Thursday, February 18, 2016

An Economist's Rational Road to Christianity

One bad thing about blogging, or writing a lot, is that it forces one into a foolish consistency. It is hard to really explore new ideas, because tentative steps will be clumsy. In my new position I'm not incented to blog about finance or politics, and that gave me a lot of time to read as opposed to write. Net result: I'm getting baptized this Sunday (note: it happened, see dunk right, video here). That is, I'm becoming a Christian, not just one who occasionally goes to church, but a real one that believes in Christ, loving God with all my heart, etc.

Most ex-atheists who become deists turn to Buddhism, so I thought I'd be clear why they are all wrong (Robert Wright!). I'd like to thank Mencius Moldbug, Dierdre McCloskey, Mike Behe, Tim Keller (four names probably never listed in sequence ever), and hundreds more...Below are snippets (top and bottom) from my Christian apology: I came to Christ via rational inference, not a personal crisis. I haven't read an argument like mine for Christianity, though given everything written about Christianity, I probably haven't tried hard enough.

A Rational Argument for Christianity (pdf here, w/ footnotes)

·         Something created us
·         Created things have a purpose
·         The New Testament’s consistency with economics and psychology work as if our creator wrote it
·         ‘As if’ assumptions are often true

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was an eminent philosopher, mathematician, and logician, and avowed atheist. In his History of Western Philosophy, he discusses many arguments for the existence of God—first cause, natural law—and finds them all logically defective, except the argument from design. This is the argument that there are things in the known world which cannot plausibly be explained as the product of blind natural forces, but are reasonably regarded as evidences of a purpose. He notes there is no formal logical defect, and the veracity of this hypothesis turns on ‘comparatively detailed considerations.’ He found the theory of evolution adequate to rebut this theory, but a lot has been discovered since then.

[Hereafter I denote the ‘argument from design’ aka ‘intelligent design,’ as ID, the theory that life, or the universe, cannot have arisen by chance and was designed and created by some intelligent entity. ‘Evolution’ and ‘evolutionist’ the theory and those who believe in the theory, that all life on Earth descended from some primal organism(s) that arose at least 600 million years ago, via strictly natural processes of descent with modification, mutation, and natural selection.]

If you share Russell’s intellectual interests the theory of evolution is the most important argument for the existence of God. That could be any God, and many then rely on miracles, prophesy or historical records, but I am strictly looking at things more inferentially, what actually works. The New Testament reads like an instruction manual by our creator in terms of its helpfulness in this world, consistency with healthful psychology, ethics, and economics.  For these reasons, plus the belief in a creator, I find faith in Christ a purely rational decision.

Evolution Just Like Abiogenesis

Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, speculated about spontaneous generation, that life may have arisen via some “living filament” imbued with “animality,” which subsequently continued to improve, generation after generation, and create myriad forms of life. In her 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelly wrote of him, “They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin…who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.” She went on to speculate that electricity was the extraordinary means, clearly influenced by Galvani’s 1780 experiments showing how frog muscles contract when stimulated with this new force of nature. 

Charles Darwin was aware of Louis Pasteur’s recent work that showed that spontaneous generation of anything that looks like a modern living organism was impossible, such that from the beginning, evolutionary theorists conceded that the appearance of initial life forms had yet to be explained. Yet, at that time, the cell and simple life forms were considered trivial, as cells were simply filled with “protoplasm,” some sort of homogenous jelly. Ernst Haeckel, with whom Darwin corresponded and to whom he made reference in his Origin of Species, believed that the first life form was a kind of cell that would be “an entirely homogeneous and structureless substance, a living particle of albumin, capable of nourishment and reproduction.”[1]

Later in Darwin’s life, scientists found something that appeared to be the first proto-cell, and gave it the official scientific name of Eozoon canadense. Darwin noted this as a candidate for the first life form in the fourth edition of the Origin of Species. When Darwin’s friend and advocate, Thomas Henry Huxley, discovered a seeming progenitor to this in oceanic mud, scientists spent several years collecting sea mud looking for evidence of early life. Alas, they soon discovered that one was merely a chemical precipitate of lime produced by the mixture of alcohol and seawater, while the other was a product of heat and pressure. Neither was remotely organic.[2] 

Just as his grandfather did, Darwin believed that the discovery of the first life form would occur soon. However, despite his initial enthusiasm, the problem of the origin of life has become much thornier. The more we learn about the minimum necessary components of life, the more complicated it gets. For something to be an organism, it needs to reproduce, metabolize energy, and create a cell wall. The most basic cell requires at least a hundred proteins, each of which has approximately 300 amino acids, and all need to be able to work with each other.  

To reach this level of sophistication via chemical evolution defies explanation. The famous Miller-Urey experiments in 1953 created some of the amino acids found in all life forms, but this is a far cry from creating proteins. Such experiments do show you can create some of the basic building blocks of life: amino acids, fatty acids, sugars, yet outside the cell, these building blocks make geopolymers, not the biopolymers required. In the cell, amino acids and sugars are sequestered to prevent this, as pre-biotic chemistry generates melanoids and karogen which stops any evolution as soon as it starts.[3] The inevitable conclusion is that showing how a natural process can create a set of letters used in typesetting does not go far in showing how natural processes create words, let alone novels.[4] The origin of life is one of those puzzles that has been right around the corner, for the past two centuries. 

Interestingly, the thing that happened to abiogenesis happened to the theory of evolution itself: the process is always just around the corner from some obvious demonstration.[5] Darwin wrote about the evolution of the first eye, and stated, “How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light hardly concerns us more than how life itself originated.” Indeed, it did not concern early enthusiasts of evolution, and still does not. When one is unconstrained by knowledge of a process or mechanism, it is easy to imagine that it is simple, although we know now that a light-sensitive spot is as specifically arranged as the eye itself at the molecular level.[6] Thus, the original stories about evolution simply assumed continual transformation. For example, when Darwin noted that black bears had been seen swimming with their mouths open for hours at a time on the surface of a lake, feeding on floating insects, he stated: “I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.” Imagining such a scenario is not a scientific argument, but simply speculation.[7]

Many present all evolution as similar to how wolves changed to sheepdogs, or the way in which bacteria develop resistance to penicillin, but such change will not create radically new protein complexes or new species.[8] Evolution was accepted as true—Darwin was buried at Westminster Abbey near Isaac Newton—before anyone had any idea how genetics constrains evolutionary pathways, and blind faith in the theory has continued to this day. The problem is that natural selection can explain the survival of the fittest, but not how novel tissues arose, or the way in which amazingly precise and complicated biological processes developed. Some mechanism must exist to take the original life form to all life on Earth, which involves millions of new nucleotides within DNA that create proteins working in concert. Currently most evolutionists consider the diversity of life and the fossil record prove this, but that is an inference based on their assumption it is the only way it could happen; in real-time looking at many thousands of generations of fruit flies and bacteria, we see only a handful of minor mutations.

From Deism to Christianity

If evolution is untrue, it changes everything. Something truly awesome created us, and created things have purposes, they are made “for” something, the way we make hammers to pound nails. We do not create our purpose, we discover it. As an atheist most of my life, I never cared about religious arguments, because I considered anything built on a faulty premise not worth discussing (unlike today’s atheists, who methinks protest too much). However, after I accepted that a creator exists, through some serendipity, I found myself attending church, engaging in Bible study, and reading Christian authors. I experienced a strange consilience, as various facts all began to make much more sense. The unique Christian focus on the heart is genius, and the priorities proposed in the New Testament work as if they were an instruction book from our creator.  Things that work as if they are true, are often really true. 

To be a Christian, you need faith, yet this faith can be completely, totally, rational. The science behind evolution is essential to understand why it is rational to believe in a creator, and psychology, neurology, and economics tell us about human nature and workable social arrangements. History is important, because there is a dialectic in scientific opinion, and so prior ideas were tenable before we had data that refuted them. Many good Christian ideas are not unique to Christianity, but a couple of significant ones are.

