Glimpsing the Moral Tao … But not able to Grasp it

In the 2nd video of Session Two I summarized the ethical teachings of major world religions of today.  What I found striking when I first studied them was their degree of congruence.  Every teaching upholds honesty, truthfulness, self-control, chastity as morally right.  None teach that cowardice, fickleness, unfaithfulness, dishonesty, greed etc. are virtues.  Though there are differences in emphasis and detail there is uniformity in direction.

We also looked at moral teachings from ancient Egyptian & Babylonian religions.  Again we noted the striking degree of congruence in their moral teaching – with each other, with us, and current world religions.  C.S. Lewis noted this congruence of values across cultures and called it the Tao, borrowing the term from the ancient Chinese.  He used it to signify an intrinsic values ‘compass’ that exists in people.  He explains:

“In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta … Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality.  Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’… The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao.  … It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road…. It is also the Way which every man should tread in … conforming all activities to that great exemplar.

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’.  … What is common to them all is something we cannot neglect.  It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain values are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are….[it is to] recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not”[1]

Examples of the Moral Tao from ancient moral thinkers

Consider the following from esteemed thinkers in history – again coming from diverse cultures -articulating ‘good’ and ‘right’ behaviour.

Analects of Confucius – Ancient Chinese

  • Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.
  • The master said, “Respect the young”.
  • Gentlemen must learn to be faithful to their superiors and to keep promises.

Cicero De Off. 1. Vii – Ancient Rome

  • Men were brought into existence … that they might do one another good

Homer  Iliad ix 340 – Ancient Greece

  • Every good man, who is right-minded loves and cherishes his own

Christopher Hitchens Helps us Glimpse the Moral Tao

Though not trying to advocate objective values, well-known humanist Christopher Hitchens (whom I covered in these previous posts: The Passing of Christopher Hitchens: Carrying Misconception to the Grave, Christopher Hitchens and the Efficacy of Pascal’s Wager, Christopher Hitchens & North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il: Is it really Religion that Poisons Everything?) gives a modern-day example of what Lewis means by the Tao.  Hitchens tells the story of how a Muslim cab driver searched him out to return a large amount of cash that his wife had mistakenly left in his cab.  When Hitchens offered him some money the cab driver refused saying that he was only doing his duty in returning the forgotten money.  Hitchens comments:

“And if all Muslims conducted themselves like the man who gave up more than a week’s salary in order to do the right thing, I could be indifferent to the weird exhortations of the Koran.  If I search my own life for instances of good or fine behaviour I am not overwhelmed by an excess of choice.  I did once, shivering with fear, take off my flak jacket in Sarajevo and lend it to an even more frightened woman who I was helping to escort to a place of safety.”[2]

It was the ‘right’ thing to return the money.  It demanded a response from the cab driver that he was free to make or not.  Hitchens, the cab driver – and we ourselves – recognize this.  Hitchens admires this value so much that he says he would move from hostility and opposition to Islam to being neutral about it – if all Muslims would consistently exhibit this Tao in their behaviour.  Hitchens thinks in his own life that it was ‘right’ (in a situation that demanded a response which he was free to make or not) to help someone more vulnerable than he when they were both in a dangerous situation.  In these situations the basis of what made the action good had nothing to do with benefits to society or preferences of the individuals.  They were just what ought to have been done.  The Tao, to borrow from Lewis, is the Way – the Good Way – that we can all glimpse.

The Moral Tao – Hard to Grasp

But Hitchens also lets us on to something else.  He does not find this conformity to the Tao in the behaviour of most Muslims.  But closer to home, he says that in his own estimation about his own life he is not overwhelmed by evidence of actually practicing – or grasping – behaviour demanded by the Tao.  In fact, elsewhere he says it is impossible.  His own Tao is able to judge his own actions – and by his own words he does not find many instances where he himself grasped the Tao.

