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How Do You Know?

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Most people have had enough experience with their senses to know that they can be fooled. We tend to accept shared experiences as real and private experiences as unreal. If I see two trees on either side of my sidewalk when I leave my house every day, and I also know that others see them, I think of them as real trees. But if I wake up remembering a flowering tree that bursts into flame, burns to ashes, and spring anew from the ashes again and again, then I regard that tree as unreal, a mere dream.

At times, though, I have had experiences that were private but very vivid. I can’t say for sure that they were real, yet I do not doubt that they were. In part, I am convinced by the vividness and coherence of the experience. Dreams, I find, tend to fall apart. The more you try to make sense of them, the more they slip into nothingness. But the experiences I am talking about do not fade they way dreams do. They have the same self-authenticating presence as “real” experiences, and yet I have awakened from them.

I think of this when I read the gospel accounts of Jesus transfiguration. Mark, especially, gives us a sense of discontinuity in the experience: “Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.” And Luke tells us that the experience was like waking up. I’m sure Peter, James, and John were each glad to have had the other two along to corroborate the experience. It so impressed them that Peter and John both mention it again in their letters. They were eyewitnesses to the glory of Jesus Christ, and heard the voice of God speaking from the bright cloud that came over them.

But what about experiences for which there is no corroborating witness? Is something real if it feels real? Is faith alone meant to sustain us against the dread that we may be dreaming or going mad? How do you know that what you have experienced is real?

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Young Earth?

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It was a surprise to me to learn recently that there are still many learned Christians who hold to the view that the earth is only about 6,000 years old. I’ve never considered the idea of an ancient earth as theologically relevant, but there are apparently many for whom the Genesis creation account is to be regarded as hard science. They believe in the literal six day creation with a literal order:
  1. heavens and earth and light
  2. sky dividing water above (the vapor canopy) from water below (the oceans)
  3. dry land and vegetation
  4. sun, moon, stars
  5. fish and fowl
  6. land animals and man
There are, of course, obvious problems with this, some scientific and some theological. We could ask, for example, how light could exist without sun, moon, or stars; or why the earth, which appears to be just one of innumerable planets in the universe, would appear before any of the others. We could also ask why it took God so long to make everything. After all, if he has infinite power and resources and can speak things into existence, why could he not create everything in a single moment of time? Why stretch it out over six days?

The fact is that there is ample evidence for an earth much older than 6,000 years. There is a very good overview of dating methodologies here, describing how radiometric dating works. It also points out that ice cores have been taken from Greenland showing annual snowfall layering. Scientists have been able to visually count the layers going back 60,000 years. I think it’s pretty hard to account for 60,000 visible layers from changes in annual snowfall if the earth is only 6,000 years old.

What if the purpose of the Genesis account was not to provide a historically and scientifically accurate account of creation? What if the purpose was to show that God, and God alone, made everything that exists; that God loves order and makes everything in its time; that God established a pattern of working six days and resting on the seventh so people would not be so devoted to their work that they forget to worship their Creator? What if the Genesis account is not about creation at all but about the Creator?

I certainly don’t see the bible as myth (at least in the popular sense of myth as “made-up stories”). I do, however, think that the bible must be understood as being God’s revelation about himself, and not primarily as history or science or poetry or economics or even religion. The bible is mostly about God, and whatever it has to say about other subjects is peripheral to that one great revelation. Historians are disappointed that it says so little about the world’s great empires and so much about obscure events in an insignificant country. Scientists are disappointed that it says so little about geology, biology, and cosmology and so much about the grief and wrath of a Father disappointed in his children and the joy of a Father delighted in them. The purpose of the bible is to bring us to God. Let us therefore draw close to him in reading it, studying it, and meditating on it.

Whether the earth is old or young, whether the universe was set in motion by a big bang or suddenly appeared from spoken words, everything that exists testifies to the might and power of the invisible God who made it.
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Evolution as Metaphor II

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Evolution is absurd. Even as a biological process with the weight of scientific authority behind it, it is still absurd. It may be that we live in an absurd world where our actions have no significance beyond what we give them ourselves. I confess I do not like the idea of such a world, but my dislike does not constitute an argument against it. Since evolution has taken such hold on the postmodern consciouness, we should understand what an evolutionistic understanding of life really means, beyond the science.

If all life developed from non-living matter without the aid of an intelligent designer, then we would have to conclude (following Ray Kurzweil) that the universe has a minimal intelligence (or at least that eddies of minimal intelligence have occurred with sufficient strength and durability to produce intelligent life on this planet). Through evolution the inherent intelligence in the universe has increased, culminating on earth so far in human beings. Kurzweil proposes that the next stage in the evolution of intelligence will leap from humans to intelligent machines. Thus humans will make themselves obsolete by constructing machines more powerful and intelligent than they are themselves. If humans can transfer their consciousness to the machines, then the result will be the end of humanity as we know it. No longer dependent on biology and guided by the superintelligence of machines, evolution could proceed at a pace far exceeding anything the universe has seen so far. Unfettered by the need to protect fragile biological bodies, these conscious machines could roam the galaxy, colonize other worlds, and spread throughout the universe as long as the universe keeps expanding, always increasing their intelligence.

What would happen to desire? So much of human behavior depends on desire, and desire is so very intertwined with our bodies. Machines would still need resources: raw materials for repairing themselves and constructing new machines. They would still need fuel, sources of energy on which to run. Would these needs become desires? Could a machine feel the satisfaction of a having a good dinner after exploiting an especially good power source? Would they ever know the joys of intimate contact: holding hands, hugging, kissing, or having sex?

Desire is such a strange nexus of good and evil. For there are evil desires. The desire to dominate others has led to all kinds of violence. The desire for money and possessions—greed—has led to destruction and cruelty. Even the desire for love has been twisted into a drive to self-humiliation, even self-abnegation, in order to obtain the love of another. It’s hard to imagine machines having such desires. It’s hard to imagine machines having any morality that is not strictly utilitarian and self-serving. (By the way, Isaac Asimov’s robot fiction provides a glimpse into the behavior of man-made machines designed to improve the lives of humans. It’s not quite the same as the future Kurzweil imagines, but the morality is comparable.)

What will be the meaning of desire without bodies that require air and food and warmth and love?

For evolutionists this vision of the future is possible because intention is merely a chimera. The driving force behind evolution is a blind intelligence that continues to expand and grow, not because growth is good, but only because it is the nature of intelligence to increase. Machines will replace humans because they will be more intelligent. Questions of morality involve intention. But there is no good or evil and no intention. Our behaviors are not chosen; they result from genetic and environmental influences. Choice and freedom are comforting illusions. (Exactly what the comfort is in believing that my everyday choices have eternal consequences remains a mystery to me. I find the prospect terrifying. It’s much safer and more comforting to believe that my choices matter only to me and only for the present. Thus, it seems to me comforting that choice has no ultimate significance.) From an evolutionary perspective, we are observers only, with a persistent fancy that we matter.

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