Weekly Link Roundup

The storm may rage and the winds may howl, but I'm still here! (So far.) Here's a couple of interesting stories I didn't have time to write more about this week:

• Following Rick Perry's urgent prayers for rain in his drought-stricken state, Tropical Storm Don formed in the Gulf, headed toward Texas, and then dissipated before dropping any significant rain. The drought continues. How long will it be before Perry's Christian supporters start to seriously consider if God is punishing him for something?

• The Filipino Freethinkers win "The One" category at the Tatt Awards! Congratulations to the FF, and thanks to everyone who voted for them.

• Following some very disappointing decisions at the United Nations, here's one that's a welcome change: the UN affirms that criticizing religion is a human right.

• Jon Huntsman torpedoes his chance at the Republican presidential nomination by announcing he doesn't deny two of the foundational theories of modern science.

• The U.S. defense agency DARPA plans to award half a million dollars in seed money for a feasibility study for a ship that could send human beings to another star. This money is a drop in the bucket next to the trillions that would actually be needed to construct such a ship, but it's good to see that some people still have the ability to contemplate the biggest and most adventurous questions.

• Sam Harris writes a superb article on Objectivism. "Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the well-being of others. How could they possibly benefit from other people getting first-rate educations? How could they be harmed if the next generation is hurled into poverty and despair? Why should anyone care about other people‚Äôs children? It amazes me that such questions require answers." (Edit: But please see this disclaimer.)

• In a previous post, I wondered if the Irish government would match its harsh condemnation of the Vatican with action by seizing and auctioning church property to compensate the victims of church-sanctioned sexual assault. I'm extremely pleased to read that they're doing just that, pressing the church to hand over control of land and schools and pay half the compensation bill for abuse victims in Roman Catholic children's homes.

August 28, 2011, 12:59 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink23 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

Some scattered thoughts to contemplate on a Saturday morning:

• Earlier this year, my post on urban agriculture drew some spirited disagreement. Now there's a study from Ohio State University which concludes that Cleveland could supply all its own produce, poultry and honey if the many vacant lots in the shrinking, post-industrial city were converted into gardens.

• A Missouri high school, in response to a complaint from a homeschooling parent who doesn't even have kids in the school, has banned Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer from its library. In response, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis is offering to send free copies of the book to any student in the school who wants one. They're asking for donations to cover their shipping costs, so please consider chipping in a few dollars if you can afford it.

Cosmos is being remade by Fox, with a production team including Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy (!). The fact that the creative team includes Ann Druyan, and the proposed host is Neil deGrasse Tyson (who knew Carl Sagan personally), gives me hope that the result will be good.

• Did you know that California permits its prison inmates to have vegetarian meals only for religious reasons, and not out of secular moral convictions? Another example of the unjust privilege that's often accorded to religion as more real or more sincere than other kinds of beliefs.

• New York's Woodlawn Cemetery is selling multimillion-dollar mausoleums for the deceased wealthy. I've tried without success to imagine the mindset that would lead someone to spend millions of dollars on a lavish container for their own corpse, rather than giving it away to living people who have genuine needs.

• Cult leader Warren Jeffs has been re-convicted of child sexual assault, this time in Texas, after an earlier conviction in Utah was overturned on a legal technicality. He probably didn't help his case by threatening the court with plagues for daring to put him on trial.

August 6, 2011, 11:28 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink12 comments
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200,000 Earths

[Think we're all ready to talk about something else for a while? —Ebonmuse]

In May 1987, astronomers witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime event: a supernova, the explosive death of a supergiant star, in the Large Magellanic Cloud approximately 170,000 light-years from Earth. SN 1987A, as it was named, was the first supernova to be studied using the instruments of modern astronomy (although not the first supernova witnessed by humanity), and produced a wealth of data for scientists.

Image via.

After the bright initial explosion, SN 1987A gradually faded over the next few months. But then, later in the year, astronomers got a second bonus: three large, glowing rings appeared around the star, lit up as if by a cosmic switch. The prevailing theory is that these rings are clouds of gas puffed off by the star earlier in life, and the intense shock wave of energy emitted by the supernova ionized and heated them to the point of becoming luminous. Among other things, these bright rings were large enough to use for a trigonometric calculation that yields the exact distance between SN 1987A and Earth, providing a useful cross-check for other methods of measuring cosmological distance. And the ongoing study of SN 1987A continues to yield new discoveries, including one just reported in the July 8 issue of the journal Science.

