Are atheists zombies?

The discussion on James McGrath’s post JesusWeen led me to consider the intriguing possibility that atheists, and in fact all people who are not Christian believers, might be zombies.

Zombies from "Night of the Living Dead"Now I am not here talking about the kind of flesh-eating “undead” which seem to be more and more prominent in our popular culture, and will no doubt feature prominently in this year’s Halloween festivities. There is even a Zombie Theology website, at which one of the leading contributors is my blogging friend Alan Knox. But then at that site there are some things taking a similar line to what I am taking here, such as the post When zombies go to Sunday School.

My point in this post relates to the concept of philosophical zombies. I was led to look at this by the mention of qualia in a comment by idmillington on McGrath’s post. This kind of zombie is defined as

a hypothetical being that is indistinguishable from a normal human being except in that it lacks conscious experience, qualia, or sentience.

Well, they say “hypothetical”, but how can we know that there are not real zombies of this variety living among us? After all, the hypothesis is that they are indistinguishable from the rest of us. But would they really be, not just in their actions but also in their abstract thinking? If a being that lacked true consciousness were to engage in a debate about consciousness, surely its lack of first-hand knowledge would be reflected in its arguments. Would it not be more likely than a genuinely conscious human being to hold that consciousness is illusory?

Let’s turn to what the Bible has to say here. There is a consistent picture in Scripture, starting from Genesis 2:17 and traceable at least to Revelation 3:1, that people who go against God’s ways are spiritually dead, although their bodies and minds are alive. This idea is expounded most clearly by the Apostle Paul:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. … 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions …

Ephesians 2:1-2,4-5 (NIV)

Christian theologians have generally explained this in terms of the human being as tripartite: body, soul and spirit. On this basis, it is the human spirit which is dead in unbelievers, those who are not “in Christ”, even in those whose bodies and souls (i.e. minds and emotions) are alive. But when someone becomes a Christian, a major part of their “born again” experience is that their human spirit comes alive, as Paul seems to teach in the following verse, although its interpretation is disputed:

But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.

Romans 8:10 (NIV 1984)

Can the human spirit be identified with consciousness? That is not impossible. But Christian teaching might suggest more an identification with conscience and intuition, and also that the spirit is the part of the human being which is in contact with God. So would an intelligent being which lacks a human a philosophical zombie? Technically, probably not, but it does look as if there is some parallel between the concepts.

A better way to put this might be as foillows. According to Christian teaching, unbelievers and atheists, while not necessarily completely without conscience or intuition, lack the part of the human being which is in contact with God. This explains why they are unable to understand matters of Christian faith. As Paul wrote,

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:14 (NIV)

So please don’t be afraid this Halloween that atheists will break into your home in the night and suck your brains out. After all, some of them have plenty of their own brains. But bear in mind that they may be somewhat lacking in the more spiritual aspects of discernment. And remember that arguing with them is pointless, as they do not have the capacity to understand spiritual matters. Instead, pray for them, that the Holy Spirit will give life and light to their human spirits and show them the truth about God.

Neutrinos in Italy break light speed limit

An Italian autostradaThe BBC, amongst many others, reports that neutrinos, sub-atomic particles, have been found to travel across Italy faster than the speed of light. At least, they break that ultimate speed limit for part of their journey from CERN, across corners of Switzerland and France and along half the length of Italy, to Gran Sasso, a large mountain to the east of Rome. I’m sure that in precise Switzerland they wouldn’t dare to break a speed limit. But in Italy, as I have discovered from experience, no one takes any notice of speed limits. So I reckon that in Italy the neutrinos have learned, as I have, to drive like Italians!

Not that it saves them much time. Speeding usually doesn’t. According to the Reuters version of the story, they reach their destination just 60 nanoseconds sooner than expected. Was it worth it? Well, in those 60 billionths of a second my computer can perform 136 operations, not completely negligible. But then most men who drive too fast do it not so much to save time as to show off their manliness. Don’t ask me why women drive too fast, as my answer may offend! Neutrinos, as their name suggests, are neutral or neuter or something, so I have no idea why they would want to travel faster than light.

For some alternative thoughts on what these neutrinos are up to, see Archdruid Eileen’s thoughts Faster than a speeding neutrino, and my comment on them.

Gold is from the heavens

You may have heard of reports of gold dust, as well as precious jewels, falling from from the sky during times of worship, in recent years. Like me, you may not know what to make of such reports – or you may simply reject them as fabrications.