In The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins wrote that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, in that prior to Darwin, atheists had no idea how life could have arisen without a designer. The tables are now turned, as recent scientific findings now make it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled theist.[9] A little knowledge led us away from God, and now a considerable amount of knowledge has led us back. There is no way a natural process created humans, and the habits of thought and action suggested in the New Testament are highly attuned to our natural instincts, fruitful character habits, and a prospering society.

Unlike what the atheists say about God turning one off to science, it engaged me, because it is much more exciting to search for patterns if you think they exist objectively, rather than something I merely might be able to convince someone is important. The mathematician, Paul Erdos, used to become excited about determining not just mathematical proofs, but ones that were beautiful: inevitable, concise, and unexpected; these were the ones he assumed were in “The Book” God keeps for each mathematical theorem. If an intelligent designer creates objective reality, it is more, not less, interesting.

Once one solves the basic problems of survival, the search for meaning is the essence of being human. In contrast, an animal’s goals are created by instincts, and thus, the Zen calmness of a resting dog does not reflect enlightenment, but simply that instincts restrict its purpose. Dogs, however, were bred from wolves to be human companions, and as a result, they now instinctively obey and love a good and loving human master, and respond to human cues in a way no other animals do. The serenity of a dog comes from following his purpose well.

Alas, this requires the dog to have a good master, as if he finds himself with a bad one, he will suffer. Humans are allowed to choose their master, the thing they love most they orient their lives around. This ability to choose our purpose gives us great potential, whatever our circumstances, but also a responsibility that generates great anxiety. If we worship the wrong thing, we are like a dog with a bad master, destined to suffer; if we worship the right thing, we are like the dog with a good master, content, happy, active: high stakes indeed.

Nietzsche wrote, “The why makes the how infinitely bearable,” in that we are primarily teleological beings. A strong purpose is calming, whereas no purpose generates angst, an uneasy fear of nothing in particular. People want to accomplish some good beyond themselves. When we think our life connects us to something bigger than ourselves, something noble and beautiful and great that appreciates and returns our love, we are satisfied.

The greatest eulogies of all time, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Pericles’s funeral oration, focused on showing how those who died did not do so in vain, as they helped create a prosperous and noble future that would be an example to the world. That gave those fallen soldiers’ lives meaning, as they were serving something bigger and nobler than themselves. We all wish to be eulogized in that way, as if our stay on this Earth was not in vain. We want something we esteem to appreciate us, not just now, but after we die. The existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called it a “God-shaped hole” in our heart.

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…..15k words in pdf, but not here related to this argument...
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The Christian Consilience

Once you accept that we were created, it becomes easier to understand our common drive to find meaning and purpose, because it is more likely that we have an objective purpose that gives our lives meaning. Love is the only end in itself, and the love of God is the key to any Christian purpose, the ultimate motivator because, as the creator of the universe, you can be sure that He will always be there. Profound truths should help you prosper, and to the extent that a worldview is based on an incorrect view of human nature or society, daily refutation generates angst. The most profound truth is that some being created us, and that created things have a purpose. Our purpose is hard-wired into our biology, and creates a longing to love something greater than ourselves, and following this simple purpose generates a social optimum via invisible hand. Having one grand objective is a greater virtue than having two, because it constitutes a greater rope to which one’s destiny can cling. 
  
Aristotle taught that the purpose of the state was to encourage virtue among its citizens, which, in turn, would cause humans to flourish. Christianity is consistent with this, because its bottom-up focus encourages decentralized decision-making and individual liberty. Christianity neither legislates nor demands virtue; it merely encourages it as part of a loving relationship with God. By making people sublimate their will to that of Jesus Christ, who represents God on Earth, one becomes more humble, a better spouse, parent, colleague, and friend. The modesty that comes from Christianity is not weakness, but rather, a combination of honesty and intelligence.

The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “A man’s greatness lies in the consciousness of an honest purpose in life, founded on a just estimate of himself and everything else, on frequent self-examination, and a steady obedience to the rule which he knows to be right.”[10] Epictetus (another Roman Stoic) noted that if you want to be good, assume you are bad, which is consistent with the Christian concept of original sin. Christianity in many ways represents Classical virtues with a radically different motive that actually is inspiring (it is not trivial that Nietzsche called Christianity “Platonism for the masses”).[11]

All major faiths both sublimate the self to something external, but also concentrate on managing and disciplining the self. We have hard-wired emotional responses and we know that Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is useful in disciplining these deep drives. The focus is on repairing oneself, not others: changing unhelpful or inaccurate thinking, problematic behavior, and distressing emotional responses. This makes us prosperous and happy. While status is a function of talent, effort, and luck, for those of us in developed countries, a small amount of effort affords one more than enough food and shelter to live, and everything most valuable to us, our integrity, purpose, and relationships, are all free. If you and your friends judge each other according to the heart, and not cleverness or status, it is completely possible to have a wholly satisfying life, regardless of the luck or innate ability that we cannot control.

Only Christianity is motivated by love of a personal God, and achieving the right will is key to a good purpose. Jesus not only serves as a bridge for humans to achieve salvation, His personal nature makes it easier for humans to love Him—and thus, by extension, God—and His sacrifice highlights the fact that God loves us: if God paid no price for us, it would be difficult to believe that He cares. This esoteric aspect of what Jesus represents, functionally, is necessary when you are trying to appeal to a large group, as Christianity does. The righteous conduct God praises is consistent with the timeless virtues, including such perennials as to know thyself, the golden rule, and an appreciation of the moral equivalence of all men.[12]

A Christian purpose aligns with our nature so well that it is useful to believe and behave “as if” it were true, and in the history of science, many assumptions that were chosen because they worked were later found to be true. Thus, assumptions often are used as contrivances, what Milton Friedman called “as if” assumptions that are not necessarily true, but just good working assumptions. For example, if you assume that individuals are self-interested you can explain many things that are otherwise difficult to explain. When Adam Smith introduced this in 1776, it seemed almost Machiavellian, but it turned out to be a better first-order approximation of individual motivation than any other. It is a miracle that Christianity promotes a societal arrangement as counterintuitive as the free market a couple thousand years before theory and data made this clear. Even in the 1950’s most educated economists thought socialism was more productive than capitalism.

When the positron and wave-particle duality were both introduced first via “as if” arguments, they emerged from the mathematics used to describe quantum events, “as if” they existed; later, they were found to exist. Scientists believe that dark matter exists because, as happens in our solar system, spiral galaxies move “as if” embedded in some form of translucent matter that keeps the innermost stars from moving much faster than the outermost stars. No one has seen dark matter, only its effects, but scientists are certain it exists because the cosmos move “as if” it does.

If you focus first on yourself, next on your family, and then on your neighbors and colleagues, your focus forms a concentric circle based on their proximity. If you focus first on the neediest, that causes your focus to leapfrog out of this concentric circle to groups external to your circle of friends and family. On a purely utilitarian basis, the latter approach seems to dominate because it provides more for those who need it most. Yet the leapfrogging focus demands one truly cares about abstract people more than people one knows intimately, which is counter to our human nature, as the neurotransmitters that underlie pair-bonding are activated by physical contact.[13] Perpetual aid merely increases the population of targeted groups, and does not create the springboard to endogenous prosperity and flourishing. Focusing on those in your immediate circle, including yourself, has the advantage of being more manageable, in that you receive feedback on how well you are doing, and achieve a deeper contextual understanding of what is needed. It is the serenity prayer in action.

