Archives For Philosophy

I recently came across the following video clip. It’s Bill Nye the Science Guy talking about science. He’s the guy who teaches kids fun facts about science and the way the world works. But this video is a bit different. Here he candidly shares his thoughts on people who don’t believe in Darwinian evolution.

Here’s the gist: if you don’t believe in evolution, you’re an idiot. Of course, you’re entitled to your opinion. If you’d like to ignore all of the evidence in the universe and believe your idiotic beliefs, go for it. Be an idiot. But don’t teach your kids to be idiots. We need them for the cause of evolutionary science. Bill Nye says it in a polite voice, but that’s pretty much what he’s getting at.

Nye’s thinking on this issue is actually very common. I can’t speak to the evidence for or against evolution, but I can say that things are not as obvious as Nye claims. Good and respectable scientists fall adamantly on either side of the issue.

What I think is worth pointing out, however, is Nye’s argumentation. According to Nye, creationism is not scientific. Why? Because science is based on Darwinian evolution. “Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology.” In other words, science is built on evolution. If you are assuming evolution, you are being scientific. If you reject evolution, you are being unscientific.

So before the debate can even begin, the terms have been set in a way that assures the crazy creationists will be laughed out of the room. But isn’t Nye’s argumentation crazier? Evolution is more scientific, he says. Why? Because it is based on the foundation of evolution. The logic is completely circular.

Nye points to the existence or dinosaur bones, radioactivity, and distant stars as phenomenon that apparently fit perfectly within an evolutionary framework yet are somehow incomprehensible to creationists. Really? “Your world just becomes fantastically complicated when you don’t believe in evolution.” Really? How complicated is it to believe that each of these things was created by an intelligent designer rather than an impersonal force? (For more on that, click here, here, and here).

If you want to explore the logic of Darwinism, I recommend Darwin on Trial by Phillip E. Johnson. Johnson is a lawyer, not a scientist, so he is addressing the argumentation rather than the scientific evidence. I think this is the right approach because vague appeals to “all the evidence in the universe” from either side don’t move the debate forward.

In any case, Bill Nye thinks that we are idiots, and urges us not to idiotize our kids. Why bring them in on a dying way of thinking? Nye confidently asserts that “in another couple centuries that worldview won’t exist.” People have been making this claim throughout history, and yet Christianity proves incredibly resilient. People continue to look at our world and see the fingerprints of a Creator. Maybe we are suffering from mass hysteria. Or maybe the heavens actually are proclaiming the glory of God.

 

How Nietzsche Killed God

Mark Beuving —  August 22, 2012 — 3 Comments

On a bright nineteenth-century morning, a madman lit a lantern and rushed into a crowded marketplace in a German town. “I seek God!” he exclaimed. No self-respecting townsperson in the post-Enlightenment world believed in God, so the madman’s cry was met only with laughter.

“I’ll tell you where God is,” returned the madman. “God is dead! God remains dead. And we have killed him.” At this, the townsfolk grew silent. The madman went on to explain the ramifications of this murderous act, but still no response from the crowd. Throwing his lantern to the ground, the madman cried out, “I have come too soon! The deed has been done, but news of it has not yet spread this far.” From there, the madman went into church after church, singing a funeral dirge to God and declaring the churches to be nothing more than tombs to the divine.

Friedrich Nietzsche told this parable of the madman (loosely paraphrased above, you can read the whole text of this short parable here—I’d definitely recommend reading it). The story is provocative, to say the least. What exactly did Nietzsche mean when he said that God is dead? How is this possible?

Nietzsche’s parable is brilliant. His observation is incredibly astute, even if you don’t like what it’s saying. Before Nietzsche came on the scene, humanity had indeed killed God. Or the notion of God. With the Renaissance, gifted individuals recovered something of the ancient Greek way of thinking, which set aside myth, superstition, and revelation and focused on what a person could learn for himself. Beginning with myself alone, how can I use my brain and my senses to decide what is true and what is false?

