It’s okay to say “I don’t know”.

Todays question comes from Tejash who asks…

I am a very rational and logical person and although i don’t tend to fall into unnecessary arguments with theists but I have two questions about two known miracles. I need an answer desperately before my strong atheism hold gets shaken. 1) It is said – and i coudn’t find any against-article on google as well – that zamzam water (well) in mecca is always flowing and its in a desert. Therefore, its a miracle. Is this actually a miracle?. and if it is then what more do we atheists need as evidence. Please give a logical explanation asap so my believe in rationalism is not shaken 2) Dead body of a pharoh (by the name ‘firon’) was found in red sea and it has not decomposed for thousands of years. Which is scientifically not possible which many muslims claim. The reason why it has not decomposed is that its God’s miracle to show what will happen to your body if you do a lot of crimes like ‘firon’ did. Please tell me how do i rationally, scientifically, and logically disprove this because I could not find anything logical in it. I hope for a positive reply. Thank you.

I’m going to disappoint you by not specifically answering the two examples you gave me. Why? Because answering them doesn’t really help you. You see, the problem is that you’re committing a logical fallacy called “Argument from ignorance”. This is when you give an answer to something that you don’t really know or understand. For example saying “I don’t know how this happened, so it must have been Billy.” is an argument from ignorance. If you don’t know how something happened, how can you attribute it to anything? So simply put, just because you don’t know how these “miracles” happened doesn’t mean that a god did them. It just means you don’t know.

And that’s the tricky thing. Humans don’t like not knowing. It’s why we’ve made so many advancements. It’s why science is always striving to understand existence. It’s our curiosity that has driven us out of the caves and into the light. However that same yearning for answers can dupe us into thinking any answer is better than none at all. Sometimes we have to be okay with saying “I don’t know” because it’s only then that we leave ourselves open to finding the answer.

 

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, defeated?

Question:
The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible contains a long list of supposed contradictions in the Bible, but apologetics sites such as LookingUntoJesus.net have published articles reconciling every single one. Is there any remaining argument against the total internal consistency of the Bible, as befitting its divine origins?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve referred to this many times, but it’s always deserved its own piece.

The shortest answer is to point out the fact that the SAB contains links to the responses in each of its articles concerning an apparent contradiction (this one, for example, has three). Why would it do this if the responses in any way undermined the point it’s trying to make?

I’ve read a lot of the responses, and as far as I can tell they all take the same approach. Using this particular interpretation of the relevant passages, they say, there is no real contradiction. Very well, I say, but what is the evidence that this interpretation is the correct one, i.e. the meaning intended by its unknown author(s)?

More to the point, is it more likely that the 2000+ identified passages are each meant to be understood in the specific way a modern apologist has decided, or that the separate authors collectively got a few things wrong here and there when it’s all considered together? If you presume or presuppose not only the existence of God but the divine authorship of the Bible then of course it must be interpreted in whatever way means it’s not wrong, but the whole point of arguing for its incredible consistency is to advocate that it’s the word of God, so you can’t invoke this in the middle of that very argument or you’re “begging the question”.

So, with the thousands of SAB articles and thousands of attempted refutations, where does it ultimately leave us? There are thousands of potential contradictions, each one of which might indicate that the Bible was written by fallible people. For every one of them there’s at least one interpretation that makes it look at least okay. If we say for the sake of argument that no two of these reconciliations contradict each other either, then there is at least one reading of the entire Bible that is internally consistent, but there are still countless others that are self-contradictory, and no objective way to choose between them. Therefore it’s not certain that it’s perfect, and it’s not certain that it’s imperfect, so all we can do is consider probabilities. That approach, in my view, is not favourable to the book.

Counting Chromosomes

Question from Ken:
I’m agnostic. There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to understand about evolution for a while, and I hope this is the place to get it answered.

When I learnt about it, in school and university, they expressed the idea of increment changes (whether modifications of traits that were already there, or new traits through mutation) over time, passed on through generations, “chosen” by the ability to procreate and pass on genes. That, I think I get for the most part.

