Discovery of a Potentially Habitable Planet: Any Implications for Theology?

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Habitable zone relative to size of stars

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Scientists have discovered a planet in the “habitable zone” orbiting around a red dwarf star, Gliese 581, which is 20 light years from earth. Scientists are not saying that the planet is inhabited or even that it has life, but they do say that it may have surface water, which is a necessary condition for life as we know it.

For year scientists have debated the possibility of life on other planets, especially intelligent life. On one side were scientists such as Carl Sagan who believed that hundreds or perhaps thousands of planets have intelligent life. On the other side are defenders of the anthropic principle who argue that the chances of intelligent life evolving are so slim that the earth may be the only planet with intelligent life in the universe. I’m sure there are some scientists out there who believe in intelligent life, but only on a few planets, or who believe there is life outside earth, but not intelligent life.

Suppose there are intelligent creatures on other planets. Would this have any implications for theology? This issue is not widely discussed today, but was a popular topic in the 1940s and 1950s. Both Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II were open to the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life. In 2008 the Head of the Vatican Observatory, Fr. Jose Gabriel Funez, said that the existence of extraterrestrial life poses no problem for Christianity. Then in 2009 the Pontifical Academy of Sciences sponsored a conference in astrobiology concerning implications for the existence of extraterrestrial life in its broadest sense (as opposed to specifically intelligent life) for Catholic theology.

Outside Roman Catholicism, the Anglican C. S. Lewis speculated concerning extraterrestrial life in his Perelandra science fiction trilogy. He was open to the possibility that other worlds may contain creatures who are, unlike human beings, unfallen. But what if creatures on another world were fallen? There is no barrier to a second Incarnation of Christ if needed, or perhaps God found some other fitting way to bring salvation to another fallen world.

The important point is that Christians should not worry should we ever discover extraterrestrial life, either non-intelligent or intelligent–such a discovery would not be a threat to Christian belief.

The Pampered Generation

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Greuze, Jean-Baptiste - The Spoiled Child - lo...

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As a university professor, I teach a variety of students, both traditional-age students and older, non-traditional students. I have been blessed with some excellent students who excel. Others may not be the brightest stars in academia, but they give their all even if they make a C in the course. I respect that. There are students who are both academically lazy and lack the ability to be in college. These students do not stick around for long. But then there are students who have the intelligence and ability to excel or at least do well, but do not out of apathy–unfortunately that is what I see the most out of the current generation of 18-22 year-olds.

Sometimes this generation has been called the generation of “trophy kids.” Parents who lack the maturity to find meaning in their own lives attempt to live their lives through their children. Children are pushed into organized sports early on instead of being encouraged in spontaneous play. If they have problems in school, they are diagnosed with ADHD or some other disorder and given their drugs for the day to pacify them. Today’s children are protected from the normal hurts and pains of the real world. Many live in gated communities shut off from the outside world. Parents try to hide from them the facts of disease and death, and they do not teach their children the necessity of working for what they earn. Instead, everything they desire is given to them. When they face tragedy, such as a death of a family member or close friend, or when they face a breakup with a romantic partner, they tend to fall apart. I remember in November of 1982 when my granddaddy died. I always dreaded that day from my childhood on, when I’d dream he turned into a skeleton in front of me. But my senior year in college, the inevitable happened. I had a term paper due in Introduction to Old Testament. Despite the fact of heartbreak beyond belief, I returned to school two days after the funeral and completed the term paper (as well as my other class assignments) by the due date. It was difficult, but I understood that, as unfair as it might be, life goes on after a death.

But if the average traditional-age student suffers a similar loss, that student will be unable to function for a week or more. Sometimes the student may drop out of school the rest of the semester. Now if that student were in the work force, he or she would most likely lose a job missing that many days of work, even after a death in the family. Life has its joys, but it is also cruel. By protecting their children from the inevitable losses of life, parents have failed in their duty to prepare their children for life away from home. This, and not only economic problems, helps explain the glut of adult children returning to live with their parents. Their parents used to provide everything they desired–why not once more? The problem is that parents do not live forever, and they will leave behind someone who is another strain on the social-welfare system, someone who will contribute little to loved ones or to society.