A burst of meteorite impactsBut it is interesting to read in a BBC report that scientists now believe that almost all the gold in the earth’s crust has fallen from the sky – quite literally, in the form of meteorites. The scientists date this fall of gold and other precious metals to 3.9 billion years ago – a date which young earth creationists are unlikely to accept. But, even though we don’t believe that the home of God is literally up there, there is something symbolically interesting and possibly significant in the heavenly origin of all our gold.

Kierkegaard: an Evangelical born before his time

Søren KierkegaardRoger Olson has just completed an interesting series Was Kierkegaard an evangelical? – part 1, part 2, part 3. In fact by the final part of the series he has dropped the question mark and changed the title to “Kierkegaard as evangelical”.

The 19th century Danish philosopher, theologian and religious author Søren Kierkegaard has certainly been a controversial figure among evangelical Christians. As Olson notes in his part 2, influential evangelicals such as Francis Schaeffer and John MacArthur have denounced Kierkegaard as “a pernicious influence” and “Adrift on a sea of subjectivity” – apparently on the basis of very limited acquaintance with his works.

Olson, who has studied Kierkegaard’s works in detail, gives a very different picture. He presents a Christian thinker whose views, while provocative, fit within the bounds of modern evangelicalism – although more Arminian (like Olson) than Calvinist. Here is part of what Olson writes in part 3:

My own reading of K. has led me to believe he was what I consider an evangelical–a person of passionate faith in Jesus Christ–even if not a typical one by contemporary North American standards.  …

What made K. an evangelical?  His absolute determination to find and live authentically according to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Now, for those who define “evangelical” in terms of doctrinal orthodoxy, K. never (to the best of my knowledge) denied any tenet of orthodox Christianity.  He did try to show that they are beyond comprehension and are paradoxes–as a sign of God’s transcendence and humans’ sinfulness.  He perhaps over reacted to the dead orthodoxy and rationalistic religious philosophies (especially Hegel’s) of his day.  But that doesn’t make him non-evangelical in my opinion. …

K. was not an irrationalist about Christianity.  True, like Tertullian, he sometimes referred to what Christians believe (e.g., the incarnation) as absurd, but he MEANT by secular standards of rationality. …

K. wrote much about the church and most of it was negative.  That was not because he disdained church but because the only church he knew (in his context) was the Danish Lutheran (state) Church. … But the point is that K. did NOT reject church in favor of a totally atomistic understanding of Christianity.  What he rejected was Christendom–the church as synthesized with society such that belonging to the society made one a Christian and vice versa.

It seems to me that in many ways Kierkegaard, as presented by Olson, was a very modern, or even postmodern, Christian. He took the Bible as authoritative, but was wary of the traditional teachings of the church. Perhaps he should have been born in the late 20th century instead of the early 19th. If he had been, he might have got on well with Rob Bell. But then perhaps today’s Christianity would not have been the same thing if Kierkegaard had not been one of the first to challenge the over-intellectual tradition in theology which is still so strong among “Reformed” Evangelicals.

I can’t help thinking that Kurt Willems might consider Kierkegaard to be an evangelical reject. He has certainly been rejected as evangelical by people like Schaeffer and MacArthur. But, for the same reasons that I wrote in response to Willems I’m an Evangelical – don’t let them steal the name, I agree with Olson that we should accept Kierkegaard, posthumously, as a brother Evangelical.

Meanwhile I still don’t know if the story Flying like wild ducks which I posted here last year is genuinely by Kierkegaard. If anyone reading this can enlighten me about that, please comment on that post.

Rock badgers: biblical animals, pest in modern Israel

Rock badgersMost of the animals mentioned in the Bible are quite familiar to English speaking readers, although some of the birds are rather obscure. But there is one small animal mentioned several times in the Old Testament which is a bit of a puzzle to many readers, not least because it goes by so many names: “coney” (KJV, ASV, NIV 1984), “badger” (RSV, NRSV, CEV, CEB), “hyrax” (NLT, HCSB, TNIV, NIV 2011), “rock badger” (GNT, NCV, NKJV, ESV), “marmot” (The Message) (all renderings in Proverbs 30:26). As Agur son of Jakeh teaches,

hyraxes are creatures of little power,
yet they make their home in the crags.