This return to autonomous human reason picked up in the Renaissance, came to a head in the Enlightenment, and then continued to grow bolder and more absolute. By the time Nietzsche came on the scene, people no longer needed God. Science was explaining away the mysteries of the world, and Darwin had finally developed an alternative explanation for the origins of the world.

And so Nietzsche entered the proverbial marketplace declaring the death of God. God had been killed, yet people didn’t seem to be aware of the implications of their unadulterated faith in scientific naturalism.

But Nietzsche’s parable isn’t as hostile toward religion in general as it might appear. Nietzsche had a huge problem with Christianity as an institution, but he kind of admired Jesus (sound familiar?). Nietzsche wasn’t trying to get people to stop believing. To the contrary, he recognized that some sort of spirituality was necessary to find meaning in life.

In The Madman, Nietzsche rightly emphasizes the significance of losing faith. The people in the marketplace did not believe in God, but to a large extent their lives would have been shaped by a memory of this belief. Nietzsche warns us that if God is dead—really truly dead, entirely discounted—then everything will change.

What Nietzsche is saying in The Madman is not that God is dead so let’s throw a party, he is saying that God is dead and he must be replaced with something. In the post-Enlightenment world, faith in God had been replaced with faith in science. But Nietzsche, himself an atheist, insists that a person cannot live a faith-free life. God is dead, so what must we do to find meaning for our lives in his absence?

“What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Here is why I bring all of this up. Even a bitter atheist like Nietzsche knows that life is meaningful. He understands that life cannot be lived apart from some sort of spiritual pursuit. What “festivals of atonement” or “sacred games” must we develop in order to replace our old, dead religions? Even an atheist fills her life with liturgy. If we deny the existence of a transcendent God, we are the only possible replacements. Prepare yourself, you’ve got some huge shoes to fill.

Nietzsche’s spiritual alternative to God was a fascination with the world around us. We will find meaning for our lives precisely by rejecting false notions about God and jumping into the world around us. For Nietzsche, vitality itself was the meaning of life.

What I find fascinating is that this is exactly the approach that the Preacher tried in Ecclesiastes. He, too, supposed that meaning could be found by throwing himself into life. But what the Preacher found is that all of life is meaningless apart from God, yet overwhelmingly meaningful with God.

This world is a certain type of place, and regardless of what we choose to believe, the world itself does not change with our convictions. As Francis Schaeffer would say, people can choose to believe what they want, but they still have to live in the world that God made. It’s a meaningful world, a world that is badly broken yet still overflowing with glory, and a world in which God is anything but dead.

 

Charles Darwin saw glory in this world. He couldn’t help it. His vocation as a scientist forced him to stare at all of the crazy and beautiful things in the world on a regular basis. You can’t look at this world for any length of time without seeing the glory all around you.

Something special is going on here. We can’t deny it. But if there was ever a person who might try to deny the specialness of this world, wouldn’t you think it would be Darwin? After all, he is famous for declaring that this world is nothing more than a huge accident. Or more accurately, a near-infinite series of infinitesimally small accidents that taken together form one mammoth accident. This accident is the sum and substance of everything we have ever known. Should we really expect the world’s biggest mistake to be glorious?

You wouldn’t think so. Especially when you consider the type of mistake the world is supposed to be. It’s not the kind of mistake that Van Goh might have made. You can imagine Van Goh painting something breathtaking, then accidentally mixing his colors a bit wrong or letting his brush slide just a hair, only to discover that his mistake added something intangibly wonderful to the painting.

"Starry Night Over the Rhone" by Vincent Van Goh

No, the world is not this type of mistake. If Van Goh made a mistake like that, it would still have the power of personality behind it. You still have a volitional being—a master artist, actually—bending his creative powers toward the production of something beautiful. A mistake in the painting process might come as a pleasant surprise, and it would quickly become a part of the painter’s new vision for the painting.

