29 March 2010

On Faith and Evidence

(I'll apologize in advance, this is a long post – but you likely have another half year before I post again, so that should give you time to read it.)

So, I spent the weekend debating evolutionary biology, and I've decided to write a blog post about the results of that. Thing is, I have little more than a high school education in the natural sciences, yet I made an arrogant fool of myself, and got accordingly planed (check out this link if you'd like to see). Though we have similar levels of formal scientific education, Ash has spent his spare time studying evolutionary biology, while I've spent mine studying faith. When we debate evolutionary biology, he is much more knowledgeable, and it shows.

Somewhat humbled now, I do have to concede that there does exist significant amounts of observed data which fits the evolutionary model very well, and if any valid arguments against evolutionary theory do exist, I am not competent to see them through. So I'm not going to try again (at least for a while - I tend to forget about getting planed every so often … it's a character flaw, and I really should work on it). Instead, what I'd like to talk about is faith, and hope that that is a subject about which I know at least as much about as Ash does of biology.

You see, there's this misperception I've seen that “faith” is exactly equivalent to “blind faith” - simple belief without evidence or reason to support it. This is not the case. Instead, I would say that faith is conviction of a truth, and action on that conviction. Now, this conviction may indeed be blind – if I say that “I dreamed last night that the sky was green, therefore it must be green.”, this is a blind faith, and, what's more, a faith that's easily contradictable by a simple observation that is available to almost everyone (as I sit here, I can tell you with confidence that the sky is, in fact, gray (at least right now - experience also suggests that it is often blue as well)). Now though, the fact that some faith is blind does not imply that all faith is correspondingly blind. When I brought up to Ash an argument of scientific form (though, I'll now admit, not so much scientific rigor) – an observation, an extrapolation based on that observation, and an argument as to how that extrapolation fit various hypotheses – his initial response was basically “that's wrong, science does not support it”. Now, this is not a scientific argument, but rather a statement of faith – the counter-argument of “science does not support it” itself has nothing to do with observed data about nature, but is simply an appeal to the beliefs of others. This faith, however, is well founded in the life study of thousands of people much more knowledgeable in the field than I am, people who've made and rebutted many more scientific arguments of significantly more subtlety and rigor, such that a small selection of such scientific rebuttals was sufficient to demolish my argument.

So, faith is founded on evidence – some sorts of evidence can be easily tested for truth, and are thus more convincing (such as the scientific predictions of natural phenomena), other sorts or less so (like whatever my subconscious comes up with when I dream). There are some sorts of evidence which are somewhere in the middle – consider a court case, where there are exactly two eyewitnesses, and those witnesses give contradictory testimony – it's reasonable that one of them is telling the truth, but determining which can be difficult. As this evidence does not all claim to be of the same rigor and falsifiability that scientific evidence claims, it is not necessarily as easy to contradict as bad science is, but this does not render it invalid as evidence. As an example, if someone tells you they love you, do you take them at their word, or do you do brain scans on them to test that they're telling the truth – if you do believe them (are convicted of the truth of their statement), you have faith in the fact that they love you. Most people would base that faith on the word and trustworthiness of the person, rather than medical science (though the latter would make an amusing xkcd comic).

This, I think, gets to the core of why people (myself most definitely included) tend to react badly when our articles of faith are challenged. If what we are convinced of the truth of, and which we have been acting in accordance with the truth of is, in fact, untrue, we have been making some very serious mistakes, and no one likes the suggestion that they're doing the wrong thing.

For myself, I believe that humans are different. I think almost anyone would agree with me that humans are the most intelligent beings on Earth. This fits the evolutionary model, and it fits the Biblical model:

26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:26-27 (NIV)
However, where the agreement between the two models starts to break down is in defining this difference. Evolution would argue that it is a quantitative difference, that humans are essentially just smarter apes. In my interpretation at least, the Bible seems to strongly suggest a qualitative difference – that humans, among all the inhabitants of planet Earth, are uniquely created in the image of God. Thus, if someone could genetically engineer a strain of chimpanzees with human-level intelligence, or build the fabled general AI that is as or more intelligent than you and I, it would really rock my world. Now, the two models are not irreconcilable – many prominent Christian theologians (I believe C.S. Lewis, for one) subscribe to evolutionary theory as well, with greater or lesser degrees of divine intervention. (My response to this is that if you're willing to assume a God that could start and/or push along evolution, why not assume a God that would create everything in a week, and then explain himself clearly?) However, even in the Biblical framework I laid out here, it is only an initial difference between humans and everything else that is required by the model, not necessarily a continuing qualitative difference (if the singularity occurs, I'll be the first missionary to the robots :-) ).

