The Language of God: Biologos: Epic Fail

The Language of God, Chapter 10

By B.J. Marshall

In this chapter, Collins tackles the claim that BioLogos damages both science and religion. Collins disagrees in a way that fails so epically that it almost makes the previous sections of this book seem prescient.

For the atheist scientist, BioLogos seems to be another "God of the gaps" theory imposing the presence of the divine where none is needed or desired. This argument is not apt. BioLogos doesn't try to wedge God into gaps in our understanding of the natural world; it proposes God as the answer to questions science was never intended to address, such as "How did the universe get here?" "What is the meaning of life?" "What happens to us after we die?" Unlike Intelligent Design, BioLogos is not intended as a scientific theory. Its truth can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul" (p.204).

I can see how BioLogos isn't wedging God between gaps in our understanding of the natural world, but only because BioLogos seems to set God outside of the scope of our inquiry. There's simply no place for God in our understanding of the natural world. After all, even if science can one day explain everything naturally, there could still be some questions to which someone could point to God. However, to the extent that those unanswered questions don't concern our understanding of the natural world (that is, well, everything we can know), the entire concept of God seems to be a red herring. Pretty much ends the conversation, doesn't it?

But apparently BioLogos isn't completely outside of our inquiry. We just have to ask god-questions with our hearts. Yes, the spiritual logic of the heart, mind, and soul; which is, of course, unfalsifiable.

I once asked a group of friends in a philosophy club if my idea of truth made sense. I said something like "truth is the extent to which the ideas in our mind correlate to objective reality," and they thought that made sense. And here's the problematic part. If we have to weigh the ideas in our minds against objective reality, then regardless of how logical our arguments might be, they can stand only with the support of evidence. The logic shows us that our thinking is internally consistent and sound, but we can't see how that thinking correlates to objective reality without the evidence. For example, it's completely logical and consistent for me to posit that all rocks fall to Earth at 3.0 m/s. But, given the facts shown through experiments, I'd be wrong.

So without any evidence to check whatever this "spiritual logic" is, how can one see how strongly those spiritually logically derived thoughts correlate to objective reality? I don't think we can, which I think highlights the fact that scientific inquiry tends to converge on one answer (maybe not all at once, as it's a sloppy process), while spiritual inquiry diverges into thousands of different sects and cults. In hindsight, I probably fell into some undocumented offshoot of Roman Catholicism, stemming from my decisions (which changed over time) to pick and choose certain parts of the official canon to believe.

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April 18, 2011, 5:52 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink8 comments

The Language of God: A Biologist in His Element (Sort Of)

The Language of God, Chapter 4

By B.J. Marshall

This chapter is entitled "Life on Earth: Of Microbes and Man." Right from the beginning, you should probably know that there's a lot in this chapter that Collins gets right. It's like how William Lane Craig is totally in his element when he talks about cosmology, because he's an astrophysi ... wait, that's right, he's not. (I couldn't help but slam "The Case for a Creator" my parents got me for my first birthday post-deconversion. Nothing says "Happy Birthday" like "we think you're wrong and we don't want you to burn in Hell.") OK, so it's completely unlike that; Collins totally knows his stuff when it comes to the items in this chapter: DNA and evolution. In fact, Collins at one point asserts that "[t]he study of genomes leads inexorably to the conclusion that we humans share a common ancestor with other living things" (pp.133-134).

That said, there are some things that he mentions in this chapter that should be addressed.

In his introduction to this chapter, he talks about how science has turned beliefs on their heads, giving the example of replacing the geocentric model of the solar system with a heliocentric model. He talks about how the theory of evolution has really done it in for creationists. "Science," Collins says, "should not be denied by the believer; it should be embraced." He continues to say how the elegance of life on Earth is reason for awe and for belief in God. To that, I answer as Douglas Adams did: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

After speaking to paradigm shifts, Collins addresses the mainstay of many theists: Paley's Watchmaker argument. I have to give credit to Collins for adeptly dismantling this, though it is pretty low-hanging fruit. You know the one: You find a watch in a heath, and you know it's complex (the watch, not the heath). Watches have creators. Well, life is pretty darned complex; therefore life has a creator. Collins dismantles it this way:

  1. Electric current in my house consists of a flow of electrons.
  2. Electric current comes from the power company.
  3. Lightning consists of a flow of electrons.
  4. Therefore, lightning comes from the power company (pp.87-88).

