Friday, 11 January 2013

Evolutionary explanation of values

I have often wondered about evolutionary psychology and its implications for the existence of values endorsed by the Christian faith.  My concern is that much of neuroscience and psychology have shown that values most likely don't exist, and are just evolutionary mechanisms that helped ancient humans survive.

Take beauty and love, for instance.  Many studies over the past few years have indicated that the neurotransmitter dopamine is both implicated in perceptions of beauty/love and in learning/memorizing novel stimuli.  One could conclude from such data that beauty and love are simply evolutionary mechanisms that prompt people to memorize and familiarize themselves with novel environments and situations.  That's certainly the attitude taken by this New York Times article, here.  The idea would explain the old aphorism 'variety is the spice of life', making sense of why we humans often find things "beautiful" (or just interesting at all, really) only when they seem original and unique, and we have such disdain for what we think are clichés.  It would also explain the intuition that beauty and love are 'outside' of us - the intuition is essentially telling us that our current environment/stimuli (which IS technically outside of us) is unprecedented, and ought to be memorized and focused upon for survival purposes.

Is the above interpretation warranted by the data, or is there still reason to believe in values as immaterial entities?  If it isn't a threat, then why would God create a world where we can grow 'numb' to things which are intrinsically lovely or beautiful once we are familiar with them?  Furthermore, why would God make this numbing process evolutionarily beneficial? (it doesn't seem to be a result of the Fall, since the numbing mechanism probably evolved before humanity came around).  Please reply as you are able.

Response:  All our perceptions of anything are mediated by our brains and neuroscientists can paint a fascinating picture of the mechanisms involved.  Since our brains, like the rest of our bodies, have evolved it is also possible to tell an evolutionary story “explaining” any aspect of brain behaviour.  (These are known as “Evolutionary Just-so Stories” and are taken with a massive pinch of salt by experts – but they can be fun and sometime illuminating. Naïve journalists and their readers lap them up).

But this of course has nothing to do with whether the entities we think we perceive exist or not.  Most people who say “values don’t exist” will certainly agree that the sun (say) exists. But neuroscience has a fascinating story of how we perceive the sun and the sun certainly impacts on our hormones and chemistry and there are obvious evolutionary advantages in being able to perceive the sun.

Whether you believe that the fundamental basis of the universe is a Loving Ultimate Creator or meaningless matter/energy is a philosophical decision and no conceivable scientific experiment could settle the question.  It’s certainly a problem for atheists to account for the existence of objective moral truths – and they mostly seem to be committed to the conclusion that “torturing babies for fun is wrong” is simply a matter of opinion.  But we cannot force them to accept the deep Love at the heart of the universe – we have to hope and pray that they see it.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The impact of Jesus on history

I sent an additional response clarifying the extent to which the life of Jesus and his amazing impact on history can be regarded as evidence (that a scientist might accept - though not of course scientific evidence) for the existence of God:  
There are 3 religious leaders with more than 1bn followers today: Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed. The spread of Buddhism and Islam are easy to explain and there is little controversy about the historical outlines.  But Jesus was executed in his 30s having written nothing and attained no political power, his handful of demoralised followers went into hiding and were persecuted by the authorities.  Yet within 350 years they had taken over the world’s greatest empire. The only explanation given for this astonishing transformation, which is consistently offered by all the sources from the people involved, is the Resurrection and subsequent divine inspiration of the growth of the Church.

I am not, of course, suggesting that there is no conceivable alternative explanation (maybe Thetans in UFOs manipulated the whole thing?) but simply that there is no alternative explanation that is remotely plausible. The only reason people reject the standard explanation is that it would have uncomfortable implications for them, and doesn’t fit in with their preconceptions about the world.

Extract from the questioner's response: As I discovered when I did an exhaustive study on it many years ago, the NT includes a set of precepts that together form the best possible structure to get human beings to work together with maximum effectiveness  (eg any commercial organisation that could set itself up in a way that ticked as many of the relevant boxes to the same degree would be a world-beater).

There is of course no doubt that whether or not of supernatural origin, and even stripped of its supernatural content, much of Jesus' teaching was that of a genius  (cf Mahatma Ghandi: "The Sermon on the Mount is the greatest piece of wisdom ever written.") and that quality no doubt added weight to the whole message.

Reply: Thanks. I’m glad you see the ethical teachings of the gospel as a work of genius and pretty much the optimum that has ever been devised.  But this leaves a big problem, because the same genius also made outrageous claims about his own cosmic importance, (Son of God, will judge the living and the dead etc…) and the same people who transmitted these claims were convinced that he rose again after he died.

