Where I Cram My Ideas

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe

It's dated, but I was presented with a transcript of a presentation by Dr. Hugh Ross, founder of the Reasons to Believe 'Science-Faith Think Tank.' Delivered on April 16th, 1994, 'New Scientific Evidence for the Existence of God' nevertheless indicates some interesting details about the organization.

I have a few comments.

Ross, despite his education, seems startlingly unable to recognize sound logic.
"Through the principle of positive fact, if the universe has a beginning, it must have a beginner, hence the existence of God."
Now, it may just be that I'm unfamiliar with the term 'principle of positive fact, but what I see is this:

1. All beginnings have a beginner.
2. The universe has a beginning.
3. Therefore, the universe has a beginner.
4. That beginner is God.

The first premise requires a little elaboration, and there is an unjustified leap of logic between (3) and (4). Still, it's clearly just a basic rephrasing of the age-old cosmological argument. Premise (1) only stands if by 'beginner' Ross means 'cause.' For instance, if I say 'since an avalanche has a beginning, it must have a beginner,' I am only correct in the sense that something triggered the avalanche. 'Beginner' implies someone, which is, at best, something Ross overlooked, but more likely just meaning-laden language used rhetorically in an irresponsible fashion.

While there is still debate over the validity of the cosmological argument for a creator (which I won't bother detailing right now, but will direct you to a useful description here), what is certain is that to say that 'the universe has a cause' is NOT the same as saying that 'it has an intelligent, thinking, planning Cause.' All we know is that a series of events caused a beginning to time and space - as we know it, in this universe. The leap from this conclusion to 'thus, God' is unwarranted. It is at least unsatisfactorily explained in the presentation.
"Any entity confined to half of the line of time, must have a beginning and must be created. I can walk home tonight, and that's it. It's the simplest, most rigorous proof of the existence of God."
By way of counter-example, here are a few other options for an entity confined to half of the line of time (only able to move 'forward' in the dimension of time we experience):
1. The entity was, at one point, able to use any line of time, and has since lost those abilities.
2. The entity existed outside of time, and then became subject to that dimension (Jesus Christ, as Ross must have forgotten)
3. The entity was brought into existence by non-intelligently-designing factors.

I'm not pushing any of these as a legitimate argument - that's not the issue at hand. I simply want to demonstrate Ross' failures at grasping logical arguments.

Ross oversteps the boundaries of his education, making him both intellectually arrogant, and negligent

Let me be the first to admit that Ross is a well-credentialed man. His B.Sc. (1967) in Physics, University of British Columbia, Ma.Sc. (1968) in Astronomy, University of Toronto and Ph.D. (1973) in Astronomy, University of Toronto clearly show that he is educated. However, it is these very credentials that point to a more sinister side to his ministry.
"All we have is evidence that a certain species exists for a certain period of time without significant change, which then goes extinct to be replaced at a different time with a radically different species, with no connection from the previous species to the next one."
Ross is in no position to give educated commentary on the theory of evolution. He may be considered a scientist, but his area of expertise is not in a field relevant to allow him to be an authority on fossil record evidence, or biological evolution in general. As an educated scientist, he should know this - and he exhibits intellectual arrogance and a disregard for accurate knowledge in attempting to cast himself as an authority before an audience unqualified to criticize his claims.

Of course, he is flat-out wrong, too , and he derives his statements from a flat-out misunderstanding of biological evolution. So I don't carry on too long, I'll refer readers to check the accuracy of his statements at Talk.Origins, the American Scientific Affiliation, or UC Berkley's Understanding Evolution page.

In reference to hominid fossils:
"...there's no relationship between those bipedal primates and human beings."
Today, we know that 'at this functional genetic level humans and chimpanzees are more similar to each other than either is to any of the other apes.' While this information was not expressly available at the time of Ross' presentation, to say that there is 'no relationship' between one primate genus and another cannot be considered an accurate statement. Of course, those who have studied hominid fossils extensively and submitted their findings to rigorous peer-review believe that there is indeed a strong relationship between these primate fossils and both humans and the common ancestor shared by some modern apes.

Ross has no expertise when it comes to evolutionary theory, and when somebody schooled in science presumes to offer a professional opinion on a different branch of science, that somebody is either being deceitful or... well, that's pretty much the only option. He's too smart to be doing anything other than intentionally misleading his audience.

Ross is willing to use baseless numbers and present them as fact
"There were 30,000 land mammals on planet Earth when God created Adam and Eve. There are only 15,000 remaining today. In just a few thousand years, 15,000 species of mammals have disappeared."
It's important to remember that there is a difference between facts discovered by scientists and scientific theories. Of course, I don't know how he possibly arrived at the 30,000 number. Modern estimates put the number of mammal species at around 5,000. His faulty statistics also say that even without human impact on earth, one (mammal) species would go extinct every year. However, only 82 mammal species have gone extinct, to our knowledge, in the last 500.

I suspect that the 'one per year' number refers to animal species as a whole... showing, again, not only Ross' inability to provide authoritative commentary on the biological sciences, but his negligence for saying what he did.