Collins spends a little bit of time refuting arguments that evolution would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In so many words, he tells the reader that order can increase in parts of a system while the total amount of disorder in the system never decreases. He warns the reader about falling into a god-of-the-gaps problem, where the reader might say something like, "Hey, science can't explain life's origins, so couldn't we say that God stepped in to intervene?" I found it interesting how Collins plays to his readership: In that hypothetical question, Collins posits that God's intention was to create a universe which would lead to creatures with whom God might have fellowship, "namely human beings." Neanderthals may have had some form of spirituality, so why be so specific about human beings? Furthermore, if Collins holds evolution to be true, couldn't God be desiring fellowship with species that come after us? And do people really think God would set things in motion with the Big Bang and then chill for 13.7 billion years until we came along for his fellowship?

After he's done helping his readers avoid god-of-the-gaps arguments, he then says "there are good reasons to believe in God, including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation. They are positive reasons, based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge" (p.93). Math and order - really? George H. Smith discusses order in Atheism: A Case Against God as this: "order is simply the manifestation of causality, and causality is a derivative, a logical corollary, of the Law of Identity" (p.150). The nature of an entity determines what that entity can and cannot do. To help explain this, Smith refers to H.W.B. Joseph's "An Introduction to Logic":

... to say that the same thing acting on the same thing under the same conditions may yet produce a different effect, is to say that a thing need not be what it is. But this is in flat conflict with the Law of Identity. A thing, to be at all, must be something, and can only be what it is. To assert a causal connection between 'a' and V implies 'a' acts as it does because it is what it is; because, in fact, it is 'a.' So long therefore as it is 'a,' it must act thus; and to assert that it may act otherwise on a subsequent occasion is to assert that what is 'a' is something else than the 'a' which it is declared to be.

Order and design are not the same, which is something the theist may wish to assert given that God designed the universe. Design alludes to a designer, but order does not necessarily need an orderer. Smith asserts that order is "simply entailed by the nature of existence itself." It makes sense, given order, that mathematics would work. If I have one orange, and I add another orange to it, I get two oranges. That is, unless there is no order and the Law of Identity fails to hold, in which case I may get a pimped-up Mini Cooper and Alyson Hannigan. Sadly, after an hour of holding my very hopeful citrus, I got neither of those. Seems to me that, if order is a derivative of the Law of Identity, then mathematics is a derivative of order. And neither necessarily point to a god.

Now, to be charitable to the theist, I could see where one might say something like the following: If order is simply entailed by the nature of existence, and if God caused the universe to exist, then God caused order via his creation. To that, I would respond that we have a completely naturalistic explanation of order, even if we currently lack a scientifically proven explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. We certainly have naturalistic explanations for why there is something rather than nothing (the universe has zero total energy), but I'm not aware those ideas have been proven out. Furthermore, once again, just because a natural explanation is not yet proven to be true does not mean one can go claiming "God did it."

For all the progress Collins makes toward getting his readership to stop clicking Answers In Genesis and actually understand why evolution is true, he makes a few key blunders about why anyone should believe in a god. The funniest thing is that my father read The Language of God before handing it to me. He said he understands how evolution may have happened, but he's still hung up on micro- vs. macro-evolution, which is like being hung up on walking 200 yards vs. walking two miles. So, in the end, I really wonder how much progress Collins is actually making.

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November 8, 2010, 7:38 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink12 comments

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.

