It seems that every time an election comes around, the vitriol surrounding church-state separation intensifies.  For 2010, I think this is best captured by the O’Donnell-Coons debate.  Both candidates are vying for the seat from Delaware being vacated by Sen. Kaufman.  In the debate, Ms. O’Donnell challenged her opponent on where in the Constitution it states that there is a separation of church and state.  Mr.  Coons, of course, turned to the establishment clause in the First Amendment and ended up getting the best of her.  However, does the First Amendment really place a wall of separation between the church and state?  Dr. Daniel Dreisbach, Professor of Justice, Law, and Society at the American University in Washington, D.C., has written an excellent critique of this point of view.  He clearly demonstrates the current understanding of the “wall of separation between church and state” is NOT what Jefferson intended.  Instead, the current understanding is essentially 60 years old, having been formulated as it currently stands by Justice Black in the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education.  Furthermore, Dr. Dreisbach argues the wall of separation metaphor, as it is construed, results in intolerance toward people of faith and hinders the rights of religious individuals to express their faith in the public square.  I highly recommend the article as a good introduction to the problems inherent to the modern church-state separation in the United States of America.

I ran across an argument against Christianity that I don’t feel like I can ignore.  The core of the criticism is that if the Bible is an inspired work of God, then it should transcend its culture.  It is claimed, however, the Bible does not transcend the culture (or more aptly cultures) under which it was written.  Thus, the Bible is not an inspired work of God.  Instead, we find in the Bible exactly what we would expect from a group of people living in the ancient Near East.  If God was involved in the writing of the text, then we should find clear evidence of this in the text itself.  For example, we should see the theory of germs clearly displayed in Genesis.

The argument fails for several reasons.  First, the reasoning simply misunderstands the method God used to transmit His word.  Rather than dictating text, most Biblical scholars recognize that God inspired the Biblical authors to write within their own culture.  God is certainly able to communicate that which he wishes through the context of a culture.  This brings us to the second major problem with the argument.  The Bible is written with a specific purpose: to reveal aspects of who God is and how man may be redeemed.  We have no guarantee of full revelation of God nor detailed explanations for the inner workings of our universe.  To assume otherwise is to place a standard beyond the intent of the intended message.  Thus, when we turn to criticisms such as, the lack of the theory of germs with regard to disease in Genesis, we immediately recognize that those topics are simply not germane to the core issue at hand.  Furthermore, we must remember that God is communicating with us.  There is no communication if the means He uses are foreign to the audience He is communicating with.  Let me clarify this with an example.  In graduate school, I took a number of courses on quantum mechanics and statistical thermodynamics.  Those courses are highly specialized and are not well understood by most people outside of my narrow discipline.  Now, suppose I am discussing some of the more interesting aspects of quantum mechanics with several friends who have either no background of science or very limited exposure.  How meaningful is it if I provide them with information on par with my graduate school texts, replete with the respective mathematical formulas and derivations?  In this case, communication ceases, and my goal of transmitting information is obfuscated by their lack of knowledge.  This is comparable to God communicating His word through people within their culture.  The germ theory of disease for example, or any other modern scientific theory for that matter, would only muddy the water by introducing irrelevant ancillary topics.  To be sure, it is not necessary for man to have a good grasp of germ theory for salvation, but it is critically important for man to understand who God is, what the true state of man is, and how man is going to be reconciled to God.   Could God have included these things via direct special revelation?  I believe that He could, but I do not see any compulsion for Him to do so given the overall thrust of the Bible to communicate truth about Himself.

Back in March, I had a very nice debate with someone named Paul C over at my good friend’s blog. The context of the debate was morality, specifically abortion. Paul C is a moral skeptic. He presented a view that an ethical code must maximize individual autonomy. Based on my interactions, this seemed to be his overarching guide in these sorts of things. It was my first exposure to the argument, and I have been thinking about this off and on since the debate ended. I decided to gather my responses here, mostly so I have access to them when I need them again. They are getting buried deep in the nether-reaches of Rhoblogy.

