’ evidence is considered not common human experience; they were not actually miracles. The point is not that research can or can’t prove that every individual observation is naturally inexplicable, but that the definitive research cannot be done by the nature of the beast, yet people make up their minds on the basis of their own interpretation of their own limited experience, as Hume did.

      I could cite a few personal examples of different interpretations of medical evidence (personal physician prepared to accept supernatural explanation, hospital consultant prefers to say results inexplicable: factual evidence simply reports that usually irreversible artery changes were found to have reversed on check angiography after prayer. Different interpretations both based on same evidence. Patient still trouble-free 15 years later – got a Christmas card from him.)

      In the case of historical Christianity, every possible kind of evidence to debunk a divine origin for scriptural claims has been dredged up from everywhere for over 200 years by a critical (often unbelieving) scholarship, but like the witnesses at Christ’s trial, they increasingly disagree among themselves: ergo, the questions cannot be settled by that kind of enterprise.

      But for Walton, as for the rest of us, I’ve no doubt the accumulated life-experience of many decades is the reason for his faith: so the relevant question is, “What would overturn the experience of my whole life?” That would include, in his case I guess, being impressed by how counter-cultural the ancient Hebrew documents have proved, and how consistent with the flow of biblical religion (together with how wrong the alternative critical explanations have proven). But it would also include (if he’s anything like me) feedback from his New Testament colleagues, from historians, from philophers ancient and modern, from his scientist (and Christian) wife, from science-historians like Ted, and many other academic fields whose findings have been synthesised in his faith. Outside academic pursuits it would be influenced by the impact of his own conversion experience and subsequent spiritual life, together with those many others he has met at work, in Church, through reading and travel; by the fact that Christianity has worked in his life; by his spontaneous reactions to nature and humanity, by interaction with alternative ideologies and religions etc, etc – plus, of course, by the common gut-instinct of the existence of a personal God – in sum, by his whole life.

      That, of course, includes cultural influences: it’s obvious that there are more Christians than frog-worshippers in historically Christian countries. But anybody exposed to missiology (and that includes most serious Christians) has some acquaintance with those issues and factors them in both in questioning their own beliefs, and critiquing those of others.

      The point of my piece was that culture, whether ANE or Victorian English, is the only vehicle through which ideas come. Some of Darwin’s ideas may be right because what he unconsciously adopted from his culture was fortuitously right: others wrong for the same reasons. Certainly many of them are judged right or wrong today more on their cultural resonance than their scientific conclusiveness (it was the Holocaust that decided the issue of eugenics, not biological advances).

      The answer to the generic question of what evidence actually changes belief to unbelief and vice-versa is nearly always “logically inadequate reasons”. A rather low-brow talk by an accountant ought not to have been sufficient reason for me to commit my life to Christ for the last half-century. But it was.

      But then again, accepting the “assured results” of a subsequently debunked scientific theory of religion, finding oneself a cultural outsider, or the hypocrisy of a Sunday School teacher ought not to be sufficient grounds for abandoning faith, though they often are.

      • Lou Jost says:

        But Jon, Muslims say exactly the same sorts of things about the Quran. It is so far ahead of its time, its writing is so perfect, speaks of things the ancients could not possibly know, and it is life-changing and gives believers incredible spiritual strength. I know less about Hinduism but my small exposure to them suggests they also feel the same way about their gods and their sacred texts. Nothing could change their minds. Each of these groups, and yours too, are wearing big cultural blinkers.

        Of course I have blinkers too, but science is pretty good at slowly reducing these.

        Anyway I appreciate your saying that some possible evidence could convince you that you believed in a myth.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Lou – science can remove your cultural blinkers only if it is totally independent of its culture. How would you go about demonstrating that Feyerabend’s suggestion that science depends on culture is wrong – even though it cuts across the existing cultural beliefs of science?

          • Lou Jost says:

            I said “Of course I have blinkers too, but science is pretty good at slowly reducing these.” SLOWLY REDUCING, not completely removing. There can be no doubt that science is far more cross-culturally homogeneous than language, sports, art, religion, or most other human activities.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              Small comfort – there never was too much serious disagreement in the world about the clay and wood everybody sees about them, which is what science only studies in more detail.

              The Americans, the Iraelis, the Iranians and the Koreans see absolutely eye to eye on the principles of nuclear fission.

              Music’s pretty cross-cultural too (at least to musicians) – and more harmless for the most part. But musicians, like scientists, are people too, and divide themselves into cultures whether they play military music or work for Oppenheimer. C’est la vie.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    From what I can glean, the argument between the proponents, and now between Lou and others, seems to be on two fronts: (1) inspiration, and how this is understood as divine inspiration regarding the Bible, and (2) culture, cultural settings, and related matters that would provide context to writing the books in the Bible.

    BTW I agree with your treatment of Darwin’s books, and would add that I think Darwin and his supporters impress me more with their ability to read and manipulate public opinion and prevailing moods, than with the scientific content of his hypothesis – but I digress.

    Inspiration is a term often used to indicate something out of the ordinary – and is often associated with a brilliant idea or insight that would not be part of our mundane activities; genius is another term that may be used in some cases. Ordinarily we would also associate appreciation of an inspired idea in a similar vein, as it requires a similarly brilliant mind to comprehend the inspiration displayed by, say, the writer. We all know of stories which speak of some genius who created something brilliant but was unappreciated for many years, and we would say others could not understand his creation.

    Divine inspiration differs in that we require God’s Holy Spirit to inspire the writing, and also His Spirit to inspire the understanding. This clearly presents difficulties to critics who appear to appreciate this, and yet spend a great deal of time trying to counter. It also makes it difficult for those Christians (and any religious person with a similar view) who believe their mission in life is to convince others – the bottom line is that belief and faith is from God, and no matter how this impacts on arguments and debates, it is nonetheless the case. It cannot be a case of a person displaying an open or closed mind – however we are admonished to test all things and only hold fast to that which we are convinced (by our own conscience) are good. This aspect of freedom and the Christian faith is not well understood even to this day by various denominations.

    On culture, I often interchange this with the phrase, “way of life”. If this is what we mean by culture, then the Bible is understood by the historical context that also enables us to know the character and way of life, displayed and recorded in the Bible, of the people discussed – it is also a record of such lives. Since this deals with human beings, we should understand this would include good and bad activities – it is this setting that is so valuable to the Church – having an ‘open mind’ to increase our understanding of the good, and also how we may benefit from the mistakes made by other Christians, so that we may improve, is as important as any statement of a conviction of belief.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      The question arose, of course, on the BioLogos thread, because John Walton has a very different understanding of Genesis from Ken Ham, and yet shares a belief in its divine origin.

      My own feeling is that that very situation is an indicator of its divine origin, for in fact although their hermenutical tools are so different (Walton’s coming from US academic theology immersed in ANE texts, and Ham’s by US popular theology immersed in current cultural conflicts), by their acceptance of the authority of the text they come to the same core conclusions of a transcendent God who made all there is, of a good creation, of humanity as being created in a uniquely a privileged and accountable role between God and his world.

      For all the sound and thunder, seen from the viewpoint of history (or the viewpoint of heaven) their differences will seem as theologically minor as the early debates about the date of Easter seem now. To that extent Lou is right – Walton and Ham have a lot in common.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Both Ham and Walton came from Christian cultures, as far as I know. I doubt someone with a different cultural background (say a fundamentalist Muslim or Hindu) would be as impressed with the concordance of these two about the divinity of Genesis.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Now, that’s just silly – you come from the same culture, and don’t concur in their religious consensus. My friend Rohan comes from a Buddhist culture and does. Likewise my Tatar friends who were raised in a Muslim/Communist culture. Some things are individual convictions, dependent as I said above on multiple factors – from which I wrongly omitted grace, to save controversy.

          A true Muslim, of course, would agree from Quranic teaching that both Old Testament and New are genuine prophecies from God (in a very literal, dictated, sense). In practice, having a doctrine that new revelation replaces the old, it would make little practical difference to most. However the Quran’s teaching on creation being largely derived from Genesis there would be little for them to object to there.

          Hinduism is so syncretic (and synthetic) that to some, Genesis is perfectly useable as divinely inspired Scripture. See here. Mainstream Hindu Scriptures bear a some remarkable resemblances to the ANE creation stories which Genesis both used and reacted against – not surprising really as the cultures were interconected for millennia.

          The odd one out seems to be “modern” culture, which (a) has tried to exclude the divine altogether and (b) has few tools for understanding any culture whose writings have little interest in materialism.

  3. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Regarding the exchanges over open vs. closed mindedness here, if we temporarily drop the automatic pejorative associations (with ‘closed-minded’) long enough to take another critical look, I wonder if our easy polemic would pick up any nuance.

    I think most of us (and Lou especially) hold ‘open-mindedness’ in high esteem, or even as an unassailable ideal … (one of those ‘god-words’ like ‘progress’ as I heard one colleague label them). You are not permitted to stand in its way, and no politician seeking office would speak ill of it.

    But let me suggest (without committing myself) that even ‘open-mindedness’ warrants critical reflection; (despite the oxymoronic nature of the very suggestion!)
    As Jon has stated above people have picked up beliefs (for good or ill) on perhaps unwarranted ‘evidence’ in its empirical forms; while others have abandoned beliefs (for good or ill) on less evidence than they should. We usually see this reticence as an intellectual handicap, and for good reasons. But is it always?

    Galileo was a less-than-stellar example of how science should work (and a fairly good example of closed-mindedness). Once he got it into his head that the earth moves, he clung to that notion despite the solid scientific evidence that was arrayed against him at the time. He even ignored blatantly contradictory evidence (sailors told him that two high tides occur each day — not one) and stuck with his ‘evidence’ even though it failed in every regard except in the end event that its targeted conclusion happened to be fortuitously right. So Galileo got vindicated by history — his closed-mindedness won, and he is now remembered for being “right”. And he vehemently denied Kepler’s ellipses to his death.

    I’m not claiming that he didn’t do great things, but that the closed-minded aspects of his intellectual life were a mixed blessing for him. They did not serve him overall. But at least in the ‘moving earth’ conviction we now celebrate his stubborn adherence to that. He apparently felt persuaded enough by Copernicus, that once committed he would bull-headedly pursue it come what may. And perhaps science today is better because of his efforts in that regard.

    So even if there were such a thing as pure ‘open-mindedness’ — I remain to be persuaded that we should wantonly abandon ourselves to the concept for its own sake. I think it goes without saying in present company that any would advocate the opposite direction. All the same I am eager for reflections from all of you.

    Thank you, Jon for this wonderful series putting our cultural moorings (and the fact that we have them) into the light for examination (from within our own cultural perspective, of course!) I think the idealogue who accepts his cultural moorings may be closer to something called ‘open-mindedness’ than the idealogue who imagines he has risen above all such trappings.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Merv, I remember attending a Christian rally in London many decades ago in the days when (a) they had Christian rallies in London and (b) I was young and studenty enough to go to them (whilst asking awkward questions of the organisers, I recall: on the fringe even then).

      It was overlooking Trafalgar square that I got into conversation with the first person with a scientistic bent I’d ever dialogued with. To him both the crowds, and me as their representative, were beneath contempt. So whatever line of argument I raised (probably along the lines that I was studying science and it didn’t conflict with my faith), his reply was, “I am objective – you are subjective.” There’s no real answer to that, I guess: was it better to be a subjective person or an objective philosophical zombie – or rather, a subjective person thinking he was a zombie?

    • Lou Jost says:

      “I think the idealogue who accepts his cultural moorings may be closer to something called ‘open-mindedness’ than the idealogue who imagines he has risen above all such trappings.”

      The kind of person I admire is one who is aware of his cultural moorings but makes his best effort to escape them. Such a person knows perfectly well that complete escape is impossible. But he also knows that by stretching the ropes a bit, he may get a clearer view of things than his friends who can’t bring themselves to tug at their moorings at all.

  4. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    So we may agree here that awareness, at least, is a good thing in any case.

    Can you imagine any scenario, Lou, where cultural moorings would be an asset to open-minded inquiry in its best senses? Actually I already know you can answer that affirmatively — you view Scientism as a superior mooring from which to base your own inquiry. So I might return your own challenge to you, asking: can *you* imagine tugging on the ropes a bit to try to get clear of your own naturalistic cultural mooring, and might that help you attain a clearer view over some horizons where Scientism won’t travel?

    • Lou Jost says:

      I used to be moored in a very different place, with a very different view, when I was a devout Christian. When I was in my Christian gradeschool I often was selected to give readings during church services, etc. I can tell you from experience that the air is much clearer where I am moored now!

    • Lou Jost says:

      Any decent evidence of the working of mind in inanimate nature would make me reconsider my current belief that there is no personal teleology in nature, no personality overseeing and directing things. I think the evidence points strongly against your views. That is why theologians are always getting themselves tied up in knots.

      The events of the world occur exactly as if their effects on humans didn’t matter. Evolutionary history has all the hallmarks of a completely accidental process with no pre-ordained goals. Sure, theologians can always invent reasons why your god decided to create in a way that exactly mimics what you would expect to happen by accident. But that kind of thinking, frankly, is only convincing to somebody moored in a very special place.

      • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

        Lou write:
        “The events of the world occur exactly as if their effects on humans didn’t matter. Evolutionary history has all the hallmarks of a completely accidental process with no pre-ordained goals. ”

        That is a tautology — an unsupported mantra that you can keep repeating to yourself, but it will only be convincing to those already committed to an atheistic framework (for which science offers precisely zero evidential support, as will continue to be evidenced by your failure to show any.) We’ve been over this before, Lou.

        But back on your prior post. Your advice may still be good to keep around even if you feel you have clearer air around you now. Giving the ropes a tug now and then, or perhaps tugging free and exploring over the horizon to see if you can see anything differently than your younger eyes did may be just what you need. What would you have to lose?

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          To see all the hallmarks of an accidental process is to perceive no patterm. It can be nothing more than a subjective judgement, so a scientist who holds it could only justly say: observe this data – in my personal opinion it shows no sign of teleology. (Leave aside here natural science’s self-restriction to efficient causation, which Lou refuses to admit despite the talk of altering biological sentences to avoid “invalid” teleology, talk of “purging” evolutionary of final causation etc.)

          To which another scientist (historically, say, someone like Linnaeus before evolution or Asa Gray after it) can reply: observe this data – in my personal opinion it shows a pattern of teleology.

          Pattern recognition v no pattern recognition. Has the first seen a false pattern, or the second missed a real one? Something other than the data must settle it. But the person not seeing the pattern is more foolhardy to assert there is none than the one who sees it but is mistaken is to say it is there. It’s an analogous issue to this.

          • Lou Jost says:

            More data can sometimes settle it, Jon. That’s the normal way to check if a pattern is due to some cause or just a misperception.

          • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

            Regarding alleged patterns, or alleged lack of patterns I think this is a philosophically murky subject even before religion or teleology.

            My son recently put lists of numbers on the board at school with a challenge for others to guess which were random. I put strings of decimal digits in four lists below:


            One of these truly was random (digital equivalent of coin flipping) but the others were either crafted by me –one is a snippet of digits from cos(19 degrees), another is smatterings of phone numbers, social security number and birthday date fragments. Obviously not random, though I challenge anybody to pick out the crafted ones apart from the obvious one.

            But here’s one of the many rubs. Even the ‘random’ one above, once it is played back changes from ‘random’ to ‘determined’. It was only random as I was making it up with computer assistance, but it is random no longer since it is now displayed exactly as I ‘contrived’ it on your display. (Note that even though computers can only generate ‘pseudorandom’ sequences, this becomes further randomized by user interaction in the form of time taken between keystrokes. So this is as truly random as if I had done actual coin flipping.)

            So we are already in murky waters without ever even reaching for philosophy or religious complications on all this.