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October 17, 2010, 2:37 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink22 comments

The Language of God: Ultimate Meaning

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

In this section, Collins poses the questions of whether the near-ubiquity of the search for the existence of a supernatural being represents "a universal but groundless human longing for something outside ourselves to give meaning to a meaningless life and to take away the sting of death" (p.35). The search for meaning in one's life is an important question, but I don't think the search for the divine stops there. We have a curious approach to the world, and we like to understand why things happen. When we don't understand why things happen, we have throughout history tended (sadly, some still do) to invoke gods. Don't know why the sun goes around in the sky? Oh, that's Apollo's chariot. Not sure why there's thunder and lightning? It's due to Ah Peku, Inazuma, Karai-Shin, Lei Kung, Ninurta, Orko, Pajonn, Tien Mu, Thor, Zeus, or several others. Let's get more modern: Not sure where the universe came from, or why it seems so finely-tuned? Yahweh did it.

Back to Collins' point here: God gives meaning to a meaningless life and takes away the sting of death. I will grant that humanity has no ultimate purpose in the universe; in another five billion years, our sun will die and our planet with it. (I use "humanity" loosely here knowing that, since it took about three billion years to go from single-celled organisms to humans, our descendants five billion years hence will most likely look nothing like us.) Furthermore, some physicists theorize the universe itself will die a sort of heat-death; it's not a rosy picture for ultimate purpose. But just because there is no ultimate purpose does not mean life is without meaning. Many atheists find meaning in life. For me, I find meaning in: raising my son, sharing my life with my wife, enjoying time spent with friends, caring for my neighborhood, a chance to play golf, a good scotch. And that list is certainly not exclusive.

I find Collins' statement about removing the sting of death to be puzzling, especially given that it seems religious people are still rather afraid of dying. There are plenty of web sites addressing the Christian fear of death, so it leads me to think that there really isn't much sting taken out by a belief in God. If anything, there is an added fear of going to Hell, even if one thinks one's done the right things to avoid Hell. I think the frank and honest acknowledgement that there is no god, no heaven, and no hell, and that nothing other than death happens when you die is rather liberating. Furthermore, in addition to taking the sting out of death (or at least reducing that sting), this acknowledgement has the added bonus of provoking me to do the best I can in this life, rather than treating this life as a proving grounds for some afterlife.

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August 31, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink13 comments

The Case for a Creator: The Ultimate 747

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 6

In his frequently-maligned (but less-frequently read and understood) book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins offers what I think is an underappreciated argument against all varieties of supernatural design, the "Ultimate 747" argument.

Briefly stated, it goes like this: If we accept ID advocates' reasoning, complexity and organization require a designer. Yet it stands to reason that any designer that could create a complex, organized thing must be an even more complex and organized being in its own right, and therefore even more in need of a designer of its own to explain its existence. If we consider it unlikely that creatures as complex as human beings simply exist by chance, requiring no designer, a fortiori we should consider it even more unlikely that a supernatural, human-designing deity could just happen to exist with no outside explanation. Why do we need a human-designer, but not a human-designer-designer? (The allusion, of course, is to the infamous creationist argument that evolution is like a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a 747 jumbo jet.)

This argument applies with a vengeance to the claims made by Lee Strobel and Robin Collins in this chapter. Collins claims that it's absurd to invoke as-yet undiscovered laws of physics to explain why the universe (or the multiverse) exists, when we already have a perfectly suitable candidate:

"We see minds producing complex, precision machinery all the time. So postulating the existence of a supermind - or God - as the explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe makes all the sense in the world. It would simply be a natural extrapolation of what we already know that minds can do." [p.146]

Similar to William Lane Craig's argument from the last chapter, this innocent-looking paragraph smuggles in all kinds of Christian presuppositions.

First of all, it is not a natural extrapolation from "intelligent beings can create machines" to "intelligent beings can create universes". The former entails working within the cosmos and the laws of physics to shape matter to our advantage. The latter entails actually creating that matter and those laws of physics. These are completely qualitatively different abilities. One is a natural endeavor, following the principles of natural law; the other transcends natural law, by definition making it a supernatural power.

