Thursday, June 17, 2010

Stephen Hawking is Wrong on Religion

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is arguably the smartest man in the world right now.  His book, A Brief History of Time, has sold millions of copies and made him a veritable icon of scientific knowledge.  Despite all that, Hawking's view on the relationship between science and religion is unfortunately mistaken.

In a recent interview with Diane Sawyer, Hawking made some comments that implied science and religion are fundamentally opposed, and that science will win.  Here's a brief excerpt from the article:
[E]xploring the origins of time inevitably leads to questions about the ultimate origins of everything and what, if anything, is behind it all.

"What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of that God," Hawking told Sawyer. "They made a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible."

When Sawyer asked if there was a way to reconcile religion and science, Hawking said, "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."
The line that separates science from religion is not as clear as Hawking's comments make it seem.  Here's why:  scientific knowledge depends entirely upon reason.  But, as it turns out, reason cannot be explained scientifically.  Any attempt to do so only ends up defeating itself.

As Hawking correctly pointed out, science is based on observation and reason.  No scientific theory is formed without the employment of human reasoning.  Thus, the validity of reason is crucial to the practice of science.   Now, if it turned out that we had good reasons to suspect human reasoning is unreliable, then the validity of science would be in question; since the validity of science is dependent on the validity of human reasoning.  C.S. Lewis made this same point in his book Miracles, and then took it a step further:
All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning....Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.  It follows that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight.  A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court.  For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished.[1]
Lewis' point is this:  for any scientific theory, if that theory calls into question the validity of human reasoning, then the theory fails; because that same theory will involve the use of reason.  And if we can't trust reason, then we can't trust the theory.  Thus, the theory will have defeated itself.

It is clear from the interview that Hawking believes science has shown God's existence is "most impossible," because the universe is so big, and human life so apparently insignificant.  In other words, for Hawking, a scientific view of the world will be atheistic.  However, if science really entails the belief that God's existence is "most impossible," as Hawking says, then we have reason to doubt the validity of human reasoning, and therefore reason to doubt Hawking's claim.

If there is no God, then our reasoning abilities are the result of some material process of nature - such as Darwinian evolution.  In other words, if God does not exist, then our rational faculties were most certainly built through irrational means.  This is a problem for the following reason:  whenever we suspect that a person's belief is not based on reason, but instead is based on some material or irrational process, we reject his belief as unjustified.

For instance, when people say things like, "You only think this is the best sandwich you've ever had because you're so hungry," or "She believes I am her son because she has Alzheimer's," or "You only believe in God because it makes you feel safe," they are rejecting a particular belief because they suspect it is based on material/irrational processes - hunger, brain deterioration, a feeling of safety.  In other words, most people would agree that if a belief is based on something irrational, then the belief is unjustified.  If Hawking's view of the universe is correct however, then this is not only true of the particular beliefs just mentioned, it is true of all our beliefs, including Hawking's!

If there is no God, and Darwinian evolution is true, then human reason came about through a blind irrational process of nature that simply preserves things that give organisms a better chance of surviving and reproducing.  If that is the case, then human reason is invalid.  Think about it.  If you asked someone why they believe the earth is round, and they answered, "because it will help me to stay alive and produce more offspring than my competitors" you would say their belief was unjustified.  If Hawking's view of the universe is correct, then any belief we may hold - our rational process in its entirety - is ultimately based on its ability to help us survive and produce more offspring.  This calls into question the validity of all human reasoning.  But, as we established earlier, scientific theories depend on reasoning.  If we can't trust human reasoning, then we can't believe any scientific theory.  Thus, if Hawking's view is correct, then we should doubt it.  His view defeats itself.[2]

If science cannot adequately explain human reason - lest it undercut its own validity - then what is left as an explanation?  It will be some view that leaves open the possibility of the supernatural - some view that doesn't see God's existence as "most impossible."  Religion then becomes a valid option.  Science and religion are not fundamentally opposed.  In fact, they need each other.


1.  C.S. Lewis, Miracles (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996) pages 21-22.

2.  For an in depth treatment of this argument, see Alvin Plantinga's "Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism," in his book Warrant and Proper Function.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jon Foreman Hates the Religion Show

Jon Foreman, the lead singer of popular rock band Switchfoot, has released a few solo recordings over the past couple years.  His first solo full-length, Limbs and Branches, is a wonderful collection of folky pop melodies; full of acoustic guitars, Mexican-style horns, and lap-steel.  Most of the lyrics are inspired directly from biblical scripture.