            One atheist friend of mine was mightily disturbed that I would call out any of those phrases (like the obvious one) as being non-random. He insisted (rightly) that all such phrases have an equal chance of occurring. What he was failing to take into account is that no betting man would fail to notice one of the phrases as different from the others. The likelihood of its being a truly random phrase is vanishingly small because of its obvious order. True — the others are equally unlikely, but *only* if we had specified them in advance. Entropy will produce many phrases looking like the three above, but very few that look like the obvious one.

            Life, of course, is nowhere near so simple to analyze as a neat string of digits (random or not). So this just illustrates how quickly we run into analytical problems on the topics of ‘randomness’ or ‘disorder’ even before we leave our easily controlled scenarios.

            • Lou Jost says:

              Merv, that is exactly why I said that more data (a longer sequence) can resolve the issue. If we have identified a genuine pattern in the sequence, we may be able to predict the next member. If there is no pattern, then if we extend the sequence, the added digits should have certain statistical properties.

        • Lou Jost says:

          Merv, you claim that this statement of mine is a tautology: “The events of the world occur exactly as if their effects on humans didn’t matter.”

          Yet it is easy to think of a world that did behave as if humans matter, so it is not a tautology. Hurricanes could tend to avoid populated places. Holocausts could have been avoided. African children could be spared massive droughts and famines.

          I know what your response will be: “There you go again, thinking you know what god should do.” No, but I do know what those starving children want. And the world runs its course as if that does not matter. It doesn’t disprove the existence of god, but if he exists, he acts exactly as if our pain does not matter. Maybe that’s part of his plan. Fine. But it proves my point. The world does run its course as if humans don’t matter. And one doesn’t have to be an atheist to notice this. Theologians waste lots of ink on this problem too.

          Same with evolution. It is not a tautology to say it looks like it has no teleological element, because I can easily imagine some ways which WOULD look teleological. For example, if genetically identical populations of humans evolved multiple times, separately, from dramatically different ancestors in different places, that would be very strong evidence that matter was primed to evolve into humans. So again, my claim is not tautological; there are conceivable worlds in which it would be falsified.

          I am always open to new views, Merv, but they have to come with evidence.

          • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

            My last post above crossed with yours just posted.

            So noted — and yes I think we are getting to know each other pretty well so as to anticipate responses. And I do continue to disagree. We do know without tautology that we don’t have a god that services our requests on demand. But to discern ‘meaning’ or ‘absence of meaning’ from observed strings of events is not something you can do without importing your presuppositions into your data. See my strings of numbers challenge above as an illustration. You won’t easily discern random from meaningful digits.

            • Lou Jost says:

              See my response to your string example above. Regarding patterns or their absence, the real problem is that Christians (in spite of their 800 page users manual) still are unwilling to make any definite predictions about what to expect. On the other hand, my view of evolution as undirected has definite, testable consequences, which could in fact be falsified.

              Besides the one I mentioned above, here is another possible test of lack of teleology in evolution: If humans are the goal of evolution, and undirected evolutionary processes are not good enough or fast enough to lead to humans (as most of you claim), then one might expect that the lineage leading to humans would evolve slightly faster than lineages that branch off from the human lineage. Your god would be tweaking the mutations to get us out of the process, but he may not be doing that to lineages that branch off from the human lineage.

              Of course you’ll say god might not work that way (the usual answer to any attempt at real predictions from your paradigm). I’d have to grant that. But MY prediction has very little weasel-room. If evolution is random and undirected, the DNA substitution rate in the human lineage should not be exceptional: on the average, it should be the same as the substitution rates for other organisms with similar demographic characteristics living at comparable temperatures and elevations (UV light may increase mutation rate.). If my prediction is not true, I don’t have a magic “Get out of jail free” card like you always do. But I don’t need one, since my prediction is broadly confirmed.

              • Avatar photo GD says:

                Gasp! This raving and rambling nonsense is presented as science! Heaven help the sciences if this is foisted to the world as fact and scientifically verified!!!!

              • Lou Jost says:

                It’s a solid prediction, easily tested. Prove me wrong and win a Nobel Prize.

              • Lou Jost says:

                And I’ll be the first in line to congratulate you if you do.

              • Avatar photo GD says:

                “here is another possible test of lack of teleology in evolution”… if you get this statement to appear logical, perhaps you may be awarded the Noble prize in the (new) English language. Try to put forward a hypothesis as a scientist, with a tangible method and means to test it … in your case, begin with a time machine….

              • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

                I’ll reply at bottom.

              • Lou Jost says:

                To GD: That’s what Ken Ham would have said: “Were you there?”

                My prediction based on the hypothesis of no teleology is easy to test and falsify. Note I am not claiming that if my prediction is satisfied, it disproves teleological evolution. But if the predicted pattern is not there, my hypothesis would be falsified and some types of religious claims about evolution would be confirmed.

              • Lou Jost says:

                GD: Also, please note that the reason I brought this up was to show that the presence (or absence) of patterns is testable. Statements about them are not necessarily tautological.

              • Avatar photo GD says:

                So dismissive – such hubris – and predictability of a hypothesis that is based on a non-predictable randomness (or whatever gobble-de-goop is proposed) with patterns!? What planet are we on?

              • Lou Jost says:

                GD- you have often mentioned the very reliable predictions you make in your field based on thermodynamics or quantum mechanics. Those predictions rely on the bulk statistical properties of random processes. Random processes are some of the easiest to characterize, when large numbers of them are summed. I am suggesting the same sort of thing you do every day in your work.

              • Avatar photo GD says:

                Lou, apart from an almost pathological view of the Christian faith, I cannot even guess what your position I (scientifically), except that you try to come across as one who understands QM, theoretical physics/chemistry, unbelievably expert at Darwinian evolutionary thinking, and also a general critic on almost anything that touches on the Gospel. One do not want to dwell on the whys and wherefores for this view that you portray. And you claims about predicting and verifying or confirming such predictions, if taken as scientific statements, is simply too much. Nonetheless I will give you marks for an extraordinary need to argue on just about everything!!!!

            • Avatar photo GD says:


              One of the main reasons why I have been so sharp in my criticism of your point of view is displayed in your recent post – I have gone to considerable lengths to point out that the treatment(s) of QM, chemical kinetics and thermodynamics, are not mirrored in treatments based on Darwinian thinking. It still astonishes me that any scientist in the bio-area would make the claims you do. Initially I had tried to make this point clear by referring to major works in the bio-field, but you dismissed these as ‘quote mining’. I still find it difficult to take you seriously, based on your statements.

  5. Avatar photo GD says:

    It is common to use subtle methods to belittle and diminish other people’s beliefs by saying they are ‘just’ beliefs and are ‘just cultural influences’. This discussion however, got me thinking on how I view the Bible as a collection of documents. We all know that during apostolic times the OT was referred to, and Christians did not have NT scripture. Many documents were circulated and we know of controversies and heresies that threatened to destroy and often split many congregations. Yet it took many years before the Church selected the books we now know as the Bible, especially the NT which eventually was compiled as the canon for all Christians during the fourth century. I have come across some hilarious theories, presumably from atheists, who are keen to re-write history regarding the compilation of the NT – people can Google to find many such fanciful notions.

    The point I wish to make here is the Bible is considered to consist of writings from people inspired by the Holy Spirit, and also selected and authorised by the Church. It is this authorisation, which is collective (i.e. all of the Church recognises and accepts it), that renders the Bible central to the Christian faith. The wide ranging cultural and national identities of the Christian congregation also ensures a catholic aspect, since at the time of the compilation of the Bible by the Church, congregations were found in all parts of the Roman empire and also in the areas outside of it. Another reason why the Church gives its Amen.

    Recognising ones culture, heritage and family lineage is not something to be ashamed of, nor is it something that drags us down into some sort of intellectual black hole – those who have a rich culture and heritage appreciate its value – those without such a heritage, may rant and rave against it, but so what (dare I say it, it is just their cultural poverty that bothers them).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Yes GD

      As F F Bruce (I think) wrote, the Canon was not decided by a council like Nicea, but gradually authorised from what had already become universally accepted informally, just being trimmed round the edges where there was any doubt. The idea that there were hundreds of “Scriptures” which were censored by Constantine etc is in itself an example of a cultural myth – a fringe-group of wacko academics with an agenda inspires a successful mystery yarn and Lo! Serious internet discussions treat that frothy confection as fact, whatever the real scholars can say. If the secularist zeitgeist wants the New Testament to be a tool of Imperial Oppression, so be it, whatever the actual record shows.

      The Council of Nicea itself is an interesting example of cross-culturalism: 1200 bishops invited from Greek, Latin and presumably Syriac and what-not regions with their disparate cultures, united only in having outposts of Christianity amongst them. Around 300 manage to get there, which is no mean achievement, and agree substantially on doctrine.

      The Council never discussed the Scriptural Canon at all, which had been agreed over the centuries largely independently of “official” codification across the disparate churches: a remarkable thing in itself. The late gnostic, and other heterodox, writings had been dealt with firstly by the Spirit-led catholic churches themselves, but in a more analytical and academic fashion by those like Irenaeus.

      Part of what I find so exciting in reading the Patristic stuff, especially the Ante-Nicene Fathers, is that sense one gets of a new counter-culture within the various cultures across three continents, from Lyons to Alexandria. You’ll be aware from Tertullian, perhaps, that by 200AD their opponents were calling the Christians a “third race”, the “civilised” Romans being the first and the Jews the second.

      Negatively, the local cultures – linguistic, political and racial – tended to erode the catholicity of the gospel, leading eventually to tragedies like the Great Schism. Yet even that was not final, as your own welcome presence on this blog shows.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        Indeed Jon, Christianity brought a counter culture that has come to define the attributes of humanity – I was bemused by your disagreement with Roger on Biologos and read Galatians again – it is no small claim for the Christian faith that Gal 5:18-26 present the clearest break on morality and ethics for humanity – a break from Greco-Roman ethics (e.g. Aristotle) and the Egyptian/ Babylonian cultures. I have to go back many years, but if my memory serves me, I recall historians discussing this very thing – that Christianity brought a profound change in Western civilisation by clearly articulating attributes for human character that encompasses all virtues, ethics and good citizenship. I recall a comment attributed to Ghandi – if Christians lived by the teachings of the Gospel, he would convert in an instant. It seems our troubles stem from our own weaknesses and not the Gospel, whatever the cultural setting.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          GD – indeed. For a letter to a small and insignificant group in a peripheral place, Galatians has more than its share of radical teaching – even more so when you considers it’s (a) about the earliest extant Christian document (48 AD), (b) undisputed even by the skeptical scholars and (c) bursts forth with a mature theology and ethics fully formed.

          The most remarkable thing in the passage you cite (which is the one we’ve been studying since before Christmas in church) is not so much the ethics as the means of attaining them through the Spirit, as was prophesied way back in Isaiah and Ezekiel’s time in announcing the new covenant.

          The failure Gandhi (amongst others!) has noted is therefore primarily a failure to “walk in the Spirit” rather than anything else.

          • Avatar photo GD says:


            While “walking in the Spirit” is obviously correct, I have pondered on a broader question regarding the Christian faith and the work and virtue of those within and outside of the Faith. I guess I will continue to ponder on such matters, but I think that God works with people such as Gandhi (and all who seek to do good) in ways that I feel are inscrutable to myself – just why this may be is not always clear to me, but I feel that those who seek to do good have God’s backing, even if they profess atheism itself – talk of providence, what!!!!

  6. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Lou, the “get-out-of-jail-free” charge intrigues me. You see religion as getting a free pass; but a free pass to what? This warrants more discussion I think, but my initial take on it is that you keep presuming (as you have inevitably trained yourself to do guided by your presuppositions) that religion must fall entirely within the domain of science, and therefore is competing with science to arrive at the best explanations for everything. So in that sense you see science as laboring along the game board, dutifully following the rules, while religion wants to ignore the rules and jump ahead to some pretentious “victory”.

    But what if religion isn’t competing with science? I know — some of it does when its claims happen to intersect with empirically observable phenomena. But religion as a whole may not even be playing the same ‘game’ as science.

    I think the metaphor takes on more realistic character if we see religion as the set of world views (game rules) behind life, and science is one of the useful methodologies sometimes invoked during play.

    • Lou Jost says:

      “….You keep presuming (…) that religion must fall entirely within the domain of science.” Why do you think I would think that? You and I both know that many of its claims are relevant to the physical world, and others are not. Why do you go for the unfair universal here?

      If a religious claim has empirical consequences, these can be tested. So it is worth looking at that intersection with physical reality carefully. It is not that religion and science are in competition (because “science” is not a worldview). Rather, the empirical claims of religions can be tested by science (because science is a method for testing whether a worldview matches public reality). There are many competing worldviews (religious and non-religious), and science is one of the most clear-cut tools for deciding which are admissible and which are not, via testing of their empirical predictions.

      Now some religions have that “get out of jail free” card, which makes empirical testing difficult. You can see a creationist using that card on the BioLogos comment section that spawned this post by Jon. He makes the old argument that god must have created the universe all at once with all the signs of old age. So all the evidence that the earth is old is just faked by god. If you have to keep using that card constantly, it is a warning that maybe you believe something that is not true. And sometimes people will paint themselves into a corner by using that card too much. That same creationist probably thinks that his god is all good, not a trickster god like Loki. But putting fake fossils in the rocks in their correct order to match evolutionary predictions seems like an act worthy of Loki.

      Evolution could have shown strong patterns showing that it was aimed at humans. It does not. This doesn’t disprove the existence of your god or the possibility that he used evolution to create us. But if your creator god used evolution to create humans, it appears he did it in such a way to deliberately mimic, to a certain degree, accidental undirected evolution, rather like that creationist’s god making the carefully-ordered fake fossils in the rocks to fool us.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        Your point on the Creationist (Ken Hamrick) and an “artificailly aged” earth is interesting, because it demonstrates at least a couple of very specific metaphysical assumptions on your part: firstly, that God would be “cheating” to create, by fiat, a universe-in-motion, and secondly that the human priority is, or ought to be, finding evidence for God in nature.

        It’s at least possible that God could be the kind who had no interest whatsoever in making the deep structure of the Universe accessible to people, any more than a film producer has in portraying an entire world in which the story-line takes place. One could no more accuse God of cheating than you could accuse Spielberg of deception for portraying a character for whom you can’t trace a birth certificate.

        Spielberg would say, “You were supposed to follow the story, not poke around the scenery.” And this God might say something like, “I wanted you to love your neighbour and look after the planet – I never asked you to poke around my factory.”

        Equally, it’s possible that a Ken, having some other epistemological basis for believing in a God who creates by fiat, simply accepts the fact of the world’s existence and wants to get on with living right for that God rather than proving anything about the distant past.

        As it happens, I believe that the God who made the world also invited us to glorify him by examining how he did his work, but that’s a faith conviction, albeit the same faith commitment that kicked off modern science in the first place. Yet I’m no more interested than my hypothetical version of Ken in proving the existence of God from the nature of creation, because neither that nor the contrary can be done. So “Get out of Jail Free” is irrelevant – I’m not in jail.

        But the belief that God would be cheating to go about creation in any particular way is just as dependent on a particular belief about God as the belief I have in expecting nature to reflect his character. One’s desire that everything should be found to have an unbroken chain of cause and effect back to year zero is just that – a wish. It is not a right. It’s not even something that either the God of the Bible, or as far as I know the God of any world religion, has ever been said to promise.

        • Lou Jost says:

          No, I didn’t make those metaphysical assumptions. I showed that if someone believes that god made the universe to look as if it were old, then that entails some other beliefs about this god.

          The kind of god you described (the one who didn’t expect us to poke around) is one possibility, but why would such a god create fake fossils and fossil tracks (fake in the sense of not being produced by actual once-living animals)? This seems to be inconsistent with a god who wants us to know him. And that’s fine, I don’t have metaphysical prejudices about what god should be like. I am merely pointing out that these special pleadings to account for empirical evidence have consequences for the kind of god you can believe in.

          • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

            That’s all hypothetical anyway, Lou. Nobody that I know of (or at least nobody here) believes in a trickster god any more than some great “vending-machine-in-the-sky” god that we can order around.

            You wrote earlier:
            “It is not that religion and science are in competition (because “science” is not a worldview).”

            We can agree on this — science *shouldn’t* be a world view (in an ideological sense). But Scientism manages to make into one when it confers on science an uncontested authority to be a sole referee for all Truth claims of any kind. Many of us here are more than willing (already have) accepted science as one valuable referee for the truth claims about physical phenomena, but some of us simply refuse to fire all other referees and trust all judgment to the science ref alone. For one thing that referee is stuck in only one corner of the court, and while you may insist that all the action is limited to that corner, you cannot fairly claim that your referee is in any position to make that ruling concerning the extent of his own employment. What you can claim is that you, for ideological reasons of your own, do wish to confer all authority to that particular referee alone.

            I make free use of that information too, but I will not be converted into an exclusive devotee that closes my eyes to everything else.

            Hanan — thanks for the reminder. Despite our sustained disagreements it is good to maintain respect and civility.

            • Lou Jost says:

              I knew you’d say something about my claim that science isn’t a worldview. In fact, science could easily have supported your worldview. It might still (and then you’ll all be crowing, I am sure!)
              I don’t insist that all the action is there in the science corner. But the nice thing about the science ref is that he has an external arbiter. The other refs are in your own head….they can be useful for finding logical contradictions, mathematical relations, etc, but they are notoriously subjective and much more strongly influenced by culture than the referee that appeals to public reality as an arbiter.

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

                Once again, Lou, though your view on the dispassionate nature of science is over-rosy, objectivity isn’t the point.

                It’s just that science is as inadequate for the totality of life as those guys who say “Rock and Roll doesn’t lie.” Even if it were true, it doesn’t deal with the most important issues of life, including the fact that “Rock and Roll musicians do lie.”

                I have experience of those in medicine who sought out comfortably reliable areas of study such as pathology, because it avoids the messiness of people. But though the field is valuable, the motive is escapism – the people issues remain to be dealt with.

                Science simply is not philosophy, metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, religion, family relationships, politics, etc etc.

              • Lou Jost says:

                But Jon, I never said anything about avoiding those things. I said that most of them are so deeply subjective that it is not possible to use them as reliable referees. When any of those things makes claims about public reality (and most of them, especially religion, do make many such claims), that is our best chance to check their truth. And that is where science comes in.

                The naturalistic worldview that I hold is the wolrdview that, in my opinion, best passes the tests of science. It is not derived from science. Science could just as easily have supported a religious worldview with magical gods, if there had been objective evidence of such.

              • Lou Jost says:

                One more thing: you said my view of the objectivity of science is over-rosy. But if you look at what I said, I merely claimed that science is relatively more objective than those other things.

  7. Hanan says:

    Can’t we all just………. get along? ;D

  8. Avatar photo GD says:

    Jon and Merv,

    I want to move away from disagreements with people such as Lou, and make a few remarks on a more general subject that is relevant to ‘culture’ and how we may view the various disciplines, including science and philosophy. The central point for this is the community, or nowadays, the public. We can (for convenience) consider all public outlooks as general ones that are debated and examined by the community. In this context, it is reasonable that the community may seek input from various disciplines – i.e. on matters of physical objects we would turn to the physical sciences, on bio-matters, to the biosciences, on socio-matters, sociology, and so on. There is a good reason why these are considered disciplines within Academia, as their major role is to serve the community in the way(s) I have suggested. On religion however, we are presented with a history of communities and indeed civilisations, which identifies specific sections of the community by their beliefs and by their way of life. It is here that arguments that seek to privilege some discipline, as some type of arbiter that brings difficulties. Just as the community in general may seek input from the various disciplines, it is up to the community to make a judgement on their relevance. Religious community may act within the general social context, but as a civilised race, we understand that beliefs are indeed personal, and are the right of every citizen (as indeed are non-belief). It is within this context that many of the ‘culture wars’ and disagreements that seek a scientific basis, seem both futile and irrational. If people seek to use science to counter belief (whatever that may be), they are making a serious mistake – rationally, they must create a science of belief before they can be taken seriously, and if they do this, Science would reject such an enterprise.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Yes, an important issue, but definitely also a can of worms. In one sense (not to get too postmodern!) there is no reality but social reality. All knowledge is finally subjective becaused we are subjects. “Public reality” is that which others can share (yet subjectively) rather than “what is independent of human observers”, which can’t be known except by God whose viewpoint is, definitionally, objective – he is the reference point. I’ll leave aside quantum realities which appear to be, in some views, created by the subjective observer.

      Yet there is a totally different subjective reality shared by Nagel’s bats or by octopi which is quite inaccessible to us. Or closer to home, by believers versus unbelievers in God.

      If my reality is significantly different from the majority’s I am said to be deluded – which of course is the subject matter of many stories about those who seem deluded but are, in fact, the only people in step. On the other hand, “public reality” may demonstrably, or indemonstrably, be in error. The easy case is where a culture believes the earth is flat, or some other readily-testable assumption. The harder (and both far commoner and more important) ones are where one culture judges another wrong: we objectively and rightly ban religion from schools: they subjectively and wrongly encourage it.

      Even more strange is where ones own culture arbitrarily reverses public reality – religion in schools is just such an example, where the same US constitution first encouraged it, then banned it. Another example: it becomes wrong for the state to kill convicted murderers, but in tandem it becomes right for innocent Downs’ syndrome fetues to be killed.

      But those may overlap: the legalisation of abortion, for example, produced a change in the physical science of embryology I studied at medical school. The latter unequivocally stated that human life was a continuum starting at conception, whereas it became socially desirable for there to be a thing called a “potential human” or even a “pre-(human)-embryo.” Just as Darwinian scientists once saw evolution as a thorough justification for eugenics, but mysteriously now see it as the very opposite, so the hard science of embryology proved to be just as malleable to societal preferences. “Public reality” turns out to be primarily “social reality”, the consensus of the subjective.

      Equally mysteriously, the body public notoriously forgets it has changed: the free world slipped imperceptibly in a couple of decades from condemning foreign perversion to condemning foreign homophobia. The permissive society is now (in the UK) prosecuting as paedophiles those it lauded as liberated pioneers in the sixties.

      And that’s why the cultural influences on someone like Darwin are significant: the science that society as a reality-defining power wanted and accepted became the objective reality. At exactly the same time, and for the same reasons, the myth of the conflict of science and religion was invented (see this by Stephen Gould), and remains an “objective historical reality” taught in schools to this day, and touted by people like Jerry Coyne.

      Good or bad? Both, but if we’re talking about the way things are rather than the way we’d like them to be, that’s the way things are.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        We can easily add to the list of difficulties and contradictions faced by our community(s) Jon, including lack of justice, huge differences in wealth, etc etc. I cut through all of these matters by emphasising the importance of Faith for a troubled race and the planet we occupy.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        I suspect my reply was rather terse, and although I think it is the answer, it is not an examination of the important issues you raised. It goes to the heart of my question I asked before, on why so much effort on Gen 1-2 and the atheists response (and perhaps pseudo-Christians) when there are greater questions to ask.

        I agree the public space is constantly invaded by contradictions and dare I say, a force for the perverse and vile – yet they inevitably seek to justify this using the word ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. I have considered this matter for a long time as I think it is more important than our understanding of the world of objects (Lou and others notwithstanding). We all want out community, our neighbours, and ourselves, to live the good life before God – I suggest this hope is part of the human spirit – but our ability to achieve this is limited by our weaknesses – this brings me to the very essence of Christianity. It is unequivocally the means to that end – both the cause and effect – and the grounds for this is Law and Freedom – in that we understand and are taught by the Law on how to live well for ourselves and our neighbour, and to choose this as a profound act of freedom. This negates all Darwinian outlooks, as it requires reflection and choice that transcends any physical reality(s). I firmly believe this attribute is part of the human spirit, and this is supported by the historical facts that show all communities and civilisations have sought spiritual guidance – yet the descendants of Abraham received such guidance.

        A lot to think about. Thanks for your detailed response.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          Coded behind my response was not nihilism, but the realisation that we’re not going to attain “the good life” (in the philosophical sense) by any kind of science, contemporary ethics, religious quest or whatever.

          So your reference to “faith” in the previous post is spot-on, though I’d say it needs something added to the word to avoid being seen as just another human variation: and that word is “grace”.

          The grace of God breaks in from outside the system that generally mirrors weakness. It is represented only imperfectly in the here and now, which is why eschatology is so essential to Christianity. But in its general form it prevents the excesses of human madness going to their logical destructive conclusions, and reaches into many billions of lives in its specific and salvific form.

          It’s not what any of us want to hear about as humans (whether materialists or not) because it punctures our conceits about finding essential truth for ourselves. And yet in a strange way it shines light on all the other pursuits – science, ethics, religion etc.

  9. James says:

    I agree with a comment of Merv above: no columnist on the Hump seems to be endorsing a “trickster God” who deliberately plants misleading fossils in order to test our faith, etc. Whether Ken Ham believes in such a God I do not know. But traditional Christian theology has never endorsed such a conception, to my knowledge. So I’m not sure what Lou is making such a fuss about. If he is saying that narrow US fundamentalists have an incoherent and anti-scientific form of Christian theology, I’d agree, but that doesn’t make the theology of Augustine, etc. incoherent or anti-scientific.

    I would guess that Ham does not openly champion the trickster conception of God, but that, if textual and scientific evidence and argument led to the point where only two possible choices (e.g., regarding the Flood) existed — either that the Bible has made an outright error about a global flood, or that there is no error because God deliberately erased the telltale traces of such a flood both in nature and in our historical/archaeological record, so that we would wrongly conclude that it never happened — Ham would opt for latter alternative rather than concede that the Bible contains any error. I’d take the former alternative; I’d rather believe that the Biblical writer made an outright error about some scientific, historical or geographical fact than believe that God deliberately entraps good and honest scientists. But the fact that we are given such an alternative by a certain kind of American fundamentalist shows how far Christian theology has degenerated.

    I would submit to Lou that the major problem is that so much of US theology is populist in origin, rather than learned, and therefore that attacking fundamentalist theology and Biblical exegesis is bit like attacking the science of a newspaper journalist covering the science beat. It’s like shooting ducks in a barrel. Why it is that Lou and so many other current atheists like to spend so much time attacking the theology of the stupidest Christians is beyond me.

    When we look at the older unbelievers, we see, e.g., Bertrand Russell debating Father Copleston — an extremely learned historian of philosophy — over significant issues. Russell chose to take on Christians worthy of his intellect. The new atheists make their task too easy by constantly attacking the most extreme, and least intellectually viable, forms of Christian theology.

    • Lou Jost says:

      James, read my whole set of comments on this post. I am NOT addressing fundamentalist beliefs, except in a few asides.

      • James says:


        I guess I was responding to the few asides; and in any case, given your many past discussions, it is very hard to keep other things you have said (and apparently still believe and defend) out of mind when looking at your more recent comments.

        I don’t disagree with all of the criticisms you have raised, above or elsewhere. I think there are better and worse ways to defend the teaching of the Bible, and of Christianity generally, and I sometimes think you have pointed out well when certain Christians take the worse way rather than the better.

        My main point above was that you often seem inordinately concerned with arguments about whether this or that story in the Bible is historically true or false, contradictory to another Biblical story, etc. That seems to be a preoccupation of both atheists and fundamentalists, and has been for 80 years or more. I get weary of it. I get tired of the public perception of the “Christian” position being shaped by US fundamentalists’ obsession with “defending the Bible,” as if the exact syllables of the Bible, rather than the teaching of the Bible, constitute the essence of Christian faith. The fundamentalists don’t speak for all Christians; they don’t speak for the most educated portions of the Christian community; they don’t speak for historical European Christianity; and they certainly don’t speak for me.

        One thing I like about this site is that non-fundamentalist Christians overwhelmingly populate it, and control the direction of the discussions. They have less influence here than they do on BioLogos (the comments section of BioLogos, I mean), on Uncommon Descent, or most other sites. I hope it stays that way. That’s probably why I’m chiding you a bit for continually talking about historical-Biblical questions. I find them mostly boring. I have no desire to “prove” to a hardened skeptic that any particular event happened. And almost every time discussions turn that way, they seem to quickly become partisan, and to shed more heat than light.

        But don’t go by me. I won’t be able to invest much more time here anyway. I’ve got a new job that will take up most of my time. Best wishes.

    • Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

      Be careful with you words, James. All these “stupidest” of Christians are still our brothers and sisters, and many would number us all together in that. I think you are right to be concerned about Christian intellectual shortcomings, and I share in that concern too. But I do worship with some who are in the category you mention and they are not stupid. But it does seem inevitable that among large groups there will be significant buy-in to ideas that others see as a sign of unhealthy gullibility.

      Now … how to address that in personal humility while maintaining some personal doubt as to which group I’m in as regards one issue or another …

      • James says:

        Hi, Merv.

        I was writing impatiently and in a hurried manner, so I was casual in my choice of words. “Stupidest” has personal connotations that I don’t need to make my argument, and I’m not out to belittle individuals, but only to be frank about the quality of arguments and research; so let’s say “theoretically least sophisticated” or something of that sort. There is no doubt that Ken Ham is theoretically less sophisticated than Father Copleston; and Ham is considered one of the brightest lights of the YEC group. I’m saying that if someone wants to show that Christianity is suited only for muddle-headed or scientifically incompetent or dishonest thinkers, it isn’t adequate to show the deficiences of Ken Ham or Henry Morris; one has to show the inadequacy of Copleston, Gilson, Lewis, Sayers, Chesterton, Augustine, Calvin, etc. And I don’t think that Lou, or any of the current New Atheists, have ever come close to doing that.

        • Lou Jost says:

          James, I don’t think any of those people you admire are particularly known for having convincing arguments for the existence of the Christian god. The ones I know from that list are mostly apologists interpreting or explaining away the apparent paradoxes of Christian doctrine.

          It is true that many atheists spend a lot of time ridiculing those doctrines, and maybe some of that ridicule is unjustified (though I am not so sure…). But you and many other critics of atheism keep missing the central point. Let’s suppose the Christian doctrine were perfectly consistent and free of paradoxes and well-explained (and given the ten thousand different versions of Christianity, I don’t think anyone has succeeded in doing that). It is still the case that the evidence for its truth is very poor, and there is some evidence against it. That is the main reason why many of us are atheists. Not because of the doctrine itself.

          • James says:


            You speak much of evidence. I’ll make a couple of points about that.

            The evidence for a lot of scientific theories has been very poor, but that has not stopped many scientists from adhering to those theories on something like a hunch that, given time, those theories will find confirmation. And sometimes the hunch has been wrong. I’m no physicist, but I’m told that the evidence (by which I mean empirical evidence, not such things as mathematical consistency or beauty, etc.) for a multiverse is nil, and that the evidence for string theory is almost nil, yet large numbers of physicists have great faith in these ideas, and are willing to spend their research lives promoting them despite the lack of evidence. I gather that they just “feel right” theoretically, and therefore are too tantalizing to abandon, even without any way of testing them against the observable behavior of matter and energy.

            Darwin’s theory both lacked evidence (before Mendel discovered that inheritance was particulate, it was likely that small variations would be averaged out in the population) and had evidence against it (the then-best calculation by top-line physicists of the age of the earth), yet Darwin and his supporters persevered.

            Many historians of science say that the old Ptolemaic system provided more accurate predictions of actual planetary positions than the theory of Copernicus, for something like 50 years after Copernicus’s book came out; yet many scientists followed Copernicus, not because of the empirical evidence, which was lacking, but because of a certain theoretical preference.