Proverbs 30:26 (NIV 2011)

So it is interesting to read a BBC Nature report today (incidentally misquoting KJV) Hyraxes: why Israel’s ‘rock rabbits’ have become pests. Apparently these cute furry creatures “have moved into residential areas of Galilee”, where they live in piles of rubble, artificial equivalents to their favoured crags, and “have been destroying people’s gardens”. As they are not kosher (Leviticus 11:5), eating them would not be a solution. So, the BBC report concludes,

Although hyraxes are generally quite popular with suburban wildlife-watchers, some people have called for a cull.

But early research indicates that simply filling in the boulder piles would drive hyraxes out of the villages and back to the cliffs, just as it says in the Bible.

If only the BBC would broaden its recognition that problems can be solved by doing things “just as it says in the Bible”!

God is not the Great Deceiver

A supernova remnant in the constellation OphiuchusJames McGrath links to a post by David H. Bailey Supernovas and “God the Great Deceiver” theology. In this post Bailey explores some of the apparent implications of the Young Earth Creationist position, that the universe was created only about 6,000 years ago – or in some variants up to 20,000 years ago. Bailey notes that astronomers regularly observe events, supernova explosions, from at least 200,000 light years away in other galaxies, and so, according to orthodox science, which took place at least 200,000 years ago.

The creationist Henry Morris, as quoted by Bailey, explained this apparent discrepancy as follows:

[T]he light rays … must have been created carrying information descriptive of historical physical events (such as super novae) which never actually occurred, because we would now be observing light rays which were created in transit and never were radiated from the stars which they seem to image.

In other words, God created the universe with an appearance of age. Francis Schaeffer tried to rationalise this version of events:

There is a possibility that God created a ‘grown-up’ universe. For example, Adam, the first night he existed, might have seen the light of the furthest stars without waiting for long light years to pass before they could be seen.

To this possibility, we must quickly add one note. This does not mean that God is capricious. And surely it does not imply, and I would totally reject, the concept Bishop Samuel Wilberforce suggested at Oxford in Darwin’s time: that God created fossils in the earth in order to fool fools. This is totally out of character with the God of the Bible.

However, just because it was stated so horribly in the days of Darwin is no reason not to suggest that God may have in some sense and in some areas created a grown-up universe. One could ask, for example, whether the trees when they were created had rings.

Well, Schaeffer has a point, but why would God create starlight as evidence of past events which never actually occurred, unless it was something like “in order to fool fools”? The Psalmist wrote “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1 NIV), but is what they declare in fact deception by God? As Bailey puts it,

to anyone outside the world of hard-core creationists, this type of “God the Great Deceiver” theology, namely the notion that God deliberately constructed a phony universe to mislead diligent seekers of truth in the 21st century, is not only absurd but downright blasphemous. It is utterly at odds with the notion of a rational, comprehensible God that has been the mainstay of Judeo-Christian theology for several millennia. Indeed, such a being would be utterly unworthy of our reverence or obedience.

In fact even young earth creationists have realised the force of this argument and tried to find ways around it. A reader of this blog regularly refers me to articles from Creation Ministries International. So I went to their site for material about this issue, and found an interesting 2003 article A new cosmology: solution to the starlight travel time problem by John G. Hartnett. Hartnett, a believer in a creation about 6,000 years ago, looks at five possible solutions to the problem. Only one of these is that God created the light from events that did not actually happen, and he clearly rejects this:

I don’t believe God commits fraud. Creating a beam of light from source to observer so that the observer appears to see current information must also mean there is a whole stream of information in the beam that is false.

The problem is that three of his other solutions, that the speed of light was enormously faster in the past or that clocks on earth and elsewhere in the universe run at vastly different speeds, seem totally implausible to someone like me who has studied physics to a high level. And the remaining solution is to concede that the universe is ancient and only the earth was recently created.

Hartnett’s own preference is for a solution in which for the first few “days” of creation clocks on earth, and maybe in the whole solar system, ran ten trillion times slower than clocks elsewhere in the universe. Thus each “day” of creation, as measured on earth where there were in fact no observers other than God, corresponds to ten trillion astronomical days. This sounds to me very like an attempt to present “day-age” type old earth creationism in young earth creationist language.

So, it seems that at least some young earth creationists agree with Bailey that God is not the Great Deceiver. But they have yet to come up with even slightly convincing explanations of how the light from distant supernovas could have reached us in 6,000 years of real time.

Anthropology and Theology, Angelology and Demonology

To any of my readers who haven’t got an ology I offer an, um, ap-ology, for bringing four ologies into the title of this post.

