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The Science of Resurrection

Do you believe in resurrection? I do.

In fact, I’m going to go spend three hours today to worship someone who lived about two millennia ago, give or take, and then died when he was thirty-three years old when he was crucified by the ancient Roman government. Not to worry, though – he didn’t stay dead. That’s right! Crazy as it may sound, He came back to life, along with hundreds of others, all of whom came out of their graves and appeared to their loved ones. The fact that He came back to life is a promise that all of us will do the same. Best of all, once we come back to life, we’re never going to die again. So every Sunday, I spend a good chunk of the day pondering this fact, discussing it with like-minded people, and celebrating this wonderful news with family and friends.

Here’s the problem, though. The science is in, and it’s not encouraging.

It’s even worse than that. All scientific evidence suggests that once something dies, it stays dead. Forever. In fact, it rots away until there’s nothing left of it. In a few decades or so, it’s pretty much as if the thing never lived in the first place. There have been a number of empirical case studies on the subject, and each reaches the same unequivocal conclusion: death is forever. Most anecdotal evidence points in this direction, too.

Resurrection is bad science. And it is magnificent religion.

“Reconciling” science and religion is an ultimately pointless exercise. Science provides no theological context, It observes; it reports, and it cheerfully changes conclusions with the appearance of new data. Think Pluto, for instance. When I grew up, it was a planet. Now it isn’t. Pluto hasn’t changed, but our understanding of it has, so science has reached a new conclusion.

With regard to resurrection, all science can tell you is that no such resurrections have ever been observed, and that no current scientific principle can explain how such a thing could happen. But if there were a resurrection – and I believe there will be oodles of them – science could then examine the new data and reach a new conclusion. And that wouldn’t mean science has been in conflict with the religion of resurrection prior to that new conclusion. Rather, it would only mean science was offering its best explanation of the observable facts, which is what science is supposed to do.

My children are now reaching the age where they are taking science classes in public schools. I haul my children along with me to the Sunday classes where they’re taught that a resurrection will take place. Yet, to date, not a single one of them has reported a discussion of resurrection in their science classes. I personally can recall no such discussion in my own public education. Even more strangely, I can’t recall a single protest throughout the nation wherein religious fundamentalists decry the teaching of unresurrectioned death in our public classrooms. With regard to resurrection, people seem to recognize the clear distinction between religion and science and are more than happy to allow each their proper place.

Not so with evolution. And, strangely, those who seem to be wandering out of their jurisdiction here are the scientists, not the pious zealots.

Witness, for instance, the publication of a slew of books by evolutionary biologists insisting the theory of evolution proves there is no God. In his book The God Delusion, prominent scientist Richard Dawkins does precisely that, proclaiming that all those who disagree are clearly deluded.

“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.”

– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Well, I studied evolutionary biology in school, too. I must have missed the part where they proved God doesn’t exist. In my mind, evolution was simply a compilation of observable facts, and it had as much theological weight to it as, say, the theory of gravity. Does evolution tell you either how or why life began? No. Does it tell you why life exists? No. Does it provide a moral framework in which to live your life? No. Does it preclude the possibility of divine purpose or order? No.

How, then, can Dawkins reach such a sweeping religious conclusion based solely on scientific observation?

I raise this issue on the basis of this editorial cartoon which appeared in today’s paper.

Suddenly, as it is every four years, evolution is now not only a religious issue; it’s political, too. Jon Huntsman, the most elitist candidate running this cycle, has made his belief in evolution his primary campaign platform. And Oliphant and others are making hay about Rick Perry’s supposedly ludicrous assertion that evolutionary theory has gaps* in it. Over and over again, Republicans are asked if they believe in evolution.** Why aren’t they asked if they believe in resurrection? (They all do, by the way.) Isn’t resurrection a more ludicrous scientific postulation than creationism?

The shrieking about evolution every four years presupposes that we are only inches away from a theocracy, where biology teachers hurl all Darwin out of their textbooks and replace it with a semester studying the first chapter of Genesis and how the earth was created on October 26, 4004 BC in six twenty-four hour periods. Even if Rick Perry believes that, and – yikes – he becomes president, there is absolutely no chance of that happening. The obsession with evolution, therefore, comes solely from those who are confusing the scientific and religious principles, and, in the case of this particular theory, it’s the atheistic Left that’s confused.

When they’re resurrected, they’ll finally figure it out.

