Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dawkins' Fatal Flaw

It has been a long time since I have been able to blog. The truth is that things have been really busy around here between completing a Masters Degree, applying for PhD programs, and taking care of a newborn. However, I have a really good reason to start again.

Last night I had the opportunity to go watch a lecture by Richard Dawkins here in Charlotte. It was a short lecture in which he read sections from his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth. However, it was long enough for him to introduce what I think is a fatal error for his whole claim that evolution is a fact beyond a reasonable doubt.

You see, Dawkins admits that the evolution of species (the adaptation of one species to another) is not something that is seen firsthand. Instead, it is the conclusion drawn by means of a forensic investigation. That is, he says that solving the question of descent is much like solving a murder, one need only look at the traces of evidence left behind. Now, I believe that this places him in an interesting dilemma. Let me explain.

Based on the forensic nature of the evolutionary claim, I turned my attention to the evidence itself. The first and primary evidence that he offered was the fossil evidence. His claim was that there are no "missing links" in this evidence. Now, contrary to the typical "Christian response" I have no problem granting that this is true. In fact, I am willing to accept that not only do all the actual fossils exist, but lets hypothesize that every conceivable fossil evidence also exists. This would make Dawkins body of evidence perfectly complete. But what does this get him? I don't think it helps his case one iota. Why? Just think about what can be learned from a fossil. I fossil can give you size, shape, kind, temporal order, and age. However, a fossil cannot give you what evolutionists claim it can. It cannot give you descent. Thus, while the fossil record is a necessary condition for the truth of evolution it is not a sufficient condition for the truth of evolution.

For those of you who are not familiar with this distinction, a necessary condition is a condition that must be true in order for another condition to be true. For example, the existence of oxygen is necessary for the existence of fire.

On the other hand, a sufficient condition is a condition that guarantees the truth of another condition. For example, the existence of fire guarantees the existence of oxygen.

Now lets understand this better. A necessary condition is not enough to prove that the condition that it links to is true. Consider the fire and oxygen examples. It is true that oxygen is necessary for fire. But that says nothing as to whether there actually is any fire. The only way that one can determine if there is fire is to see it. In the same way, if the fossil record is only a necessary condition, its existence does nothing to say whether or not evolution has occurred. The most that one can say is that it is possible. But it is just as possible that the fossil record is the way it is for any other logically sound reason.

The same can be said for other apparent "evidences" such as similarity of DNA, the geological spread of fossil evidence, etc.

Thus, by admitting that evolution is known forensically, Dawkins has cut himself off from being able to prove his case. Now, he could possibly answer this criticism. All he has to do is provide a sufficient condition for evolution to be true. I would love to see this attempt. Any takers?

Oh, one last thing. Lest any of you be tempted to argue that the current evidence provides a cumulative case for evolution, it will not work. Each piece of evidence at best provides a 50/50 probability for evolution. Thus, whatever is held to be contrary to evolution maintains the equal possibility of being the case. For example, similarity of DNA structure does not by itself in any way support common descent more than common creator. One could just as easily make the case that the evidence presents a cumulative case for a design theory.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Book Review: The Message Behing the Movie by Douglas Beaumont


I recently received and have read a new book written by a good friend of mine whose name is Douglas Beaumont. This book, The Message Behind the Movie, attempts to explain how the tendency of Christians to take one of two extreme positions regarding Christianity and the culture—either they tend to be Christian anti-culturists who disavow all things Hollywood or they tend to be naïve advocates of all things Hollywood, considering all content to be harmless in light of its fictional nature—is a problem that needs to be addressed. After offering a short critique of these positions, Doug attempts to fill the apparent hole with a median position that is at the same time both Christian and relevant. As I have already mentioned, I am good friends with Doug, as well as a very grateful student of his. Nonetheless, I will consider his position and will do my best to maintain objectivity. That being said, I will consider this book in accordance with its own threefold division.

Synopsis of the Book

Act One: Watching and Understanding Movies

In the first part of his book, Beaumont gives a general introduction to the aforementioned problem of shallow Christian movie-reviewing and proceeds to build his replacement. He starts by considering the anti-Hollywood position. Here, Doug does an interesting job of building a historico-philosophical backdrop by tying this failing position to the Platonic assumption that art is bad for the soul. (I will not mention the criticisms of this, or any other position that he offers, for spoilers suck just as much for an argumentative read as they do for a suspenseful movie.) Next he considers the opposite position of naïve unconcern for the content of movies and offers some criticisms. After presenting the problem, he gives his solution and proceeds to give the tools needed to implement it.

In the remainder of this first section, Beaumont considers many elements of a movie, including its story, style, worldview, and message. The book has a section on each element. Within each section he describes the element and offers how this each element may be susceptible to unfair criticism or under-criticism by the two extreme camps, offering solutions where he does this.

