Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What's Your Foundation?


When trying to convince someone about the morality (or immorality) of a given action, there often seems to be little progress made. In my experience, this is usually the result of the other person having different beliefs about the foundation of moral values and duties. As a Catholic Christian, I believe that moral values and duties are objective realities created by God. They are not arbitrary "rules" that God made up – they flow from God's very nature.  If God is the Summum Bonum or Highest Good, and He created the universe for a purpose, it follows that an action carried out in His Creation is objectively good and moral to the extent that it conforms to His purpose. It is very inconsistent (and sometimes, comical) when skeptics or atheists try to maintain the existence of objective moral values and duties, that is, "values and duties that are real and binding on all people, regardless of time, place, or culture," without God as their source.

Missing the Point

This is the most misunderstood aspect of Christian morality. Non-believers will often say, "I don't need to believe in God to be a good person," "Why can't we just be good people and leave religion out of this?" and, "Isn't it better to just be good because you want to, instead of doing so because some two-thousand-year-old book tells you to, or because you're afraid of going to Hell?" The truth is, no reasonable Christian will claim that an atheist or agnostic cannot live their life in a moral way, and the only thing statements and questions like these prove is that the person offering them is completely missing the point of the argument. The argument is NOT that belief in God is necessary for a person to act morally. Rather, it is that the existence of God is necessary.  

In a world plagued by moral relativism, the one authority that everyone still believes they must obey is their own conscience.  By conscience I mean the faculty every human being has by nature to judge the moral quality of actions and distinguish right from wrong. Personally, I find this universal obedience to conscience somewhat curious.  Why does conscience have this authority? To answer this, we must look at the possible sources of conscience. They are:
      
        1. Nature, as in beliefs about behavior learned through the evolutionary process
        2. Ourselves, as in our personal tastes and subjective interpretations
        3. Society, as in social norms formed by the majority opinion 
        4. An external, higher source like a transcendent Creator

"Follow Your Conscience Biological Processes"

If the source of our moral conscience is evolution, that would mean that all of the moral values and duties that we encounter in life are merely the products of random mutation and natural selection, and that what we perceive as our "conscience" is really just highly developed natural instincts that best served our ancestors in allowing them to survive and reproduce.  If this really were the case, then how can I be bound to follow my conscience? Why should I be obligated to answer to a biological process? Why should I believe that the instincts I've inherited from thousands upon thousands of years ago are a trustworthy guide to follow, or authority to obey, when deciding how I will conduct myself? The fact is, the processes of nature, as beautiful and intricate as they are, cannot be binding on my conscience. Also, what is widely regarded as morally reprehensible is often times what our instinct tells us to do, and yet we resist through good judgement and experience. Our conscience is less like a factory installed computer program, which operates in a fixed and predetermined way, and more like a seed that is planted in us, which we must nourish and help grow, or else neglect and let decay.

It's Not "My" Truth, it's "The" Truth

What if we just make up morality for ourselves?  You can have your "truth," and I'll have mine. That way we can all be considered moral and avoid having to deal with others who try to impose their morality on us. The problem with this idea is that morality, far from only concerning the individual, is primarily a relational concept, so it is found in the interactions between people. While moral relativism might sound very appealing, especially to young people today with the countless temptations they face, no one can actually live as a moral relativist. No justice system can be founded on the statement, "Don't impose your morality on me," for that is exactly what the purpose of a justice system is: to define and maintain an objective standard of morality, and to enforce it by penalizing people who fail to conform to the standard. If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I can't bind myself to a self-invented set of moral values and duties. When the going gets tough and a difficult moral decision is set before me, I will inevitably lower my standards and justify my actions to myself – being accountable to only yourself is like grading your own essays in college ("How about that, another A!"). This quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI effectively summarizes the pitfall of moral relativism, especially in education:
Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own 'ego'.
Morality is Not a Democracy