The European Space Agency's space-based Herschel observatory, which sees in far infrared wavelengths, was surveying the Large Magellanic Cloud and had a chance to observe the dead star. In Herschel's sensitive vision, the site of SN 1987A was glowing with dim, low-temperature radiation being emitted from a colossal cloud of cold dust surrounding the supernova remnant. This cosmic dust is made up of all the elements heavier than helium - carbon, oxygen, iron, nitrogen, silicon - that were synthesized in the nuclear cauldron of the star's later life and spewed into space in its death throes.

But what surprised the astronomers was the sheer size of the dust cloud. Being cold and dark, it would have been hard to detect with a less sensitive instrument than Herschel, which is why it went unnoticed until now - but, according to the researchers, there was enough dust blown out of the supernova to create 200,000 Earth-sized planets.

I hope, when you read that number, you feel the same faint tingle of awe that I do. That cold, dark dust cloud enshrouding the dead star potentially contains the seeds of tens of thousands of worlds.

As the supernova remnant expands, most of this dust will dissipate into the cosmic medium, become spread out into space. But some of it may enrich gaseous nebulae where new stars are born, and when the swirling protoplanetary disks around those young suns collapse, they'll form planetesimals that will be drawn to each other by gravity and coalesce to form new planets. When the fiery heat of their birth subsides, these new planets will have their own continents, their own oceans, their own mountains, their own rivers and seas - and perhaps in time their own life, all made, just as our world and we ourselves are made, of atoms forged millions of years ago in a star's stupendous death.

We are scions of the universe, and the cosmic process of creation that made us is still going on. Carl Sagan, of course, said it best:

"The Cosmos was originally all hydrogen and helium. Heavier elements were made in red giants and in supernovas and then blown off into space, where they were available for subsequent generations of stars and planets. Our Sun is probably a third-generation star. Except for hydrogen and helium, every atom in the Sun and the Earth was synthesized in other stars. The silicon in the rocks, the oxygen in the air, the carbon in our DNA, the gold in our banks, the uranium in our arsenals were all made thousands of light-years away and billions of years ago. Our planet, our society and we ourselves are built of star stuff."

170,000 years ago, a sun died in a distant galaxy, and the dispersal of starstuff began anew. The light from that cataclysm only reached our telescopes in 1987, which means that we won't know for another 170,000 years what's going on in that region today. It may well be that some of those precious atoms are already engaged in the processes that will one day lead to them becoming part of a living being on a rich and distant world.

July 11, 2011, 5:58 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink12 comments
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I Am An Atom of Atheism

The blog Ungodly News has created a whimsical periodic table of atheism, and I was surprised and pleased to find out that I'm on it:

I'm an actinide, if you can't find me - one of the green rows on the bottom, labeled as "The Wicked of the Web". I'd never have counted myself as one of the basic and indivisible elements of atheism, but given the distinguished company I'm listed among, this is a true honor! You may now commence the jokes about making compounds of atheists...

In other news, here's a quick link roundup:

• I was happy to hear that Geert Wilders has been acquitted by a Dutch court, putting an end to the shameful prosecution of a man for exercising the right of free speech. Whatever one thinks of Wilders' ideas, the correct way to respond to an argument is with another argument, not the threat of punishment. The court's ruling recognized this principle, even if it disappointingly described his opinion as "the edge of what is allowed".

• The self-help guru James Arthur Ray has been convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of three people in a sweat lodge at an October 2009 retreat he organized. Woo is not harmless, not even the vague and fluffy-headed New Age variety.

• Via Andrew Sullivan, this haunting and gorgeous short film of Saturn and its moons, made by splicing together thousands of still images from the Cassini mission.

• In the wake of (unfortunately small and sporadic) protests by women across Saudi Arabia asking for the right to drive, a Saudi Arabian doctor has appealed for the right to choose her own husband. The fact that women are still denied these incredibly basic human freedoms ought to be a cause for national embarrassment in this ignorant and backwards theocracy.

• Via Slacktivist, an evangelical pastor tries valiantly to silence his own flickers of conscience over the doctrine of eternal damnation:

"It is clear that Bell is not comfortable with the idea that billions of people may suffer in hell. But then, who is comfortable with that? The majority of evangelicals who hold to the orthodox understanding of hell... are troubled by its implications."