Some students will mature despite their parents’ failures. Some students who were brought up the proper way will become apathetic and lazy. But most students who were pampered as children will desire to be pampered adults. They will do the least amount of work to pass in college, they will do barely enough to get by when they are employed (and many will not care if they are fired for inadequate job performance). They will not vote, nor will they contribute to the good of their community. Self-absorbed, they will not be able to maintain stable marriages. Two self-absorbed people will not a marriage make.

In I Samuel, God punished Eli, not because he was a bad man, but because he knew his sons were doing evil, “and he restrained them not.” That mistake cost Israel a battle and cost Eli his life. What will be the cost to today’s parents who create shells of human beings who are too lazy to work, too lazy to think, and too fragile to bear the bumps of life?

Problems with Autism Studies

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Since I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, I am interested in research studies on autism. Now and them I have bought both popular-level and middlebrow magazines on autism at bookstores. Unfortunately what I find is a hodgepodge of research, some well-grounded, some of dubious scientific value. There is also the implicit assumption among some so-called advocates of the autistic that no one has a right to criticize anyone else’s theory about autism, its causes, or its treatment. How did the current situation come about.

Historically, parents of autistic children have been frustrated by dubious theories of big names in psychology. Bruno Bettelheim is the most infamous, having argued that children became autistic due to a lack of affection and attention from parents–the parents were supposedly “distant.” This clearly false and destructive theory of autism did real harm to the parents of autistic children and held back advances in treatment. Some of the most successful autistic people, such as the animal scientist Temple Grandin, were helped not by the medical and psychological establishment, but by a dedicated mother who encouraged Temple and did not give up on her even while doctors did. There is a long tradition of parental activism in autism, as parents, frustrated by the scientific establishment’s inability to help their children, have taken matters into their own hands.

This is fine up to a point. Autism is a multi-faceted, spectrum disorder, and is different in every individual. There is no evidence that the same parts of the brain are affected in different autistic people. Treatments that work on one autistic child may not work for another, and some autistic children cannot be helped with current therapies (hopefully they can be helped in the future). If a method a parent or parents use to help their autistic child works, more power to them.

The difficulty is when the well-meaning defenders of autistic individuals make claims based on faulty research. An example is the claim that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative found in many vaccines, is at least one cause of autism. Intuitively this seems reasonable since mercury is a known neurotoxin, and vaccines have been admitted in some cases to cause brain damage. However, there is no sound scientific study supporting a causal link or even a correlation between thimerosal levels in vaccines and autism. One 1998 article in the prestigious UK medical journal The Lancet has since been retracted, and a recent study has shown that even babies exposed to much higher levels of thimerosal than children receiving vaccines are no more likely to have autism than other children. Many in the autism community are not convinced, or they appeal to a government conspiracy to hide the true data. But most conspiracy theories are irrational and are not based on sound evidence. I am far more willing to trust the many scientific studies showing no link between vaccines and autism. The greater number of cases of autism (and Asperger’s Syndrome) in the last thirty years is more likely due to broader diagnostic criteria and to a greater recognition of autistic symptoms among health care providers. And to claim that thimerosal causes autism does not make sense given that the vast majority of vaccinated children are not autistic. Causal claims, or even correlational claims, require more substantive evidence.

It is wonderful that so many well-meaning people are advocates for the autistic. However, they should realize that it only hurts their cause to oppose good science and spout conspiracy theories when there is no evidence of such. And in their own articles on successes with their children, parents should add the caveat that not all autistic children will benefit from the method they used. To their credit, many parents writing on autism do make this disclaimer. Let’s base advocacy on sound scientific research.