Given the situation by say AD 150-200 of a pretty clearly articulated gospel message for which people are willing to give their lives it is not incomprehensible, though  still very remarkable, from a secular PoV that it prevailed. But the reason it got to this stage is that people knew people who knew people who had experienced the resurrection and the other phenomena described in the Gospel and Acts, and were indeed willing to give their lives for its truth.

No-one would give their life for something they knew to be a lie. Not only had Jesus’ body disappeared (which could have been the work of grave-robbers, although anyone who had come forward to the authorities saying they had done this would have been richly rewarded) but the disciples were utterly convinced that they had seen, touched and eaten with Jesus after his resurrection.

The only secular explanation that is remotely credible at the physical level is that Jesus somehow survived the crucifixion and then fooled the disciples.  But this requires the greatest moral genius to be a fraud and a liar who would knowingly con his closest friends into laying down their lives for a lie.

Is there any evidence for the existence of God

I listened to your brief piece on Radio 4 this morning with great interest, and it may be that you can offer an answer to a question that has been central to a discussion in which I have been involved over the the last few months.

It is this:
In the sense that any scientist would use the term, is there or is there not any actual evidence that points indisputably to the existence of God?
I should add that I do not find the argument that the mere rationality of the universe to be evidence of a creator, and my current position is that of seeing the existence of a deity as a mere assumption that some people choose to make.

Response: The existence of God is obviously not a scientific question, because the Ultimate Creator is not a part of the Universe on which one can do experiments.  However there is certainly evidence which points to the existence of God. You ask about “points indisputably” as though you want a single piece of evidence which cannot possibly be interpreted in any other way, but that is not really how evidence works, even in science.

Even in physics, the most “cut and dried” of the sciences, the reason we believe in the existence of things we can’t directly observe (such as atoms, quarks, dark energy, quantum fields) is not because a single experiment gives a knock-down proof but because a conceptual framework in which these entities exist makes better sense of more data than alternatives.

Consider, for example:
  1. The existence and rational intelligibility of the universe.
  2. The ubiquitous human experience of God
  3. Our deep sense that love, meaning, purpose and moral values are real and fundamental and not just subjective
  4. The life of Jesus and the immense impact that it has had upon the world.
I think most atheists would say that (a) is just an inexplicable fact (though it’s obviously not impossible to explain, they just don’t like the only explanation on offer), (b) and (c) are due to some kind of mistaken cognitive bias (without providing any evidence that it is mistaken),  and avoid (d) (or indulge in some waffle offering supposed “causes” that are completely disproportionate to the impact Jesus has had on history). But even if we concede, as we do, that the atheist responses to each of a, b, c, d are not so outlandish as to rule them out altogether as rational responses, they are each pretty improbable.

Cumulatively, therefore, the evidential value of (a-d) is extremely strong (I have described it as “almost overwhelming”).  Were it not for the arguments against the existence of God, massive anti-religious propaganda in certain countries, and the fact that belief in God also entails behavioural changes which most people are reluctant to attempt, then atheism would be even rarer than it is at present (maybe 5-10% of humanity, most of whom are in China).

I hope this helps and will see what John has to add.

John says: “I thought your response was excellent. If you wanted you could add [from John]: Modern philosophy has come to recognise that logically strict proof is seldom available (Kurt Gödel showed that even arithmetic cannot prove its own consistency) and that what we should seek is best (well-motivated) explanation. I think that Nicolas’s reply shows that theistic belief is a best explanation of significant human experience”

There was a long and interesting subsequent e-correspondence. Here are a few key points - though I should stress that the questioner said a lot more than these extracts indicate and they don't by any means do full justice to his ideas.

Follow-up point: I think I need to clarify the point of my enquiry somewhat, as follows:
There are three logical possibilities:
  • No such being as God actually exists
  • The being called God exists, but has no objective effect on the universe in which we live
  • God exists and (on occasions) affects the universe in which we live (ie is the cause of happenings that would not be explicable in any other way).
Subjective impressions are relevant only insofar as the existence of such impressions is itself evidence to be considered. (eg If someone tells us that he has just seen a pink unicorn, and if we judge that he actually believes what he is saying, then that might be clear evidence of his mental state, but would be probably not be regarded as evidence that such a creature existed.) 

Response: I think your basic mistake is to talk of “happenings that would not be explicable in any other way.”  That’s just not how the world works. Take someone you believe to exist but haven’t met personally – perhaps Nelson Mandela.  It’s quite reasonable to say that Nelson Mandela caused the peaceful ending of Apartheid.  But there are plenty of conceivable explanations for the peaceful ending of Apartheid that do not involve Nelson Mandela. Indeed it is conceivable that Nelson Mandela doesn’t exist and is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by actors and statesmen and the media. I agree of course that such a view would be bonkers in the extreme and one that no reasonable person would hold.  But the point is that “I will not believe in X unless there is no conceivable alternative explanation” is an approach which no reasonable person takes to any topic (other than belief in God) and if this standard were applied you wouldn’t believe in anything.