But more importantly, look carefully and you'll see where the theistic presuppositions try to slide past. Human minds are also contingent entities, brought into existence by prior causes and existing on a material substrate. Are these also traits that we should apply to God? If not, why not, since we have no experience of any mind for which these two conditions are not true? Would this not also be a "natural extrapolation" from what we know of minds?

The thread of Strobel's reasoning, if followed consistently, leads inescapably to the conclusion that God, no less than human beings, needs a prior cause and a designing intelligence of his own to "fine-tune" the conditions for his existence. Of course, this leads to absurdity, for how do we explain the existence and fine-tuned nature of that designing intelligence? These 747s just keep getting bigger and bigger the more we try.

The only way to escape an infinite regress of ever-greater intelligent designers is to assume that, at some point, complexity arose from simplicity. And we know of only one algorithm capable of doing that: the algorithm of evolution, which has amply demonstrated its ability to create marvelously complex, intricate and well-adapted systems from simpler precursors. But once you admit that this can happen, what need is there for a designer at all? Why not follow the (abundant) evidence, conclude that human beings arose from a process of evolution, and cut off the recursion at the earliest possible step?

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November 9, 2009, 6:55 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink32 comments

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

The Case for a Creator: Atheistic Meteorology

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 2

In the second chapter of Case, Lee Strobel worries whether evolutionary theory, by its undirected nature, rules out the possibility of a creative and purposeful deity. He admits that some prominent evolutionary scientists, like Christian de Duve or Kenneth Miller, do believe in God, but sweeps them under the carpet with little fanfare. Without ever directly discussing their views, he insists that evolution does rule out a creator because:

...textbooks affirm that evolution is "random and undirected" and "without either plan or purpose" and that "Darwin gave biology a sound scientific basis by attributing the diversity of life to natural causes rather than supernatural creation."
    If this is how scientists define Darwinism, then it seemed to me that God has been given his walking papers. [p.22]

Strobel's argument here is rooted in a profound misunderstanding of what science does. His problem, like that of many Christians, is that he insists on a god whose existence does not rest purely on faith, but on a visible god who is actively involved in the world and constantly performing empirically verifiable miracles. As previously discussed, evolution does not rule out the possibility of any god whatsoever, but it does mean that God is not necessary to explain the diversity of life. That diversity is explained as arising from the interaction of natural forces. A theist could say that there is a god, and that those forces are his tools; an atheist could likewise say that no god is needed, because those natural forces are perfectly sufficient on their own to explain what we observe.

But to creationists, this is anathema. They demand scientific validation of their beliefs, demand that God be not just possible but necessary. But the question suggests itself - why, then, do they focus their ire on evolution? Doesn't every other branch of science partake of the same atheistic, purposeless, undirected explanations that Strobel finds so distasteful?

After all, doesn't geology teach that earthquakes and volcanoes occur due to the grinding of the Earth's tectonic plates, and not because of God's wrath against sinners? Doesn't meteorology teach that lightning results from the buildup of electric potential around tall objects during thunderstorms, rather than resulting from divine smiting of the ungodly? Doesn't quantum physics teach that atomic nuclei undergo radioactive decay at random times, and not when God sovereignly wills?

None of these branches of science clearly indicate the fingerprint of God, but insist that the natural phenomena they study are random and undirected, occurring without discernible plan or purpose. Aren't they therefore opposed to an active, creative deity every bit as much as evolution is?

This is Strobel's dilemma: he's set himself not just against evolution, but against all of science. He demands that science pay proper deference to his religious beliefs, and when it stubbornly persists in discovering natural phenomena that occur without the need for divine intervention, he denounces it as the tool of atheists. It may only be when it comes to evolution that he perceives the conflict, but the problem is all around him whether he recognizes it or not.

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April 24, 2009, 6:53 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink40 comments

Answering Lee Strobel's Questions for Atheists

Friendly Atheist has posted the third part of a dialogue with Christian apologist Lee Strobel. In it, Strobel poses questions that he thinks would be the most effective at planting seeds of faith in an atheist's mind. In this post, I'll answer those questions. I've written on some of these issues at greater length in the past, and I'll also provide links to those essays where appropriate.