But what I never really understood is how the number of chromosomes could change over time. How can chromosome numbers increase and decrease? I mean… let’s say an individual somehow has it happen, shouldn’t he or she be unable to produce viable (or fertile?) offspring with others of the species because of the wrong numbers of chromosomes? How does chromosome number change at all? The only way I know is through issues that happen in meiosis, the kind of stuff that causes Down’s Syndrome, and the XXY and X gender chromosomal abnormalities that cause problems in humans.

So, my question is: How can chromosome number change in to produce a viable, fertile individual for it to be able to spread to an entire species?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a good question because a sudden whole extra chromosome full of junk, or a whole one gone missing, can indeed cause serious defects. That said, it helps to remember that a chromosome is merely a container of genes, and the number of chromosomes has very little to do with the amount of genetic information in each.

The addition of a chromosome is the more complex process, so I’m linking to an explanation of one mechanism by PZ Myers. Essentially, one chromosome’s worth of genes ends up being shared by two, and at first it can interact just fine with the old combined chromosome because the total sequence is the same. This does introduce a higher rate of error until individuals with the split chromosome start mating with each other, at which point there’s no longer a downside. Once the new number of chromosomes is settled, each chromosome is free to mutate independently and add new genetic information in the usual ways.

As for a reduction in chromosomes, we need look no further than our own genome. Our #2 chromosome pair is equivalent to two separate chromosome pairs in our closest ape relatives, but fused together. You can tell because there are two end markers (telomeres) right in the middle of it. No genetic information was lost, it was merely repackaged. This, importantly, is a very clear example of the kind of predictions one is able to make using evolutionary theory: the number of chromosomes in our genome compared to our ancestors’ (i.e. one less) tells us that exactly one fusion must have occurred, and we can then check the genome for only one extra set of markers.

And The Rest: You Finally Made A Monkey Out Of Me

Question:
If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to And The Rest, a potential new series where visitors and I try our best to create serious, concise, easy-to-understand answers to the most ignorant, misguided rhetorical questions and other hopeless arguments posed by theists who think they’ve got the ultimate trump card.

When you get one of these it betrays such lack of understanding and willingness to parrot propaganda that you may get angry and refuse to answer it; most of the time this will simply send the message that it works as rhetoric. I’d rather work on a library of straightforward answers which can be passed on and spread as wide as the questions themselves, until it’s inconceivable in each case that the question was ever given merit by anyone.

Right then, the monkey question is the classic example, so here’s my attempt to clear it up as quickly and simply as possible:

“Because not all the monkeys evolved into humans. Most of them evolved into other kinds of monkeys. They had different offspring like any family does. [Bonus semantics if you’re snarky:] And technically it was apes, not monkeys.”

Think you can come up with something more elegant? You’re probably right, so have a go in the comments. Otherwise, comment with some other faux “stumpers” we should cover in this series. Cheers.

If Evolution Is True…

Question from Josh:
If evolution is true,why did an EVOLUTIONIST admit that Archaeopteryx was/is a PERCHING BIRD!?

Also,what about the sabretoothed herbivore,or the fact that Trilobites have such perfect vision that there was no distortion (at ALL!)?

Answer by SmartLX:
Archaeopteryx is indeed currently classified as a bird rather than a dinosaur. It’s still descended from dinosaurs or other reptiles, which is obvious because despite its birdlike characteristics putting it over the line it’s still replete with reptilian characteristics. Its common ancestor with dinosaurs was just a bit further back. This has no bearing on whether evolution is true, except that it makes sense in light of it.

Tiarajudens was indeed a herbivore with a pair of “sabreteeth”. We know it ate plants because the teeth around it are well suited for the purpose of grinding plant matter. The big fangs would either have been a holdover from a carnivorous ancestor or a useful defence and deterrent against its contemporary predators. This has no bearing on whether evolution is true, except that it makes sense in light of it.

Trilobites had highly advanced eyes, developed at great speed as a primary tool for hunting food and avoiding predators (and therefore a major “selection pressure”).

