Sunday, March 26, 2017

"Animadversions of a Synthetic Chemist"

From James Tour:

Life requires carbohydrates, nucleic acids, lipids, and proteins. What is the chemistry behind their origin? Biologists seem to think that there are well-understood prebiotic molecular mechanisms for their synthesis. They have been grossly misinformed. And no wonder: few biologists have ever synthesized a complex molecule ab initio. If they need a molecule, they purchase molecular synthesis kits, which are, of course, designed by synthetic chemists, and which feature simplistic protocols.

Polysaccharides? Their origin?

The synthetic chemists do not have a pathway.

The biologists do not have a clue.


Those who think scientists understand the issues of prebiotic chemistry are wholly misinformed. Nobody understands them. Maybe one day we will. But that day is far from today. It would be far more helpful (and hopeful) to expose students to the massive gaps in our understanding. They may find a firmer—and possibly a radically different—scientific theory.

The basis upon which we as scientists are relying is so shaky that we must openly state the situation for what it is: it is a mystery.

When I survey the wondrous cross

When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast -
Save in the death of Christ my God.
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did ere such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small!
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul,
Demands my soul,
Love demands my soul,
My life, my all.

Fox spirits

I attempt to read the Bible counterculturally. I was raised in a hitech civilization with strong secular and Christian crosscurrents. That's completely different from the world of the Pentateuch, where paganism and witchcraft were pervasive. So I like to ask myself how certain Biblical narratives might come across to people with a background that's more like ancient pagans. 

I haven't done in-depth study of fox spirits, but from what I've read, it's a fixture of Chinese and Japanese folklore. Here's one example:

There are different ways to interpret this kind of material:

i) We might discount it in toto as sheer folk mythology.

ii) By the same token, we might discount it on the grounds that where there's a preexisting explanatory category, many people default to that generic category. 

iii) Or we might say it has a basis in fact, but it's undergone legendary embellishment. In other words, this derives from actual encounters with malevolent supernatural agents, but as a result, people invent a backstory to explain where these "spirits" came from, where they normally reside, how their world intersects with our world. Stories about their origins, social order, &c., are mythological, but a genuine experience underlies the narrative overlay. 

I'm sure that (ii) is often the case, but I also think (iii) is likely to be the ultimate reason. 

If fox spirits exist, what are they? In principle there are three possible candidates:

i) Animal spirits

ii) Demonic spirits

iii) Ghosts

What's notable is the distinction between a physical animal and a roaming "spirit" that's detachable from the body. Given the association in some cultures between animals and malevolent free-ranging "spirits," it may be instructive to consider how the Tempter in Gen 3 would register to the original audience. What cultural connotations would that evoke? 

Predictive dreams

I don't automatically believe reports like this, but by the same token, I don't automatically disbelieve reports like this. I'd add that the more often that's reported by credible people, the more likely that premonitory dreams actually happen. 


DwimblePuritan Board Freshman

Speaking of predictive dreams, here's a weird one for you. A little over 20 years ago I had a vivid dream one Saturday morning where I was standing on a dock in Haiti, beside a ship I came on, wearing a goofy safari hat, and listening to a Haitian tell me a story about how his little daughter had been taken from him by practitioners of Voodoo. I woke up, thought it was weird and half wondered if that dream could have been given me by God. Then I immediately dismissed that idea and thought it was silly because why in Heaven's name would I go on a ship? No one goes anywhere on a ship anymore. If I was going to go to Haiti I'd go on a plane, and I certainly wouldn't be wearing a stupid safari hat. Besides, I didn't really believe in that sort of thing anyway. So I dismissed the dream and quickly forgot about it.

A year or two later an opportunity was presented to me to go with a mission team to Haiti to help build an orphanage and school in a little village on top of a mountain near Port au Prince. I accepted, raised the money, and off I went...on a ministry ship. So, what happened? On the dock in Haiti immediately after arriving I met a man and had a long conversation with him about Christ, and eventually he started telling me a story about how his little daughter had been taken from him by practitioners of Voodoo. The second he told me that, memories of the dream came flooding back, and with a stunned look on my face and my friend immediately asking me what was wrong with me, I looked over my shoulder at the ship I had come on, looked again at the man who had just told me the story, and then took off my, yes, totally goofy safari hat that I can't believe I was wearing.

