April 17, 2014

Easter and historical investigation

"The disciples Peter and John came running to the tomb
on the morning of the resurrection" by Eugene Burnand (1898)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, April 17, 2014 

Easter and historical investigation 

For many, Easter is the celebration of Jesus' bodily, physical resurrection after His death by crucifixion. Jesus' resurrection indicates that we should take Jesus seriously as Lord—God in human flesh. 

Of course, Jesus’ resurrection is a miracle. It’s an event that goes against our expectations of nature's usual course, and it’s caused by God. 

Some object that because a miracle has to do with God, a miracle is beyond historical investigation. 

Typically, Christians accept Jesus’ resurrection via faith, which is legitimate, because this is a work of the Holy Spirit. 

But in a world of competing religious claims (and competing spirits) is it possible to investigate an alleged miracle such as Jesus' resurrection historically (to arbitrate between competing spirits)? 

I think the answer is Yes. 

Note: In much of what follows I am indebted to contemporary philosopher Francis Beckwith (especially his article "History and Miracles" in the book In Defense of Miracles). 

If God were to exist and raise Jesus from the dead within physical space and time, then that miraculous event would have a physical dimension that could be accessed as historical evidence without first applying a theological interpretation to that evidence. 

Think about some of the phenomena surrounding Jesus' alleged resurrection, phenomena that can be—and have been—investigated historically apart from theological interpretation. 

Beckwith sets out the following: 

(1) “the claim by Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jewish carpenter, that he was the Son of God and that his resurrection from the dead would establish the truth of his claim." 

Beckwith interjects (in the lecture version of his article): "Why can't that be investigated? You have a historical person who said a number of things." 

(2) “[T]he crucifixion, death and entombment of Jesus (c. A.D. 33).” 

(3) “Jesus' tomb discovered to be empty a few days after his death.” 

(4) “[T]he claim by Jesus' followers that they saw their leader alive several days after the burial." 

It turns out that the above phenomena have been accepted by many if not most historians as historical facts. (For references see the works of Lee Strobel, Gary Habermas, William Lane Craig.) 

Okay, so we have the above facts. What about interpreting those facts theologically? Is the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead out of order? 

Answer: No. 

It turns out that naturalistic (non-God) explanations run amok in view of the facts. (See Strobel, Habermas, and Craig.) 

Plus it turns out that contextual considerations make the theological interpretation plausible. 

The very facts themselves call out for a theological explanation. A resurrection smacks of supernatural causation, especially in view of the resurrectee’s divine claims. 

Moreover, and more broadly, there are good independent reasons—a cumulative case argument—for thinking that God exists. 

The Big Bang points to a beginning of the universe. Because it's reasonable to think that whatever begins to exist has a cause, it's reasonable to think that the universe's beginning—i.e., the beginning of space, time, and matter/energy—has a cause. This cause is powerful and universe transcendent: supernatural. 

Also, the fine-tuning for life of the universe's initial conditions points to the universe’s cause being a super-intelligent cause, as do the molecular machines of the living cell and its DNA code/ language. 

Also, the very concept of a miracle such as Jesus' resurrection implies/ predicts the above findings of contemporary science, thereby adding further plausibility to the theological interpretation. (For more on this, see my PhD dissertation "Miracle reports, moral philosophy,and contemporary science".) 

Now couple the above reasoning with the work of the Holy Spirit in one's heart. 

Therefore, historical investigation doesn't preclude knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus—it confirms the truth of Jesus' miraculous resurrection. 

Jesus is risen. Jesus is Lord. Happy Easter! 

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)

April 03, 2014

Do Jesus' miracles violate the laws of nature?

"Feeding the Multitudes" by Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon
April 3, 2014 

Do Jesus' miracles violate the laws of nature? 

Some say that a miracle, such as Jesus’ multiplication of loaves and fishes, is a violation of the laws of nature, and thus should be dismissed. I disagree. 

The bringing about of something physical out of the non-physical does not violate nature's laws. Why not? Because such a bringing about is merely a change to the material conditions to which the laws of nature apply. 