In the discussion, Paul C defined autonomy as “the free exercise of choice.” Furthermore, “maximizing autonomy means giving people a) a wider range of options for their decisions and b) more information on which to base their decisions.” The argument was then made that maximizing autonomy will increase well-being, both personally and corporately. However, Paul C contradicted this, “my goal is to maximize autonomy, not well-being, and for everybody, not personally.” In my opinion, the point of an autonomy-based ethic would be to increase well-being. If not, why pursue such an ethic? At any rate, I argue that an autonomy-based ethic fails for the following reasons:

  1. There no reason to accept that having more autonomy will provide more information for decision-making. Increasing the range of options available does not mean that information is increased as well.
  2. The idea that increasing choices will increase well-being is flawed.
  3. Maximizing autonomy for one individual affects the autonomy of others, by changing the range of options available to other people. In this sense, the goal of maximizing autonomy paralyzes decision-making because we do not have appropriate knowledge of the contingencies involved nor are we able to realistically determine whether or not one autonomous decision increases the autonomy of the whole. It is important to note that the summation is required to apply an autonomy-based ethic to a group of people. Ignoring this problem because we do not have the information or are the calculations are too cumbersome to evaluate is shortsighted because we may be making decisions that actually reduce overall autonomy.
  4. Long-term consequences must be known to effectively use an autonomy-based ethic. I argue that if we are in the business of maximizing autonomy, specifically to increase well-being, then it should be over the long haul. The fact that we can’t actually make this assessment counts against this methodology.

What has happened to our beloved cents sign?  It used to have a prominent place on the keyboard, but alas it is no longer there.  I seem to remember that the ¢ symbol was the alternate for the number 2 on my parents old typewriter.  However, the @ symbol currently holds that prominent location–a testimony to our digital age.

The ¢hemist

I recently saw the movie Avatar and was inspired to write a post on ecology.  William Lane Craig used the movie as a picture of the Incarnation of Jesus on his website.  This was enough to entice me to rent it, even though I had some misgivings that it would be standard liberal tripe on ecology.  The movie is very good; the special effects alone are well worth the $1 for a Redbox rental.  The movie did have a strong rhetoric about ecology; however, I left the movie agreeing with their overall thrust with regard to environmental stewardship.  My only complaint is that the movie claims this is found in a pantheistic worldview.  This is not unique.  It is very common for modern environmentalism to have a pantheistic foundation, but I think this position is gravely mistaken.  First, the pantheistic worldview is not a coherent worldview.  The interested reader can certainly find a plethora of writings on this topic, so I will leave a defense of that for another time.  Second, Christianity does provide a firm foundation for a responsible view of ecology. 

Two writers immediately come to mind when I think about the Christian view of ecology.  The relationship between man and his environment is one of the major points behind C.S. Lewis’ so-called Space Trilogy, especially Perelandra but to a somewhat lesser degree in Out of the Silent Planet.  In Perelandra, we are given a glimpse of a world that is untouched by sin, and man lives in harmony with his environment.  This is contrasted against our world in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength.  Here we see a redeemed man in proper relationship with God and creation amidst a fallen world.  Francis Schaeffer makes a similar point in his book Pollution and the Death of Man.  Here, Schaeffer suggests that greed and haste are the root cause of our ecological crisis.  Both are the result of our sin nature.  We are eager to turn a buck and do so fast, regardless of the ecological impact.  In this way, Christianity not only explains the origin of the ecological crisis, but it also provides an answer for its remedy.  If our ecological crisis is rooted in our sinful nature, then the only way to resolve the issue is having our sin nature removed through Jesus’ sacrifice.  This is distinct from pantheistic or atheistic views that lack a real solution for the crisis.  Christianity certainly agrees with pantheism and atheism that man is part of the world, but we are not merely part of the world.  We are also distinct from our world in a very important and unique way, being created in God’s image.  This leads us immediately to a proper view of man and the environment.  We are part of the world but not merely part of it, for in God’s image we are unique.  Thus, we should use our environment to the betterment of mankind, but not in a greedy or hasty way that needlessly destroys our world.