The very best thing that people can do for the whole world is to make the most of themselves and those close to them. This is why the Axial age religions have provided so many with good guidance, for example, focusing on mundane virtues, because a society prospers according to the virtues of its citizens, in which they take responsibility for themselves. Your attitude towards yourself is paramount because we really love our neighbor as ourselves; we do unto others as we do unto ourselves. Forgiveness, tolerance, sacrifice, if not practiced towards oneself, are just words. It should be remembered those without any self-interest find it much easier to be cruel when acting selflessly. If you don't value yourself highly, how can you value other selves highly (e.g., ants are selfless animals, yet they are also the most warlike and take slaves)?

The progressive inspired ‘positive’ rights for healthcare, food, education, and housing, are claims on the resources of others backed by coercive bureaucracies. Top-down charity is helpful in a pinch, but as a prolonged policy it is counterproductive and resented. That is, Ben Franklin noted that if you want someone to like you, ask them for a small favor, it shows you appreciate their talents; if you merely give them things, people find it patronizing (they think you are incapable) or a sign of guilt (which means, you probably took more than you are giving). Goods and services received without struggle—and the sense of insecurity that motivates it—leads to resentment, and this leads to a vicious circle of hating the 1% even more; those most in need of help neglect the person who can help them most, themselves.

The Bible is prescient in orienting an individual’s focus in concentric circles from him/herself, to family, etc., all the while avoiding the emptiness of doing it merely for oneself. The first thing a Christian must do is fear, obey, and love God. As God does not speak directly to most people, this means making yourself a better person, not out of narcissism, but rather, in order to look better to someone beautiful who loves you. In contrast,Freudian psychoanalysis centers on fixing oneself for oneself by getting rid of unconscious repressions that often were attributed to religion. This kind of thinking failed because that focus did not soothe, but inflamed us, as the more we thought about ourselves, the more we thought about how others had wronged us. The motivation, the heart, is key.

Our relationship with God begins with fear, but this is only an introduction, in the same way you teach virtue to your children first by making them act polite (any great philosophy has to be esoteric; it has to work at multiple levels, both for the ignorant and the intense). In Christianity, the perfect is not the enemy of the good, because it assumes that all people are imperfect, that such is the crooked timber of humanity. A Christian does not expect heaven on Earth, in that people are base, fallen, yet God loves us anyway if we love Him. Compared to his incredible powers, we are incredibly dumb so our greatest objective achievements in science and art are relatively lame, but our moral sense, our ability to choose our purpose given a glimpse of His power, can generate a sublime achievement that He appreciates, why God is more interested in our faith and love than any other aspect of our character.

Dan Buettner found longevity hotspots around the globe, in small communities in places as diverse as Costa Rica, Japan, and Italy, and found a strong sense of purpose was common in all of these places.[14] Victor Frankl wrote about how those who survived in concentration camps felt a strong sense of purpose, and this finding seemed to confirm that hypothesis.[15] If you find a community of people with a shared sense of purpose, whose values inspire virtuous conduct, and whose relationships provide support, guidance, and encouragement, your life will be better. Thus it should come as no surprise people who attend religious services on a weekly basis are nearly twice as likely to describe themselves as “very happy” (45%) than are people who never attend (28%).[16] It would seem obvious that it is beneficial to become religious if we judge ideas on what they make of men. Pascal’s wager would be amended from the focus on the afterlife, to one on the current life. 

Poor areas tend to be more religious, not just across countries, but across counties in the US, whereas prosperous areas tend to be more educated and less religious (Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the US, has the most churches per capita). Relatively prosperous people are also happier, yet within these prosperous cohorts, religious people are happier. This creates a true paradox: at the margin, an increase in prosperity causes more happiness and more atheism, but given any level of prosperity, religion increases happiness. Educated people today choose atheism because religion seems logically absurd, as it was wrong on heliocentrism and now seems to contradict evolution. Among the academics who teach young people, the proportion of progressives increases the higher you go in those hierarchies. Progressives continue to argue, ever more angrily, that evolution is a fact, and actually ban ID from high school curricula. However, secular humanism is not rational because it does not understand how economics, psychology, and history show the dominance of the Christian-centered life over the progressive approach here on earth. The inconsistency of means to ends for progressives guarantees failure, just as the Soviet Union and Venezuela were guaranteed to fail.

Coda

In Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, he writes “the battle [for evolution] is part of a wider war, a war between rationality and superstition. What is at stake is nothing less than science itself and all the benefits it offers to society.”[17] Wars, alas, are not known for their rationality, rather their propaganda to maintain popular support. In the 1930s the mathematical models of evolution thought single mutations could alter genes in such a way to create a new trait, and such changes were normally distributed in terms of ‘fitness.’ We now know such changes are almost always detrimental, and for a gene to acquire radical new function takes hundreds of specific mutations, many in concert. The mechanism to create novel protein complexes is a miracle, its mechanism unknown, whether God or evolution did it.

Science and rationality are tools of the will, and become more tendentious and tortured when those applying it assume by definition their views are objective, their opponents characterized by dogmatism and bias. Atheists are preoccupied with convincing people that evolution is a fact because they know that evolution is key to keeping progressive thought dominant. Their hegemony is more important than any other principle because their goal is to accelerate the arc of social justice, and that can only come from top-down state power, which is why American atheists have a more favorable view of Islam than Protestants, even though Islam is much more repressive on all the social positions it abhors in Christianity (Evangelical Christians, not Muslims, are blocking progressive policies in the USA currently).[18] 

Like all untrue foundational insights, the evolutionary mechanism becomes more complicated the more we see. As the appearance of design becomes stronger, expect greater division, because doubt breeds anger. That is, no one holds with fervor that 7 times 8 is 56, because it is known that this is the case; fervor is necessary only in commending an opinion which is doubtful. They have reason to be concerned, because as Bertrand Russel noted, evolution as a theory is strictly an empirical issue, looking at detailed considerations, and as with all bad theories, the more data we have, the convoluted the theory becomes (in contrast, true theories become clearer). The contempt and ridicule directed at intelligent design intimidates young people to concede evolution, which is merely expedient; however, given evolution as a fact, it is harder to believe anything in the Bible is true or even useful.

I was a secular humanist most of my life, contemptuous of Christianity because I thought it was not merely based on myth, but that it also mislabeled pride as a vice and humility as a virtue. Human science and art reflect our genius, and their successes were built upon bold individuals. Yet, after learning about the incredibly precise nano-machinery in the cell, and how microevolution does not imply macroevolution, and all the failed examples and predictions of evolution, I became convinced that something created us. It was only then that I decided to take seriously the arguments of Christians like Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, and even the Bible itself, and was amazed at the wisdom in these writings. The idea that Christianity was dogma, a crutch for repressed or ignorant individuals, was not true, although that is what my secular humanist worldview told me.

The focus on the will over reason, classical liberalism, classical virtues, love as the primal motive, that humans are by nature base, shows that the New Testament is right on all the issues that really matter. At the personal level, and for creating a thriving society, Christianity works. The emphasis on the will, that love of God is more important than what you do, is uniquely Christian, and uniquely profound.

The key to Christianity is the heart, to love God, and therefore, to want to serve Him, and you can only love something you are sure loves you as well. The Corinthians 13 verse often read at weddings is not mawkish, rather foundational.[19]  True love, like my love for my daughter, is something about which I am certain—that I love, and am loved by, my daughter—and it gives me intense joy and purpose.

The New Testament argues that God is love and from an emotional standpoint, it is our strongest desire and need. When we feel love and express it through compassion, caring, empathy, serving, supporting, encouraging, and much more, the power of God’s love within us creates a sense of joy and fulfillment that goes beyond the definition of happiness. Loving relationships make us feel complete—in our Creator, spouses, children, friends, and even enemies. All the other ends people seek like status, power, wealth, and sex are preoccupations until acquired, then we think about everything else. Love is the only end not like that.