Foreman has always been pretty open about his Christian faith, he’s just chosen not to use it as a marketing gimmick – a brand – to sell his music.  That’s why he would deny that Switchfoot is a “Christian band” – not because he isn’t a Christian, but because Switchfoot’s music isn’t only for Christians.  Many people have a hard time understanding the difference.

One song on Limbs and Branches, “Instead of a Show,” seems to be a scathing condemnation of the religious hypocrisy prevalent throughout much of Western Christianity – or perhaps I should say “Churchianity.”  That term (which I cannot take credit for) more accurately identifies the subject of Foreman’s criticism.  His problem obviously isn’t with Christian doctrine – the biblical narrative and teachings of Jesus – since Foreman is a believer himself.  Rather, his problem is with the religious hypocrites that comprise part of the Church institution.  The lyrics of the song are worth quoting at length:

I hate all your show and pretense
the hypocrisy of your praise
the hypocrisy of your festivals
I hate all your show

Away with your noisy worship
Away with your noisy hymns
I stop up my ears when you’re singing ‘em
I hate all your show

Instead let there be a flood of justice
An endless procession of righteous living
Instead let there be a flood of justice
Instead of a show

Your eyes are closed when you’re praying
You sing right along with the band
You shine up your shoes for services
But there’s blood on your hands

You turned your back on the homeless
and the ones that don’t fit in your plans
Quit playing religion games
There’s blood on your hands

Ouch.  Difficult lyrics to hear for many Christians, no doubt.  But, critics beware, this song cannot be dismissed as merely a spewing of bitterness from a cynical musician; as Foreman states in a video, the lyrics are straight out of the Bible!  Isaiah 1, to be exact.  In this passage, God is rebuking the religious hypocrisy of the Israelites:
I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them.  So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen.  Your hands are covered with blood.  Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.  Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (14-17, NASB)
The parallels are obvious.  The implications are profound.  According to the biblical narrative, the Judeo-Christian God has always hated religiosity, and moral hypocrisy.  He doesn’t want piety and ritual.  He desires relationship and justice instead.  Unfortunately, you would never know this from the actions and teachings of many religious Christians today.  Nor would you know it from the anti-Christian caricatures put forth by those who hate Christianity.  Thus, it is refreshing to be disabused of a misconception which is common in our culture – that Christianity is synonymous with religious hypocrisy.  The truth is that religiosity is synonymous with religious hypocrisy.  And Christians should know this better than anyone, since Jesus himself condemned the religious hypocrites of his time.  It is refreshing to be reminded of the true heart of the Christian doctrine; not from a bitter critic who hates the faith, but from a talented and sincere Christian believer such as Jon Foreman.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Rock 'n' Roll, Rebellion, and Religion

Rock and Roll music has always carried with it connotations of rebellion. One could even say that rock music is a form of rebellion. But the kind of rebellion that gave birth to rock and roll is a far cry from the rebellion we see associated with it today.

For much of its history, rock music has acted as the soundtrack for generation upon generation of angst-ridden white, middle-class teenagers. From Elvis to Everclear, rock and roll has been an outlet for young people to express their dissent from the moral and religious traditions imposed on them by society, to attack the abuses of the government and various other institutions, and to denounce injustice in general. What resulted in the 60s was a revolution of free loving, authority disrespecting youth. And this trend has continued to our present day. While it has done a lot of good (like co-opting with the civil rights movement), it has also degenerated into a less authentic form of rebellion.

Some of the hippest and most “avant garde” rock music has actually been quite despairing, thoroughly postmodern, and ultimately nihilistic – even when it sounds light hearted. Whether it be the quirky and psychedelic sound of The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s,” the sullen melodies of Joy Division’sCloser,” or the angry pounding of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (three bands I love, by the way), a lot of critically acclaimed rock music seems to share a common perspective – that existence is absurd.

The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus is probably the best known proponent of the “theory of the absurd.” For Camus, the universe is irrational and meaningless, yet he recognized that humans desire rationality and meaning. According to Camus, these two “facts” create the tension and angst that humans feel, and this led him to the conclusion that “existence is absurd.” A lot of rock music shares his perspective. It expresses the joys and pains of human existence divorced from any overarching purpose or meaning. And despite all its optimistic associations (i.e. world peace, free love, etc.) a lot of rock music has at its heart a completely pessimistic view of the world. This is the condition of many of our modern rebel rockstars.