Maybe those evangelicals should consider listening to their consciences for once.

June 26, 2011, 4:07 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

• Witchcraft is now a recognized profession in Romania, subjecting its practitioners to income tax. Witches who are unhappy about this are responding pretty much like you'd expect.

• A female activist in Israel faces prison time for praying at the Wailing Wall. The telling quote:

"The religious world in Israel has become more and more extreme," Mrs Hoffman said. "Much like in Islam, religiosity is now measured by the distances at which women are kept from society."

• A 10-year-old girl in Canada becomes the youngest amateur astronomer ever to discover a supernova. (If you want to help, did you know that astronomers are enlisting citizen volunteers to classify photos of galaxies?)

• Swami Nithyananda, a popular Hindu guru, admits that he paid a blackmailer 1.4 million pounds to not release a sex tape of him and an Indian actress.

• High-ranking ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis is writing a tell-all book.

• The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Milwaukee files for chapter 11 bankruptcy as a result of settlements for victims of pedophile priests. Too bad the whole organization isn't being liquidated and sold off to pay its creditors.

• The British Medical Journal concludes that Andrew Wakefield's paper linking vaccination to autism, which single-handedly gave rise to the anti-vaccination movement, was "an elaborate fraud" based on falsified data.

January 8, 2011, 12:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments
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The Language of God: Cosmology and the God Hypothesis

The Language of God, Chapter 3

By B.J. Marshall

Collins concludes this chapter by tying his overview of cosmology to the god hypothesis. He states that "[c]learly, the scientific view is not entirely sufficient to answer all of the interesting questions about the origin of the universe, and there is nothing inherently in conflict between the idea of a creator God and what science has revealed" (pp.80-1). We've already addressed this god-of-the-gaps mentality before; just because one hypothesis (scientific explanation of the origins of the universe) might fail, that does not by itself validate any competing hypotheis (god did it). Likewise, we have seen conflict between what god has "revealed" and what science tells us - just read Genesis. But the point of Collins introducing the final section of this chapter is to have his readers build upon the foundation they've constructed thus far. Too bad that foundation is crap.

Collins presents an argument for how the theist can seek a god who created the universe but also cares about us personally (I numbered the premisses for later reference):

(1) If God exists, then He is supernatural
(2) If He is supernatural, then He is not limited by natural laws
(3) If He is not limited by natural laws, there is no reason He should be limited by time
(4) If He is not limited by time, then He is in the past, the present, and the future.

Collins draws a number of conclusions from this. First, God can exist prior to and after the universe. Second, God has perfect knowledge of everything, including the formation of planets, biogenesis, and our thoughts and actions. I'd like to explore his argument in more detail before discussing his conclusions.

Collins' argument begins like a tautology, based on his definition of God. Let's leave alone the first two premisses and grant them as true based on the definitions of "god" and "supernatural." Premiss (3) is problematic, and it's here that I think Collins' argument loses soundness. I don't think it follows that not being limited by natural laws means there's no reason one should be limited by time. I think my problem is in ambiguous language. I think I understand what it would mean to not be limited by natural laws: you don't need to be under gravity's thumb; you don't need to abide by the Law of Conservation of Energy; you can shirk conservation of angular momentum whenever you wanted to. Now, I see those examples as immensely flawed, but at least I understand them. I'm not sure what it means to not be limited by time.

The concept of being outside time (or timeless) is problematic. Drange (1998) considered timelessness as just one of many incompatible properties traditionally ascribed to God. It goes along with the pair of attributes of god being immutable (unchangable) and creating the universe. It boils down to this: In order to create, one must have the intention of creating, then perform the act of creating, then no longer have the intention of creating. For example, I want to bake brownies. I bake the brownies. I no longer want to bake brownies because I'm too busy stuffing my face with the brownies I just made. Smith (1996) also pointed out how the concept of a timeless god is problematic given temporal causation: with time not existing, how can any temporal causation occur?

Premiss 4 also confuses me. I first considered the concept "not being limited by time" as being outside of time or timeless. William Lane Craig usually uses "timeless" as a property of God, as well as spaceless, immensely powerful, and personal. But now I read Collins' concept "not being limited by time" as meaning "able to flow anywhere in time." I think Collins is equivocating different notions of time. To me, this poses a big problem, as I think it means God can know opposing propositions in the same context. Let's say God goes to the past, before I was born. To God, the past is now his "present" and he knows the proposition "BJ Marshall does not exist." Well, God then decided to zip forward in time to a new "present" and he knows the proposition "BJ Marshall exists." I say "in the same context" because both knowledge statements are in God's "present," which is to say the time in which God currently exists.