There are a ton of things from that trip that I won't go into, except to say that it truly transformed my life and gave me a heart for missions and the poor from that day forward. But on the topic of tell me...was the dream a predictive dream providentially given by God or was it the weirdest coincidence in human history? Nothing like that had ever happened before or since, but it is something I've always treasured but rarely told anyone about.

Oh, and one little humorous aside about the goofy hat. When we got up to the village and everyone was very nervous (both us and the villagers), someone on our team yelled at me to throw him my goofy hat. Lo and behold it sailed through the sky like a Frisbee. So, before you know it our team and virtually the entire village were in a giant circle playing a game throwing my stupid hat across the circle to each other and trying to catch it on our heads. That hat ended up being be best ice-breaker I've ever seen. We all had so much fun it was like we had been friends forever by the time we stopped playing and got down to the business of unloading gear and getting our work started.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Wheels within wheels

10 And as for their appearance, the four had the same likeness, as if a wheel were within a wheel. 11 When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went, but in whatever direction the front wheel faced, the others followed without turning as they went (Ezk 10:10-11).

Artists and commentators struggle to visualize Ezekiel's description of the wheels. Since I wasn't there, I can't reconstruct what Ezekiel saw. However, I'd like to draw a comparison. One time I was standing near a railroad. I was familiar with the railroad, having see it from both sides. It was a double railroad. Two parallel tracks for two trains. 

The time I was standing there, I saw a train in the foreground, facing me. That train was at a standstill. 

Yet I saw moving wheels. How could the wheels be moving while the train was motionless?

The explanation, of course, is that I was seeing through the undercarriage of the train in the foreground to another train beside it. The train in the foreground obscured the train in the background. This generated the optical illusion that the train facing me was simultaneously mobile and immobile. How would the undercarriage be in motion while the carriage remained motionless? 

Of course, that's impossible, yet I didn't misperceive the situation. The illusion was caused by the ambiguities of perspective. A montage in which the train in the foreground was superimposed on the train in the background. The only part of the train in the background that was visible was the undercarriage. But due to the foreshortened perspective, it looked as if the moving wheels belonged to the motionless train. 

Perhaps Ezekiel's disorienting imagery is analogous to that. 

How Can Christians in Science Respond to Claims that Faith Is Irrational?

The argument from ignorance

Atheists often mock the Christian appeal to mystery or paradox. They think that's intellectually evasive. A cop-out.

Before getting to the main point, I'd note that mystery and paradox are not synonymous. A logical paradox is mysterious, but a mystery isn't necessarily paradoxical. 

On a related note, atheists accuse Christians of resorting to an argument from ignorance or God-of-the gaps. However, in other contexts, atheists appeal to mystery. For instance, some atheists say we may never be able to explain the naturalistic origin of life because we don't have enough physical evidence about primordial conditions to reconstruct the distant past in that regard. In principle, we could explain the origin of life naturalistically if we had enough trace evidence to reconstruct the initial conditions, but that may be lost. 

More dramatically, some atheists say we find quantum mechanics baffling because our simian brains were not evolved to understand that sort of thing. That kind of intelligence didn't confer a survival advantage on the ancient African savannas for our early ancestors. So natural selection didn't develop brains that have the cognitive ability to resolve quantum mechanical paradoxes. In that event, it's something we can't figure out even in principle. Human reason is too limited. It hits a ceiling.

Likewise, there may be problems in math that are humanly insoluble. Once again, our simian brains evolved to solve more practical problems. So we hit a wall. 

Can we know the Bible?

Typically, Scripturalists take the position that the Bible is the only source of knowledge. All other sources of information are relegated to opinion. But there's a basic problem with that: knowledge of the Bible depends on memory, and memory is fallible. So the logic of Scripturalism commits the typical Scripturalist to the position that Christians can't know anything at all. They can't know what they Bible says because their knowledge of infallible Scripture is only as good as their fallible recollection of Scripture. But in that event, their knowledge of Scripture falls short of true knowledge, as conventionally defined by Scripturalism. 

Animals of Eden

10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 
19 Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. 
 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Before I get to the main point, this post is only relevant to Christians who believe there was predation before the Fall. I'd like to reiterate an observation I've made before: the definition of young-earth creationism typically includes three planks: age of the universe about 6-10K years old; Noah's flood was a worldwide event; no animal death (predation, parasitism) before the Fall. However, these tenets are logically independent of each other. You could affirm one, two, or all three. If you affirm just two, there are three different ways you could pair them off. 

