Thursday, January 8, 2009

Who Bears the Blame?

Question: Thirty civilians are killed by Israeli fire near a school in Gaza and the world is outraged by the tragedy, as well they should be, but at whom should the outrage be directed?

Hamas set up a mortar launch pad and fired several rounds at Israeli troops from the midst of several hundred civilians milling around outside the school. The Israelis returned fire killing the mortar crew but also killing the civilians who were close by. Secondary explosions in the school, caused by exploding weapons and ammunition caches, apparently caused some of the casualties.

Who, in this instance, is responsible for the deaths of those people? Against whom should the world's outrage be directed? The Hamas mortar crew violated international law by using a U.N. facility as a base of operations and weapons storage facility. They violated international law by using civilians as human shields. But people are angry at the Israelis who violated no law by defending themselves against the Palestinian fighters.

Hamas is in a win-win situation with respect to the use of human shields. Either Israel refuses to return fire against them which gives Hamas a tactical win, or Israel does return fire and inadvertently kills civilians which gives Hamas a public relations win. Hamas, which has no sympathy for the notion of human rights, has every incentive to continue to use civilians as shields, and it's the world's media and popular opinion which affords them that incentive. Everyone who condemns Israel for the deaths of civilians placed in the crossfire by Hamas, and who fails to loudly and forcefully condemn Hamas for using this tactic, implicitly encourages their crime and bears at least some responsibility for their deaths.

Last question: Why does the world hold Israeli Jews to a higher standard of conduct than it holds Palestinian Muslims?

See here for more details on this terrible tragedy.


The Language of God (I)

Francis Collins is a world-famous geneticist and medical doctor who headed the team which worked out the sequence of nucleotides that make up the human genetic blueprint. Two years ago he wrote a book titled The Language of God in which he talks about his spiritual journey from atheism to Christianity. The book is divided into three parts. Part I discusses how he came to believe that atheism was intellectually untenable and how a simple encounter with a patient set him on the road to Christ. Part II gives an overview of his work in discovering the gene which, when mutated, causes cystic fibrosis, and also some interesting material on how his team unraveled the human genome.

Part III lays out his view of how faith and science can be reconciled. In this section he offers a critique of atheism, Creationism, Intelligent Design (ID) and presents his version of Theistic Evolution (TE), or what he calls BioLogos.

This section is the weakest part of the book, in my view, for two reasons. First he seems to gravely misunderstand ID, and second, his view of TE seems either incoherent or almost indistinguishable from ID.

Let's look at what he says about ID. We'll consider his thoughts on TE in another post. He writes on p.183:

"ID places its major focus on the perceived failings of the evolutionary theory to account for life's stunning complexity."

This is simply not true. Many IDers are themselves evolutionists of one kind or another. Their problem is not with evolution, it's with the notion that natural processes are fully adequate by themselves to account for both the structure of the cosmos and the structures of living things. It is this view, a view called metaphysical naturalism, or physicalism, which ID proponents believe to be inadequate to account for life's stunning complexity.

Collins repeats his misunderstanding further down the same page where he states three basic propositions upon which ID rests:

1. Evolution promotes an atheistic worldview and therefore must be resisted by believers in God.

2. Evolution is fundamentally flawed since it cannot account for the intricate complexity of nature.

3. If evolution cannot explain nature's complexity then there must be a designer involved somehow who stepped in to provide the necessary components during the course of evolution.

Collins' error becomes clear as soon as one realizes that he is, perhaps inadvertently, playing a shell game with the terms evolution and evolutionary theory. He's using these terms as synonyms for naturalism, but they clearly are not synonomous with that view. Whether all organisms have evolved from common ancestors is simply not something upon which ID takes a stand.

To be sure, there are IDers who are Creationists (there are some who are agnostics and even a few who are atheists), but it's important to separate the person from the theory. We can no more infer from the fact that some IDers are Creationists that ID is creationism than we can infer from the fact that some evolutionists are atheists that evolution is therefore atheism.

Collins claims in this chapter that cases of sub-optimal structures like the eye demonstrate that these structures couldn't have been designed by an omniscient, omnipotent God. But this objection misfires for two reasons. First, it's irrelevant to ID. ID says nothing about who the designer is. It makes no claim that the designer is a God who can do anything at all. It only claims that the empirical evidence leads to the conclusion that many biological structures (as well as properties of the cosmos as a whole) bear the marks of intentional design. That a particular structure seems imperfectly designed is not sufficient grounds for concluding that it therefore is not designed any more than we could reason that because certain computer software runs imperfectly that the software must have been the product of purely natural forces and random chance. In other words, even an incompetent designer is still a designer.

Second, it is by no means clear that the structures Collins discusses are really sub-optimal. Michael Denton, an agnostic, takes up this question in his book Nature's Destiny and shows that in many cases what appears to be sub-optimal design is really a brilliant solution to an engineering problem that requires certain trade-offs. Indeed, he cites recent research that shows this to be the case with the human retina.

Even so, despite having failed to present a compelling case against it, Dr. Collins insists that ID "fails to hold up." He urges us to reject ID and embrace instead his version of Theistic Evolution to which we'll turn in Part II.