One type of trilobite-style eye
One type of trilobite-style eye, courtesy of Wikipedia

The trilobite-style eye evolved quite separately from the eye we see in mammals and reptiles today; since it was adapted for use in water, it wouldn’t be much use to us anyway. Some of its components, for instance the signalling system, had already existed for millions of years in lifeforms as diverse as protozoa, plants and yeast. Some trilobites effectively lost their eyes over time because they were living so deep underwater there was no light to speak of. This has no bearing on whether evolution is true, except that it makes sense in light of it.

Prophecies or confirmation bias?

Question from: Alisco

Message: There are numerous prophecies in the Quran which has come true.

The Romans have been defeated in the lowest land, but after their defeat they will be victorious within three to nine years. The affair is Allah’s from beginning to end. On that day, the believers will rejoice. (Qur’an, Surat ar-Rum :1-4)

These verses were revealed around 620, almost 7 years after the idolatrous Persians had severely defeated Christian Byzantium in 613-14. In fact, Byzantium had suffered such heavy losses that it seemed impossible for it even to survive, let alone be victorious again.

In short, everyone was expecting Byzantium to be destroyed. But during this time, the first verses of Surat ar-Rum were revealed, announcing that Byzantium would triumph in 3 to 9 years. This predicted victory seemed so impossible that the Arab polytheists thought it would never come true.

But like all the other predictions in the Qur’an, this one also came true. In 622, Heraclius gained a number of victories over the Persians and conquered Armenia. In December 627, the two empires fought a decisive battle at Nineveh, some 50 kilometres east of the Tigris river, near Baghdad. This time too, the Byzantine army defeated the Persians. At last, the Persians were defeated as was predicted in the Quran.

Here’s the problem, prophecies are a funny things. We believe them when they confirm our bias, but ignore them when they don’t. For example take the TV show Star Trek. It predicted handheld personal communicators, medical imaging, high speed transfer of data, equality of the sexes, flat screen tv’s, compact disks, and more. Now, you wouldn’t claim that Gene Roddenberry was a prophet would you? Why not? Is it because he wasn’t part of the same religion as you?  Do you accept the prophecies made from other religions? Why not? Is it because you think that your belief in your religion is more justified then everyone elses? Did you come to that conclusion because of things like the prophecies you mentioned?

Hopefully you can see the vicious circle created by this kind of thinking. When we readily accept something because it agrees with our perspective, and don’t attempt to understand how and why that perspective could be wrong, we fall into a hole of disinformation that prevents us from seeing the truth of a thing.

This kind of thinking is called “Confirmation Bias“. It’s important to be aware of how our minds work and how we sometimes allow ourselves to think a certain way not because it’s true, but because we want it to be true. So how do we stop our brains from doing this? Well you can’t really stop it, but what you can do is learn to question your own assumptions. Why do I believe this to be true? What do the facts say about my “truth”? Do others agree or disagree and why? Could I be wrong, and if so, how? Asking these questions allows us to be a little more objective in our thinking and allows us to be aware of confirmation bias occurring.

I hope that answers your question. Feel free to discuss this further in the comment section below.

Why don’t scientists prove god doesn’t exist?

Question from Jan,

Hi! First, let’s realize the difference between the following three words: agnostic, atheist and antitheist. OK? Are you ready? So, how can someone who calls himself a scientist be an atheist (or even antitheist)? The science is based on proves – this is the difference between science and belief. Is there any prove of non-existence of something “supernatural” or something like “spiritual power” that is often labeled as “God”? I don’t believe so. I think it’s so arrogant and till the moment of an evidence of non-existence of these “spiritual things” all the so called scientists should choose between: 1) change their status from “atheist” to “agnostic” or 2) change their status from “scientist” to “believer”. Thanks.

Hi Jan, and thank you for your question.

I hate to say it, but there’s a lot wrong with your question. First let’s make sure we get the definitions right.

  1. Atheist: (a) without (theism) belief in gods. So an atheist is someone who lacks a belief in a god or gods.
  2. Antitheist: (anti) oppose (theism) belief in gods. An Antitheist is someone who opposes belief in gods.
  3. Agnostic: (a) without (gnostic) knowledge. An Agnostic is someone without knowledge in something.