But according to Darwin, the world is a different type of mistake entirely. It’s purposeless. There is no personality behind it. It churns accidentally, thoughtlessly, and its productions are not appreciated or valued by the impersonal forces of chance. It simply is what it is. An accident whose non-existent creator cannot recognize it, let alone categorize it as beautiful or ugly.

You wouldn’t think that this type of world would be glorious, nor would you think that the biggest accident in this near-infinite line of accidents would possess the desire or the categories to see it as glorious.

Yet Darwin looked at the world and saw glory. He saw that something special was happening. But when no one is behind that specialness, when all this beauty is a huge mistake, you have no one to praise but the accidents themselves. So Darwin proclaimed:

“When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.”[1]

Ennobled! Really? When I recognized that these things were big accidents, I realized how noble they were. Hmmm. He says it again:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”[2]

Grandeur! Really? When I saw that these beautiful things were the unintentional exhaust of a mindless machine, I saw glory. Hmmm.

Darwin saw it, but he couldn’t explain it. His system simply did not have categories to account for what he was seeing. So how should we respond to the beautiful mess we are accidentally floating in? We should be proud of our accidental selves:

Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future…We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”[3]

Be proud of yourself for being the biggest accident of all, but recognize that you still kind of look like the crap from which you were mistakenly spawned.

For some reason, that doesn’t do it for me. Van Goh probably could have made some beautiful mistakes, but I don’t think that Nothing can do the same. All I’ve ever seen Nothing do is nothing. Go ahead and deny purpose and craftsmanship, Darwin, but I know that you know. I can see that you can see it. Your statements about the glory of it all simply confirm what God has already told me:

“The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Romans 1:18-25)

 


[1] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (New York: Avenel, 1979) 458-459.

[2] Ibid., 459-460.

[3] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: Penguin Classics, 2004) 689.

Plato wasn’t the only ancient mind to have a huge impact on the church. In this post, I want to consider another key player: Aristotle. Not many people have had as enduring a legacy as Plato, but Aristotle is far from irrelevant. His writings haven’t had as big of a direct impact on the church, partly because his writings were “lost” for much of church history, and partly because his impact was more roundabout. Even so, the world we live in has been shaped by Aristotle’s influence—not only outside of the church, but inside as well. In fact, you think the way you do in part because of Aristotle’s influence.

Aristotle studied under Plato, and while he advanced the Platonic tradition in many respects, he also turned a lot of Plato’s teachings on their heads. For example, Plato taught that the heavenly world contained “forms” which gave meaning and identity to the individual things on this earth. So there is a perfect chair in heaven that defines chairness, and the chairs on earth are imperfect copies of that chair—they are chairs only insofar as they conform to the heavenly chair. Aristotle, on the other hand, explained that the essence of a chair did not exist in heaven as some universal principle, the essence of a chair lives within each earthly chair.

The implications of this are huge (believe it or not). Aristotle was saying that rather than looking to some heavenly principle to determine the meaning of things on earth, we need to look at the individual things around us, and from there we can find some sort of meaning or essence that we might call a universal principle. Is that making sense? In essence: meaning doesn’t come down from the clouds, it comes from observing the things we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Whereas Plato distrusted the senses, Aristotle believed that truth would be found through the senses.

Basically, Aristotle became the patron saint of modern science. His method of learning was not about revelation (waiting for a voice from heaven), he was all about observation (the scientific method). Beginning with the Renaissance and culminating in the Enlightenment, God was continually being pushed to the fringe of society. People became increasingly confident in man’s ability to explain his world apart from divine revelation. They grew optimistic about man’s ability to approve his world. They saw a golden age just around the corner, and science and reason would lead them there.

Notice that it wasn’t science that was leading people away from God. Rather, it was the assumption that science was capable of explaining everything about our world apart from God. Aristotle gave people confidence that they didn’t need to look to God for the answers, they could find them through observing the objects around them.

And here is where Aristotle began to mess up the church. Christians began to concede that yes, people can explain the world apart from God by observing the natural world. Yet they insisted that you couldn’t know God without revelation. So religion is important for your spiritual life, but everything else can be explained sufficiently through science. It’s an oversimplification, but essentially, the church decided that there were two types of things in this world (spiritual things and natural things) and there were two separate ways of knowing those two types of things (revelation/faith and science).

