Is and Ought

            In an interview on the Internet, John Lennox says that he disagrees with almost everything David Hume wrote, except where Hume stated that we cannot easily go from an “is” to an “ought”[1] in our understanding of reality.

            There is a logical gap, a discontinuity between an “is” and an “ought.”

            For example, it is easy to say as a factual statistic that a professional baseball player on our local team “is” in the hitting slump of having only one base-hit for the last twenty at-bats, but it is something else entirely to say how this same player “ought” to get out of this hitting slump.

            Anytime anyone discussing anything, describes the factual “is” of a particular subject, then unnoticeably shifts over into the “ought” of that same subject, they have thereby introduced an entirely different discussion.

            The status quo of a factually established “is” in-the- moment is worlds apart from the ideal “ought” of how something might become better now or in the future.

            In science, what something “is” can be defined in terms of descriptions such as its physical size, length, speed, location, color, or mass. 

What something “is” can also be described by its action, such as the force of gravity, the speed of light, the beneficial characteristics of carbon to enable numerous chemical bonds to form into compounds, or the expansion rate of the universe.

            Going back in history, the how and the why of the “ought” of purposeful, targeted outcomes being removed from research into the workings of the natural world, early in the modern Scientific Revolution is given by Michael J. Behe from his 2019 book Darwin Devolves:

“How did science—the very discipline we use to understand the physical world—get to the bizarre point where some otherwise very smart people use it to deny the existence of mind?  Arguably it started innocently enough.  At the urging of the philosopher Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare, four centuries ago science made a critical decision.  It would abandon the old idea of “final causes”—that is, the notion of the purpose of an object—which it had inherited from Aristotle.  Whether the true role of, say, a waterfall or a forest is to exhibit the glory of God, supply beauty to the world, or something else couldn’t be decided by an investigation of nature alone.  Henceforth science would leave all such questions to philosophy and theology, restricting itself to investigating just the mechanics of nature.  What a cow or mountain or star is “for” would trouble science no longer.”[2]    

            It is easy to see here, that by removing the underlying purpose contained within the “ought” of an object…a waterfall, forest, cow, or mountain…in order to simplify the new scientific method going forward in the late 1500’s to the early 1600’s to more easily identify the factual “is” of a particular phenomenon, carries the danger to morph this purposeless research methodology over time into the exceedingly damaging cultural worldview of a similarly purpose-free, ought-less human life.

The Life-Script of Paul

            Here lies one of the most important topics in this book, and possibly one of the most fundamental issues in all of eternity.

            The educated Pharisee Saul/Paul “is” persecuting the early Christian church of Jewish believers in Jesus Christ as being the long-awaited Messiah.

            This situation of an “is” emphatically does not naturally create a path leading to the transformational “ought” of Saul/Paul becoming the preeminent Christian evangelical missionary to the first-century Greco-Roman world.

            Nothing in worldly conventional normalcy and thinking can explain getting us from the “is” to the “ought” in the historical life of the apostle Paul.

            But the God of the Bible in an instant of time can brilliantly flip Saul into Paul (the Greek equivalent of the Jewish name Saul) from an “is” to an “ought,” creating in a moment a well-educated Jewish scholar going out into the larger world with the Christian gospel message, having the essential super-humility needed to not look down-his-nose in condescending Jewish pride at the block-headed, polytheistic, and idol-worshipping Gentiles.

            Simply stated, Paul cannot be an effective Christian missionary evangelist to the first-century Greco-Roman world without the “is” of narrow, pride-filled Jewish tribalism radically transformed into the Great Commission “ought” of personal humility that is relatable to the lost condition of the Gentiles.

            The young Pharisee Saul/Paul had been educated in Jerusalem by the renowned teacher Gamaliel.

As Paul travels as a converted Christian missionary to evangelize in the various cities throughout Asia Minor, he is probably better educated than any of the rabbis in the local synagogues, his knowledge of the Hebrew Bible scriptures making the case for Jesus as the Christ being above reproach.

            Yet after meeting Jesus Christ as the Messiah through a blinding light on the road to Damascus, Paul realizes that of all people he should have seen Jesus of Nazareth as being the Christ, and if God can forgive him for his wrong-headed blindness as a persecutor of the followers of Jesus, then he knows that his actions are at least equal to or worse than the belief-systems of the Gentiles who were likewise ignorant of the true identity of God.

            If Jesus Christ can forgive him, then Paul knows that Jesus Christ can forgive the Gentiles as well.

            Thus, the God of the Bible can cross the wide expanse of an “is” to an “ought” in composing and orchestrating the extraordinary life mission-plan for Paul the apostle.

            The fundamental issue here having eternal import, is that Paul could never have closed the gap between the starting point “is” of being an active persecutor of the early Christian church, to the “ought” of becoming the apostle to the Gentiles and a writer of many of the New Testament letters addressed to churches throughout Asia Minor, defending the Christian faith.

            Paul could never have even imagined this radical change from an “is” to an “ought” that no human literary genius could or would invent.

This is an excerpt from my book Pondering Our World: Christian Essays on Science and Faith.

[1] John Lennox: Socrates in the City in Labastide, France, Parts 1 and 2 on Jan. 12 and 23, 2018 on YouTube.

[2] Michael J. Behe, Darwin Devolves (New York: Harper Collins, 2019), 258-259.

Author: Barton Jahn

I worked in building construction as a field superintendent and project manager. I have four books published by McGraw-Hill on housing construction (1995-98) under Bart Jahn, and have eight Christian books self-published through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). I have a bachelor of science degree in construction management from California State University Long Beach. I grew up in Southern California, was an avid surfer, and am fortunate enough to have always lived within one mile of the ocean. I discovered writing at the age of 30, and it is now one of my favorite activities. I am currently working on more books on building construction.

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