Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?

Sailing into the sun – Lake Michigan, from Holland State Park (8/29/12)

Pourquoi y-a-t-il quelque chose plutôt que rien?
Why is there Something rather than Nothing?
This question became my own as an undergraduate philosophy major at Northern Illinois University. Philosopher Michael Gelven introduced me to The Question, via Martin Heidegger. I had just been converted from a weak deism and practical atheism (the same thing?) to Christian theism. Welcome to the Big Questions of life.
It has been my recent delight to read Jim Holt’s new book on this question, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story. This book is excellent and sad.
It’s excellent. Extremely well-written. Holt is a very good scholar as he comes to grips with hard philosophical, theological, and scientific concepts. He really captures a representative, eclectic scholarly group. Big names are interviewed – Richard Swinburne, Adolph Grünbaum, David Deutsch, Andre Linde, Alex Vilenkin, Steven Weinberg, Roger Penrose, John Leslie, Derek Parfit, and the late John Updike. Wow!
Holt takes us on an intellectual and existential tour de cosmos. I have again been captivated. The Big Question seems now more important to me than ever. I feast and think on such things.
Holt’s book ends in sadness. For me. This is not all bad. He writes exquisitely about the death of his mother and the time he personally spent at her bedside, loving her with words and actions. I’m thankful he wrote about this. He writes of her last breath.
“I returned to the room to be alone with my mother’s body. Her eyes were still a little open, and her head was cocked to the right. I thought about what was going on in her brain, now that her heart had stopped and the blood had ceased to flow. Deprived of oxygen, the brain cells were frantically but vainly attempting to preserve their functioning until, with gathering speed, they chemically unraveled. Perhaps there had been a few seconds of guttering consciousness in my mother’s cortex before she vanished forever. I had just seen the infinitesimal transition from being to nothingness. The room had contained two selves; now it contained one.” (p. 273)
Not according to me, or Richard Swinburne.
My mother’s bones were musical. She moved, slightly and perciptibly, to music. She was grateful that her two sons played guitar and sang. A few days before she died I was with her in her room in the nursing home. It was bedtime. I brought my guitar to play for her. I played soft, beautiful, exquisite on my guitar, in love and honor, for her. She lie on the bed. She heard this. I finger-picked with all the excellence I had. Suddenly a voice from the room next door shouted, “Shut that thing up!!!” I stopped playing for a moment. Then, with utmost softness, I played for her again. I wasn’t going to deny her this pleasure and comfort.
A few days later I was in her apartment, and the call came that she was gone. Out of the foundational miracle of Somethingness grows the conviction that my mother had not now become “nothing.” God created, in the beginning. The One who powerfully created and sustains all that is, is more than able to recreate and raise my mother on that Final Day. From nothing, nothing comes. Ex nihilo, nihil fit. Unless… God.

On the Existence of the Water Walking Jesus

Maumee Bay State Park (Ohio)
In response to my recent “Flat-earthing After the Non-Existent Jesus” T.W. asks: “Just out of curiosity, can you point me in the direction of any hard concrete evidence that the miracle performing, water walking, Jesus of Nazareth really did exist?” Yes. First, I’ll point in a direction. Second, I’ll say a brief word about water-walking. Third, a sentence about “hard, concrete evidence.”
I suggest reading The Jesus Legend, The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy. The mythicist position on the historical Jesus (the “legendary Jesus thesis) is sufficiently refuted here.
I also strongly suggest Craig Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.
More briefly, Princeton’s James Charlesworth’s  The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide.
And Richard Bauckham’s Jesus: A Very Short Introduction.
See also some posts I’ve made along the way:
On Water Walking
I recommend Craig Keener’s brilliant, recent, and massive two-volume Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Here, among other things, Keener debunks the Humean idea of the impossibility of miraculous events. This is important since Hume’s philosophy largely informs the anti-supernaturalist’s worldview. But Hume’s philosophy is logically incoherent. Thus the historian can approach historical documents such as the Bible free of a pre-existing (and mostly unexamined) bias against the supernatural or miraculous. Hence, the historical possibility of water walking.
As for myself, I have read all the texts (and many more) that I’ve cited, plus I’ve read Hume and (arguably) all or most of the relevant texts against the logical possibility and then historicity of the miracle performing, historical Jesus. That is the direction I suggest if one wants to enter into this discussion, at least on an academic, non-googling level.
“Hard, concrete evidence”
All historical reasoning is inductive.