Despite the confusing argument, Collins draws conclusions about God's omnipotence leading up to God knowing every thought and action we perform. I think this also means that God knows well before we're born whether he's going to roast us for eternity (trillions of years?) for transgressions we made against an arbitrary set of moral laws over a span of 80 years or so.

Collins has more to say about marrying science and religion, and he speaks very briefly about the wrongheadedness of Young Earth Creationists. He ends by quoting Saint Augustine:

"In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it" (p.83).

If only the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research heeded this advice. It sounds a lot like Augustine is proposing using reason and evidence to back up positions of faith. Of course, one problem I have is trying to figure out how positions of faith can be backed up, given there's no way to verify or test those positions. It reminded me of George Smith in "Atheism: The Case Against God": "There can be no knowledge of what is good for man[kind] apart from the knowledge of reality and human nature - and there is no manner in which this knowledge can be acquired except through reason" (p.4).

Earlier, Collins had asserted that religions were rusty containers and that perhaps the water held within the containers comprised the articles of faith that form the core beliefs of corruptible religions. I wonder at what point scientific discoveries will throw away enough buckets of bathwater until people eventually toss out the baby of faith altogether.

Other posts in this series:

October 17, 2010, 2:37 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink22 comments
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The Language of God: Quantum Quote-Mining

The Language of God, Chapter 3

By B.J. Marshall

Collins spends only a few pages discussing quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle. He starts with a sentence that has nothing to do with anything, really. He mentions that "Newton was a believer who wrote more about biblical interpretation than he did about mathematics and physics" (p.78). I have no idea why Collins would include this other than to say, "Hey, look everyone! This guy's a theist, and he's really smart. You should pay attention to him." And we've already seen the problems with that kind of thinking. He continues by setting up scientific determinism with a brief discussion of the marquis de Laplace, but then knocks it down with the uncertainty principle in order to save free will and a place for God to do His work. For added emphasis, he throws in a quote from Einstein and one from Hawking.

And that's the main beef I have with this section - and he's done it in the past, but I've saved up my frustration until now: quote mining. Twice now, he's quoted Hawking, so let's address those first:

We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determine events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it (p.80)

This comes from Hawking's "A Brief History of Time." (For future reference, I'll just call it aBHoT.) Too bad Collins didn't read the very next sentences:

However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us ordinary mortals. It seems better to employ the principle of economy known as Occam's razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed (aBHoT p.31 57)

Just because we could imagine a set of laws doesn't make it so. I don't see what point Collins is trying to validate by quoting material that suggests God could observe the universe without disturbing it. A god who doesn't interfere at all with the universe seems like a useless concept. Collins himself admits that God likes to disturb things from time to time to perform miracles, but the prospect of verifying/validating a god who does interfere with the universe (either directly through miracles or indirectly through mere observation) seems highly problematic.

Collins throws in another Hawking quote when discussing cosmology, and this one was priceless:

It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us (p.75).

Hawking says this in the framework of having a universe with a specific initial configuration. He then - right in the next paragraph, no less!! - continues to discuss alternatives to specific initial universe configurations. The alternatives boil down to various models of inflationary growth of the universe. Hawking starts with describing Alan Guth's inflationary model and discusses Linde, Steinhardt, and Albrecht's "new inflationary model." (aBHoT p.67-69). Hawking then talks about how the "present state of the universe could have arisen from quite a large number of different initial configurations" (aBHoT p.70). Hawking mentions later that we'd need a better understanding of quantum laws to figure out how the universe should have started off.

Ending this small section, Collins tosses out that perennial favorite of scientist quotes, "God does not play dice." I won't belabor the point greatly, since Ebonmuse already covered it here. I have to do some quote-mining of my own, but it's really just alluding to the content of the page I linked to: here goes:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

and

...the word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

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October 10, 2010, 9:45 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments
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The Language of God: In the Beginning...