Act Two: Evaluating and Discussing Movies

In this second section of The Message Behind the Movie, Beaumont addresses the religious issues that often are involved in the storylines of movies, whether explicitly or implicitly. Such issues include the nature of salvation, the nature of ultimate reality, the existence of God, and the Bible. Beaumont’s approach is to give examples of how these issues show up in movies, explain the error often associated with the movie’s claims, and to give a defense of the historic Christian faith. Finally, at the end of every section, he gives a scenario which involves fictional characters discussing these themes in light of actual movies.

Act Three: Applauding and Avoiding Movies

In this short final section, Beaumont considers some popular biblical arguments that would seem to counter his mediating position on the matter of entertainment, and he explains that they are based on a poor understanding of the text. He then concludes with a contrast between legalism and spiritual maturity.

My Assessment

Act One

Overall, I am very appreciative of the intention of this section of the book. Until recently, I had never been one to consider a movie (and other forms of entertainment such as music) as much more than a medium for rest—a psychological nap. Having been a person like this I easily found myself falling into that camp that treated movies as ineffectual on one’s disposition—just harmless entertainment despite the content. After finding this to be a failed position, I found myself in the other camp, ready to discount all movies that had a portrayal of evil. Not to my surprise, I quickly found this position to be untenable, and rather boring. However, as of late I have found myself more critical (in the good sense) of those movies that I watch. For example, this weekend I watched two movies (prior to reading this book), The Wrestler and The Uninvited.

The first movie had as a major element of its story repeated visitations to a strip club. While in the past I would have simply thought that this fact should result in turning the movie off immediately, I found myself less than bothered by it, and even understanding of its purpose there (to portray the despair of the protagonist). However, I still chose to redirect my eyes when any nudity appeared, evidencing the fact that my rejection of the anti-Hollywood attitude did not leave me in the naïve position. Now, I was rather unreflective into these reactions, but The Message Behind the Movie did a good of giving an explanation as to why I had them. It flows from my being a more reflective person to begin with (which has been developed in my philosophical training). So, whereas I was rather consciously unreflective in my watching of the movie, some of my speculative habits spilt over, which made the movie watching experience more fulfilling. Now this was only accidental for me, and without my philosophical training it would most likely have been completely missed. But what about those people who lack such training? These people may be discounting movies with good messages because they do not see the purpose of a “strip club scene” or something similar. Beaumont’s book helps to understand how to evaluate such content.

The second movie was different. It wasn’t a movie that included such scenes. Instead, it was a suspenseful movie. And, as with any decent suspense movie, there was a twist. Now, once the twist occurred, the movie went back and tied it to a seemingly unimportant scene in the beginning of the movie. I found it to be quite surprising, yet gratifying. I was really able to appreciate the director’s arrangement. Now, had I read The Message Behind the Movie prior to watching this, I would have possibly been able to pick up on this fact, since it occurs within the first thirty minutes (which Doug explains would include no “filler” in a well done movie). Thus, I would have been able to be more active in my consideration of the plot, which would have made for a richer movie watching experience.

Now that I have read this book, I look forward to future movie watching where I can expect a new appreciation for the art. However, there is one element of this section that I was left confused about. In the very beginning, Beaumont compares the anti-Christian attitude to the Platonic attitude of looking down upon art. However, I do not think that this analogy is the correct one for his message. I do not think that these Christians view art as bad because it stirs the emotions and supersedes the intellect, as Plato did. I think that most Christians are worried about the depiction of evil in films simply because it is evil. Thus, I think the real problem is not that Christians are Platonic; I think that it is because they are Kantian. Such Christians will tend to think that it is always wrong under all circumstances to depict sin. This is what is known as moral absolutism. I think that this is the philosophical foundation for this error, not the faulty Platonic ontology. That said, I think that Doug’s turn to Aristotle is still a move in the right direction, though I believe that a consideration of his virtue-theory of ethics will bring forth the real solution that he ultimately advocates. Knowing Doug, I am sure that he would agree with me about this psychological description of these critical believers and I am sure that he is completely aware that what he is advocating is a sort of virtue-theory of movie watching. Thus, this critique is not about his message, which I wholeheartedly agree with, it is simply about his corollary.

Act Two

As I began reading act two, I found myself a bit confused. I have to say that I was not at all expecting a section that focused on speculative apologetics. I think that a large part of my problem here was the complete lack of mention in the book title, the section heading, or the chapter headings that instilling tools for evangelism was a goal for this book. Now, I know that Beaumont discusses the importance of engaging the culture through the medium of movies in Act One; however I thought that this meant that the book was going to consider the mechanics of doing that. I do not think that this necessarily takes away from the book; in fact I think that Beaumont was wise in choosing to include this information, considering the obvious fact that the church has not been adequately exposed to the reasons why Christianity is properly considered to be a rational belief system. I just think that titling the section and chapters differently could have gone a long way in preparing me for the move.