Jesus Followers Are Forever Focused

Beneath a RR bridge on the River Raisin

Who, really, is a “Christian?” While it’s not for us to judge in a final sense, we are given indicators. Jesus tells us that simply because a person says “Lord, Lord,” it does not follow that they follow Jesus as Lord. Just because someone regularly gathers with the Church doesn’t mean they are “church.”
George Barna estimates there are 77 million “church-going ‘Christians’” in America. Sam Storms takes issue with this… “… because the Scriptures tell me in no uncertain terms that genuine, saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus is transforming and life-changing and sin-killing and Christ-exalting in its effects. I fear countless people are living a religious charade, having been assured by undoubtedly well-meaning ministers that their “decision” for Jesus was unto eternal life in spite of the fact that there is little if any spiritual fruit in their experience. (The Hope Of Glory: 100 Daily Meditations on Colossians, p. 54) A real Jesus-follower is a true Jesus-lover. I have seen this happen in many people. Their lives are transformed, and remain in an ongoing process of metamorphing into Christlikeness. Their desires change, not as a result of striving and will power, but because of a compelling, sacrificial love and power that now resides within them. Such people are focused, not for a few days or months, but forever. Jesus-followers are forever focused. Christ’s love compels them. Henri Nouwen expresses it this way: “We can say that persons reborn in the Spirit are characterized by their single-mindedness. They have only one desire: to do God’s will in all things, or – to put it in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus – to “do the truth” and thus “to come into the light so that what they are doing may plainly appear as done in God” (John 3:21). They are so caught up in God’s love that everything else can only receive its meaning and purpose in the context of that love. They ask only one question: ‘What is pleasing to the Spirit of God?’ And as soon as they have heard the sound of the Spirit, they follow its promptings even when it upsets their friends, disturbs their environment, and confuses their admirers. They believe unhesitatingly in Jesus, the Son of God, who was sent into the world ‘not to judge the world, but so that through him the world might be saved’ (John 3:17). Their faith is so deeply rooted that they are unafraid – not only of other people’s opinions, but even of God’s judgments, because their rebirth has brought them into the light.” (Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life, 62-63)

Myths of Atheists and Skeptics

My feet, in Detroit

Atheist philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has provided a list of myths and bad thinking he finds among fellow atheists and skeptics.
Here are some of my favorites, with which I concur.
Science can answer moral questions. False. Pigliucci writes: “No, science can informmoral questions, but moral reasoning is a form of philosophical reasoning. The is/ought divide may not be absolute, but it is there nonetheless.”