___________

* I don’t want this to be the focus of this piece as I’ve discussed the content of evolutionary theory several times previously in this blog. Still, of course evolutionary theory has gaps in it. So does every other comprehensive theory.To eliminate all gaps, and even the possibility of gaps, one would have to have a complete knowledge of all possible facts. No such knowledge exists. That doesn’t mean that the theory is unworthy of study; it means that theory is simply science, which never reaches permanent conclusions, because it never stops seeking new information.

___________

** What does this mean, anyway, “do you believe in evolution?” It is not a single, objective fact, like the color of the sky. It is thousands upon thousands of facts and theories, some of which are in flux. For instance, biologists have largely abandoned the idea of gradual, Darwinian evolution as it was first explained in The Origin of Species and moved to ideas that suggest what they call “punctuated equilibrium,” with far quicker advances in evolution than Darwin originally anticipated. So when you ask, “do you believe in evolution,” are you asking about those early ideas or the later ones? Are you considering the possibility that evolutionary theory is, as yet, inadequate to explain complex systems like DNA, cellular structure, and the eye? Is asking those questions a sign of religious heresy, despite the fact that there is no solid scientific answer for them?

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  1. Following is an excerpt from a discussion between me and my brother. His aim was to defend “materialism” as a superior universe model over “dualism”.

    Stallion, I selected the crux of his argument for your educational benefit — because when you had

     … studied evolutionary biology in school …

    you had, clearly,

    … missed the part where they proved God doesn’t exist.

    << The materialism position I take is not faith-based. It is based on the scientific evidence that points more strongly in that direction than in the dualism direction (or any other direction). I don’t mean to say there is ultimate unquestioning proof. I don’t think science really accepts anything as having “ultimate proof.” Only that the evidence we now have strongly suggests that [materialism] is the most likely and parsimonious explanation.

    <>

    For the record, I was not compelled. 

  2. “The materialism position I take is not faith-based. It is based on the scientific evidence that points more strongly in that direction than in the dualism direction (or any other direction). I don’t mean to say there is ultimate unquestioning proof. I don’t think science really accepts anything as having ‘ultimate proof.’ Only that the evidence we now have strongly suggests that [materialism] is the most likely and parsimonious explanation.

    “Yale neurologist Dr. Steven Novella (who accepts materialism) has blogged a great deal about brain and mind correlation over the years. He has had an on-going materialism vs. dualism blog debate with Stony Brook neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor (who accepts dualism). If you have time and want more on this subject, I recommend checking out Novella’s blog http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/. In the ‘Search for’ field you can type in ‘materialism dualism’ to bring up all his posts on the topic. See if you find his arguments compelling. I do.”

    For the record, I was not compelled.

  3. OK. Let me back up.

    My brother and I have had an ongoing discussion about his declared belief system. For the past 10 years or so (he is now 36 years old) his belief system has been rooted in the ideas of materialism.

    For background to his main argument (posted previously), I provide a collection of key statements that he has made to me.

    >> I consider myself agnostic to a great many of the [LDS church] doctrines (the ones that are acquired strictly through faith and are untestable, which seem to be the majority). As far as the ones that can be tested and the preponderance of evidence suggests the doctrines are not in alignment with reality, I currently disbelieve.

    >> What if what happened is that all of Joseph Smith’s claims are intentionally made up? Or perhaps just a delusion? What if what didn’t happen is God and Jesus and Moroni and any other angel did not actually appear to Joseph Smith?

    >> All the evidence I am aware of suggests when I die I will cease to have consciousness. At that point I will no longer have any emotions whatsoever, so I will no longer care about anything. Sad thought? Not to me. … How do I know? … from the mounds of scientific evidence.

    >> You, James, place faith beliefs as more important than science beliefs (probably because of familial upbringing), yet contradictorily you desire your faith beliefs to be validated by science (probably because science delivers the goods – e.g., planes fly, astronauts orbit, the Internet and cell phones facilitate instantaneous worldwide communication – and science is regarded by many as an influential, convincing argument, and you desire to convince others your faith beliefs are correct). Rather than changing your faith beliefs in accordance with science you seem to want to change science to be in accordance with your faith. This is circling the square. This premise completely invalidates science and ultimately leads to it becoming meaningless.

    >> I am very open minded and very willing to change my mind if convincing evidence is presented to me. I have already demonstrated this with my personal life from going to being not active religiously to being very active religiously to going back to not being active religiously. These changes of belief occurred because I was convinced through what I perceived as evidence. I am again willing to change my belief if convinced.