            William Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood seemed to be impossible, until capillaries were discovered. Harvey at the time could only speculate that the capillaries existed, but were too small to see. He proved right, but at the time the evidence was against him.

            If scientists never believed anything that lacked evidence, or had evidence against it, how fast would science progress?

            That’s my first point. Now to a point which is directly on Christianity.

            I don’t know what you mean by “the evidence is very poor.” I think you are interpreting “the evidence” more narrowly than I am, than Jon is, etc. Do you mean the evidence for historical statements about the Resurrection, the parting of the Red Sea, etc.?

            If so, I cheerily admit that evidence for all miraculous events in the Bible is very scant. In the nature of the case, all miracles reported in ancient texts are not verifiable by means available to people living centuries later. I certainly would never think of being Christian if my only, or main, reason for being so was some weak “proof” that an ancient Galilean rose from the dead. Or some “proof” that a global flood had occurred, or that some salt pillar in the desert was really Lot’s wife, etc. I don’t believe that any proof for any of these things will ever be possible. Anyone is free to assert that the stories are fictions, or lies, or allegories, or complain that the eyewitnesses are dead, etc.

            I don’t put the assertion that a man rose from the dead in the same class as the assertion that Lincoln was assassinated. It isn’t believed for the same reasons. At least, not in the case of the Christians I hang out with. Maybe US fundamentalists are different. They write books with titles like “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.” That approach to the truth of the Gospels is not my cup of tea. You can’t batter someone into accepting a religious faith by legal arguments or arguments about the flaws of radioactive dating, etc. That’s not what religious faith is about. It concerns deeper insights about life, not the surface level of evidences and proofs.

            Lou, look at what European Christianity produced, directly or indirectly: Chartres and Bach and Handel, beautiful poetry, wonderful European literature, the first hospitals and universities, medical missionaries; then look at what US fundamentalism has produced: Creation Museums and Prohibition (with the consequent rise of organized crime, corruption of the police, etc.). No great literature or art, no leaders of positive social change, etc. So the kind of Christianity based on “evidence that demands a verdict” is a stale, defensive, narrow, Christianity, whereas the classical European kind of Christianity I follow is open to the world of science and art and literature and music and social change etc.

            To me the main “evidence” for Christianity is in the moral and spiritual lives of Christians and in the comprehensiveness of the Christian view, a view which produced modern science (no science in China, Mexico, Africa, etc.) among many other fruits. Those who live as Christians “feel” that it is right, just as the Copernicans or Darwinians “felt” that they were right even when the “evidence” was against them. And their “feeling” isn’t some private set of spiritual goosebumps (which might be explained away as excited neurons) — it’s confirmed by the workings of a whole Christian culture and civilization (which unfortunately is fast vanishing), at every level from the personal up to the international.

            You know, Lou, when you married your wife, you had no hard “evidence” that it would work out. All the evidence was against it. Statistics show that 50% of marriages end in divorce, which can be very messy with kids; a relatively high percentage of women these days (thanks to the erosion of Christian virtue) commit adultery at least once in their lives, meaning that you could well be cuckolded; much of what we call “love” is just a chemical reaction (as a song in an old MGM musical stated) and therefore wears away; there is a good chance you would be nagged for not taking out the garbage or fixing that closet door; no one’s married sex life turns out to be the way it looks in the movies; etc. But people still take the gamble, get married, believing that happiness can be found there. Why are they so unscientific? Why don’t they go by the evidence, and stay single, avoid the hangups? Darwin toted up the pros and cons scientifically before deciding to get married. Should we all do the same?

            Religion isn’t a *theory* that one adopts or not adopts, in accord with historical or scientific evidence. If it were that, it wouldn’t be important in human life at all. The truth of Christianity would in that case be no more important than the truth about black holes or the truth about two assassins versus one in the death of JFK. It would not be something that would preoccupy the lives of individuals and cultures.

            The reason I mentioned Lewis, Augustine, etc. was that these were men for whom Christianity was much more important than a historical or scientific theory to be assessed by “objective” methods of history or natural science. It was a way of looking at the world and a way of being in the world. And one can be “inside” that way, while still having a good scientific mind, a good critical mind, and so on. That is evident from the great number of brilliant Christian scientists, philosophers, novelists, poets, administrators, generals, statesmen, doctors, etc.

            I would deny that the truth of Christianity can be “proved” by some objective means to an outsider who, with arms folded, measures the truths of religion by narrow criteria which are not the right criteria. No amount of “evidence” of the sort that is demanded will be enough; and in any case, such “evidence” would produce only assent to purely external propositions, e.g., that an ancient Galilean rose from the dead. But the fact that an ancient Galilean rose from the dead, as Wittgenstein showed us, means nothing by itself; anyone could shrug and say: “A remarkable event, to be sure. But so what?”

            If Jesus rose from the dead today, Lou, your first instinct would not be to call him God and Lord, rend your garments, and repent in sackcloth and ashes for intellectual pride and spiritual stubbornness. Your first instinct would be to get him to a laboratory and analyze every cell and molecule in his body, to determine the natural causes of the phenomenon. The point is that religion is not about “evidence” in the sense that you mean it; all the evidence in the world won’t change the attitude of someone who has not the religious frame of mind, and further, has no desire to enter into it.

            Thus your repeated claim that you are “open to the evidence” for Christianity has no useful meaning. All it means is that you are “open to being convinced that certain puzzling events actually happened in the past.” But such “openness” is not openness to what true religion is really about. It’s a cerebral openness concerning historical propositions, not an existential openness to an alternate vision of reality. The latter kind of openness, I have never for a moment felt in any of your posts.

            • Lou Jost says:

              James, I fully agree with the first part of your post, regarding the role of counter-evidence in science. However, your characterization of “hunches” is not quite right (except maybe in string theory). The thing that made the scientific community accept most of those theories even though a full confirmation was absent (or, in some cases, in spite of contrary evidence) is not a “hunch”. It is related to what scientists often call the “beauty” of a theory— the elegant way in which a very simple principle (like descent with modification, or the equivalence of gravitation and acceleration) explains a vast number of seemingly unconnected, independent previously-unexplained observations about the world. They realize that this is very very unlikely to be a coincidence. Thus their “hunch” is, in most cases, actually ultimately based on observation. I recognize that you may feel that Christianity has this same quality (though I thought from previous posts that you were not necessarily a Christian).

              “I don’t know what you mean by ‘the evidence is very poor.’ … Do you mean the evidence for historical statements about the Resurrection, the parting of the Red Sea, etc.?”

              Yes, evidence in favor of the central empirical claims of Christianity is poor, especially for the resurrection. Thus your beliefs, while they may be comforting and helpful in your life, are to judged on their merits and not falsely given divine authority.

              “I don’t believe that any proof for any of these things will ever be possible.”

              Proof of any empirical proposition is nearly impossible, and I don’t demand that of Christianity. But the evidence in this case is really unconvincing to an outsider. It is about as convincing as the evidence of miracles from other religions.

              “Lou, look at what European Christianity produced, directly or indirectly.”

              You know that is completely irrelevant to the claim of divine authority. The Muslim world, India, China, Africa, and especially pagan Greece also produced the kinds of things you mention, without Christianity. And if you credit Christianity for all that you mentioned (incorrectly in my opinion), then you must also blame Christianity for the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisition, feudalism, etc. But I don’t really care about that, I am mainly concerned with whether it is actually true- in particular, does the bible really contain authoritative messages from the creator of the universe.

              “Those who live as Christians “feel” that it is right”

              Yes, but members of nearly every religion feel that way. Then you speak of marriage, etc, as if people who didn’t believe in your god don’t have emotions, or deny their emotions. And that society wouldn’t function well without such a belief. The truth is the opposite: in Europe the more secular countries tend to score higher on every measure of societal health, including lower crime rate. I don’t say this to blame Christianity for poorly functioning societies (belief in religion is correlated with hard and uncertain times, so no causal relationship can be drawn from those stats). But these stats do show that Christianity is not necessary for a society to prosper.

              “…All the evidence in the world won’t change the attitude of someone who has not the religious frame of mind, and further, has no desire to enter into it.”

              You have just gone on at length about how I and others slavishly follow evidence.

              But perhaps the reverse is be true of you, as it was of Ken Ham in his debate with Bill Nye: all the evidence in the world won’t change the attitude of someone who has the religious frame of mind, and further, has no desire to leave it.

              What if close analysis of the gospels showed they were not intended as histories but as hagiography? In that case, the evidence for a bodily resurrection and the divinity of Jesus would be very weak. We’d still have his teachings, and these could now be discussed rationally, not through the false filters of divine authority. I think this would improve society.

  10. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    GD, you prompt me to wonder if other departments don’t have their equivalent of “scientific creationism” as they, in their own turn scramble to be seen within the “safe fold” of science, or else casting jealous eyes towards the authority so many give to it.

    But most humanities would, I think, hold their own and maintain the value of their place in their own right as non-physical sciences. It might help to think of science in its more historical sense as the all-inclusive quest for knowledge generally instead of its more narrow identification today with the so-called “hard sciences” (i.e. physical sciences that even push biology into that suspect fringe area.) In the end most should awaken from this stupor and declare to themselves: “Hey wait a minute! Art, music, language/literature, etc. haven’t been trying to seek validation at the doors of physics classes — so what the heck are we doing here?!”

    • Lou Jost says:

      When you make claims that have physical consequences, you have to face physics, like it or not.

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      The thrust of my remark is to highlight the discipline side of each of these academic activities, and the role they (should) fulfil within the public or societal context. I agree with you that scientists and artists (etc) are also members of the community, and so it is as such members of the community that general views may be discussed with the right attitude of respect for each persons beliefs. For example, a scientist may argue a particular position regarding her understanding of a specialist area, but as a member of the community she needs to consider the general view – what I suspect you have tried to point out to Lou – this general view needs to reflect the personal belief of each member of the community while remaining faithful to the specialist understanding someone may have. It is not an easy thing I suppose, but this is what makes us a community and also civilised people/good citizens. If someone has such a conviction (on physical objects or beliefs) that is absolutely contrary to his community, he should remove himself – the only other outcome would be arguments and perhaps even violence. Seeking validation in academia is a odd outlook to me – academia is there to educate and serve; each person conducts himself in his discipline because he has chosen this – it should not be to use it as a weapon against those who disagree.

  11. Avatar photo GD says:

    In keeping with Lou’s insistence that there is a law of science termed natural selection, and that neo-Darwinian (ND) evolution is so well defined that we may make predictions that mirror those of the physical sciences such as QM and thermodynamics, I refer to a paper by Paul Gibson, John R. Baumgardner, Wesley H. Brewer and John C. Sanford, “Can Purifying Natural Selection Preserve Biological Information?, Biological Information Downloaded from by on 07/10/13.

    This is a statistical study that directly addresses Lou’s comments, and aimed at mutation accumulation and ND. The following quote is a summary. “The results of the current study involving biologically realistic numerical simulation clearly show that selection simply cannot do this. This simple reality seems to be widely understood by leading population geneticists ……, yet it appears to be generally regarded as a matter of small significance judging by the lack of much serious investigation into factors influencing mutation accumulation. However, if natural selection cannot reasonably be expected to halt degeneration of genomic information, then there must be a profound problem with the present formulation of neo-Darwinian theory. We suggest this is a matter of great significance and should interest all serious scholars.”

    I think the paper is sufficiently clear to show the claims for ND and comparison with exact science by people such as Lou are spurious. As for these people claiming to be open minded and driven by evidence, well I think such claims a bunkum.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Thanks for finally (after 2 yrs or so) actually giving me some real arguments against Darwinism instead of just bluster. I’ve downloaded this and will give you my reply when I have fully digested it. At first glance, it is worrisome that this was not published in a peer-reviewed journal; I will judge it the way I would if I were asked by a journal like Molecular Ecology to referee this article.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        Lou, I am becoming increasingly convinced you exist in some other universe – I would normally list the references I have sited (many), the reason for citing these, and the pathetic responses I received from evolutionist like yourself – but in your case I will not waste my time in such a futile exercise. In your world, bluster = quoting from high quality research. Response from Lou = go and study some undergraduate text book because you do not understand science, and avoid leading edge research results. Did I say hubris?

        • Lou Jost says:

          I guess you don’t remember the last time I analyzed one of your citations on Biologos. You claimed the article was evidence against evolution. Turned out to be a beautiful paper about how two very different ways of analyzing DNA (gene sequencing and karyotype analysis) led to quite congruent phylogenetic trees. The paper strongly supported the Darwinian concept of common descent. And in fact I had not previously known the karyotype work, so I am grateful for that quote-mine.

          I look forward to analyzing this new article.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Here is my initial observation on the paper you cited, GD. To review, the paper claims that low-level deleterious mutations will accumulate beneath the radar of natural selection and eventually cause such a big loss of fitness that the organism becomes extinct.

        A study like this depends critically on how the fitness is calculated when there are multiple deleterious mutations. This paper uses an additive model (p 258): mutation effects combine additively. A simple thought experiment shows that this additive model may be roughly acceptable when mutations are rare, but will be wildly wrong when mutations accumulate in high numbers (which is the parameter region the authors are interested in). Imagine that a mutation knocks out a particular protein production pathway, causing a loss of fitness. The pathway may contain thousands or millions of bases. Once the pathway is knocked out by a mutation, almost all other mutations in any of those thousands or millions of bases will have no additional effect on fitness (even though, if any of them had occurred individually, they would have had an important effect on fitness). So the additive model fails when lots of mutations are considered. I think this is the main flaw in the paper’s reasoning; they are using a model beyond its useful range, and then drawing dramatic new conclusions based on what are really just defects of the model.

        • Avatar photo GD says:

          I will not involve myself with details related to areas outside of my expertise, and simply look at the reasoning displayed in the paper. The paper examines fitness and speaks of (my words) ‘mild mutations’ that are not subjected to your ubiquitous selection law(s). Since you have argued feverishly that almost any photon can cause mutations and the earth is bombarded by such quantum events (chuckle), the paper’s argument is reasonable (many such mutations, and they are supposed to accumulate, whatever subsequent events, which are defined as minor). The subsequent events after mutation are not the issue, but mutations that are so ‘minor’ that they are not ‘selected out’. Thus I conclude that you are bringing in a red herring and have not provide an objective (or reasonable) analysis of the paper as it is presented. They also use a range of ‘selective criteria’ (my words) which makes their reasoning plausible.

          • Lou Jost says:

            In other words, you are just ignoring my objection without thinking about it, out of pure prejudice.

            • Avatar photo GD says:

              No, it does not show any prejudice from me since I stick to the article. This seems your standard (and silly) response Lou. The authors have stated their basis, developed a theory, clearly articulated the numbers and method, and also show their theory is supported by actual evidence – all of the criteria you have ranted and raved about for as long as – and yet you make a comment on the fact that mutations, since they occur as you claim, are additive. What possible analyses have you brought that any scientist can take seriously? None.

              This very clearly illustrates your blinkers and desperate need to believe in Darwin, and also shows up your poor ‘objective’ outlook regarding science, even in your own area. What does it say on your forays in other areas? It says what I have stated all along – you just want to say and parrot some stuff you come across, while claiming some sort of mythical authority you seem to imagine you possess.

            • Lou Jost says:

              “I will not involve myself with details related to areas outside of my expertise…”

              You really should be able to understand my criticism. I suspect similar situations arise in your field. There are probably very simple mathematical models describing chemical reactions when solutions are very dilute. They are simple because they don’t model the interactions between more than two molecules at a time. But if the solution is very concentrated, these simple models that ignore the interactions will give nonsense. The authors of the cited article are using a model that treats interactions in an oversimplified way, and they are running it out to the limits of very high numbers of accumulated mutations, where interactions will be important. Why should simple additive (or multiplicative) models be accurate in this regime?