Notice the difference between 1 and 3? Atheism and Antitheism (and theism) both deal with beliefs. Agnostic deals with knowledge. That’s an important distinction to make. Agnostic in the theological discussion isn’t as much a third position as it is a qualifier for both atheism and theism. A person can be both an atheist by lacking a belief in a god, and agnostic by not knowing if one exists.  A person can also be a theist by believing in a god, and agnostic by not knowing if one exists. With me so far?

Now let’s talk about what’s called “the burden of proof”. When someone makes a claim of existence, it’s their responsibility (or burden) to prove their claim. It’s not the other persons burden to prove them wrong. If I told you that snarfwidgetes exist, would my position be valid if you can’t prove me wrong even though I have no objective evidence for my claim? Of course not. So when you talk about “ Is there any prove of non-existence of something “supernatural” or something like “spiritual power” that is often labeled as “God”?” what you’re trying to do is switch the burden of proof from yourself, where it belongs, to the other person. It’s a dishonest tactic usually taught by preachers to their peritioners who simply don’t know any better. 

So, to answer your question, scientists can still be atheists and agnostics at the same time. They don’t have to provide any proof for your god not existing. It’s your responsibility as the one making the claim, to provide the proof.

I hope that answers your question. Feel free to continue this discussion in the comment section below.

The Dating Game

Question from Bryan:
Why is radiometric dating considered accurate? I will give two examples, one speculative and one based on actual observations:

I understand half-life, log base-2 calculations and radiometric decay. What I don’t understand is how we assume a starting point for radionuclides v/s daughter nuclides. For example, what if the meteorite that hit the earth and killed the dinosaurs (or any other large meteorite) was a big ball of lead? We have not found traces of it, therefore, we can only speculate what it could have contained. If it were a big ball of lead and mixed with the elements on earth, it would give the appearance that more U-238 half lives had occurred and give falsely high age outputs. (Granted, this is probability based, so is the statement that the meteorite wasn’t lead). This is just one possibility of something that could throw off parent-daughter nuclide ratio. It could have easily just been that there was more lead on earth than we previously thought at the beginning.

This one is not speculation. C-14 dating depends on two things:
1. That production rate and loss rate have been in equilibrium for an extended amount of time, and
2. The equilibrium ratio has not changed in an extended amount of time.

C-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere when various forms of cosmic radiation produce thermal neutrons. A N-14 atom nucleus collides and absorbs the neutron and ejects a proton, thus, making C-14. This process is attenuated by the existence of the earth’s magnetic field. The stronger the magnetic field, the lower the production rate of C-14, therefore, the ratio of C-14:C12 would be initially more weighted to C-12, and therefore, give a falsely older output. The earth’s magnetic field has decreased 10% since Mathematician Gauss started observing it. This decrease is exponential. In the year 7800 BC (rounded) the magnetic field would have been approximately 128 times stronger than it is now, based on current observations of the decay rate of the magnetic field. This would have caused 100% decrease in C-14 production. (Which also begs the question, how C-14 is in fossils that are millions of years old? – throw in the half life of C-14 being only 5700 years (rounded) with that question too). In fact, Dr. Libby noted that the C-14:C-12 ratio was NOT in equilibrium when designing the test, and subsequently decided to assume equilibrium anyway. So why is this test considered accurate when there is definite evidence to the contrary?

Answer by SmartLX:
Radiometric dating is not considered universally accurate. It’s a measurement like any other, there are any number of ways to get it wrong, and there are documented examples of when it has gone wrong. Despite this, it’s been successfully used to accumulate a mountain of evidence that the world is older than a literal interpretation of the Bible would lead one to believe. The threat to Biblical literalism really is the only reason anyone challenges the principle anymore, and it’s also the only reason why you would ask a question like this on Ask The Atheist instead of an actual science site. Mind you, it wasn’t all used explicitly to disprove the Bible like the scientific conspiracy some believers imagine. Scientists were investigating all sorts of questions; the answers just happened to lie between tens of thousands of years and billions of years in the past.