The Tao: Glimpsed but not Grasped by the Vikings

Being of Swedish origin I learned much about the activities of the Vikings 1000 years ago.  Though they were fearless explorers, discovering and colonizing Iceland, Greenland and even North America, they were also feared throughout Europe for their plundering, raping and pillaging raids.  They also traveled east raiding the Byzantium Empire and used the Volga River to launch raids into Russia.  Therefore I had always assumed that my ancestors of that era had no sense of moral values – a Tao – to speak of.  How surprised I was to learn something of what they taught about values.  Consider the following:

In Nastrond (=Hell) I saw … murderers … beguilers of others’ wives … the perjurers

Volospa 38, 39 (i.e. these things are vices)

Brothers shall fight and be each others’ bane

(Account of the ‘evil’ age before the World’s end showing that fighting among brothers to be a vice) Volopsa 45

This first I rede thee; be blameless to thy kindred.  Take no vengeance even though they do thee wrong

Sigrdrifumal 22

Anything is better than treachery

Havamal 124

Their ability to glimpse the Tao resonates both with ours as well as that of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians from the 2nd video of Session 2. But when we read of their raping and pillaging raids that terrorized Europe in the Middle Ages we see a discrepancy between what their moral intuition glimpsed and what their actions grasped – a discrepancy that parallels (though perhaps not as big) the discrepancy that Hitchens noted in his own life.  We noted this ability to glimpse the Tao (but not the term) along with a corresponding inability to grasp it in the previous post about the Iranian movie A Separation, amongst both the religious and the less religious in the modern Shia Islamic society of Iran.

The Tao: Glimpsed but not grasped today in Hindu India

The world’s largest recurring festival, the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival where devout Hindus travel long distances to wash ‘their sins away’, also shows how our ability to glimpse but not live morals crosses cultures, languages and religions.

The Biblical View of Morals

How do we explain this paradox that we humans can glimpse the moral, but not grasp it in how we live?  The Biblical explanation is that we were originally made in the image of God – giving us our moral Tao – but then mankind had a fall into corruption, so that we cannot grasp in practice the moral plumb line that we can glimpse.  The Biblical view shrewdly captures the essence of our morality, and from the beginning of its narrative unfolds the Divine Plan to restore us from our condition.

CS Lewis was a theist – a Christian even.  His view of morality was foundational to his belief in God.  Surprising as it may seem, Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most prominent atheist today, also frames an objective basis for morals.  How he does so, and what it means, we look at in our next post.

[1] C.S. Lewis.  1944.  The Abolition of Man.  p.10-11.  This book, though not as well-known as his other books, has influenced me more than his other writings.  The moral statements from Confucius, Homer, Cicero & The Vikings come from the appendix in this book.  They, in turn, come from the Encyclopedia of Religions and Ethics (ERE)

[2] Christopher Hitchens.  god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything  p. 188

An Oscar Nominee hints at Objective Truth

A couple of weeks ago I was staying with some Iranian friends.  After supper we watched an Iranian film, A Separation, which is being nominated for two 2012 Academy Awards – Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay.  It is a gripping tale of an upper-middle class couple in Tehran divorcing because the wife wants to leave Iran to provide a better life for their young daughter while the husband wants to remain and care for his father who has severe Alzheimer’s. Continue reading

From Soapberry Bugs to SuperBugs: Nature’s slippery slide down.

In the second video of Session 1 I documented immense confusion in attempts to try to identify a natural process which can be observed to increase the information and/or functional content in biological organisms.  And given the confident (but mistaken) claims of its detection and operation it is obvious that naturalists (in the sense of those who believe natural processes can explain life through an evolutionary process) expect it to be observable, i.e. the implicit prediction is that this process should be detected.  I surveyed the stickleback fish case study – written about in many university textbooks and popular books on evolution – and showed from what they themselves say this was simply a loss process – a slide down, not a gain up.  Then we saw that though birds can lose wings, and mutations can cause Apert’s Syndrome, these are not examples of gain-of-function processes – even though they are touted as such in the textbooks.  Natural selection, though observed, is also not a gain-of-function process.  They all decrease the information – that is – these processes of nature slide genomes downwards, not push them upwards to more functionality.

In our previous post we saw the cell function at the microscopic level, a point-of-view that convinced long-time atheist Antony Flew to change his mind for Intelligent Design.  But what rebuttals are given in university texts?  Let’s take a look at a prominent one: The Evolution of the Soapberry Bug.

The Soapberry Bug: A Case Study in Evolution

It took me some time (and a lot of reading) to arrive at this conclusion.  And if this is a new thought for you I am sure that likewise this will require more consideration.  But I am not just maliciously picking on some ‘mistaken’ examples in a sea of correct ones.  The examples I covered in the video are endemic across the literature.  But how can this be?  Analyzing another case study, taken from Evolutionary Analysis by Scott Freeman and JC Herron, can help us better understand how it occurs.

Soapberry bugs: Before & After

Soapberry bugs: Before & After the New Host Plant

In this study, soapberry bugs in Florida had traditionally fed on the Balloon vine fruit as shown in this figure taken from the text.

