Thursday, March 26, 2009

Newton's Metaphysics

Many students of science know that Isaac Newton wrote more about the interpretation of biblical prophecy than he did about physics. This quote comes from the third chapter of the second part of his "Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John":

'Tis therefore a part of this Prophecy, that it should not be understood before the last age of the world; and therefore it makes for the credit of the Prophecy, that it is not yet understood. But if the last age, the age of opening these things, be now approaching, as by the great successes of late Interpreters it seems to be, we have more encouragement than ever to look into these things. If the general preaching of the Gospel be approaching, it is to us and our posterity that those words mainly belong:
    • In the time of the end the wise shall understand, but none of the wicked shall understand. (Dan. 12:4, 10)

    • Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this Prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein. (Rev. 1:3)
The folly of Interpreters has been, to foretel times and things by this Prophecy, as if God designed to make them Prophets. By this rashness they have not only exposed themselves, but brought the Prophecy also into contempt.

The design of God was much otherwise. He gave this and the Prophecies of the Old Testament, not to gratify men's curiosities by enabling them to foreknow things, but that after they were fulfilled they might be interpreted by the event, and his own Providence, not the Interpreters, be then manifested thereby to the world. For the event of things predicted many ages before, will then be a convincing argument that the world is governed by providence....

There is already so much of the Prophecy fulfilled, that as many as will take pains in this study, may see sufficient instances of God's providence: but then the signal revolutions predicted by all the holy Prophets, will at once both turn mens eyes upon considering the predictions, and plainly interpret them. Till then we must content ourselves with interpreting what hath been already fulfilled.

Newton had a clear concept of the purpose of prophecy. He had what Thomas Kuhn would call a "paradigm" that motivated and directed his efforts.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Prediction, Power, and Proof

Isaiah 48:3-5 says:
The former things I declared of old;
they went out from my mouth and I announced them;
then suddenly I did them and they came to pass.
Because I know that you are obstinate,
and your neck is an iron sinew
and your forehead brass,
I declared them to you from of old,
before they came to pass I announced them to you,
lest you should say, "My idol did them,
my carved image and my metal image commanded them."
The heart of the scientific method consists of forming a hypothesis, making a prediction, doing an experiment, and seeing whether the prediction is fulfilled--or not. Without fulfilled prediction, science has no proofs.

As Isaiah shows, this doesn't just apply to science. He insists that God's power is revealed through predictive prophecy. This isn't just an Old Testament thing. The Apostle Paul relied upon the power of God to prove his message. In I Cor. 2:3-5 he said:

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Paul and Isaiah (and the rest of the prophets and apostles) commanded their hearers to respond with faith, but not with blind faith. Time after time, the Bible stories show an individual who (1) believes in a God of power and then (2) takes a risk based on that faith. When that risk is visibly rewarded, others see and (often) believe. Ideally, their belief results in them stepping out in faith, too, leading to more result--and more believers.

One particularly dramatic example of this cycle was when Peter got out of the boat and walked across the water towards Jesus. Matthew 14:27-33 tells the story, beginning with a boat full of weary disciples in the middle of a stormy lake late at night. Something unusual approached them across the surface of the water, and they panicked.

Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I.

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

He said, “Come.”

So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

There's a lot to be said for this cycle of "risky faith rewarded." Although it has a tendency to make the believer look and feel like an idiot, it's safer, in its way, than playing it safe. If there really is a God who answers prayers and fulfills prophecies, why not act like it? And if there isn't such a God, why say there is? Wouldn't it be better to get out of your boat, sink, flounder back to safety, and then go back to fishing? Peter spent the rest of his life talking about his crucified Lord and died, crucified himself, for all his pains. That makes perfect sense for a man who walked on water--but it's not a wise career path unless you've met the Living God.

On a broader scale, this cycle has the potential to slowly fill the earth up with believers if there really is a God of power. And if there isn't such a God, the Darwinian consequences of taking major risks should soon wipe out these faith-filled fools.