Historian Gary Habermas: "Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus' resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself."

These historical facts are: (1) Jesus was killed by crucifixion; (2) Jesus' disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; (3) The conversion of the church persecutor Saul, who became the Apostle Paul; (4) the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus' half-brother; (5) The empty tomb of Jesus. These "minimal facts" are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn't have quite the same virtual universal consensus, it nevertheless is conceded by 75 percent of the scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.

Ebon Musings: Choking on the Camel

Even if we grant that dubious 75% figure, what Habermas fails to acknowledge is that most of the scholars who study the historicity of Jesus are Christians, and are unlikely to produce conclusions that deviate from orthodoxy, even if - as in this case - those conclusions are supported by no evidence outside the biblical record itself. Habermas' alleged "historical facts" are just the tenets of Christian belief presented in a facade of neutrality.

As such, I don't intend to begin by making the concessions he would prefer. I maintain that of his five facts, (1) is recorded primarily in the Bible, and only secondarily, and spottily, in some documents written decades later. (2) is mostly correct, so long as we remove the question-begging assumption that the first Christians were disciples personally chosen by Jesus. (3) and (4) derive from no evidence I know of outside the Book of Acts, which was written for apologetic purposes and which Habermas has naively accepted as historical truth (see below). (5), again, is just a derivation from the creeds of Christian orthodoxy, not from any historical documents which suggest that first-century non-Christians acknowledged this.

For a comprehensive natural explanation, I propose this alternative: The first Christians believed that Jesus was a savior deity, similar to those of other mystery religions of the time, whose sacrificial death and resurrection was a sacred mystery that took place in a higher, heavenly plane and was revealed to believers through visions and revelations. Allegorical documents like the Gospels set the activities of this mythological figure in recent history for teaching purposes. Over time, through war and disruption, the original purpose of these writings was forgotten. This explanation neatly accounts for most of the available facts, including the vague and fragmentary references to Jesus in early historical documents that gradually become more concrete, the lack of reference in the epistles to a human life and career of Jesus, and the first Christians' apparent lack of interest in sacred relics or holy places of their religion.

Philosopher Paul Copan: "Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?

Ebon Musings: Unmoved Mover: The Fine-Tuning Argument

I take strong exception to the claim that the universe is "remarkably finely tuned for life". On the contrary, simple observation suggests that the universe is not well suited to life such as ours. When we consider the entire volume of the cosmos, we see that 99.999999... percent is cold, hard vacuum with a temperature of 3K. Within the galaxies, most of the interstellar medium is flooded with radiation. Most of the planets we've discovered are either freezing cold or boiling hot, unsuitable for life. In fact, in all the vastness of the cosmos, we only know one place where life can thrive - our own world - and even there, it's restricted to a relatively narrow range of habitable zones and climates. A universe "finely tuned" for life should produce it abundantly; but in fact, life is confined to a single, infinitesimally small and fragile corner. This strongly suggests that life, far from being the intended purpose of the universe, was an unintended side product arising from a confluence of rare and unlikely circumstances.

And, second, granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don't such 'injustices' or 'evils' seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?

Absolutely not! The injustices and evils that we perceive are not intrinsic properties of the universe, but qualities of human perception. We evaluate natural phenomena based on whether they have a harmful or beneficial effect for us. Often those effects are harmful, but this doesn't imply that the universe has deviated from an original plan of goodness - that belief is a product of Christian presuppositions - only that natural phenomena occur randomly and don't take human needs into account. In reality, the randomness and amorality of nature is a much stronger argument for atheism than it is for theism.

Talk show host Frank Pastore: "Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from non-life, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source."

Ebon Musings: Pay No Attention to the Deity Behind the Curtain

Pastore is asking for a full account of the current state of several entire scientific disciplines - cosmology, abiogenesis, and the evolution of the conscious mind. This is more than I'll attempt to explain or even summarize in this space, but I do have one shorter observation. If Pastore's question is meant to raise doubts in atheists, it can only be an example of the "God of the Gaps": the belief that anything not currently known must be miraculous.