The Language of God, Chapter 3

By B.J. Marshall

After his prelude, Collins begins at the beginning: The Big Bang. He talks about what it is, asks what came before it, and argues that it cries out for a divine explanation. The Big Bang doesn't just cry out for an explanation - no, no, no - it cries out for a divine explanation. Nothing like checking your biases at the door when doing that science thing, right?

We saw previously that he knows what a theory is, so this guy knows how to do science. I was a little disappointed, though, when I saw he hadn't laid out many lines of evidence for the Big Bang. And, given a recent poll that only 33% of Americans agree that the universe began with the Big Bang, I really would have liked to have seen Collins give a fully credible account. Granted, he does a pretty decent job explaining Einstein's cosmological constant, but that only goes so far as to lend support to Edwin Hubble's observations of redshift that led to the conclusion that the universe was expanding. The only real lines of evidence Collins provides for the Big Bang are the cosmic microwave background radiation and the theory's ability to predict concentrations of hydrogen, deuterium, and helium - called nucleosynthesis.

Collins doesn't lay out all the lines of evidence for the Big Bang as I wish he had, so I'll add them here, courtesy of AstronomyCast:
Collins' list:

Additional lines of evidence:

OK, so we now have four lines of evidence for the Big Bang. But we aren't exactly sure what the Big Bang is. Collins states that physicists are in agreement that the universe began as an "infinitely dense, dimensionless point of pure energy" (p.65). This is regularly referred to as a singularity, but there's a problem with that: Scientists really haven't been in agreement over this. Here are some interesting hypotheses:

Collins thinks the Big Bang begs the question of what came before that: namely, who or what was responsible? Specifically, Collins talks about faith traditions that maintain that God created the universe from nothingness (ex nihilo). However, Lawrence Krauss gave a lecture at the 2009 Atheist Alliance International meeting discussing a universe from nothing. (Note: this YouTube video is about an hour long, but totally worth it.) In the discussion, Krauss points out that the total energy of the universe is zero! Quoting from an adaptation of The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium, 1st edition, by Jay M. Pasachoff and Alex Filippenko, found on the Astronomical Society of the Pacific:

The idea of a zero-energy universe, together with inflation, suggests that all one needs is just a tiny bit of energy to get the whole thing started (that is, a tiny volume of energy in which inflation can begin). The universe then experiences inflationary expansion, but without creating net energy.

What produced the energy before inflation? This is perhaps the ultimate question. As crazy as it might seem, the energy may have come out of nothing! The meaning of "nothing" is somewhat ambiguous here. It might be the vacuum in some pre-existing space and time, or it could be nothing at all - that is, all concepts of space and time were created with the universe itself.

Collins finds his answer - God did it - from astrophysicist Robert Jastrow: "Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements and the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same; the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy" (p.67).

The essential elements and the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same?!? Hmm, let's compare (oh, and we'll only choose one of the two Genesis creation myths). I found a nifty image showing how attempting to harmonize the creation myth to evolutionary epochs fails miserably. But also note how fruit trees come before the sun, moon, and stars. Our sun is about 4.5 billion years old. Land plants (clade embryophyta) didn't appear until the Paleozoic era, which was between 543 and 248 million years ago. And let's not forget that the Bible considers the moon a great light (Gen 1:16). But that's just one of those pesky details that differs.

Finally, Collins says that he has to agree with Jastrow and that he "cannot see how nature could have created itself" (p.67). This is textbook God-of-the-gaps arguing right here. I could shake my head and say, "Oh, that wacky Collins!" as we see one more expert trying to render an expert opinion on a field of which he's wholly unqualified, but I know what harm it does when people read stuff like this. My parents gave me this book as a Christmas present last year, which happened to be the first Christmas since my open deconversion. My parents were utterly convinced that Collins' book would bring me back into the fold. After all, Collins is a smart guy, right? Now, every occasion is greeted by horrible apologetics; they gave me "The Case for a Creator" for my birthday. *sigh*

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October 4, 2010, 5:48 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink21 comments
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The Case for a Creator: The God Generator

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 6

For those who accept the premises of the cosmological fine-tuning argument - that the physical laws of the universe could have been different, and that there's only a small prior probability they would have taken on the values to produce intelligent beings - there are two possible explanations. One is that these values were chosen by a god or other creative power. Another one, which has found favor with some cosmologists in recent years, is that there are a vast number of parallel universes which instantiate all the possible values, and we naturally find ourselves in one of the universes conducive to beings like ourselves.