If you love Truth and believe in God, get out of your boat and try walking on water!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Faith and Dogma

Faith in the most generic sense means "trusting in something outside yourself." That kind of faith is part of what makes humans different from animals--we can learn from others' mistakes instead of repeating them for ourselves. When we trust what others say, we can stand on the shoulders of their experience--dwarves on the shoulders of giants.

That's one kind of faith, but the New Testament uses the word in a more specific sense. The "faith" that Jesus talks about involves much more than merely trusting other people. Consider Mark 11:

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”

And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

This kind of faith is hard to argue with. The Protestants who say they're saved by faith would impress their Catholic brethren more if they tossed a few mountains into the sea while they were at it. The secular materialist who scoffs at "faith" would scoff a little less if fig trees shriveled up around him.

The problem is, this kind of faith is rare, even though Jesus commands and demands it. The various branches of Christianity think they're going to Heaven because they believe the right doctrines, and the other branches are going to Hell because they believe the wrong ones. New Testament "faith" means more than merely mental assent to human propositions.

I'm not Catholic, but I'm not so sure that all the Protestants who confidently claim to be "saved by faith" are standing on solid ground. According to Christian theology, the redemption of a sinful soul is the greatest miracle imaginable. It only took God's word to make the heavens and the earth. It took the death of His own Son to save a sinner.

If your faith doesn't shrivel fig trees, what makes you think you're going to Heaven?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What Is Faith?

Fred at La Nouvelle Theologie asks, "What is faith?"

That's one of the really big questions--much bigger than any answer I can give. But it's one of the questions that needs to be asked, and ought to be answered, so here are some pieces of the puzzle.

  1. Faith consists of belief without proof. Hebrews 11:1-2 calls faith "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." That doesn't mean that the content of faith must be absurd, paradoxical, or unreasonable. It doesn't even mean that it can't be proved. Most of your neighbors believe the earth is round and circles the sun, not because they have worked out the proof for themselves, but because they have been told this by every credible source. It is faith, not reason, that makes them believe.
  2. Faith is essential to scientific progress. Learning by trial and error or direct experimentation is possible and valuable, but it's very slow. Western civilization has advanced as far as it has, not by the radical skepticism of Descartes or the nihilism of Nietzsche, but by "dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants," as Isaac Newton put it. Life is too short and the universe is too big for any one person to work out any scientific discipline from first principles and then move on to make new contributions.
  3. Faith is essential to biblical Christianity. Hebrews 11:6 says, "Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek Him." Mysticism and some variations of liberal theology may be able to cultivate a religion based on immediate intuition and/or emotion without any faith in any propositional statements about God, but the religion taught and practiced in the Bible demands belief in what God and His messengers have said.
Faith is not opposed to reason, but it is the opposite the kind of skepticism that has to figure out everything for itself.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Myth, Magic, or Medicine?

Methodological naturalists don't wonder about miracles. They write off anything that looks like fulfilled prophecy or answered prayer as "coincidence." They dismiss anything that seems to be a miracle as fraud or myth. That's makes it easy to maintain their precommitments to a merely material world, but it's their metaphysics, not good science, that explains such behavior.

What happens when a methodological naturalist encounters some data point that doesn't fit his preconceptions? The objective scientist of our cultural ideal would stop, look, and listen. He (or she) would furrow his (or her) studious brow, roll up the immaculate sleeves of his (or her) venerable lab coat, and subject his (or her) previously held theories to revision in light of new evidence. But, as Thomas Kuhn explained in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that's hardly ever what happens.

Consider how "science" deals with just one uncooperative example. Isaiah 38:1-6 says:

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord and said, “Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: "Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city.
The methodological naturalist deftly deals with this report by just saying, "It never happened." Denial tends to be our first line of defense. This doesn't prove methodological naturalism to be wrong, but it ought to raise an eyebrow.

Methodological naturalists generally dismiss the Bible stories as naive credulity. The problem with that approach is that these tales weren't told by idiots. The prophet Isaiah was a Hebrew noble who wrote one of antiquity's loftiest works. The story is rich in specific details that make it sound more like history and less like myth. Isaiah took a cake of figs and applied it to the boil that was killing the king, which seems to have made a difference. Hezekiah did get well, and he lived for fifteen years.