There are almost 20 independent methods of radiometric dating, each based on the decay of a different parent isotope into a daughter isotope. Each has its own starting point, a known past event when the substance to be dated theoretically contained known proportions of the parent and daughter (which could be all of one and none of the other). This is non-negotiable because a method is useless without a reliable starting point, as you would agree. The implication, then, is that the knowledge of serviceable pre-conditions is a major reason why each of the ~20 methods was developed in the first place, out of the multitude of unstable isotopes in the heavier half of the periodic table. It’ll always be there, if you pick a method and look it up.

If a method’s starting point is the least bit ambiguous, say, vulnerable to contamination by outside sources of the daughter isotope (like your meteorite that’s already full of lead), one or more other independent methods are used in conjunction, taking advantage of other elements in the object. The fact that unrelated methods consistently return almost precisely the same result is a major reason for confidence in the principle as a whole, since their reasons for potentially failing are so different.

As an example we’ll look at carbon dating animals in more detail.

Artwork by Randy Russell at Windows to the Universe
Artwork by Randy Russell at Windows to the Universe

As you wrote, Carbon-14 is formed when radiation strikes nitrogen in the air, which means it happens all the time above ground. It’s absorbed by plants in the carbon dioxide they breathe, and then eaten by animals. The starting point is therefore when the animal dies and stops accumulating it. Afterwards the carbon-14 decays back to nitrogen-14, which normally dissipates as gas but is trapped with the body if the specimen is buried. Dating it is then a matter of comparing the amount of N14 to the remaining C14. This works for about 50,000 years post-mortem. Afterwards the amount of remaining initial C14 is so low it cannot be distinguished from the small amount of C14 produced in a different way: alpha or gamma radiation from other radioactive materials in the earth (with millions of years more longevity) can re-irradiate atoms of the N14 and convert it to C14 a second time. This effect is the reason why C14 would have been detected in dinosaur fossils, which are WAY too old to retain their own C14. Hence, other elements with longer half-lives are used to date them instead.

On to your other point. The observation that led to your claim about the Earth’s magnetic field was merely that the dipole field has apparently decreased since 1835.
– That it is a consistent exponential decrease is only an assertion, so raising it exponentially as you go back is unsupportable. The line of best fit between only two data points cannot be assumed to be a smooth curve.
– That it has consistently decreased at ANY rate contradicts other evidence collected from the magnetisation of iron particles in ancient clay pottery (mentioned here), which indicate very clearly what the magnetic field was like earlier on. From just other two data points in history we know it was 45% stronger 3,000 years ago and 20% weaker 6,500 years ago (so in this case, the line of best fit is a wiggle).
– The initial observation only took the dipole field into account. Geologist Brent Dalrymple wrote that increases in the nondipole field, discovered from the very same measurements, resulted in no significant change in the overall strength of the field at all over this particular interval.
– As stated, most or all radiometric dating methods rely on the proportion of the daughter isotope to the parent. The magnetic field affects the generation of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, but this would have no effect on the proportion of C14 to N14 in an already-buried corpse if the N14 is all coming from the C14.
– Does the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field so directly affect the production of every radio-isotope used in every form of radiometric dating? I don’t know, but you’re the one claiming they don’t work, so have you checked?

It’s worth pointing out that carbon dating is the best-known dating method but it’s the least of a young-earth creationist’s worries, as it only goes up to 50,000 years. That’s only one order of magnitude off the desired scale, as opposed to the six orders of magnitude of the actual discrepancy between the Biblical timeline and the evident reality of geological time.

We Are Of The Spirit, Truly Of The Spirit

Question from John:
My question concerns words that have such broad constellations of meaning that they sometimes seem to mean nothing at all, but are nevertheless deeply embedded in the English language.

Here’s the question: Consider the word, “SPIRITUALITY.” When you hear this word, how do you interpret it? Can you think of any common, standard, interpretations of the word which differ from your own personal interpretation? If you were asked to write an all-inclusive dictionary definition, what would it be? (Many English words have multiple meanings which are numbered by frequency of usage in dictionary listings. Do the dictionary definitions which comes to mind for the word “spirituality” adequately cover the broad variety of common applications?)