No non-human animal understands physical forces, not just animals that have no sense for light or magnetism, but no awareness of the strong nuclear forces in atomic nuclei.  It seems likely that humans also do not perceive or understand the totality of forces at work in the universe. Nonetheless, we can infer transcendent forces indirectly, and most of our knowledge is inferential, not deductive. That is, we see a universal desire for purpose, the benefits in this world of living for the next by focusing on our own virtues and vices and the evidence of a creator; we believe further that it is most likely that a creator gave us our various instincts. It is our duty to recognize that there are things that we cannot understand; as Schopenhauer stated, “Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world,” not recognizing that they do not see everything. It would be irrational to presume the universe is constrained to what atheist humans have figured out circa 2016 AD.

At some level, this requires faith, as something able to create life clearly is outside of anything for which I have direct evidence. Paradoxically, faith can be rational.[20] There is evidence of a creator, and the Christian creator’s message works best in this life, as it gives one a profound motivation for adopting standard stoic virtues and bourgeois morality. If you estimate rationally, there is a sufficient probability (e.g., 73%) that Christianity is true, with this probability it makes sense to act as if Christianity has a 100% probability of being correct. This is because, in any strategy that takes persistence, once you make the choice to do it you should be “all in.” In the words of a famous short green deist, “Do, or do not, there is no try.”

Faith motivates us to use our will to navigate life’s challenges. It entails choosing to trust, cling to, and depend upon someone greater and more powerful than ourselves. In that sense, faith is primarily an act of will in which we choose not to allow events or circumstances to drag us down because we have a relationship with God and He is in our lives to help us. Faith strengthens us to face life’s obstacles, and this produces deep peace and inner happiness. Faith is essential for a happy life.

My previous attempts to create meaning within the secular humanist worldview were not failures because I did not try hard enough, but rather because you need a lot of luck to do this without God. That is, I have no doubt that there are many, millions in fact, who are happy and contented without God. If you are excellent at something and content in simple virtues, if your friends and family are stable and of good character, life can be very satisfying. In a world of 7 billion people, it should come as no surprise that some are able to find this without God, let alone Christ. The success various local demographics across the world highlight some groups can generate eudaimonia in this world just as well as any Christian community.

Their success comes from the fact they somehow got into a positive feedback loop where their community that supported them also championed classical virtues that made them better people, highlighting the importance of loving something beautiful, and a community of thriving, virtuous people who look after each other is that; it will make you a better person. Indeed, all the Axial age religions do a better job of focusing our priorities than does progressivism, and this tempts many who find them attractive to think they all are equally true. Any good practical objective should be robust, in that it should work fairly well if you approximate it.

While the Axial age religions, and many subsequent ones, offer a better purpose in life than trying to create one yourself, not all the major faiths can be true, as they are contradictory. They could all be untrue, just correct on, say, the importance of the golden rule. However, if there is a creator, Christianity may work best precisely because it actually is true. Christianity places unique emphasis on the heart, a motivation based on the love of God, and the gratitude generated by appreciating such a God leads to greater happiness in this world. I will not find my purpose by adopting the worldview of some village in Costa Rica. That would not work primarily because I have no social connections in such a village, and without those relationships, the whole thing does not work at all, even if it works for them. Further, if Christianity is true, those close substitutes will not work in the afterlife, which is more important than anything we experience here on Earth.

We were given a unique ability to choose our purpose, and that choice alone is important to God, which should make sense, because anything powerful enough to create us is unimpressed by our worldly achievements, which are technically trivial to such a being. Having the ability to understand life a little bit the way God does, yet subordinate our will to glorifying Him, pleases Him. Life is a test, and as Lincoln said, the best way to test a man’s character is to give him power. We all have the power to choose what to serve and to love, and most choose a secular focus out of pride, our greatest sin.

The purpose of life is to practice virtue inspired by the love of something transcendently beautiful. The object from which one is seeking esteem should be beautiful, in that it inspires healthful behavior in us—virtue—and we find satisfaction in its appreciation. It must be long-lived, because a beautiful thing that may end soon cannot sustain hope. Love, meanwhile, is the only end in itself that endures and is never sated, though it requires reciprocation, meaning, the transcendently beautiful love object needs to appreciate and reflect love. A good life is a synchronicity of behavior and thought motivated by love that advances something noble, in that achieving one’s higher destiny helps humans flourish. There’s no better example than loving the creator God described in the New Testament.





[1]  They knew cells had other parts, like a nucleus, but did not know much about it, and believed that first life was simpler. That is, scientists had already seen how electricity causes frog legs to move (Galvani in the 1780s), and organic compounds could be synthesized (urea in 1828), so it seemed reasonable that life was not that complicated (e.g., why Frankenstein’s monster was not as crazy as it now seems).
[2]  Gould, S.J. Bathybius and Eozoon. In The Panda’s Thumb. London: Norton, 1992, S. 236–244.
[3] This was the “oily red goo” Stanley Miller created, documented, and ignored in his initial experiment; no biopolymers were formed.
[4]  Now scientists are focused on comets with amino acids that, via their impact, create polymers three amino acids long, or hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, and bacteria that survive deep in the earth’s crust.
[5] The theory of evolution, I am referring to the conventional theory of Matt Ridley, Richard Dawkins, Larry Moran, Sam Harris, Steve Pinker, PZ Myers. They disagree on particulars like group vs. individual selection, neutral drift vs. selection, but there is a gist.   
[6]  When light strikes the retina a photon is absorbed by an organic molecule called 11-cis-retinal, causing it to rearrange within picoseconds to trans-retinal. The altered protein can now interact with another protein called transducin. Before associating with rhodopsin, transducin binds tightly to a small organic molecule called GDP, but when it binds to rhodopsin, the GDP dissociates itself from transducin and a molecule called GTP, to which it is related closely, but is critically different from, GDP, which binds to transducin. Several other proteins then interact in a cascade, including an equilibrating mechanism to restore the initial state and enable the continued ability to process light. These proteins are hundreds of amino acids in length, and interact with each other in very specific ways. An initial light sensitive spot requires mutations to create this functionality incidentally, a staggeringly complex, but highly specific set of instructions within the DNA to create such proteins and put them next to each other.
[7] The change needed for even the smallest change involves many specific proteins, which need specific protein coding genes, promoters, and all the other parts needed to put such parts in place. For example, unlike other animals, in mammals the red blood cell is enucleated, ejecting its nucleus before entering the bloodstream. It takes place 2 million times per second, and involves an elaborate and highly choreographed process where the entire cytoplasmic machinery of the cell is reorganized in order to achieve the result. Some think the evolution of enucleated red blood cells is simple: a red blood cell once split and did not have a nucleus in one of the daughter cells, which gave rise to enucleated cells. Yet the earliest recognizable red blood cell undergoes four or five mitotic divisions to create the enucleated blood cells that humans use to transport oxygen. The shape differences between these cells as they turn into enucleated cells reflect progressive accumulation of hemoglobin and decrease in nucleus. The nucleus becomes dense because of chromosome condensation, and is isolated from the cytoplasm by a ring of cytoplasmic membranes and moves to one side of the cell. In the last step, the red-blood cell is partitioned into two daughter structures and the nucleated one is destroyed by the immune system. The protein mesh encases the cell into a rigid scaffolding framework which reduces cell deformability but ensures that during mitosis both nuclear and cytoplasmic contents are appropriately partitioned in the two daughter cells. The profound changes in structural membrane protein synthesis and loss of microfilament protein synthesis occurring during erythroid maturation destroy plasma-nucleus useful because red blood cells are very flexible, necessary function for travelling small capillaries. This involves enzymes that work in multiprotein complexes with transcription factors, and protein kinases. The several genes involved in this are not fully understood, but clearly involves the creation of thousands of specific nucleotides that create the process above; it is not as simple as a single accident.
[8]  The subtitle of the Origin of Species is Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, and Darwin clearly thought this was relevant to humans, with Europeans at the top, and the uncivilized races at the bottom.
[9]  I should note that I am not a young earth creationist, nor a fundamentalist. I think the Bible is filled with metaphors, exaggerations for emphasis, and was written by humans. For example, in the NIV, Galatians 5:22-23 says the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The KJV has patience and the ESV has longsuffering, instead of forbearance. As forbearance is a synonym of “self-control,” it seems the NIV authors were objectively wrong to include forbearance in a listing with self-control. Such errors, I find, are not important.
[10] Long, G. M. Aurelius Antoninus. (1862). Harvard Classics, Vol. 2, 1909.
[11] In contrast, the Epicurean tetrapharmakos is that we should not fear death because when it comes we will not know it, we will be dead.
[12] Matthew 7:12. “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” 1 Tim. 2:1. “I exhort, therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men.” 2 Corinthians 13:5. “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”
[13] Prairie voles without receptors for vasopressin and oxytocin have sperm donor dads, those with the receptors hang around to raise the kids.
[14] Buettner, D. The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. National Geographic Books, 2012.
[15] Frankl, V.E. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
[16] http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2014/12/24/religious-people-much-happier-than-others-new-study-shows/
[17] Coyne, Jerry A. Why evolution is true. Penguin, 2009.
[18] http://www.pewforum.org/2014/07/16/how-americans-feel-about-religious-groups/
[19] 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
[20] James,W. Will to Believe, 1896.