The next defense is "mere coincidence." So what if Hezekiah lived, the naturalist asks. For every good guess there are a million failures that fall on their face. In this model, Isaiah just got lucky.

That's hard to square with the rest of the story. Hezekiah was no fool. He wanted proof of Isaiah's prophecy, and he got it. Hezekiah asked for a sign that he would get well, and the sun's shadow went backwards ten steps.

That leaves two more avenues of escape for the pre-committed naturalist. Either the whole story was a myth, or Isaiah was a fraud. There are problems with both answers. A moving shadow is not what you'd expect from a myth--in a made-up story, a great dragon would appear in the sky, or God might speak out loud. A shadow seems too mundane for any myth.

The moving shadow would make sense if Isaiah was a fraud--it's the kind of hoax an illusionist might contrive with mirrors. But nothing in the rest of Isaiah's record suggests he was anything like that kind of "court magician." Nothing in the story itself demands such proof--when Hezekiah asked for proof that he would get well, Isaiah could have just as easily told him to "wait and see."

Is this the best that naturalism can do? Not even remotely! It is possible to take Isaiah seriously without giving up on science. A "naturalistic" explanation fits the facts as well as any other. An experienced doctor might argue that the poultice of figs and the moving shadow were both essential means to the same cure. Hezekiah had a "boil" which wasn't getting better. The Hebrew term isn't specific enough to know what that meant, but any infection was a serious problem before the discovery of antibiotics. To make things worse, he had turned his face to the wall and wept bitterly--that's a biblical term for what we might call "terminal depression."

Isaiah directly addressed the physical and the psychological aspects of Hezekiah's condition. The fig plaster had some effect on the infection in the boil--perhaps enough to give Hezekiah a fighting chance at life. But that doesn't do much good unless the patient is willing to fight. Isaiah's promise (plus the shadow on the steps) could have helped Hezekiah find the faith he needed to struggle back from the brink.

What does this tell us about the shadow on the steps? Nothing--except that we don't have to dismiss it as myth, discount it as a hoax, or reverse the rotation of the planet. The Bible says the shadow went backwards on the steps and Hezekiah got better. This passage in Isaiah would be good history and sound theology with or without a "scientific explanation." Maybe both things happened by the unmediated intervention of God. Maybe both had natural explanations--the osmotic pressure of a sugary paste, an unusual formation of the clouds. The story shows God's glory either way.

Which brings me to my point: the believing Christian can accomodate science more easily than the methodological naturalist can accommodate history. Twenty-first century Christians can't evade the laws of physics, so they must adjust their paradigm or isolate themselves from the broader culture. Modern materialists, by contrast, ignore any evidence they don't like. In the short run, that gives materialism an edge--but truth outperforms popularity in the long run. Any future metaphysics that deserves the name of science will take all the available evidence seriously, not just the part that fits our preconceptions.

Methodological Naturalism

Alvin Platinga is both a respected living philosopher and a committed Christian. I'll use his definition of methodological naturalism:

The philosophical doctrine of methodological naturalism holds that, for any study of the world to qualify as "scientific," it cannot refer to God's creative activity (or any sort of divine activity). The methods of science, it is claimed, "give us no purchase" on theological propositions--even if the latter are true--and theology therefore cannot influence scientific explanation or theory justification. Thus, science is said to be religiously neutral, if only because science and religion are, by their very natures, epistemically distinct.

Methodological naturalism is the most consistent example of a modern metaphysics. Immanuel Kant ended pre-modern metaphysics with his Critique of Pure Reason. (In case you missed the joke, the title of this blog comes from his work, A Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science.) Kant essentially divided reality into two parts--the "phenomenal" aspect of things, which can be seen and touched and measured, and the "noumenal" aspect, involving the "thing in itself" rather than its observable categories. Since Kant, modernism has ignored the noumenal and devoted itself exclusively to the phenomenal world.

The methodological naturalists treat "God" as a non-concept, an "ERROR" that corrupts every function that references that cell in their secular spreadsheet. Any future metaphysics will have to do better that if it claims the legacy of Kant. Kant treated "God" and "free will" as fundamental albeit unproveable principles that were essential to his version of "practical reason."