    >> Reality cannot be verified by faith per se. For example: If someone has faith the earth is about 6000 years old, but scientific evidence demonstrates the earth is about 5 billion years old, then faith here does not reflect reality. On the other hand, if someone has faith the earth is about 5 billion years old, and then scientific evidence later demonstrates this, then that faith belief reflects reality (which would have been purely coincidental). But the deciding factor was not faith; it was scientific evidence. At that point, calling that 5-billion-year-old-earth belief “faith” is not only unnecessary, but inaccurate and misleading.

    >> Faith is widely perceived as a virtue. But that “virtue” is really a sexed up form of credulity. In fact, I find it interesting that faith seems to carry a positive connotation while credulity a rather negative one, even though the dictionary records the common usage definitions of these two words nearly identically. As such, I do not encourage the use of “faith” as meaningfully applicable in discussions of rational thought. What’s more, because these two words share same meanings with different connotations, if you substitute “credulity” in place of “faith” in instances that faith is used as worthwhile, not only would it be accurate, but it helps to undo years of delusion that faith is virtuous. It puts it in its rightful place – belief without reason to believe; i.e. worthless.

    >> Science cannot address strictly faith-based claims, and strictly faith-based claims cannot be supported scientifically.

    >> [Many people have faith-based beliefs. However,] some people have beliefs based on evidence (i.e., the scientific method). Those same science-based people accept that where evidence does not exist they are agnostic (i.e. “we do not know”). It’s true that there are those who merge these two ideas and fill in the gaps of scientific knowledge with faith-based beliefs. They are free to do so. Just as agnostics are free not to fill in the gaps until good evidence arises. That’s a personal choice.

    >> It may be that we live in a universe created by god who has some purpose for us (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). It also may be we live in a universe made of matter and energy and there is no ultimate purpose (nihilism). It may also be we live in a universe created by god who has no purpose or concern for us (deism). We may live in a universe created by multiple deities who derive pleasure from our pain (much of Greek theology). It may be that we don’t exist at all and everything is an illusion (Christian-Scientist). It may be that Xenu is the ruler of the Galactic Confederacy and 75 million years ago brought humans to earth in a DC-8, stacked them around volcanoes, and killed them all using hydrogen bombs, whose spirits haunt the living on earth today (Scientology). It may be we live in a universe that rests on the backs of an infinite pile of tortoises (crazyologyism).

    >> There are perhaps an infinite number of possibilities, as many as the imagination can think up. But without good evidence either way, the most we can rationally say is “we don’t know” and work within the framework of that which we do know – based on scientific evidence, limited as it may be. If that makes you uncomfortable, you are free to believe whatever you wish that makes you comfortable. But just because you can’t imagine having no ultimate purpose does not mean plenty of other perfectly healthy people can enjoy life without an ultimate purpose. People who accept life without ultimate purpose (or accept there is no evidence that suggests ultimate purpose) can happily accept the limited purpose they do have: attraction to pleasure and repulsion to displeasure as derived most fundamentally from simple chemical stimuli that has evolved over millions of years to complicated chemical stimuli of our brains that give our minds consciousness.

    >> I take the neurological position known as “materialism” (which is defined as “the theory or belief that mental phenomena are nothing more than, or are wholly caused by, the operation of material or physical agencies.”) I’m surmising [that] you take the theological position known as “dualism” (which is defined as “The doctrine that mind and matter exist as distinct entities.”)

  4. Interesting stuff, James. I read this article today after reading this, and it might prove useful.

    http://www.usatoday.com/_ads/interstitial/2008/page/interstitial_new.htm?http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/story/2011-08-28/Why-certainty-about-God-is-overrated/50166464/1

    I also think anyone who has ever invested any intellectual energy in the Church and decides to leave has to come up with a plausible theory as to how the Book of Mormon came to be. So far, the only one that works at all is the one offered by Joseph Smith.

  5. My brother doubts God exists. His reasoning is that materialism beliefs are preferable because such require no blind “faith” — acceptance of unseen elements or personal consideration of non-testable hypotheses.

    Setting aside a discussion of his conclusions or of differing beliefs, do you see any problem with his “scientific” method of reasoning? If no, then do you see in his use of “science” what you might have missed in evolutionary biology — namely, that evidence stores for God’s existence are vacuous?

    (Note: I believe that he is following this blog — though he is no longer responding to me.)