49 comments:

John said...

Glad to hear from you.

Anonymous said...

Where to begin..?

“The serenity of a dog comes from following his purpose well.”
Abdicating critical thought and responsibility to worship a supernatural master. Many an atrocity was and continues to be committed in the name of unconditional subservience to this master. Such actions being morally justified, rationally in my opinion, by blind faith.

“Once you accept that we were created…”
In other words, once we accept as truth an almost 2,000 year old text, which plagiarizes an older text, which plagiarizes older myths…

“Christianity neither legislates nor demands virtue”
Christianity (and Islam, Judaism, etc) very much legislates, demands, and imposes certain “truths” as the word and law of god. This belief in scripture as the word of god, faith essentially, is what rationally justifies as moral acts the atrocities committed by religions throughout history.

Look, I don’t mind people believing what they want. What bothers me is that someone as intelligent and eloquent as you gives legitimacy t a lot of nonsense and immoral acts. Your writing artfully disguises the arrogance of religious “truths”. The false humility and cognitive dissonance of faith continuous to drive and justify many immoral acts in our world. It saddens me to see another smart and educated person providing cover to the agents of faith.

Regarding purpose, I will just say there is plenty of positive and enlightening purpose and beauty to be found without the need of religion. Especially when much of the “purpose” brought about by religion involves hatred, prejudice, murder, torture, and a general opposition to free thought, and as a consequence to civil liberties.

One last thing. You believe in creationism because it is your opinion that the biology of life is too complex to have occurred without intentional design. This line of argument is as old as superstition itself. The fact you are able to recycle it with eloquence (and footnotes! Nothing is more legitimate than footnotes ;) ) does not make it truth, or fact, or otherwise proof of anything.

Thomas Themel said...

Well, congratulations on your conversion, I guess. Though I've filed the entire missive under "TL;DR" until the weekend, your pithy Nietzsche quote intrigued me greatly (I was planning to augment it with "alas, the why is never real" or something along these lines). Do you have a citation? Amazingly enough, you seem to have the only use of the exact wording on the whole wide web.

Dan Carroll said...

This was a surprise. Congrats and welcome. This took courage to write, given your likely readership. God bless.

Cav said...

Eric: You were one of the smartest people that I had the privilege of reading over the previous decade, and I missed your posts as they became more infrequent in recent years. What a profound joy filled my gritty New York subway ride home this evening as your epic post came up on my RSS reader.

If you are ever in New York city, I'd love for you to come visit us at trinityny.org. It might be the most demographically diverse group of people you might ever visit, save a common bond of faith in Word and Spirit. I am certainly going to send others in the group a link to this essay, which I suspect will pay substantial and eternal dividends.

I just finished C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe with my 6-year-old this morning, and was not only struck by what a great writer he was, but also how much more of what he accomplished that I could grasp as an older and more experienced creature. I hope you are encouraged and humbled to hear, that, while of course you are very different from each other along with your respectively different historical contexts and giftings, that there is something similar in your intellectual discovery, and at least for me (an engineer by training, portfolio and risk manager by trade), what I read today from you was as great as anything I've read from Lewis.

Thank you, and I wish you a most Providential journey from here.

Eric Falkenstein said...

Anonymous:
The dog analogy explicitly mentioned that it can be horrible if the dog has a bad master, why our choice is a blessing, and a curse (it's hard to choose).

Once you accept we are created, you can go a lot of places: various religions, Bostrom's simulation argument...I don't believe the Bible word for word in modern parlance, that we were create 5000 years ago, etc. I just think we were created, and that something very much like the God of the New Testament was the guy/girl/thing.

As per legislating virtue, the key here is people are free to disobey God, indeed, with Satan, given lots of encouragement. They are judged then in the afterlife, not here, so there's no need to make human laws against sin, just things that prevent liberty (eg, Classical rights to life, liberty, and property). Those who kill others for religion are wrong, even those who are inspired by their readings of the New Testament. Over the past 100 years, Christ hasn't been used much to inspire war.

As per your argument I'm a creationist, guilty, to a point. I don't believe in some simple story we were created in 6 'days', but we were created, somehow. You do not present any cogent refutations to my arguments, just say mine are old, but they can't be that old because they reference data uncovered only in the past 30 years.

As per enlightened purpose generating a better purpose, I'm waiting to see it. Most of it has been profoundly illiberal, hundreds of millions dead, generations spent in daily lies. I don't think Christians, over the past 100 years, have done much "murder, torture, and a general opposition to free thought." There will always be some, but it's not as if large Christian communities are doing that. Who do you think started universities? Atheists?

J Oliver said...

Great post. Thank you.

Mike Griswold said...

I've followed your blog for a long time Eric, and I was greatly heartened by your post. I'm looking forward to reading the detail in the pdf. Thank you for making such a public declaration and for presenting so carefully the steps that led to your conversion. May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-26

Anonymous said...

If God created us with a certain purpose, then the next question is who created God and with what purpose.

Malcolm Tucker said...

There's no point in going into specific examples of irreducible complexity since, as neither you nor I are specialists in relevant fields, it'll just end up as lobbing citations at each other but I find the approach its proponents take is at best non-scientific and at worst intellectually disingenuous.

When confronted by an apparent problem (ie. a structure/system/process that doesn't appear to have a ready explanation for how it reached its current state) the researcher just downs tools and proclaims that "a designer" did it - no further work required. Of course, the reason they don't bother to investigate it any further is that once they've hung their "designer" hat on whatever the issue is, they're going to look rather foolish if a possible explanation is eventually found. Of course, at that point they'll just move on to something else that's "irreducibly" complex and so the process will continue.

Yes, I'm sure you can find similar behaviour amongst mainstream scientists, especially physicists with pet theories, but that doesn't stop it being a particularly poor approach to science.

Hugo said...

Responding to your response to my original post:

“The dog analogy explicitly mentioned that it can be horrible if the dog has a bad master, why our choice is a blessing, and a curse (it's hard to choose).”

Fair enough. I would say it has been more of a curse than a blessing.

“Once you accept we are created,…”

This is the center of the issue isn’t it? You accept and that’s that. There is no real basis. And if someone criticizes the “acceptance”? Well, it is faith and we just don’t get it. This is the false humility I was referring to.
Mind you I am not saying the universe and life is not created. I am saying we do not know. That is humility. Your asking me to prove a negative is a demonstration of religious arrogance. The religious say they know, and the onus is on everyone else to prove them wrong. Well, you are the one making extraordinary supernatural claims without proof, not me.

“As per legislating virtue, the key here is people are free to disobey God, indeed, with Satan, given lots of encouragement. They are judged then in the afterlife, not here, so there's no need to make human laws against sin, just things that prevent liberty (eg, Classical rights to life, liberty, and property).”