Philosophers David and Randall Basinger explain: “Natural laws…are conditional propositions [i.e., if-then statements]. They do not describe what will or will not occur, given any set of preconditions. Natural laws tell us that, given a specific set of natural conditions and given that there are no other relevant forces present, certain natural phenomena will or will not always occur.” 

In other words, a natural law says this: If X is a so-and-so, then X does such-and-such, given no interference. For example, if X is a sugar cube, then X dissolves in water, if there are no other influences present. 

This means that if there are some other relevant forces or interferences or influences present—let's say the sugar cube has been wrapped in clear plastic—then the law concerning the solubility of sugar will not be violated when the sugar cube does not dissolve in water. Yes, our predictions might be off, but the law remains intact. 

Philosopher Robert Larmer helpfully clarifies with another example: “We do not…violate the laws of motion if we toss an extra billiard ball into a group of billiard balls in motion on a billiard table. There is no moment at which the laws of motion are contravened. What we do by introducing the extra billiard ball is change the material conditions to which the laws of motion apply and hence change the result which would otherwise be expected.” 

At this juncture, one might object that Jesus’ many loaves and fish, unlike the billiard ball, were supposedly brought into physical existence out of nothing, that is, from the non-physical realm. (Jesus had a few loaves and fish to begin with, but not enough to feed thousands plus have baskets full of leftovers.) Wouldn't a violation of a law of nature occur here? 

That is to ask: Wouldn't the creation of matter/energy violate the First Law of Thermodynamics—i.e., the Principle of the Conservation of Energy? 

Larmer anticipates this objection. Larmer points out that the Principle of the Conservation of Energy has two formulations: (1) “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, although its form may change"; and (2) "In an isolated system (that is, a system not causally influenced by something other than itself) the total amount of energy remains constant, although its form may change.” 

Larmer also points out that the first formulation is stronger than the second, and that the actual evidence only supports the second. In addition, it is only the first formulation that the creation of matter/ energy would violate. 

Now, because the first formulation is not only much stronger than the second but also much stronger than the evidence warrants, and because the first formulation is the only formulation of the two that a miracle would violate, the first can be reasonably seen to be not a law of nature but an assumed metaphysical principle which unjustifiably rules out miracles. 

The second formulation, on the other hand, is a legitimately expressed law of nature. And on the second formulation it is possible for a transcendent agent to intervene in the physical universe by bringing about something physical out of the non-physical. 

Thus, a miracle does not violate the laws of nature. 

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College. For further discussion of the notion of miracle, see Hendrik’s PhD dissertation, “MiracleReports, Moral Philosophy, and Contemporary Science”.)

March 23, 2014

Origins, Science, and the Bible (part 2)

ALMA radio telescope, Chile
By Hendrik van der Breggen

Origins, Science, Bible
(part 2)

Today, I want to think about some philosophical matters that are relevant to the overall conversation about origins, science, and the Bible. More specifically, I will argue that God’s revelation via nature and God’s revelation via Scripture have domains which overlap.

To make my case, I will do two things. First, I will question the limitation placed on questions typically handed to science (how?) and to theology (why? who?). Second, I will point to some areas of overlap.

1. Questions

Typically, science is understood as answering questions having to do with how. How does the world work? How do material forces operate? Science has been extremely successful in answering these questions, allowing us to understand the laws of nature and thereby improve life via technology.

In my studies in philosophy of science, however, I have noticed that how questions don’t exhaust the sorts of questions/ issues addressed by the sciences. Some sciences also address that issues.

For example, astrophysics deals with, among other things, whether or not it is the case that the universe (i.e., all physical matter/energy, space, time) began.

Also, astrophysics deals with, among other things, the question of whether or not it is the case that the universe’s initial conditions are “fine-tuned” to be conducive to subsequent life (whether subsequent life wholly evolved via chemical and biological evolution, was wholly specially created, or was specially created with some degree of subsequent evolution).

Also, the science of SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) deals with whether or not it is the case that a signal from space is due to an intelligent cause, without knowing how an intelligent cause works, without knowing what its nature is, and even without knowing whether it has a designer or not.