That having been said, the apologetic arguments offered by Beaumont are instances of the standard arguments historically used by classical apologists. There is little in the way of anything new in his arguments, nor should there be since this is clearly a book aimed to convey the information in a summary fashion for those who have never heard it before. This is exactly the kind of information that I was thankful for when I first discovered apologetics, and for his recognition as to what the church needs, Beaumont should be praised. I know first hand how easy it is to want to go deeper into these issues because I know just how detailed the discussion can get. Good for him for remembering that this book is a tool for educating neophytes. Finally, I really appreciated the dialogical section at the end of every chapter. It is in this section that I think Beaumont demonstrably evidences his petition that the culture needs to be accessed in order for evangelism to be relevant and effective.

Act Three

There is little to say regarding the final section. I thought that it was very appropriate and well put. Some may wish that Beaumont had given a list of dos and don’ts for a Christian movie watcher, but if they had they would be missing the whole point (and should buy another copy and start over . . . . j/k).

Concluding Thoughts

Upon completion of this book I am especially happy that I read the first section, pleased that the second section is included, and glad at the open door left in the third section. The problems that I have with the book are circumstantial, for the most part, and do not relate to the overall argument presented. Being a book which appears to have been intended as an introduction, I think it succeeds wonderfully in its goal. When all is considered, I will give this book 4.5 out of five, the half point being taken for the confusion regarding the second section. Nonetheless, that confusion would not inhibit me in the least from recommending The Message Behind the Movie to any Christian who wishes to be a successful evangelist, whether to millions, or simply to their friends. This is a terribly important message that could not be released at a better time.

Finally, I hope for the author and the publisher to consider a series of sequels, and to dive deeper into these topics discussed. I would like to see the first section expanded into its own volume, if not multiple volumes. It would also be neat to see a volume aimed at detailed evaluation, to show what that would look like.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Will the True Liberal Please Stand Up?

In this blog, I have decided to bring together two of my most dominant interests, politics and philosophy. I have been reading Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and I just finished the section on the moral/social virtues. If you know anything about Aristotle, a virtue is a mean (middle quality) between a vice of excess and a vice of defect. One of the moral virtues is liberality. Liberality is that virtue that lies between the excess of prodigality and the defect of meanness. While I was reading on this topic, some things stuck out to me regarding what we now tend to call liberalism. Hear what Aristotle has to say:

A liberal man is liberal because it is virtuous, not because he can gain anything else. He will give the right amounts to the right people at the right times and with pleasure (or without pain). In addition, the liberal takes from the right sources. He goes on to say that it is rare for a liberal to become rich because he views wealth as an object for giving, and thus does not hold onto it long enough to accumulate it.

A prodigal, on the other hand, will often exhaust their resources since they exceed in giving and lack in taking. Such a man is to be considered as foolish, though not necessarily wicked. A major problem is that many prodigals take from the wrong sources. They will often make those who should be poor to be rich and ignore those who are noble in character.
I think that there is one element that needs to be clarified here. It is generally clear what Aristotle means when he says right amounts, right times, etc. (not necessarily the number values, but the concepts; the number values will change dependant on the circumstances). However, it is unclear thus far as to what he means by "taking from the right sources." He states that the true liberal "will take from the right sources, e.g. from his own possessions, not as something noble but as a necessity, that he may have something to give."

Finally, I love what Aristotle says here. "Liberality resides not in the multitude of the gifts but in the state of character of the giver, and this is relative to the giver's substance. There is therefore nothing to prevent the man who gives less from being the more liberal man, if he has less to give those are thought to be more liberal who have not made their wealth but inherited it; for in the first place they have no experience of want, and secondly all men are fonder of their own productions."

Given all of this, what category would modern liberalism fall under?
They give the wrong amounts to the wrong people at the wrong times with pain. And to kick it off, they take from the wrong people and for the sake of re-election. Each of these will be exampled below.

From the wrong sources: They tax the rich instead of using their own money.

To the wrong people: They give much to those who should be poor because of their decisions (the girl with four children out of wedlock, the person who did nothing to prepare for a retirement, etc.).

In the wrong amounts: They spend more than they bring in. For the wrong reasons: They pride themselves on funding the most special interest groups. But he who gives the most is not the most liberal.

At the wrong times: When the economy is hurting the most.

With pain: Just watch and see.

All this said, according to Aristotle, those whom we deem to be liberal are in fact more representative of the foolish, though not necessarily wicked, prodigal. The true liberal is the ideal fiscal conservative, of course this says nothing about whether we have any of those left in office.