6.18.2012

In Defense of Architects... or God


As one who practices architecture (though I am not yet a licensed architect), I have often thought about the purpose of my profession. And you can be certain that anyone who has had to pay an architect's fee has asked, "Why do we need an architect anyway?" While architects bring to a project a technical knowledge about building codes, materials, systems, construction methods and environmental factors, the fact of the matter is that many general contractors have very much the same knowledge. Fortunately for the future of my discipline, there is an additional skill that architects uniquely bring to the table. Namely, it is art.

The architect is supposed to create art with the building materials. While a painter may use a knowledge and experience of water colors and a sculptor may use a knowledge and experience of marble, the architect uses the knowledge and experience of building materials to create beautiful and meaningful forms that, simultaneously, have a practical purpose. This is why many architecture schools devote much of the instruction time to helping students cultivate a sense of beauty, or in philosophical terms, an aesthetic sense. And this is the unique skill that the architect brings to a client. But this skill is quickly losing its value in our culture. While our society increasingly rejects a theistic worldview, we are eroding the very foundation of aesthetics.

This cannot be illustrated any better than by simply pointing to the cumbersome attempts by many modern scholars to explain aesthetics without any reference to a transcendent creator. One such example is the following short video lecture by the late Dr. Denis Dutton:

Dr. Dutton's aesthetically captivating presentation correctly identifies that many aspects of aesthetics are universal. How does he explain this universality? Does he give any credibility to the idea that objective aesthetics might be grounded in an author of aesthetics (i.e. a Creator as the locus of certain aesthetic "laws," if you will)? Does he even mention the idea? No. Instead, he laboriously tries to take the long way around the obvious answer, to explain aesthetics as a byproduct of evolution, all the while assuring us that this is the best explanation. The only other alternatives he gives are relative aesthetics.

But, here is the real irony. Even a Darwinian aesthetic is a relative aesthetic. It is relative to "that which helps us pass our genes on more efficiently." If cheap, ugly buildings (like the ones pictured, below) help people save money, which helps them survive better, which helps them pass their genes on more efficiently; then, such buildings are (by definition) beautiful.






Yet another problem with Darwinian aesthetics is that it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It is intended to explain (in retrospect) why we found something to be aesthetically pleasing. It does not explain why we ought to see things as aesthetically pleasing that we don't already see as such. It is a variation on the "is / ought" fallacy (i.e. You can't get an "ought" from an "is"). A Darwinian theory starts with what "is" aesthetically pleasing and posits what "is" causing it. A theistic theory of objective aesthetics starts with a ground or locus of aesthetics that has the authority to prescribe what we "ought" to find aesthetically pleasing.

You see, under a theistic theory of aesthetics, architects can discover aesthetic principles, go to school to learn aesthetic principles, hone their aesthetic sense, and they can even make recommendations to their clients about what will be beautiful and what will not. Put simply, aesthetics is a legitimate discipline in which architects specialize. Under a Darwinian theory, each person's aesthetic sensibilities are what they are for evolutionary reasons. There is no need for training and there is no need for guidance from anyone else. Each person's sense of beauty is just as valid as anyone else's. Aesthetics is not a discipline, but a matter of personal preference. So, save yourself some money and have the contractor build what seems beautiful to him. It might even help you survive better.

10.07.2011

As American as Apple Stock

Last Christmas, tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square to hear the Pope give the Christmas Speech. Then in April, approximately 13 million LDS gathered around their televisions and computers to watch the General Conference. And just three days ago, I watched as people all around me, grown men and women, followed the minute-by-minute announcements of Apple executives... hanging on every word. Clearly, a considerable amount of our advanced computer processing power (the technology that allows us architecture nerds to model every bolt in a 4 story building) was dedicated to streaming video of the well-dressed executives, while tracking instant stock prices, following critical commentary by cultural luminaries like Mark “the Soldier” and frantic Google searches to fact check every claim. But, computers weren't the only sedentary objects rapidly processing and communicating this crucial information. My co-workers, eyes aglow with gleeful anticipation (or is that just the 3 million pixels gently tanning their faces), would only occasionally break their devoted trance to solicit important inquires of other Apple followers, such as, “Did you hear that?” and “250 million sales?” To which, other devotees promptly responded with salient answers like, “Wow.” Unlike that generation currently traversing their teenage years, these adults were able to focus their attention on an important task and filter out less important distractions, like work.