In my studies of the Bible I have noticed that the questions of who—e.g., Who is God? Who are we?—and the questions of why—e.g., Why did God create? Why are we here? Why do we do evil?—don't exhaust the sorts of questions/ issues addressed by the Bible. The Bible also addresses that issues.

For example, Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Whatever else Genesis tells us about who God is and why God created, Genesis 1:1 lets us know that God caused the beginning of the universe and that the universe began.

Hebrews 11:3 clarifies Genesis by letting us know that “the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”

(Yes, Hebrews says “by faith we understand that…,” but the revealed truth that X is the case is of interest here. Also, a prior verse in Hebrews says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It seems, then, that this view of faith needn’t rule out observation and good reasoning to help us have assurance and conviction, especially when Psalm 19:1-2 tells us that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.”)

Also, John 1:1-3 tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made through him….”

Also, a couple of other passages of Scripture tell us that time had a beginning. For example, 2 Timothy 1:9: “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (italics added). Also, Titus 1:2: “[We have] eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time” (italics added).

Clearly, then, science deals with more than how questions, and the Bible deals with more than who or why questions: both science and the Bible also deal with issues of that—i.e., that something is the case.

2. Overlap

But this means that sometimes there’s an overlap between that which nature reveals to be the case and that which Scripture reveals to be the case. So, if the Bible is true, then sometimes our reason and observation of the world should allow us to discern at least some of God’s activities in nature which have also been revealed in Scripture.

Interestingly, the evidence of the big bang beginning of space, time, and matter/ energy seems to allow us to discern via reason and observation what has also been revealed in Scripture: i.e., that the universe—all matter/energy, space, and time—began.

(I’m here thinking of William Lane Craig’s many works, including his book, co-authored with atheist Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology [Oxford University Press, 1993], and more recently Craig's books Reasonable Faith [Crossway, 2008) and On Guard [Cook, 2010].)

Interestingly, the evidence of the universe’s fine-tuning for life seems to allow us to discern via reason and observation what has also been revealed in Scripture: i.e., that the universe displays effects of an intelligence.

(I’m here thinking of Robin Collins’ work that will be presented in his upcoming book The Well-designed Universe: God, Fine-tuning, and the Laws of Nature. See too the readable summary of the evidence for fine-tuning over at the BioLogos website.)

Interestingly, the evidence of the living cell (e.g., DNA) seems to allow us to discern via reason and observation what has been revealed in Scripture: i.e., that the making of life requires some sort of information input ("word") that smacks of intelligence and non-physicality.

(I’m here thinking of Stephen C. Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design [Harper, 2009].)

It seems, then, that if we widen our awareness of the sorts of questions/ issues addressed by the sciences (not just how, but also that), and if we widen our awareness of the sorts of questions/ issues addressed by the Bible (not just who and why, but also that), we can thereby notice that the Bible’s special revelation concerning the nature is confirmed when we examine nature.

3. Conclusion

In closing, a comment from mathematician and philosopher of science John Lennox is appropriate. (Lennox, who has debated the popular atheist Richard Dawkins, is someone whose philosophical work I greatly respect and whose work pretty much makes the same points I’ve set out above.)

Lennox writes: “I am not, of course, claiming that the Bible can inform every branch of science, but I am claiming that there are certain fundamental points of convergence of such immense significance for our understanding of the universe and ourselves that it is worth pointing them out. Such convergences between the Bible and contemporary science add to the Bible’s credibility in a skeptical world—as Scripture itself would warrant us in thinking (Rom. 1:19-20).” (John Lennox, Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning according to Genesis and Science [Zondervan, 2011], 142.)

This is not to say that we should use the Bible as a science textbook, but it is to say that we should let the convergence points inform theology (by suggesting some interpretations of Scripture to be better than others) and that we should let the convergence points inform science (by suggesting possible lines of further scientific inquiry).

It is also to say that the project of connecting the dots between science (when done properly) and Scripture (when interpreted properly) belongs to philosophy and theology, and that these connections (when clear) can serve the church's tasks of apologetics and evangelism—to help point people to the God who became flesh in Jesus.

Reason and observation have an important role in discerning God’s revelations in the world. As a Christian who is a philosopher with an interest in apologetics, I find this exciting.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)