Weiler’s Weaseling

by Brian 4. June 2010 16:40

I just listened to Edward Weiler on NPR (The Diane Rehm Show.) He’s an astrophysicist at NASA and chief scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Diane asked him if he believed in God. Presumably all of the awesome HST imagery should move one in the direction of belief in a Creator. After his “this is a personal matter” disclaimer he told how he gave up his faith as a Catholic over the years in favor of science. It reminded me of the scene in Contact when the character played by Jodi Foster was hit with the same question. Then he said something I thought was interesting. To paraphrase:




I am an agnostic. The facts are in concerning evolution and it is more than just a theory. Similarly, we now know the universe evolved. We understand how it works. And, as a scientist I believe in what I can observe and test.

He later followed up with an admission of our scientific ignorance about what happened before (i) the Bang when he said that realm belonged to the philosopher and theologian. Good answer; given his initial statements were so full of unsound assumptive argumentation. After his response I almost pulled off the road. Was I hearing this right? Was Diane going to let these statements go without follow-up? Of course, it’s NPR! So I thought it would be therapeutic to list his assumptive arguments on my blog.

1.       Evolution is more than a theory and has achieved some kind of standard of factuality other scientific theories have not achieved

2.       If evolution is true and we understand how life works, the existence of God should be doubted

3.       If the universe evolved and we understand how it works, the existence of God should be doubted

4.       Only beliefs based on that which can be observed and tested are warranted

5.       Agnosticism is the right position to take based on these positions

I think these assumptions are a fair assessment of what Weiler was trying to slip in as his response to the question: Does God Exist? Unless he was spouting irrelevant non sequiturs he was implying in each response a justification of the agnostic position. But do the first four propositions I listed support the conclusion? And are these propositions even true?

Evolution as a scientific theory lacks falsifiability and direct verifiability – two hallmarks of a good scientific theory. How can we directly observe natural changes in bauplan in a lab when they require vast time periods? Tweaking the genes of a fruit fly is not the same as observing natural changes in real time. A 44,000-generation E. coli experiment showing minor change (ii) does little to prove large changes in bauplan in mammals. So we have to rely on the after-effects as the primary means of verifying evolution. Every time a gap or problem in the theory is raised, the Darwinian appeals to future scientific discovery taking falsifiability off the table. If it is a theory not full of gaps and holes, why would Darwinians accuse detractors of appealing to the “God of the gaps?” So how a prominent scientist can claim “the facts are all in” is premature if not ridiculous. Regardless, even if modern neo-Darwinian theory were entirely true and extrapolated to accommodate the nontheist, that is:

·         Common descent is true

·         Modification through material mechanisms plus natural selection completely explains a ratcheting-up of complexity and diversity of life

·         Material mechanisms explain abiogenesis – the transition from non-living to living matter

·         Etc, etc, since this is an eclectic theory

There is still room for a Creator as design may be entirely front-loaded and there are plenty of scientists and theologians who fall into this camp. So what about the universe itself? He admitted the universe began to exist. And since: Things that begin to exist have a cause, the universe had a cause. The HST should lead a rational person to recognize this cause, which transcended space and time, had immense creative power to result in 70 sextillion star systems with complex and beautiful organization all the way down to the molecular level. And saying because we “know how” the universe works therefore we understand “why” – or that God’s existence should be doubted – well that hardly needs a response other than it amazes me how a prominent scientist could imply it.

Finally, the evidentialist mantra should have been challenged on NPR. You would think Diane would at least raise a postmodern objection – but then again, postmodernism is highly overrated. For a detailed explanation on how belief is justified apart from scientific verification, see this article. In conclusion, Weiler’s agnosticism was not supported by the statements he made on the radio. In fact he didn’t even sound like an agnostic. Honest agnosticism is the result of ignorance or balanced belief leaving one at a 0.5 probability (e.g. belief in the existence of God being balanced equally in the affirmative and negative.) Since all of his statements were meant to support the negative position, Weiler was implying atheism, not honest agnosticism.