Ultimately, this box we have allowed ourselves to be placed in has grown smaller and more constricting. The secular world grants us our faith, but we are told that it is a private matter. Faith belongs in our hearts, not our public discourse, our workplaces, or our politics. The amazing thing is that Christians have largely gone along with this.

Aristotle was a wise and fascinating man, but let’s not allow his influence to keep our Christian worldview sequestered off into the realm of private prayer. The Bible still speaks to every area of human existence. We can and should explore the individual things in this world, but we should do so with the conviction that nothing in creation makes sense apart from the Creator.

At the end of the second century, Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” He was combating a trend in theology that sought to integrate Greek philosophy with biblical truth. According to Tertullian, these two things belong in separate universes.

Tertullian’s question is a good one. What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? A lot, actually. We can argue whether or not Greek philosophy should influence Christian doctrine, but that Greek philosophy has influenced Christian doctrine is indisputable.

Most of you don’t care about Plato. Maybe you were forced to read some of his writings in college. At best, you may remember something about a republic, a cave, a philosopher king, and maybe even “forms.” How could someone whose books you couldn’t understand have an impact on the way you think?

The reality is that your thinking has been profoundly shaped by Plato. It just has. You don’t have to know who he is or what he taught. His impact on Western thought and culture—including Christian thought and culture—is incalculable.

Here are a few things that Plato taught, then I’ll explore how this has affected the way Christians think. Plato believed there were two worlds: the visible, earthly, material world; and the invisible, heavenly, immaterial world. The earthly world is somewhat artificial, misleading, temporary. The heavenly world is real, truthful, permanent. Human beings are much the same. Each person has an eternal soul that longs for the heavenly realm. Unfortunately, that soul is trapped within a material body, which must be escaped, transcended. The way to do this is through reason. Reason allows us to get beyond the material trappings of this world and look upon that which is real, heavenly, and ethereal.

Do you see where this is heading? Most Christians see the world in these same terms. We long to become disembodied spirits in heaven. This world is temporary, distractingly material, and gross. We want to get away from this earth, away from these bodies, and spend a disembodied eternity floating on clouds.

As a side note, this type of thinking is partially responsible for the grand cathedrals in Europe. They were designed to draw our eyes and thoughts away from this world and onto the mysteries of heaven. Beautiful, awe inspiring, and handed down to us compliments of Plato.

Of course, everyone who thinks this way believes that we get this worldview from the Bible. But the biblical world is different. In the Bible, the world is created to be good. Though the world is stained by sin, God’s creation still retains its goodness (it is in bondage to decay, but it looks ahead to the day of redemption—see Rom. 8).

The biblical story does not move from nasty materiality to blissful disembodiment. Rather, it moves from God creating a gloriously physical earth to God re-creating a gloriously physical earth. Look at Jesus, for example. In many ways, he validated the goodness of God’s material earth by taking on flesh. Jesus was not defiled by his body. And when Jesus rose from the dead, he did not vaporize and ghost off into space, celebrating his escape from the physicality of earth. He appeared in a resurrected body; a body that could pass through walls and suddenly appear and disappear, but that could also be touched, that could eat and (presumably) digest food (he ate fish with his disciples post-resurrection).

Plato would have us believe that this world doesn’t matter so much. Let’s transcend it. Let’s escape it. Let’s meditate and get our heads in the clouds.

But God placed us on this earth for a reason. God encased us in flesh for a reason. And when Jesus returns, he is not going back on his commitment to physicality. He won’t be feeling embarrassed about all of the sluggish limitations of matter and therefore create a new world in which we can all float around as thoughts or ghosts. Instead, he’s going to go with a world that is much like this one. A new heavens and a new earth that features a great city.

So don’t be so Platonically minded that you are of no earthly good. Be here, where God placed you, where he commissioned you, where he is empowering you.