              In my initial review for you, I concentrated on what I think is the central problem. I didn’t nitpick all their mistakes. (I remembered Eddie’s criticism of secular critics of ID papers in his BioLogos comments. He faulted some critics for criticizing minor things but leaving the main argument untouched.) However, since you mention the so-called evidence they cite in favor of their theory (their Addendum), I have to tell you that the authors have made serious mistakes there. The worst is that they wrongly equate viral fitness with viral lethality. On the contrary, a virus that rapidly kills its victims often has lower fitness than a less-lethal virus, because the latter virus has more time to spread to new hosts.

              They also claim that the flu virus accumulates mutations at a linear rate, and that this somehow proves their theory. Yet this is a very well-known phenomenon, the basis for molecular clocks. It does not, by itself, support their conclusions.

              • Avatar photo GD says:

                The description of chemical reactions and impact of concentrations is well understood and is not a subject of dispute amongst chemists, so I do not see the point of your response (and your comment makes little sense, but put this to one side). This paper instead disputes purifying selection of mutations that are below a fitness threshold, the concept you also use – if you wish to make a useful criticism, you should focus on their basis, which is (Abstract): “Most deleterious mutations have very slight effects on total fitness, and it has become clear that
                below a certain fitness effect threshold, such low-impact mutations fail to respond to natural
                selection. The existence of such a selection threshold suggests that many low-impact deleterious
                mutations should accumulate continuously, resulting in relentless erosion of genetic information. In
                this paper, we use numerical simulation to examine this problem of selection threshold.”

                The paper they site, and that you seem to dismiss so easily as wrong, has been published in one of your major peer reviewed journals. It is up to you to show why the authors and reviewers are wrong and why you are right. I find your so called analyses grossly inadequate – just why should these type of mutations not accumulate? Since you argue that mutations are ubiquitous and occur constantly, is makes no sense to argue against this, your major claim, by now stating they do not accumulate – you are contradicting yourself.

              • Lou Jost says:

                Muller’s ratchet is well known. The paper you cited in your first comment (which is not published in any journal, peer-reviewed or otherwise) is claiming that the rate of accumulation of mutations is so fast that it would cause human extinction in less than a hundred thousand generations (Fig 10). My point is not to deny that mutations accumulate. Rather, the fitness effects are much less dire than they predict, because they are treating the effect of mutations as additive, and this can only be correct when mutations are sparse.
                If the effect on fitness is smaller than they predict, species lifetimes can be much longer, and this gives time for beneficial mutations to come into play (note the authors do not include beneficial mutations).

  12. James says:


    I agree that it is “reasonable” in a sense for scientists to seek single simple principles that can explain a vast variety of observations. I’m simply pointing out that there have been times in the history of science where that eagerness to find such a simple principle has not been properly disciplined by evidence, and thus has either generated errors or has produced a level of certainty about a scientific theory which was not warranted until decades later, when much more evidence turned up. And maybe that is how science has to proceed. My point was that successful science is not mere crude Baconian induction; there are judgments being made that go beyond mere empirical evidence. And I don’t think you are disagreeing with this. I think you are contesting the analogy with religious belief.

    I agree that the analogy with religious belief is not perfect. It was intended only as a general parallel, to show that sometimes human thought should be allowed to proceed without 100% scrupulous dependence on little bits of “evidence” where there are strong general reasons for suspecting that the truth lies in a certain direction.

    Still, even if we take the crudest form of religious belief, i.e., mere belief in ancient events, held as detached factual propositions about the past, there is some application of my principle. There was a time when Biblical scholars thought the Old Testament historical material was a patchwork of myth, legend, errors, exaggerations, propaganda, and outright lies, and that even the basic facts could not be trusted. It was pointed out that certain cities did not even exist, etc. But when Biblical archaeology got going as a serious science, the existence of many cities and other things mentioned in the Bible was confirmed. The instinct of the fundamentalist, that these stories were more truly anchored in history than the critics thought, proved to be right — even if the fundamentalists at first had insufficient “evidence” in the narrow sense for their belief. But they had broader “evidence” in their own minds — a conviction that Christianity was true — and hence they believed the evidence would later be forthcoming, as Darwin could believe about the age of the earth, as Harvey could about the capillaries. Again, I admit that the parallel is not exact, because religious belief is not exactly the same as scientific theorizing.

    A better parallel in some respects can be found in the lives of people. Suppose there was some empirical evidence that you best friend had betrayed you, and that your wife had cheated on you by having an adulterous liaison with him. You might well not accept the conclusion, though the evidence pointed that way. You might well have no “evidence” on the same level to counteract the fingerprints, the female hair in his apartment, etc.; but you might well think that your knowledge of the character of your friend and of the character of your wife, a “deep knowledge” based on long human acquaintance, warranted suspending judgment, and warranted the belief that eventually your wife and friend would be cleared. Is that unreasonable? I don’t think so. Are you an unscientific fool for having that kind of faith? I don’t think so. I think this would be an example of guiding your interpretation of the evidence by a broader understanding of the big picture, and I think that this would be not only morally admirable on your part, but also epistemologically cautious and wise.

    My view is that religious belief (and not just Christian belief) is sustained by a complicated interaction of many kinds of “evidence,” and that evidence in the narrow sense, such as you focus on, is only a small part of the complex. Historical evidence for events, metaphysical argumentation about the existence of God, the experience of conscience (including senses of guilt and shame), wonder at the beauty of the world, “religious experience” (whether of the mystical sort or the more empirical — premonitions, dreams, pentecostal-type phenomena, healings, visions), the experience of ritual and custom and architecture and music so on — all of these, and more, go into the conviction that one’s religious beliefs are in some sense true or valid. It is therefore not reasonable to abandon religious belief merely because there are some difficulties (and not necessarily insoluble ones) in one small part of the complex (the “historical events” part).

    To be sure, fundamentalists invite the sort of narrow critique you are offering, because their own reasons for belief are so heavily tied to evidence in the narrow sense; the other factors I’ve mentioned play a relatively smaller role. That is why I identify myself with traditional European Christianity, not the crudely empirical American fundamentalist Christianity. My own experience of Christian life and thought is much closer to that of Thomas More or Erasmus or Augustine or Aquinas or some medieval mystic or C. S. Lewis or Bach etc. than it is to that of Ham or Gish or Creation Science or the Moody Bible Institute.

    Now you complain that “what a religion produces” is not necessarily confirmation of its truth. Well, yes and no. I agree that a deep moral conviction that one is one’s brother’s keeper does not prove that Jesus rose from the dead, that the waters of the Red Sea parted, etc. But since for me the “truth” of a religion is the truth of something much more important than “Event X happened in 27 A.D.”, I’m looking at the bigger picture.

    Let’s say, for example, it looks bad *at the moment* for the parting of the Red Sea. If *everything else* harmonizes with the religious person’s view, should the person scrap the view just because he can’t, at present, document the Red Sea event, or explain its physical aspects? Wouldn’t that be as wrong as for Darwin to have abandoned his theory because of Lord Kelvin’s calculation of the age of the earth? And even if there are more historical discrepancies than one, I don’t think reason or good science automatically requires scrapping the big religious picture. Scientific theories (and indeed even theories in the field of ancient history) often have *many* bits of evidence counting against them, yet are still held as the “best explanation” of the data we have — the “curve of best fit” so to speak.

    I think it would be unreasonable for, say, a Roman Catholic who has seen what he believes to be miraculous healings, who has had what he believes to be genuine visions, who has experienced the feelings of contrition and the joys of absolution, who has studied Aquinas’s Five Ways and thinks the arguments are demonstrative or at least very strong, who has studied the historical background of the Bible and has found that time and again cities and events are confirmed by secular archaeology, who has seen the immense moral and spiritual difference between some of the Babylonian stories and the Biblical parallels, who has experienced the love and solidarity of a healthy, functioning Christian community, etc. to simply toss aside Christian belief because he cannot explain why two genealogies of Jesus are different, or cannot prove that Elijah did what he did on Mt. Carmel. As unreasonable as it would be for you to conclude that you were being cuckolded by your wife and best friend on the strength of a few pieces of evidence.

    Finally, I would point out that the question whether the Bible contains “authoritative messages” from the Creator of the universe is not a simple question, since “authoritative messages” can mean many things to many people. For the fundamentalist, it often means “Accurate motion-picture-camera captures of ancient events issued to Hebrew and Greek writers by dictation from God.” The religion that this produces amounts to: “I have eyewitnesses and other objective evidence that these deeds happened, and if they happened they must have been done by God (only God could rise from the dead, walk on water, part the Red Sea), and God is all-powerful and can send you to Hell if you don’t do what he says, so, whether you respect this God or not, admire this God or not, think he was right to annihilate the Canaanites or not, would feel humanly fulfilled (morally, spiritually, aesthetically, etc.) by following this God or not, you had better do what he says and believe what he tells you, or you are in BIG trouble.” I don’t endorse this notion of religion, and I don’t endorse the view of “authoritative messages” that it rests upon. I think of God as speaking far more often in “a still, small voice” than shouting out a list of historical events or metaphysical propositions to which we are expected to assent. I think of terms such as “revelation” and “inspiration” and “authority” in a subtler and more nuanced way than Ken Ham etc. do.

    I don’t do anything “because the Bible tells me so.” Rather, if the Bible tells me something, I Iisten to it, not with blind deference, but with respect and attention; and only once I have been able to synthesize that Biblical teaching with my total human experience do I act on it. So there are parts of the Bible which I have not yet acted on or fully assented to intellectually, because I cannot yet synthesize them with my total human experience. My intellectual attitude is thus holistic, not dogmatic. And that’s totally in line with the insight that “now we see in a glass darkly”; the Christian will not have total intellectual clarity on this side of death. The Christian has to live without Euclidean certainty that his religion is entirely “correct.” The error of the fundamentalists is to turn Christianity into a religion of such certainty. And the error of their atheist enemies is to accept the fundamentalist presentation of Christianity as genuine Christianity.

    I continue to maintain that you are not opposed to Christianity merely on what you call evidential grounds. I think you are opposed to it at a much deeper, existential level. I suspect that even if I could prove to you that every event in the Bible happened exactly as described, you still would find many aspects of Biblical teaching repugnant and much of historical Christian practice (I don’t mean Crusades, etc. but everyday Christian worship and life) distasteful, cramping, and pointless. I do not think you would become a Christian if I could show you Jesus walking around. I think you’d talk to Jesus about his morality, argue with him about it, as you were poring over your instruments as he lay on your laboratory table. It is more than lack of evidence that causes you to stay outside of Christian faith. I would find it easier to respond to you if you would plainly admit that, instead of constantly making out that you are open to religious faith but find the “evidence” lacking. It’s not honest to pretend that your rejection is wholly based on “objective” or scientific criteria, when in fact very subjective criteria are very much involved.

    • Lou Jost says:

      James, I have to be brief because of work, but I think you are still trying to pigeon-hole my arguments as if they addressed tiny details that only a fundamentalist would care about. The issue for me is whether your religious beliefs have any kind of divine authority at all. And almost all the things you mentioned in support of Christianity could also be mentioned by Muslims, Hindus etc (even Mormons) in support of the divine authority of their very different scriptures. The title of Jon’s post here is “Recognizing cultural blinkers”, and though this was aimed at me, there is some irony in the way you treat your own culture’s myth here compared to those of other cultures.

      Contrary to what you sometimes imply, I don’t require certainty or absolute proof, not in science nor in religion. I do have evidential standards, though, and I insist the kinds of highly subjective “evidence” which are so convincing to you are without value on the question of divine authority, though they may be relevant to the psychological benefits of your religion.

      And you are wildly wrong about my attitude towards evidence and Christianity. As you know, I used to be one of you. And I know how nice it is to believe in an afterlife, or in a god that watches over us. (So I quite understand your reluctance to burst your faith bubble–it can be nice in there!) But as I keep saying, there is no good evidence for this, and some evidence against it. I am not talking about tiny biblical details. I am talking about big, central things. See my current comments on the BioLogos thread
      for some examples.

      • James says:


        I hope you will at at a later time, when less busy, come back to my extensive discussion above and do more justice to it than you have done with your above cursory remarks. In the meantime, in response to what you just said:

        First, you keep talking about “authority.” When have I ever used the word “authority” in anything I’ve said about the Bible? Have I ever told you that you had to accept the “authority” of the Bible? Have I ever told you that I accept the Bible because it has “authority” over me that overrules my reason, my conscience, etc.? If other Christians have waved “authority” at you, take that up with them; please don’t stick me with arguments I haven’t made.

        Second, you keep talking about other religious traditions, as if I have argued that every religious tradition but the Christian one is unreasonable or to be rejected. In fact, I think that a Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist or other sort of person could be just as rational to hang on to his or her tradition as a Christian is to hang on to his. There is plenty of “evidence” (in the broad sense I’ve carefully set forth above, though I’d prefer to say that there are good “reasons”) in support of a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. religious faith. I don’t claim that Christianity has refuted or disproved or falsified any other tradition. I claim only that Christianity offers a rough-and-ready coherence as a view of life. So the argument you make over on BioLogos against the inconsistency of “special treatment” may apply to some Christians, but doesn’t apply to me.

        You also presume too much about the beliefs of individual Christians. You indicate that you used to believe in an afterlife, as if that was somehow central to your belief; yet I think very little about afterlife, and much more about perfecting this life. I don’t deny the reality of an afterlife, but that’s not my motivation for following Jesus, or for respecting the Bible. I don’t believe what I believe in hopes that God will reward me — merely for holding that belief — with a pleasant afterlife. If I didn’t think Christian life was a better form of life than secular humanism, even abstracted from any question of afterlife, I wouldn’t be a Christian at all.

        Nor do I think much about God watching over me, if by “watching over me” you mean making sure I am treated with rough fairness by the world. I haven’t seen much evidence in the past 20 years of my life that God cares very much about me in the sense of giving me just rewards for hard work and training and effort and application and kindness and goodwill toward others — I’ve been professionally humiliated and economically strained despite having tremendous intellectual qualifications and talents, while having to watch colleagues with only a fraction of those talents (and often a vicious personal character to boot) oust me for jobs, and I’ve had to see those undeserving people vacationing every year in the sun, living in nicer houses, and never having to worry about paying their bills, while my debts mount up month by month and my health has suffered from the strain. I don’t think that justice has been done to me. But I go on loving God just the same. Someone who is a Christian primarily for the hope of rewards (in this life or the next) is not, in my view, a very good Christian.

        You apparently have the idea that Christians are in it for “pie in the sky when you die” or for a sort of divine insurance of happiness. That may be so for some Christians; it may have been so for you in your youth (and from what I can tell, your Christian faith did not outlast your youth, and maybe not even your teen years); it’s not so for me. Please don’t project your conception of what a Christian believes onto every Christian you meet.

        I’ve argued only something very limited, i.e., that when you take all reasons into account, it is reasonable for someone to remain a Christian. And note that this is a non-aggressive position. I have not argued that anyone who is not Christian is automatically unreasonable, or that anyone who is not Christian is wicked or hated by God, or anything of the sort.

        Remember that you are the one who is on the offensive here; it is not as if we are all knocking on your door in the Andes, shoving our foot into your doorway, handing you pamphlets about the Four Spiritual Laws, telling you you have to be Christian or you’re going to Hell. You are the one standing in our parlor, telling us all that we are unreasonable, unscientific, and stubbornly believing against evidence for being Christian. You are the one who practices a form of intellectual imperialism — judging religious faiths by positivistic standards appropriate for experimental sciences, and declaring them to have failed the tests. You are the one with a mission to convince us that we are wrong, not the other way around.

        I would be quite happy to let you live out your atheism in peace, as long as you don’t break any laws, or hurt anyone, or try to propagate your atheism (directly or slyly) through the public school system or other compulsory public institutions. But you don’t seem happy with that sort of “live and let live” arrangement. You seem to find it necessary to have public showdowns, pistols at dawn, with Christians wherever you can find them, whether in order to prove your intellectual superiority over them, or in order to justify to yourself why you were right to abandon your faith, or for some other reason.