Now, of course, in American culture we train for this kind of thoughtful devotion. Looking across our great nation, we find that most Americans consistently set aside a considerable amount of their free time to carefully observe the struggles of mankind (or at least the struggles of 11 men in brightly colored Spandex pants against 11 more men in brightly colored Spandex pants). I’m referring to football, for those of you who may be visiting from the planet Vulcan. And at only 3 hours per game, most Americans can afford the time away from their families to string two or three games together on a Sunday afternoon. Many who are further devoted to this meaningful pursuit chose to research the record of various players, coaches and the nearly infinite history of past games. Yet, these savvy Sunday sofa students face a dilemma at the dawn of each new calendar year: how does one satisfy this hunger for great personal growth during the other 7 months of the year?

Fortunately for our society, great cultural visionaries have developed other noble endeavors like baseball, basketball, hockey, NASCAR, professional wrestling, fantasy football, and curling. Those who aren't gifted with the athletic aptitudes necessary to sit on a couch and watch sports, instead often choose to sit on a couch and bask in the intellectual bounty of “Modern Family,” “Two and a Half Men,” “American Idolatry,” “Dancing With the Attention-Hungry Stars,” “The Real Housewives of Gila Bend” and “Who Wants to Marry a Bank Account.”

By now I’m sure you’ve noticed a touch of sarcasm in my comments. In fact, anyone with more comprehension than a lobotomized gerbil should have realized by now that I have little respect for the amount of time that most Americans devote to unimportant or (in the case of following the “State of the Apple Address”) low-importance activities. So, does that mean I am some pompous, egotistical jerk? Maybe, but I’ll gladly admit that I’m guilty of occasionally squandering my time with equally trivial activities like playing video games that essentially boil down to running around a giant rat maze wielding more firepower than all 4 “Rambo” movies combined, while obliterating anything that moves (This accounts for approximately 75% of all video games currently on the market). But, the real travesty is not so much how most Americans waste their time; rather, it is that this wasted time is not balanced with deeply meaningful and transcendently substantive endeavors.

How much time have most of us spent researching, discussing, or even thinking about the fundamental questions of life. For most Americans, as far as I can tell, it equates to less time than they’ve spent picking lint out of their navel (though it is difficult to determine how much time most Americans spend picking lint out of their navel). As I’ve asked a variety of people in my life questions like, “Is there any lasting purpose to our lives (teleology)?” “Is right and wrong anything more than personal preferences (axiology)?” “Does God exist?” “Is any religion true?” “Is there an eternal life?” and “Are we more than just our chemical make up?” I’ve been flabbergasted by the utter inability of most people to even engage the questions and yet impressed with the agility with which they transition right into a discussion of Charlie Sheen’s replacement on Two and a Half Men. And when most people attempt thoughtful discourse on these fundamental questions, it’s not long before their words throw a noose around their own neck and commit suicide. For example, people will say, “It’s wrong to judge others” without so much as a clue that this statement is a judgment. They will say, “We can’t know anything about God” without realizing that they are thereby claiming to know quite a bit about God. I often hear, “ All religions are true,” from people who never realized that there cannot be only one god, and many gods, and no gods, and the universe is god all at the same time. They will say, “You shouldn’t believe anything unless it can be proven scientifically” oblivious to the fact that THAT statement can’t be proven scientifically. Some remark, “The latest scientific evidence tells us that our thoughts are determined by chemical reactions” unaware that this would mean that THAT thought was determined by chemical reactions and not the latest scientific evidence. And I’ve even heard individuals (quite well-educated individuals) say, “The purpose of life is to discover why we are here” (no comment).