But in 1926 a new host plant for this bug was introduced and almost immediately biologists noticed a change in the beak length.  Our text concludes that:

the soapberry bug population evolved …the characteristics of soapberry bugs … have changed substantially (pg 41)

So again, an example of observed evolution is claimed.  A graph of beak lengths over time is presented from the text to support this conclusion.  I added the green vertical 1926 line which is the point at which beak lengths changed.  So what can we conclude?  As you can see, before 1926 soapberry beak lengths ranged from 9 to 5.5 millimeters – a 3.5 mm range.  After 1926, when this new tree was introduced the beak size range was reduced from 7.5 to 5.5 millmeters – a 2 mm range.  The title for the graph (which I circled) states this as ‘evolutionary change in soapberry bugs’.  But was anything new gained or developed?  Were even new beak lengths, not previously seen, observed?  No! Not at all!  All that happened was that after the new tree was introduced, beak sizes from 7.5 to 9 millimeters disappeared.  Information was lost!  A certain allele that produced long beaks was selected against in the new environment and was now gone.  Change –Yes!  Natural Selection – Yes!  Evolution – definitely not!  Their own data refutes it!

Evolution: Not just any Kind of Change

But how can this case study, which simply documents a loss (of longer beak lengths), be touted as an example of evolution?  It is simple.  The authors have equated ‘evolution’ with ‘change’.  But that is erroneous at best and misleading at worst.  Evolutionary naturalism as the establishment’s answer to Design is a claim to account for the origin and development of all life, and is supposed to be a process that over long time produces new information, genes and structures that were not previously there.  That is not just any kind of change, but a certain kind of change – one that increases genetic information and function.  To reason like these authors is like saying that increasing company profits is simply a change in the balance sheet, and thus if one can show any balance sheet change – such as a corporate loss  – this would demonstrate increased profits since a change has occurred in the balance sheet??!!   This is such a basic logical error – called the fallacy of equivocation – whereby the definition of a key term is subtly modified during the reasoning process (in this case ‘evolution’ is modified from ‘change with new function and information’ to ‘any change’) that I found it breathtaking to see it not just once, but again and again in so many university textbooks and books promoting naturalism and evolution.

Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics: A Case of Evolution?

And this is also true of the cases of Superbugs, perhaps the strongest cases in the public mind of observed evolution.  We have all heard of bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics, having thus ‘evolved’, and now threatening humans with an epidemic.  What is happening in these situations?  Are new enzymes, processes, or organelles that were not previously there being developed by these bacteria?  That is what I had originally thought.  If so that would be an example of an innovative evolutionary process.

Natural Selection on Pre-Existing Traits: Not Evolution

But if we examine the literature we find this is not the case.  Consider the following:

‘most cases’ antibiotic resistance results from selection of an existing genetic trait, especially those traits that are highly variable, such as the natural defences that all organisms possess[1]

In other words in most cases, there were bacteria prior to the introduction of the antibiotic that already had the resistance.  The other bacteria were selected away by the antibiotic and we are left with the resistant bacteria.  For example, there was a 1988 University of Alberta study of bacteria on the bodies of Arctic explorers frozen in 1845.  Investigators discovered that some of the bacterial strains were resistant to antibiotics. The study, which evaluated six strains of Clostridium on three men who had been buried in permafrost, found the bacteria were particularly resistance to clindamycin and cefoxitin, both antibiotics that were developed over a century after the men died.[2]

Conjugation: Not a Gain of New Information

Bacteria can also physically transfer DNA from one organism to another – a process called conjugation.  In 1990 “a strain that was resistant to cadmium, penicillin, kanamycin, neomycin, streptomycin, tetracycline, and trimethoprim. … could resist, to varying degrees, some thirtyone different drugs. … The most common mode of passage was conjugation: one bacterium simply stretched out its cytoplasm and passed plasmids to its partner.”[3] This is similar to how we transfer information from one computer to another by using a USB stick.  But transferring information from one organism to another (or one computer to another) is not a process that is making or developing new information.  It is simply copying existing information.

Mutation in Streptomycin: Degradation not Evolution

Certain antibiotic resistances do occur from mutation.  But again these mutations do not develop new enzymes, processes or organelles.  They in fact damage existing enzymes and degrade the function of the bacteria.

