Games of Chance – A New Series

I’ve been a busy boy on the blog this week. I guess I’ve got a lot on my mind lately.

A couple weeks ago, on my birthday, in fact, an old pastor, who I still count as a friend, wished me a happy birthday and encouraged me to take a look at a book he feels provides a strong challenge to the secular scientific view of the world and the universe – Not a Chance by R.C. Sproul

The premise of the book is that the universe and nature could not have arisen by chance, and therefore must have been created by God.

Honestly, I hesitate to spend my time on this, because I sort of know what I’m going to find. My experience with apologetics books by authors such as Geisler, Craig, McDowell, & Strobel, is that they aren’t really intended to convince the unbeliever, but to comfort the already convinced.

So I’ve started reading it and have a couple thoughts to share from the preface – mostly to highlight the red flags that jump out.

R.C. Sproul is very good with words, eloquent even, but he uses that eloquence to play a linguistic shell game. He also makes a number of bald assertions that I’m going to hope he at least tries to substantiate in the body of the book.

He jumps right out and makes an attempt to bolster the scientific credentials of the bible with the following claim:

“We have a tendency in our day to think of mythology as a literary enterprise of primitive, ignorant, prescientific cultures. This tendency errs in two directions. On the one hand, it is the nadir of arrogance for us to assume that ancient civilizations were primitive, ignorant, or prescientific. The Egyptians, Chinese, Babylonians, Romans, and Greeks, for example, were anything but primitive and ignorant. They all achieved extraordinary levels of scientific advancement. Yes, they had mythology, but they had their serious science as well.”

There are a couple problems with this paragraph alone.

First, the assertion that we make an “arrogant assumption” that drives our characterization of ancient civilizations as primitive and ignorant, as though, one, we aren’t aware of their level of scientific advancement, or two, they were somehow on par with our current level of advancement, is a blatant shifting of the goalposts. It’s clear he’s setting the table to try and equate biblical authors’ spiritual claims with modern scientific theory.

The problem with his assertion is that there is no mischaracterization of the level of their scientific advancement and we’re making no assumptions. We know how advanced they were. We have access to the same information as Sproul. Modern science is built on those very foundations. Their attempts made progress in very human fashion. They generally aren’t characterized as “ignorant” either. On the other hand, the natural claims one finds in the bible bespeak a primitive ignorance that is unsurprising – in fact, I think it’s telling that Sproul doesn’t mention the ancient Hebrews as one of those scientifically advanced societies.

Sproul also stretches the truth when he uses the word “extraordinary,” as though their advancement was somehow something other than what is recorded historically. It was great progress, but falls comfortably right in line in the progressive accumulation of scientific knowledge – one discovery generally leads to another – though not in a simple smooth progression.

The mythology they have, of course, neatly fills the still massive gaps in the scientific knowledge of the day.

After this first attempt to move the goalposts to bolster the credibility of ancient religious claims, he then moves to the other end of the field and tries to move those goalposts too. He claims that mythology isn’t only in the past, but persists today. After he sets you up by referring to things like old wives’ tales and athlete’s superstition, he grabs the goalposts with both hands:

“Mythology also intrudes into the realm of science. Uncritically accepted hypotheses and theories of the past die a slow and reluctant death.”

Such a bald and blatant attempt to equate the effort it takes to disprove a scientific theory with the persistence of superstitions doesn’t offer much hope for the content of the rest of the book. He also is dishonest in stating that hypotheses and theories of the past are “uncritically accepted.” That is patently untrue. Hypotheses, and the theories that result from the process of testing and either proving or disproving hypotheses until the facts become clear, are systematically criticized in the peer review process. No theory is accepted until it has passed that test.

They are certainly for more critically examined than religious claims about the natural world.

But he pretty much has to set the stage the way he would like it to be, because the entire premise of the book depends on the idea that scientists’ stock-in-trade is just another collection of myth.

Sproul stakes his claim that the element of chance in the natural world is a myth that has entered the scientific vernacular. He asserts that scientists have come to view chance as a thing that has, in itself, causal power. For instance, he writes:

“With the elevation of chance to the level of a real force, the myth serves to undergird a chaos view of reality. Buttressed by inferences drawn from quantum theory, the idea that reality is irrational rather than coherent gained popularity.”

Having said that chance, as opposed to intentional causality, is a myth, he rides that as though the assertion is beyond question, which is ludicrous. Now I’m sure he’ll in with more explanation, but this preface carries an air of foregone conclusion, which I’m sure his Christian readers will eat up, but which will have critical thinkers rolling their eyes.

He also grossly mischaracterizes the methodology and motivation of science as follows:

“As we prove the seemingly infinite and the infinitesimal, we are left with aching paradigms stretched to the breaking point.”