How to Better Train School Teachers

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Abolishing college and university education departments should be the first step in training better teachers for our K-12 public and private schools. Education is a soft field; other academics privately mock it. It is overly bound to theory, more interested in political indoctrination of children rather than teaching basic skills, and tends to focus on the new “trendy term” of the day (such as “facilitative teacher”) rather than on substantive ways to help actual teaching. Education school graduates may know a great deal about educational theory and new methodologies of teaching but very little about the basic grammar, mathematics, and history they will be teaching. Such graduates have been indoctrinated in left-wing political ideology, and emphasize diversity (which to many liberals only refers to race rather than true diversity of cultures). The goal of education becomes indoctrination in politically correct radical points of view. “Sex education” is taught as early as elementary school in some districts, sometimes with a unit on homosexuality. Students who espouse conservative political views have, at times, been castigated by the teacher, such as the student in Fayetteville, North Carolina who supported Mr. McCain in the last presidential election. Her teacher humiliated her in front of the class. That is a great way to teach diversity, isn’t it?

A better system of training teachers would be for them to get a solid liberal arts degree. Then they could learn their practical teaching skills in a one or two year internship. Political indoctrination should not be considered part of their mission, but the ability to teach basic skills such as reading, grammar, mathematics, history, and science. Pseudo degrees such as M.Ed.s would disappear and would no longer be helpful in promotion or salary decisions. However, if a teacher works toward and achieves an M.A. in English or History, this would be considered as a factor in raising a teacher’s salary or in promotion. Teachers would be intellectually curious and desire to learn more about the areas they teach. Surely such a system would be an improvement over a failed educational system that places American children behind many others in the world.

The Problem with Process Theism

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My first philosophical love is metaphysics, which attempts to discover the nature of being, of reality itself, and the philosophers to whom I am most attracted are those who build grand metaphysical systems: Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Gottfried Leibniz, Alfred North Whitehead, and Charles Hartshorne. Whitehead and Hartshorne are among many process philosophers, who focus on relation more than on substance. They are not identical in their philosophies–Hartshorne has been heavily influenced by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, and has done work on arguments for the existence of God, such as the Ontological and Cosmological Arguments. A number of Christian theologians, such as John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, have used process philosophy as a way to understand the nature of God. Since their influence has come primarily through Whitehead, it is on Whitehead’s philosophy of God that I shall focus.

For Whitehead, God is intrinsically related to all actual occasions (bits of experience that are intertwined with one another and make up an interrelated web of reality). God chooses from among Eternal Objects (similar to Plato’s Forms) and offers them to actual occasions to accept or reject. He does not force any actual occasion or society of actual occasions (such as a human being) to accept his offer of positive value from the Eternal Objects. God is not as much a divine judge as “a fellow sufferer who understands” (Whitehead, Process and Reality). God is not a creator, for the universe has always been, and the universe is the body of God. God enriches other actual occasions who accept his offer of greater value, and other actual occasions also enrich the life of God (in God’s consequent, concrete nature, as opposed to God’s primordial, abstract nature). God is not guaranteed to overcome evil, but He works with other actual occasions to limit the damage evil causes and to bring the most good into the universe as he and his fellow actual occasions can.

The late Louis Mackey, one of my teachers during the year I spent at the University of Texas at Austin, was blunt in his opinions, a quality I still admire. I asked him what he thought about process theology, which adopts Whitehead’s (or Hartshorne’s similar view) of God and applies it to Christian theology. His response was something like this: “Well, you end up with a God who appreciates the small amount of help we can give him, and we appreciate the larger amount of help we can give us. God ends up being your favorite great uncle or some such sentimental bulls..t.” As he often did, he hit the nail on the head. A God who is not all-powerful in the traditional sense is unworthy of worship. He could be admired a great deal, but he is not as much God as a more powerful being of the same kind as we are. Such a God cannot guarantee that evil will be overcome–thus, it is possible that evil could triumph over good. We can have no ultimate confidence in such a God. J. B. Phillips once wrote a book entitled Your God is Too Small, and this is precisely the problem with the God of process theism.