Consider how the term “spirituality” compares to the word “love.” “Love” is highly context-dependent, and the nuance of its meaning changes radically with the application: “I love pizza,” “I love you, Darling,” “I love my mother.” Nevertheless, there’s a core component of the meaning which is fixed and doesn’t vary at all: “to feel a strong fondness for.” Assuming that it exists, what is the core component of the word “spirituality” which doesn’t change from context to context?

If you were given the power to strike the word “spirituality” from the English language and replace it with a different word, what would that word be? You can use any word you like, or coin a completely new term. The only rule is that this new term MUST adequately cover ALL current meanings and nuances for the old term. It can’t overlook ANY of the popular meanings. (It’s permissible, however, to choose, or to coin, two separate words which, together, cover all of the nuanced meanings of the word “spirituality.”)

My guess is that most atheists will answer these questions differently from theists, but this hypothesis could be completely wrong. I also suspect that, though many atheists would love to strike the term from the English language, doing so is harder than it might seem.

Answer by SmartLX:
Right then.

To me, spirituality is being aware of, and attempting to nurture, the parts of ourselves that rise above considerations of survival and other mundane, primitive concerns. Our spirit is our essence, the qualities which make us sapient beings and those which make us us as individuals. It’s our sense of the transcendent and the sublime, of the beautiful and the elegant. It’s our wonder at everything and our awareness of ourselves.

Obviously, there’s a common interpretation of “spirituality” which conflicts with most of this. It’s the interpretation in terms of literal, ethereal spirits floating around – in our heads, under our beds and in separate, vaguely defined “planes” and “dimensions” – and our efforts to get in touch with and influence these entities, whether or not they are ours to control.

To reconcile the two interpretations in a single definition of the word, I would take what I must admit feels like the cheat’s way out and say that spirituality is simply actions, thoughts and philosophy concerned with spirit.  This allows the multiple meanings of “spirit” to feed through and cause “spirituality” to mean whatever it needs to in a given sentence.  I wouldn’t replace it, because I think its ambiguity can actually be useful.

What if a “god” showed up?

Question from John:
This is a playful, tongue-in-cheek question, but I think it’s an interesting one to consider. Suppose that a scientific breakthrough were to prove conclusively that our universe was either a computer-generated Matrix or a lab-grown artificial world. In Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster in the film) is told by an advanced extraterrestrial race that, if one calculates certain irrational numbers out sufficiently, taking them out to trillions of trillions of digits, one will eventually find a message.

Suppose that this was the case in our own universe, and that we found one of the messages. The message contains a wealth of scientific information including a unified field theory, and informs us of the fact that our own universe is one of many, all of which appear to be artificial. The message praises us for developing the science necessary to discover it and unlock its secrets, but also warns against belief in magical, infinite, supernatural gods. The message insists that belief in the supernatural, particularly on the basis of dogma and in the absence of hard evidence, is foolish, unscientific, and ill-advised. Our civilization will not advance, it warns, if we participate in such nonsense.

This would mean, essentially, that God, the creator of our universe, is an atheist. Not only does this God embrace the worldview of an atheist, but It also lacks belief in the religious persona that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have used for millennia to portray It. (I say “It” because this God may not have gender. It may not even be biological.)

How do you think theists and atheists would feel about this? Would theists be willing to worship a God who is an atheist? Would atheists be willing to worship, or at least honor, an atheist God? Who would take over the churches, or would they all be torn down?

Answer by SmartLX:
If there were truly incontrovertible evidence that a god-like superbeing existed, atheists would acknowledge it willingly because its existence would at last be supported. They’d probably be more eager to do so than most, because they wouldn’t have any existing religious beliefs contradicted by the being and thus no good reason to deny its obvious presence. (It would be even easier if the being were non-supernatural like you describe.) They might argue over whether this being was technically a god, and whether the term “atheist” still had meaning in the context of the being, but both would be semantics and we’d get over it before too long.

As for worshipping or honouring this being, it would depend a great deal on what the being wanted. If it were the kind of tyrant the mythical gods often are, we’d probably worship out of well-justified fear. One way or another, we would know exactly what it wanted from us, and this would inform whether we tried to obey, rebel, or simply co-exist.

Hullo