To conclude, all I really want to say is this: we all have faith, and it is all founded on various types of evidence: scientific observation, personal experience, the word of other people, etc. It seems like recommended best practice should be to pick the set of articles of faith (one could also phrase this “model of reality”) which best explains to you the evidence which you have, though we could all (again, myself most definitely included) strive to give fair consideration to evidence that seems to contradict those articles of faith, and attempt to give reasonable explanations for such evidence, modifying our world model, our articles of faith, if necessary.

02 October 2009

The Better Party

Its been a while since I blogged, but something kind of neat about the story of the prodigal son occured to me this week. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, it goes basically like this:

This son tells his father, “I don't want to wait until you're dead, give me my inheritence now.” The father does, and the son goes far away, and blows the whole thing on “parties and wild living”. He eventually ends up starving, feeding pigs just to make a buck and survive (as pigs were considered unclean in his culture, this was pretty low), and decides to go back to his father's house. When he's on the road back, his father runs out to meet him, invites him back with open arms, and throws him a big party.

Now, what I thought was interesting was that the son had been partying almost non-stop for the last few years – the thing he really would have appreciated about being home was that his father loved him, and wanted him back. Yet, his father still throws him a party – the very thing he'd been looking for, in running away, his father gives him, as an outpouring of his love, on the son's return. And it is that love that makes it all worthwhile – all the fun and popularity he had while doing his own thing disappeared when he ran out of money and couldn't do it anymore, but his father still loved him, even as a penniless, starving refugee.

The father here is a metaphor for God, and we are all the son in this story – we can go off, and chase our own thing, but God is always waiting for us to come back to him, welcomes us with open arms, and has a life waiting that is, in any matter of importance, better than the one we can make for ourselves.

05 September 2009


I took the long way home tonight, a meandering walk around campus. It was an absolutely beautiful night, and I wanted to savour it - the UNB/STU campus is, at dusk on a clear summer day, one of the loveliest places I know. The sky is a deep, glowing blue, and the lights around campus really bring out the red brick of the buildings, and the green in the trees and grass. There's a subtle beauty in light and colour, the simple geometries of the architecture, and the more complex forms of growing things. Strolling in the warm air, a cool breeze blowing through my shirt sleeves, and the stars just beginning to come out above my head, it is easy to remember that Creator God is good.

02 August 2009

The Impulse to Destruction

It is an old question: “What on earth is wrong with society?”. The answer to that question, I believe, is that people are flawed. More specifically, humans are driven by an impulse to destruction, a facet of their will that works against their best interests, often in full knowledge of the implications of their actions. Examples of this impulse would be the preverse drive of the exhausted student to stay up one more hour, the glutton's sweet tooth driving consumption long past the point where food is enjoyable, and the antagonisim of the businessperson baiting a touchy coworker, just to set them off. On a weightier scale, this drive is behind the failed marriages and broken families there are new news reports of every week.

So, from politicians and celebrities to the average Joe or Jane down the street, it is easy to find examples of this impulse to destruction. I could certainly point to examples of this in my own life, and I suspect each of you could do the same. This suggests that this counterproductive will is a part of human nature, and that human nature is therefore broken. No one has to teach children to be petty and squabble: “Joey put his finger on my side of the bench, Mommy. Make him stop!”. No one has to teach children to be greedy, eating more sweets than they can stomach. No one has to teach a child to throw a fit simply for the sake of attention. Children do these things without instructions, and some adults never outgrow them (you can find them on any prime-time reality TV show). Some might say that humans are basically good and rational, and that that these examples are abberations, exceptional cases, or that that goodness and rationality simply take some time to manifest. I say humans are essentially petty, greedy, corrupt, irrational, and destructive, and only defeat these characteristics with difficulty.

This paints a dismal state of our race. This blog's byline talks about “the answer” though, so what is the answer to this problem? Mine (as you may have guessed), has a lot to do with God. Not only did Jesus' death pay the penalty for sin (in relation to this post, acts of rebellion against our better judgement are often also acts of rebellion against God, or sin), but his return to life was (and is) a statement of victory over sin and death. Therefore, by the power of Jesus' ressurection, human nature, in all its brokenness and destruction, can be replaced by God's nature, which is triumphant over those forces. People do not have to be bound to follow their impulse to destruction, and that is a good thing for everyone.