  1. Science has established that there is no consciousness or free will (and therefore no moral responsibility). False. He writes: “No, it hasn’t, as serious cognitive scientists freely admit. Notice that I am not talking about the possibilitythat science has something meaningful to say about these topics (it certainly does when it comes to consciousness, and to some extent concerning free will, if we re-conceptualize the latter as the human ability of making decisions). I am talking about the dismissal-cum-certainty attitude that so many in the CoR have so quickly arrived at, despite what can be charitably characterized as a superficial understanding of the issue.”
  2. Determinism has been established by science.False again, “not only because there are interpretations of quantum mechanics that are not deterministic, but because a good argument can be made that that is simply not the sort of thing science can establish (nor can anything else, which is why I think the most reasonable position in this case is simple agnosticism).”
  3. Objectivism is (the most rational) philosophy“according to a significant sub-set of skeptics and atheists (not humanists, since humanism is at complete odds with Randianism). Seriously, people? Notice that I am not talking about libertarianism here, which is a position that I find philosophically problematic and ethically worrisome, but is at least debatable. Ayn Rand’s notions, on the other hand, are an incoherent jumble of contradictions and plagiarism from actual thinkers. Get over it.”
  4. All religious education is child abuse, period.False, Richard Dawkins! Pigliucci writes: “This is a really bizarre notion, I think. Not only does it turn 90% of the planet into child abusers, but people “thinking” (I use the term loosely) along these lines don’t seem to have considered exactly what religious education might mean (there is a huge variety of it), or — for that matter — why a secular education wouldn’t be open to the same charge, if done as indoctrination (and if it isn’t, are you really positive that there are no religious families out there who teach doubt? You’d be surprised!).”
  5. Insulting people, including our close allies, is an acceptable and widespread form of communication with others. Wrong. “Notice that I am not talking about the occasional insult hurled at your opponent, since there everyone is likely a culprit from time to time (including yours truly). I am talking about engaging in apologia on behalf of a culture of insults.”

What do all of these falsehoods have in common? Pigliucci says they are guilty of:
A. Anti-intellectualism. For example, “when noted biologists or physicists in the movement dismiss an entire field of intellectual pursuit (philosophy) out of hand they are behaving in an anti-intellectual manner.”  “Scientism” is one predominant form of anti-intellectualism; viz., “the pernicious tendency to believe that science is the only paragon of knowledge and the ultimate arbiter of what counts as knowledge. And the best way to determine if you are perniciously inclined toward scientism is to see whether you vigorously deny its existence in the community.”
B. The “I’m-smarter-than-thou” syndrome. MP writes: “Let’s admit it, skepticism does have a way to make us feel intellectually superior to others. They are the ones believing in absurd notions like UFOs, ghosts, and the like! We are on the side of science and reason. Except when we aren’t, which ought to at least give us pause and enroll in the nearest hubris-reducing ten-step program.”
C. Failure of leadership. “Welcome to the days of bloggers and twitterers spouting venom or nonsense just because they can.”
– From Massimo Pigliucci, “The Community of Reason, a self-assessment and a manifesto”
MP adds some nice advice for conducting civil discourse about important issues.
Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.

Marks of a Free Person

The person who merely or simply acts in response to an urge or feeling that they have to do something is, in that moment, not free. The person who “simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who gratifies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 85)
Such a person is a mere automaton. The porn addict is a robot whose neural wiring controls their physical body. They are under the illusion that they are “free” to do whatever they wants, so they “choose” to spend their time looking at naked people engaging in sex acts. But this is addiction, not freedom. All addiction is bondage. Even the folk-Christian saying that one is “addicted to Jesus” is a bondage that Jesus himself would be scandalized by. Addiction is a controlling beast that always gets its own way. Even religious addiction.
“Freedom,” on Christian theism, is best exhibited when one chooses what God wants against urges, feelings, and desires. When one needs comfort, and the comfort food calls your name, choosing not to obey that voice is a mark of a free person. When God interrupts your evening agenda and calls you to go help the needy person, to get out of your jammies and put on your winter clothes and head out into the night on a rescue mission is to be free. Interruptibility for the cause of Christ is a mark of freedom.
To serve others selflessly, as God calls, is another sign of freedom, since in so doing one denies the self for the sake of God and others. To self-deny is to be free.
Can a person freely choose according to their desires? Yes. This happens when the mind and heart have been morphed into the “mind of Christ.” Such a person is one who, “whether he eats or drinks or whatever else he does, does all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) Merton writes: “This does not mean that he merely registers in his mind an abstract intention to glorify God. In means that in all his actions he is free from the superficial automatism of conventional routine. It means that in all that he does he acts freely, simply, spontaneously, from the depths of his heart, moved by love.” (Ib., 15)
The desire to eat food is a God-given desire. The desire to eat food to be put out of one’s inner misery is not a God-thing. Say “yes” to healthy eating, and enjoy. Say “no” to using food as a drug, as a God-replacement.
Jesus said “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) I can hear the chains of bondage breaking. I can see prison doors opening.