i “Before” – Since time began at the bang Weiler must be talking about ontological priority to the singularity

ii “The Edge of Evolution”, Copyright 2007, Dr. Michael J. Behe, pg 142.


by Brian 15. May 2010 21:01

Religion; I cannot think of a more misused word in our culture today. It is disappointing how often one hears statements like: “all religion is dangerous” or “all religious people are foolish,” etc. Does anyone even know what the word means anymore? I found a decent definition the very first place I looked online; especially the first entry:

Religion is: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

I would reword “esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies” as atheists are quite dogmatic and devoted to their metaphysical views on the cause, nature and purpose of the universe without appeal to superhuman agency. Philosophical naturalism (the logical position for an atheist) leads rationally to specific moral positions that can and have governed the conduct of human affairs. And every time I see a Darwin-fish emblem or an internet infidel T-shirt I have to wonder about their devotional and ritual observances. Yet when you hear your average irreligious American use the term they typically twist the word to mean something like:

Religion is: the institutional Christian church and Islamic radicalism, its members and their less than desirable actions today and throughout history.

These people ignore the central and most relevant aspect of the word and focus on secondary and less relevant meaning filtered through their biases. When you hear someone say “religion is dangerous” ask them to clarify what they mean by the word “religion.”  Or, just cut to the chase and ask if they are an atheist! If willing to answer; they will usually fall into one of three camps:

1.       “Yes, I am an atheist.” – Now I actually appreciate this answer because they are willing to step up to plate and with bold faith proclaim a universal negative (as if they have turned over ever stone in their multiverse.) So I can at least appreciate their misplaced conviction. On the other hand, if they are part of the “new atheism,” then see #3 as they are really closet-atheists masquerading as agnostics.


2.       Or..."No, I am a Christian [or Jew, or Muslim] but I think religion is dangerous when depraved man perverts it.” – This is not unreasonable. I agree; the institutional church is and has been the best and worst witness to the Gospel. Every time a TV-evangelist has an affair or flashes his gaudy jewelry; or every time a child is abused by a parishioner, unknown numbers of those seeking the Truth are steered away from it – Matthew 18:6 is an appropriate response from Jesus to these so-called leaders. But the key element of what “religion” means remains open: what do we believe about the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe?


3.       Finally..."I’m an agnostic” or “I believe we should be good to one another and tolerant” or “There is some higher power out there and we are all just working our way towards it,” etc. This sort of lukewarm, indecisive and incoherent position ought to be unfashionable; unfortunately it’s all too common. Some of these fall into the "I don't know and I don't care" self-absorbed crowd. Others fall into the "I took a comparative religion class in college" and now I have special understanding crowd. And there may be a few seekers out there who honestly do not know, but I have yet to meet one. Regardless, these are the people you have to drill down with and get them to clarify their position.

In conclusion, the next time you hear someone make a half-cocked generalization about religion, ask them to define the term. Help them to articulate something substantive. You will usually find a wholly different presupposition at the core. Ultimately Christianity is a system of truth, not a set of practices where we go through the motion every Sunday. Christianity is not the sum of behavior and actions of its adherents – especially those who are not acting according to its truth claims. Christianity, as a religion, does make certain claims about the cause, nature and purpose of the universe including: God physically raised Jesus from the dead putting a divine imprimatur on his proclamations about the way things are. From a Christian perspective, the truth of this proposition is paramount; today's twisted version of "religion" by comparison is irrelevant.

Postmodernism; forget about it

by Brian 7. May 2010 01:03

Here’s a great true story by apologist Ravi Zacharias: I remember lecturing at Ohio State University, one of the largest universities in this country. I was minutes away from beginning my lecture, and my host was driving me past a new building called the Wexner Center for the Performing Arts. He said, “This is America’s first postmodern building.” I was startled for a moment and I said, “What is a postmodern building?” He said, “Well, the architect said he designed this building with no design in mind. When the architect was asked, “Why?” he said; “If life itself is capricious, why should our buildings have any design and any meaning?” So he has pillars with no purpose. He has stairways going nowhere...” I said, “So his argument was, if life has no purpose and design, why should our buildings have any design?” He said, “That is correct.” I said, “Did he do the same with the foundation?”