This is just sad. Do we not realize that if God exists, the consequences are staggering and if God doesn’t exist, the consequences are equally staggering? Can we not understand that if Islam is true, there is a level of submission and devotional deeds that Allah expects from us, without which we face eternal suffering in Hell? Or that if Christianity is true, God requires that we repent from our wrong doing, otherwise we again face eternal suffering in Hell? Or that if modern Judaism is true, God requires us to follow certain laws and tenets or else we, yet again, face the same grim consequence? Now, in this diverse world there are a plethora of religions making a plethora of claims, but the exclusive nature of these three common religions, I think, should draw our attention. Should we not study the claims of at least these three religions and investigate the evidence for and against their veracity? Should we not research the historical and scientific accuracy of their source texts? Can’t we at least crack the cover of the Qur'an, the Bible and the Talmud? This may not be as much fun as watching stock prices plummet because an Apple executive sneezed or watching grown men in spandex smack each other on the butt as they “huddle” for the 27th time, but if you actually invest a small amount of your sofa time to researching these claims, I think you’ll be surprised by how much can be know about these seemingly unknowable matters. And if you’re still reading this, you probably just missed another huddle. And for that I am truly sorry.

7.29.2009

MOST AMERICANS SUPPORT ID

A recent Zogby Poll reveals that most Americans reject naturalistic evolution in favor of the theory of Intelligent Design.  When asked if life developed "through an unguided process of random mutations and natural selection," a standard definition of Darwinism, only 33 percent of respondents said they agreed with the statement. But 52 percent agreed that "the development of life was guided by intelligent design."  See the link below for more information:

5.04.2009

MISDIAGNOSING THE COLLAPSE

Michael Spencer's article, "The Coming Evangelical Collapse" has gained much attention since it was published in the Christian Science Monitor on March 10th, 2009.  Below, I respond to several of the points Mr. Spencer has made:

I have to say that, in general, I agree with much of what Mr. Spencer is saying. Though, further reflection can provide a more careful understanding of the issues he has raised.  First, when Mr. Spencer talks about a growing climate of hostility toward Christianity, we must understand that this should be expected. I don’t like it, but Jesus himself described this:

"
 
9 Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name.  10 At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another.  11 Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many.  12 Because lawlessness is increased, most people's love will grow cold.  13 But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.  14 This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come."
Matthew 24:9-14 (NASB)

 Second, Evangelicalism can collapse, but I don’t think that Christianity is going to collapse. Like Mr. Spencer, I think that it would be a good thing if many of the marginal (or lukewarm) believers were to leave their churches. Too many people in our society wear the label of Christianity, but haven't actually committed their life to following Christ. Christianity, I think, has been discolored by large portions of America misrepresenting Christ.

  Third, I think that Mr. Spencer completely misdiagnoses the cause of this decline. Mr. Spencer attributes the following to the problem: identifying Evangelicalism with the culture war and conservatism, not passing on orthodox faith, consumer driven mega churches, dying churches, poor Christian education, a confrontation with cultural secularism, i
nability to pass on confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith, money will dry up. It seems that these “causes” are all just symptoms of a much larger problem, Postmodernism. Our culture and especially “religious” people in our culture have strongly moved toward postmodernism. This makes sense of each of the “causes” he lists.

  
Identifying Evangelicalism with the culture war and conservatism: Because of the postmodern view that perception equals truth, many in our culture see their moral and religious beliefs as subjective and relativistic (basically with no real foundation in reality). But, if our moral and religious beliefs have no real foundation, then our decision about what to believe is either arbitrary or pragmatic.  For those “evangelicals” who choose to go the route of Pragmatism, their beliefs are more about politics (which is inherently more pragmatic). Therefore, they identify their beliefs mainly with the culture war and political conservatism. I should clarify, though, that true Christianity involves living out Christian values and principles in society; so, Christians are, necessarily, going to be involved in the political arena. 