In chapter 6, Lee Strobel pours scorn on this second possibility. He calls it a "metaphysical escape hatch to avoid the fine-tuning evidence for a designer" [p.139], and quotes some of his ID fellow-travelers who say that this explanation "does seem to betray a metaphysical desperation" [p.140]. He also quotes William Lane Craig, who describes this as an "outlandish theory" invented because "some people will hypothesize anything to avoid" [p.140] the ID explanation.

Something I've occasionally observed is that religious apologists will crank up the intensity of their polemic when logic alone doesn't get them the answers they want, and that seems to be what's going on here. There is no solid proof that parallel universes exist, but neither is there any way to disprove them; of course, both these points are also true of the intelligent-designer hypothesis. Since these explanations both account for the observations equally well, there is no obvious way to choose between them, and the ID explanation does not stand out as a clear winner. The sudden sharp increase in the hostility of Strobel's language is probably deliberate, a smokescreen deployed to obscure that rhetorically inconvenient fact. (And didn't he say in an earlier interview that "motive-mongering" is an irrelevant tactic and that every explanation should stand or fall on its own merits? Evidently, this has been forgotten.)

Note also the careful framing, in which Strobel's wording is chosen to imply that a supernatural designer should be the default explanation. This may sound good to Christian readers, but it's not how science works. Every hypothesis has to prove itself superior to its competitors by making verified predictions and producing supporting evidence. No explanation wins just by casting aspersions on its rivals. If Strobel and his ID compatriots want to win this fight, they would be well advised to figure out some concrete predictions that ID makes that differ from those made by multiverse hypotheses (many of which do make testable predictions, even if some of the tests are presently beyond our ability to carry out).

For whatever reason, after spending several pages sneering at multiverse hypotheses, Strobel next resorts to a fallback explanation: even if there were parallel universes, that would still indicate design! As Robin Collins says:

"My wife and I have a bread-making machine... To make edible bread, we first needed this well-designed machine that had the right circuitry, the right heating element, the right timer, and so forth. Then we had to put in the right ingredients in the right proportions and the right order - water, milk, flour, shortening, salt, sugar, yeast..."

"Now, let's face it: a universe is far more complex than a loaf of bread. My point is that if a bread machine requires certain specific parameters to be set in order to create bread, then there has to be a highly designed mechanism or process to produce functional universes. In other words, regardless of which multiple-universe theory you use, in every case you'd need a 'many-universes generator'..." [p.142]

No matter how cleverly worded they are or how many intervening steps they contain, cosmological arguments for theism always reach a point where they lapse into special pleading. The above paragraph is the point where Robin Collins does it. Do we need a "many-universes generator"? Then why don't we also need a "god generator", to produce the sort of intelligent designer that is capable of producing universes? Why does one need a further explanation while the other does not?

Any explanation for the origin of the universe is susceptible to such recursive questioning. Either the causal chain regresses forever, or we find a place where we have to stop and declare "that's just the way it is". The point is that creationists have no rational warrant for stopping the regression at the place most convenient for them. They have no justification for declaring that this step absolutely requires a further explanation, but that step is the one for which no further explanation is necessary. In the absence of evidence, that line can always be moved one step forward or one step backward.

It's not out of the realm of possibility that one day we will discover the scientifically supported explanation for the ultimate cause of all things. But that day hasn't come yet; we probably don't even know the right questions to ask. There's ample reason for all of us to be patient and humble when it comes to the question of ultimate origins. We still have much to learn, and in the meantime, creationists should cease polluting the discussion with empty buzzwords like "metaphysically necessary", or claiming that there "has to be" a supernatural explanation. These are not arguments, they're just professions of faith.

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October 30, 2009, 8:05 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink32 comments
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The Case for a Creator: This Time It's Personal

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 5

To wrap up his cosmological argument, William Lane Craig comes to a laughably specific conclusion:

"A cause of space and time must be an uncaused, beginningless, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, personal being endowed with freedom of will and enormous power," he said. [p.108]

(He didn't add "who is three persons in one being and who sacrificed his son for the sins of the world", but clearly he would have gotten there if this interview had been just a few pages longer.)