Well, I have been inspired to learn how to insert fancy math equations into my blog posts.  Kudos to the good folks at codecogs for providing this.  To test the power of the website, I decided to enter the Kramers-Kronig transform between the s-polarized reflectivity, Rs and the phase angle, δ.

The P stands for the Cauchy principle value and I is a constant for using this in an ATR experiment.  The value of I is given as

From this  one may go on to calculate the optical constants of a material.  Pretty cool!  My only complaint is the box that is drawn around them, but I will hold off on fixing that for now.

I am working on a paper that describes room temperature molten salts in terms of a quasi-crystalline lattice.  The preservation of the lattice-like structure in the ionic liquid results in some pretty neat features in the IR spectrum, specifically the presence of transverse optic/longitudinal optic (TO/LO) modes.  TO/LO modes commonly occur in the solid-state due to the coupling of incident IR photons with the phonon states of the material to produce polaritons.  In the absence of any anharmonicity among the constituent vibrational modes, the incident photons are completely reflected.  It is fascinating that a room temperature molten salt supports optical phonons, resulting in TO/LO mode splitting in the IR spectra.  This can provide tremendous insight into the fundamental interactions among the constituent ions composing the ionic liquid.

The TO/LO splitting can also be used to calculate the dipole moment derivative for the vibrational motions responsible for a given band.  This requires the use of dipolar coupling theory, which relates the dipole moment derivative to the magitude of the TO/LO splitting.  The theory also requires some knowledge of the particle density of the compound.  My current task is to support the result derived from dipolar coupling theory by estimating the optical constants of the ionic liquid.  Integration of the extinction coefficient can give another measure of band intensity.  This may then be related to the dipole moment derivative.

This is my first foray into calculating optical constants or dipolar coupling theory.  I also learned a tremendous amount writing the portion of polaritons.  I think this article may have done more to expand my expertise in molecular spectroscopy than some classes I had in graduate school.  This post would be much clearer if I could insert some of the equations, but I don’t know how to do that yet.  If I figure it out, I will come back and edit it some.

In my previous post, I articulated my view on the limits of scientific inquiry by focusing on how scientists “do science.”  I also explored three implications that result if this picture of science is adopted.  Here, I examine one objection against this position: naturalism must be correct because modern scientific theories work. Read the rest of this entry »

The summer is here, and it is high time for me to tackle my annual summer reading project.  Sure enough, there is plenty to do in the lab and writing papers, but the summer is special, for I devote large swaths of time to studying a topic in a way that I simply cannot during the academic year.  Last summer, I had a great time with two popular books about espionage and one on statistical thermodynamics.  My wife also had a baby, and that did curtail some of my reading time.  This summer I think I am going to dive into a theological topic.  Molinism is a branch of theology that attempts to reconcile divine sovereignty with human freedom and responsibility.  It was originally developed by Luis de Molina, a Spanish Jesuit priest living in the 1500s.  William Lane Craig is probably the most well-known contemporary advocate of Molinism.  I have charted out my summer reading list, including both defenders and critics.  Fortunately, there will not be a baby this summer!

The fruit of scientific exploration permeates our culture and has greatly shaped our lives in many ways. However, the increasing role of science in our lives has also brought a greater emphasis on scientific explanations about our lives, and society seems geared to automatically accept scientific explanations over theological or philosophical ones. In this regard, scientific explanations are elevated to a point where they effectively function as a truth test for a worldview. For instance, it is often claimed that Christian theism is false because in one way or another it is incompatible with certain sets of scientific evidence from biology, chemistry, physics, or geology. The relationship between science and theology is incredibly important for a Christian, because many scientific explanations, at least on the surface, seem to contradict Scripture. Integrating the two can lead to a crisis of faith that is not easily surmounted, and more often than not Christians either bend theology into the mold of scientific reasoning or claim the scientific evidence is in some way fallacious. Read the rest of this entry »