So I can be a free thinker and even disagree with god, it just means I am in cahoots with satan. That’s a nice thing to teach children.

“Those who kill others for religion are wrong, even those who are inspired by their readings of the New Testament. Over the past 100 years, Christ hasn't been used much to inspire war……I don't think Christians, over the past 100 years, have done much "murder, torture, and a general opposition to free thought." There will always be some, but it's not as if large Christian communities are doing that.”

In my original post I was referring to religion in general, not just Christianity. I agree that you don’t see a degree of fanaticism in Christianity that is comparable to Islam. This is more due to timing than righteousness. Christianity spent the last 500 years plus being smacked in the head by science, and being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. That said, Christianity has been no innocent sheep in the past 100 years. The Catholic church has a well known history of supporting fascism, for example. Persecution of homosexuals. Thousands of reorientation camps that amount to physical and psychological abuse. Fervent opposition to contraception, especially in Africa, a continent ravaged by AIDS. The attempted undermining of kids’ science education by trying to impose creationism as scientific fact. The constant attempts to limit the 1st amendment by lobbying for laws that prohibit criticism of religion (all religions have always tried to impose blasphemy laws). Granted, this is not close to the peak horrors of yesteryear, but still immoral.

“Who do you think started universities? Atheists?”

Disingenuous statement. In times when we did not know any better, of course some of our greatest minds were deists and even theists. If born today in a free society how many do you think would remain so? Very few in my opinion.

A perspiring aspiring academic said...

Deo gratias!

Lost Gospel Believer said...

Welcome to the Kingdom!

I made the move from secular humanist to Christianity about 25 years ago.

All was well for many years and then I was led to an even better place- Christian Universalism. The belief that the prevailing current beliefs on hell and eternal punishment are wrong and a return to the early church teaching that "Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord" paraphrase of Phil. 2:9-11 and that "All who confess that Jesus is Lord will be saved" paraphrase of Romans 10:9-10. In short- everyone will be eventually saved!

No longer do I concern myself with who's in and who's out because all are in.

Jesus' work was enough to save all men, not just a select few. Some of us, Christians, will enjoy relationship with him immediately. Others will continue to struggle against Him, both here and in the afterlife, until they too give themselves over to him.

God did not create some people for endless torment, as the Westminster Confession and many other church dogmas would have you believe. He created all to have eternal relationship with Him (1 Timothy 2-4).

Two good teachers on this subject are Peter Hiett, any sermon in the archive from him at tsdowntown.com, and the book Hope Beyond Hell by Gerard Beauchemin.

Your posting shows that you are a very intelligent and thoughtful guy. Once again, welcome to the Body of Christ. It was the most significant thing I've ever done in my life, followed closely by the discovery that God is better than we think!

John said...

I just had time to make it through the pdf. I think the strongest parts are the rejection of evolution/defense of ID and the importance of philosophy of life.

Also, in the footnotes you mention the evolution of the retina. I'm currently reading Feynman and he mentions that octopuses had developed eyes in a different way than vertebrates and they were the opposite way.

Lud Pisapia said...

The argument against 'intelligent design" can be easily rejected using the following story:
Say you were walking along a beach, and found a pocket watch, the wind up kind. It would be apparent after careful examination that such a device was not formed naturally, from any known natural process, but had to be fabricated. Fabrication requires many prior steps, including design of the object (which would require intelligent thought), and the fabrication or making of parts needed to put the watch together, into a working product.
Now observe a living species, like a human being. A human being is vastly more complex, on so many levels, than any man made product, like a wind up watch. Are human beings fabricated? Of course not: human beings are formed naturally, from known predecessor natural processes, including reproduction and evolution. Science defines these natural processes, and has not uncovered any elements of design or fabrication of any natural object. The other thing science shows us that that order and complexity is how nature works, and identifies the natural processes responsible for order and complexity, including fusion, gravity and evolution. Science explains where stuff in nature comes from, while 'intelligent design", like the creation story in Genesis, is based on no science evidence at all, but simply a blind leap of faith. Just read Darwin's Black Box if you want any proof of this.

Rational Christian said...

Don't you anti-God types realize that God created EVERYTHING- including evolution and your ability to trust in it?

Careless said...

Meanwhile, with every day that passes, your god of the gaps becomes smaller and less significant, withering to nothing at all.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this post. I envy your strength and intellect.

Mike said...

Hello,
I enjoyed your essay and found it thought provoking. However, I found that the argument didn't get off the ground, because the argument from design is fatally flawed.

The problem with the argument from design is that it depends on the existence of things that aren't designed; the watch on the beach stands out because the rest of the beach is qualitatively different. But if everything is designed, there is no such contrast. Thus, the argument from design defeats a premise on which it relies: There is a difference between the designed and the undesigned, everything looks designed, so everything is designed, so there's no difference between the designed and the undesigned.

Thank you for the essay, and I wish you the best in your pursuit of purpose!

Eric Falkenstein said...

I can't pick out individual comments, but am curious what evolution proponents think is the 'single' evidence an evolutionist would think best shows evidence of macroevolution?

Mike said...

I have always found the octopus' eye compelling. The octopus' eye is much like mammal eyes, but as vertebrates and cephalopods diverged prior to the evolution of the eye, their eyes are different in significant ways. Most important is what seems a major design flaw in vertebrate eyes: our eyes have a blind spot where the optic nerve enters the back of the eye, and our vision is limited by the nerve's as it connects to the front of the visual receptors. Octopus eyes don't have this blind spot or visual impairment, because their optic nerve connects directly to the back of the visual receptors.

I find this compelling because it is a complex trait that is better explained by convergent evolution than by design (why design two eyes, one of which has a pretty significant flaw?). We have good reason to believe that we evolved from a common ancestor with octopuses (a species that could hardly be more different, yet which shares some of our genes), but we diverged before the development of the classic creationist example of irreducible complexity. And we see two morphologically distinct structures that perform the same function -- suggesting macroevolution toward the function, rather than from the design.



You refer in your essay to the Blind Watchmaker; what did you think of the hypothesis put forward there for evolving clays as a mechanism for abiogenesis?

Unknown said...

I am with you. I am not an economist, but an Engineer and manager. I actually do and build things. God Bless you.

JoshK said...

Hi,

I always enjoy your writing - too bad it has become so infrequent.

Psalm 111 has a quote "The power of his handiwork instructs his faithful". It's hard to translate the Hebrew to English - the Psalms come out lacking their poetry. The point essentially being that the complexity and the magic of creation is meant to speak to the world of the Force behind it.

It annoys me a bit that somehow the current framing of the conversation casts the religious believer as the one who doesn't appreciate the science behind the argument for evolution. I think the reality is that for thousands of years the believer has had an appreciation how complex and incredible the world is and how there can't be anything random about it.

JoshK said...

I guess more accurately:

"The power of His handiwork instructs His faithful"

Rich Fullerton said...

Well done, Eric! After much reading and investigating, I reached the same conclusion as you -- the weight of the scientific evidence points strongly toward a Creator. As you have concluded, I believe those who are willing to diligently pursue the evidence, wherever it rationally leads, will also discover that Jesus Christ is the risen Savior.

Jesus replied, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your MIND." (Matthew 22:37) God does not call us to give up our reasoning. Rather, He asks us to fully employ our minds and reasoning abilities in our pursuit of Him, and He can be found. I commend you for your rational approach to answering the most important question of life.

Eric Falkenstein said...

Mike,
Thanks for the good faith argument! I think the octopus eye wouldn't scale to a human, in that we process much more light, but can see color and have much greater resolution. This requires more blood to repair and take away toxins like free radicals caused by all this light. The sea blocks most light that reaches our eyes at the depths of octopodes, so they are basically like night animals in terms of their eyes.