  6. Stallion, you’ve not addressed my brothers method of reasoning — as I had hoped that you would. But that’s OK. You’ve provided me with a springboard for a showy attempt at what I’ll call the James-Flop. 

    … has to come up with a plausible theory …

    Stallion, allow me to compliment you for trusting in your unconscious to naturally operate scientifically. 

     

    Let me explain. 

    Though most of us are not scientists, whenever it’s got to count we zealously follow the methods of science. In fact, the scientific method is at work in virtually all of our decision making. 

    – – 

    Example:

    Sam deliberates with himself, “My fuel gauge just hit EMPTY. I can either pull off now or else try to make it to my exit 16 miles away.” (uncertainty or mystery is identified) 

    “I’ve run my tank dry before. I remember crossing town (appr. 10 miles) on EMPTY, then getting stranded somewhere along the way back home.” (data) 

    “I’ll bet I can make it.” (hypothesis)

    Sam passes the first off-ramp and continues ahead to his pre-intended destination. (test) 

    Sam’s car poops out 3 miles before his exit. (result) 

    Sam resolves, “Next time, when the gauge first reads EMPTY I’ll head to a gas station that is NO MORE THAN 13 miles away.” (conclusion) 

    – – 

    Sadly, many of us just don’t want to formally recognize the science that we’re doing naturally. (I know one individual who vehemently HATES to be identified as a science appreciator.) 

    And yet, when we want something uncovered badly enough (e.g., “My neighbor, with her 8 cats, is resposible for the surge of flea infestations in our home this year — I’m sure of it.”) we become first class snooping investigators. 

    So, I ask: When is it … ever … OK … to omit a step in the scientific method — whether or not we are formally calling it the scientific method? 

    My point is that whenever there occurs a heated disagreement, isn’t it more likely than not to be traceable to one party arguing an untested conclusion?  

    Making a conclusion without a test is supreme nonsense. Conversely, encouraging people to devize relevant tests is supreme wisdom. 

    Arguing that the materialistic explanation of consciousness is a scientific “conclusion” is among the most rank manifestations of nonsense known to humankind. (Why? Because you’ve provided no testable hypothesis. It was not science. Meathead.) 

    By sharp contrast, insisting that one 

    … has to come up with a plausible theory …  

    is moving in the direction of wisdom.

    • James, I’ll have to come up with a full blog entry on this to respond to your question. Your final statement about your brother, prior to the gas analogy, had me thinking. He claims that “evidence stores for God’s existence are vacuous.” I think that’s inaccurate. I would submit that “evidence stores for God’s existence IN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY are vacuous.” I’m reminded of the story of a guy looking for his keys at night under a streetlight. Another guy passes by and asks what he’s looking for.

      “My keys,” says the first guy.

      “Where did you lose them?” asks Guy #2.

      “Over by the curb,” says Guy #1.

      “Well, then why are you looking for them over here under the street light?” asks Guy #2.

      To which Guy #1 replies “Because this is where the light is.”

      There’s plenty of evidence for God’s existence, but people are looking for it in the wrong place. Evolutionary biology has nothing to say on the subject. I cite C.S. Lewis on this subject all the time, because he pointed out that humanity’s ability to know right and wrong is universal and inborn, which demonstrates that God exists and wants us to behave in a certain way. The evidence is internal, not in observing dry scientific processes.

      Mormons have a unique hurdle they have to overcome if they want to deny the existence of God – namely, the existence of the Book of Mormon. Where does your brother think it came from? Because the only plausible explanation is the one offered by Joseph Smith.

  7. He’s not answered that question — along with my growing list of the other 297 questions I’ve posed.

    Great analogy with the car keys.

    I just thought up another variation of that story — that could apply in my situation.

    Guy #1 sits, stranded, under a streetlight.

    Guy #2 happens along and asks, “What are you sitting here for?”

    Guy #1 responds, “I have no key to drive myself home.”

    Guy #2 asks, “Well, where is it? Can I help you look for it?”

    Guy #1 responds, “No need. It doesn’t exist. I’ve already searched thoroughly — under this very streetlight. There is no sign or symptom anywhere that it ever was.”

  8. 1.

    Still, of course evolutionary theory has gaps in it.

    But less than 2% of the gaps in any creationist explanation for anything. If you’re deciding on gaps, the science wins.

    2. Not sure exactly how the LDS got into it, but you are aware, I trust, that the official position of the Mormon church is that evolution is fine. It’s what they teach at Brigham Young in biology, and teaching that evolution is false is regarded as false doctrine.

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