Well, maybe that’s a problem for Christians, who start from a place of assuming they know everything, and therefore reject new information that challenges assumptions. But science doesn’t work that way. Science doesn’t ache at the change of paradigm. Science challenges new information and new claims to be sure they are factual before they are accepted and before older scientific theories are displaced. Nobody is aching except the author.

Sadly, he continues painting a very dishonest picture of how the scientific community operates with nonsense like this:

“The Enlightenment dream of discovering the “logic of the facts” has become a nightmare for many. Some have responded by abandoning logic altogether. It is when logic is negotiated or abandoned that myth is given fresh impetus.”

What nonsense. Nobody has abandoned logic on this side of the wall. Unless by that he means that they have given up trying to figure out how to make nonsensical spiritual claims jive with discovered scientific fact. This is just an untrue statement. I wait to see if he actually tries to substantiate this. I doubt he will – I think this is just another attempt to present a jury-rigged background to make his arguments appear reasonable.

Finally, he says something that is very true:

“The twin enemies of mythology are logic and empirical data, the chief weapons of true science. If either weapon is neutralized, mythology is free to run wild.”

Quite. And I think we’re about to see a lot of wild running about with the facts in the following chapters.

More to come…

6 thoughts on “Games of Chance – A New Series

  1. If your selections are representative of the whole – and I’m guessing so – what dreck!

    This post reminds me of Steve Shives’ “An Atheist Reads…” series. 🙂

  2. I wonder where Sproul fits Judeo-Christian theology in. Is it mythology or science?

    As usual, arguments like this only work if theology is placed on it’s own plane, (i.e. sensus divinatus), which no doubt he will allow, given his reformed position.

    Does he really think equating his beliefs with the Egyptians, Chinese, Babylonians, Romans, and Greeks, helps his case? We know that much of their rationalistic philosophy was incorrect. They threw out many hypotheses, and some were hits, some were misses.

    Also, I don’t think chance is viewed as a causal force in science. Chance only helps atheistic arguments in the context of a very large and old universe. What it allows is the time for improbable occurrences by natural processes to become probable ones. The universe (and possible multi-verses) keep getting larger according to our knowledge. This means that determining a first cause (if there is one) becomes even more unlikely. As the origin of the universe becomes more distant in time and space the more irrelevant such an argument from improbability becomes, because we are talking about things we cannot measure or conceive of.

    God of the gaps is alive and well.

  3. Hi Fellas! I can see how responding to every little (or big!) comment could end up pretty much a full-time job – one answer leads to three more questions, six comments; then a whole battery of rebuttals and a new batch of questions! Well, at the out-set I’d like to say how much I appreciate the friendly dialogue and exchanging of ideas we are having! I think we have all done at least some “homework” (and are exercising our brains as we dialogue via this blog). Personally, I love it! I was Anthony’s pastor for nearly 4 years (2001-2005) and we truly enjoyed hangin’ out; now here we are again exchanging ideas (radically different ones to be sure!), plus some additional friends! (BTW: Boy am I glad it’s not my responsibility to persuade you guys to turn to Jesus! He said the Father draws men to Himself. So I’m having a blast just being a messenger boy while He does the heart/mind work).

    I find it interesting that at least two of you at one time were professing Christians. As a pastor it’s hard to ignore my shepherds instincts (even as I write this I’m a little overcome with emotion – pretty sappy huh?!). May I throw out something for you guys to ponder a bit and maybe even respond to if you’re comfortable? I’ll get to it in a roundabout way.

    Here it is: man seems to be born with an innate sense of something beyond himself. That “sense” typically manifests itself in some type of spiritual, superstitious, religious, or whatever kind of belief(s). For instance: to my knowledge there have never been any aboriginal tribes/cultures discovered that were not religious in some way (in the context of our discussion: no atheist tribes!). This is the “sense of something beyond us” I refer to. I once mentioned a related commonality to Anthony: Helen Keller. Of course we all know she was a blind, deaf, and unable to speak intelligibly. She eventually befriended a pastor named Phillips Brooks. Through their written exchanges, she came to tell him she always knew (from her earliest recollections) there was a God; she simply didn’t know His name. Fascinating: no sensory input yet an innate knowledge of God (the God of the Bible by the way).

    So here’s my point: it seems we have to be taught there is no God. The Bible itself says God has put eternity into the heart of man ( Ecclesiastes 3:11). The “teacher” might have been
    • the tragic, unexplainable loss of a loved one (such as Don’s father experienced)
    • some form of disappointment with God
    • a hypocritical and/or abusive parent
    • outlandish things done in the name of Christ
    • moral failures on the part of spiritual leaders
    • a drive to be independent, free to do our own thing (after all: no God = no accountability/rules so to speak)
    • significant authority figures (teachers, speakers, authors, etc.) who significantly influence our thinking

    The list goes on. Perhaps you’d be willing to divulge what significant “teacher” (s) influenced your decision to reject Christ/Christianity/theism in general…..