This is particularly relevant to your trope about “subjective impressions”  But we can’t discount testimony as a source of knowledge. Even in science, at least 99.999% of what we believe to be true is because we have testimony from other people. When they report experiments or observations or calculations we believe that in principle they could be checked, but we almost never check them ourselves (and indeed the number of published scientific papers where the experiments and analyses are checked by third parties is frighteningly low).  As for history ….

It’s possible that you are stuck in the classic left-brain trap of denying the objective reality of other people’s perceptions – but you need to understand that this is a fundamental philosophical mistake.  There is no simple mechanical algorithm that will determine truth (that’s a theorem BTW) we have to exercise judgement.

You can, if you choose, decide to live as though the world were meaningless and pointless, as though love and beauty were mere illusions, and so forth.  Or you can wake up to the glorious love of God in Jesus Christ, and live a life full of meaning, purpose and love.

The choice is yours – and I hope this might help a bit!

Four questions about the Resurrection

  1. I have heard it said that the Resurrection being a 'prank' is a absurd notion because no huge historical event has been caused by a 'joke' before. Surely that doesn't rule it out as an explanation? Surely if we know anything about history it is to expect the unexpected?
  2. What if Jesus was not 'mad, bad or the true son of God'...In the days pre-dating modern World viewpoints, surely a remarkable man might have felt their was something deeply different about himself and might make the conclusion he was a highly spiritual being? I should imagine if John Lennon had been born 2000 years ago he might have made some very singular and interesting ideas. I'm not saying this IS so but is it not a frightening possibility?
  3. Might not an ardent follower of someone so influential (not necessarily a disciple) 'rig' the Resurrection just to 'prove' that Jesus IS worth remembering and following? Might they not, in turn, have dressed as Jesus and appeared before the disciples in an 'act'? Outrageous suggestion, I know, but many startling events have been known to happen.
  4. Might not the disciples have all 'changed their minds' from being afraid of being identified with Jesus to being an ardent upholder of his name (even unto violent death?). Yes, they were terrified at first and it might seem a remarkable transformation but have not such things been known to happen, when a losing 'team' (sorry to put it in such a crass way) go from feeling defeated to feeling a 'spiritual' ardour to go down with dignity? Is it not possible that these (obviously highly religious individuals) let their loyalties overrun their first reaction to escape? I hate to put it like I am a Christian and this seems very blasphemous but I can think of no better way of putting my point...might not a terrorist organisation do much the same if at first cornered?

  1. There are an infinite number of conceivable “explanations” of any historical event – esp when you allow for sci-fi type approaches. But it’s fair to say that the prank explanation is absurd. Note also that a “prank” would “explain” the Empty Tomb but not the Resurrection.
  2. The whole history of Israel is full of “highly spiritual beings” who were bearers of God’s word. They called themselves “Prophets”. Jesus was called a Prophet by many people, but never by himself.
  3. No-one suggested that Moses wasn’t worth following because he died. And how on earth could a rich follower of Jesus fool his closest friends when they were eating with them?
  4. Certainly the disciples might have decided to preserve his moral teachings and write accounts of his remarkable life. Plato did this for Socrates for example. What they actually did was very different – they asserted that he was (already) risen from the dead, no-one could produce the body (which would have stopped the whole thing immediately), within 350 years they “conquered” from within the greatest empire the world had ever known, and to this day the resurrection (or, if secularists would prefer whatever happened which the disciples termed the resurrection) is the most decisive single event in the whole of human history.

Views on Thomas Aquinas

I have heard John mention Thomas Aquinas in a NPR interview. I have been researching for more info on John's feelings toward Aquinas' Theology. What can you share with me regarding my interest?

John says: I admire Thomas Aquinas as a great thinker who sought to appeal to both faith and reason in his theological thinking. Of course, he was a man of his time and I do not find all his ideas persuasive. For example, his picture of God as the Creator who influences creatures but is not influenced by them seems to me to be too remote for the God of love and to place too strong an emphasis on divine transcendence over divine immanence. I have been helped by some modern followers of Thomas, particularly Bernard Lonergan in his great but difficult book Insight.

Suffering and the Pathetic Fallacy

Many of the questions I get (and apparently questions John gets based on the web site) about pain, suffering, evil, etc. seem to have a reverse "Pathetic Fallacy" to them.  They imply for instance that pain, suffering and evil somehow reflect on the "goodness" of God.  Just as we have a term for applying human feelings to inanimate objects, is there some term or phrase for the idea of applying human attributes to God?  For example, the old argument "if God can do anything, he can make a box big enough and heavy enough that not even He can lift it."  It's a fun thing to ponder but it applies very human traits to God such as being constrained by gravitation.  Is there something that captures this idea that humans tend to define God in terms of the human experience even though he's God?  Basically any question that starts out "How can a loving God..." falls into this category.  They all take the form of "How can a loving God allow <insert human tragedy here>" as if God's love is defined by whether or not we all have a good time while we're here on earth.