The fallacy is a glaringly obvious one. Throughout human history, countless natural phenomena that were not understood were attributed to divine action: mental illness, contagious disease, the seasons, weather, fertility, life and death, and many more. Without exception, these supernatural explanations have receded and been replaced by natural ones as our knowledge grows. Pastore is just applying this tactic to the issues where we don't yet know the full answers, trusting that this time the gaps will remain impenetrable, and expecting that supernatural answers should be accepted despite their repeated past failures. But if we go by track record, we should all admit that the more likely answer is that these phenomena will turn out to be natural ones as well.

Historian Mike Licona: "Irrespective of one's worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?"

Yes, I do occasionally experience doubt, as I've written about before. That's a necessary consequence of having an open mind. But what I generally find gives me the most uncertainty is unfamiliarity. I'm not the kind of person who can dismiss a claim out of hand without looking into it, and claims I've never heard before usually give me a moment's pause for that reason. But so far they've all failed to pan out, and the more I learn about most religious and supernatural claims, the less plausible they seem.

Author Greg Koukl: "Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?"

Ebon Musings: Unmoved Mover: The Cosmological Argument

Atheists are not committed to believing that "everything came from nothing". Koukl's alleged dichotomy overlooks a third alternative: that we simply do not know the ultimate origins of the universe at present, and that we can accept this as our answer for the time being until more evidence is discovered. As with Pastore's question, Koukl assumes that a supernatural explanation, even one with no evidence in its favor, "wins" by default if a natural explanation is not currently known - this despite the well-established pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones over time.

I didn't email Alvin Plantinga, considered by many to be among the greatest philosophers of modern times. But based on his assertion that naturalism is self-defeating, we could formulate this question (thanks to William Lane Craig for some of the concise wording): If our cognitive faculties were selected for survival, not for truth, then how can we have any confidence, for example, that our beliefs about the reality of physical objects are true or that naturalism itself is true? (By contrast, theism says God has designed our cognitive faculties in such a way that, when functioning properly in an appropriate environment, they deliver true beliefs about the world.)

Daylight Atheism: Are Evolved Minds Reliable Truth-Finders?

The fallacy of this argument is its assumption that "survival" and "truth" are two different objectives, such that they could be selected for independently of each other. But it should be obvious that, all else being equal, greater accuracy in perceiving the world will always be a survival advantage. Granted, evolution can and does take shortcuts, producing well-known psychological fallacies like the urge to anthropomorphize natural phenomena, and many people have been misled in this way. But even here we are not helpless. By using cognitive prostheses like science, we can compensate for our mental shortcomings and learn to view the world still more accurately.

By contrast, a theist who believes that God has designed our cognitive faculties to be accurate is faced with the embarrassment of explaining why there are so many conflicting and incompatible religions. How is this so, if we are designed to perceive the world accurately? Why is there so much confusion, ignorance and error among humans when it comes to determining what the true faith is?

For me, when viewing all Strobel's questions, what stands out about them is their ordinariness. I concur with Greta Christina that these arguments, far from being anything new or unusual, are no different - and no more difficult to defeat - than those of the run-of-the-mill amateur apologists that most atheists encounter on a routine basis. That's not surprising, of course, since most of those people take their cues from the leading apologists.

But for the same reason, it's meaningful because this should give us confidence - confidence that we truly can stand up to the superstars of modern apologetics and answer the best that they have to offer. It's not even difficult. Any reasonably well-versed atheist should be able to shoot down these arguments without a problem. If this is truly the best they have to offer, then we can be all but certain that the evidentiary base of Christianity does not have anywhere near the depth or breadth that would justify an atheist's conversion.

February 2, 2009, 7:56 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink65 comments

A Response to the Theist's Guide

I first posted "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists" on Ebon Musings in June 2001. At that time, I promised that I would cite any theist who prepared an equivalent list and posted it on the internet. In the six and a half years since, I've had a total of two responses to that offer. One was discussed in June of last year.