When we take a closer historical look at the cultural perspective that gave birth to rock and roll however, we see something completely different than we see today. In many ways, we see something more authentic. The early rockstars, or pre-rockstars I should say, had several characteristics that our modern rockstars are lacking.

First, they were truly oppressed. The first rock note ever sung did not come from the throat of an angst-ridden, existentialist white kid in a beatnik coffee house somewhere in affluent San Francisco. It most probably bellowed out of the gut of a poor and oppressed African-American in a rural chapel somewhere in the obscure South. Rock and roll started as a hybrid of blues, gospel, and country. Both blues and gospel music are very much the creations of African-American culture, which grew out of slave culture. A fellow by the name of David Townsend is working on a (as yet unpublished) manuscript on the historical origins of rock and roll. He has made the same observation as I have. He writes:
Rock ‘n’ roll is an African-American hybrid, but its strongest root is the very suffering, and survival, of generations of slaves, who learned how music could help a man to transcend earthly pain for awhile….It’s also easy to understand the strong bonds between the Blues (and later R&B and rock ‘n’ roll) and Gospel music: from a secular point of view, singing about the Lord lifting you up and singing about the Blues fallin’ down like rain are spiritually equivalent acts.
These people truly had something to lament about; something to cry out in opposition against. The comfortable, middle-class white kids on the other hand, not so much. What? They suffered because the cultural norms prevented them from sleeping around and experimenting with drugs? I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t move my heart quite the same way.

Secondly, as Townsend so astutely points out, the pre-rockstars had faith. The African-American culture of the pre-rock era was very spiritual, and specifically Christian. Gospel music is the sound of a soul crying out to her Creator. Many of the modern rock counterparts on the other hand do not believe in a Creator to cry out to; they deny any objective purpose or meaning in life. They believe only in a cold and indifferent universe. The pre-rockstars’ religious beliefs informed them that the world is meaningful and life has purpose, and this belief helped give birth to an exciting and ground breaking new musical style. Many modern rockstars on the other hand believe life is absurd, and they sneer and mock religious beliefs in general.

Lastly, the pre-rockstars believed in moral ideals. One of the beliefs informing the African-Americans’ conviction that the oppression they were suffering was wrong, was the belief in an actual right and wrong! It is certainly difficult to denounce anything as evil if you believe that good and evil are superstitious concepts and that right and wrong are nothing more than cultural conventions. This is the point were the skepticism of the modern rockstar undercuts his authenticity. G.K. Chesterton articulates the problem better than anyone in his book Orthodoxy:
But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it….Thus…As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is a waste of time….He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble….In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.
Chesterton was writing in England in 1908. But his point is still timely and relevant today. We could update his argument a bit as follows: The modern rebel rockstar has no loyalty; therefore he can never really be a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern rockstar doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus, he plays at a political rally where he cries out that war is a waste of life, and then sings a song about how all life is a waste of time. He claims that national sovereignty isn’t important, and then he disparages the U.S. for invading a sovereign country. When he plays at “Rock the Vote,” he attacks politicians for trampling on morality; when he plays at the University, he attacks morality for trampling on the youth. Therefore the modern rockstar in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything. His rebellion has become a gimmick.

A lot of this may not sit well with some of you. Something may not quite make sense yet. After all, isn’t religion opposed to rebellion? That depends on what you mean by “religion.” If you mean a rigid dogma, then yes. If you mean faith in a Creator, or higher purpose, then no. The pre-rockstars were true rebels. Their rebellion was that stubborn refusal to give up hope that we call faith. In the face of injustice and oppression, the pre-rockstars refused to take on a pessimistic view of the world, despite their suffering. They defied the temptation to succumb to defeat – to believe in nothing. They lamented and despaired at times, yes. But, like the Biblical psalmist, their lamentations were an expression of their faith, not a denial of it. They never gave up the hope in a higher purpose. They never gave up hope in real goodness and justice and retribution. They never gave up hope in God. And they did all this in the midst of true suffering.

In stark contrast, the modern rockstar has resigned himself to a pessimistic defeat. He mocks faith. He sneers at morality. He sees existence as absurd. He believes only in a meaningless and indifferent world. His rebellious exterior is nothing but a facade. He is merely thrashing at the wind. For, deep down he has no real reason to fight; he has defeated himself. And his rebellion does not come from a place of true suffering. It comes from a place of ennui; in the midst of comfort and luxury. Faith amidst suffering is the most authentic form of rebellion. Pessimistic ennui is just a poser.