Postmodernism is one of those faddish words which when expounded sounds interesting on the surface but is conflicted and inconsistent at its core. We rarely hear mention of it in secular outlets, but it is a common topic in Christian media and in our churches. The Christian is told we live in a “postmodern culture,” and I for one used to believe this. I say “used to” because for the most part, it’s not true.

What is postmodernism? Put simply, it is the period after modernism. It typically manifests as a rejection of enlightenment thinking and epistemological realism. The postmodernist claims no one has a privileged perspective on reality. Even if there is objective truth, we don't have a good grasp of it. Of course theists recognize God's privileged position of knowing in an absolute and objective way. Yet that may have little impact on the postmodern attitude: favoring dialog over monologue; personal-belief over doctrine and the rejection of classifications and generalizations. The secular postmodern perspective encourages us to keep belief to ourselves. Facts of course are okay to share.

There is good reason to reject the strict rationalism of modernity. Belief in some cases is warranted even though it is not empirically verifiable or passes the criteria of the evidentialist. So in a way, we can appreciate the postmodern perspective even if it throws the baby out with the bathwater. But I'm not sure it matters much; American culture is predominately modern, not postmodern. If it were not for the airtime it receives in the institutional church, I doubt you would hear much about postmodernism. It is true we face epistemological-relativism in our culture, but in my opinion, this is a symptom of other causes – primarily the value-fact dichotomy permeating western worldview. When we consider America as a secular nation, it is not just a matter of separating the religious life from political life. In America, we tend to separate our faith from all other aspects of our lives. The world of values and the world of facts are treated as distinct realms, like two stories in a house as Francis Schaeffer described. The following lists depict the contemporary dichotomy in our culture:

Bottom Floor

Top Floor







Monday thru Saturday









So when we think of the postmodern building, we immediately recognize how ridiculous a random and capricious foundation is even if some think the stairways are clever. Americans often apply the same selectivity to epistemological relativism. Very few people act like postmodernists when it comes to business, facts and the products of Science. But start talking about top-floor matters and all of sudden you hear statements like “all truth is relative” and “your truth works for you but not for me,” etc. But this attitude is not because we have moved beyond modernity. In fact we are likely becoming more modern as scientism grows and the bottom floor swallows up more and more of our spheres of interest. If you assemble a panel consisting of a scientist, Hollywood starlet and a pastor; which one will the American public attribute the most credibility to on nearly every issue (even top-floor issues?) It usually won’t be the pastor. Many think the scientist is in a privileged position – and this is not postmodernism, it’s modernism.

Postmodernism isn't nearly the concern modernism and the fact-value dichotomy appear to be. The institutional church is not helping matters either. Those churches continuing an anti-intellectual tradition will further drive the wedge between fact and value, separating the two stories. By ministering as postmodernists (more interested in experience than truth) it will firmly encamp itself in the top story. As the bottom floor grows under scientism, the top floor and Christian truth claims will become less relevant.

I believe as Christians we should move towards freethinking premodernism! As premodernists; we have an integrated worldview of facts and values, all on the same floor. We recognize a rational God who has revealed himself in Creation (Psalm 19, Rom 1:20) has not left us without a witness. Our reasoning faculties are designed by God to obtain true belief where positions of knowing vary - some being privileged. We appreciate the limits of rationality while not being anti-intellectual. Good science and true faith lead to knowledge about the same reality, the same world. As epistemological realists we recognize truth and reality are independent of our opinions and can be revealed and discovered. As freethinkers, we work through the challenges of a meaningful worldview and adopt a minimalist doctrine of faith. This leaves room for growth (Phil 2:12-13, Mat 7:7) and maximizes our evangelistic opportunities in a world that has greatly separated the two floors.

About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, an owner of ISC, lead architect of MapDotNet, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs, hot air baloons, lawn furniture)

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