        Have you asked yourself why you are so driven? Have you measured the time you spend on the internet debating Christians, and asked yourself why you let this activity occupy so large a part of your life? And whose good this activity serves? (Does it help you? Does it help the people you are debating with? Does it help some third party?)

        I don’t go to the sites of Dawkins, Coyne, Myers, Moran, Rosenhouse, etc. and try to push Christianity. I only respond to their attacks on Christians or Christian beliefs, and I keep off their territory when I do so. But you aren’t content to respond to attacks on atheists by Christians, and justify atheism as an equally reasonable way of life. You feel you have to smash Christianity. You feel it has to be destroyed. You feel that you have bring Christian intellectual leaders to publicly admit that they’ve been defending errors and confusion for 2,000 years, and to publicly renounce their faith. Again, I would ask you why you feel this way. Such aggression, such imperialism, generally springs from a feeling of insecurity. I feel no such insecurity around atheists. Their existence does not threaten me. But the existence of Christianity apparently somehow threatens you. That’s the only explanation I can think of for your obsession with publicly refuting it.

        • Lou Jost says:

          I’m really tired of people questioning my motivations. I’ve answered you in other threads, but you still go after me for merely being here. Frankly, I enjoy thinking about these big, deep issues. Arguing with people I disagree helps me think more deeply about them.

          You said “I don’t go to the sites of Dawkins, Coyne, Myers, Moran, Rosenhouse, etc. and try to push Christianity. I only respond to their attacks on Christians or Christian beliefs, and I keep off their territory when I do so.” Most of my comments here are responses to what I (as a professional biologist and former physicist) consider to be misleading or wrong claims about science. Very similar to your reasons for responding on atheist sites. I won’t discuss it again with you.

          You said “You apparently have the idea that Christians are in it for “pie in the sky when you die” or for a sort of divine insurance of happiness.” No, I only mentioned that Christian beliefs in the afterlife are comforting.

          My comments about authority didn’t refer to coercive authority but to the belief that the Christian faith has been influenced by the divine. If I am wrong in your case, and you think that Christian teachings don’t come from a divine author and can be discussed rationally, and rejected or accepted on a case-by-case basis, then we have nothing to argue about. I am primarily interested in the claim that the Christian god exists, not whether Christian teachings are a good guide for living. The latter claim is completely irrelevant to my concerns here.

          • James says:


            I’m sorry you don’t like questions about motivation being raised; the fact, however, is that when it comes to large religious and philosophical questions — which are quite different from scientific questions, economic questions, etc. — it is rarely possible to completely separate motivation from contents. What people argue, how they argue, what they include, what they omit, what they avoid answering, etc. are very often tied up not exclusively with evidence or reason but with motivation.

            If you think that religious opinions can be strictly separated from questions of personal motivation, then I think you have a superficial understanding of what religion is. It isn’t merely a set of propositions about historical facts or metaphysical doctrine; it’s a way of living, feeling, evaluating, etc. and it’s inextricably tied up with the whole person, not just the cerebral, intellectual, “objective,” detached aspect of the person.

            You say that you like “thinking about deep questions,” but the sort of thinking you display does not come across as a very open-minded sort of thinking. You give the impression of someone who has a well-worked-out intellectual position, and not just recently worked out, either, but held for a very long time; and you give the impression that your willingness to listen to arguments against your position (which you do politely — a refreshing change from some of the atheists you ally yourself with) is only to shoot down those arguments, to show how invalid and muddle-headed they are. You don’t give the slightest impression of being a “seeker” — someone who regards the great question of atheism vs. faith as really open. That’s how you come across, and as you are very articulate, I assume that this impression conveys your real inner thought.

            Finally, I think you are being unreasonable to complain about people who raise the question of your motivation; you have many times, here and on BioLogos (I’ve read some of your stuff there), said or intimated that people on the other side are stubborn, have already made up their minds, won’t listen to evidence, want to believe in God, etc. You thus impute motivation to them. You can hardly complain when the same sort of charge (being stubborn, not listening to evidence, already having made up your mind, not wanting to believe in God, etc.) is leveled against you.

            I tried to say some fairly thoughtful things in my long post, a few posts up. I tried to get you to do what you say you want to do, i.e., “think about deep issues.” I don’t call constantly raising age-old complaints about internal contradictions in the Gospels, etc. “thinking about deep issues.” If you want to “think about deep issues” you would do better to reflect on some of the broader questions I’ve raised about the nature of religious truth and religious life, about the nature of reasons for believing in someone or something (as in the example of the wife and the best friend), and to read some deeper authors such as Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, and genuinely engage — in an existential, not merely coldly scientific manner — with their thought. You argue far too much from the head alone, and not enough from the heart. As long as you keep focusing on proving or disproving this or that story in the Bible, making the same old trite arguments about how other religions disagree with Christianity, etc., you will never engage with the deeper issues in a personal, integrative way.

            I know this, because I used to be very much like you. I used to sound exactly like you, right down to particular arguments and the projection of an “I am more objective than you are” attitude. I vastly overrated the ability of science to get at truth; I shortchanged other methods of getting at truth; I mocked the Bible for its alleged contradictions; I taunted religious people, accusing them of having faith merely because they were afraid of the scientific and historical facts, couldn’t face death, etc. I deliberately went out of my way looking for religious people to argue with, ostensibly to do them a favor by showing them their errors, but really often just to show off my knowledge of science, my verbal fluidity, all the books I’d read, etc., and often to convince myself (because at a deep level I wasn’t nearly as sure as I sounded) that I didn’t need God or religion, but only my cleverness and secular humanist do-gooder sentiments. I was a very clever person by worldly standards — high IQ, high academic achievement in all subjects, scholarships, a good writer, a good debater, etc. — but I was not a well-integrated person when it came to heart and head. And I tried to silence the still small voice inside me that told me that there was more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of in my philosophy. That eventually changed, due the influence of a number of teachers, friends, etc. who were in many ways not as “smart” as I was, not as learned, not as rigorous in thought or science etc., but who were wiser than I was in the matters that count. But I had to open myself to, not merely clever arguments, but some deep thought that questioned not just my intellectual positions, but the core of my being, my various defenses against the idea of God or the idea of any reality greater than secular existence.

            I’ve been trying to get you to do the same. If you’re not interested in that kind of introspection and self-criticism, if you only want to argue “objectively” about ideas and propositions and evidence, then fine; let’s not converse any longer. I won’t trouble you any more. But such is the only kind of conversation about religious truth that will do you any earthly or heavenly good.

            • Lou Jost says:

              James, it makes a great deal of difference whether the central Christian claims are true or not. It really doesn’t matter to me how Christianity makes you feel, whether it warms your heart, etc. Even cults that you admit are invented can produce similar feelings. And frankly, I find my European atheist friends much more fully integrated, more “whole” than my Christian friends.

              When I argue about some biblical detail, it is not because I think that detail is terribly important to the story. I am trying to show something about the reliability of the bible as a whole, particularly regarding the role of the divine. On the BioLogos thread that spurred this post, I brought up the dramatically different nativity stories in the gospels. I did this not because I think your faith hinges on the detailed movements of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, but rather because it showed that the gospel writers or their sources did sometimes invent very detailed narratives to bolster their claims that Jesus was the Messiah. The gospels have to be read with this in mind.

              And when I wrote about Mormonism in the same thread, it was to show how easily myths can develop, even today. Often Christians claim their story must be true because of the rapidity of its spread, and because people were willing to die for their beliefs, etc. Yet we see all this today in the Mormon church. To outsiders like both of us, that church doctrine seems absurd on its face, and many of its fact-claims are demonstrably wrong. But to outsiders, your own beliefs have the same character. And just as Mormon theologians re-interpret their texts to defuse the more obvious errors and contradictions, so do your theologians. In a thousand or two years, if Mormonism continues to grow, it will gain the panache of age and respectability, and people will lose sight of its silliness and its questionable origin. If you and I lived then, we’d be having this same argument, only about Mormonism.

              So it doesn’t seem churlish or shallow to try to address the truth of the claims of a religion, rather than how those claims affect your life.

        • Lou Jost says:

          I should add that I argue often with atheists as well, especially about things related to physics.

  13. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Lou, James has written extensively and articulately on something that continues to go over your head. You confirm his point exactly when in your reply you say …

    “When I argue about some biblical detail, it is not because I think that detail is terribly important to the story. I am trying to show something about the reliability of the bible as a whole, ” …

    It’s as if someone from another world was mystified as to why you show such confidence in the process called “science”, and when you begin to speak of some of the great accomplishments of science they keep trotting out the reply: “Well see here, wasn’t it science that at one time insisted that galaxies were merely nebulae? –I’m not bringing this up because all your science hinges on getting every detail right, but just to show you something about the reliability of science.”

    At which point you would be forgiven for slapping your forehead and declaring, but we’ve moved on beyond all that … this is an ongoing process!

    It isn’t that the central truths aren’t important –we all agree with you that they are. But we are still busy delving into those truths, trying to fully understand details and ramifications while you are still back showcasing contradictions from various understandings, much like the recalcitrant hung up that science is demonstrably unreliable. Sure, this kind of detective game still finds currency among some fundamentalists today who are glad to play, but they are probably not representative of the best Christian thought.

    I think James’s challenge to you remains unanswered. You fail to see any role for your own motivations or that such things could even be relevant. Christians can be faulted in many cases for over-motivated belief, but knowing this of themselves is a significant step towards intellectual footing.

    • Lou Jost says:

      “…We’ve moved on beyond all that … this is an ongoing process!”
      Merv, you haven’t really moved beyond all that. You still think Jesus rose from the dead and has some relation to the creator of the universe (and you will probably continue to think so no matter how much evidence there is for the unreliability of the gospels). It’s as if scientists, upon finding evidence that nebulae are not gas clouds, decided to ignore that evidence and continue thinking of them as gas clouds, because “it feels right”.

      As I’ve discussed before, we can be pretty sure that our scientific ontology is wrong and our theories are only approximations to the truth. That’s why we give up even our most fundamental principles if the evidence (in its totality) suggests it. We recently gave up causality, determinism, the absolute nature of space and time, and many other seemingly fundamental concepts. I don’t see the same openness to contradictory evidence in religion. Do you?

      • James says:

        The belief that “Jesus rose from the dead and has some relation to the creator of the universe” is no more unlikely (and no less unlikely) today than it was nearly 2,000 years ago. I don’t see what “evidence” has to do with it. Certainly scientific evidence (derived from modern physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) has no bearing on either the first or the second part of the claim. Nor can historical evidence (evidence derived from the modern historical sciences) disprove (or prove) the first part of the claim. And the second part of the claim is metaphysical, and hence outside of the province both of natural science and of the historical sciences. People who disbelieve (or believe) the given statement have reasons that go beyond either science or history.

        Christians, for their part, generally admit to the “subjective” component of what they believe. Programmatic atheists, however, with an unwarranted belief in their own impartiality in these matters, entertain the strange conceit that they have no such subjective reasons, but have come to their conclusions wholly “objectively.” What Lou seems incapable of grasping is that my critique is aimed, not at getting him to accept the Resurrection, or any other Christian teaching, but at pricking the bubble of his naive epistemology, and moving him toward a more introspective and self-critical way of thinking about religious and theological questions.

        I’ve had hopes that I could be more successful with Lou than I could with the likes of less sophisticated thinkers — dogmatic prisoners of scientism such as Dawkins, Myers, Moran, Krauss, Coyne, melanogaster, etc. But now my time here is exhausted, so I have to give it up. Perhaps my words will bear fruit sometime further down the road.

        • Lou Jost says:

          Thanks for the compliment, I guess. I know I am not completely objective, but objectivity is a matter of degree. Whether your beliefs “feel right” or not is one of the most subjective, culturally biased kinds of evidence imaginable. That’s why I’d rather discuss things which are closer to the core of the subject, where we might actually be able to come close to real agreement about central questions.

          • James says:

            I thought that my contextualized usage of phrases such as “feeling right” would have sufficiently indicated that “feeling right” means something different from “pleasant” or “emotionally gratifying” or “satisfying to one’s wishes” or “confirming what one wants to believe.” The right “feel” in the case of a religious tradition or philosophical position would incorporate empirical facts, metaphysical argumentation, aesthetic sensibility (which is found in even in physics and mathematics), the reaction of the moral conscience, the apparent direct historical connection of the position with certain practical fruits (e.g., modern science, hospitals, universities, stable family life, etc.), and other things. It is the convergence of many reasons — not merely scientific or historical data — that brings about religious conviction and grounds religious life.

            So, let us say that someone had an experience of communication with the risen Christ. I am not claiming to have had such an experience, but some have. I am fully aware of the possibilities of self-deception in such claims, and indeed, am among the first to raise them, but let us say, for the sake of argument, than an intellectually honest person, not given to lies or exaggeration, had such an experience, and was convinced of its reality. Would such a person be unreasonable weight this experience fairly heavily in his overall judgment of the truth of Christianity? I don’t think so. Would such a person be unreasonable to give less than decisive weight to historical arguments that allegedly “prove” that Jesus did not rise from the dead? I don’t think so.

            I don’t give “history” or “science” automatic veto power over other things when it comes to determining “truth.” The results of history and science should be taken into account, but so should many other things; and the final judgment must be just that — a judgment — which requires nuance, weighing, balancing, synthesis of many quite different sorts of reasons — as opposed to the mechanical application of some methodology from just one area of human experience. (As an aside, I note that I don’t think it’s an accident that most of the leaders of the New Atheism are heavily immersed very deeply in one limited area of human experience — natural science — and that quite of few of them seem to have very limited intellectual and emotional and ethical and aesthetic and social gifts outside of that one limited area.)

            It is this broad sort of judgment which I refer to when I speak of the total “feel” of a theological, philosophical, political or other position. I am talking about a holistic account which does justice to what reason, evidence, moral sense, emotion, aesthetic sense, etc. have to offer. I am not talking about letting our conception of reality be governed by our wishes or fears.

            Indeed, I would argue that the only “objectivity” worth having (when it comes to questions of religion, anyway) is the “objectivity” that comes from a holistic, broad-based account of reality. For that reason, graduates of strong liberal arts colleges (e.g., St. John’s, where they read Darwin, study calculus, re-enact classic experiments of Galileo, etc. while also studying Plato and Dostoevsky, learning Latin, acquainting themselves with the masterworks of Western music and art, etc.) generally have better overall judgment than whiz-kids in physics from MIT or whiz-kids in economics from Harvard or whiz-kids in biology who do technical research at the Wistar Institute, etc., when it comes to larger questions such as those involved in religion, theology, philosophy, politics, etc.

            I hope this clarifies what I meant by a “feeling” for truth; I don’t have time to clarify further. As for the rest of what I have said, those who have ears to hear, let them hear. And at that I must leave it.

            • Lou Jost says:

              I understand your broad sense of evidence, and agree with it. What I disagree with is the way you seem to weigh all of the evidence more or less equally. This, to me, is unsophisticated. For example, you say a person who experiences the risen Christ would be justified in weighing this experience heavily in favor of belief. Yet (if the person had heard about Christ through normal means first) this is much weaker evidence than good historical evidence. We know that people do have hallucinations, and some people have quite vivid, even life-changing visions that are clearly not related to anything real. Alien abduction cases come to mind. The possible Mormon visions of Joseph Smith also come to mind. So even this kind of first-hand experience, if it does not contain some element that ties it to stronger evidence (eg if the vision conveys novel factual information), is very weak evidence compared to, say, some good historical evidence.

              We don’t differ fundamentally in our view of what constitutes evidence. We do differ in how we weigh the components. Because you recognize that much evidence is culture-laden and subjective, you throw up your hands and treat all evidence as equally so. I think that is unsophisticated. Some kinds of evidence are more culture-laden and subjective than other kinds, and a sophisticated empiricist must take this into account when weighing it.

              • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


                Just a quick one to point out that to equate normal Christian experience of the divine with schizophrenic hallucinations, alien abduction accounts and the published experience of cult-founders is to do what you accuse James of doing – weighing different kinds of evidence equally.

              • Lou Jost says:

                Not sure about that, Jon. I was speaking here of actual visions, which is what I understood by James’ comment (though rereading it now, he could have been referring to less dramatic communication). Unless there are some additional elements besides the experience itself, your judging them differently would seem to reflect a strong cultural bias.

        • Lou Jost says:

          James, you said “The belief that “Jesus rose from the dead and has some relation to the creator of the universe” is no more unlikely (and no less unlikely) today than it was nearly 2,000 years ago.”

          Ancient historians, because of their poor grasp of the laws of nature, had a very difficult time distinguishing fantasy from reality. Ancient histories are full of howlers that we could easily have weeded out today based on our knowledge of science.

          Two thousand years ago a resurrection was a big deal, but not as big a deal as it would be for us. Two thousand years ago it was just an empirical generalization from local experience that people don’t rise from the dead. This generalization was no different, to them, than the generalization that all swans are white. There was no deep understanding of why people didn’t rise from the dead. Remember that until just a few generations ago, people believed in spontaneous generation. Animals could and did (according to them) materialize from inanimate soil. This is not so different in principle from a mini-resurrection.

          Today we have a better grasp of physical law, and a much broader base of observations that support them. A resurrection would violate our most fundamental laws— it is not like finding a black swan.

          You also said “I don’t see what “evidence” has to do with it. Certainly scientific evidence (derived from modern physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) has no bearing on either the first or the second part of the claim.”

          I don’t understand this at all. If physical laws did not prohibit resurrections, the story would be much more believable. I am pretty sure readers here use this same principle when they judge a story their kids tell them about why they were late for school (“Mommy,as I was walking to school Harry Potter came and we flew off together on his broomstick to Magic School for an hour….”) or when they read the myths of other religions (I bet no one believes the moon really split in half at Allah’s command).

          I know that for you, the resurrection is just a tiny piece of the evidence that makes you a believer. But for many people, the rest of your evidence is so subjective that it does not count very much. That’s why I pay so much attention to the evidence for the resurrection.

          • James says:

            Lou, your statement about “ancient historians” being “unable to distinguish fantasy from reality” shows little acquaintance with the actual writing of ancient historians. Ancient historians could be very hard-headed: Thucydides for example. And even Herodotus, who reports many fantastic stories, adds comments to the effect of “This is what people say,” indicating that he does not necessarily believe all that he reports; and he sometimes explicitly expresses doubts about particular claims.

            And it’s not just the historians. Socrates shows skepticism regarding the Greek myths. Aristotle does not try to explain things in terms of intervening gods. We have ancient Hippocratic medical texts telling us not to blame diseases on the gods, but to look to natural causes for them. Plato never argued anything as stupid as that there can’t be any black swans because we haven’t seen any yet.

            Your characterization of the ancients (as having no conception of causality based on natural principles) is typical of the condescending historical chauvinism in which I was raised. Your statements remind me of the shock I experienced when a biology Ph.D. friend of mine argued about “the Dark Ages” in a way that no historically-informed person would do.

            In any case, it doesn’t matter how much better modern science is than ancient science. My point is that even the best science has nothing to say about the possibility of miracles.

            We have no more of a disproof that miracles can occur today than they did in ancient times. We know that nature shows regularities; the ancients knew that nature showed regularities. We know that miracles, if they occur, are darned unusual; the ancients knew that, too. We are skeptical of miracle claims; the ancients were, too — at least of grand miracle claims. The difference is that for the ancients, it was generally treated as an empirical question whether or not a given miracle had occurred, rather than a theoretical question. That is, the ancient did not usually try to show that miracles couldn’t possibly occur, but looked at the evidence of the senses. And the ancients were wise to take this approach. It is we, who since the time of Spinoza have been trying to show not merely that the evidence for miracles is weak, but that they can’t possibly occur, who are wrong-headed.

            Laplace was no more capable of disproving the possibility of miracles than Aristotle was; and Hawking is no more capable of disproving the possibility of miracles than Laplace was. If a God who can perform miracles exists, then ex hypothesi that God can violate whatever laws of nature exist; and whether they are Aristotle’s laws of nature, or Hawking’s laws of nature, makes no difference to the argument at all.

            The existence of physical laws does not “prohibit” resurrections. The proper way of stating the case is that, as long as physical laws are in force, there will be no resurrections. So, for as long as God sticks to his normal habit (of operating only through laws of nature), resurrections will not occur — that is the only sense in which it is correct to say that laws of nature “prohibit” resurrections. But God, ex hypothesi, is not bound to stick to his normal habit, and if God decides to suspend the laws of nature for particular periods, then the “prohibition” on resurrections (or any other miracle) is no longer in force.

            Modern natural science deals with the world only insofar as it is bound by natural laws. It is incapable of saying anything about a situation in which natural laws are suspended. It can make no prediction about what will or will not happen in such a situation. Therefore it must remain silent about such situations, beyond saying that it has no explanation for events. That is why whatever progress natural science had made is absolutely irrelevant to the occurrence or non-occurrence of miracles. Aristotle would also have disbelieved in the resurrection, because he did not believe that the natures of things could ever be changed, even momentarily. Lou does not believe in the resurrection because he does not believe that natural laws are ever suspended, even briefly. But both of these objections are metaphysical objections, and the authority of “science” cannot be called in, in either case, to validate them. In the final analysis, if a truly omnipotent God exists, then resurrections are possible. To prove that resurrection is impossible, one must prove that a truly omnipotent God does not exist. No one living can do that; the greatest philosophers of the past were unable to do that.

            If one wants to be skeptical about particular accounts of resurrections, that is fine. I don’t object to skepticism. Thomas the disciple was skeptical. But it is one thing to say: “I don’t believe the Biblical testimony,” and another thing to say “science shows us that resurrections can’t happen.” The first statement is a reasonable response to a miracle story; the second statement is a scientism-inspired falsehood.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              James: Lucian’s little work on “How to Write History” illustrates your first point.

            • Lou Jost says:

              I might have been too hard on the ancients.

              But it is indisputable that, compared to the ancients, we have a much richer knowledge of natural laws, the connections between them, and their degree of universality. We now that across vast distances, and back in time almost to the beginning of the universe, matter everywhere follows the same laws, whether it is terrestrial or heavenly.

              You said “Lou does not believe in the resurrection because he does not believe that natural laws are ever suspended, even briefly.” While a resurrection is as impossible as any logically-coherent proposition can be, I have admitted that it is logically possible. My main reason for disbelieving it is a combination of its vast improbability based on everything we know, and the extremely weak evidence supporting it. Same argument you would give for disbelieving that Allah split the moon in half.

              • James says:

                “We [k]now that across vast distances, and back in time almost to the beginning of the universe, matter everywhere follows the same laws, whether it is terrestrial or heavenly.”

                We don’t “know” that; we posit it, as the condition of having a natural science in the first place. This is where Hume comes in. It is true that it is a fruitful thing to posit, but it’s not something that science could ever establish. All that can be said is that the success of the assumption warrants a pragmatic confidence that more lawlike relationships will be discovered in the future.

                It is one thing to say that “natural science is a very reasonable enterprise” and another thing to say that “natural science has proved its own philosophical foundations.” I agree with the former, but the latter is inadmissible.

                “While a resurrection is as impossible as any logically-coherent proposition can be, I have admitted that it is logically possible.”

                The sentence as written makes no sense; a word or negative prefix must be missing.

                I have no idea whether or not Allah ever split the moon in half. Certainly Allah, assuming he exists, could have done so. But I know of no historical confirmation of the event, and therefore I reserve the right to withhold belief in the event. Anyone has the parallel right to withhold belief in the resurrection. That’s not the same as saying that science has disproved the possibility of resurrection. All that can be said is that science cannot account for resurrections. But if the Resurrection happened, we would of course expect that science could not account for it.

                Again, I am not trying to compel anyone to believe in resurrections, or saying that anyone who does not accept testimonies of resurrections is being irrational. I’m simply saying that no advance in scientific knowledge alters the situation any. If one is open to the belief in the kind of God which the resurrection story presupposes, then one should have no a priori objection to the resurrection. If one has decided, for metaphysical reasons, that such a God does not exist, then of course the resurrection story must be false, and must be accounted for by hallucination, fabrication, deception, etc. But that applies to many other miracles — walking on water, the parting of the Red Sea, etc.

                The issue here is the Enlightenment case against miracles. That case was not ultimately scientific, but theological. A certain kind of God will not indulge in miracles; a certain kind of God will. The Enlightenment decided that the first kind of God was the one who existed, and that the second kind of God was a pious fiction.

                The great scientists on the far side of the Enlightenment (Newton, Boyle, etc.) had no problem with the idea that God occasional acted outside of the laws of nature — laws which he himself created and could abrogate at will. On this side of the Enlightenment, the tendency of leading scientists has been to reject the idea of a God who ever acts outside of laws of nature. So it is not “science” per se that has the problem with miracles; it is the Enlightenment metaphysic.

                I have no problem with people who hold to the Enlightenment position, as long as they admit that their belief (i.e., that miracles — in the sense of violations of or departures from the normal laws of nature — not only have not happened, but cannot happen) comes from metaphysics and not from natural science.

                That Dawkins, Coyne, Harris, Dennett, etc. don’t believe in miracles does not offend me. I criticize them only when they pretend that science has proved that there can be no miracles, or (what amounts to the same thing) that science has shown that every event in the history of the cosmos has been naturally caused. Science has proved no such thing, and I resent the political and rhetorical use of the public prestige of the word “science” to justify an atheist/materialist metaphysics. Newton, Boyle, Kepler, etc. would have had the same reaction to this dishonest tactic.

              • Lou Jost says:

                “We don’t “know” that; we posit it, as the condition of having a natural science in the first place.”

                That’s backwards, as I keep trying to tell you. We can actually look back in time and see that, for example, the fine-structure constant of hydrogen was the same 10 billion years ago as it is today. Like all empirical generalizations, it is subject to error. We can’t prove that it is true (and in fact we can be pretty sure that it is not true at the Big Bang). But it is a very strong empirical generalization for understanding what is possible today. So again, I don’t say a resurrection is completely impossible, just that it contradicts a vast range of laws, each supported by huge amounts of empirical observation.

                My sentence that you say makes no sense is correct as written. The resurrection is logically possible, but every thing we know about the universe tells us it would not happen.

                So if there are prosaic, plausible “normal” explanations for the miracle accounts of the Bible, the rational thing would be to accept them.

                I recognize that you consider other evidence besides the resurrection when making your judgement about it. But as I’ve said elsewhere, your other evidence is even weaker than that for the resurrection. It seems to me that basically you just want to believe. We can agree to disagree on that, then.

  14. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Of course, there is the cultural bias of believing in God v not believing in God. Gets a bit silly then. But if one can measure “bias” by comparison with “what most cultures in most ages have believed”, then the existence of even visions and certainly of supernatural encounters is normal, and its denial the cultural outlier.

    • Lou Jost says:

      The subjective experience of communication with some entity is the same whether the entity is thought to be a god, a demon, an alien, or anything else. Your decision to take these experiences seriously when they are attributed to a Christian god, but not when attributed to Moroni (eg Joseph Smith), Zeus, demons or aliens, is a very culturally biased one. I suppose if you don’t discriminate between the Christian god and Zeus or Moroni or our space overlords, you might be able to argue that you are showing only a small amount of cultural bias.

      Seems to me that there is no non-circular argument that would allow you to use such experiences as evidence for the existence of your god while denying that analogous experiences are evidence for communication with aliens, Moroni, etc.

      That is why I put so much stress on the potential additional content of these experiences. The mere experience of communication is virtually without evidential weight.

  15. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Ah, but Lou, you forget that it was my job to distinguish between those who were hearing voices because of identificable psychiatric conditions and those who were describing purely religious experiences. Alien abductees I didn’t meet, nor guys wearing supernatural spectacles, but young folks hearing Jesus telling them their parents were demon-possessed and running off naked down the garden – not a few.

    Cultural conditioning in the psychiatric wards.

  16. Lou Jost says:

    Someone will surely accuse me of being shallow and scientistic for this, but I think that for an experience to count as evidence for communication with the divine, there should actually be some evidence of communication. The recipient should learn something he or she could not have known.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Paul got theology that’s been the basis of much of the West’s intellectual endeavour for 2 millennia. That probably explains why only one Roman politician called him mad, and why he healed people rather than getting treated himself.

      Though he possibly paid a visit to the ophthalmology ward in Galatia.

      But your criterion is scientistic, as if the only purpose of such an encounter would be to prove it happened (which one knows already). For the person who has a vision, relational truth can be far more important: I had a conversation with favourite musician once, and learned very little though it was a memorable experience. Perhaps a closer analogy would be to ask why learning something unknown would be of any interest whatsoever when your father comes back from the war safely.

      • Lou Jost says:

        But relational “truth” can easily be an illusion. I didn’t say the only purpose of such an encounter would be to impart information. But that is how someone who was not there could distinguish someone’s real encounter from someone’s encounter with an imaginary friend.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          You assume the “someone who was not there” has any business opining on the matter. If I’ve had spiritual experiences in my life, what is that to you? Most of us will keep those as private as we do the details of our marriages – one reason, incidentally, why accounts of supernatural encounters are not even more common than they are.

          But get into conversation with people at your local church and you’ll find all kinds of personal encounters – personal encounters – lurking there.

          • Lou Jost says:

            “If I’ve had spiritual experiences in my life, what is that to you?”

            If you just lived a good life and left it at that, it wouldn’t be any business of mine. But you regularly promote what I consider to be misleading or wrong ideas about my own field, based on your religious beliefs.

  17. Lou Jost says:

    GD, I found time to look at the anti-evolution article you mentioned in your Feb 12 comment, and wrote my analysis of it under your original comment.

  18. James says:

    Lou, I’ve started a new sequence here because the last one became too narrow.

    I complained about the difficulty of understanding this sentence:

    “While a resurrection is as impossible as any logically-coherent proposition can be, I have admitted that it is logically possible.”

    You reply that the sentence makes sense as written. Look at it again. Read it slowly. Divide it into subordinate clause and main clause. Analyze each separately. Try to imagine how someone who did not already know the meaning you were trying to convey might read the sentence. I cannot tell what it means.

    I might be able to tell what it meant if some other words were added. For example, if in the first clause you had written “physically impossible”, then I would have a contrast between “physically impossible” and “logically possible” in the second clause, and I could make sense of the sentence. But you’ve got “impossible” in contrast with “logically possible,” leaving me to guess what kind of “impossible” you mean in the first clause. If you know what you meant, you might try rewriting it, saying exactly the same thing in other words. Then I might be able to figure out why you wrote such a confusing sentence.

    You wrote:

    “We can actually look back in time and see that, for example, the fine-structure constant of hydrogen was the same 10 billion years ago as it is today. ”

    You have not noticed the circular reasoning you are employing here. We have zero observational knowledge of hydrogen 10 billion years ago. We have present observational data — light-waves reaching us from distant atoms — from which we infer what hydrogen was like ten billion years ago. And our inferences depend entirely upon the assumption that the natural laws have not changed or been interrupted by non-natural events during the intervening years.

    What you are doing here is using “evidence” that is actually based on the assumption which is in question (the assumption that natural laws have always and everywhere been the same, and that natural processes have never been interrupted by miracles) to the prove the assumption which is in question. And that is a logical no-no.

    The belief that natural laws apply always and everywhere in the universe is an assumption. This assumption can never be proved by science, by any amount of data, observation, inference, mathematical calculation, etc. Rather, it is the working assumption around which all data-gathering, observation, inference, mathematical calculation, etc. revolve.