The key light-sensitive molecule has a bent shape (cis-retinal) and when it absorbs light the molecule becomes the ‘straight’ form (trans-retinal). This causes several unstable intermediate chemicals to form, and after about one minute, trans-retinal completely separates from opsin, causing the photopigment to appear colorless, as when you are blinded by a flash bulb. So, the heavy blood flow for humans is necessary given the amount of light and get, and the discrimination we have (much stronger than an octopus, that can't recognize food if it doesn't move).

So, the idea that an octopus eye is better than a human eye isn't true, given the functionality we are used to. Eyes have different designs that are optimized for different uses (though I'm sure, through genetic drift and mutation, they are all far from perfect).

But convergent evolution would seem to not be a really strong argument for evolution, because it implies the feasible 'space' of tissues that work are actually quite finite, compared to the bazillion of possibilities always noted as potential intermediaries to some complex protein/tissue/organ. I mean, if random, how did bats and whales glom onto the Prestin gene for echolocation? As the neutral drift evolutionists argue, most evolution is random, so this is astronomically improbable. Yet if you need step-by-step selection, there isn't enough time given how long these things have existed an the number of nucleotides that need to change.


http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2000/PSCF3-00Bergman.html

aram said...

Interesting argument. Presumably most biologists disagree with you about the feasible of life emerging from evolution, hence your characterization of them as angry, dismissive, etc. Since you are not a biologist, doesn't this give you pause?

Isn't a super-complicated creator harder to explain than a few self-replicating amino acids? My apologies if I've missed this point somewhere in your pdf.

Finally, I think it's probably true that religion makes people (on average) nicer, or otherwise better. This argument, I believe, reduces the probability that religion is true, since it gives a reason for people to be religious apart from its truth or falsehood.

Malcolm Tucker said...

Eric,

The arguments against the cephalopod eye do tend to veer into serious strawman territory since they all compare it to the human eye. More to the point, why are nocturnal vertebrates also lumbered with the inverted retina when they would most certainly benefit from the cephalopod structure?

Eric Falkenstein said...

aram: an intelligent human can create an RNA that can read a little bit of himself. To get from there to life is vast. That does not extrapolate, any more than saying a monkey will type 'wore' randomly generates Shakespeare: could, but improbable. And yes I considered being wrong. I started reading about this in the 1990s, and have been ever since. After a while, for reasons mentioned in my pdf, I concluded ID is correct.

Malcolm: many night creatures have to get around in the day, and can't afford to be blind

Malcolm Tucker said...

Except that octopuses are not remotely blind in daylight...

Napsterbater said...

It takes a strong mind to spot the dynamic whereby the rationalist point of view is worse in all regards that it cares about than the spiritualist point of view. No one is dogmatic like an atheist, no one more prone to bullying than a humanist.

Your carrying the logic through to actual re-conversion back to Christianity is new, and fascinating. Worship, belief, faith, these things are not logical and you can't ape them through an intellectual process. You either feel them deeply or you don't. And if you don't, are you really a Christian?

So I'm awfully curious. As someone whose flirted with the idea of re-embracing religion myself, and being ultimately unable to, I'd be very interested in perhaps a short email discussion regarding the inner "mechanics" of what you've decided.

James Bang said...

Faith in general can often be argued from a rational perspective. There is a decent literature in economics on this and it is well-summarized by Iannaccone, 1998 (http://international.ucla.edu/media/files/PERG.iannoconne.pdf). From there, choosing a Christian faith seems mainly to serve to maximize the social capital from the decision to adopt faith to begin with.
That said, there are MUCH better arguments for evolution, the Big Bang, and a whole lot of other scientific theories than you give credit for. It is also not necessary to disbelieve in evolution to believe in God, even a Christian one (at least if you believe the current Roman Catholic Pope).
I suspect that your own journey may be more similar to the models put forth in Iannaccone (maximizing perceived corporeal-life and afterlife surplus, maximizing social capital, etc.). And that's fine.
P.S. In case you're curious, I'm neither atheist nor Christian, so I don't really have a horse in the race.

Eric Falkenstein said...

Malcom: seawater is like night all the time, in terms of total light load (high frequency light gets shut out right away). At 1 meter half surface light is lost.

Napsterbater: sure, email me at gmail (efalken). I think William James's 'Will to Believe' lecture (google it) helps better understand the rational jump to faith.

Robb Minneman said...

Thank you for writing this. It best expresses my view of Christianity, and why living a Christian life is important.

It also expresses my key, daily struggle with Christianity: It is an intellectual position, rather than a conversion experience. I have never had an "encounter with the divine", like so many of my co-religionists have. This makes the "personal relationship with Christ" more difficult, and I struggle with that.

However, so much of Christianity points to daily truths. Your notion of the "as if" argument rings true to me, although I've never been able to express it quite so well as you have.

So again, thank you for an important, illuminating piece. I want you to know that it isn't just an explanation of your own conversion, but helped me to understand myself better.

Jonathan E said...

Eric,

Thank you for the fascinating essay.

I'd like to dig into something a bit different from the ID controversy you have stirred up with some of the other commenters.

I know enough about the New Testament to know that characterizing it as a champion of classical liberalism requires a great deal of selective reading. My question is, how literally do you take the rest of it? Do you take a fundamentalist perspective on Jesus's divinity? (And if so, which version of Christology do you subscribe to?) Or do you approach Christianity from the perspective that it provides a community of faith through which you choose to approach the Divine, however much its founding myth (in the scholarly sense) may not be strictly historical?

Mitchell said...

Enjoy your new life in the insane asylum, as you and your fellow inmates now puzzle over every event small and large, asking what its place in God's Plan is.

Eric Falkenstein said...

Jonathan E: I don't take it literally, almost every verse has a metaphor in it ('the trees will clap their hands'). I think Jesus is divine, but specifics of his life and death I'm sure are inaccurate. As poorly documented as it is to modern standards, it's far better documented than for, say, Socrates or Alexander the Great.

I read and enjoyed Darwin's Cathedrals, by David Wilson. What I think he misses is that it works on this world because it is actually true. He sees Christianity, and religion in general, as a successful meme. It's kind of like the euthyphro dilemma: things that are Good are both independent of God, and because God said so. He gave us our moral intuition, so there's no dilemma; we independently see good morals consistent with biblical teaching.

Anonymous said...

Man Eric, I knew you were a contrarian, and you've argued yourself into some pretty wacky positions over the years - the global warming denial comes to mind - but this takes the cake!

But as you acknowledge, this isn't about being right, it's about finding meaning, so in that sense I'm kind of happy for you.

Malcolm Tucker said...

"He gave us our moral intuition, so there's no dilemma; we independently see good morals consistent with biblical teaching."

Whilst I actually think the New Testament provides some rather good moral guidance, how do you square it with some of the events in the Old Testament? Personally, I don't think it's intellectually coherent to ignore certain actions that are endorsed by scripture because they conflict with the morality that has supposedly been divinely inculcated in us.

Oh, and as for the octopus and its day/night vision, surely that's the whole point of the pupil?

Dulimbai said...

I'm curious what input Mencius Moldbug and Deirdre McCloskey had in your conversion. I don't recall them as being very active Christians.

Eric Falkenstein said...

Malcom: even w/ pupil, eye would bleach, couldn't see, without much larger blood contact w/ photo receptors in human eye
I don't quite understand how all those rules in Leviticus make sense. However, I don't think I can, because it was a long time ago.

Moldbug: defined Progressives quite well. Usual left/right focus on equality, compassion, fairness (eg, Haidt's Moral Foundations), but Moldbug focused on the 'Puritanical atheist' element to progressives, while conservatives today want to have more decentralized control. McCloskey wrote a fine book on bourgeois morality, how it is key to human flourishing and real virtue.

Vintage Rocker said...