  
Not passing on orthodox faith: If orthodox faith is just someone’s perception, rather than reality, there is no reason to pass it on unaltered by our own opinions, perceptions, cultural norms, etc. With a postmodern worldview, orthodox faith is just as valid as un-orthodox faith.

Consumer driven mega churches: For those postmodern evangelicals that choose to go the route of Pragmatism, church is run like a pragmatic business. A larger congregation equals more customers.

Dying Churches: I am assuming that this is mainly talking about the old, stuffy traditional churches that seem to be struggling so much. Many churches maybe dying because in a postmodern culture their services have become more about tradition than truth. The traditional (or orthodox depending on the situation) customs are up held, not because they are founded in theological truth, but simply for the sake of tradition. This becomes an arbitrary decision, but there is a major problem with arbitrarily deciding what to believe. That is, eventually you realize that it is meaningless and irrelevant. Basically, you are left wondering, “Why am I following this old tradition if there is no real reason?”

Poor Christian education: Once again, for those that take the pragmatic route, the education system just serves one's own needs. Also, in a postmodern culture, education emphasizes perception and the subjective over understanding an objective truth.

A confrontation with cultural secularism: We are up against a more and more secular culture partially because “religious” people in general have embraced postmodernism more than the rest of the culture. So, while the “religious” community is justifying their beliefs with subjective feelings, secularists continue to give objective reasons for their beliefs. For example, atheists consistently point to science and reason to justify their atheism (I don’t think their reasoning is valid, but they are at least trying to use science and reason); while many “religious” people simply say, “I feel that Christianity is true” or “I know in my heart that God is real” or “Christianity is true for me.” So, our culture has begun to view religion as subjective and without foundation and view science and reason as completely secular. So, much of academia, including lay-people sources for intellectual study (like National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Science Museums, etc.) have become largely secular.

I
nability to pass on confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith: Again, why have confidence in the Bible if your confidence is only based on a subjective perception and has no real objective basis in truth.

Money will dry up: This is just a result of all the other issues above.

I think that the worldview of postmodernism that many Americans (and many around the World) hold to, has dire consequences. But, I think there is a hope that the author failed to mention. And that is that in the last 50 years and especially in the last 20 years, there have been an incredible number of scientific discoveries that overwhelmingly support Christianity. In fact, recently in the academic arenas of science, philosophy, and history there have been a growing number of intellectual “heavy-hitters” that are carefully defending Biblical Christianity. So, I think there are some factors that may turn the tide. 

1.29.2009

MANY OBJECT TO FREE INQUIRY IN TEXAS SCHOOLS...


Last week, the majority of Texas Board of Education members voted to eliminate a mandate that required teachers to teach both the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. Pro-evolution advocates were fighting hard to eliminate this standard, because "teaching objections to evolution... might encourage students to reject it." They argue that if this teaching causes some students to reject evolution, then this is equal to teaching religion. And so, they argue, that teaching religion is a violation of the "separation of church and state." I'm amazed how far people have been able to stretch the phrase "separation of church and state."

11.20.2008

UNDERSTANDING MORMONISM:

  • What are the fundamental beliefs in Mormonism?
  • What was Joseph Smith's role in founding Mormonism?
  • Why do Mormons trust the Book of Mormon as a source of divine information? 

11.06.2008

MICROBIOLOGY TEACHING TOOL REVEALS DESIGN...

Harvard has worked with the computer animation company, XVIVO, to develop a state-of-the-art animation of the inner-workings of the white blood cell. Random mutation and natural selection seem completely inadequate to explain the inner-dependancy of what looks like a highly efficient working city. Click on the video, "Inner Life of the Cell" in the following link: