Axiomatic Christianity (Part Two)

© 2015 Bryan Dowd

Note to readers: This is the second of a three-part essay on “Axiomatic Christianity,” first published on the FacultyLinc website and written by University of Minnesota Professor Bryan Dowd. As we wrote in the introduction to the first in this essay series,  Professor Dowd is both humble and honest, and wants everyone to know that “As far as I know, nothing in this paper is original.”

Axiom 1: God exists

For many Christians, the most convincing evidence of the existence of God is their personal encounter with Him.  Skeptics dismiss such evidence, pointing out that people report all sorts of “feelings” that obviously are not grounded in any sort of objective reality.  That’s true, of course, but we have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Just because people report some “feelings” that are not grounded in objective reality doesn’t mean that all self-reported personal experiences should be considered unconnected to objective reality, and indeed none of us treat all self-reported data in that manner.  The “personal experiences” of guilt, pride, shame, etc., also can be verified only by self-report, but we treat those self-reports as objectively true data in a number of important settings such as treatment of patients by psychologists.  Indiscriminant rejection of self-reported data on personal encounters with God more likely reflects an assumption made prior to evaluating the evidence, that such data could not possibly be connected to objective reality.

We are more likely to think that self-reported experiences are grounded in objective reality if they are associated with observable events (reality).  For example, we would lose interest in voter preference polls if they failed to predict voter behavior with some accuracy.   Personal testimony about personal encounters with God easily meets the “connection to observable events” criteria, however, since innumerable individuals could be assembled whose observable behavior has been dramatically altered by what they report to be personal encounters with God.

C.S. Lewis’ arguments in Mere Christianity were based on the observation that human beings appear to share an inherent sense of justice, of right and wrong, of beauty and perfection.  In his autobiography (Surprised by Joy), Lewis tells how, at a very early age, he would be overcome by a sense of something good and beautiful that lay just beyond his grasp, sometimes referred to as the “numinous.[2] The popularity of Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy suggests that many of his readers resonate with his experience.  Lewis argued that those perceptions, recognitions and longings are “hardwired” into us by our Creator.  J. Budziszewski, writing about natural law, refers to our knowledge that some actions are evil as things we cannot not know.

The physical universe offers numerous examples of events that are so improbable that it seems ludicrous to suggest that they occurred by chance.  Our planet’s ability to support life appears to depend on a number of very finely tuned physical constants, the conjunction of which is extremely unlikely to have occurred by chance.

There are other competing theories about the origin of the universe and life on our planet, of course, but many of them seem to require that we abandon empirical science, in that they posit the existence of empirically inaccessible alternate universes, or empirically inaccessible life forms that might have arisen under other less finely-tuned conditions.  The non-theistic theories that deal with our own universe and life on Earth appear to require belief that the physical universe, including all its causal physical laws, was caused by physical laws, thus causing itself.  Where did physical laws come from?

In addition to the origins of the universe, origins of life on earth pose a challenge for non-theistic explanations.  Even if one believes that evolution (random mutations and natural selection) can explain the living world we now observe, one must explain how evolution began.  Evolution requires the intergenerational transmission of information.  How did the intergenerational transmission of information begin?  In Climbing Mount Improbable Richard Dawkins says “it had to happen only once.”  But that’s hardly an explanation.  I know lots of things that had to happen only once, including Virgin Births and Resurrections.

But even if we lay aside the origins question, there’s another troubling question.  “Has there been enough time for random mutation and natural selection to produce the living world we see around us?”  Even today, I think many atheists would answer “Yes,” but the work of biologist James Shapiro at the University of Chicago, and others, has shown that (a) all mutations are not random, and (b) it must be so because otherwise the timeline is too short.  Newsweek published a short article on this research way back in 1995 whimsically entitled, “Darwin, Call Your Office.”

Pursuing the non-random hypothesis, biologist Michael Behe has asserted that many microbiological “machines” are highly unlikely to have arisen by chance – first, because the parts of those machines appear to perform no useful function of their own, but have a purpose only when combined with other independently useless objects; and second, because even if the parts themselves could exist in useless isolation, the odds of them finding each other an assembling themselves into a functioning organism are too small to be taken seriously.

Einstein said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe was our ability to comprehend it.  Non-theistic accounts of biology require me to attribute that ability to a random mutation that somehow gave me a selection advantage over competing mutations.  What is the nature of that advantage?  More pointedly, why should any sentient being be able to comprehend the universe?  We take for granted the correspondence of the physical world to mathematical laws, for example, but there is no reason to presume that such a correspondence is necessary.  Why is the universe orderly in that particular way?

Finally, Alvin Plantinga has argued forcefully in his book God and Other Minds that if I do not believe the arguments for the existence of God then I also must give up my belief in other minds.  Obviously, I’m not prepared to give up my belief in other minds, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this paper.  Plantinga also has argued that if Christianity is true, then Christians have a good warrant for believing it is true, but if naturalism-materialism is true, then those who subscribe to that worldview do not have a good warrant for believing it is true – since natural selection does not select for truth, only for survival and procreation.

I like to think that I’m open to reasonable suggestions, but frankly I just can’t subscribe to a worldview that requires cognitive dissonance and unwarranted belief.  I prefer to rely on eyewitness accounts, historical records that are at least as reliable as other accounts collected under similar conditions, the most obvious explanation for the remarkably improbably history of Judaism and Christianity, and the self-reports of billions of people including one-third of the world’s current population (and growing) who are Christians.  I also prefer to accept the compelling evidence that the universe had a beginning and at the beginning, everything we call physical (including ourselves), rather than causing itself, had a non-physical cause, which I call God.

Axiom 2 : God is perfect

This axiom really is just a definition, contending that “God” and “perfection” are synonymous.  God’s perfection means that God never makes mistakes.  God is the standard against which ‘mistakes’ are measured.  If you don’t think God is perfect, then our disagreement is simply over semantics.  The standard to which you are comparing God in order to determine that God is imperfect is my definition of God.   It is important to note that this axiom does not imply that God prevents all imperfection and its consequences, as evidenced by the next axiom.

Axiom 3 : I’m not perfect.

If you disagree with this axiom, then you don’t know me very well.  Of course, I believe the axiom applies to all human beings.  If you believe that human beings are perfect, or even on the road to perfection, I would suggest reviewing the recent events, including those of the 20th century.  This axiom embeds the assumption that we have knowledge of right and wrong and we purposely make wrong choices with alarming frequency (although just one wrong choice would be enough to seal our imperfection, and it might not even have to be purposeful).

Axiom 4: My imperfection is a problem for both God and me

This axiom has a number of important implications.  First, it assigns a personality to God, and second, it ascribes the characteristic of “concern” to that personality.  If God exists and is perfect, then our imperfection either is a concern to Him or it is not.  This axiom asserts that it is.  You can read this two ways.  First, you can say that if God is perfect then imperfection in the physical world He created, introduced by us, might simply be an intolerable annoyance.  If that were the correct view, then one simple solution would be for God not to have allowed any imperfection in His creation.  God could have created us so that it would be impossible for us to sin, but that would require taking away our ability to choose right over wrong, thus eliminating a whole realm of behavior that is noble and virtuous because it is chosen behavior.  We know from experience that God did not choose that solution.  Second, after observing our imperfection, God simply could have wiped us off the map.  The account of Noah and the ark suggests that God gave that possibility serious consideration.  However, both of these solutions to the problem of our imperfection suggest that God is concerned only with maintaining the perfection of his Creation.

The second interpretation of “concern” on God’s part is loving concern for our welfare.  If God had not allowed us to choose right over wrong, it would not be possible for us to choose rightly to love Him.  Computers can be programmed to print out loving messages to their operators, but no one would confuse such a message with the loving response of a child, parent, or spouse who had the ability to choose otherwise.  Our freedom to choose love over hate, life over death, and good over evil has led to a great deal of misery in the world.  Astonishingly, God often gets blamed for it.  Since neither the removal of choice nor our immediate annihilation seems to be God’s approach to our imperfection, I am inclined to believe the Scriptural explanation that God’s concern about our imperfection is a just, but loving and merciful concern.

Of course, even if my imperfection is a concern to God, it might not be a concern to me.  However, the experience of the human conscience, guilt, and shame, seems pervasive throughout the planet, even though some details about what constitutes right and wrong in particular situations may differ among cultures.  In addition, our hard-wired longing for the numinous, as Lewis noted, might be taken as evidence that we imperfect beings are both aware of, and troubled by, our imperfection.

A final implication of the fourth axiom is that there is more at stake in our imperfection than our existence on earth.  It is difficult to imagine that a perfect God would be “concerned” over the imperfection of a series of random biological accidents that lived for a few decades in some backwater scrap of the space-time continuum.  I return to that topic later in the paper.