Apologetics: December 2009 Archives

Stargate: The Ark of Truth introduces a very old artifact into Stargate mythology. The Ark of Truth was designed to give knowledge of the truth to those who look into it. In particular, it was designed by those who were resisting the Ori, advanced beings masquerading as gods in order to gain power from those who worshiped them. Somehow (we're not told anything more than this of how), those who look into the Ark of Truth suddenly know that the Ori are not really gods and are not really good at all, that they've been lying to their followers about rewarding them upon their death, and that their primary purpose is to gain enough power to be victorious over their similarly-advanced fellow ascended beings who had departed from their galaxy into ours.

So what is it exactly that the Ark of Truth is supposed to do? It's presented as giving this knowledge somehow to those who look into it. I'm not so much interested in the process of how it accomplishes this as I am in the result. What does this knowledge consist of? It doesn't seem to involve being given any actual evidence in terms of beliefs that then support a further belief. It must involve their somehow seeing what is wrong with their previous beliefs, somehow simply being given the ability to know something that they didn't have enough information to know beforehand. It seems almost like a miraculous ability to know something. One reason for thinking this is that they explicitly say in the movie that the Ark of Truth can't be reprogrammed to convince those who look into it of some falsehood, so it could never be abused if it fell into the wrong hands. It could only be used to give knowledge of the truth. So somehow its mechanism leads to genuine knowledge and doesn't just operate in a way that convinces someone that something is true without being connected to its actual truth. Whatever it does is somehow tied to the thing's actually being true.

I've seen the movie several times now, but it wasn't until the most recent time a week or so ago maybe that this even occurred to me, and it reminded me of a suggestion John Hawthorne offers in his "Arguments for Atheism" chapter of Reason for the Hope Within. He calls it the Gift of Faith. He's responding to the no-evidence argument for atheism, i.e. the claim that we should believe what we don't have enough evidence for and that there isn't enough evidence to believe in God, so we should be atheists.

The Gift of Faith is a possibility Hawthorne proposes for why it might be perfectly fine to believe in God without any evidence at all. He says that, for all we know, some people might be given this ability simply to know that God exists. This ability might just be something God gives to some people. Faith here is nothing like the notion of a leap of faith, where you believe despite having no good reason to believe. Faith here is a kind of knowledge, an ability given by an omnipotent being to allow someone to know of the existence of that being and enough of the nature of that being to know that it's worth following that being. Hawthorne argues, then, that since atheists can't rule out this possibility, they can't go on to argue that the lack of evidence makes theists irrational. Perhaps they have this ability to know God's existence that the atheists making the argument against theism don't have. They can't rule out that possibility, so their skepticism about God by the very skeptical standard they propose (not believing in something without enough evidence) has to falter (because they don't have any evidence for the claim that no one has the Gift of Faith).

The Ark of Truth, then, seems like a nice science fiction device that captures some of what Hawthorne had in mind with his Gift of Faith. The Gift of Faith seems to be very much the same sort as what the Stargate writers (particularly Robert Cooper, in this case) were thinking the Ark of Truth would do. A lot of people I've discussed this with have found the notion of the Gift of Faith hard to make sense of, but Robert Cooper at least found something very similar comprehensible enough to base an entire Stargate movie on.

Stephen Meyer is a the leading proponent of intelligent design arguments. I was surprised when a friend directed me toward Thomas Nagel's brief review of Meyer's new book, and Nagel had only positive comments.

Here's his review in full:

Stephen C. Meyer's Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter - something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

It's especially notable that a pretty mainstream philosopher not known for any work in philosophy of religion would give such a positive review of a book on intelligent design. I've long thought the origin of life issue had a lot more going for it than the complexity of life arguments that most people think of when they hear the expression "intelligent design". I've also long thought of this as a clear example of how intelligent design isn't about the evolution issue at all. It's about whether there are good philosophical arguments for accepting intelligence behind the natural world, completely independent of whatever natural processes were involved in bringing about the way things are now. Since evolution (i.e. natural selection, as Nagel puts it) isn't at issue with the first living cell (evolution can only occur after that), this is about another issue entirely. It's about whether we can infer purpose from the unlikelihood of natural causes producing a living cell, not about whether natural causes could happen to produce a cell.

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