My responses to Scott Bailey’s post Does Higher Criticism Attempt to “Destroy the Bible”? V, both in comments on that post and in my own post Scott Bailey in bed with creationists!, have created a small storm. I will not attempt to respond any further to Scott, as it is clear that he holds to his materialistic creed with the fervour of a fundamentalist. But some important issues were raised by Scott’s commenters Terri and 4xi0m. I started writing this post in order to address these issues, but matters have moved on as I have been working on this post, and I have said in many further comments there much of what I intended to write here. So here are some slightly disconnected thoughts about the matter.

I can also recommend John Hobbins’ post Why Scott Bailey is wrong and Alvin Plantinga is right.

An issue which I still want to take up is one which I hinted at in my post Unseen Realities: forget Bultmann and the 19th century. There I wrote concerning the activities of spiritual beings:

Just as experiments on the behaviour of individual humans cannot succeed without their consent, so we cannot hope to experiment on the behaviour of individual demons or angels who are unlikely to consent. The best we can do is observe their typical behaviour using the kinds of techniques used in anthropology.

I need to explain a bit more these “techniques used in anthropology”. Anthropology (from Greek anthropos “human being”) is, according to Wikipedia, “the study of humanity”, and

is traditionally divided into four sub-fields, each with its own further branches: biological or physical anthropology, social anthropology or cultural anthropology, archaeology and anthropological linguistics.

In addition, systematic theologians recognise

Theological anthropology, which is not part of anthropology but a sub-field of theology.

The only sub-field of anthropology which I have studied formally is cultural anthropology, and that only for one short course. And the specific anthropological technique I had in mind, which was the focus of that course, is called participant observation:

A key principle of the method is that one may not merely observe, but must find a role within the group observed from which to participate in some manner, even if only as “outside observer.” Overt participant-observation, therefore, is limited to contexts where the community under study understands and permits it. …

It emerged as the principal approach to ethnographic research by anthropologists and relied on the cultivation of personal relationships with local informants as a way of learning about a culture, involving both observing and participating in the social life of a group. By living with the cultures they studied, these researchers were able to formulate first hand accounts of their lives and gain novel insights. This same method of study has also been applied to groups within Western society, and is especially successful in the study of sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity, where only by taking part might the observer truly get access to the lives of those being studied.

Angels & DemonsI’m sure Scott and his commenters would agree with me that, to a large extent at least, Christian healing and the attribution of activity in this world to angels or demons takes place largely within “sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity”, referring to the Christian groups practising these things. That justifies the use of participant observation methods to study these phenomena. I would accept that there are limits to what can be proved by such methods.

But there is another factor here, that angels and/or demons, if they exist, can themselves be treated as “sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity”. As such one cannot hope to study their behaviour in any detail without “cultivation of personal relationships” with them as a participant observer. Now I would not suggest that anyone should cultivate personal relationships especially with demons. My point here is more that angels and demons cannot be studied as if they are impersonal forces. Nor can God, although participant observation would not be a suitable technique for studying him.

Then, as I wrote in response to one of 4xi0m’s comments on Scott’s post,

there is an issue to be considered whether spiritual healing depends on “the caprice of an invisible, unpredictable force” or “follow[s] a predictable law”.

Here “force” is 4xi0m’s word. I would have used “person”, on the basis that forces are predictable but persons or not. But on the quantum level even forces are unpredictable, and the Free Will Theorem ascribes to them free will and so blurs the distinctions between them and persons. Scott should note that this theorem which offers metaphysical results, while not necessarily proved beyond doubt, was put forward by respected scientists in the peer-reviewed journal Foundations of Physics.

In fact we have a false dichotomy here. It is well known in many branches of science that whereas the behaviour of individual constituent parts of a system may be unpredictable the behaviour of the system as a whole may follow highly predictable laws. Much of physics and chemistry depend on this large scale predictability of systems which are apparently random at the molecular level. And these same principles can be applied to the behaviour of large groups of people: the choices of each individual are unpredictable but the overall behaviour of the group can often, if not always, be predicted rather well. Indeed this is the whole basis of social science.

One might expect this to be relevant to the activities of angels and of demons, to the perhaps debatable extent that they are individuals acting independently. But is this relevant to Christian healing? I’m not sure. The involvement of angels in healing is controversial. And if healing is down to the work of one God, then it is not about averaging out the behaviour of many individuals. This is a matter not of sociology but of theology.

There is another ology involved here which I cannot recommend for serious study, although sometimes it is good for a laugh: Scotteriology.

Scott Bailey in bed with creationists!

Scott Bailey when he was a professional ice hockey goaltender

Scott Bailey when he was a professional ice hockey goaltender

I was rather enjoying Scott Bailey’s series Does Higher Criticism Attempt to “Destroy the Bible”? This was teaching in simple language some important lessons about how to approach the Bible.

But when Scott came to the fifth post in his series his presuppositions started to show. Indeed this post is little more than a summary of them. But Scott’s position became really clear when I tried to engage with him in the comments on this post. I summarised his first response to me as

You clearly reject as “delusional and willfully ignorant” anyone who believes in any kind of spiritual world interacting with our world today.

He replied that he would accept this kind of interaction if I could show him

how it works, that it works, and do it under repeatable, verifiable, testable conditions.

But when I suggested that his insistence on “repeatable, verifiable, testable conditions” for any tests of spiritual activity implies that

large parts of modern science, including almost all geology, evolutionary biology and astronomy, are invalid because they are based on observation rather than repeatable experiment,

he replied

Are you really that stupid and unaware of the different scientific methods and disciplines? … it’s hard for me to fathom someone could seriously write that. Perhaps the most idiotic thing you have commented here.

Well, I’ll let my readers judge who is being “idiotic” here. Of course there are different scientific methods in different disciplines. But he is trying to argue that it is “delusional” to speak of interactions between the material and the spiritual world because they cannot be proven by the experimental methods used in one particular set of disciplines – although they can very likely be demonstrated by using observational methods which are accepted in other scientific disciplines.

Now I accept that good observational evidence needs to be found for any claims for example of healing as a result of prayer, and that it is hard to find such evidence. But to claim that it is “delusional” to believe in such healings unless they can be performed under repeatable laboratory conditions is quite unreasonable. It is also offensive to astronomers, evolutionary biologists etc whose work, if the same standards were applied to it, would also have to be written off as “delusional”.

Yes, Scott has some uncomfortable bedfellows here, creationists who argue against evolution and an ancient universe because these scientific results are based only on observation of fossils, distant galaxies etc and not on experiments done “under repeatable, verifiable, testable conditions”.

Scott, you, like “Every single person in the western world”, have been “inculcated, socialized, and deeply, deeply ingrained into Enlightenment categories of thinking” – to quote your own words. But that does not imply that those categories are objectively correct and that all others are false. The excellent scholar does not blindly accept the categories of thinking he or she has been brought up with, but questions these paradigms and is prepared to transcend them. Great scientific advances have been made by those like Einstein who were able to think in new categories. But second rate scholars like Bultmann, as I discussed recently, continue to think in the old ways long after they have been discredited. Scott, you might think it a compliment to be compared with Bultmann, but I don’t mean it as such when I suggest that you are making the same mistake as him.

Revelation is Like a Bouquet of Roses

A bouquet of rosesI am copying this title with thanks from the post Revelation is Like a Bouquet of Roses by Jeremy Myers. Indeed he has a good point comparing the various ways in which God reveals himself with a bouquet. Many blooms are better than one, and a variety of blooms is better still.

But the main point I want to take from Jeremy’s post is that, despite the alliteration, it is wrong to contrast science with Scripture.

Scripture and nature, theology and science The real contrasts which need to be made are between Scripture and nature, and between theology and science. Scripture and nature both provide us with data, revealed by God, for us human beings to interpret. Theology is human interpretation of Scripture, and science is human interpretation of nature. Jeremy offers a helpful diagram, copied here, summarising the situation.

So, Jeremy writes,

we can never really say that Science contradicts Scripture. It doesn’t. Nature and Scripture cannot disagree, because both are simply the pools of data from which Science and Theology come. When Science and theology are at odds, it is only because one or the other has misinterpreted and misunderstood the data.

So when someone gets upset that “Science is undermining the Bible!” what they are really saying is that “Science is undermining my understanding of the Bible.” The two are very different. We must be careful to not equate our theology with Scripture. The two are not the same.

I couldn’t have put it better. But there is also another side to it. Much of the theory of evolution, for example, is probably good science. But when atheistic scientists use it as the basis for assertions that there is no place for a Creator God, they need to be reminded not to go beyond what can be justified from observations of nature. Belief in God does not conflict with these observations, but only with some scientific interpretations of them.