"After all, atheists have long maintained that the universe doesn't need a cause, because it's eternal. How can they possibly maintain that the universe can be eternal and uncaused, yet God cannot be timeless and uncaused?" [p.109]

Craig comes so close to grasping the point here, only to fall tragically short. As I discussed in the last installment, what atheists say isn't that God "cannot be" uncaused; it's that adding the extra step of an uncaused God has no explanatory power over and above just saying that the universe is uncaused. It multiplies entities beyond necessity. And Craig doesn't get to plead ignorance of Occam's Razor, because he himself discusses it in the very next paragraph, without even a glance back at how it applies to his own argument just a few sentences prior:

"Why does it have to be one Creator?" I asked. "Why couldn't multiple Creators have been involved?"
"My opinion," Craig answered, "is that Ockham's razor would shave away any additional creators... Since one Creator is sufficient to explain the effect, you would be unwarranted in going beyond the evidence to posit a plurality." [p.109]

But postulating just one supernatural creator isn't "going beyond the evidence"? (I know, I know, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Sorry, can't help myself.)

While I'm hardly going to argue for polytheism, what Craig doesn't address is that we often see physical phenomena which are apparently at cross-purposes. There are galaxies that collide, black holes that consume stars, asteroid impacts that shatter planets, viruses that hijack cells' protein machinery, and parasites that prey on nearly every species of living thing. If the universe is the product of intelligent design, it would seem that there are conflicting designs, which would imply the existence of multiple creators in a parsimonious way.

Now we get to the real craziness. Strobel points out, rightly, that there's no way to establish if the first cause (if there was one) was a personal, conscious being, rather than an impersonal natural phenomenon like a vacuum fluctuation. Craig's response is a masterpiece of apologist logic-mangling:

"You see, there cannot be a scientific explanation of the first state of the universe. Since it's the first state, it simply cannot be explained in terms of earlier initial conditions and natural laws... So if there is an explanation of the first state of the universe, it has to be a personal explanation - that is, an agent who has volition to create it... He can create a new effect without any antecedent determining conditions." [p.110]

In this little paragraph, Craig has smuggled in a whole theology textbook's worth of Christian presuppositions. Let's see if we can unpack some of them.

The model of free will he's relying on is clearly agent causation, the idea that free will is some kind of supernatural substance that periodically bubbles up beliefs and decisions for no reason at all. This is a severely tendentious view, to say the least. There's ample evidence that in the case of human beings, the only free-willed creatures we know of, our behavior absolutely does have prior causes, and in fact couldn't be otherwise. We have no definitive proof that such a phenomenon as agent causation even exists, so for Craig to outright claim that this "has to be" the sort of thing that caused the universe is an attempt to pass off pure speculation as established fact. It's as if I said, "If there's an explanation of the first state of the universe, it has to be leprechauns."

"...because the cause of the universe transcends time and space, it cannot be a physical reality. Instead, it must be nonphysical or immaterial. Well, there are only two types of things that can be timeless and immaterial. One would be abstract objects, like numbers... The second kind of immaterial reality would be a mind." [p.110]

Again, this is just a set of Christian apologetic presuppositions thinly disguised as an argument. What on earth leads Craig to assert that a mind is an "immaterial reality"? Where have we ever seen a mind existing apart from a physical, material body? How can he so blithely assume that this is or ever can be the case!? (My margin notes on this section are filled with question marks and exclamation points, if you couldn't tell.)

Following this Gish Gallop of rapid-fire assertions, Craig discusses some other models in cosmology - the oscillating universe, chaotic inflation, Hawking's no-boundary proposal - and asserts that none of them can extend infinitely far back into the past. Even if all of this is true, which is a claim I don't intend to examine in detail, it doesn't matter. Craig's argument only works if you assume that the hypotheses currently proposed to explain the beginning of the universe are the only ones that will ever be proposed, and that no alternative theory, regardless of its nature, could solve this problem. Both these assumptions are obviously false.

The ultimate origin of the cosmos is probably the most profound question that human beings will ever face, and we don't yet know what the final answer is. It may be that one of the cosmological theories Craig dismisses is true despite him; it may be that one of these theories in modified form will do the job; or the truth may be something completely new, something that we haven't even imagined yet. In no case, however, is it valid or legitimate to assume that our current ignorance is an indicator that the real answer is "God did it". That hypothesis has proven itself false countless times in the past. Why should we accept this newest invocation of the God-of-the-gaps argument when all the previous instances of it have turned out to be untrue?

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October 9, 2009, 7:49 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink25 comments
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