Ross, and other 'intelligent design' advocates, depend heavily on arguments from complexity
"What does this tell me about the Creator? That God so loved the human race that he went to the expense of building one hundred billion stars... so that for this brief moment in time, we could have a nice place to live."
That's not what it tells me. I understand the the universe is complicated - incredibly so. However, consider for a moment the motives for an all-powerful being to create a universe. From the way Christians present God, It would presumably create a universe for the habitation of human beings, for the sake of making something complex, beautiful, and reflective of Its characteristics, or some combination of the two.

If the point of the universe is to host human life, then it is a monumental waste. From our experience of intelligent designers (humans), a system designed to work should exhibit signs of simplicity - the more simple the design, the less can go wrong. God could have made a tiny 'universe' consisting of only our planet. In fact, there is evidence that the Bible authors held to this view. It would make even more sense, of course, for God to have created a universe for every individual - Christians will remind you that your relationship with God is the only important one, so why shouldn't it be the only one? Besides, that would pretty much eradicate 'sin,' which usually relies on situations with more than one being.

But most Christians propose something a little different, which helps to explain the seeming pointlessness of a vast universe - God wanted to make something complex, beautiful, and reflective of Its characteristics. However, I'm fairly certain that if an all-powerful God wanted to really make a complex universe, for complexity's sake, then It could make one vastly MORE complicated than this. Certainly we wouldn't expect it to be mostly empty space, filled with background radiation and almost completely hostile to life.

Why I consider the argument from complexity pointless

Any given hand in a poker game is vastly improbable - yet once you've been dealt that hand, to question the odds of having been dealt it is unreasonable. More pointedly, consider the odds that you exist, here and now - as an individual. Each sperm has something like a 1 in 20,000,000 chance of fertilizing an egg. Account for other variables - that your parents would decide to do the naughty thing on a particular day, at a particular time, in a particular place; that they'd even find one another; that THEY would be born...

The chances that you would come to exist were very slim. However, now that you are born, the chances have become 100%. The same is true of the universe... just because the numbers thought up by mathematicians make it seem unlikely that the universe came about at all doesn't change the fact that it did - and it wasn't much more unlikely than the fact that you are reading this right now.

The presentation fails to deliver

I was led to believe by its title that this presentation would give scientific evidence for the existence of God. What I got was facts discovered by scientists (not necessarily science), along with bogus/false 'scientific' conclusions (not related to hypothesizing God), and pointless mathematical calculations. This does not amount to scientific evidence for the existence of God in any way, shape, or form.

More specifically, the presentation began with this statement:
"The hallmark of a truly reliable scientific theory is that it is thoroughly testable, scientifically falsifiable, and makes accurate predictions."
NOTHING he presented regarding God was falsifiable in theory, or had the ability to make predictions. This presentation is, at best, misleading - as the audience assumes that the opening statement is true (which it is) and then nods along as facts discovered by scientists (NOT the same as 'scientific theories') are presented. This presentation has more straw men than a cornfield, leading me to the firm conclusion that, given the credentials of the speaker, the presentation is deliberately deceitful.

I have to end with a strong moral slap on the hand for a scientist who should be held in deep disregard by honest people. Nevermind that modern Christianity extols honesty as a virtue. Nevermind that other Christian organizations like Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research are far more culpable.

The question is whether or not the 'Hugh Ross' sort of person is the type we should welcome as part of society. Imagine, if you will, a presidential administration that exerts a great deal of power over the American public. Since it holds that position, it is assumed to know what it's talking about - people trust it initially in its decisions and claims. It then takes that trust and runs with it, making wild assumptions not based on fact, and assuming it knows the truth even when there is no reason for it to do so (like when it invades Iraq and then ignores the results of the Iraq Study Group). It conjures false reasons and presents them as fact. Overall, it fails to live up to what is expected - required, actually - of it. This sort of presidential administration is deserving of all sorts of criticism. It is the sort of administration that should be fought through legislation and proper application of the law.

Dr. Hugh Ross represents a group that exerts a great deal of power over the American public - in the role of Christian leader. People trust him when he makes decisions and claims because he is a scientist. However, he takes his perceived (but undeserved) authority to other subjects and makes wild claims not based on fact, and assumes he knows the truth... although facts indicate otherwise. He claims to present science, but fails to live up to his claim.

He willingly deceives, misleads, assumes his conclusions true even when un-credentialed to make them. He demonstrates a blatant disregard for truth and reasoned criticism. The sort of desires that Ross operates on are the sort that lead to bad decisions and harmful consequences, as we see from the example of the Bush administration. The sort of desires that Ross operates on are demonstrably the type that tend to thwart the desires of others, and should be outspokenly denounced.

1 comment:

Venishi said...

It's too bad that popular culture doesn't question this man just like they question the Bush administration. America likes to ignore issues that make them uncomfortable, unless they are issues that have the potential for negative consequences, in which case the attention is duly paid.