We've seen that we can't make up morality for ourselves. But what about society? Surely whole populations of peoples can work together and agree on what is moral, then make laws that reflect those decisions and enforce the laws. This idea is known as "social contract theory," which proposes that humans choose to be moral because it is necessary in order for society to function properly. Unfortunately, we humans have a poor track record in trying to establish a social contract of morality, including the infamous and horrifying consequences of the radical ideological and political movements of the 20th century. On an even more fundamental level, can one individual make moral judgements that I am obligated to conform myself to? I think most would say, "Of course not!" The reality is, society is nothing more than a large group of individuals, and simply adding more insufficient sources of morality together does not a sufficient source make. If one man is wrong, getting 300 million people to agree with him won't make him right – truth is qualitative, not quantitative. Since I cannot bind even myself to my own subjective standard of morality, it follows that other people cannot bind me to their standard, no matter how many of them there may be. If literally everyone in the world somehow bought into the idea that it was morally permissible to torture an innocent child for entertainment, would it then become right? What percentage of people have to agree on something before it becomes true? This is what makes utilitarianism so terrifying, because if torturing that child brought the "most happiness to the largest number of people," then we would not only be justified in doing it, we would be obligated. Clearly, what a group of people may be taught or convinced is moral cannot constitute real and objective moral values and duties. At this point, some people will cite examples of tribes of indigenous peoples who violate taboos of civilized societies, by acts such as cannibalism and human sacrifice, and claim that these examples prove that morality is nothing more than the collective creation of a given population. However, I find such examples to be exceptions that prove the rule.  If an entire society can be mistaken about matters of science or mathematics, which are real and objective, then the same error is possible in matters of morality. 

The House Built on Rock

So, what can the foundation of objective moral values and duties be? If it is not a product of the evolutionary process, or of personal opinion, or of social norms, or of some combination of the three, then what is it? Where does it come from? Does it even exist? The only explanation of the existence of objective moral values and duties, which are real and binding on everyone, regardless of time, place and culture, is that God created them. If God is real, and He created human beings for a purpose, namely, to conform their wills to His so that they might flourish in this life and be eventually fully united with Him in eternal life, then it makes sense that there would be a right and wrong way of going about that process of conformity, and of helping others to achieve the same end. This is the mission and purpose of the Church, not to impose her morality, but to propose Christ's, to hold him up to all people as "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6), so that they may achieve the end for which they were created – to love and to be loved.

Let us give thanks to God for revealing His perfect moral law to us, by writing it on our hearts, teaching it to us in the Sacred Scriptures, and most especially, by revealing it in its fulness through His Son, Jesus Christ, who established His Church, which is "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15), in order that we might be guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:13). Thank you for reading, and God Bless you!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Sources:

Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version,                   Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994.             Print.
        

Sunday, March 23, 2014

From Party Animal to Rational Animal


From the time I was a junior in high school until I was a freshman in college, I had many long and deep conversations with a close friend from Brazil, Felipe. Felipe asked me questions that caused me to have a lot of doubts about my Catholic faith. I never got to a point where I actually would have claimed "God does not exist," but looking back I would say that I was basically agnostic. I didn't know what I really believed or what I could really know for sure, and I was heavily influenced by Felipe's relativistic attitude towards truth and knowledge. A few years ago, I had become depressed and dissatisfied with the lack of meaning in my life, because I was working a job that I thought was pointless, going to school to get a job that I couldn't see myself actually doing everyday, spending most of my nights drinking and partying, and many of my mornings with a regretful conscience and a throbbing brain.  

Facing the Facts

Finally, I started to ask myself the tough questions like, "Is this all there is in life? Hating Mondays and loving Fridays? Mechanically going through the motions of life, punching your time card, checking the boxes, motivated only by the next opportunity to get a 12-pack and play video games?" Somehow I had the honesty to admit that, if God does not exist, then the answer to these questions is, ultimately, "Yes, this is it." This was a frightening realization to me, like the harsh reality we face at a funeral. We know in the back of our minds that we will all die someday, but that fact is brought into the light when we get that diagnosis, that phone call, or we have to carry that casket. The Catholic apologist Matt Fradd said in his story of conversion from agnosticism,"When you die, people will talk about you the same way you talk about people who are dead now." Like the motivation that comes from the realization of one's own mortality, the thought that my life might be meaningless motivated me. It motivated me to search for the truth about God, reality, and the purpose of my life.