Anti War Activism, Patriotism, and the Federal Government

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So the government has raided the homes of antiwar activists in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and North Carolina. Shades of the 1960s, anyone? During the Vietnam era, antiwar activists discovered the cost of questioning the military-industrial complex. Now I am not saying I think the 1960s anti war activists were saints. Some were losers such as member of the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. But they were correct in opposing a needless war. And it was wrong of the United States government to harass anti war groups simply because they opposed the war in Vietnam, a position they have every right to espouse and defend. The Constitution, after all, guarantees freedom of speech.

The Iraq War was based on lies, involved attacking a country that did not attack us, and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries and an Iraqi government that is friendly to U.S.-hostile Iran. The Afghanistan War has done little to stop the Taliban, and successes against Al Qaeda have been due to a combination of good intelligence, effective use of drones, and small special forces units, rather than large scale military forces. The CIA’s original plan to use smaller units to hunt down terrorists was the correct idea, but the Bush Administration opted for all out war. Mr. Obama, albeit under intense pressure from the military establishment, opted to continue the war with an increase of troops. That will be a never-ending war, or at least it will continue until the U.S. is too bankrupt to support it. What is so anti-patriotic about opposing the war in Afghanistan? One can admit that the Taliban are evil in their treatment of women and in their cruelty in general without supporting a quagmire. Opposition to the war is not support of terrorism. Yet the United States government seems to think so, just as it did during the Vietnam era.

Paul Craig Roberts has argued that after these raids the United States is already a police state. I would not go that far yet, but they are a step in the wrong direction. So-called conservatives, instead of supporting wars and demonizing supporters of wars, ought to return to the traditional conservative view that the United States should focus on dealing with its own problems and not be involved in foreign wars. Such wars only increase the power and influence of the central government and are not good for the country. War is necessary only when it is clearly in the national interest of the United States. And opposition to war is just as patriotic, if not more so, than support of war. A true conservative will not support federal police forces entering homes because people oppose the position of the United States government–unless so-called conservatives would rather emulate Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. De facto, if conservatives support a police state that persecutes anti-war activists, they are implicitly supporting the tactics of every dictator in history. With “conservatives” like that around, true conservatives do not need liberal enemies–they have enough in their own camp.

So…. Where Did God Come From?

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Like many children, I drove my parents crazy by asking questions. One question I always had was, “Where did God come from?” Later I discovered how the question “Where did God come from?” differs from the question, “Where did the universe come from?” In an earlier post, I mentioned Aquinas’ Third Way to prove God’s existence, a version of the Cosmological Argument. Now if the universe is contingent, that is, it does not have the source of its existence within itself, then it must have a cause. Without the possibility of an infinity of contingent causes (for the infinity of contingent causes are still contingent), there must exist a Necessary Being that creates and sustains the universe. Now a necessary being cannot pass out of existence–so there is no issue of where a Necessary Being come from; God, the Necessary Being, just IS, ipsum esse, existence itself. Thus, the childhood question of “Where did God come from?” is an inappropriate question, a “category mistake,” to use Gilbert Ryle’s term.

But there is a psychological reason that we ask the question. When we see the world, the only conscious beings we know are humans and many animals. But humans and animals all die. Yet if we see a mountain in the distance or look up at the moon at night, psychologically it seems that they have existed forever and will exist forever. This is an illusion of our short life span as human beings. We do not have time to see massive geological and astronomical changes. But we do have time to observe the deaths of family members, beloved friends, and beloved pets. But there is no necessity that every conscious being be finite and contingent like us. I could not understand, as a child, how God could be conscious forever, past and future. Now I accept the Classical notion that God transcends time, but my mind cannot wrap itself around that concept–and why should it? For a species that cannot exhaustively understand finite things, it makes no sense that it could exhaustively understand God–such understand that we have is more at the level of an ant trying to comprehend human beings. It is still hard to grasp, having lost my best friend to cancer at the end of May, how a mind could exist eternally. But that is not a philosophical difficulty. The solution to the psychological difficulty is to accept that God, a Necessary Being who cannot not-be is required philosophically, and to realize that something can be true without our understanding it. Intellectual humility is a virtue.

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