Perhaps the best known example of this is resistance to the antibiotic streptomycin.  The figure on the left shows how this works.  Mycin antibiotics attack bacteria by having the right ‘fit’ to attach to a specific receptor site on the bacteria’s ribosomes, and thereby interfering with their protein-manufacturing process.  As a result, the proteins that the bacteria produce are non-functional – and they die.  Mammalian ribosomes do not contain the specific site where myosin drugs can attach, and for this reason the drug does not interfere with their ribosomes. Therefore, mycin drugs adversely affect bacterial growth without harming the host (us).

With resistant bacteria, mutations cause the bacteria to become resistant to streptomycin if the ribosome site where the streptomycin attaches is damaged by the mutation. As a result, the streptomycin no longer can bind, and therefore does not interfere as well with the ribosome function.  This is shown in the next figure.

Streptomycin with mutant resistant bacteria

Streptomycin with mutant resistant bacteria

Streptomycin-resistant bacteria actually are weaker in the wild for several reasons. The major reason is the ribosome’s specific shape is degraded in bacteria that become resistant to streptomycin, and as a result the ribosomes’ ability to translate certain RNA transcripts into protein is less effective.  Thus the mutations that confer resistance decrease the fitness of bacteria in environments without antibiotics. As a result they do not reproduce as quickly as non-resistant bacteria.  Evidence discovered so far indicates that these mutations render bacteria less fit in the wild because the mutant strain is less able to compete with the wild type.

No Observed Gain-of-Function

The mutations causing resistance to mycin is a case similar to birds on remote islands losing wings – it may be an advantage since there are no predators on those islands – but it is not an example of gain-of-function.  In the specific antibiotic environment, having a misshapen ribosome prevents the antibiotic from readily attaching and there is thus resistance.  But the ribosome does not function as well as non-mutant ribosomes and thus these bacteria are selected out (eliminated) in the wild.

Bacteria: No Evolution Observed

French biologist Pierre Grasse remarked on the irony of using bacteria as a showcase to try to observe evolution.  He stated:

Bacteria, the study of which has formed a great part of the foundation of genetics and molecular biology, are the organisms which, because of their huge numbers, produce the most mutants . . . bacteria, despite their great production of intra-specific varieties, exhibit a great fidelity to their species. The bacillus Echerichia coli, whose mutants have been studied very carefully, is the best example. The reader will agree that it is surprising, to say the least, to want to prove evolution and to discover its mechanisms and then to choose as a material for this study a being which practically stabilized a billion years ago.[4]

Resistance to Insecticide: No Evolution

These same processes also explain insect resistance to DDT and other insecticides.  Evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala reports that:

Insect resistance to a pesticide was first reported in 1947 for the housefly (Musca domestica) with respect to DDT. Since then the resistance to pesticides has been reported in at least 225 species of insects and other arthropods. The genetic variants required for resistance to the most diverse kinds of pesticides were apparently present in every one of the populations exposed to these man-made compounds.[5]

Fruit Fly Mutations: No Observed Evolution

The fruit fly is another small insect from which investigators have tried to ‘observe’ evolution. Rifkin writes about this

The fruit fly has long been the favorite object of mutation experiments because of its fast gestation period (twelve days). X-rays have been used to increase the mutation rate in the fruit fly 15,000 percent. All in all, scientists have been able to “catalyze the fruit fly evolutionary process such that what has been seen to occur in Drosophila (fruit fly) is the equivalent of many millions of years of normal mutations and evolution.” Even with this tremendous speed-up of mutations, scientists have never been able to come up with anything other than another fruit fly.[6]

The ability to observe this alleged process has eluded scientists since Darwin so eloquently argued for it.  However, instead of coming clean about this, textbooks and news articles confuse us in a slippery way by equivocating evolution with ‘change’.  And this is always presented as a scientific (ie observed) answer to Design.  But Soapberry bugs to SuperBugs simply attest, along with all other observed changes, that Nature is simply on a slide downwards.  To-date there is no observed alternative to Design.

[1] Palumbi, S.R., Evolution—humans as the world’s greatest evolutionary force, Science 293:1786–1790, 2001; p. 1787

[2] McGuire, R., Eerie: human arctic fossils yield resistant bacteria, Medical Tribune, 29 December, 1988, pp. 1, 23

[3] Garrett, L., The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 1994. P 413

[4] Pierre P. Grasse, Evolution of Living Organisms. New York, Academic Press, 1977 p.87

[5] Francisco Ayala. “The Mechanisms of Evolution” Scientific American  Vol 239 September 1978.  p 63

[6] Jeremy Rifkin,  Algeny 1983  p.1983

Origins: Evolution or Design – why touch it?