26 July 2009

An Audacious Claim

I believe a man died and returned to life.

In more detail, there was a Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, approximately two millenia ago, who claimed to be God, upsetting the religious leaders of the day. These leaders had him executed: flogged to near the point of death, asphyxiated by hanging, and then, to be completely sure he was dead, put a spear through his heart. Now, if that was the end of the story, there would be nothing much exceptional about it – there have been other similar historical incidents. However, I believe that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, was literally returned from the dead, to physical life in a physical body. There are eyewitness testimonies to this fact that have survived to the present day, with orders of magnitude more reliability of transmission than other documents of similar age. Other historical witnesses state that these eyewitnesses held to their statement, even being executed themselves rather than renounce it. It is, however, rather audacious to posit that a man literally came back to life. Science cannot explain it, and really the only explanation that fits is that Jesus was, in fact, God, as he claimed. Once the familiarity of this claim (at least in Western culture) is put aside, the implications really are enormous.

17 July 2009

The Expectant Bride

I've got a little-known fact about Christianity that shocks even life-long Christians. The rite of Communion, practiced in some form or another by all Christian denominations, is actually a wedding vow. Mike from Tenth Avenue North (a really great new Christian band – check their album out if you're into Christian music) expains it really well in this blog post.

For those of you who didn't read the post I linked, the basic idea of Hebrew marriage back then went like this: boy meets girl, some price is arranged for her hand in marriage, boy proposes (with a cup of wine), if she drinks the wine, boy and girl are married, but separated until he's finished building them a house, then boy brings girl back to their new home, and that's a wedding. This process works very well as an analogy for Christianity (the Church is called “the Bride of Christ” sometimes (for those of you outside said Church, when church is capitalized it refers to all Christians, taken as a single body)). The price paid for this marriage is Jesus' own life (the payment I spoke of in this blog post). Right now, we're in the middle stage – Jesus is working now on preparing Heaven, and physically separated from humanity. At some point though, he will return, and take his bride (the Church) back to Heaven with him.

So, this has been a kind of interesting academic excercise, but what's the point? Its simple, really. If you view Christianity as a marriage, rather than a religion, you have to consider a lot of things differently. Earth isn't your home, its simply the apartment you stay in while your home is being renovated – so the important thing there is not “he who dies with the most toys wins”, or to be the most popular person on the block, its to prepare for your journey home. Your life isn't beholden just to yourself, you have the interests of a husband to consider. Furthermore, Sin isn't just breaking God's law, and commiting a fault against your judge, its cheating on your husband. God loves you, has given his life to marry you, and you're shacking up with Satan, the great rebel. That certainly puts a new perspective on things.

26 June 2009

"Isn't that unfair?"

The title of this post is a question a friend asked me a few months ago after we'd been talking about grace (the same grace I spoke of in my last post). Last week that question came back to my mind, and I spun it around some, to see if I could make grace “fair”.

The first alternative I thought of was the possibility that grace was meant to turn failure into a learning opportunity. One suspects that the captain of the Titanic, had he survived, would have become the world's greatest advocate for lifeboat reform. If someone gets burned in failure, you would think they would develop a very emphatic resistance to that same failure. I don't really believe that though – just as dogs eat their own vomit, humans tend to repeat the actions that hurt them, even with full recognition that it turned out badly for them before.

The next alternative I thought of was that grace was a form of punishment, or perhaps restitution. Again with the Titanic captain (there were others culpable, but I'll stick with this illustration), would he suffer more for his failure in death, or in decades more of life, with hundreds of deaths on his conscience? Another way, is the best manner in which he can repay his victims by becoming one himself, or by ferrying more passengers safely across the Atlantic? The trouble with this though, is that it isn't a just solution either. Somehow I doubt those who lost their entire families in the Titanic tragedy would say that these solutions comprise sufficient punishment and/or restitution. It goes similarly with any other grace.

At the end of tossing this idea around I'm left with one conclusion. Grace, specificically God's grace, is unfair. It doesn't fit into my conception of personal justice, duty, or fairness. However, the act is already done, a gift given out of God's love, and it can't be returned. My choice then, is to complain about the unfairness of grace, reject it on that basis, and let that very expensive gift go to waste, or, to accept it and run with it. I'd rather choose the latter.