    Of course, the assumption can be shown to be consistent with what science discovers; and each new scientific discovery may give us more confidence that our assumption was a valid one; but that is not the same thing as saying that science, per se, can prove the truth of the assumption. It is not in the power of science to ever demonstrate the truth of the assumption. All science can do is provide confirming instances.

    I’ve actually never read a historian of science or philosopher of science who would disagree with what I’ve said in the above remarks, so I find it puzzling that you seem to think otherwise.

    I agree that a resurrection would violate a vast range of natural laws, but that is not the issue. Of course the resurrection goes against any modern idea of what is “natural,” as it went again any ancient idea of what is “natural.” The point is that an omnipotent God can, at will, dissolve, suspend, bypass, break — use what word you will — the natural laws which he established in the first place. Any claim that “God wouldn’t do that” — that God would restrict himself to sustaining natural laws — is a theological claim, not a scientific one. So if the possibility of the existence of an omnipotent God is granted, the possibility of resurrections is granted. Resurrections can be ruled out a priori only by one who is sure that an omnipotent God, one with complete freedom of choice, does not exist. But such certainty requires a philosophical demonstration. It is not a certainty that science can provide.

    Finally, you continue to presume things about my personal beliefs, based on what, in your view, a Christian is supposed to believe. And you continue to impute motivation to me, after complaining how wrong it is that people here impute motivation to you. You cannot and should not assume that my beliefs are identical to those of Jon or Merv or Sy or GJDS or anyone else who writes or comments here. Each of us has his own individual understanding of religion, of God, of Christianity, etc. Of course there is some overlap between our views. But overlap is not identity. I would appreciate it if, when speaking to me, you respond to views that I have expressed, not some generic “Christian” view that you assume that I hold.

    Case in point: You say that in your view I “just want to believe.” But when I or others here have suggested that you “just want to disbelieve,” you have taken umbrage, insisting that you believe nothing due to your own wishes, but base all your beliefs on evidence. You should show the same courtesy of speculation toward me that you demand of me, i.e., you should assume that I believe based on reasons and not my wishes. Further, in the context of your paragraph, what you think I “want to believe” is the historical resurrection. In fact the historical resurrection is not something I “want to believe” in; indeed, faith in Jesus would be easier for me without any resurrection story. My natural inclination, like yours, is to disbelieve in the resurrection, and in all spectacular Biblical miracles. After all, things like that don’t happen, in my experience of life. Not only have I never seen a big miracle, I’ve never even seen a small miracle, e.g., a healing. So if I went by my wishes I would simply disregard the resurrection stories entirely. I’d say they were fabrications etc. I’d join a very liberal Christian church, one that would allow me to pick and choose what parts of the Bible, and what parts of the tradition, I was willing to affirm.

    But it is not that simple. I can’t construct a religious faith out of my wishes. No doubt some people do. I’m not one of them. I’m looking to construct a coherent account of Christian faith, and I can’t simply jettison historically received parts of that faith without a very good reason — even if they are parts of the faith that I at the moment think I would rather do without.

    Serious, reflective Christians are much more thoughtful, much more complex, and much less programmatic and hidebound individuals than you take them to be, Lou. You’re not dealing with Ken Hams and Duane Gishes here on this site, but with people who are constantly trying to reformulate and deepen their own theological understandings, even at the risk of some discomfort to themselves.

  19. Lou Jost says:

    James, I apologize for assuming things about your reasons to believe as you do. I honestly don’t understand your reasons, but I guess there is not much we can do about that.

    I stand by my statement that the universality of physical law across space and time is now something supported by evidence, not postulated. I won’t say it is proven, because it does involve some assumptions, but your counter-hypothesis requires very special distortions across time, conspiring to make it seem as if the laws were uniform. The discrete spectral lines of the elements are recognizable in light from even the most distant stars, red-shifted of course but still in the same relative positions as the spectra of those elements on earth. The speed of light, also, is the same in the distant universe as it is now. Nucleosynthesis in distant, ancient stars is precisely the same as what we predict from laboratory experiments here in our little corner of the universe. Stellar evolution is also accurately predicted across the universe based on our local laws. I could go on and on. It would be sad if, as you say, philosophers of science haven’t payed attention to this.

    Regarding my difficult sentence, yes, I can see it might be hard to understand. In the first clause I didn’t say the resurrection was impossible, just that it was empirically as nearly impossible as a non-contradictory proposition can be. In other words, not logically impossible but as close to impossible as one can get empirically.

    • James says:


      Thanks for clarifying the meaning of your sentence. I now see what you meant. As for the contents of the sentence, my other comments above have already covered it.

      I never denied, and even stated in more than one place, that the regularity of nature is supported by evidence. What I denied was that “science” as such could ever prove that natural law is always operative. Modern science is the investigation into nature with a view to discovering its laws; unless there are such laws, science is a pointless enterprise. Therefore, science must assume the existence of such laws, and then go out and find them. The scientist doesn’t say: “This may be one of those parts of nature that isn’t governed by law, but by chance or divine caprice, so I won’t investigate it.” The scientist assumes, in advance of any confirmation, that he or she will find regularity eventually.

      Your examples don’t refute my point. Every one of the things you claim that we “know,” we “know” only because we assume the regularity of nature over all time and space. We could not trust our inferences from spectral lines or from any other measurement if we did not assume such regularity. We could not say that what goes on in the sun is what goes on in our fusion bombs, unless we could trust spectroscopic analysis of rays from the sun, etc. And we could not trust spectroscopic analysis if we did not assume the regularity of nature.

      You speak of my counter-hypothesis. I offered no counter-hypothesis. I’m quite comfortable inferring nuclear reactions in the heart of stars. I’m not arguing that nature is not regular. I’m making an epistemological point — that it is not science that tells me that nature must always be regular , throughout the whole span of time and space. It’s in fact an article of faith, albeit one that is strongly supported by the evidence we have. And it can never be anything but an act of faith, no matter how many confirmations we receive. But it’s a faith reasonably held. You seem to think I’m arguing that we cannot trust scientific procedures to uncover knowledge of nature, but I’m not arguing that at all. I’m simply saying that the activity of natural science rests on meta-scientific premises. Reasonable premises, but still not scientific ones.

      I’m not sure why you don’t see this. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that you could account for every single event that has happened in the universe from the Big Bang onward. Let us say that you could explain the origin of galaxies, life, flowering plants, Tiktaalik, etc. step-by-step, through natural laws, giving a full causal account in every case, with no gaps whatsoever. Let us say that I assented to your account, and replied, “I concede that nothing but natural causes have operated in the universe since the beginning.” Now, think for a moment: How do you know that natural causes will continue to operate one second from now? How do you know that God or the Devil or something else will not perform an action that cannot be accounted for in natural terms? If you reflect on that, you will realize that “science” cannot guarantee that such a thing cannot happen. The most you can say based strictly on “science” is that such an event should not be expected, given the total absence of such non-natural causality in the universe for the past 14 billion years. And you’d be right to say that; but Hume showed us long ago that such statements, while pragmatically useful, have no guarantee of truth in them.

      Now if this is the situation even in a universe whose “closed causality” (i.e., only natural causes) has been demonstrated (I mean, demonstrated in the hypothetical scenario I just concocted), it must a fortiori be the situation in a universe for which have as yet nowhere near a full causal account (i.e., the universe we actually live in). We certainly do not know enough about how new phyla are formed to be sure that only natural causes were involved; we certainly do not know enough about how life began to be sure that only natural causes were involved. We can of course posit that only natural causes were involved and try to find those causes; and I have no objection to scientists doing that. My only objection comes when those scientists say, or imply, that even though we don’t know how this or that originated, we know that it originated through wholly natural means. We simply don’t know that; and it is not given to natural science to know that until after it has completed its investigation in the particular case.

      Again, I am making an epistemological point, and I don’t know any famous historian or philosopher of science who would disagree with it. But internet atheists and materialists generally disagree with it. As you are a cut above most of those, I am hoping you will take my view, and not theirs.

      What has all this got to do with the resurrection? Just this. There is no strictly scientific argument that the resurrection cannot have happened. All that science can say is that the resurrection cannot have happened if the laws of nature that we know were strictly followed in the case of Jesus . But that is saying something pretty trivial. One hardly needs to invoke the great success of modern science to say that some regularities of nature have been broken when a man gets up from the dead (or heals a leper instantly, or walks on water, or feeds five thousand people with a couple of pounds of food, or parts the Red Sea with a word or gesture). The whole point of the story is that special divine action is involved, and in the case of special divine action, science is completely out of its jurisdiction, and has nothing to say about what is and what is not possible.

      Whether or not there is empirical evidence for a physical resurrection is a completely different question. I’ve repeatedly said that skepticism about the occurrence of particular miracles, and about their alleged causes, is reasonable. It’s only your implicit metaphysical apriorism — that we can know that a resurrection did not happen, because “science” tells us it could not have happened — that I’m rejecting. If you would stop invoking the authority of “science” where it does not belong, our disagreement would greatly diminish.

      I think we have pretty well covered all the ground on this; I don’t see what I could say to add to my argument. So you can have the last word on science and the resurrection, if you wish.

      I now will probably fade off into the sunset. You may not hear from me again. But do give a thought to my earlier comments, regarding the nature of religious knowledge. I made them with great care, and with you specifically in mind, and I offered them, not to score a short-term victory over you, but to be helpful to you over the long haul. Best wishes. James R.

  20. Lou Jost says:

    “It’s only your implicit metaphysical apriorism — that we can know that a resurrection did not happen, because “science” tells us it could not have happened — that I’m rejecting.”

    I’ve said countless times that this is not why I reject the resurrection. It’s the inadequate level of evidence for the resurrection, given that it contradicts everything we know about how the world works. If the evidence were good, and particularly if there was better evidence for the back-story (if intercessionary prayer worked, or if humans could not have evolved by chance, or if there had been a global flood, or if all things really were created in their present form), I would accept it, just as scientists have accepted dramatic revisions of their worldviews in the past.

    Since you keep attacking this same straw man no matter how many times I try to set the record straight, I agree we should part ways. We’re both busy and have other fish to fry.

    • James says:

      You’re right; we’ve run out of time. So I’ll not add anything new of substance, but merely reply to your protest again “straw man” arguments.

      I did everything I could to avoid arguing against a straw man; I tried to refer to your own words and arguments at all points. If I failed to do this at points, it was due to inadvertence, not deliberate manipulation.

      I suspect that you sometimes unwittingly generate what you call “straw man” reactions by the way you express yourself. Even now, you say “given that it contradicts everything we know about how the world works”; yet this means either (1) we know from repeated everyday experience that things like resurrections don’t happen; or (2) resurrection is not compatible with the laws of nature which modern science has uncovered. If you mean (1), my response is that bringing specifically modern science into the discussion is pointless, since every ancient farmer knew from repeated everyday experience that it wasn’t normal for truly dead things to come back to life, and knew it without the help of 21st-century science. But if you mean (2), note that the sweeping term “world” is unjustified, since the “world” may well include non-natural events and non-natural causes that natural science is in principle incapable of investigating. So it looks as if you are shrinking the meaning of “world” to make all causality in the “world” subject to the narrow methods of natural science — which would implicitly rule out miracles from the world, since they depend on non-natural causes. You may not be doing that, but it could certainly seem so. I say this so that you can see that any “straw man” argument I have made is not consciously manipulative on my part, but based on my attempt to grasp the meaning of your sometime ambiguous words.

      Another thing that perhaps contributes to your argument’s being misunderstood is your cryptic silence in the face of certain arguments I’ve made. You didn’t see fit, despite several opportunities, to acknowledge the point I most stressed, i.e., the inherent epistemological limitations of natural science which prevent it from ever issuing a ruling regarding the possibility of miracles. When you don’t acknowledge a point (even if only to go on to disagree with it), the reader is left to infer that you probably disagree with it but do not intend to reveal why. I was thus left hanging, and what I was left hanging with was the strong impression that you think that given enough time, science will be able to show that miracles never could happen (because of the tight intertwining of natural causes); you left me with no explicit statement to either confirm or abolish that impression. Simply by addressing my epistemological point about science versus metaphysics, by addressing the very clear examples that I gave, and by indicating that you agreed with me about the distinction and that you agreed that science, in itself, can never rule out the possibility of miracles no matter how far it progresses, you could have removed one suspicion in my mind which might have caused me to offer straw man arguments.

      Be that as it may, let us move on to new challenges.

  21. Avatar photo GD says:


    This is again becoming tedious. The paper is published and this company states they have an editorial board that includes Nobel Prize recipients. The focus of this paper is the inadequacy of natural selection/filtration and not extinction. Your responses are disappointing and again emphasise that you have a closed mind in these discussions.

    • Lou Jost says:

      The paper was published in a book, not a peer-reviewed journal, and the book was eventually rejected by the first publisher it had been offered to, Springer Verlag. One of the authors of the article is himself an editor of the book, which often means the article gets less scrutiny. This author is a vocal young-earth creationist, never a good indication of sound judgement.

      But none of that really matters. I gave a solid mathematical reason why their conclusion (that Muller’s ratchet is more serious than people had previously thought) is wrong. You did nothing to engage it.

      Remember that they model only deleterious mutations and leave out beneficial ones. Nearly neutral mutations (which will mostly be slightly deleterious) can lay the groundwork for dramatic beneficial adaptations, as Jon and I discuss in the new neutrality thread. So any assessment of the effect of cumulative mutations (as in their Fig 10, the time to extinction) must be very careful about the way it models their combined effect. An additive model which only includes deleterious mutations, as used by the authors, is just not adequate for drawing conclusions far beyond the range of validity of the model.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        I obtained the paper from

        I have not published with this group so I do not offer an opinion, but from what they say on their web site, they seem to meet the usual criteria for publications – 120 journals along with other publications. I thus assume papers such as this have met a reasonable criteria before acceptance.

        I am not debating all mutations, nor a model that addresses all aspects of biology. The notion of deleterious mutations has been around for so long that I would not have thought it required debate/disagreement. Nor am I saying that because of their modelling, we should see most species extinct. You are simply bringing in red-herrings – the interest to me is that the paper points out an inadequacy in Darwinian thinking, notably purifying natural selection. From the paper, I cannot see a fundamental problem with their model or their assumptions. Since you disagree, you need to provide a far more compelling reason for this, than that they should not assume additive accumulation (you may propose a more complicated one). It is logical that mutations occur as you have insisted, and many ‘minor ones’ (whatever that may mean) cannot be removed according to this paper (below fitness criteria, again a common aspect of your thinking), using natural selection, so they must accumulate. This poses a problem for selection – since species are not extinct, and mutations do occur, ipso facto you have a problem with Neo-Darwinism. They point this out and show people should take this inadequacy seriously, i.e. question the notion of natural selection as it is currently proposed. If there are other mutations, and these somehow negate or remove the impact of accumulating deleterious ones, it is for biologists (etc) to address this and show how it ceases to be a problem with the theory involving natural selection. THIS HAS BEEN MY POINT ALL ALONG.

        Jon has addressed this by pointing out that a great deal of disagreement and argument is found in the literature. Once again you become dismissive and hide behind your own blinkers by pretending such disagreement are not so, and put a rosy hue on the matter. If comparable remarks were made of say, molecular QM modelling, we would anticipate ‘fire and brimstone’ in the streets of chemistry. You display an astonishing regarding the very basis of theory in your field.

        • Avatar photo GD says:

          The last sentence should read, “You display an astonishing attitude regarding ………..”

          • Avatar photo GD says:

            To bring some balance to this discussion, I also refer to a paper that addresses some aspects: In this model, the authors show for some asexual species conditions can be modelled that would show such species may not go extinct. While Lou would put his spin on this, I think it again show the flux and debate that pervades Darwinian thinking, especially tho simplistic (and all pervasive notion) that is termed natural selection.

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