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that a rockstar must be an oppressed Christian to make good music. Most of the Christian rock music I’ve heard sucks, in my opinion. And I love all the bands I’ve mentioned or implicated in this article so far, not many of which were/are Christians to my knowledge.  Actually, I’m not arguing for what makes good music at all.  I’m only arguing for what makes authentic rebellion.  Nor have I claimed that all secular rockstars, including the ones previously mentioned, are complete nihilists (even Camus was opposed to nihilism). I’m making a generalization based on observation and my personal experience in the music industry. My intention with this article is really to point out the contrast between the cultural perspective that gave birth to rock and roll, and how far we have drifted from that perspective. We have forgotten our roots; no, we have even come to resent our roots. And that’s unfortunate. Furthermore, I am arguing that the original perspective which gave birth to rock and roll is much more authentic and genuine than its modern counterpart, for the reasons I mentioned above.

That is why someone like Johny Cash – who lived through the Depression in the poverty stricken South, exercised his demons, and then later found his faith and made peace with God – can take a song like Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” and make it even more powerful, with nothing but an acoustic guitar, a piano, and his voice. I like both versions, personally. But there is certainly something different, more subtle and pure, and – dare I say, real - about Cash’s version. Reznor’s original version is powerful in itself. Trent makes you believe that he really believes what he is singing, and that’s one of the marks of a great artist. However, somewhere, in the very back of the mind is a nagging doubt. It is the subconcious and almost invisible feeling that, despite the beautiful melancholy of the song, it just isn’t true. Because, “by rebelling against everything, he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”

* P.S. *

If you enjoyed this article, you might find the following blog article interesting:

It’s a blog frequented mostly by atheists, anti-theists, and other kinds of “free-thinkers.” I primarily want to draw your attention to the comments of people listing bands whose music they think could be categorized as “atheist-rock.” The Beatles, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails are mentioned numerous times; as well as Muse.

Here’s an excerpt from comment #4:

“I think if I could be said to have any religion, it would be rock ‘n’ roll. Rock and various other popular musical genres have been sort of elbowing religion out of its former privileged places in culture, and that’s fine with me. I say we just declare rock ‘n’ roll to be atheist music…”

Oh ye of little faith. ;)

Linnea Gabriella Spransy: Of Fractals and Free Will

Linnea Spransy is a painter of a different kind. When I first saw one of Linnea’s paintings, I was amazed. At first glance, it didn’t look like a painting to me. I could have easily mistaken it for a microscopic image of an organic molecule. The thing that amazed me the most was the surprising “coincidence” that Linnea’s method of painting would give rise to something so natural looking – something so organic and beautiful. You see, Linnea uses the mathematical fractal as a parallel for how she creates her artwork. Her paintings are composed of basic lines. She gives her self simple “rules” by which to steer these lines. The lines accumulate until (in her words) “unanticipated articulations begin to emerge.” The result is surprising and beautiful. Linnea literally doesn’t know what her paintings will look like until she’s done with them. Cool, huh?

Linnea was nice enough to share more of her thoughts with me through email. I will quote her at length:
To me, fractals are an interesting visual parallel of the nature of life – how firm boundaries and rules still give rise to variety and surprise. These are surprises that are self-similar and unending, even so, in fractals, they are endlessly unique. Life is similarly composed of many regulations. Admitting this, many people slip into grim fatalism, yet, in my view, regulation isn’t cause for resentment. Far from it! Rules are inherently creative, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, absolute freedom is chaotic and paralyzing. This, I believe, extends into matters of will. We are free to choose, but boundaries which are outside of our control often determine what category of opportunity within which we are free to exercise our will. Yet, limited will is, in my experience, a mercy – and a great one at that. Limits may be the greatest mercy of all and the true guardian of freedom.
Linnea correctly points out that absolute freedom is chaos. This is not only true sociologically – a society with no rules would be anarchy – but it is also true of the universe itself. The world in which we live works according to finely tuned rules, or laws. Those laws are what make our existence possible. Laws, by their very nature, exclude certain possibilities. But this exclusion is not something to resent. It is a reason to rejoice. It is good that we are bound by the law of gravity. If it did not exist, neither would we. There were a lot of possibilities that were excluded in the forming of our world – a lot of potentialities were “ruled out.” And it is because the universe is so exclusive in nature that we can even be here.