The description of the garden raises intriguing questions about how we should visualize the setting. What keeps tame animals inside the garden? What keeps them from leaving the garden? What keeps dangerous animals out of the garden? Likewise, posting guards at the eastern end or edge or side of the garden implies some sort of barrier around the garden. It had one entrance or exit. 

Perhaps the garden was situated in a narrow river valley with sheer escarpments forming a natural barrier. Maybe there was a waterfall downstream. Maybe the river emerged upstream through a rocky opening. Or maybe it was a subterranean river that surfaced in the garden. Maybe there was an interstice on the eastern side, permitting ingress or egress. 

Another possibility: the garden was located on a fluvial island. In that event the river would form a natural barrier on all sides. Perhaps there was a rope bridge connecting the island to the mainland. 

On a related issue, although the garden animals were tame, that doesn't necessarily mean them were harmless. It may only mean they were tame in relation to Adam and Eve. But tame animals like tame lions, bears, and honey badgers can still be ferocious in relation to other animals. In theory, the garden might have predatory animals that guarded the garden from incursion by wild animals that might be dangerous to humans. On that scenario, the garden might be less physically isolated from the surrounding wilderness.  

Friday, March 24, 2017

6 Reasons to Support Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration:

Fifty Agreements Among The Resurrection Accounts

One of the most common objections to the New Testament's resurrection accounts is that there are too many differences among them. There are a lot of ways to respond to that objection. For example, I wrote a series of posts earlier this year that's partly about how the gospels' differences are often similar to what we see in other ancient literature, including other ancient biographies. On some of the principles involved in harmonizing the resurrection accounts, see Steve Hays' posts here and here. And we've offered some potential harmonizations of the resurrection accounts, like here. But what I want to focus on in this post is how much the resurrection accounts have in common.

What I'll be citing is agreement between two or more resurrection accounts in a way that's consistent with the others. Since some of the accounts, like the closing of Mark's gospel and Paul's material on the resurrection at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, are so brief, there's a lot they don't address. If two or more other accounts agree with each other on a point, but that point isn't discussed in Mark or 1 Corinthians 15, the agreement among those other accounts is significant anyway.

There are good reasons to accept material that's only found in one resurrection account. For example, when Matthew (28:9-10) and John (20:14-7) narrate resurrection appearances to one or more of Jesus' female followers before any appearances to his male disciples, that prominence given to female disciples in such a male-dominated society provides us with some good evidence for those accounts. Likewise, the earliness of the material Paul cites referring to an appearance to more than five hundred people (1 Corinthians 15:6) and Paul's knowledge of the ongoing status of those witnesses give us good reason to accept the historicity of that resurrection appearance. There's good evidence for the appearances in Matthew 28:9-10, John 20:14-7, and 1 Corinthians 15:6, even if each appearance is only mentioned in one source. But my focus in this post will be on material found in multiple resurrection accounts.

There are more agreements among the accounts than what I'm going to list. These are just some examples.

Since the resurrection accounts in the gospels start with the tomb of Jesus, I'm starting there as well:

Biology isn't bigotry

"Homophobia" in the church

Conference to be held: “Deposing a Heretical Pope”

Deposing a heretical pope
Deposing a heretical pope
 Is Pope Francis a heretical pope? 

There is certain to be more, not less controversy, over the “Pope Francis” “Apostolic Exhortation” entitled “Amoris Laetitia” in the coming weeks, as a group of Roman Catholic scholars, canon lawyers, and theologians meet to discuss the topic, “How to Depose a Heretical Pope”, March 30 and 31 in Paris.

PARIS, March 17, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) -- Canon lawyers, theologians, and scholars will be meeting in Paris in two weeks to discuss a topic that has never been the focus of a Catholic conference before: How to depose a heretical pope. 
Titled Deposing the Pope: Theological Premises, Canonical Models, Constitutional Challenge, the conference seeks to explore the mechanisms that are built into the Catholic Church for dealing with a pope who openly teaches falsehood and even heresy. 
Speaking at the conference will be University of Paris Professor Laurent Fonbaustier who published a 1200 page book last year on the topic that was titled The Deposition of the Heretical Pope.
The conference includes 15 speakers who will be giving a range of talks on the subject matter with titles such as “Conciliarism and the Deposition of a Pope Through the Prism of Gallicanism,” "The Downfall of the Pope: Between Renunciation and Deposition," and "The Deposition of John XXII and Benedict XIII at Constance, 1415–1417." 