Last month, I got a second reply from a theist calling himself Quixote. He told me that if he had heard of my essay earlier, I wouldn't have had to wait this long, and I quite agree. He's offered a sincere effort, for which I duly applaud him. I'm glad that he invested the time and effort to compose an honest response. I think his criteria also offer some insights into the mind of the believer, but I'll offer some more specific comments before getting to that.

The primary thing I think readers should notice about Quixote's list is that there is little or nothing along the lines of, "If we observed X, Y or Z, that would prove theism is false." Instead, his essay is mainly concerned with abstract philosophical issues such as "prove that justice doesn't exist", or "prove that mind is more likely to arise from natural than supernatural causes". No explanation is given as to how to accomplish any of these things or what a valid answer would look like. I believe I can claim that the conditions offered in my essay are far more concrete, objective and definite than Quixote's, most of which are vague, ill-defined and subjective.

The first item on his list has to do with the existence of emotions and qualia:

Hope, joy, love, jealousy, personality, intelligence, and the like — we observe them everyday, both firsthand and in others. Both atheism and theism account for them in their systems, however, theism has a prima fascia advantage given these observations.... Personality appears to permeate the universe, which lends itself to theism over atheism. Were it demonstrated conclusively that these observations are more likely to obtain under atheism (not proved, mind you), I would deconvert.

First of all, I don't know what Quixote means by personality "permeating the universe", given that the only personalities we observe are our fellow human beings, and far from permeating the universe, we are presently confined to one small planet out of all the cosmos.

Second: I want to focus on Quixote's claim about which system of thought has an advantage when it comes to explaining human emotions. He says it is "easier" to imagine a world in which these things are fundamental, while the idea of thoughts and emotions arising from matter is a "harder case to make". In other words, Quixote's claim is that he personally finds it difficult to imagine how an intelligent mind might arise from a material structure, and this cognitive incapacity is what leads him to conclude that mind and intelligence are more likely to be non-mechanistic and supernatural. In short, this is a God-of-the-Gaps argument from personal incredulity.

In fact, it's not any easier to explain mind and personality under theism. Indeed, theism tends to consider these things to be irreducibly mysterious, which is the same thing as having no explanation at all. Even if the material causes of these sensations are difficult to explain precisely in an atheist worldview, atheism is at no disadvantage. Unless theism can truly explain these phenomena in a way that atheism cannot, there is no imbalance.

The second item:

I have heard humanity described as "DNA robots," the latest development in the arms race concerned with the survival of DNA. This characterization seems reasonable. If this is accurate, then our selves are illusions. Our sense of purpose and meaning is illusory... If it could be demonstrated conclusively that I was deluded in thinking that life has meaning, I would deconvert.

This is just wrong. Even if human beings are the outcome of a process of evolution that works by propagating genes, it does not follow by any means that our sense of purpose and meaning are illusory. Our genes may have brought us into existence, but that does not mandate that their purposes are our purposes, nor that we are unable to act against them. We are creatures of reason and intellect, and even if those traits originally evolved for reasons of survival advantage, we can employ them to different ends. We can choose not to reproduce, if we desire. We can choose to value nationality or creed more highly than genetics. We can even use genetic manipulation to take deliberate control of our future adaptation. As no less a scientist than Richard Dawkins put it, "We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

Quixote's argument is a basic logical fallacy: the claim that the products of a purposeless process must be purposeless themselves. This is like saying that an engineer can't build fast cars unless he's a champion sprinter, or that a soft liquid like water cannot create hard sedimentary stone, or that heavy, non-buoyant metal plates cannot be welded together into a ship that floats or a plane that flies. The product of a process may exhibit qualities not possessed by the process itself. If we choose to find purpose and meaning in pursuing a certain activity, then that purpose and meaning, by definition, is real to us. There is no magical extra ingredient necessary, no elixir of absolute meaningfulness that must be added. Since his premises here are incorrect, I don't think the question of purpose can matter either way when it comes to deciding between atheism and theism, and I'll move on.