Mr. Falkenstein, congrats for this courageous and wholly sensible post. Many of your arguments resonated strongly with me, as I've gone through a number of them in my own journey. You may enjoy (or not, the contrast with your clear and concise style makes me realize what a mediocre writer I still am) this post, as I try to give in it a perspective of how the humanist/ mostly atheist perspective became so dominant in our culture: http://purebarbell.blogspot.com.es/2016/02/elements-for-critique-of-desiderative.html
(Sorry for the somewhat tongue-in-cheeky tone) Be it as it may, I'll be mulling many of your ideas, and sharing with friends for a long time, many thanks for it and God bless you and your family

Luke said...

There is very little rationality and sound reasoning in this post. Just a couple of random observations:
1) "Something created us" + "Created things have a purpose" are not necessary true: they are acts of faith, conveniently chosen hypothesis to "prove" that god must exists.
2) There's a lot of "god of the gaps" type of reasoning: if something is not explained by science, then it must be god. As science progress, the god of the gaps shrink: not a good thing for a believer and indeed theologians nowadays avoid arguments like these completely.

I understand that in the US there's a strong movement supporting ID, but here in the rest of the world we look at it as something really ridicolous. The scientific community has repeadetely shown the flaws of ID; the fact that a person with such a profile falls in the trap of ID is really worrying.

Gibson said...

You may enjoy reading the work of the poet philosopher Frederick Turner (a professor in Dallas, not the 19th century theorist of the frontier). His books Natural Religion and Culture of Hope tie in to many of your themes here. He attempts to reconcile theist views with science.

Anonymous said...

God bless you ... but don't expect your "broadminded" friends to do so. There are few things that are seen as more contemptible in the intellectual West than a believing Christian.

Plucky said...

This is really great. I'm thrilled for you and happy to have another brother in Christ.

(apologies for length, this is one long comment broken up into several posts)

While I can understand why you glided over it in the interests of making positive arguments for theism and Christianity, its worth discussing the sociologically-driven nature and roots of secular humanism and atheism. There are 3 key quotes I'd like to dig into:

A: "This creates a true paradox: at the margin, an increase in prosperity causes more happiness and more atheism, but given any level of prosperity, religion increases happiness. Educated people today choose atheism because religion seems logically absurd, as it was wrong on heliocentrism and now seems to contradict evolution. Among the academics who teach young people, the proportion of progressives increases the higher you go in those hierarchies."

B: "The contempt and ridicule directed at intelligent design intimidates young people to concede evolution, which is merely expedient; however, given evolution as a fact, it is harder to believe anything in the Bible is true or even useful."

C: "I was a secular humanist most of my life, contemptuous of Christianity because I thought it was not merely based on myth, but that it also mislabeled pride as a vice and humility as a virtue."

The key element I want to focus on is ridicule. As an argumentative tactic, ridicule is a deeply underhanded one. It consists of 2 parts- 1) an appeal to prejudice, in that it calls for an idea to be preemptively rejected before being fully considered and 2) a threat of ostracism by communicating a social norm holding the idea in question to be "out of bounds". Properly speaking, ridicule has no legitimate role in formal reasoning or rational argument.

It is used in ordinary life because of that appeal to prejudice. "Prejudice" for obvious reasons is notionally held in bad odor today, but it plays a necessary function in decision-making. In your discussion of the relationship of emotions to decision-making, you sold emotions a little bit short. Chess is perhaps the ur-example of a decision-making process that ought (one would think) to be utterly rational and cold-blooded. That's not what researchers actually find among elite chess players though. They do use their emotions. The decision/event tree of chess is simply too large to be analytically tractable. Even though chess computers now beat grandmasters as a matter of course, it is still beyond supercomputing power to solve chess. Supercomputers beat grandmasters by mimicking some human thought processes. The key one is pruning the decision tree in order to make the remainder analytically tractable, i.e. refusing to consider certain choices and their consequences without examination, i.e. "prejudice" in its most literal meaning. Humans do this with their emotions, very much including chess grandmasters. They do it in order to shrink the decision space down to a size that is manageable, something that is necessary for most decisions a person has to make. Hence Damasio's result you referenced- without the ability to use emotions in decisions, the result is not rationality but paralysis.

Plucky said...

(2/3)
Ridicule, as mentioned, is both an appeal to that emotional prejudice and an attempt to shape it. Sometimes its use is legitimate, like say when you are trying to get a kid to wear a seatbelt and a) don't have the time to rehearse all the statistics involved and b) want to impress on them that not wearing a seatbelt ought to be unthinkable as a choice and will be subject to punishment. When employed on serious intellectual pursuits its use is almost always at minimum unrigorous and often dishonest. Yet this is exactly how you describe both your old-self's and elite secular humanists' attitude towards Christianity. It is raw, unadulterated prejudice. A refusal to even consider, and more to the point a very clear social signal that adherence to Christianity is grounds for expulsion from the ranks of people to be taken seriously.

This dynamic creates very distinct signalling mechanism for a certain class of people. At some point, everyone at the top of the intelligence pyramid looks around and realizes they are smarter than pretty much everyone they know and wants to be recognized as such. This usually happens at the peak-egotism time of late adolescence. Occurring then, it overlaps with a time of high sensitivity to social cues and a need to form an independent identity. Such people need a way to signal their intelligence. Amongst the highly intelligent, "I'm smarter than you" is a critically central piece of one's identity, no matter how well it is masked. Atheism serves this purpose- it becomes a shorthand way of signalling intelligence, both to others but just as importantly to oneself. On top of that, it has added appeal to the juvenile penchant for the frisson of subversion (this is basically the story of the spaghetti monster). It gives one a reason to look down on many of one's elders, and a conversational vehicle to implicitly establish an atheist "us" as superior to those silly idiots. The key thing to remember about all the above is that at no point does it matter whether or not atheism is accurate. It merely solves a social and psychological need. It's another form of "Will over Reason" as you put it.

I was going to search for more concrete examples of this, but anonymous (2nd comment at the top) provided a perfect example. "What bothers me is that someone as intelligent and eloquent as you [...]" is the dead giveaway. There is nothing quite like the incredulity and hostility of the intelligent atheist towards the intelligent Christian in contemporary society (i.e. not necessarily true in general or throughout history), because the mere existence of the latter is a threat to the identity of the former. I would guess that based on your description of your earlier self you know that feeling well.

Plucky said...

(3/3)
One other criticism I would make is that you assert the concordance of the New Testament with what we know about economics, but most of your evidence is in the negative, i.e. all the things progressives get wrong. I think your argument and essay would be strengthened by some more specific, positive examples. One of my personal favorites is on the topic of revealed preferences. It is foundational to the logical structure of economics, even if it wasn't formalized until the 30's. And yet it has never been put more eloquently than, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Luke 12:34, identically in Matthew 6:21).

In the classic Samuelson formulation, the assumption is preferences lead to choices, and choices reveal the underlying preference (hence of course the name). What's subtly brilliant about Jesus's formulation is not just the empirical observation that preferences can be deduced from choices, but the suggestion (which comes off stronger in the fuller contexts in Luke & Matthew) that the direction of causality can go the other direction as well- that choices today can affect your preferences in the future. Jesus's formulation not only encompasses revealed preference but also loss aversion! Especially astonishing given that loss aversion is the demonstrated human behavior that most clearly breaks the economic definition of rationality in preferences and wrecks risk models!

Eric Falkenstein said...

Plucky,
Good comments. I agree ridicule is really pernicious. The sad thing is most feel that 'sarcasm' is the highest form of comedy, witty, but often it's just repeating what someone says and then staring, saying O.M.G., or repeating what they say in an amusing tone (white southern twang), and then appreciating the fact that the speaker/writer and his audience are 'on the same team.'

I think Christ's emphasis on the individual is really key. If you start with that focus, you get classical liberalism and decentralized markets. When you start by talking about aggregates, society or classes, you get the Big State.

E