Functional coherence

I appreciate Jonathan McLatchie's ministry Apologetics Academy including his interviews with various guests on various topics. Starting around the 35 minute mark, Doug Axe explains what he thinks is a limitation with Michael Behe's irreducible complexity and instead argues for what Axe terms functional coherence:

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fantastic improbability

From Doug Axe:

There's this general confusion over what probabilities mean, and that if...something has a probability and it's not zero, then that means it's not impossible.

Some people want to say, if the probability is not zero, then that means it can happen. What it really means is that if there are enough opportunities for a very small probability to become a large probability, then it can happen.

So, if something is one in a million, but you have a million shots at it, then it becomes probable. If something is one in a trillion, you're going to need a trillion shots at it for it to become probable. A million won't be enough; it's still vastly improbable.

If you push that number far enough, you reach an improbability that is so extreme that there is no way for this physical universe to give you the number of opportunities that would raise that extraordinary small probability to something that can happen, that's like, 50-50 or better.

It turns out that in these sorts of problems where you have to arrange lots of thing and get lots of things right, the improbability of each step multiples and you can get just extraordinary improbability.

So, I use the term "fantastic improbability" to refer to this sort of boundary where it's now beyond the point where this physical universe could possible overcome the improbability. That, I call "physical impossibility," distinguishing it from mathematical impossibility...One in a google [sic] is the dividing line where I say, once it's that improbable, there is no way for any real process in this physical universe to overcome that kind of improbability. That's why I call it "physically impossible."

Genre of the Gospels

From Craig Blomberg (Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd ed., pp 121-2):

What, then, is encoded in the texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to help us know how to interpret them on the "macro-scale"? Are they unadorned works of history or biography? Are they extended myths? historical fiction? In short, how do we assess the genre or literary form of an entire "gospel"?

Close call

In assessing the problem of evil, one consideration is that there's nothing quite like the experience of deliverance from personal calamity or impending calamity. Situations where a person is at the end of his tether. He's run out of options. Threatened by circumstances that leave him in despair. Such hopeless, dire situations are what drive some people to the brink of suicide, or drive them over the brink. 

To feel cornered, to stare disaster in the face, only to be delivered at the last minute, is an inexpressible relief for those who experience it. In the words of the black Gospel song: "My soul look back and wonder how I got over. Had a mighty hard time coming on over. I've been falling and rising all these years. But you know my soul look back and wonder how I got over."

In the nature of the case, only a creature in a fallen world can have that experience. To escape one near miss time and again. But by the same token, if we always knew that another reprieve was just around the corner, we wouldn't feel threatened in the first place. There'd be no tension to alleviate. So deliverance can't become too predictable, too routine, something we take for granted. 

Music and morality

Many people, maybe most people, are music lovers. This raises questions about the morality of music. What about music that has an immoral message? Is it morally compromising to enjoy such music? Is it morally compromising to perform such music? 

To take a few examples, Frank Sinatra immortalized "Strangers in the Night," which extols the one-night stand. Jon Vickers once said Wagner composed Tristan and Isolde to rationalize his adulterous affairs–which raises questions about how Vickers could justify singing Tristan. Dido's Lament ("When I am laid in earth"), from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, glorifies suicide. In that respect it reflects the heathen Roman values of Virgil.

Examples could be multiplied, but that's sufficient to frame the issue.

i) A listener might enjoy the tune, but ignore the lyrics. 

ii) A listener might impute his own significance to the lyrics. Although original intent may often be normative when it comes to interpretation–although the creative process has a subliminal element, so that authors aren't necessarily aware of the full significance of what they write–that doesn't compel a reader or listener to share the author's outlook.

iii) However, it's harder to see how a performer can maintain that dichotomy. Whatever his mental reservations, if any, he's projecting the sense of the lyrics, and the lyrics have a sense that's independent of the performer. Linguistic meaning has an objective component.  

Likewise, in opera, the singer is an instrument of the story. By playing a role, he discharges the dramatic function of the character. 

That, though, would be different from singing in private, for your own enjoyment, 

iv) In some respects, opera is a paradoxical art form. For instance, opera singers often play romantic roles, yet many opera singers are chunky-built. They don't look the part of romantic leads. 