Enter Philosophy

On my search for meaning and purpose I quickly came across the work of Dr. William Lane Craig. Dr. Craig is a Christian (evangelical protestant) philosopher of religion and time.  He has written many books, and has also participated in many debates with some of the most prominent atheists of today, including the late Christopher Hitchens (who died in 2011), theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and neuroscientist Sam Harris. The argument that Dr. Craig is probably most famous for defending is the Kalāam Cosmological Argument (hereafter KCA). The KCA is a deductive argument for the existence of God.  The argument was originally formulated and defended by Muslims during the Middle Ages, and the word "kalaam" means "speech" in Arabic. The argument is simple, containing just three steps:

1.  Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
2.  The universe began to exist.
3.  Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

Until modern times, the truth of the first or major (first) premise was more or less taken for granted. The idea that "nothing comes from nothing" seems so self-evident that most people find it almost redundant to even mention. This is, however, the goal of the first premise in an argument, to begin with something that your opponent will almost certainly agree with. The second premise was the one that received most of the criticism. Realize that, until the Big Bang Theory was proposed by Belgian priest Fr. Georges Lemaître, and observational evidence found to support it in the late 1920s, virtually all scientists believed that the universe was eternal, that is to say, that the universe had existed for an infinite amount of time into the past. Dr. Craig points out that the idea of an actually infinite past is very strange and has many paradoxical implications. For example, imagine you are waiting for a particular domino (which represents today) to fall in a row of dominoes. But, imagine that there are literally an infinite amount of dominoes that must fall before that domino can fall. How would that domino ever fall if you had to wait for an infinite amount of dominoes to fall before it? In other words, if the past is infinite, how did we manage to get through an infinite number of days in order to get to the present day? The impossibility of such a scenario, known as an "infinite regress," provides good reason to think that the universe must have had a beginning, without even getting into the empirical evidence that has been discovered in more recent times.

The Worst Birthday Present Ever

In 2007, at the famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday party, prominent cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin presented a theorem titled the "Borde, Vilenkin, and Guthe (BVG) Theorem." The BVG theorem, developed by Vilenkin and his colleagues, proved with a very high level of scientific certainty that any universe that was expanding would have to have a beginning in time. Vilenkin pulled no punches when he put forth the proof, saying this after he had presented it:
"It is said that an argument will convince a reasonable man, and that a proof will convince even an unreasonable man. Now that the proof is in place (referring to the BVG theorem), physicists and cosmologists can no longer hide behind even the possibility that the universe is past infinite. There is no escape. They must face the reality of a beginning," and later,"To view an inflationary universe without a beginning is impossible."
Once he had heard the proof explained, the birthday boy Stephen Hawking exclaimed, "My goodness! It has very transcendent implications!" No kidding! One journalist writing about the event in New Scientist magazine titled her article "Why Physicists Can't Avoid a Creation Event: The Worst Birthday Present Ever." With more and more evidence mounting to support the idea that the universe did in fact begin to exist, some physicists and cosmologists, worried about these implications, have resorted to attacking the first premise, that "Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its existence." The fact that they would go so far as to reject one of the most basic principals in philosophy, the "principal of sufficient reason," which maintains that every effect must have a cause that explains it, reveals how strong their prior commitment is to an uncreated universe.  

Let Nothing Be Nothing

If the universe really did begin to exist, then that would mean that prior to its absolute beginning, the universe was literally nothing. While it may sound simple enough, it is important to understand what is meant by the word "nothing." Nothing is the complete absence of being, and it has no properties or potentialities, that is, it does not have in itself the potential to become something. It is not the low-energy state of a quantum field or a vacuum, both of which have properties, namely, that they are conditioned by time. It is also not a void, because you can have more or less of a void, and a void is dimensional and orientable. One scientist once joked, "nothing is the stuff rocks dream about." So, if the universe was really nothing before it began to exist, then it could not have moved itself from nothing to something – that would imply that it could do something. There would have to be a transcendent cause, a cause outside of the universe, that brought the universe into existence out of nothing. Also, since there is literally an infinite gap between nothing and something, we can infer that the transcendent cause would have to be all-powerful or omnipotent (sound familiar?). Suppose someone is still willing to deny the first premise and say that something can come from nothing. This raises the question, "What is it about nothing that makes it only able to produce universes?" In other words, if something can come from nothing, then why have we never observed it? Why don't random planets, objects, molecules, or even BMW's and Border Collies pop into being out of nothing? This might sound silly, but that is only because it is perfectly consistent with a silly notion, the notion that something could come from nothing.