Let the ‘No’ of Christ Be Formed In You

Sunset on a Lake Michigan beach

Robert Bly wrote: “The making of a man is making your body do what it doesn’t want to do.” (Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men)
The mature person flourishes in life as they are able to wield the powerful word “No.” The Jesus-idea is that, as we connect to him as a branch connects to a vine, we bear “fruit,” part of which is awe-inspiring “self control.” (Galatians 5:23) People drop their jaws and stare in wonder as people say No to mere self-gratification.
A Spirit-led, self controlled person is a free person. They have grown in their humanity to say “No” to eating the wrong things, to spending money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need, and to engaging in sexual behavior as the objectification of other persons.
“No” is the ultimate boundary word. I doubt that the capacity to wield this word will come from hearing slogans like “Just say ‘No’.” The authentic, boundary-setting ‘No” must become one’s heart, one’s inner being. This happens as Christ is formed in us.
Think, e.g., of Jesus after he fed the 5,000. The people rushed after him to make him an earthly king. To this Jesus exercised his innate self control and refused. His ‘No’ was not only for him, but for the sake of others, indeed, for the sake of the whole world. This is a narrow road, said Jesus, and few take it. But it is the road to freedom. M. Scott Peck described The Road Less Traveled as “gratification delay.” “No” is, perhaps, the ultimate other-centered word.
Let the “No” of Christ be formed in you and go free.

Multitasking Prevents Deep Understanding

If you want to learn how to play guitar, you have got to mono-task. You have to practice, and that practice has to be focused. The more your mind links to other things, the less productive your praacticing will be. I know this as a guitar player myself, and as one who has taught guitar for many years.
The same applies to relationships. With people, and with God. Multi-tasking is the enemy of real relationship.
The same applies to academic excellence. I learned how to study while doing a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. I gained an ability to mono-task and stay focused on the subject matter. This carried through my Ph.D work. And, into my philosophy classes at Monroe County Community College. No laptops or texting allowed in my classes! You’ll never understand the modal version of the ontological argument without extreme focus. The neural-linking brain is a disadvantage to deep learning.
Here are a few things I’ve written about multitasking.
Multitasking Is the Enemy of Real Relationship
You Can’t Multitask the God-Relationship
Solitude and Leadership (and why multi-taskers are poor thinkers)
Overcoming the Main Spiritual Problem of Today, Which Is…
Multitasking Degrades Performance

Does God Want You Part of Redeemer Ministry School This Fall?

If you join me this fall for 9 months in Redeemer Ministry School you will be challenged in your heart and mind. You will be stretched, in a good way, and you will never be the same.
The foundation you now have will be strengthened. If your spiritual and intellectual foundation is shaky, you will gain a solid platform to build and live and minister on.
You will go deeper into the things of worship than you thought possible.
You will discover what real leadership is.
You will learn how to rightly handle the Word of God.
You will grow in your capacity to defend your faith.
You will understand and operate in spiritual gifts of healing, deliverance, and prophecy.
You will become a preacher, a communicator of God’s Word.
You will discover the deep abiding-life in Christ.
You will experience spiritual formation, transformation, restoration, and ongoing renewal.
Spiritually, you will be green and growing, not ripe and rotting. (It’s either one or the other.)
You will learn about and be able to recognize authentic moves of God’s Spirit.
You’ll grow in discernment and humility.
Creativity will come forth from you, by God’s Spirit.
You’ll make many new friends.
And, because God is God, I know you will grow and learn and experience God-things that are unplanned and amazing.
Is this for you this fall? Is God leading you to spend 9 months of your life with us?
We’d love to have you come and be part of what God is going to do in 2012-2013.