For some people however, just being here isn’t enough. They want to be able to do whatever they want. And they consider any limits put on them as an offense. As silly and narcissistic as that may sound, it is unfortunately true for a number of people. I once had someone tell me that we are not truly free if there is anything limiting or even influencing our decisions. By “decisions” the person really meant “options.” Not only do I disagree with that definition of freedom, but I reject that outlook on life as one of a self-imposed impotence.

Take marriage for example. Many people today view marriage as a prison. They see it as a constraint – something that takes away their freedom. Instead, the modern trend is to “keep your options open.” But the true joy of having options comes the moment you commit to one of them and eliminate all the rest. This is not only true of lovers but of anything! The whole point of having 31 flavors of ice cream is to choose one of them! If you never “limit” yourself by making a choice – if you never commit yourself to something or someone, thereby excluding other choices – then all those “options” are for nill. The person who demands “absolute freedom” paralyzes himself, and is therefore the least free person of all. The man who insists on always keeping his options open is practically no different than the man with no options.

This brings us to another point which Linnea touched on. It is the temptation to slip into “grim fatalism.” While the egoists are busy whining over the fact that limits exist, some people are going the other way and touting the limits (the laws of Nature) as the explanation for everything! If all that exists is matter and energy and the laws of Nature, then it follows that there can be no free will. Any action I may “choose” to do can be explained as the necessary effect of some prior cause – be it my genes, my appetite, or whatever. My main problem with this view is that it doesn’t leave much room for……..well, me! The traditional view has been that humans are agents of change. We are “self-movers.” If we so desire, we can introduce new lines of causation into the world with no prior determining cause. In other words, we have free will.

But the traditional understanding of humans as agents has been under attack as of late. Philosophical materialists prefer to define human beings as bags of competing impulses – the strongest impulse wins. Unfortunately for the materialists, there is new evidence that even fruit flies exhibit a kind of agency that can not be explained by internal competing impulses, nor by blind external causes. If there is true freedom at the level of a fruit fly, then I think it is safe to assume there is true freedom at the level of humans. It seems we may be free after all.

What makes the fruit fly study even more interesting, and appropriate for our present discussion, is the scientists discovered that the behavior of the fruit fly exhibits what they call a “fractal order.” I think Linnea is on to something with this whole fractal thing! A relationship that she discovered through art seems to hold true for science as well.

If you’d like to know what freedom looks like, Linnea Spransy’s paintings may give you a good idea. Check out her website here and enjoy the surprise! If you are a philosophical materialist, you may still enjoy it, even though you have no choice in the matter.

Friday, June 11, 2010

John Raux, The Sojourner

I cherish Sunday afternoon naps. That is why I felt terrible interrupting John Raux’s Sunday afternoon nap when I called him on his cell phone.
Of all the ways to be startled into consciousness from a slumbering bliss, a cell phone ring has got to be one of the worst. John didn’t mind. He was polite and cheerful as usual. “I was sleeping on the side of the road,” he said to me laughing. Evidently he felt tired, saw an inviting patch of grass, and that was that. This is one of the many reasons I love John. He does things that many people only ever talk about or think about, but never actually do. He loves life and revels in it, smiling the whole way through.

One of the things John has done that other people only dream about (besides napping on the side of the road) is taking a life altering journey through the mountains, on foot.  In the summer of 2007, from May to the beginning of October, John was not sitting in an office cubicle staring at a computer screen everyday, under fluorescent lighting. No, he was breathing in the fresh mountain air of the Sierra Nevada, feeling the warmth of the sun, and sleeping under the starry sky of the wild. John hiked most of the Pacific Crest Trail and was stopped just 50 miles short of the Canadian border by a snow blizzard. “I didn’t actually think I was going to die, but I was certainly uncomfortable,” John said as he recounted his experience to me.

Perhaps the strangest part of his journey was the flight he took from Seattle to Los Angeles after being snowed out of the remainder of his hike. “I looked out the window of the plane and realized we were flying over exactly the same route I had just hiked. I could look down and see where I had been. What took me more than five months to hike on foot took about three hours by plane. It gave me a really strange sense of time. It felt very surreal.”

John has spent the months since he got back processing his experiences through his art. “My paintings are not merely abstract art that each person can see something different in; like looking at clouds. They are an actual map of my inner processes; the lines and forms of my thoughts and feelings.” His processing has produced a series of paintings and poetry. He calls the series “Meandering Conclusions.”

Since the writing of this article, John as traveled to Nepal and back.  Watch his website here for updates on new artwork.