In conclusion, I believe the KCA is sound and that it has strong theistic (or at least deistic) implications for anyone who is willing to study it honestly (key word: honestly). It is important to realize that the KCA, along with other arguments for the existence of God, does not in any way prove the existence of the Judeo-Christian God, or any particular god, but it does prove the existence of an all-powerful and transcendent cause of the universe, which is enough to refute the atheist or to reassure the person doubting God's existence. In dialogue with atheists or agnostics, it is important to remember that, once you sort through all of the rhetorical and often times emotionally charged arguments, every argument against the existence of God will be claiming one of two things:  1) that the past can be infinite, or 2) that something can come from nothing – both of which are problematic propositions and extremely difficult to support by reasoned argumentation. Thanks be to God, for all of Creation, and for giving us the ability to reason our way to knowing that He exists, as the Church maintains in her Catechism: "The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason" (CCC 286). Saint Paul wrote the following about unbelievers in his letter to the Romans:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (Rm 1:19-20).

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Sources:

Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000. Print.

Grossman, Lisa."Why physicists can't avoid a creation event." New Scientist. Retrieved on 11-11-2014. URL:  http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328474.400-why-physicists-cant-avoid-a-creation-event.html. Web.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Science, Evolution, and Unnecessary Faith Claims

     
     
A few weeks ago I watched a YouTube video of a presentation given by Francis Collins, a very successful biologist who converted from atheism to Christianity. Collins was the leader of the Human Genome Project, which made huge breakthroughs in our understanding of DNA and, for the first time, fully translated the human genetic code. Collins, along with thousands of other scientists, believe that the theory of evolution is fully compatible with Christian faith. I am proud that the Catholic Church has always taken this stance towards evolution. I think that believers in the Intelligent Design theory, which states that God had to actively guide, or intervene in evolution, are fighting a losing battle. Also, as Collins pointed out in his talk, the idea that God would have to intervene in the evolutionary process would seem to imply that He didn't get things right from the beginning of Creation, which would of course be inconsistent with His omniscience and omnipotence. And in fact, the language of the Creation story in Genesis might even be conveying some sort of natural evolutionary process:  "Let the waters bring forth..." and, "Let the Earth bring forth..." and most of all, "...then the Lord God formed man of the dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (Gen. 1:20, 24, & 2:7). This description of the creation of man seems very consistent with evolution theory, that is:  God created man through a process of evolution, then, once man's cognitive capacities had evolved far enough to make proper use of the function of free will, God infused in him the rational soul. This certainly was not necessarily the case, but when I learn about various scientific theories, I always see the intelligence of God in them and marvel. The fact that some individuals abuse the process of science, by using it to answer questions that are completely beyond its reach does not mean that we as believers should fear the discoveries of it. There are not "truths of science" and "truths of faith" – there is only truth. Something is true to the extent that it accurately reflects reality.  Science has completely strengthened my faith, not weakened it. I don't know what the motive is for those insisting that there is a conflict between belief in God and the discoveries of science, but it is not an honest search for the truth. Science by its very nature must always be inductive and therefore open to the possibility of new discovery. This fact completely undermines the narcissistic and sarcastic tone of certainty that is unfortunately all too common among atheists on the scene today. In his book, God and the Astronomers, Robert Jastrow proposed a future merging of science and faith beautifully when he wrote:
At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
Saint Augustine wrote brilliantly (and prophetically) on the relationship between claims of faith and claims of science over 14 centuries before Darwin would write On the Origin of Species. In 400 A.D. he warned against unnecessary claims based on one interpretation of scripture, writing:
In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received.  In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis).
        This is great advice and especially timely today, when we have misguided people claiming, on behalf of Sacred Scripture, ideas that are ridiculous and outdated, such as the idea that the Earth is 6000 years old. Unfortunately such people, sometimes called "Young Earth Creationists," are often mistaken as being representative of authentic or even mainstream Christianity, which could not be further from the truth. This is one way in which Fundamentalist Protestantism leads to agnosticism and atheism, by way of the principal of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). When your own narrow personal interpretation of Scripture is the foundation of your faith, you are like the man who built his house on sand.  That is why Saint Paul writes in his letter to Timothy that, "...the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).  Praise Christ for establishing the Church as our foundation, that we may not be children in our thinking, "tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14), but rather have the assurance of the authority of Christ, which exists only in the Church he founded. Let us give thanks to God for His awesome Creation, which he willed to be intelligible to the human mind through the gifts of both our capacity of reason and the process of science.


Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer



Sources:


Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic           Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.