    Now: I’m not going to answer you guys tit-for-tat. I would like to address at least some of your comments however.

    1. Flews “conversion”: Anthony, your comments about his senility and the suggestion that we consider his views as a younger man in his prime are pretty flimsy. First of all, his turn to theism occurred while his mind (though aged) was quite functional; second: I could use the same reasoning on you (sort of!) – or any number of individuals I know of who in their prime (you old geezer!) were Christian (or in your case at least professed Christ in the midst of doubting) then turned to atheism…Charles: you make a significant point that what Flew “converted” to is significant. His conversion to theism (certainly, at least, a step in the right direction from my perspective) was of course preceded by his now famous lecture “Theology and Falsification” at the Socratic Club at Oxford (at that time chaired by C.S. Lewis). That lecture became the most circulated philosophical article for five decades! This lecture, accompanied by numerous other lectures and books set the agenda for modern atheism. But: in 2004 Flew made an astounding announcement: God must exist; the best explanation for the universe is some sort of deity. Here’s the kicker: when asked why he changed his mind, Flew wrote that “The short answer is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.” In fact, it was DNA that had the most profound impact on Flew – the informational content of DNA. He noted that “The only satisfactory explanation for the origin of such ‘end-directed, self-replicating’ life as we see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind.” So while Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc. herald the “news” that “belief in the biblical God finds no support in our growing scientific understanding of the world” (Harris); that the more science develops, the less room there is for God (Hitchens), I say that’s pure poppy cock! Fact is, scientific evidence for design has come to the fore in recent years (easily accessed by the truly objective seeker). Surely you fellas would not equate your credentials and powers of reasoning with the likes of Newton, Galileo, Paschal, Bacon, Kepler, Hoyle, Pasteur, etc., etc. – and these great minds were all theistic in their worldview (Christian in fact). So my point is this: theism and the correlation that has with the idea of a created universe has quite the store of support.

    2. Faith and Atheism: Charles, you indeed read me correctly: “Whichever view/system we take, in the end it’s still a matter of faith!” You did a fine job explaining what you meant by “faith” as an atheist. What I mean by the necessity of faith regardless of our worldview is that since we are finite beings who don’t yet (and never will) possess all knowledge about origins (and ends for that matter), we all exercise a measure of faith in our commitment to a particular view of how/why things “are.” To my thinking, faith is involved when we choose to ignore or flat out reject the claims of the Bible e.g. the fool says in his heart there is no God (Ps. 14:1); faith/trust that you are making the right choice and thereby gambling your eternity on your own reasoning; it takes faith to believe the great minds of past and present were/are in error; etc., etc.

    In the end, it seems we tend toward seeing what we want to see! This is a tendency we must beware of – and put forth our best effort to avoid. An example of this is Anthony’s (yea, it’s time to pick on you sucker!) deductive reasoning used on Sproul’s book: while he (Anthony) said “I’m all ears” he has proceeded to attempt shredding Sproul before completing the book. My undergraduate/postgraduate education taught me to always use inductive logic (assume nothing until the research is done first). Anthony also commits the same logical fallacy I pointed out in one of your (Charles) posts: “saying so makes it so.” Anthony comes across as if He’s backed Sproul into a corner, exposing a sinister agenda as well as a massive pile of bogus, indefensible arguments. I seriously doubt Sproul ever entertained such a notion (a sinister agenda); his scholarship and ethics are above board – and quite compelling for me and a whole host of true scholars (BTW: I was first introduced to Sproul by one of my seminary professors, J.P. Moreland, himself quite the thinker/scholar/philosopher).

    3. God operating today: Charles, you said “I see no evidence at all that God is involved in the natural world.” That surely is hyperbole – I could not possibly recount all of what I see going on (both past and present!). Again, I think this is a matter of seeing what we want to see/choosing to stop our eyes/ears to what’s happening in our beautiful (though troubled) world. Perhaps you are more focused on what He’s not doing?

    Well, that’s it for now! Better get goin’ on other projects! God (!) bless you all.

  4. CW
    There is actually an atheist tribe, the Piraha. They are wellknown by us, deconverts, because a missionary, Daniel Everett, became an atheist after trying to convert the tribe.
    Quote from Everett:
    “The Piraha’s have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comfort of heaven or the fear of hell and sailing toward the great abyss with a smile. I have learned these things from the Piraha’s and I will be gratefull to them as long as i live”.

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