Good and Evil, the Problem of Evil, an objective morality. If it could be demonstrated that these are illusory concepts as well, or that they are more likely to proceed from irrational matter, I would deconvert.

As in the last point, these are vague philosophical questions with no objective standard of fulfillment. How would you show that good and evil are "illusory"? How could you prove that they are "more likely" to arise from matter? More likely than what?

Quixote is aware of my proposal for a system of non-theistic objective morality, universal utilitarianism. I'm grateful for his serious consideration of it, but I think he's partially missed the point:

The problem is not that Universal utilitarianism is a bad moral code. It is an excellent moral code. The problem is that UU assumes as its base a portion of the objective moral standard it denies exists.

I've read this several times and I still can't tell what it means. Universal utilitarianism is an objective system of morality, in that it has as its goal a particular aim (the minimization of suffering and the maximization of happiness) such that any action is either actually in accord with this aim (and thus right), or actually not in accord with this aim (and thus wrong). The question of which of these is the case for any given action is not a matter of mere opinion or subjective preference, but a matter of empirical fact which can be resolved by sufficiently careful examination of the world. That is what it means for a system of thought to be objective. The objectivity of UU is not "smuggled in" or "assumed", but is rather a logically inevitable consequence of the axioms it is built on. Those axioms, in turn, appeal to aspects of human experience (the existence of empathy and the desirability of happiness) that are universal or nearly so, and that neither contain nor require any appeal to the gods or any other supernatural entity.

Those who claim that good is only a human construct act as though it permeated the structure of the universe.

Of course morality does not "permeate the structure of the universe". If one atom collides with another, there is no question of which one was in the right. If a comet crashes into Jupiter, it is senseless to ask whether it was unjust for that comet to do so. When an epidemic strikes a human population, we do not denounce the germs as evil. Morality exists only in reference to intelligent, self-aware persons and the acts we commit that affect each other. Quixote's claims about morality seem to contain the bizarre implication that every event, even those that don't involve intelligent agents or even living things, should be judged as having a moral value.

The fourth item on this list rehashes the first:

If it could be demonstrated that rational thought is more likely to arise from irrational matter and causes than from an intelligent agent, I would deconvert.

This is the first empirical criterion on Quixote's list. Not coincidentally, I'd also argue that, by any reasonable standard of judging the question, this criterion has already been met.

We have abundant evidence that thought and personhood arise from, and are unified with, the normal structure and operation of a physical brain - which is why injury, disease, and other insults to the brain can induce profound alterations in a person's consciousness. (This evidence is detailed in my essay "A Ghost in the Machine", which Quixote may not have come across.) By contrast, I know of no evidence whatsoever that personality can exist in the absence of a brain or other comparable physical structure.

...[I]f it were demonstrated that justice is illusory, I would deconvert.

Again, atheism is compatible with the objective existence of justice. And again, this is a vague and subjective criterion with no explanation given of how it could be fulfilled. What evidence or argument would demonstrate that "justice is illusory"? What does that even mean?

If it could be demonstrated conclusively that the sensus divinitatis and theistic experience is the result of a “god gene” or some other natural cause, I would deconvert.

As mentioned above, my essay "A Ghost in the Machine" discusses the evidence for the neurological roots of religious experience, including studies that can reproduce these experiences on demand by magnetically stimulating the brain.

As I mentioned above, I think Quixote's criteria are probably a good snapshot of why most people believe in God. There's little or nothing in the way of empirical evidence regarding physical phenomena in the world; rather, it's mostly philosophical questions of mind, morality and justice, combined with his personal opinions of what strikes him as more likely. These issues, it seems, convince Quixote that a divinity exists, without even studying the real world to see if this belief makes any concrete predictions that can be tested.

But the question of God's existence is not a philosophical matter; it's an empirical matter. Common sense is not a reliable tool when it comes to understanding the true nature of the universe. Not even philosophy is a reliable tool for that. If we want to obtain reliable truth about the way the world is, we need to guide our reasoning with evidence. We need to let the facts guide our judgment.

February 3, 2008, 3:03 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink73 comments

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