This site is about the gospel.  Yet Session 1 and several of my posts deal with origins, dissecting university textbooks and other books on evolution.  Why bothering getting into this confusing and sometimes touchy subject?

It is a good question and someone challenged me on it a little while ago.   After all, it can be such a polarizing topic – why go there?  I thought I would address it with a five page pdf article which I have attached with this post.  In it I show how what we think about our origins is foundational to everything we understand about ourselves.  It affects all areas of human inquiry.  This includes our understanding of ethics, as we will see in Session 2.

I hope you take the 5-10 minutes you will need to read this article.  I do not argue for the correctness of any belief of system – evolutionary or otherwise.  I only show that it is an important question.  And important questions demand informed answers, not politically correct silence.  As the article says, it is well worth the fuss.

Evolution and origins – why the fuss?

Antony Flew Considered Intelligent Design

When I was a university student, Antony Flew was considered to be one of the outstanding philosophers alive at the time.  He was also a prominent – world famous even – atheist.  In fact one of his contributions in the early 1970’s was an essay arguing that the very concept of God was meaningless since it was not testable in any rational way.

Antony Flew was born in the early 1920’s, and by the late 1930’s had concluded that there was no God.  But in 2007 he co-authored a rather remarkable book entitled There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. So what caused this man to change his mind? In a 2005 interview he explained:

It seems to me that Richard Dawkins constantly overlooks the fact that Darwin himself, in the fourteenth chapter of The Origin of Species, pointed out that his whole argument began with a being which already possessed reproductive powers. This is the creature the evolution of which a truly comprehensive theory of evolution must give some account.

Darwin himself was well aware that he had not produced such an account. It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design.[1]

In his 2007 book Antony Flew stated that “the most impressive arguments for God’s existence are those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries” and that “the argument to Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it”.  He stated the issue succinctly in his book:

The philosophical question that has not been answered in origin-of-life studies is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and “coded chemistry”? Here we are not dealing with biology, but an entirely different category of problem.[2]

In late 2006, Flew joined 11 other academics in urging the British government to teach intelligent design in the state schools.[3]

I am not generally swayed solely by opinions of leading people.  But I rarely ignore them.  I want to know the reasons which these people base their opinions on.  So what was it that Antony Flew learned about the cell that was not known in the 1930’s when he first decided that there was no God?  Take a look at some of the following videos that have been made recently to teach students how parts of the cell work.  As you watch them ask yourself these questions.  How could this cellular machinery put itself together to start cellular life?  Can this work if only half the components are present ‘waiting’ for the other half (and remember these are basic cells functions that are essential for life)?  Could this be assembled by chance (one cannot invoke natural selection since there is no reproduction until these processes work)?  Follow Flew’s lead and Consider Design at the cellular level.

Intelligent Design:  ATP Synthase

This one shows ATP Synthase – the enzyme that makes ATP, the molecule used for energy in all cellular functions.  Without this energy there could be no life.  Each cell in all bodies has many mitochondria organelles where the ATP Synthase is lodged in its membrane.  While you watch this video you will have generated trillions of ATP.

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Intelligent Design: RNA Transcription

This one shows how information in DNA is transcribed to RNA.  Without this capability life could not make proteins – the building blocks of cells.  Notice that it requires ATP to do this while the ATP Synthase requires DNA-RNA transcription.  A decidedly chicken-and-egg problem.

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Intelligent Design: Photosynthesis

This one shows how photosynthesis works.  This process is found in cyanobacteria, the simplest cells, and is the prerequisite function to convert solar energy into chemical energy, without which life could not function.  Notice again how ATP Synthase is required here.

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I encourage you to watch the many fascinating educational videos on how the cell works.  You can find them (Virtual Cell) at

Certainly at an intuitive level, these cellular functions look like machines, and machines are made by intelligent agents.  So what is the naturalistic evolutionary rebuttal?  When I understood that is was a more-or-less blind appeal to ‘natural selection’, showcased at the university textbook level with examples like the evolution of the Soapberry bug, it was not hard to spot that this was simply a case of loss of functional information, not a gain of anything new.

When I also understood that the evolutionary argument from homology could just as easily be interpreted as evidence from a common designer I changed my mind.

I can also see why Antony Flew changed his mind.

[1] My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: an exclusive interview with former British atheist Professor Antony Flew by Gary Habermas, Philosophia Christi, Winter 2005

[2] Antony Flew: There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind,” New York: Harper One, 2007, p124.