Likewise, Tristan and Isolde is a love story, but due to Wagner's dense orchestration, it requires voices that excel in stamina and power rather than a seductive timbre. There are aspects of opera that sabotage the goal, necessitating a greater than ordinary willing suspension of disbelief. And that makes it easier to mentally detach the message from the messenger. 

v) Studio recordings are different. You don't see the singer–if it's an audio recording rather than a music video. Moreover, lighter, more sensuous voices can sing heavier parts in studio recordings and music videos than they could risk in the opera house. 

vi) Occasionally, there are opera singers who look the part and/or sound the part. But that's a rare package. That's more common in pop vocalism, there the physical demands are less strenuous.   

vii) In addition, sex appeal is contingent on the sexual orientation of the listener or viewer. For instance, Franco Correlli has sex appeal for female opera buffs, but not for straight males. Likewise, Kiri Te Kanawa has sex appeal for male opera buffs, but not for women. 

viii) That said, there are listeners and viewers who strongly identify with the sentiments of immoral music. They revel in the message.


Long ago in a galaxy far away was a religious sect known as the Lather sect. According to the Lather sect, humanoids were hellbound unless they received ritual cleansing. To avoid damnation, you had to stand still while a priest blew soap bubbles at you. 

For this to be a valid sacrament, certain conditions had to be met. The priest had to be in unbroken sudsession from St. Bubbles, founder of the sect. The priest had to face East when blowing bubbles. That had unfortunate consequences on a windy day, when not a single bubble might make contact with the penitent. 

Finally, the priest had to use a bubble blower that was a facsimile of the One True Bubble Blower. According to Lather legend, the One True Bubble Blower fell from heaven. The sect originated when St. Bubbles discovered the Holy Bubble Blower. 

Unfortunately, this led to the Great Schism, for there were two antique bubble blowers, both vying for the coveted distinction to be the original, heaven-sent bubble blower. So the Lathers split into two competing sects, anathematizing each other. This meant members of one rival sect received invalid ritual cleansing, resulting in their eternal perdition. Sadly, no one knew for sure which sect had the better claim to be in possession of the authentic bubble blower.  

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Common grace and paradox

I recently linked toDavid Engelsma's review of a new biography about Gordon Clark:

While I agree with some of what Engelsma says, there are times when his bias clouds his judgment:

i) The CRC has been on the skids for decades, as has Calvin College and Seminary. 

However, at the time of the Clark Controversy, I believe Louis Berkhof was the nemesis of Herman Hoeksema. It would be absurd to suggest that Berkhof doesn't represent authentic Reformed theology. Moreover, the CRC continued to have orthodox representation in later figures like Anthony Hoekema. 

ii) In addition, the OPC, which was founded over 80 years ago, hasn't followed the downward spiral of the CRC. To the contrary, it's maintained an impressive degree of theological stability and conservativism despite changing hands so often.

iii) Although liberals in the OT department at Westminster Seminary were in danger of adulterating the orthodox stance of the seminary, that trend was recently reversed under new administration, and the reversal enjoyed significant support from other departments of the seminary. So Engelsma's predictive trajectory is unreliable. 

iv) Perhaps owing to his age, Engelsma's attack on theological paradox is rather dated. If you're going to attack the principle of theological paradox, a better foil would be the more recent and rigorous formulations by James Anderson. 

I myself don't find Christian theology paradoxical, although it inevitably has dimensions that exceed human comprehension. 

v) Engelsma seems to be oblivious to the fact that Clark's theology became increasingly eccentric in his later years. Flirtations with idealism and occasionalism. Dubious formulations of the Trinity and the hypostatic union. A Sandemanian definition of saving faith. Necessitarianism regarding the creation of the world. 

Moreover, some of these aberrations represent the outworking of his disdain for sense knowledge. 

vi) He fails to mention that Norman Shepherd's views got him fired from Westminster. 

vii) He doesn't bother to explain how the Federal Vision is the logical outworking of theological paradox and/or common grace. 

Invariably, indeed necessarily, the truth being, in fact, rigorously logical, the doctrine of universal, ineffectual grace in the “paradox” drives out the doctrine of particular, sovereign grace.

i) Common grace is not ineffectual. Rather, it serves the purpose for which God intended it.

ii) Common grace is something of a catch-all category, so assessing the claim depends on which elements are included in the package. I prefer the position of Paul Helm and William Young to John Murray in this respect. 

iii) Since, moreover, it denotes something different from saving grace, it's misleading and confusing to use the same designation ("grace") for both. But, unfortunately, that's the standard label.  

Under the influence of Westminster Seminary, the OPC has approved a covenant theology that expressly denies all the doctrines of grace of the Westminster Standards, including justification by faith alone, with special reference to the children of believers.

I'd like to see documentation for that sweeping allegation.