Response: I think there is a technical term for what might be called Anthropomorphic projection since it’s a very old problem, but I’m on the plane at present and can’t look it up. It’s quite hard to get the balance right. What “God” says in Job always needs to be borne in mind (I say “God” because it’s clear, at least to me, that Job is essentially a play in which the characters have set speeches. It teaches us many things about profound issues but it is absolutely not intended to be an account of specific real events. Indeed the relationship between God, Satan and humanity shown in the prologue, although highly effective dramatically, is clearly a cartoon and I don’t suppose for a moment that the author(s), who were clearly enormously profound theological thinkers, ever supposed that God and Satan really interacted like that.)

Nevertheless God’s love is not so completely unlike human love that we can quite get away with dismissing the problem of suffering in the way that you suggest. We definitely have to be cautious about the grave limitations of human understanding. But it is neither theologically nor apologetically enough to say that human suffering in this life is irrelevant – after all this would make the sufferings of Jesus irrelevant as well and it’s clear that he really suffered and wanted if possible to avoid it.

It takes real faith to continue to believe in God’s love and goodness in the face of grievous suffering. This faith is perfectly rational: after all “I can’t see why a loving God has allowed X” is not the same as “there is no possible reason why a loving God could have allowed X” unless you believe the absurd proposition “If there were a reason why God allowed X I would certainly be able to see it”.  In the end it seems to me that either there is a Loving Ultimate Creator or the Universe is meaningless. We have good reasons for believing the former, but they do not amount to a knock-down proof.  We have to choose. I choose faith in our loving God even though I know, intellectually, that I might be wrong. 

And what I have recently come to understand is that, even if I the evidence against God’s existence were almost overwhelming, I would still choose faith in God.  Firstly because the “evidence” might be wrong (even a signed confession by St Paul that he had faked the whole thing – supported by archaeological evidence: this could itself be a fake) but more importantly because it seems to me that it is better to live a life based on faith in Christ, and then die and pass into oblivion, than to live as an atheist and pass into oblivion.  This is a kind of modified Pascal’s Wager where the outcomes are {infinity, a, b>0, c>0}*  It’s not just that provided a, b and c are < infinity you are always better choosing faith.  I think that, on balance, the things we (try to) give up as Christians are harmful for us (even if God doesn’t exist) and the things we aspire to are beneficial.  So if b > c then Faith is always the best option, even if a turns out not to be minus infinity (as Pascal supposed).

Best wishes

* What I mean by this is that if you chose Faith and the truth is Loving God then your “payoff” in a game-theoretic sense is infinite, if you chose Atheism and the truth is Loving God then your “payoff” is a etc..

Best Polkinghorne book to start with?

I have just come across your name and I see you have quite a few books out on  There simply isn't enough time in my life to read all of these due to jobs, kids and life demands.  I'm hoping you can recommend a good book to start off.  I "converted" from Atheism at the age of 32 having never attended a day of church in my life and now fancy myself somewhat of a Christian apologist as I've had to convince myself that God exists.  I'm not a push over when it comes to the tough questions.  I'm an educated "enlightened" person who has thought long and hard about many of the questions that have been asked of you.  I have considered many of the topics that appear on the Q&A and found that many of your answers are in line with what I've concluded. 

What I'm looking for is the book that best represents your views on how the bible and science co-exist.  I see several candidates including Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores The Bible.  What do you recommend?

Response: Well I’m a bit biased but I’d suggest you try Questions of Truth which gives a good overview on many key apologetic questions, and pointers to John’s other books on topics you might want to explore further.

Will union with God be stangant?

As a mortal human I enjoy working towards achieving an ideal existence. I hope very much to achieve that end. However, should I ever do so I will no longer have the joy of 'seeking' and, at least to my shallow, earthly mind, that sounds like dull stagnation to me! Yet, if I can never reach my goal, what purpose then is there in reaching for it or even in existence? I read within one of your books that God's 'improvement' of us will continue after death (or that seems likely). Strangely that notion also horrifies me...Are we never to achieve perfection or ultimate bliss/satisfaction?

Response: Perfection is perfect love, and that is a dynamic state of generosity and creativity.
Imagine Bach, Beethoven and Mozart in heaven. They would be improvising, composing, continuing to create “perfect” music – of which there is an infinity.

It will be WONDERFUL!